Che Guevara's political relevance today

This is the introduction to his latest book, The Politics of Che Guevara (Haymarket Books, 2016)

Ernesto “Che” Guevara today has become a commercial T-shirt icon, but more importantly, he is an appealing symbol to legions of young rebels and revolutionaries all over the world. It is ironic that, politically, he has become less relevant in today’s Cuba than he is in other countries around the world. Nevertheless, he continues to exercise a subtle but real influence on Cuba’s political culture—not as a source of specific programmatic political or economic proposals, but as a cultural model of sacrifice and idealism. In that limited sense, the official slogan “seremos como el Che” (we shall be like Che), chanted regularly by Cuban schoolchildren, probably has a diffuse but significant influence over the popular imagination, even if most Cubans also think of Che as a failed quixotic figure.

Under Raúl Castro’s leadership, the Cuban government has been striving, albeit with setbacks and contradictions, toward a Cuban version of the Sino-Vietnamese model, a form of state capitalism calling for the development of Cuban and especially foreign private enterprise while the state, under the exclusive control

of the Communist Party, retains the commanding heights of the economy, a far cry from Guevara’s proposed model of state control of the whole economy.

Che is not at all influential among the various wings of the Cuban opposition. Thus, for example, the liberal Cubans collaborating with Catholic reformists in what they hope will become a “loyal opposition” argue for ideas that run counter to Guevara’s legacy, such as creating a government that promotes private enterprise, accompanied by liberal and democratic political reforms, which the Cuban one-party state is not likely to entertain given the risks this would pose to its control.1 The nascent Cuban critical left, expressing its views on websites such as and, and composed of people influenced by anarchist and/or social-democratic politics, is focusing its efforts on worker self-management and cooperatives as the road for economic democracy, an institutional arrangement that was explicitly rejected by Che Guevara.2

Che Guevara’s politics have their greatest appeal outside of Cuba. It is true that the small political groups that follow Guevara’s politics and ideology in toto have rarely attained any significance or influence, but important groups and movements that are not Guevaraist nevertheless claim to be influenced by Che beyond his mere image of the romantic and idealistic revolutionary. This is the case for people like Subcomandante Marcos (now renamed Subcomandante Galeano), the founding leader of the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) in Chiapas, Mexico, attracted by Che’s call to take up arms against oppressive and corrupt governments. Even though Marcos rejected the notion of seizing political power, an idea central to Guevara’s political ideology and strategy, he took up arms against an unjust system and cited Guevara’s political ideas and practice as an inspiration. In that same spirit of insurgent rebellion, the 1968 Mexican student movement took over the Justo Sierra Auditorium at the UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the Autonomous National University of Mexico) and renamed it the Che Guevara Auditorium.

In a broader sense, for many rebellious young people throughout the world, Che Guevara is seen as a key leader of the Cuban Revolution—one of the most important revolutions of the twentieth century—and the only one who coherently practiced what he preached. Even more appealing to many are Che’s personal values: political honesty, egalitarianism, radicalism, and willingness to sacrifice for a cause, including his position of power in Cuba. To many of the contemporary rebels active in anticapitalist movements, Che is not only a radical, uncompromising opponent of capitalism, but—given his opposition to the traditional pro-Moscow Communist parties—also a revolutionary who shares their own ideals in pursuit of revolutionary and antibureaucratic politics. This is what makes Che’s ideas and practices important, and this study relevant, in today’s world.

This book analyzes the substantive political ideas and practices of Che Guevara from a standpoint that shares this anticapitalist, antibureaucratic sentiment. It does so, however, based on the belief that socialism and democracy are indispensable requisites to realize those aspirations. I was born and raised in Cuba and participated in the anti-Batista high school student movement of the 1950s, and have been involved in socialist politics for well over fifty years. My political roots are in the classical Marxist tradition that preceded Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Soviet Stalinism established the structural paradigm of a one-party state ruling over the whole economy, polity, and society—a paradigm that was later implemented in its multiple national variations by countries such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba. Central to my perspective is a view of socialist democracy in which institutions based on majority rule control the principal sources of economic, social, and political power at the local and national levels. To be a fully participatory democracy, socialism must be based on the self-mobilization and organization of the people, and the rule of the majority has to be complemented by minority rights and civil liberties.

I have written three books and numerous articles on Cuba based on this perspective. Che Guevara is a central part of the story of the Cuban Revolution, but his life and politics have international and theoretical repercussions that go beyond the Cuban story itself. In that sense, this study is closely related to another of my books, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy, published in 1990.3 In that book about the decline of the Russian Revolution, I discussed the degeneration of the democratic soviets that came to power with the triumph of the 1917 October Revolution. While clearly distinguishing Leninism in power from Stalinism, I nevertheless argued that, under the great pressures of the civil war and severe economic crisis, mainstream Bolshevism changed its political character, converting the necessity of repression under civil war conditions into a virtue, thus weakening the resistance to the subsequent emergence of Stalinism. That book focused on the issue of democracy and revolution, as does this study of Che Guevara’s political thought and practice. Although of course the political background and historical conditions under which Guevara fought for his ideas were very different from those of the Russian Revolution, they also require us to consider the relationship between revolution and democracy. As will become evident in the rest of this study, while Guevara was an honest and dedicated revolutionary, he did not share Lenin’s background in classical Marxism, which assumed the democratic heritage of the radical wing of the Enlightenment, but instead grew up with the political legacy of a Stalinized Marxism. Thus, his revolutionary perspectives were irremediably undemocratic, based on a conception of socialism from above rather than below, which raises serious questions about the social and political order he would have brought about had he been successful in his efforts to spark victorious revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia.

Che’s communism4

Che Guevara became a Communist in his mid-twenties. To Che, the state was the fulcrum of change and its takeover was the goal of the socialist revolution. But he was an idiosyncratic Communist: he did not join the Communist Party and eventually became highly critical of various features of the Soviet social and political system. He was an extreme voluntarist, holding views more closely resembling Mao’s Chinese Communist politics than those of the Soviet Union. But even when he became more critical of the Soviet system after leaving the Cuban government, he upheld until the end of his life the monolithic Soviet view of socialism as a one-party state. Che was neither a libertarian nor a democrat in his theory or practice. His socialism/communism precluded any conception of autonomous workers’ and popular power, or of the political conditions necessary for the existence and survival of the institutions of popular and workers’ control such as freedom of organization for groups such as workers, Blacks, and women and civil liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly. For Che, the essence of socialism consisted in the absolute elimination of competition and capitalist profit, and in having the state, led by the vanguard Communist Party, control the economic life of the country in its totality. His priority, in terms of the state’s exclusive management of the economy, was to eliminate privilege and establish economic equality. His monolithic view of state socialism rejected not only the notion of workers’ control and self-management, but of individual identity, interest, and self-determination (which should not be confused with individualism as the ideology and practice of the capitalist order). In his conception of economic equality and his insistence on an exclusive dedication to the goals of society, he implicitly accepted the old Tocquevillian dichotomy of equality versus individuality.

Che Guevara and the road to power

Che Guevara’s views and practices regarding the road to power reiterate the perennial issue of the relationship between revolutionary means and ends. Che Guevara considered himself a Marxist and seriously studied the Marxist classics but was very selective of the aspects of Marxism he adopted as his own. Marx and Engels held that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”5 They assumed that as the working class became the majority of society, it would carry out its self-emancipation through a revolution in the interests of that majority. But, as we shall see, as early as when he was in the Sierra Maestra in 1958, Guevara in contrast became the principal proponent of the view that the guerrilla rebel army itself—and not the working class or, for that matter, the peasantry, except as supporting actors—would overthrow the Batista dictatorship and carry out the social revolution in Cuba. Che turned out to be right, in the practical sense of seizing power—although he greatly underestimated the major role played by the far more dangerous struggle of the urban revolutionaries in achieving Cuba’s revolution of 1959.6

Although effective in overthrowing the old political and social system, Guevara’s approach diverged from the classical Marxist politics of self-emancipation and socialist democracy. But it was entirely consistent with the establishment of a socialism from above, which initially enjoyed overwhelming support; it emphasized popular participation while excluding popular democratic control. Thus, the system established by Guevara and the other Cuban leaders on principle did not allow for the establishment of socialist democratic institutions and the political liberties and rights necessary for their fulfillment.

That Guevara’s political and military methods worked under the social and political conditions that existed in the Cuba of the 1950s did not mean that they would work elsewhere. Che used the same fundamental approach in his guerrilla incursions in the Congo and especially in Bolivia without ever reassessing his assumptions regarding the socioeconomic and political conditions necessary for the success of guerrilla warfare. In the case of the Congo (while he later acknowledged the absence of conditions for a social or even an anti-imperialist revolution in the eastern part of that country), where he had led Cuban and Congolese soldiers, he nevertheless insisted, with extreme voluntarism, that the solution to those very real objective obstacles was the creation of a vanguard party. And in the case of Bolivia, he advised militant miners to abandon the mass struggle in the places where they lived and struggled and instead to join his faraway guerrilla army, which, in contrast with the democratic revolutionary traditions of the miners, was organized on a strictly military hierarchical basis and led mostly by people foreign to their class and country. In these two cases, Guevara’s approach was neither effective nor self-emancipatory—and certainly not democratic.

Revolution, socialism, and democracy

The critical framework I use as the basis of this discussion of Che’s political thought and practice favors revolution, which I see not as an inevitable explosion, but as a political reaction to changes in the real conditions that prevail in society. In this context, revolutionary violence is unfortunate, but necessary and inevitable in light of what oppressive ruling groups will do in order to preserve their power. There are, of course, critics of Che who claim that his resort to revolution and revolutionary violence itself is the cause of his “mistakes” or “failure.” One of them, Jorge G. Castañeda, a prominent Mexican writer with deep roots in his country’s political establishment (both he and his father were members of his country’s cabinet at different times), criticizes Che’s “eternal refusal of ambivalence.” Castañeda laments the tendency of the 1960s generation to which he belonged to engage in “a wholesale rejection of life’s contradictions” and to neglect the “very principles of contradictory feelings, of conflicting desires, of mutually incompatible goals” in an era that was “writ in black and white.”7 In his argument, Castañeda conflates the generally justifiable criticisms that he makes of guerrilla warfare as a revolutionary strategy and specific applications of it, as in the Congo and Bolivia with Marxist revolutionary politics and strategy as such. His clear implication is that reform, not revolution, is the only viable, sensible alternative in fighting for liberty and democracy.

This point of view is hardly unique to Castañeda. At least since the Russian Revolution, it has become accepted almost as political common sense that revolution and its violence are incompatible with democracy and liberty and that only parliamentary social reform can coexist with a democratic political order. In the mid-twentieth century, this perspective was not only maintained by prominent critics of Marxism such as the philosopher Karl Popper but at least implicitly by authentic socialist leaders such as Salvador Allende. As the democratically elected president of Chile, overthrown and killed in a military coup supported by the CIA, Allende sacrificed his life to remain faithful to that notion. That is why he refused to heed the call of his more militant supporters to arm the people to confront the armed forces’ monopoly of violence and support for the capitalist status quo.

The relationship between revolution and democracy is a very important issue and a difficult one to disentangle. Nevertheless, I would assert that the following two points are vital: First, revolution does not automatically lead to dictatorship, totalitarianism, or democracy. It is true that any situation of active armed conflict—revolutionary or otherwise—inevitably involves the curtailment of the democratic process and of civil liberties. But what happens after the armed conflict has ceased and the revolutionary power is stabilized, although economic crisis may act as a restraining and limiting force, depends to an important extent on the politics of the revolutionary leaders in determining whether the encroachment on democracy and liberties during the armed conflict are to be made permanent, thus converting what originally might have been a necessity into a virtue. Second, a social revolution does not necessarily lead to the collective punishment of social groups or categories of people—whether based on race, class, religion, or ethnicity—in contrast with the necessary punishment of individuals or specific groups who engage in armed actions against the revolutionary government. For example, in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, universal suffrage—an enormous achievement of the democratic struggles that arose in the wake of epoch-making movements such as the French Revolution and the Chartist movement in Britain—was curtailed by the provisions contained in chapters 5 and 13 of the Soviet Constitution promulgated in July 1918. These chapters established, respectively, the obligation of all citizens to work and confined the franchise to those who earned their living by production or socially useful labor, soldiers, and disabled persons, and specifically excluded persons who employed hired labor, rentiers, private traders, monks and priests, and officials and agents of the former police. In her famous pamphlet on the Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg criticized these exclusions, arguing that the Russian economy was in no condition to offer gainful employment to all who requested it, thereby disenfranchising those who might have been involuntarily unemployed.8 While this is a legitimate point, Luxemburg missed the central issue behind the legislation. The aim of the Bolshevik government was not the disenfranchisement of the idle or the unemployed in general, but to punish every member of the bourgeoisie and allied strata, such as the church, even if they requested state employment after having lost their business, factories, and churches. This notion of collective punishment gained traction at the same time that Lenin explicitly indicated that he regarded these exclusions not as matters of general principle regarding the general nature of the dictatorship of the proletariat but as the result of specific Russian conditions, that is, the extreme resistance offered by bourgeois and petty bourgeois circles to the October Revolution and to the radical and initially democratic changes introduced by it.9 Nevertheless, the practice of collective punishment originally applied to the bourgeoisie and its allied strata had dire legal and political consequences for all classes and groups in Soviet Russia. Thus, it was that same notion of collective punishment that was used to repress and kill peasants in the Tambov region whether or not they had personally aided or participated in the so-called green peasant rebellions in 1920–21.10 Luxemburg made a comment relevant to this point when she remarked that the suffrage law in Russia “involves a deprivation of rights not as a concrete measure for a concrete purpose but as a general rule of long-standing effect,” though she did not make this the central element of her critique.11

The question of disenfranchisement is also related to the issue of the degree to which socialist democratic representation should be workplace based. This is a matter in which the classical Marxist tradition has been less than fully clear, since its indispensable critique of the vices of liberal capitalist parliamentary democracy does not settle the question of whether workplace representation would be sufficient by itself to represent all sectors of the population.12 In any case, a workplace- and class-centered socialist democracy should not mean the disenfranchisement and denial of rights to various types of workers, such as the self-employed, and to individual members of the defeated classes who are willing to work and live peacefully in the new system. The working-class nature of the new socialist system is most of all established by the actual political leadership of the working class and its allies and by a political system structured in such a way as to favor the collective workplace instead of the isolated individual citizen. It should not mean a repudiation of the principles of universal suffrage and legal rights on behalf of which so much of the blood of the oppressed has been shed.

Che Guevara and revolutionary politics

One of the important features of Che Guevara’s political thought and activism was his disregard for specific political contexts as crucial guides for political action. His exclusive focus on making the revolution and on the tactics of the armed struggle led him, by the mid-1960s, to the conclusion that practically all the countries in Latin America were ready to take up arms in their rural hinterlands, ignoring the widely differing political and socioeconomic conditions prevailing throughout the continent. This strategic and tactical blindness came in part from his reaction to the electoralist tendencies and politicking prevalent among the old pro-Moscow Communist parties of his time. It is very illustrative that when Che Guevara met Mario Monje, the leader of the pro-Moscow Bolivian Communist Party, on December 31, 1966, to ask him to join the guerrilla foco that he had just established in the Bolivian hinterland, Monje responded, “In your head there is a machine gun, in mine there is politics.”13 For Monje and his party, the road to power might have formally involved, as for all the Communist parties, a general uprising, street mobilizations, and the militancy of the miners and the unions. But their opportunistic practice of making pacts with corrupt parties and leaders was an entirely different matter, as was the case with the old pro-Moscow Cuban Communists in the struggle against the Batista dictatorship.14

There is, however, an alternative perspective to Che’s revolutionary voluntarism and to the Latin American Communist parties’ electoralism for its own sake and opportunism. It is a perspective that posits revolutionary politics as requiring strategic and tactical thinking and action in order to advance the revolutionary process. In that sense, politics is an imperative forced on the revolutionaries by stark political reality, which includes what the ruling class and its allies will do to prevent any changes that harm their interests. Political reality presents a great number of difficulties and options that continually pose anew the perennial question of what is to be done—as well as the political goals and the strategy and tactics best suited to attain them. As movements develop, in addition to government surveillance, provocations, and repression, they inevitably face the lies and propaganda of the rulers to weaken, divide, and confuse them. The best responses to these challenges are often far from obvious and require strategic and tactical tasks that help mobilize and make people conscious of the nature of the enemy and its tactics. Contrary to the Cuban revolutionary government’s dictum that the duty of the revolutionary is to make the revolution, most of the life of a revolutionary is actually spent in the often dangerous task of fighting political battles to advance the goals and interests of the working class and the popular sectors and, in that process, to prepare for the revolution and the revolutionary situations that may make them possible. As V. I. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, famously put it:

To the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution. What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes,” a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time,” but in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.15

Against the German social-democratic leader Karl Kautsky’s passive and mechanical belief that socialist parties do not plan for revolution but that revolutions occur by themselves when objective conditions give rise to them, Lenin was a fervent proponent of the notion that a revolutionary party that seriously contended for power had to be ready, in a political and military sense, to lead revolutionary movements to the seizure of power, which required detailed attention to the specific political situation to determine the appropriate moment to do so. Otherwise, Lenin noted, things would not change and reaction would very likely set in. This is exactly what has happened in many cases—for example, during General Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Santiago, Chile, on September 11, 1973, President Allende’s commitment to parliamentarism facilitated the demise of his constitutional government.

Guevara, however, ignored the whole problematic of the “revolutionary situation,” characteristically arguing, even in his original and relatively more cautious 1960 treatise on guerrilla warfare, that “it is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist, the insurrection can create them.”16 Seven years later, Guevara became so isolated that it was possible for the Bolivian Army, working with the CIA, to murder him in cold blood in the Bolivian jungle. The utter failure of his guerrilla venture was hardly surprising given the absence of a revolutionary situation and a mistaken strategic orientation to the peasantry in an isolated and thinly populated part of the country, which failed to obtain any support from either the Bolivian peasantry or its working class.

Nature of this study

The purpose of this project is to present a political portrait focused on Guevara’s thought and practical political record. My aim is to understand his politics and the varying situations in which he acted, and in the process help to dispel many of the common myths about Che. I have drawn on a variety of sources, especially on my previous work on Cuba and the Cuban Revolution. However, two of my most fruitful sources are works by Guevara that were not intended for publication but emerged between thirty and forty years later, when changing political conditions, including the demise of the Soviet Union, convinced the Cuban government that it was no longer necessary to keep them under lock and key. These are The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo, published by Grove Press in 2001, which originally appeared in Spanish in 1999 under the title Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria: Congo, and Guevara’s notebooks, written in 1965 and 1966, published by Ocean Press (based in Australia) and the Cuban Centro de Estudios Che Guevara in 2006, under the title Apuntes críticos a la economía política. As in the case of the Apuntes, all translations from Spanish are my own, unless stated otherwise.

In my conclusion, I draw together some of the major themes in my analysis of Guevara’s politics and restate the need for a political process that brings together the politics of revolution, socialism, and democracy.

  1. This perspective was best expressed, until recently, by Espacio Laical, the publication of the Félix Varela Cultural Center, sponsored by the Catholic Church. In June 2014, the Catholic hierarchy appointed new editors who have since substantially reduced the frequency of the journal and its political interventions. Meanwhile, the previous editors Roberto Veiga and Leinier González Mederos have created a new debate forum called “Cuba Posible,” which has continued the editorial line and political orientation they previously followed in Espacio Laical.
  2. For an overview of different tendencies in contemporary Cuban politics, see my article “The Future of the Cuban Revolution,” Jacobin, January 5, 2014,
  3. Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (Cambridge and New York: Polity Press and Verso Books, 1990).
  4. I use the terms Communism and Communist for the sake of clarity, simplicity, and convenience. However, as should be apparent from the content of this book, I do not link present-day Communism with the “classical” Communism of Marx, Engels, and many other revolutionaries who predate the rise of Stalinism. Furthermore, I also use Communism in a generic sense to describe a socioeconomic system, even though, of course, each Communist state has its own peculiarities and individual history. Marxists use the term capitalism similarly, despite the fact that capitalist states like the United States, Japan, and Sweden have significant differences.
  5. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, “Rules and Administrative Regulations of the Inter­national Workingmen’s Association (1867),” International Workingmen’s Association,
  6. For a thorough account and analysis of the role of the urban revolutionaries in the struggle against the Batista dictatorship, see Julia E. Sweig, Inside the Cuban Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
  7. Jorge G. Castañeda, Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), xv–xvi.
  8. Rosa Luxemburg, “The Question of Suffrage,” in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism? (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 64–65.
  9. V. I. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and Kautsky the Renegade, in Collected Works, vol. 28, July 1918–March 1919 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 255.
  10. Farber, Before Stalinism, 122–24.
  11. Luxemburg, “Question of Suffrage,” 66.
  12. For a thoughtful discussion of this and related questions, see the 2009 paper by Moshé Machover, “Collective Decision-Making and Supervision in a Communist Society,” LSE Research Online, LSE Library Services, July 2013,
  13. “En tu cabeza hay una ametralladora, en mi cabeza hay política,” Taringa, This is a 2010 interview with Monje by Leonard Kochichev for La Voz de Rusia.
  14. Inti Peredo, “En el banquillo. La deserción del P.C.,” in Tomo 4 ¿Traición del PCB? El Che en Bolivia, Documentos y Testimonios, ed. Carlos Soria Galvarro T. (La Paz, Bolivia: La Razón, 2005), 142.
  15. V. I. Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International,”
  16. Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare, trans. J. P. Morray (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1961), in Brian Loveman and Thomas M. Davies, Jr, Che Guevara: Guerrilla Warfare (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1997), 50.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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