By pure chance, the second decisive influence on Ernesto Guevara’s adherence to Marxism was also Peruvian, in the person of a young economist with unmistakable Inca traits, a militant of the left wing of Apra (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana [American Popular Revolutionary Alliance] founded in 1924 in Mexico by Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre [1895-1979]), a refugee in Guatemala and politically active in the world of the exiles: Hilda Gadea Acosta (1925-1974), Che’s first wife and mother of Hildita (1956-1995). Her personal story as a woman first long courted, then wife and mother, as ‘professor’ of Marxism for Che, as a companion of struggle in Guatemala in 1954 and in Mexico until almost the launching of Granma in 1956, intertwined with years that were fundamental for Ernesto’s theoretical itinerary: the years in which his definitive adherence to Marxism took place, primarily for ideological reasons but also for political tasks and those related to struggle. A perfect union of theory and praxis which was difficult to find exemplified in the Manuals or in other famous exponents of Marxism-Leninism.

They were ‘decisive years’ for the birth of this figure which has now become one of the most emblematic of 20th century revolutionary Marxism, as the title of the book rightly recalls (Años Decisivos, 1972): the book that Hilda decided to write to recount that human and political story. Thanks to that decision (suffered, as I can personally testify), it has left us an irreplaceable, theoretically elaborate, sincere and reliable testimony, enriched by the further merit of describing also from within, thus in psychological terms, such an important ideological transformation of Ernesto Guevara.

In addition to the task of recounting the Guatemalan-Mexican story of Che, Hilda had, however, taken on another task to be fulfilled, given that her brother Ricardo Gadea (b. 1939, leader of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria [MIR], Revolutionary Left Movement) was in prison in Peru, together with other famous political prisoners such as Hugo Blanco (b. 1934), Héctor Béjar (b. 1935) and Elio Portocarrero Ríos, who were always at risk of their lives. Given that in Italy there were some well-known personalities from the world of culture (composer Luigi Nono [1924-1990], painter Ennio Calabria [1937] and others) willing to engage in a campaign of denunciation, Hilda chose Italy to give life to a Committee of Solidarity with Peruvian political prisoners, spending long periods there between 1969 and 1971. The year before in Cuba (where I had been a guest of the Government from July to December 1968) a strong understanding and beautiful friendship had been created between the two of us, so she asked me to help her set up and direct the Committee. All this was made easier by the fact that in Rome Hilda lived in the house of my sister Rossana (b. 1940), where I also stayed for a while because I did not yet have a permanent home. And it was there that she began to write the book of memories on Che and it was me who, through a fortuitous series of events, was the first or one of the first ‘readers’ to whom Hilda recounted what could later be read in her book.

Everything that happened between Guatemala and Mexico is now a known story, recounted in the main biographies; but in the late 1960s Hilda was the only direct and reliable source of Che’s Marxist training, given that she had been his ‘teacher’: this was able to happen because she was more prepared than Ernesto, having a degree in economics, and above all because she had an anti-orthodox Marxist training with roots in Apra (therefore more genuinely Latin American) and not Soviet (that is, Stalinist and dogmatic).

I have already provided an account of those ‘Roman’ conversations with Hilda in my book of 1987 Che Guevara. Pensiero e politica dell’utopia (Che Guevara. Pensamiento y política de la utopía), and it is not the case to repeat here. It may be interesting, however, to mention the titles or names of the authors that the two read, commented on and discussed (sometimes even animatedly as Che wrote in a letter to the family): Tolstoy, Gorky, Dostoevsky, Kropotkin (Memoirs of a Revolutionary), Engels (Antidühring, Origins of the Family, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, etc.), Lenin (What Is To Be Done?, Imperialism) and of course various works by Marx, in addition to The Communist Manifesto and The Capital. About the latter, Hilda wrote:

“... and The Capital by Marx, with which I was more familiar for my studies of economics” (p. 36)].

Wanting to summarise Hilda Gadea’s point of view regarding that phase of intense theoretical sharing and fresh and enthusiastic Guevarian adherence to Marxism, I must say that in the conversations she had with me she placed the emphasis on two aspects which were then indeed crucial and which time has instead dispersed among the mists of the theoretical divergences that are now surpassed and obsolete.

In the first place, Hilda kept alive and transmitted to Ernesto the conception that the revolution in the backward, dependent or developing countries cannot rely on the national bourgeoisie, neither as such – that is collectively in historical concretions of certain dependent capitalist classes (those which when I talked with her I referred to as ‘sub-imperialistic’) – nor on their allegedly progressive sectors. These sectors appeared inevitably marked by class interests that ultimately would have led them to clash with the processes of real social emancipation, both in the rural world and with the urban proletariat. About Hilda and the credit of Guevara, it must be recognised that he never failed in this fundamental political intuition derived from the best theoretical tradition of 20th century revolutionary Marxism.

Secondly, she tried to win Ernesto over to a radical critique of Soviet Marxism, both for the responsibilities it had in the past for the degenerative process of the October revolution, and for its contemporary policy of convergence with imperialism in maintenance of the global status quo. It is true, however, that Hilda harboured illusions about Chinese communism, and at the time the Ussr-China conflict was a burning topic. We will see that Guevara will not always listen to her on this double aspect of a single international reality born in Yalta and will go through oscillations in favour of and against Soviet Marxism, for and against so-called ‘Maoism’, unfortunately losing life before arriving at a superior synthesis of both these refusals.

But we will talk about this later.

On the commitment Ernesto put into the study of Marxism in the years of Guatemala and Mexico (1954-56) we also have three testimonies of his friends or future companions on the expedition to Cuba. Mario Dalmau de la Cruz, a Cuban exiled in Guatemala after having participated in the attack on the Moncada Barracks, talks about it (Ernesto “had read a whole Marxist library”! in Granma of October 29, 1967). Darío López talks about it and tells us that it was Che who chose the Marxist works in the library of the training camp for those taking part in the Granma expedition and that the Mexican police would seize (in Granma of October 16, 1967).

And it is talked about by Argentine Ricardo Rojo (1923-1996), the travelling companion who wrote the first highly contested biography of Guevara and who invented the famous phrase erroneously attributed to Che (“Hay que endurecerse, pero sin perder la ternura jamás” [One has to grow hard but without ever losing tenderness]). Rojo informs us that thanks to the friendship with Arnaldo Orfila Reynal (1897-1998), the Argentine who ran the largest publishing company in Mexico (Fondo de Cultura Económica – FCE), Guevara could put himself to selling books and therefore had access to many works that otherwise he would not have been able to buy:

“The classics of Marxism, the collection of the works of Lenin, texts relating to the military strategy of the Spanish Civil War passed before Guevara’s greedy eyes during the night, and in the morning they returned to the leather folder with which they visited offices and private houses” (Mi amigo el Che, p. 87).

The director of FCE provided Che with the three volumes of The Capital and – whether he had read them in full or not, given the limited time available and the difficulties of study that they involved – he found himself within a few months giving lessons to Cubans of the 26th of July Movement on Marxism and Marx. The latter now jokingly called by him ‘San Carlos’, ironically referring to the ‘heroes’ of the Holy Family.

Ernesto communicates his new commitment in a somewhat coded letter sent to his mother on June 17, 1955. And similarly, he writes to the beloved aunt Beatriz Guevara Lynch on January 8, 1956:

“... I often read Saint Charles and his disciples, I dream of going to study the cortisone [the countries beyond the border (ed.)] with one of these French girls who know everything ...”.

The theme of ‘San Carlos’ appears in various other letters of the period sent to loved ones: on April 15, 1956 to his father; between August and September to his mother; towards October to Tita Infante (“assiduous reader of Carlitos and Federiquitos and others ‘itos’”); again in October to his mother (“Now St Charles is primordial, is the axis, and will be in the years when the spheroid allows me in to its outermost layer”).

There can be no doubt, therefore, that while adherence to Marxism was initiated in conversations with Hugo Pesce, it was actually built with the avalanche of readings carried out in Guatemala and Mexico, partly under the guidance of Hilda Gadea, in part under the pressure of events and new political commitments including the military training given by the Spanish Civil War general Alberto Bayo y Giroud (1892-1967), his arrest and Mexican prison, and final preparation for the Granma expedition.

In between there was also ‘discovery’ of the class struggle, the real, armed and mass struggle, which was worker in social composition and demands: it was the Bolivian revolution that started in 1952 and which Guevara experienced as a direct witness in the summer of 1953. And this decisive experience should also be seen as one of the elements that won Guevara over to Marxism, above all to a characteristic and more authentic conception, for which the commitment in practice should never have been separated from the theoretical elaboration. However, on the importance of the first Bolivian experience of the young Ernesto, one can only refer to other works.

The same applies to the experience of the failed revolution of Jacobo Árbenz (1913-1971) in Guatemala: an event in which Guevara saw his first true revolutionary dream frustrated and in which he actively participated in a mass struggle for the first time. Disillusioned by the conciliatory and submissive behaviour of the local communist party, the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (PGT) [Guatemalan Party of Labour] he drew up a negative balance of that experience in his first political article. He also blocked his adherence to the party he was about to join, having understood that it was not enough to call oneself ‘Marxist’ to actually be so: his distrust towards the party form as such began from that moment. In the course of his intense political life as a fighter for the cause of the revolution he was not to join any party that was really such. Instead, he was a member and active member of the M26-7 and of its armed expression (the Exército Rebelde) as long as this movement survived. In fact, it is known that Guevara left Cuba before the constitution of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) was formalised and the October 1965 designation of its Central Committee of which Che was never part.