By Esme Choonara
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Che Guevara

This article is over 14 years, 11 months old
Olivier Besancenot and Michael Lowy, Monthly Review Press; £12.95
Issue 336

“Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was not a saint, a superman or an infallible leader,” the authors assert at the beginning of this engaging book. In this spirit they show how Che’s ideas evolved throughout his short life.

As well as playing a key role in leading the guerrillas to power in the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Che was centrally involved in the debates about what to do in power – how to take the revolution forward and what sort of society should replace the toppled dictatorship.

It was in the heat of these debates that Che developed many of his political ideas. The book rightly pays tribute to the internationalism and revolutionary spirit of Che’s life and beliefs. It introduces readers to Che with a short sketch that speculates on what Che might have been thinking as he fell asleep the evening before he was murdered by the Bolivian army, with the aid of the CIA.

It is a clever way to capture something of Che – looking back from the end of his life to the events that transformed him from a middle class Argentinian medical student to the international figure and symbol of revolution he became.

But this is no lightweight tribute to a fallen hero. It is a serious examination and evaluation of some of the details of Che’s political ideas.

It contains many surprising facts – Che had a copy of Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution in his backpack when he was killed. Apparently he thought it a very good book, so long as “one disregards the personality of the author”!

Of course, this doesn’t make Che a Trotskyist. He seems in fact to have had an impractically wide range of books with him when he died. It is a sign, however, of how seriously he engaged with other ideas about Marxism and socialism.

The book does a useful job of drawing out Che’s developing critique of Stalinism using material from his diaries, speeches and writings. As the new Cuban society fell foul of the logic of the Cold War it became increasingly reliant on Stalinist Russia for economic subsidies, guidance and a market for sugar.

Che witnessed first hand what this meant for Cuba, both economically and with the missile crisis of 1965. He grew increasingly disillusioned with the Stalinist versions of “socialism”.

His arguments with Stalinism focused primarily on economics – Che was strongly opposed to the Russian-style use of market incentives – and on imperialism, in which Che pointed to Russia’s complicity. He was not afraid to speak his mind – and his criticisms must have made him an increasing liability for Fidel Castro who was keen to forge a close pragmatic relationship with the Russians.

This book also points to some of the weaknesses in Che’s ideas – in particular his focus on the peasantry as revolutionary agents and the lack of democracy in his version of economic planning.

But, written by leading French revolutionaries, this is a spirited defence of socialism from below and points clearly to the aspiration for change that means the spirit and emblem of Che persists to this day, in anti-capitalist struggles and resistance in Latin America and across the world.

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