Book Review from the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
Che Guevara Reader: Writings on Politics and Revolution. Edited by David Deutschmann. Ocean Press. £15.95
The reader comprises speeches and articles that trace the development and implementation of Guevara’s theories from 1956 to a time shortly before his death in October 1967. The book falls into four sections covering the period prior to the Cuban Revolution, Guevara’s work in the Cuban government, international issues and selected letters.
Guevara’s ideology combined romanticism with elitism. He passionately believed that an enlightened conspiratorial minority could establish ‘socialism’ and use political power to free the ideas of the uneducated masses – a theory where mass political consciousness emerges after a revolution initiated by a small minority or vanguard. In this struggle, the vanguard is the “the catalysing agent that create[d] the subjective conditions necessary for victory” as well as the “generator of revolutionary consciousness.”
Guevara was essentially a guerrilla leader engaged in a war of national liberation. He believed that only violent revolution, waged in the countryside, could end colonial exploitation and introduce ‘socialism’ into Latin America. Urban areas were to remain essentially passive being vulnerable to betrayal and superior military force. The basis of this struggle was the peasantry, but his attitude is ambivalent, fearing that peasant ignorance, isolation and hunger for land makes them unreliable and in need of direction from “revolutionary intellectuals.”
In the second section on the ‘Cuba Years 1959-65’, we gain an insight into the difficulties of ‘Democratic Centralism’ and the organisation of the state-run capitalism that followed the Cuban insurrection. The economy is based on commodity production where imports are dependent on maximising exports at competitive market prices. As with the rest of Latin America the central problem is the “one crop economy,” with Cuba “slaves to sugarcane.” His speeches call for diversification and increased output prompting the introduction of ‘emulation,’ involving setting factory and individual output targets to maximise industrial output. His theories were greatly influenced by Lenin, who is quoted throughout his works. In the article entitled, ‘On the Budgetary Finance System’ Guevara uses a quotation from Lenin in an attempt to explain how state capitalism is a step towards an eventual ‘socialist’ society, necessitating the introduction of capitalist accounting methods, price setting, money, factory profit, bonuses and formal contracts with monetary penalties.
But increasing output means greater incentives and this conflicts with Guevara’s image of ‘socialist morality’ where work and achieving output targets is the workers moral obligation, his “social duty.” Cuba, he claims, is ‘on the road’ to ‘socialism’ while the transition to ‘communism’ a distant vision in the future. At the same time he is compelled to accept that trading with world capitalism necessarily imposed severe limitations on his action, in short acknowledging that the economic conditions dictate the country’s direction. National defence, nationalisation, industrialisation, agrarian reform and the development of foreign trade, particularly with Russia, are all urgent issues that have to be addressed if Cuba is to survive.
In the years following the Cuban Revolution his speeches impart increasing frustration as the vanguard attempts to impose ‘socialism’ on the ignorant masses that neither understood nor wanted it. In passionate speeches to students, cadres and trade unionists he repeatedly stresses the need for education to strive for the ‘socialist ideal’ and eradicate the bad habits from the “previous epoch.”
The third part of the book is a collection of Guevara’s speeches and articles on international issues. Not unexpectedly, the rhetoric is anti-Americanism and anti-colonialist and the message to the people of Latin America is to follow Cuba’s example and create “many Vietnams” to expel US imperialism and achieve economic independence. Other speeches demand fairness in trade and an end to dumping, price fixing, foreign debt and foreign bases – in fact all the things you might expect from a leader struggling to administer capitalism in an underdeveloped country surrounded by a hostile world.
A book of limited historical interest carrying a bankrupt anachronistic prescription for violent revolution to be orchestrated by a vanguard and leading inevitably to state-controlled capitalism.