Che Guevara’s Brand of Marxism

The subtitle for the new The Che Guevara Reader, “Writings on Politics and Revolution,” might have been “Writings on Imperialism and Revolution.” Why?  Because for Che, imperialism was the worldwide economic and political system that encompassed everything and eveyone. It fostered unequal development, created have and have-not nations, ensured a stark division between countryside and city, and triggered class warfare between the bourgeoisie on one hand, and workers and peasants on the other. Genuine revolutions aimed to destroy that all-encompassing system.

The Che Guevara Reader (437 pages, $22.95) is the most recent book from Seven Stories Press to offer Guevara’s writings. I have reviewed several of them for CounterPunch, including The Motorcycle Diaries, Congo Diary and I Embrace You With All My Revolutionary Fervor: Letters 1947-1967, which serves as a kind of autobiography.

The Reader is divided into four parts: “The Cuban Revolutionary War,” ”The Cuba Years, 1959-1964,” “International Solidarity” and “Letters,” some already published in “I Embrace You.” Imperialism and revolution are two of the main themes that Che returned to repeatedly in the interviews, speeches, letters and also in his talks that were broadcast to the entire nation on Cuban TV. Yes, he appreciated the power of TV and made ample use of it.

A Leninist who argued, as did Lenin himself, that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism, Che saw imperialism through the eyes of a Latin American and as a guerrilla warrior. That made a big difference. Like Lenin, he lived much of his life away from his native land. Che died at 39, Lenin at 53.

“Imperialism has learned the lessons of Cuba well,” Che writes in “Cuba: Historical exception or vanguard in the anticolonial struggle?” (1961) He adds, “If the Cuban liberation was difficult…the new battles awaiting the people in other parts of Latin America will be infinitely more difficult.” The story of Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia seem to validate his prediction, though Che inspired revolutions all across the continent in the decades after his death.

In the essay, “Notes for the Study of the Cuban Revolution” (1960), Che writes, “one should be a ‘Marxist’ with the same naturalness with which one is a ‘Newtonian” in physics or a ‘Pasteurian.” He goes on to explain that “one can point to certain mistakes of Marx as a thinker and as an investigator of the social doctrines and of the capitalist system in which he lived.” Che goes on to say that Marx and Engels were wrong about Bolivia, Mexicans and “certain theories of race and nationality.”

Some orthodox Marxists will not readily accept Che’s perspective. By the same token, some admirers of Che will be unwilling to find flaws in his writing and thinking. When it comes to questions of race and gender Che has little to say of significance, though occasionally he will make an insightful observation. “Our hotels—Havana’s great hotels, which were built by foreign companies—did not allow Blacks to sleep here, because the tourists from other countries did not like Blacks,” he writes. (Even while he hated the foreign companies he couldn’t help but admire the “great hotels.”)

In the same essay, he adds, “A woman did not have anything approaching equal rights. She was discriminated against.” For the most part, Che writes about male workers and male soldiers, though he does say that if imperialism is to be defeated, women and children will have to join the struggle. When he writes about women he tends to think of them as “wives,” not as mothers, sisters and daughters. Of course, he was close to his own mother, his two wives and his daughters.

There may be surprises in store for readers in this volume. In “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War,” Che describes a story by the American author, socialist and social Darwinian, Jack London, which he read and remembered vividly when, in 1956 the soldiers of the dictator Fulgencio Batista ambushed and then nearly killed all the guerrillas. Che imagined his own death and connected it to London’s short story, “To Build a Fire.” He adds that this moment was “our baptism of fire.”

On another occasion, Che ordered one of the guerrillas under his command to shoot and kill a puppy in their midst who was barking so loudly that he threatened to reveal their hiding place. He did so with a heart and a touch of remorse.

Che is insightful on the proletarianization of the Cuban peasantry, the differences between a guerrilla and a bandit, the virtues of state capitalism in Russia in the 1920s and why revolutionaries should support the idea of “peaceful co-existence” in the 1960s.

After my review of Che’s Motorcycle Diaries, which was published in Counterpunch I received emails denouncing Che as a murderer and an assassin. One doesn’t see signs of that in The Reader. In the essay, “Tactics and Strategy of the Latin American Revolution,” (1962) Che explains that to get to socialism “rivers of blood will flow.” He’s not against revolutionary violence, though he does condemn the use of torture by guerrilas. “Our great virtue,” he writes in the essay “The Cuban Revolution’s Influence in Latin America” (1962) “is that we have never engaged in torture or other similar terrible behavior…Everybody would find out about abuses and other bad things if there were any, no matter how secretly and far from the public eye they were carried out.”

The Reader is the most scholarly of the Che books published by Seven Stories. It offers extensive footnotes, a chronology of Che’s life, which began in 1928 and ended in 1967, a bibliography of all of his writings and many speeches, including a long list of articles he wrote in 1960 that were published under the pseudonym “Sharpshooter.” I wish that The Reader could have offered Che’s article, “Nixon, Eisenhower, Hagerty and other Warnings.” (1960) There is also a ten-page glossary with capsule biographies of figures like Jacobo Arbenz and brief descriptions of key places like the “The Bay of Pigs.” The “Introduction” by David Deutschmann, who also edited The Fidel Castro Reader, tends to be pure hagiography. Deutschmann’s co-editor, María Del Carmen Ariet García, has been the research coordinator at the Che Guevara Studies Center in Havana led by Che’s Cuban-born widow Aleida March.

If I were to recommend one of Che’s books to readers who want an introduction to his bold ideas, dialectical thinking and his concise yet expressive style, I would recommend this one.  The translations from Spanish to English are excellent and the variety of topics make it appealing. If you want to be inspired, read “Create two, thee, many Vietnams,” his “Message to the Tricontinental” in April 1967, six months before he was killed by Bolivian soldiers directed by the CIA.

Yes, that piece is nearly all bravado, but it comes from the heart. “Whenever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear, if another hand reaches out to take up our arms, and others come forward to join in our funeral dirge with the rattling of machine guns and with new criers of battle and victory.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.