An Answer to Charlie Post

Against the Current, No. 146, May/June 2010

Michael Löwy

CHARLIE POST IS an old friend of mine and I respect his views. But I beg to disagree…

In our book, Olivier Besancenot and myself pointed to several limitations of Che Guevara concerning issues as workers’ democracy and the critique of Stalinism. But we tried to grasp his thought not as a monolithic body of theory, but as thinking in movement, a movement going towards a more democratic conception of socialism. Did he come to a full understanding that socialism is “the democratically organized power of the working class”? No, he didn’t, but that doesn’t mean that he “rejected” it.

In any case, a critical viewpoint on Guevara’s shortcomings is perfectly legitimate. I’m afraid however that the comparison with Third Period Stalinism is widely off the mark, and isn’t very helpful in trying to understand the real meaning of Guevara’s Marxism (that’s an understatement). Let us deal with the main arguments.

On “Third Period Stalinism:” First, did the Third Period break with the “stagist” conception of revolution, for instance in China? That was not Leon Trotsky’s opinion, who wrote The Permanent Revolution in 1929, when the “left turn” was in full swing. In his viewpoint, sectarian and “ultra-left” politics were not contradictory with the Stalinist dogma that revolutions in the colonial countries must first go through the “anti-feudal” democratic stage.

As Charlie Post correctly emphasizes, one of the main aspects of Third Period Stalinism was the refusal to consider fascism (Hitler in Germany) as the main enemy. In fact, Stalinists in Germany and elsewhere considered social-democracy — defined as “social-fascism” – as the greatest enemy of the Communist movement, with catastrophic consequences for the workers, and for humanity.

That was the most important and decisive characteristic of the Comintern’s Third Period, and the reason why Trotsky came to the conclusion that a new international was needed. Can anything similar to the theory of “social fascism” be found in Guevara?  Did he consider the struggle against military dictatorships in Latin America as irrelevant? Did he define the Socialist Parties, for instance in Chile or Argentina, as the main enemy?

I completely agree with Charlie Post’s argument that Lenin and Trotsky “undermined Soviet democracy” by their politics during 1918-1922. Would he compare them to Third Period Stalinism ? I don’t think so…Not every deviation from the principles of workers’ democracy can be equated with Stalinism. This applies also to Che Guevara. In fact, Guevara’s writings compare favorably, from the viewpoint of democracy, with some of Trotsky’s during that period, such as Terrorism and Communism (1921).

Third Period Stalinism was not only a “left turn” in politics, but a period of brutal repression of dissent, when thousands of Communist oppositionists, particularly the followers of Trotsky, were sent to concentration camps in Siberia, and sometimes killed. Moreover, it is the period when millions of peasants, accused of being “kulaks,” were exterminated. Any similarity with Guevara?

Economy and Incentives

Che Guevara’s views on economy and politics were they equivalent to those of the break-neck industrialisation of the Third Period? Let us recall that Ernest Mandel, the well known Marxist Economist and leader of the Fourth International, went to Cuba in 1964 and wrote an article supporting Guevara’s positions in the economic debate taking place in Cuba; apparently he wasn’t aware that this were Third Period Stalinist views.

By the way, another well known Marxist economist, Charles Bettelheim, sharply criticized Guevara’s thesis, as heretical and “un-Marxist” because it was contradictory to… Stalin’s economic theories.

In our book we discuss the main shortcomings of Guevara’s economic views in 1964. His arguments in defense of planning and in opposition to market categories were extremely important and acquire new relevance in light of the neo-liberal vulgate that now dominates with its “market religion.” But they leave aside the key political question: Who does the planning? Who determines the major options in the economic plan? Who determines the production and consumption priorities?

Now, precisely on this question Che made an important step forward, one year later, in the Critical Notes on the Soviet Handbook, insisting on the need of “an economic decision by the masses, conscious of the people’s interests,” because “the masses must be able to direct their fate, to decide which share of production will be assigned respectively to accumulation and consumption.”

Are these Third Period Stalinist — or Maoist – economic conceptions? I would argue that they compare favorably to the Bolsheviks conception of Soviet planning during the years 1918-1922.

As Charlie Post correctly suggests, the “internationalism” of Stalinist discourse during the Third Period, or of Maoism in the ‘60s, was nothing but an instrument for the interests of the Soviet and Chinese bureaucracies. Does this apply to Guevara’s internationalism? Is it relevant to his — ill starred – internationalist revolutionary attempts in Congo or in Bolivia? What bureaucratic interests did he serve when he, an Argentinian, joined the Cuban revolutionaries in 1956?

Charlie Post correctly points that Stakhanovism was a bureaucratic device to use rate-busting “model workers” to increase exploitation. But one has to add an important detail: these “model workers” received a better pay and all sort of “material incentives,” becoming a privileged layer.

Guevara argued for “moral incentives” but also for collective, instead of individual, material incentives. In the name of the same egalitarian principles, he opposed the privileges and higher wages of enterprise managers in Eastern Europe (all this is well documented in our book). His dream of a “new socialist man” was based on values of equality and solidarity, against competition. Is this still Stalinist Stakhanovism?

To conclude on this issue: there is no need to uncritically celebrate Guevara’s legacy, we can agree on that. There is room for a serious critical review of his mistakes and shortcomings. We tried to do that in our book. Insufficiently? Perhaps — but the artificial analogy with Third Period Stalinism is a sure way of missing the point.


On a different set of issues: Is Guevarism responsible for the “uncritical adoration of great leaders such as Morales and Chavez”? I don’t know what Guevara would have thought of these leaders. But I know that many Marxists, in Bolivia, Venezuela and elsewhere give critical support to Chavez and Morales, in their struggle with imperialist and oligarchic interests – as Leon Trotsky did when Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the oil companies in Mexico around 1938.

There is no question of “uncritical adoration” but of supporting the effectively anti-imperialist — without inverted commas — policies of these governments, while criticizing their limits.

By the way, unlike Chavez and Cardenas, Morales is not a military caudillo, but a peasant union leader, chosen by an alliance of social movements to be their political representative.

Last but not least: Marx and Engels’ writings on ecology. Obviously I cannot deal with this complex issue in this letter, but I offer one brief comment.

John Bellamy Foster’s book Marx’s Ecology is an excellent study of the important ecological insights in Marx and Engels’ writings. But Foster openly aknowledges that there are some important shortcomings in their views on these issue — the most important being, in his opinion, that they ignored the role of ecology in the revolt against capitalism.

I would add another criticism: Marx, and even more so Engels, often defined the socialist revolution as the removal of capitalist relations of production which had become obstacles — “fetters” — to the unbounded development of the productive forces created by capitalism itself. From a modern eco-Marxist perspective, it is obvious that the social-ecological revolution must transform both relations and forces of production, as well as the pattern of consumption and, in fact, the whole paradigm of capitalist civilization.

ATC 146 web edition only, May-June 2010