The life of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara has lately been receiving revived interest. There were the movies about parts of his life: Motorcycle Diaries, and the two-part Soderbergh movies, featuring four hours of Che as a guerrilla. These were followed by the revision and updating of Jon Lee Anderson’s massive, authoritative, and highly praised biography, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.
It is not hard to understand the appeal to many of Che. Che was born into a privileged family in Argentina and wound up fighting against tyranny in Cuba. It was obviously not his fight: he was not born into the misery in which most Latin Americans lived then, or now, and he wasn’t even Cuban. Yet he risked his life fighting injustice. Having overthrown the Batista dictatorship in Cuba in 1959, Che left Cuba in 1965 to again risk his life fighting for revolution, first in the Congo, then in Bolivia. This short sketch of his life seems to indicate characteristics of Che that inspire many: selflessness, internationalism, passionate commitment. And for many, the fact that Che fought against US imperialism is, on its own, enough to commend his battles.
Yet to fight against unjust forces is not to fight for justice. To fight for change is not necessarily to fight for worthy forms of change. Looking closer at the details of Che’s life – masterfully rendered in over 700 pages by Anderson – Che does not seem such an admirable figure.
Firstly, we should consider what sort of society Che considered just. Che did not appreciate what he saw as the bureaucratic privileges he encountered in his visits to the Soviet Union. He was more impressed by Maoist China, especially their understanding of the need for ‘sacrifice’, which was ‘fundamental to a communist education’ (p 574).
What sort of sacrifice does he mean? Essentially, it meant serving the new state with the same fervour as Che. Che thought that ‘even if the Cubans should disappear from the face of the earth because an atomic war is unleashed in their names … they would feel completely happy and fulfilled’ knowing the triumph of the revolution. (p 455)
Anderson does not note any polls on which this view is based. It seems to me perhaps a little unlikely that millions of people would be pleased to be killed for the sake of his glorious revolution. Even though Cuba brought the world closer to nuclear annihilation than at any other point in history, Che welcomed the prospect: ‘Thousands of people will die everywhere, but the responsibility will be theirs [the imperialists], and their people will also suffer … But that should not bother us.’ Cubans would ‘fight to the last man, to the last woman, to the last human being capable of holding a gun’. (p 571)
Which brings us to Che’s underlying values. One of Che’s most famous quotes is that ‘the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love’. Yet it may be more fair to say that Che’s ‘true revolutionary’ is guided by something a little different. Anderson identifies a ‘prime element’ of the qualities Che thought necessary for the future great battle against imperialism: ‘a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us above and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to, and transforming him into an effective, violent, seductive and cold killing machine. Our soldiers must be thus: a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy.’ (p 687)
Che’s central motivation in life appears not to have been love or compassion. It was, above all, hatred – hatred of ‘the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America.’ (p 688) Years of fighting guerrilla warfare against ‘the great enemy’ helped make Che the cold, ruthless killing machine that he considered ideal. The result was that after Che overthrew a cruel dictatorship, he helped install a new one.
Shortly after the revolution, Castro began closing down dissenting newspapers (pp 433–4, 451). Che had openly opposed a free press for years. When witnessing the overthrow of democracy in Guatemala by the US, he explained why he didn’t support democracy either: ‘This is a country where one can expand one’s lungs and fill them with democracy. There are dailies here run by United Fruit, and if I were Arbenz I’d close them down in five minutes, because they’re shameful and yet they say whatever they want’ (p 127). Imagine the horror of living in a country where one breathes in democracy!
Che, however, took charge of the trials of alleged counter-revolutionaries. The spectacle of these public trials and executions overwhelmingly appalled all independent witnesses and foreign journalists (p 372). But Che was a killing machine, deaf to the pleas for compassion, or procedural fairness. He explained that ‘revolutions are ugly but necessary, and part of the revolutionary process is justice at the service of future justice.’ (p 436) If judicial murder is ugly, at least we can presume it was for a greater cause: the Maoist tyranny that Che thought ideal.
This should be stressed: Che was not guided by love, and he does not seem to have thought that a goal like trying to make the world happier would have been worthwhile, despite his youthful reading of the social philosophy of Bertrand Russell. It is also a shame he did not read Russell’s critique of the Bolsheviks. One of Russell’s many pertinent insights was his observation that ‘the hopes which inspire Communism are, in the main, as admirable as those instilled by the Sermon on the Mount, but they are held as fanatically, and are likely to do as much harm. … [F]rom men who are more anxious to injure opponents than to benefit the world at large no great good is to be expected.’
Eduardo Galeano described Che as ‘the most puritanical of the Western revolutionary leaders’ (p 575). This is eminently fair. Anderson writes that Che’s ‘workweek lasted from Monday through Saturday, including nights, and on Sunday mornings he went off to do voluntary labour. Sunday afternoons were all he spared for his family.’ (p 536) While some may admire Che for how hard he worked, he apparently thought the ideal society would be motivated by the same religious fervour: constant, joyless sacrifice for the revolution. He explained that after the revolution, the New Man ‘becomes happy to feel himself a cog in the wheel … creating a sufficient quantity of consumer goods for the entire population’. Russell, on the other hand, condemned the ‘sacrifice of the individual to the machine that is the fundamental evil’ of capitalism. Emma Goldman likewise complained of the ‘fatal’ crime of capitalism, ‘turning the producer into a mere particle of a machine, with less will and decision than his master of steel and iron’. One recalls the saying that under capitalism man exploits man, but under communism, it’s the complete opposite.
Che’s contempt for mere people manifested itself in his cruelty towards the people he knew, and also to those he didn’t. Visiting a literacy program for peasants, he saw one man who hadn’t made much progress. Che publicly insulted him with such spite that he reduced the humiliated peasant to tears (pp 537–8).
Illustrative of his fanatical zeal, Che helped design a 32-storey bank. However, he thought it should go without an elevator (Che could get by without an elevator: why not everyone else?). And they could ‘eliminate at least half ’ of the bathrooms. ‘But in revolutions,’ he was told, ‘people go to the bathroom just as much as before it.’ ‘Not the new man,’ said Che. ‘He can sacrifice.’ (pp 431–2)
And sacrifice he must. For Che’s puritanical vision must be imposed; all must sacrifice for the revolution. Before Che was executed, he declared: ‘Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.’ (p 710) Che could finally make the ultimate sacrifice for the vision he lived for. It’s just a shame that his vision was so inhumane.
While Che’s hatred and fanaticism may have made him a gifted guerrilla, they did not help create a more just society. Again, one turns to the humane and prescient warnings of Russell from 1920, decades before Ernesto Guevara became Che:
The ultimate source of the whole train of evils lies in the Bolshevik outlook on life: in its dogmatism of hatred and its belief that human nature can be completely transformed by force. To injure capitalists is not the ultimate goal of Communism, though among men dominated by hatred it is the part that gives zest to their activities. To face the hostility of the world may show heroism, but it is a heroism for which the country, not its rulers, has to pay the price. In the principles of Bolshevism there is more desire to destroy ancient evils than to build up new goods; it is for this reason that success in destruction has been so much greater than in construction. The desire to destroy is inspired by hatred, which is not a constructive principle. From this essential characteristic of Bolshevik mentality has sprung the willingness to subject Russia to its present martyrdom. It is only out of a quite different mentality that a happier world can be created.