Debunking a Myth or Distorting the Record? Samuel Farber on Che Guevara
Samuel Farber. The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016
Philosopher Alain Badiou in his essay “The Idea of Communism” explains the importance of proper names, including that of Che Guevara, in revolutionary politics:
“In these proper names, the ordinary individual discovers glorious, distinctive individuals as the mediation for his or her own individuality.… The anonymous action of millions of militants, rebels, fighters, unrepresentable as such, is combined and counted as one in the simple powerful symbol of the proper name.”1
Guevara’s name and image have endured and been embraced by rebels and revolutionaries of many tendencies since his murder in Bolivia in 1967. Jean-Paul Sartre called him “the most complete human being of our age.” Trained as a doctor and often battling his own asthma, he was an intellectual as well as a fighter, filling notebooks even during his final weeks while sick and hunted in the Bolivian countryside. A steadfast internationalist, he embraced the notion that “the duty of a revolutionary was to make revolution,” giving himself fully to that task despite hostility from the era’s “official” communism. He directly challenged U.S. imperialism, calling upon his international comrades to “create two, three...many Vietnams.” Of course, he died attempting to make revolution, the location of his remains kept a secret for many years out of fear that even his dead body might mobilize the oppressed. His political life was short, and he produced nothing like a complete theoretical text. Perhaps, though, the very incompleteness of his projects helps facilitate and inspire wide-ranging revolutionary theory and practice.
Samuel Farber acknowledges, in the first sentence of his book, that Guevara is “an appealing symbol to legions of young rebels and revolutionaries all over the world.” Perhaps there is something telling in Farber singling out young people here. For him, too many have suffered a kind of youthful gullibility accepting “common myths about Che” (xxvi). Farber’s chosen task is to provide what he sees as a more balanced account, one that demythologizes and debunks from the perspective of his own notions of real “socialist democracy,” including “majority rule,” “self-mobilization and organization of the people,” and “minority rights and civil liberties” (xvii). While Farber’s critical discussion of Guevara is in principle based on this theoretical foundation, none of these concepts are defined, analyzed, or discussed in any detail. Farber simply repeats these phrases throughout the text, taking their meanings as self-evident. It is as if the undemanding embrace of these somewhat vague generalities leads automatically to correct political decision-making. Without deeper, more rigorous conceptual work, such notions are often indistinguishable from political liberalism. In fact, much of Farber’s one-sided critique of Guevara is similarly indistinguishable from critiques via liberalism. Without hyperbole, we can say that Farber’s account of Guevara is of a man whose fundamental commitments and political decisions are in each and every case mistaken in one way or another. In a way, Farber presents himself as the adult in the room, admonishing generations of young people to stop dreaming and pay attention to the hard facts.
While several substantial biographies have been written on Guevara, Farber’s very brief first chapter tries to identify the origin of Guevara’s politics in his early life. Important for Farber is the influence of the “bohemian” lifestyle of Guevara’s parents, especially his mother, for whom it was commonplace to flout bourgeois conventions regarding family structure, cleanliness, and consumerism, instead promoting the values of art and culture. Farber suggests that Guevara retained a “bohemian asceticism” into adulthood, never prioritizing the satisfactions that come from consumer goods as part of the revolutionary project to build socialism. Farber, for instance, perceives this concern as problematically left out of Guevara’s later “Socialism and Man in Cuba” (78).
In addition, Farber notes the young man’s reluctance to get involved in political life. With regard to his lack of engagement with the major demonstration of October 17, 1945 that freed Juan Perón from prison, Farber writes:
“it was precisely this lack of involvement that prevented him from developing a sense for the portent of political events, which may help to explain the political tone-deafness—the frequent inability to understand specific political situations—he was to exhibit in the future” (4).
This is quite a speculative leap, though typical of Farber’s style. Unmentioned here is that Guevara is seventeen, argues at school about the Spanish Civil War, is shot at while surveiling a supposed Nazi headquarters, and talks tough when it comes to politics generally.2 That Guevara was not deeply engaged with the immediate politics of Argentina at this point seems accurate. But, it is indicative of Farber’s initial assumptions and approach that even a teenager’s inaction weighs ominously as evidence for deflating the myth of Che.
Early on Farber notes that in 1953 Guevara became a “committed nonparty Communist” in Guatemala, “which implied 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” (16). Again, we encounter a sizeable interpretive leap or set of leaps. Perhaps something of this lay in Che’s new allegiance, perhaps more, perhaps less; perhaps there was some evolution in his worldview. In any case, Farber tends to avoid such nuance, reading his own one-sided interpretation of Guevara’s entire career back onto this initial commitment. In fact, Farber will read each action (or non-action) of Guevara’s through this lens.
Even Guevara’s efforts to overthrow the Batista regime and the final victory of the Cuban rebels seem to Farber something minor compared to the costs. Prior to the victory, in April 1958 a general strike was called by the July 26th Movement, but failed miserably. Farber notes – though this runs counter to his own claim that Che perpetually misunderstood political contexts – that Che had predicted this failure, blaming it on sectarianism in the cities. As a result, the urban struggle was downgraded, with the general strike only employed at the culmination of the military campaign. While admitting that this strategy resulted in victory, Farber says it was “at a high cost in terms of the lack of autonomy of the July 26th Movement and its complete subordination to Fidel Castro” (34). For Farber, anything that may appear to count positively on Guevara’s behalf has its dark side, including helping make a successful revolution.
Let us explore some examples of Farber’s tunnel vision regarding the “errors” of Che Guevera. Farber’s discussion of Guevara’s view of bank robbery is telling. Taking his 1958 proposal to rob banks to finance the escalating war as a major example of “tone-deafness,” Farber omits the fact that this was initially agreed upon by urban leaders.3 He does, though, note some leaders’ later objections. According to Farber:
“what Guevara entirely overlooked was the specific meaning and consequences that bank robberies had in the Cuban context. He was apparently unaware that in the late 1940s and early 1950s…Cuba had gone through a period when many of the revolutionaries of the 1930s had degenerated into nothing more than gangsters involved in violent activities, including the armed assault on and robbery of the Havana branch of the Royal Bank of Canada in 1948. Any involvement of the revolutionaries of the 1950s in such activities would have brought back memories of that dark period and would have been extremely damaging from a political point of view” (23-4).
This is one of Farber’s obscure pet criticisms of Guevara. He repeats it often in his writings on Cuba. In his 1998 New Politics article on the rising popularity of Guevara, he notes that none of Che’s biographers have understood this point either.4 Since Farber offers no evidence that this would have been the actual impact of bank robbery, Guevara’s multiple biographers may be forgiven for missing this point. Even more indicative of his one-sidedness is Farber’s omission of Guevara’s sensitivity to context when he later rejects bank robbery as a means of financing guerrilla war in Argentina, telling Ciro Bustos “Not at this stage. If you start robbing banks you end up as a bank robber.”5
Regarding summary execution of prisoners taken in battle, Farber again relates only part of the story. Farber states, “During his days in the Sierra, Guevara opposed Fidel Castro’s very effective tactic of returning prisoners (minus their weapons) to the enemy” (72). Yet, Farber fails to report Guevara’s own published advice regarding guerrilla war:
“It is a good policy, so long as there are no considerable bases of operations and invulnerable places, to take no prisoners. Survivors ought to be set free. The wounded should be cared for with all possible resources at the time of the action.”6
Instead, Farber segues seamlessly to the claim that “after the overthrow of Batista…Guevara was personally responsible for supervising some of the repressive activities of the Cuban regime” (72). Of course, this is in reference to his command of La Habana military fortress where many trials and executions occurred. While Farber notes that “The great majority of those executed were guilty of serious crimes and atrocities,” he adds: “it cannot be ruled out that there were some innocent people whose executions were carried out at least in part because of Che Guevara’s political views” (73). Farber footnotes “accusations” found in the writing of arch Cuba critic Maria Werlau who also compares the Cuban political leadership to that of North Korea. This is argument by innuendo. Many things can’t “be ruled out,” including that many executions were avoided because of Guevara’s political views. Of course, rather than what might possibly be the case, more important is evidence one way or the other.
Farber also works hard to downplay any examples of Guevara’s tolerance of dissent:
“It is true that during Guevara’s tenure as minister of industry in Cuba, he got along with, and even protected, the Trotskyists who worked under him. But since these Trotskyists were supporters, even if critical ones, of the one-party state that had just been established in Cuba, Guevara saw them as revolutionaries who differed from him on important matters, but allies nevertheless” (17).
Again, no evidence for Guevara’s supposed motivation is offered. Farber seems to be making this stuff up. Relevant here, though unreported by Farber, is Guevara’s denouncing of the destruction by Cuban Stalinists of the plates for Trotsky’s The Permanent Revolution as well as his efforts to get Cuban Trotskyist leader Roberto Acosta Hechevarria released from prison, telling him “Acosta, you can’t kill ideas with blows.”7
Perhaps the most straightforward attempt at demythologization is Farber’s dismissal of Che’s famous remark “Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.” This is used, says Farber, wrongly “to portray Guevara as a warm, affectionate and loving revolutionary” (82). Farber rightly points out that Guevara is speaking of something other than love of person for person. Whether or not Guevara is correct to employ love in this larger social context of love for the people is a difficult philosophical question that could, of course, be explored at length. However, Farber’s critical discussion is limited to citing Guevara’s “Message to the Tricontinental” two years later where he invokes the necessity of “hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy” apparently supposing that the ability to hate is somehow incompatible with love, rendering Guevara’s worldview at best incoherent. Perhaps one would be better off viewing Che’s assertion regarding hate in the spirit of Walter Benjamin’s remark from “Thesis on the Philosophy of History” criticizing the easy optimism of German Social Democrats:
“Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”8
Surely, one can hold such a view of past oppression and still regard love as a bringer of new possibilities.
While Farber and some of his reviewers present this as a “balanced” account, the examples above and many others that could be offered illustrate otherwise. Certainly, Farber reports much that is factual regarding Che Guevara’s politics. Guevara was human and made mistakes both practical and theoretical. His Marxism was also non-dogmatic and ever evolving, moving further and further from Stalinist orthodoxy his whole life. Farber’s account provides no inkling of a dynamic life and body of work that was still unfolding. Found in Guevara’s backpack upon his murder in Bolivia was Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution as well as notes pertaining to it. Trotsky, writes Guevara, “sheds light on a whole series of events of the great revolution that had remained hidden by myth. At the same time, he makes isolated statements whose validity still remains absolute today.”9 He was also a critic of bureaucracy and directly challenged the Soviet economic model in the famous economics debates of 1963-65. Guevara imagined moving away from the tyranny of the market, hoping to overcome alienation, much in the spirit of the young Marx. In this, he was joined by 4th International theorist Ernest Mandel. For Farber, though, what is most important is that this debate occurred in theoretical journals (so that it was inaccessible to most people) and that it fundamentally accepted “the structures of the one-party state undemocratically controlling the whole economy from above” (108).
A book that aspires to some sort of “balance” should avoid what seem like gratuitous expressions of sarcastic hostility. At one point, Farber criticizes what is almost certainly Guevara’s limited understanding of workplace hierarchy and democracy by noting his overly simple recommendation that workers and administrators “should exchange viewpoints.” While such criticism is probably warranted, Farber concludes that Guevara reduced the issue to “‘failure to communicate’ in the words of the sadistic prison warden explaining the reason for physical abuse of an inmate in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke” (68). Such emotive associations are, unfortunately, ubiquitous.
Ultimately, Che Guevara did misunderstand fundamental parts of Stalinism. Farber rightly points to Guevara’s odd and obviously mistaken analysis found in the so-called “Prague Notebook” where he attempts to ground the Soviet Union’s drift toward capitalism in Lenin’s New Economic Policy. More importantly, Guevara never developed a clear conception of the nature and relationship of democracy to the varying stages of revolutionary struggle. Guevara knew this, stating in “Socialism and Man in Cuba,” “The institutionalization of the revolution has still not been achieved. We are searching for something new...”10 This is perhaps Farber’s greatest concern. However, democracy as well as socialism is always to be made and remade. This is done in different ways in different places. There is no point of final arrival. Guevara lived through a particular context. He attempted to imagine and to live a new subjectivity, one where “if you are capable of trembling with indignation each time that an injustice is committed in the world, then we are comrades.”11
As capitalism in its neoliberal form continues to grind down all values (personal and social) that don’t fit its particular individualistic, market-driven model, thinking and acting through some new subjectivity is exactly what is needed. For Farber the image of human being projected here and elsewhere by Guevara is overly ascetic and overly voluntaristic, ultimately too far removed from material reality. Indeed, there does seem to be something impossible about Che Guevara’s vision viewed from the present moment. Hence, in part, its appeal; what seems impossible may perhaps become possible again, even if its form is novel and diverges from prior manifestations.
In the end, though, the critical question is, what does the world need more of? More demythologizing, reductionism, and more “realism”? That seems to be what Farber offers. Such a vision is close to a kind of resignation that can no longer imagine trying to bring about something fundamentally new. To act is always to subject oneself to criticism. In one sense, one always acts wrongly, at least in part and from the perspective of a given historical moment. The consequences of our actions escape us. Che Guevara acted. Indeed, in one sense, he acted against the grain of history, or so it seems in retrospect. Perhaps this is a mode of the voluntarism criticized by Farber. But it is also the case that Che’s project was cut short and judged a failure by many. It is important to remember that judgments of failure and conclusions regarding voluntarism in history are relative to particular historical perspectives. The future remains open. It remains to those engaged in the struggle against capitalism and for a better world to decide through their theory and practice what Che’s legacy will be.
1. Badiou, Alain (2010) “The Idea of Communism,” in The Communist Hypothesis trans. David Macey and Steve Corcoran. London & New York: Verso, 250.
2. Anderson, Jon Lee (1997) Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Grove Press, 30-7.
3. Anderson, 349.
4. Farber, Samuel (1998) “The Resurrection of Che Guevara,” New Politics vol. 7, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 25. See also, Farber, Samuel (2006) The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 41.
5. Anderson, 600.
6. Guevera, Ernesto “Che” (2012) Guerrilla Warfare, trans. J.P. Morray. BN Publishing, 19. Farber cites as evidence for his claim a private diary entry cited in Castañeda, Jorge (1998) Compañero. Vintage Books, 103. The simplest way of interpreting the two statements is that Guevara’s thinking evolved from the time of his private reflections of 1957 to his public statements of 1961. But again, Farber relates only part of the story.
7. Besancenot, Olivier and Löwy, Michael (2009) Che Guevara: His Revolutionary Legacy, trans. James Membrez. New York: Monthly Review Press, 71.
8. Benjamin, Walter (2007) Illuminations edited by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 260.
9. Besancenot and Löwy, 76.
10. Guevara, Ernesto “Che” (1969) “Socialism and Man in Cuba” in Che: Selected Works edited Ralando Bonachea and Nelson Valdes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 161. See also, Besancenot and Löwy, 73.
11. Besancenot and Löwy, 51.