The Paradox of Che Guevara

Peter Solenberger

The Politics of Che Guevara:
Theory and Practice
By Samuel Farber
Haymarket Books, 2016, 120 pages + bibliography, notes and index, $16.95 paperback.

IN HIS INTRODUCTION Samuel Farber explains why he wrote The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice. “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.” (xvii)

Farber applies to Guevara the critical analysis he developed in his previous books on Cuba, Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933-1960 (Wesleyan University Press, 1976), The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), and Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment (Haymarket Books, 2011).

He summarizes his approach: “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.

“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.’’ (xvii)

In Farber’s view, Guevara’s theory and practice were not in accord with socialist democracy. Readers who agree with Farber’s analysis of the Cuban Revolution will welcome this book as a necessary clarification: How could someone as heroic, honest and egalitarian as Che Guevara have reconciled himself to what they see as the top-down, authoritarian character of the Cuban Revolution?

Readers who disagree or partly agree and partly disagree with Farber’s analysis should welcome the book too, since it challenges their views from a pro-revolutionary standpoint. Readers who are new to the subject will find that the book provides essential information and a reference point in developing their own thinking.

Origins of Che’s Politics

Farber’s book is not a biography. For that readers should turn to Pablo Ignacio Taibo II’s Guevara, Also Known As Che (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) or some other sympathetic biography. The Politics of Che Guevara provides some insightful background information, but for the sake of space I’ll skip that.

Guevara came to politics relatively late. “It is only after he left Argentina and began his extensive travels of Latin America that Guevara gradually began to move toward political activism. Although he still described himself as a ‘100% adventurer’ when he wrote to his mother in 1953 that he had decided to travel to Guatemala, there was a degree of sympathy and respect for left politics — specifically for Communism and its activists — that had been growing in him ….

“Guevara’s admiration for the Guate­malan Communists grew especially after the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 … However, he was still reluctant to join the Communist Party because he disliked its ‘iron discipline’ and also because he had plans to travel to Europe.” (5)

Guevara was won to revolution when he met Fidel and Raúl Castro and other leaders of the July 26th Movement in Mexico City in June 1955. At 27, he decided what he would do with his life. He would go to Cuba to fight for its liberation.

Farber describes Guevara as an “inde­pen­dent Communist.” By Communist he means “an identification with the Soviet Union and the Communist model of the one-party state controlling almost all social, political and economic aspects of the life of a country, leaving no place for opposition parties or independent voluntary organizations.” (16)

By independent he means that Guevara “disliked the bureaucratic functioning and especially the conservatism of the pro-Moscow Communist parties in Latin America.” He was “critical of the dogmatic and narrow-minded ‘Marxism’ transmitted by the Soviet manuals, a sentiment he extended to the cultural attitudes of ‘socialist realism’ in the arts.” He was further distinguished by “the principled, consistent egalitarianism he displayed in his politics and personal life, whether as a guerrilla fighter in and out of Cuba or when in power.” (17, 18)

Farber aptly observes that “Guevara’s idiosyncratic Communism and personality seems to have made him better suited to remain a Communist oppositionist than to become a long-term Communist ruler.” (18)

Voluntarism and Guerrilla Warfare

Farber criticizes Guevara’s “voluntarism,” his buoyant view that where there’s a will there’s a way. He cites two areas where this manifested itself negatively: political action and economic policy.

First, “Che adopted the view that guerrilla warfare was possible and desirable in every Latin American country regardless of existing sociopolitical and economic conditions. This view was closely related to his notion of internationalizing the revolution, which he summarized in the Cuban revolutionary slogan that the duty of the revolutionary was to make the revolution.” (19)

The second area “was in the economy, a dimension of material reality that, in contrast with the human consciousness that Guevara always emphasized, is relatively more resistant to change at least in the short term, and even more so in the context of scarcity.”

Farber illustrates this with the four-year economic plan Guevara introduced on behalf of the government in mid-1961. In March 1962, nine months later, Guevara acknowledged that it had been “’an absurd plan, disconnected from reality, with absurd goals and imaginary resources.’” (21, 22)

Farber also criticizes Guevara’s “political tone-deafness.” Guevara was far less skilled than Fidel Castro at knowing what would work politically and what would not. Farber gives as an example Guevara’s misguided proposal to finance rebel operations by robbing banks, which would have been seen as a reversion to the gangsterism and corruption of previous revolutionaries as they had degenerated.

Guevara’s main contribution to revo­lutionary theory and practice was in the area of guerrilla warfare. Guevara was a central leader of the Cuban Revolution. He drew lessons from this experience in his 1961 book Guerrilla Warfare.

“According to Guevara, the Cuban Revolution contributed three fundamental lessons to revolutionary movements in the American continent: 1) Popular forces can win a war against the army; 2) it is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist; the insurrection can create them; and 3) in the underdeveloped Americas, the countryside is the basic area for armed fighting.” (36)

As the 1960s wore on, “Guevara’s approach to guerrilla warfare hardened and in the process left behind many of the conditional statements he had put forward earlier in the decade … by April 1967, in the ‘Message to the Tricontinental’ that Che sent from Bolivia, he proclaimed that ‘almost every country in this continent is ripe for a type of struggle [meaning guerrilla struggle] that, in order to achieve victory, cannot be content with anything less than establishing a government of a socialist nature.’” (38)

After he left the Cuban government in 1965, Guevara tried to apply the Cuban model in Zaire (Congo) and Bolivia. His 1965-66 attempt in Zaire failed because the rebels the Cubans sought to aid had little popular support and would not fight. His 1966-67 attempt in Bolivia failed because the center of revolutionary activity was in the mines rather than the countryside, the peasants in the area where his guerrilla band operated were too fearful to help, and the Bolivian army was able to isolate and annihilate the guerrillas.

Having recounted these failures, Farber examines the theory behind them. “For Che Guevara, guerrilla warfare was the means to a successful anti-imperialist and social revolution in Latin America and its motor force was the struggle of the peasant masses in pursuit of a radical agrarian reform that could be fully realized only under socialism.” (46)

“In underdeveloped countries such as Bolivia, Guevara insisted, with a large peasant base and a large territory, the mass struggle should revolve around a small, mobile guerrilla vanguard ‘firmly based among the people.’ As the guerrilla force acquired strength against the army, it would increase the masses’ revolutionary fervor, leading to a revolutionary situation. That was when, Guevara said, ‘state power will be toppled with a single well-aimed and well-timed blow.’” (52)

But this wasn’t really what happened in the Cuban Revolution. The July 26th Movement had substantial support in the cities, organized by revolutionaries like Frank País and Celia Sánchez. Many of the peasants were really agricultural laborers working on sugar plantations and cattle farms, not traditional peasants.

The Cuban capitalists were politically weaker than other Latin American ruling classes, due to U.S. domination. The dictator Batista was hated by most of the population. The soldiers were unmotivated, and the army was unwilling to fight.

The insurrection could not create conditions for making revolution in rural Zaire or Bolivia. Still less could it do so in the cities of Argentina or Italy, where brave but doomed young men and women of the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo and the Brigate Rosse tried to apply the Cuban model in very different circumstances.

Democracy and Revolution

Guevara was a high official in the Cuban government for six years, from 1959 to 1965. As a government official he had little use for unions, civil liberties or formal democracy, seeing them as impediments to revolutionary unity.

“The predominant revolutionary cur­rents in Latin America during most of the first half of the twentieth century tended to see democracy as an irrelevant bourgeois notion. In light of the degree of poverty, lack of economic development, and subjugation to imperialism prevalent in the continent, socialism was about feeding the masses, establishing economic equality, and freeing the country from imperialism…Guevara’s politics was a variant of this kind of Latin American leftism.” (85-86)

Farber objects. “While there may undoubtedly be objective factors (imperialist intervention, severe economic crisis, and warfare, to name the most serious) that may doom a revolution or help to subvert its democratic character, there is also a powerful ideology and political legacy that has made a virtue out of the necessity of the immediate postrevolutionary period and proclaims that democracy and revolution are necessarily incompatible.

“It is in response to this ideological legacy that it is critical to insist that the repression that the revolutionary government will be forced to carry out, particularly right after the overthrow of the old ruling classes, can be justified and controlled by democratic aims and purposes.” (75)

He then turns to a broader considera­tion of Guevara’s political thought. “More than any other revolutionary leader on the island, Guevara clearly laid out his general theory and views in Socialism and Man in Cuba, which he considered his most finished work. In it, Che molded and shaped his vision of the New Man to be forged by Cuban Communism: a selfless and idealistic man infused with the values and practices of heroism, dedicated to the good of society.” (76)

Farber criticizes this. “Little if any room was left for individual self-fulfillment, expression, and freedom and their close relationship with the collective good that Marx had thoroughly explored, especially in his early writings.” (76)

“We must also pose the question of what Guevara’s call for heroism, sacrifice, and moral incentives meant in the context of a one-party state with a domesticated official trade union organization and without political democracy, institutions of workers’ control, or the right to strike.” (78)

Economic Policy Debated

Guevara’s brief time in the Cuban government was as Minister of Industry, Finance Minister and National Bank President. He favored economic centralism and clashed with the officials responsible for agriculture, who favored a measure of decentralization and enterprise autonomy, as in the Soviet Union at the time.

“These two different approaches clashed in the so-called great debate that took place in Cuba from 1963 to 1965, which focused on three principal topics: the role of material and moral incentives in the construction of socialism, the proper organization of industrial enterprises in relation to the economy as a whole, and the applicability of the ‘law of value.’” (95)

Guevara favored moral incentives, that is, peer and public recognition of exceptional effort, rather than bonuses and other material incentives. He favored central planning and budgeting, rather than letting managers run their enterprises as independent entities. And he thought that the law of value should not apply in the transition from capitalism to socialism. The revolutionary government should not try to use market mechanisms to promote efficiency.

Farber dismisses the debate. “The ‘great debate’ of 1963-65 was not only restricted to a small elite public, both in terms of participation and audience, but was also limited to economic questions that involved criticisms of the Soviet economic model by other Communist currents that fundamentally accepted the structures of the one-party state undemocratically controlling the whole economy from above.

“Basically it was a debate between two tendencies within the ruling group about the most effective way to get workers to be productive (material vs. moral incentives) and about the most effective manner for state managers and administrators to organize enterprises (self-financing vs. budgetary system of finance).” (109)

Farber’s Conclusion

Farber acknowledges the achievements of the Cuban Revolution in its first years. “Until the collapse of the USSR and Eastern European Communism at the beginning of the 1990s, the great majority of the Cuban people were able to maintain a standard of living that, although certainly austere, assured the satisfaction of basic needs, particularly regarding education and health.” (115)

He criticizes the central leadership, naming Guevara as well as Fidel and Raúl Castro.

“In some ways, almost fifty years after his murder, Che has emerged as the most important of the three leaders. Yet, as I have argued, Che Guevara’s politics had far more in common with the politics of the Castro brothers than many of his current admirers would care to admit. First, he shared with them a revolutionary politics from above that allowed him to retain, along with the Castros, the political control and initiative on the island, based on a monolithic conception of a type of socialism immune to any democratic control and initiative from below.” (116-117)

He links his specific criticism of the Cuban leadership to his general theoretical view. “This shared project was based on the creation of a new class system based on state collectivism, a property form in which the state owns and controls the economy and a central political bureaucracy ‘owns’ the state. Membership in the ruling class is determined by having a position in the bureaucracy that is at the center of power in a society and fuses political and economic powers.” (119)

Farber concludes with his alternative. “The antibureaucratic rebels and revolution­aries who may have been inspired by the intransigent revolutionary spirit represented by Guevara’s iconic image may attain their goals, as this study has tried to show, only through a process that brings together the politics of socialism, democracy, and revolution.” (119-120)

Reviewer’s Comments

I agree with Farber on the necessity of revolutionary democracy and the impossibility of building socialism with heroism and self-sacrifice alone. But I think he is somewhat unfair to Guevara.

Che Guevara’s image of revolution was the guerrilla army of the Sierra Maestra, with its unified goal, unified force and unified command. In Guevara’s thinking, whether he was a commander or not was beside the point. If he was worthy, he would command. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t. He chastised himself to the extent he cared about his personal status.

The military model can become a tool in the hands of a bureaucracy. This should be fought. But Guevara was not a hypocritical, self-serving bureaucrat. He was wrong in his argument for peasant-centered guerrilla warfare and self-sacrifice as the road to socialism, but he was right about the need for heroism. That is his appeal.

David Finkel, in his review “Standing Against the Counterrevolution” in Against the Current, #182, ( writes about the debate in the Trotskyist movement in 1939 and following years over the character of the Soviet Union. With the Soviet Union gone, that debate may seem remote. It will seem more relevant when revolution and counterrevolution are more on the agenda. Meanwhile, the debate is highly relevant to an assessment of Cuba today.

Trotskyism emerged as a political current during the struggle of the Left Opposition in the Bolshevik Party in 1923. Starting from Lenin’s 1921 view that the Soviet Union was “a workers’ state with bureaucratic distortions,” the Trotskyists saw the Soviet Union as hung up in the transition from capitalism to socialism. They resisted the counterrevolution as best they could and updated their analysis as the Soviet Union degenerated.

They first called for anti-bureaucratic reform, but by the mid-1930s they said that only political revolution could dislodge the bureaucracy. They described the Soviet Union as a “bureaucratically degenerated workers’ state,” meaning that capitalist property in the means of production had been overthrown, but the state bureaucracy had usurped political power from the working class. Their prognosis was that either the working class would overthrow the bureaucracy and clear the way for socialism, or the bureaucracy would restore capitalism.

In the 1939-40 debate and the World War II years, Max Shachtman and his cothinkers developed the “bureaucratic-collectivist” analysis with which Farber identifies. Trotsky’s supporters responded that a new property form meant a new mode of production, and new modes of production tend to last a very long time.

In response, some of Shachtman’s co-thinkers, including CLR James, shifted their position to say that the Soviet Union represented the old mode of production, capitalism, but in a new form, “state capitalism.”

These political differences had an important practical implication at the time. Trotsky’s followers defended the Soviet Union first against German imperialism in World War II and then against U.S. imperialism in the Cold War, while the advocates of the bureaucratic-collectivist  state-capitalist analyses arrived at a dual-defeatist position. On all sides the advocacy was mainly political, since none had the capacity to do more.

This political difference has less significance with regard to Cuba today, since Farber and his co-thinkers defend Cuba against U.S. imperialism as an underdeveloped country being menaced by an imperialist power. But the difference still has some significance and could explain Farber’s overly harsh assessment of Guevara and the course of the Cuban Revolution.

Assessing Cuba’s Revolution

In my idiosyncratic Trotskyist estimation, the Cuban Revolution was the encounter of a population of workers, peasants and sections of the middle class unwilling to continue under the Batista dictatorship, U.S. domination and the misery they caused. It was before a revolutionary leadership determined to free Cuba from its oppression, a dictatorship rotten to the core, a U.S. imperialism too sure of its might and righteousness to compromise, and a Soviet Union willing to provide the military and economic support Cuba would need to cut loose from capitalism and U.S. domination.

Fidel and Raúl Castro, Che Guevara, Celia Sánchez and the other leaders of the Cuban Revolution were not seeking to create “a new class system based on state collectivism, a property form in which the state owns and controls the economy and a central political bureaucracy ‘owns’ the state.”

They were seeking to free Cuba and concluded, some sooner than others, that for Cuba to live capitalism had to die. The only way to accomplish that in the face of U.S. intransigence, they thought, was to militarize Cuban society and to turn to the Soviet Union. If Latin America had risen in revolution, they would have had more choices. But by their lights they did the best they could.

I agree with Farber that the Cuban Revolution should have been more democratic. In particular, it should have allowed political parties other than the Communist Party to exist and compete, unless they were actively fomenting counterrevolution. But I’m not sure that the practical outcome, measured as survival, would have been any better, if they had done so. Perhaps the counterrevolution would have triumphed sooner, as was the case when the Sandinistas allowed parliamentary elections in Nicaragua in 1990.

The argument for more democracy seems to me more political and long-range than practical and short-range. The only real hope for the Cuban Revolution was revolution elsewhere in Latin America, which a more democratic policy might have made more likely. And if the Cuban Revolution had still succumbed, its legacy would have been more positive than the sordid capitalist restoration underway now.

Despite these differences, I found The Politics of Che Guevara a pleasure to read. In a revolution the issues Farber discusses will matter a great deal, and he really understands them as few contemporary political writers do. A literary discussion after the fact is not as educational as a debate in the midst of a revolution, of course, but it can inform our activity today and help us prepare for the future. I highly recommend this book.

November-December 2016, ATC 185


  1. Let me add one note on Che Guevara’s thought, based on Sam Farber’s excellent book that was reviewed by Peter Sollenberger. On page 18 of his book, Sam quotes Guevara: in socialism the individual ”becomes happy to feel himself a cog in the wheel”.
    Compare this with George Orwell’s observation of people in revolutionary Barcelona of December 1936: Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.
    Here we have the contrast between the ”two souls of socialism” that Hal Draper described so well: on the one hand, Guevara’s ”socialism” that does not differ so much from Taylorism (recall Chaplin’s Modern Times); on the other, the glimpse of a better future that the Spanish revolutionaries offered the world, very soon to be run over by the two counterrevolutions, one Stalinist, the other fascist.
    Hannu Reime

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