Nov. 6, 2017

By W. T. Whitney Jr.

“Walker, there is no road, we make the road by walking.” To these words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado, which say much about the life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, we add: “But there is a map.” Che of course used a map provided by Karl Marx.

Che Guevara once suggested that Marx had a “capacity of love [that] reached outto the suffering people of the whole world.” Marx “carried the message to them of serious struggle, of unbreakable optimism [and] has been disfigured by history to the point of his having been cast as an idol of stone. We must rescue him so that his example may shine even more.”

Was Che, who wrote that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love,” presuming too much of Marx? Did Che search out Marx’s “capacity for love” among comrades of the international Communist movement? How in fact did Che, an anomalous figure within the Marxist tradition, connect intellectually with Marxist thought? 

October 8, 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of Che’s murder in Bolivia, and commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution followed a month later, on November 7. So the timing may be right to explore Che’s contribution to the theory and practice of revolutionary socialism.

Theoretician Che

In his short essay “Socialism and Man in Cuba” – 23 pages long in a 1993 Cuban edition – Che looks at the process through which individuals become politically aware. (1) He thinks political consciousness develops gradually and with difficulty.

Che proposes “to define the individual actor in this strange and passionate drama of constructing socialism. In line with Marx, he says that, “In capitalist society individuals are controlled by a pitiless law usually beyond their comprehension. The alienated human specimen is tied to society as a whole by an invisible umbilical cord: the law of value.”

Che’s central concern is the problem of human alienation. He or she harbors “the residue of an education systematically oriented to the isolation of the individual… Remnants of the past are carried forth to the present in the individual’s consciousness and it takes continual work to eradicate them.”

Che blames the “persistence of merchandizing relationships, merchandise being the economic cell of the capitalist society.” They affect “the organization of production and therefore consciousness.” And, “to pursue the chimera of realizing socialism with help from the jagged tools of capitalism leads down a blind alley.”

The task is “to choose the correct instrument for mobilizing the masses and this instrument must be moral in character.”  Evoking values, Che departs from Marxist theoreticians, who deal more with material realities than with abstractions.  He adds that, “in moments of great peril it is easy to muster a powerful response with moral incentives. Retaining their effectiveness, however, requires the development of a consciousness in which there is a new scale of values. Society as a whole must be converted into a gigantic school.”

Individuals “try to adjust themselves to a situation that they feel is right and that their own lack of development had prevented them from reaching previously. They educate themselves.” Doing so, “They follow their vanguard [which] has its eyes fixed on the future and its reward, but this is not a vision of reward for the individual. The prize is the new society in which individuals will have different characteristics: the society of communist human beings.” Leaders must not “lose sight of the ultimate and most important revolutionary aspiration: to see human beings liberated from their alienation.”

Che regards Cuba’s Communist Party as “still in diapers” because of “scholasticism that has held back the development of Marxist philosophy.” For people to be “educated for communism,” the Party must be “the living example; its cadres must teach hard work and sacrifice.” 

For Che, consciousness is influenced by community and culture, and so what works in Europe may not apply to Latin America. So, “Cuba … occupies the post of advance guard [and shows] the masses of Latin America the road to full freedom.” Che points out that capitalism’s contradictions show up first in “countries [in the global periphery] that were weak limbs on the tree of imperialism.  Liberation from misery and foreign oppression causes capitalism to “explode” in such places, and “conscious action does the rest.”

Ultimately then, Che sees the mental processes of individuals as a venue for revolutionary struggle. People, he says, act according to values and material interests alike. And values are malleable, shaped as they are by the experiences, culture, and history of communities they belong to. Che calls for a narrative of Marxist theory that accepts differences among groups and individuals but, seeking unity, centers on their common values – moral in nature – and interests.  


Che also epitomized a mode of revolutionary practice aimed at guaranteeing that changes for the better in the individual’s consciousness might take root.  That he was his own teacher prepared him for a role as teacher and exemplar during a short lifetime of zig-zag wanderings. His own experiences and observations would serve as teaching tools for a curriculum of sorts.  Like a scientist, Che put assumptions to the test of reality. His life became both advertisement and validation of a style of revolutionary practice ideal for expanding political consciousness.

In 1952 prior to finishing medical studies, Che and the young biochemist and leprosy expert Alberto Granados left Argentina for a long trip across South America.  The two motorcycled, walked, and hitchhiked.  They slept in peasants’ huts, shivered at night on mountain sides, and bedded in prisons in little towns.  One cold night in the Chilean desert, they shared a blanket with a copper miner and his wife, both hungry and cold. They were members of the banned Chilean Communist Party, and Che remembered their dedication.

Che and Granados arrived in Lima, Peru. There Che came to know Dr. Hugo Pesce, famous worldwide as a leprologist and in Peru as co-founder with José Carlos Mariátegui of the Peruvian Communist Party. They talked with Pesce night after night. Pesce, says one commentator, was the first physician Che knew “motivated by Marxist ideology” rather than by “winning a piece of heaven” through being a doctor.

Dedicating his 1961 book “Guerrilla Warfare” to Pesce, Che wrote: “To Doctor Hugo Pesce who, without knowing it perhaps, provoked a great change in my attitude towards life and society – with as always the same adventurous spirit, but channelled toward goals more harmonious with the needs of America.” Che visited the scientist the following year and Pesce greeted him with great emotion.”

What Che and Pesce talked about is unknown, but “It’s not difficult to imagine that the young Guevara was … nourished with the writings of José Carlos Mariátegui, writes Argentinian Marxist scholar Néstor Kohan. That exposure bore fruit, at least according to Peruvian scholar Gustavo Pérez Hinojosa who in November 2005 presented a paper titled Latin American Marxism, Mariátegui and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara” at the Centennial Forum on Josè Carlos Mariátegui.  

Mariátegui, as quoted by Pérez Hinojosa, critiques intellectuals who “exaggerate … the determinism of Marx and his school” thereby “declaring them to be a product of the mechanistic mentality of the 19th century, something incompatible with the voluntarist, heroic idea of life embraced in the modern world” – and by Che Guevara.

In the same vein: “The proletarian movement … from the origins of the First International to its present manifestation in the first experiment with state socialism, the USSR, [requires that] each word, each act of Marxism impart the flavor of faith, of voluntarism, of heroic and creative conviction.”

“Marxism fundamentally is a dialectical method … It’s not …a body of principles with rigid consequences, equal for all historical climates and every social latitude … Marxism in each country, in every people, operates on and affects the environment and all aspects of it.” Che and Mariátegui, each in their own era, were foes of Eurocentric modes of political thinking.

Says Mariátegui: “We certainly don’t want socialism in America to be a copy or imitation. … We have to give life to indo-American socialism with our own reality, in our own language.” The pioneering Peruvian Marxist thus joined Cuban national hero José Martí in loyalty to, in Martí’s words, “Our America.” 

Pesce had firsthand knowledge of friction between leaders of world communism and Latin American currents of the movement. South American Communists allied to the Third International met for the first time in 1929 in Buenos Aires under clandestine circumstances. Mariátegui would have delivered a report from the Peruvian Socialist Party – really the Communist Party – but was sick. Hugo Pesce and another comrade represented Mariátegui. Later the Third International’s Latin American representative condemned the report which Pesce delivered; supposedly the Peruvians had confused “the national problem with the agrarian problem” and showed signs of a “revolutionary movement of the most diverse, non-proletarian tendencies.”  

Che’s boyhood home in Argentina was full of books, political books, even Marx. His parents in the 1930s supported the Spanish Republicans. On the recommendation of fellow medical student Tita Infante, a Communist, Che read Bourgeois Humanism and Proletarian Humanism by Argentinian Marxist Anibal Ponce. One of Che’s boyhood friends was the son of socialist university reformer Deodoro Roco. Che explored that family’s library which contained books on anti-imperialism and cultural diversity.

 Che would add to his education in 1954, when he found himself  amid the CIA-organized coup that year in Guatemala. Later, he worked intermittently as a doctor in Mexico City where he was joined by his first wife Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian Marxist with a big supply of socialist books.

 Che lives

Che inserted ideas about the individual and about consciousness into both revolutionary theory and practice and thus contributed to the socialist movement. He also left his mark on the wider history of our time, especially among young people.

He spoke for and defended the humble and oppressed, while moving around, volunteering, studying, observing, and fighting. His image as a practitioner of revolution was that of a single-minded and optimistic idealist who never slackened or compromised. Che symbolized hope for change and a better world.

Ilka Oliva Corado, who migrated to the United States from Guatemala, writes about migrants’ lives prior to, during, and after their crossings. She talks with “people from countries I didn’t know existed. … They ask about Che as if he were a friend on the block.”  As for herself: “Just seeing the shoes he was using the day he was captured, one understands the immortal grandeur of a human being who lives on in our epoch now and who left everything to go out in search of freedom for the peoples, and not only in Latin America but in the world.”

But Che, especially Che the Marxist revolutionary, was for real, or so says Oswaldo Martinez, president of the Economic Affairs Commission of Cuba’s National Assembly. Che, he observes, “freed us from the myth, as if from a manual, of socialism being irreversible once it was established.  He offered the supreme lesson that it’s in human consciousness and not in material stimuli that socialism can be made irreversible – as long as we are educated into that consciousness and fed with the values of solidarity.”

End Note: (1) “Socialism and Man in Cuba” first appeared March 12, 1965 in the journal Marcha, published in Montevideo. Its title then was: “From Algeria, for Marcha, the Cuban Revolution Today.”