The Political Philosophy of Emma Goldman

With the crowds of thousands that her speeches drew, Emma Goldman established a strong following and historical prestige among anarchists, socialists, and leftists of many tendencies. Her radical thoughts on free speech, imperialism, politics, economics, culture, and many other issues represented a tremendous challenge to the establishment of late 19th and early 20th century America, often leading to her arrest. Goldman was unique as a leftist because she did not only upset conservatives through her progressive views, but many leftists also by critiquing leftist views. Goldman espoused a logically consistent political philosophy that offered her a lens to view the injustices and inequalities of her American time period. Accordingly, her social theories did not exist in a vacuum independent of historical forces; they were directly connected and influenced by those forces. This essay will thus explain the political philosophy of Goldman but also connect those beliefs with the historical events that influenced them, connections which are vital to understanding Goldman on a complete level.

A standard definition of anarchism, which Goldman espoused, is the view that all illegitimate hierarchies in society should be abolished, whether the hierarchies exist in culture, politics, economics, or elsewhere. While this radical philosophy encapsulates all of Goldman’s views on many different topics, her views also shifted and developed through different periods in her life. In John C. Chalberg’s biography of her, Emma Goldman: American Individualist, we learn of Goldman’s earliest connections to anarchism with the Haymarket affair of 1886. During a labor protest in Haymarket Square in Chicago, a bomb was thrown which led to the deaths of seven police officers followed by the conviction of eight anarchists despite no evidence that they were the perpetrators. Haymarket was a pivotal moment in anarchist and socialist history as it had further radicalized the American left due to the spurious convictions, and this radicalization also affected Goldman. While Goldman had already seen herself as an anarchist, the event had “forced her to stop and think and feel – and convert” and see anarchism as a “new vision of a just society.”1

Protesters sought an eight-hour work day in Haymarket.

Protesters sought an eight-hour work day in Haymarket.

Since anarchism calls for ending hierarchy and replacing it with democracy, it overlaps with socialism in the sense that both systems advocate for the end of capitalism, a hierarchical system of work, and replacing it with socialism where workers democratically own and manage their workplaces. Many socialists however disagree with anarchists regarding the role of the state and believe the state could have beneficial purposes, a belief which Goldman criticized socialists for. While labor leader and socialist Eugene V. Debs was heralded as a champion of the working class, Goldman criticized him for these views and for the fact that Debs was a running candidate for the presidency of the US, a position overseeing a hierarchical government. Despite their honest intents, Goldman believed that such politicians were incapable of providing radical enough change to transform America, and that non-political solutions were instead necessary.1 She was unsatisfied with Debs’ state socialism and desired it to be only a stepping stone to full anarchism, a lack of satisfaction which would also later return in her critiques of Bolshevism.

In culture, anarchism has a long history of espousing free love, which is the view that all voluntary romantic and sexual acts are permissible and should not be tied to the illegitimate institution of marriage. Goldman argued for this position with a strong conviction, and her 1914 essay “Marriage and Love” was very radical for its time when Goldman argued that “while it is true that some marriages are based on love, and while it is equally true that in some cases love continues in married life, I maintain that it does so regardless of marriage, and not because of it.”2 In the essay, she views marriage as “primarily an economic arrangement” and that women are relegated to a position of “dependency” and “parasitism” when marrying men, a view that was particularly relevant for her time period when a significant financial inequality existed between men and women. Goldman’s social beliefs on the subject roughly matched her personal life, as she had many different lovers without marrying a single one. Two of her lovers included Alexander Berkman and Ben Reitman, men which were also important figures in the history of the anarchist movement.

First-wave feminism was another movement that was of particular importance to the progressive forces of Goldman’s time, and while supporting parts of it, Goldman was radical in that she also saw many limitations that did not allow for true women’s emancipation. For example, while she supported suffrage and job opportunities, she also argued that voting won’t allow women to truly reform politics, and that replacing the home with the factory was another form of “confinement.”1 Goldman’s views were thus in line with the views of many anarchists and socialists who saw the advances of early feminism as a double-edged sword which simultaneously made positive gains for women while also pushing them further into the capitalist system. Goldman also forged a partnership with Margaret Sanger and the beginnings of the birth control movement, which caused Goldman’s arrest when she included discussions of birth control in her lectures. To Goldman, birth control was vital because large families were a “millstone” around the necks of American workers.1

Despite bitter disagreements over the role of the state and other theoretical issues between anarchists and socialists, all members of the radical left agreed that Western imperialism and colonialism were extremely negative systems that needed to be vanquished. Vladimir Lenin’s 1917 treatise Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism became seminal in socialist history for scientifically connecting the colonization and plunder of lands by Western nations to their socio-economic system of capitalism. Goldman also shared this view, and so when US entry into World War I began, she became a passionate critic of the decision calling the war a “capitalist war” and believing that it would have ended “long ago” had “American financiers been prevented from investing billions in war loans.”1 Arrest followed Goldman’s vocal opposition to the draft in June 1917, but despite the setback she and her lover Berkman ran the No Conscription League for some time which was focused on organizing anti-conscription efforts. Not all anarchists supported Goldman’s unwavering opposition of WW1, such as Peter Kropotkin who despite being one of the most important figures in anarchist philosophy supported the Allies out of the fear of a “Prussianized” Europe.1

Momčilo Gavrić

Momčilo Gavrić, a Serbian soldier, joined the Serbian army at the age of 8 and fought in World War I.

The fierce debate between anarchists and Marxists concerning the role of the state, a debate which continues today, reached a climax with the Russian Revolution when the Marxist Bolsheviks triumphed. The Russian Revolution became a beacon for leftists worldwide for initially championing socialism and democracy instead of capitalism and oligarchy, which explains Goldman’s initial support of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. When Goldman herself was exiled to Russia, her initial support of the USSR eventually transformed to full blown opposition upon seeing the lifelessness of Petrograd, the country’s view that free speech was a “bourgeois superstition,” and privileges that Communist Party members had over citizens regarding food distribution. Goldman was disappointed when meeting Lenin himself, as Lenin argued to her that “there can be no free speech in a revolutionary period” in defense of his persecution of anarchists.1 Anarchists had a difficult relationship with Bolsheviks, such as with the anarchist Kronstadt rebellion against the USSR which Goldman acted as an official mediator during. Goldman’s view that Kronstadt symbolized everything that went wrong with the Russian Revolution caused her to leave the country in 1921.

Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet leaders celebrating the second anniversary of the October Revolution in Red Square, Moscow, 1919

Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet leaders celebrating the second anniversary of the October Revolution in Red Square, Moscow, 1919

Goldman eventually returned to the US after a more left-wing climate came about with Roosevelt and the New Deal that was also less persecuting of leftists. She then later moved to Canada to work on raising money in defense of persecuted anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti, her final country and place of death in Toronto, 1940. Goldman’s life and anarchist philosophy was thus unique for being simultaneously subversive against both the right-wing establishment which represented exploitation and hierarchy and also against progressive forces for being inadequate like with the Bolsheviks and early feminists. She remains a leftist figure worthy of attention and importance for 21st century socialist movements, both for her critique of the capitalist establishment and her critique of certain leftist solutions which did not bring about sufficient change.

– Dino Mehic (Moontouch)


  1. Chalberg, John C. Emma Goldman: American Individualist. Pearson, 2008. Print.

What Is the Opium of the People?

One of the most famous critical quotations of religion is that of Karl Marx’s where he describes it as the “opium of the people.” The quotation is however rarely displayed in its full length, and it is even rarer for the reader to understand it in its wider Marxist context where it involves the discussion of class struggle. Moreover, once the passage is explained in this context of class struggle, we begin to see that Marx’s concept of opium does not necessarily have to be limited to organized religion, but can be extended to a wide array of possible practices in culture that similarly act as opiates for the population. The profound implication of a Marxist analysis of religion then is that it becomes far-reaching and involves the entirety of culture, and that its pertinence remains even in 2015 society. The purpose of this blog post then is to explain what Marx means in the passage and to reveal its theoretical implication of how cultural opium functions to keep the working class docile in the face of its exploiting class.

The quotation comes from Marx’s work A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844) where he critiques the book Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820) by German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. Placed along with several lines that precede and follow it, the passage’s unadulterated vigor can be seen:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

As history’s sharpest and most successful critic of capitalism, Marx observed the widespread poverty, alienation, subordination, and misery perpetuated by the socio-economic system that its working class has to deal with. The consequent result according to Marx is that religion was possibly created to act as an anesthetic against these ills. The German critic here also argues that happiness gained from religion is illusory, and to call for its abolition is also to demand for people’s “real happiness.” Marx’s first claim in the passage is easily validated by contemporary social science; a 2009 study by Gregory Paul concluded that “religion is most able to thrive in seriously dysfunctional societies” where he examined a wide variety of factors from homicide rates to income inequality and discovered a correlation.1 Those who have trouble understanding this passage from Marx may find greater clarity in this excellent comment from French political theorist Gilles Dauvé:

The quest for the supernatural does not stem from an excessive but from a limited imagination built by millenniums of exploitation and oppression: the incapacity to be free on Earth incites humans to situate freedom out of this world. Dreams and desires are displaced persons. This is the stuff religion is made of.

In a greater discussion of Marxist class conflict, it is important to understand two crucial points. Firstly, cultural opium is not only limited to religion, but to a very long list of practices and beliefs that similarly act as an anesthetic for people enduring difficult socio-economic conditions. Secondly, and most importantly, cultural opium has a political function in society that benefits the ruling and property owning class: it placates and tranquilizes the class being exploited so that it is less likely to engage in revolution and change the system. We shall now examine a handful of case examples, the first being religious and the ones following it non-religious.

In A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, the American historian observes how US slaveowners understood that Christianity kept their slaves docile on their property, and so the slaveowners even promoted its use:

Religion was used for control. A book consulted by many planters was the Cotton Plantation Record and Account Book, which gave these instructions to overseers: “You will find that an hour devoted every Sabbath morning to their moral and religious instruction would prove a great aid to you in bringing about a better state of things amongst the Negroes.”

Whipped American slave Gordon, 1863

Whipped American slave Gordon, 1863

Zinn’s example is arguably the most conspicuous example of cultural opium easing the contradictions between classes. The American slaveowner, understanding the irreconcilable contradiction between master and slave, also understands the useful effect that religious practice creates around his slaves. He then allows and even promotes it to keep his slaves docile, which in turn promotes a continuous and smooth labor productivity from them for the slaveowner’s personal profit. In this example, religion acting as a cultural opium drugs an exploited class, but more importantly the opium is consciously used as a tool by an exploiting class to maintain their property-owning and dominant position in society and to resist change to this oppressive state of affairs.

As previously mentioned, an important thing we must extract from Marx’s passage is that from it easily follows a virtually endless list of possible cultural opiates which extend beyond religion and which also benefit the exploiting class of any exploitive socio-economic system whether past or present.

In relation to this, one possible argument that has been made before is that the spilling of the blood and the clashing of blades in ancient Roman gladiatorial arenas was not only entertainment, but also a useful spectacle for the slave-owning class of Rome to distract and placate the masses. Elaborate spectacles like these would be absolutely critical in numbing class contradictions in a society where up to a staggering 40% of the population was enslaved according to some estimates.2 Ironically and appropriately, a gladiatorial arena was the point of inception for an escape led by slave and gladiator Spartacus which evolved into a full blown rebellion. The rebellion, an early example of class conflict, culminated in the form of the Third Servile War (73-71 BC), and Spartacus’ side which began with 78 and grew to 120,000 followers won multiple battles against the Romans before the rebellion was defeated. Spartacus was the personal hero of Marx himself, who called him “the most splendid fellow in the whole of ancient history.”3

Marcus Licinius Crassus, who Spartacus' nemesis, crucified thousands of Spartacus' followers (The Damned Field by Fyodor Bronnikov)

Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was Spartacus’ nemesis, crucified thousands of Spartacus’ followers (The Damned Field by Fyodor Bronnikov)

Present day examples of cultural opium need not be restricted to something as unique as gladiatorial matches or Christianity. The most sophisticated and profound opium in 2015 is that of consumer culture, an opium that is arguably stronger than any that has come before it in the history of civilization. Contemporary consumer culture is powerful and dominating because as an enterprise of billions and billions of dollars, its sedative effect is enough to handle the possible anger and tension of a population of any size. Like in the case of property-owning slaveowners, consumer culture is also engineered by property-owning capitalists of any type, whether of a film production company, video game firm, or fast food enterprise. Most importantly, this intense sedative effect distracts the ordinary working class individual from becoming interested in change, a critically negative result as problems like growing inequality between American capitalists and the working class continues to increase, and with it the further buying off of the political system.4 Critical theorists like Theodor Adorno spilled a great deal of ink analyzing consumer culture, and in this quotation from Culture Industry Reconsidered (1963) he also explains how it creates false psychological conflicts and needs:

The power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness. The order that springs from it is never confronted with what it claims to be or with the real interests of human beings. Order, however, is not good in itself. It would be so only as a good order. The fact that the culture industry is oblivious to this and extols order in abstracto, bears witness to the impotence and untruth of the messages it conveys. While it claims to lead the perplexed, it deludes them with false conflicts which they are to exchange for their own. It solves conflicts for them only in appearance, in a way that they can hardly be solved in their real lives.

The central premise to be granted from a Marxist analysis of beliefs and practices in culture then is that they do not simply stand alone, but that they can also have a specific political function in society in empowering or weakening one class over another. The implication of all of this, if accepted, would mean that any attempt at social or revolutionary change would require the identification of cultural opium and the opposition of it. Social movements today against capitalists or other oligarchic and plutocratic elites would thus need to include the identification and opposition of these beliefs and practices in order to be effective at drawing ordinary working class people out from their opiate hazes and into their endeavors for revolutionary change. The failure to do this will mean that the politically and economically powerful bourgeoisie, who continue to carve capitalist society to their narrow interests and against the interests of the 99% working class, will maintain their elite position and hierarchy while we remain in an opiate haze.

– Dino Mehic (Moontouch)






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)