Who Is Che Guevara? A Sketch of the Philosophy of an Iconic Revolutionary

“Che Guevara” is a name that pairs with revolution as well as Marlon Brando does with acting. In the Western world, he is almost exclusively known from his legendary photograph Guerrillero Heroico taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 and then processed and commodified into an equally famous T-shirt. This commodification and simplification of Che’s revolutionary résumé also has the effect in capitalist societies of ignoring Che’s subversive beliefs as a full Marxist, socialist, and communist. Almost chiefly from a letter he wrote in 1965, the goal of this blog post then is to sketch out Che’s unique philosophical and Marxist critiques of capitalism and make them more visibly known by summarizing and perhaps even applying them. Before doing so however, it would be appropriate to very briefly provide a biography of him that gives a historical context to his Marxist critiques. Readers should note that for this historical section I almost exclusively borrow and cite from Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, an absolutely exhaustive and authoritative biography on the man.

Che was born as “Ernesto Guevara” in 1928 in the Argentinean city of Rosario. In his college years he studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires and eventually finished schooling to become a doctor, a profession that proved to be useful in later years when his armed revolutionary career began. In the 1950s, he embarked on his famous motorcycle road trips throughout the South American continent with his friend Alberto Granado who was also a medical student. Che fully documented these trips in his memoir The Motorcycle Diaries, and these trips proved to be extremely influential for both his personality and his ideological beliefs. Che witnessed intense capitalist exploitation, poverty, persecution, and other injustices that when joined with his later reading of left-wing literature solidified his views as a revolutionary Marxist.

In 1953, Che found himself in Guatemala and later fully observed the CIA-led overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz. The CIA had overthrown Árbenz because his progressive policies of agrarian reform agitated the American corporation United Fruit Company (still existing today as Chiquita). In Profit Over People: Neoliberalism & Global Order Noam Chomsky analyzes this as a case study of how capitalist interests directly affect foreign policy. Earlier, Che had written a letter to his mother mentioning the “Capitalist octopuses” when referring to the United Fruit Company and their exploitation of the continent. In 1954, Che arrived in Mexico City, and in 1955 he had a most critical meeting with lawyer and revolutionary Fidel Castro. Castro had already made an unsuccessful attempt at revolution in Cuba when assaulting the Moncada Barracks the year before, but now with Che he was planning a second comprehensive attempt. Che very quickly arose as a distinguished fighter with leadership abilities during these covert military preparations in Mexico City.

Che and Fidel sailed off to Cuba with their band of revolutionaries, the setting where Che was to achieve his global fame. Involving both jungle and urban battlefields, the Cuban Revolution had lasted a total of five years and led to the overthrow of the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and his replacement by a fully socialist administration with Fidel and Che as the two highest leaders. For several years then Che was involved less in combative endeavors but more in political and economic issues like serving as Cuba’s chief diplomat abroad, leading a highly successful literacy campaign, instituting land reform, and serving as the national bank president. Later, Che was involved in two more revolutions that were unsuccessful, one in the Congo and the second in Bolivia. In Bolivia he was then finally captured and executed in the village of La Higuera on October 9th, 1967 by a joint project led by both the CIA and the Bolivian Army. His last words were “Shoot coward, you are only going to kill a man.”

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro fishing, 1960

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro fishing, 1960

In 1965, Che wrote perhaps the definitive piece of his Marxist theories titled “Socialism and Man in Cuba.” Including historical content, Che claims the central purpose of this letter was to refute the anti-socialist argument that individualism is abolished for the sake of the state in a socialist society. Che proceeds with a variety of case examples to argue his point, but the letter itself contains a number of fascinating philosophical and economic comments that stand alone. The central theory that Che operates under with this letter is that of Karl Marx’s base and superstructure, a mapping of the entirety of society and its systems and institutions. Che then works under the same framework that the Frankfurt School and other critical theorists adhered to, a school that focuses on the type of social relations that a socio-economic system creates. Che then sticks out with his unique Marxism by focusing on socialism as not merely an economic system as many socialists do, but one that also alters morality in a positive fashion. Next is a brief summary of Marx’s base and superstructure followed by an analysis of this letter.

In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) and other works, Marx argued for a particularly bold social theory called the base and superstructure. For Marx, the base is the given socio-economic system of a time period, “socio-economic” in the sense of how people work, who owns and manages their workplace, and who picks the fruits of the laborer’s work in the format of profit. The superstructure is essentially the category which contains every other aspect of human society, including morality/ethics, religion, family, the state, politics, law, media and so forth. Marxist theorists have argued that the base is what creates and influences the superstructure, and moreover that the superstructure is something which rationalizes and defends the base. Since the two groups are connected, a particular superstructure changes only when the base does too. Che was focused on the superstructure, a superstructure which defends a socialist base after a capitalist base had been destroyed. In his Critique of Political Economy, Marx gives us a rough outline of how this theory works:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

[…] No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Karl Marx argued for a social theory where economics creates and drives many aspects of our lives.

Karl Marx argued for a social theory where economics creates and drives many aspects of our lives. (image author unknown)

In the section “Invisible laws of capitalism,” Che precisely contends that there are invisible, economic laws of capitalism that we are under the influence of but not made aware of due to ideology:

In capitalist society individuals are controlled by a pitiless law usually beyond their comprehension. The alienated human specimen is tied to society as a whole by an invisible umbilical cord: the law of value. This law acts upon all aspects of one’s life, shaping its course and destiny. The laws of capitalism, which are blind and are invisible to ordinary people, act upon the individual without he or she being aware of it. One sees only the vastness of a seemingly infinite horizon ahead. That is how it is painted by capitalist propagandists who purport to draw a lesson from the example of Rockefeller whether or not it is true — about the possibilities of individual success. The amount of poverty and suffering required for a Rockefeller to emerge, and the amount of depravity entailed in the accumulation of a fortune of such magnitude, are left out of the picture, and it is not always possible for the popular forces to expose this clearly.

Che’s analysis of these “invisible” economic laws connects to Marx’s theory of “ideology,” defined not merely and conventionally as belief systems but specifically beliefs which reinforce the ruling, property-owning class of our society. Che referenced the classic “individual success” ideology of capitalism that we also know as the American Dream. Here it does not appear to be that Che is arguing this as unrealistic as the common rebuttal to it goes, but rather that even if it does occur we do not see the immense bottlenecking and hoarding of wealth in capitalist society needed for a CEO to arise. From the vantage point of an economist concerned about inequality it may be easy to see the CEO as part of a class which perpetuates this inequality, but for the vast majority of working class people who are concerned about living the American Dream such a phenomenon that Che calls “invisible” is not even contemplated.

Right after this section, Che introduces his central normative argument, the argument that best summarizes his unique vision of socialism as a moral framework:

I think the place to start is to recognize the individual’s quality of incompleteness, of being an unfinished product. The vestiges of the past are brought into the present in one’s consciousness, and a continual labor is necessary to eradicate them.

[…]

There is the danger that the forest will not be seen for the trees. The pipe dream that socialism can be achieved with the help of the dull instruments left to us by capitalism (the commodity as the economic cell, profitability, individual material interest as a lever, etc.) can lead into a blind alley. When you wind up there after having traveled a long distance with many crossroads, it is hard to figure out just where you took the wrong turn. Meanwhile, the economic foundation that has been laid has done its work of undermining the development of consciousness. To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man and woman.

The “new man and woman” is the heart of this normative argument throughout the letter, an individual that is essentially more ethical than one could ever be under a capitalist superstructure. It is precisely this new individual that would reinforce a socialist economic base and likewise be reinforced by the base in a feedback loop as previously described. It is possible that Che was unsatisfied by the Marxist theorists of his time who focused merely on the economic base. In the Soviet Union, industrialization was the primary concern and vision for the Communist project, and a conscious focus on superstructure was lacking. Given Che’s mixed feelings about the practice of “socialism” in the USSR in other texts, it’s plausible he was responding to this by offering an alternative framework.

Later in the letter Che explains exactly how such a normative argument would play out in practice. It would involve a new form of labor:

In order to develop a new culture, work must acquire a new status. Human beings-as-commodities cease to exist, and a system is installed that establishes a quota for the fulfillment of one’s social duty. The means of production belong to society, and the machine is merely the trench where duty is performed. A person begins to become free from thinking of the annoying fact that one needs to work to satisfy one’s animal needs. Individuals start to see themselves reflected in their work and to understand their full stature as human beings through the object created, through the work accomplished. Work no longer entails surrendering a part of one’s being in the form of labor power sold, which no longer belongs to the individual, but becomes an expression of oneself, a contribution to the common life in which one is reflected, the fulfillment of one’s social duty.

In order to fully comprehend why Che proposes such a thing, it is important to understand a massive philosophical underpinning that was influential for Che in Marx’s works: alienation. Marx’s theory of alienation was articulated in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and became popular and influential during the time when Che wrote this letter. Marx essentially argued that the laborer is alienated from his or her work in our capitalist society, and he went about detailing this by describing multiple forms. Two of the most notable ones involve the fact that firstly we do not own what we produce in a capitalist enterprise, but rather our product or service belongs to the business owner to be sold by them. Secondly, our labor is used as a means to an end for the owner in this enterprise, and that it is not an end in itself. When this is taken into account, it is easy to see how Che’s conception of labor in a socialist society is a complete negation of Marx’s alienation.

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro playing golf to mock Eisenhower, 1962

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro playing golf to mock Eisenhower, 1962

In the section “Individualism,” Che presents one of his arguments regarding art to rebut the claim about socialism abolishing individualism, which he mentioned at the beginning of the letter. On the contrary, Che sees a lack of individualism in art produced under capitalism, and he finds such individualism only possible under socialism:

For a long time individuals have been trying to free themselves from alienation through culture and art. While a person dies every day during the eight or more hours in which he or she functions as a commodity, individuals come to life afterward in their spiritual creations. But this remedy bears the germs of the same sickness: that of a solitary being seeking harmony with the world. One defends one’s individuality, which is oppressed by the environment, and reacts to aesthetic ideas as a unique being whose aspiration is to remain immaculate. It is nothing more than an attempt to escape.

[…]

The realistic art of the 19th century, however, also has a class character, more purely capitalist perhaps than the decadent art of the 20th century that reveals the anguish of the alienated individual. In the field of culture, capitalism has given all that it had to give, and nothing remains but the stench of a corpse, today’s decadence in art.

In the first passage, Che mentions the alienated, tired, and commodified nine-to-five worker that we all have firsthand experience of. This desolate being then either consciously or subconsciously expresses their alienation through art in a futile attempt to escape their condition. In the second passage, Che claims that the realism in the art of the 19th century has a “class character” and is strongly bourgeois, though he does not analyze any specific piece of art to back up this view. On the other hand, Che critically asks why we should dogmatically consider the only valid prescription for this in the art form of socialist realism that was prominent during the Cold War, and he seems to be wary of placing oneself in a “strait-jacket” by negatively viewing the artists who still reproduce 19th century art and who are in the slow and gradual process of attaining a socialist consciousness. This passage undoubtedly has the tone of critical theory, the framework Max Horkheimer described as seeking “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”

If Che’s arguments are correct here, then we can conclude at least two things. The first is that individualism is definitely under a stranglehold in capitalist societies, and that not until we advance to socialism can we allow the kind of enamored individualism we desire today to actually be possible. Secondly, and most importantly, any construction or conception of socialism must not be conceived as merely an economic system, but as a wholesome change in the consciousness of the individual to be more ethical. Using the theory of the base and superstructure would mean that vices like egoism feed, defend, and make capitalism possible, while equality and solidarity would feed and defend socialism. This theory also expresses a limitation, because the virtues of the latter are not possible under a capitalist system, and it precisely requires the revolutionary action Che called for and practiced to smash the system and make the building of the new man and woman possible. As Che explains:

It is not a matter of how many kilograms of meat one has to eat, or of how many times a year someone can go to the beach, or how many pretty things from abroad you might be able to buy with present-day wages. It is a matter of making the individual feel more complete, with much more inner wealth and much more responsibility.

– Dino Mehic (Moontouch)

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