Che Guevara was an honest and committed revolutionary. But he never embraced socialism in its most democratic essence.
The main leaders of the Cuban revolution — Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, and Che Guevara — had different political leadership styles. Fidel Castro, by far the most important leader, was, until he retired for health reasons in 2006, a charismatic and tactically shrewd revolutionary politician, intent on consolidating his power, and initially averse to risking a loss of control of the island because of a premature implementation of ideological goals.
Second in command was Fidel’s younger brother, Raúl, who quickly acquired a reputation for his repressive activities as well as for his organizational discipline and skills. Raúl was a former member of the Socialist Youth, the youth group of the Cuban Popular Socialist Party (PSP), but was still sympathetic to the Soviet Union.
Then there was Che Guevara, whose iconic image has survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of Cuban Communism.
In some ways, almost fifty years after his murder, Che has emerged as the most important of the three leaders. Yet as I have argued, Che Guevara’s politics had far more in common with the politics of the Castro brothers than many of his current admirers would care to admit.
First, he shared with them a revolutionary politics from above that allowed him to retain, along with the Castros, the political control and initiative on the island, based on a monolithic conception of a type of socialism immune to any democratic control and initiative from below.
Like the Castro brothers, Guevara had a deep commitment to the one-party state and to an extreme version of vanguardism, which he sometimes took to the level of absurdity.
For example, his response to the social and political conditions he found in the eastern Congo, which he himself acknowledged lacked any of the necessary conditions for socialist revolution — such as the demand for land on the part of the vast rural population, a working class (which did exist in the Katanga region), and a significant imperialist presence that could provoke a sentiment of national resistance — was to create a vanguard Communist Party that would singlehandedly lead the revolution in that part of the country.
As early as the days of the guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra, Guevara explicitly articulated the conception of the Cuban revolutionary leaders assigning a supportive and subordinate role in the revolution to the working class and the peasantry.
Years later,when he was leading his small guerrilla forces in Bolivia, he subordinated the needs and political potential of the militant and politically conscious Bolivian workers to those of the very small guerrilla forces under his command.
Even when he occasionally referred to the working class as playing a role in the seizure of power, he did so in deference to the putative working-class ideology of the Communist Party, treating the working class only as an ideological abstraction.
Later on, after he left the Cuban government to engage in guerrilla warfare abroad, he deepened his commitment to a perspective that placed technological autonomy and determinism — not the working class — at the center of the socialist economy in a manner reminiscent of Edward Bellamy’s utopian Looking Backward, a novel that he greatly admired.
The Idiosyncrasies of Che Guevara
But Che Guevara also differed from the Castro brothers in some important respects. He was a radical egalitarian, a trait that was rooted in his bohemian upbringing in Argentina. His almost six years in power in Cuba (1959–1965) did not diminish this trait at all. This was also the case with his political honesty, particularly in comparison with the very manipulative Fidel Castro.
He also had a profoundly ascetic edge that led him, for example, to try to impose, in contrast to other revolutionary leaders, puritanical policies during his occupation of the town of Sancti Spiritus in central Cuba in 1958, and to consider, in a meeting of the ministry of industry that he directed, that the development of “consciousness” could reverse material progress in consumer goods.
According to Guevara, the Cuban people could be educated to do without television altogether, based on the example of the Vietnamese, who did not have television and were nevertheless building socialism.
Guevara’s internationalism or, more precisely, his willingness to spread the revolution outside of the island, particularly to the rest of Latin America, was more pronounced than that of the Castro brothers.
Nevertheless, it was based on a clear ultra-vanguardism and the substitution of the working class and the peasantry by the Communist Party’s “dictatorship of the proletariat,” leading to the establishment of a new ruling class.
Che’s egalitarianism and internationalism were also tied to a hyper-voluntarism that expressed itself both in politics and in economic policy through his stress on moral incentives and creating a “New Man” who was totally dedicated to society and oblivious to his individual fulfillment.
Guevara’s personal and political characteristics — his political honesty and his radical egalitarianism — might have made him better suited to being a Communist oppositionist than a long-term Communist ruler who would have needed to live with the growth of inequality and corruption that has accompanied the Cuban Revolution.
Although his egalitarianism, honesty, and asceticism might have helped to build and consolidate Cuba’s Communist Revolution, the system he helped to build would almost certainly have turned against his most fundamental values.
Max Weber famously argued that the ascetic Puritan ethic played a key role in the original development of capitalism, but that later, after
asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism — whether finally, who knows? — has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer.
The same might as well have applied to the Communism that Guevara helped build in Cuba.
The Common Goal
Notwithstanding the differences Guevara had with the Castro brothers and the Cuban pro-Moscow Communists, he shared with them, until the very end, the same project to overthrow capitalism and build a new socialist society.
This shared project was based on the creation of a new class system based on state collectivism, a property form in which the state owns and controls the economy and a central political bureaucracy “owns” the state. Membership in the ruling class is determined by having a position in a bureaucracy that is at the center of power in a society and fuses political and economic powers.
Such bureaucratic societies are characterized by the production of use values satisfying social needs that are determined by the ruling class. In this system, the surplus for the most part is not appropriated by the individual enterprise that produced the surplus, nor is it primarily realized through the market.
Instead, it is appropriated by the state for the economy as a whole. The state appropriates this surplus through its mechanisms of planning and control — by determining what, how much, and where goods are produced.
The surplus does not primarily go to fund the salaries and privileges of the bureaucrats (any more than profits go to primarily finance the private consumption of the capitalist class), though the state’s officials may indeed enjoy special privileges.
It goes first to fund accumulation and investment, defense, and other forms of spending as decided by the bureaucracy, and as the capitalists and the capitalist market do under capitalism.
A critical contradiction exists in this social system between the need for planning and the absence of political freedom essential for efficient and accurate planning. Without political freedom, there is no authentic feedback, truthful information, and independent initiative from below that make it possible for economic plans to be carried out well.
The anti-bureaucratic rebels and revolutionaries who may have been inspired by the intransigent revolutionary spirit represented by Guevara’s iconic image may attain their goals only through a process that brings together the politics of socialism, democracy, and revolution.
Socialism: because the true liberation of working people can only be attained when both the economy and the polity come under the control of the women and men who through their work make social existence possible. Democracy: because majority rule and respect for minority rights and civil liberties is the only way that working people can in fact, and not in theory alone, control their destiny. Revolution: because even the most welcome, authentic reforms cannot bring about true emancipation and liberation.
In any case, the resistance of the powerful to radical social change is likely to make revolution both unavoidable and desirable.