A Letter on Che

Against the Current, No. 144, January/February 2010

Peter Drucker

NOW THAT I’VE read Olivier Besancenot and Michael Löwy’s book on Che Guevara, I’m disappointed with Kit Wainer’s review (ATC 143, September-October 2009).

It’s not that I mind Kit’s criticisms of the Cuban regime; I’m no fan of it myself. But I think that his characterization of Guevara’s late politics as “a kind of hyper-voluntarism somewhat reminiscent of ‘third period’ (1928-1934) Stalinism” doesn’t do justice to the evidence in the book he was reviewing.

Not only did Guevara reject a stagist strategy (unlike third period Stalinists), as Kit notes; Besancenot and Löwy present quite a number of examples of how Guevara was trying to enlarge the space for criticism and debate in Cuba in  the early 1960s (while 1928-1934 were the years when what remained of criticism and debate in the USSR was almost totally stamped out).

I think it’s a shame that Kit barely mentions the main themes on which Besancenot and Löwy argue that Guevara has something of substance to contribute to the post-Seattle generation: internationalist solidarity; the link between collective social transformation and individual ethics; and the relationship between economics and politics in the transition to socialism.

I think Kit is unfair in saying that Besancenot and Löwy “downplay Che’s rejection of democracy” or discuss the problem “only briefly,” when the book is full of statements like “Socialism must truly be a total democracy” (106), Guevara’s failure to understand this was perhaps “the greatest lacuna in his work” (72) and “Che does not understand Stalinism.” (74)

I’m also concerned about where Kit’s approach to Guevara would lead if applied consistently to others. After all, as Sam Farber showed in Before Stalinism, while the Russian revolution was at its inception profoundly democratic in a way the Cuban revolution wasn’t, Lenin and Trotsky were centrally responsible in 1918-22 for undermining soviet democracy. So should we classify them as non-Marxists as well?

How then can we pay so much attention to Lenin’s work on imperialism and national liberation, or Trotsky’s on permanent revolution and the struggle against bureaucracy? And what about other 20th-century Marxists who failed to fully understand or decisively break with Stalinism, like Mariateguí, Lukács and Gramsci? If we read them all out of our canon, what sort of Marxism will we have left?

I prefer Besancenot and Löwy’s approach, which begins from the understanding that the “great revolutions [from Paris in 1871 to Russia in 1917 to Spain in 1936] must once again be assessed.” Of course we should relentlessly criticize Marxists who failed to uphold the democratic essence of socialism — and for that matter who failed to integrate feminism or sexual liberation or ecology (starting with Marx himself).

But as Kit himself says, “arguably one can mine the works of even the most compromised figures for valuable nuggets if they will help renew a revolutionary socialist movement.” In the daunting process of reinventing Marxism that we face, I think we should define our tradition broadly as well as examining it critically.

ATC 144, January-February 2010