Heresy Story

Scene 7: from Moscow to Havana, 1963-65

The starting scene for describing this intellectual revival of Guevara’s Marxism is set in Moscow and he described it himself in one of the Stenographic recordings of the bi-monthly conversations he held at the Ministry of Industry from 1962 to 1964. Here we are especially interested in some of the recordings of Che’s last year in Cuba as a minister. They are informal but precious materials; even more precious because they have not been re-elaborated or reviewed thus, reflecting Che’s immediate - and by no means diplomatic - thoughts. These recordings were published in 1967 (but Guevara had already been able to see the drafts in 1966) in Vol. VI of the first extremely limited edition (around two hundred copies) of his works, edited by Orlando Borrego (El Che en la Revolución cubana). In Cuba they were never republished, nor ever included in collections of his works and therefore for a long time they could be read above all in editions and translations made abroad: the first were in French, edited by Michael Löwy (b. 1938) and published by Maspero (1932-2015), and in Italian by il Manifesto in 1969 and then in my collection of Scritti scelti [Selected Writings] of Che in 1993. Until they were finally included in the volume of Apuntes, published in Cuba in 2006.

The scene takes place on December 5, 1964 in the Cuban embassy in Moscow where Che is listened to by some fifty Soviet students, but also challenged by some of them regarding his theory of the priority of moral incentives, based on the growth of conscience of workers more than the use of material incentives.

At this point, when (the problems) began to be posed, the confrontation became violent. The Bible - namely the Manual - because unfortunately the Bible here was not the Capital but the Manual. Some points began to be challenged, while things that were dangerously capitalist were also said: it was then that the question of revisionism emerged.

(Apuntes, p. 369).

It is important to point out that the “Manual” ironically referred to here is the Manual of Political Economy of the Academy of Sciences of the Ussr, to which Guevara was to dedicate a whole volume of devastating criticism at the beginning of 1966 and which we will return to.

For now it is important to establish that the atmosphere changed in Moscow with regard to Commander Guevara (considered “glorious” above all for his military exploits and not for his Marxism) and that the criticisms he addressed in the meantime to Soviet economic conceptions left their mark. He is no longer the ultra-Soviet apologist, slavish supporter of the almost metaphysical superiority of dialectical materialism, but an intellectual in a “revisionist” crisis, as he is accused of in Moscow, who has now understood that for the emancipation of the human being “the exact method to do so has not been found in any country and in some cases people have fallen into the extremes that today we call ‘Stalinists’” (September 12, 1964, p. 548).

And since in Moscow no doubt on fundamental questions of this nature is allowed, one can imagine what reaction could have been caused by the negative judgements on Soviet economic management that Che had formulated during the great economic debate. The verdict could not be anything other than the classic damnatio iudicii, propaedeutic to damnatio memoriae: it was clearly “Trotskyism”.

But because I am identified with the budgetary financing system, I get confused with that of Trotskyism. They say that the Chinese are also fractionists and Trotskyists, and they put the San Benito [a penitential garment of the Inquisition (ed.)] even on me.

(p. 370)

And so it was there, precisely in the Soviet Union, that greater clarity could be achieved. Does this mean that it is about revisionism up to Trotskyism, passing through the middle? [...] Rather, Trotskyism emerges from two sides: one (the one that least attracts me) comes from the side of the Trotskyists who say that there is a series of things that Trotsky had already said. I believe only one thing, and it is that one must have the capacity to destroy all the contrary ideas on a given subject or let the ideas express themselves. The opinion according to which they should be destroyed with blows is not an opinion that brings benefits.

(p. 369)

To understand the true Marxist maturation of Che it is essential to read carefully and go into the ideas that are scattered among the stenographic recordings, mixed with a thousand other problems (the operation of factories, problems of workers, polemics of opponents, negative but not yet drastic judgements on the economic ideas of the Soviets). It is not easy to reconstruct the thread running through Guevarian reflection and it is not even possible to summarise it here. I will limit myself to pointing out two references to Marx’s works which have a great qualitative importance for our reflection.

The first concerns the “young Marx”. It was the mid-1960s and in France the stir produced by the great controversy over Marxian humanism (which can be reconstructed starting from the Writings of the young Marx on Philosophy and the Manuscripts of 1844) had not yet died down, both because of the rigidly anti-humanist positions of Althusser (1918-1990) and of the stance taken by Soviet ideologues. Guevara appears clearly fascinated by the controversy and comes out on the side of the humanism of the young Marx. He had already done so in the course of the economic debate, citing it explicitly: he returns to it in the virtually contemporary conversation of December 21, 1963.

He reconstructs the terms of the controversy, admits that the “Hegelian” language of the young Marx is not that of the “mature” Marx (author of Capital), but affirms that the basic Marxian thesis – according to which the development of society corresponds to the development of its economic contradictions in relation to the class struggle – was already contained in the Marx of 1844.

The reconstruction made by Guevara of this starting point acquires a particular value because it leads it back to the Marx of maximum acquired maturity, expressed in the text in which the philosopher of Trier had given his own conception of socialist society and of the transition to it: the Critique of the Gotha Programme. And this is the second important reference to Marx that flows through various conversations (e.g. pp. 270, 309, 311-12).

The attention given by Che to the Marx of 1844 and to the Marx of Critique of the Gotha programme leads him to develop his own personal hobby-horse, namely the importance of the subjective element for Marxism not only during the revolutionary struggle, but also during the transition to socialism, of the construction of the new society and of the new man. According to Guevara, there cannot be communism that does not make Marxian “concerns” with respect to the humanistic nature of revolution its own. Indeed, there can be no revolution if the right role and the right importance are not attributed to the subjective commitment – in the ethical sense – of the worker considered as a class.

This characteristic position of Guevarian Marxism allowed Michael Löwy to speak first of the revolutionary humanism of Che (La pensée de Che Guevara, l970). It was then to be my turn to take up the concept and develop it extensively in my frequently cited 1987 monograph: Che’s entire philosophy or vision of the world can be summed up in this phrase - revolutionary humanism.

Over time I have become increasingly convinced that any attempt to place Che’s theoretical heritage outside of his personal and original revolutionary humanism makes it practically impossible to explain his behaviour: not only of his relationship which was experienced existentially and with extreme coherence between theory and praxis, but not even his ethics of socialism and personal commitment. From this point of view, a commitment that was very Sartre-like, and it is no coincidence that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was able to recognise great personal and intellectual qualities in him as early as 1960 (Visit to Cuba).

In conversations and in other texts, Guevara also takes on the Marxian problem of alienation which, as we know, was a fundamental element of Marx’s criticism of Hegel and, in my personal opinion, the main element of philosophical differentiation from Hegelian statism for an entire initial phase, and of political differentiation for the rest of Marx’s life.

While it is not part of my reflection, it is interesting to recall that Guevara contrasts the idea of transition to Marx’s socialism (starting from the relationship between given subjective consciousness and the process of self-emancipation from the mechanisms of capitalist alienation) with the uncertainties and real turning points that he rightly attributes to Lenin without, however, giving the question the importance it deserves.

During the conversations, Guevara talks about his change of judgement with respect to Lenin. The vulgate of “Marxism-Leninism” no longer belongs to his baggage of ideas, even if the process that led him to this view is in a sense historically reversed: Guevara does not like the Nep, because he does not like the idea that elements of the market, methods of capitalist functioning, are reintroduced in an economy of transition to socialism. He does not accept it for the Ussr and Cuba of his days, and retrospectively does not accept it for the Russia of the 1920s. Hence a drastic review of the judgement about Lenin, which is now presented in conflict with the essence of Critique of the Gotha Programme (pp. 310-12, 316, 324-6), or even with his State and Revolution, previously admired and cited by Guevara.

Many of the ideas expressed in the conversations at the Ministry of Industry are reflected in the articles written almost simultaneously for the great economic debate. The discussion took place roughly between the beginning of 1963 and the end of 1964. The interventions appeared freely in several Cuban journals and not only the main leaders of each sector of the economy took part in the discussion - from industry to banks, with the sole exception of Fidel Castro who did not take part - but also some famous European economists such as Charles Bettelheim (1913-2006) and Ernest Mandel (1923-1995) without forgetting the importance attributed to that discussion by the Monthly Review of Paul Sweezy (1910-2004) and Leo Huberman (1903-1968). The best presentation of that historical discussion has been given in O debate econômico em Cuba by Luiz Bernardo Pericás (b. 1969).

An additional note should be added regarding the sources used by Che to become familiar with the personal story of Marx and Engels. He certainly read part of the correspondence between the two which had been available for some time in Spanish, but his favourite source was The Life of Marx by Franz Mehring (1846-1919). He cites it expressly on more than one occasion. For example, in the conversation of October 2, 1964 (p. 325) when he affirms the need to publish the famous biography (which he describes as “moving”) in Cuba and emphasises in particular the importance that Mehring attributed to Marx’s polemic with Ferdinand Lassalle (1825- 1864). Unfortunately Che does not develop the theme and it is a real pity because we could have better understood his attitude towards the statist conception of socialism, on which I have always had doubts that Guevara was a convinced adept.

On the other hand, I have no evidence that Guevara could have read the monumental biography dedicated to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels by Auguste Cornu (1888-1981), the first half of the Spanish translation of which was published by the Instituto del Libro in Havana in an enormous volume of over 700 pages only in 1967, although - I have been told - on explicit request made by Che before leaving.

But Guevara did something more than simply recommend Mehring’s biography. He made it a real compendium, which can be read as “Síntesis biográfica de Marx y Engels”, either in its natural location – within the Notes as a chapter endowed with a propaedeutic theoretical function with respect to the subsequent polemic with the Soviets – or as a banally commercial operation (by Ocean Press), that is as a separate booklet, devoid of notes and information explaining the reasons for such an extrapolation: it is a further damage which is added to the many others done to the possibility of a scientific edition of Che’s Works. In this case, the Guevarian project of actualising the heritage of Marx and Engels aimed at the focus of the controversy with the Soviets has been also hit.

Marxist Story

Scene 8: Prague, 1966

At this point we must devote attention to this polemic, trying first of all to imagine the scene: after the lengthy confinement in the Cuban ambassador’s house in Dar es Salaam, there is a drastic change of continent – from Africa to the heart of old Europe; a large villa on the outskirts of Prague; the semi-clandestine coexistence (Cuban-Czechoslovak “Operation Manuel”) with some of the closest companions (“Pombo” [b. 1940] and “Tuma” [1940-1967]); chess games; study and writing.

Che remained there from March until July 1966, when he returned to Cuba to prepare for Bolivia, which in the meantime was definitively decided as a political goal, having abandoned during summer the previously chosen objective – namely, Peru. (All of this has been reconstructed and documented in detail by Humberto Vázquez Viaña, Una guerrilla para el Che). And there Guevara writes the work that is used to define “The Prague Notebooks” (but published as Apuntes críticos a la Economía política [Critical notes on political economy], although Che’s target was really the Manual of Political Economy of the Ussr Academy of Sciences). An enormous work of recompilation of texts (starting from the biographical compendium of Marx-Engels mentioned above), with long pieces hand-copied from works especially by Marx-Engels and Lenin, but also by Mao Zedong. It seems right, however, to add to this work of anthology recompilation also the passages that Guevara copies in a separate booklet, in the same months or in a period a little later which, unfortunately, we have not been able to identify better. This booklet, together with the “Green book” with poetic passages, was to reappear among his personal items sold in Bolivia after his death: in this case bought by the Feltrinelli publishing house, but without further specification.

The booklet was published in a very bad edition by the same Italian publishing house with errors and a ridiculous title (Before Dying. Notes and Reading Notes). It should however be taken seriously because it contains excerpts from The Marxists by C. Wright Mills, from the Works of Marx-Engels, of Lenin and Stalin, from Lukács, from the already mentioned M.A. Dinnik and from various works by Trotsky. From a quantitative point of view, Trotsky’s passages prevail heavily over all the other authors mentioned and the passage taken from his History of the Russian Revolution is accompanied by the following comment:

It is a fascinating book, but it is impossible to make a criticism because it is important to consider that the historian is also protagonist of events. However, it sheds light on a whole series of events of the great revolution that had been overshadowed by myth. At the same time, it makes isolated affirmations the validity of which is still absolute today. Ultimately, if we neglect the personality of the author and stick to the book, this should be considered a source of primary importance for study of the Russian revolution.

(p. 94)

The Cuban government succeeded in preventing publication of The Prague Notebooks until 2006 (the Apuntes [the Notes]), but then had to yield not only to pressure exerted by the International Guevara Foundation, but also because some salient parts critical of the Ussr had already appeared in 2001 in the book by Orlando Borrego, Che, el camino del fuego. And among the passages reported and commented by the former Sugar Minister was the prologue by Che (“Necesidad de este book” [Necessity of ths book]) in which, in addition to the many Guevarian statements inspired by Marxism that dismissed the Soviet claim to march towards socialism, the following lapidary statement referring to the Ussr stood out:

La superestructura capitalista fue influenciando cada vez en forma más marcada las relaciones de producción y los conflictos provocados por la hibridación que significó la Nep se están resolviendo hoy a favor de la superestructura: se está regresando al capitalismo” [“The capitalist superstructure has come to influence production relations in an ever more marked form, and the conflicts caused by hybridisation that Nep meant are being resolved today in favour of the superstructure: there is a return to capitalism”.]

(Apuntes, p. 27; Borrego, p. 382) [emphasis by Che (ed.)].

A similar prophecy formulated in the same months in which Fidel Castro decided to definitively enter the Soviet bloc may perhaps leave one indifferent nowadays, since everyone can see how it has actually come true. At the time, however, it implied a great intellectual courage by a sort of deputy head of state, legendary commander for the Soviet military world, who had matured the second phase of his youthful adherence to Marxism in prone admiration of the Ussr as the homeland of socialism. Any analysis of Che’s thought that does not take into account this profound transformation and instead presents a unilateral and stable vision over time of his economic conceptions does not deserve the slightest consideration. But unfortunately, for many years the books dedicated to Guevara that offer such a monochromatic and therefore deeply erroneous vision of his thought have represented almost the rule in the publishing output of Cuba or by authors related to it. I could mention Cuban, Chilean, Italian, American [Unitedstatians] etc. examples, but it would be an ungenerous way of being pitiless with the intellectual poverty of an entire generation which in the past I called “Latin-American nomenklatura [nomenclature]” and which is now finally beginning to die out.

The Notes are a very demanding work from a theoretical point of view and should be examined piece by piece, given that each paragraph refers critically to another paragraph of the notorious Soviet Manual. The language is very technical and demonstrates a new familiarity with the basic texts of Marxism: mostly Capital. The references to Lenin also abound, cited in part positively and in part to challenge certain decisions taken after the end of war communism (a topic Guevara does not speak about, even if one might presume that, generally speaking, he tended to favour it). It is evident, however, that Che totally ignored the “heretical” literature dedicated to Soviet Russia since when Lenin himself was alive. Of this great theoretical laboratory, marked by famous names of Marxism and beyond, Guevara had no hint and this was his great theoretical limit.

However, it must also be said that Che lived only 39 years, many of them travelling or fighting arms in hand for his ideals.

With regard to Notes, what interests us most is that there is wide recourse to Critique of the Gotha Programme, both as direct references, and above all as adherence to its substance. This work of the last Marx is commonly considered as the maximum concentration of his utopian vision (as I have also interpreted it in my introduction to a bilingual Italian edition of 2008) and there is no doubt that even for Che this is its most characteristic meaning. Let us not forget that a year earlier (March 1965), returning from the trip to Africa, he had delivered to the Marcha magazine in Montevideo his utopian text par excellence – Socialism and Man in Cuba – in which the inspiration from that famous text by Marx was clearly felt.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the manuscript of a study programme is also included in The Prague Notebooks (“Plan tentativo” [Draft plan]). We have already recalled two other study plans drafted in the same two-year period, and this is the second in order of time. It is also the most organic and detailed, given that it has the form of a general index for a book to be written, a sort of scheme for a great monograph on the social history of humanity: from pre-capitalist production modes to imperialism, passing through slave societies and feudalism; from the Marxian categories of interpretation of capitalist development (including a broad summary of Capital) to a definition of the economy of the transitional phase (the whole of the third part); to finally arrive at the problem of building socialism (fourth and last part). Death was to prevent him from carrying out this ambitious project, about which he certainly continued to think during the guerrilla war in Bolivia, as demonstrated by the readings plan mentioned at the beginning and which is now confirmed as a series of bibliographic notes drawn up month by month as part of a wish list of readings to be completed.

Published too late to have any influence on the theoretical training of the new generations of Cuban intellectuals, Notes will remain forever in the history of Marxism as proof of the highest level of understanding of Marxian theoretical heritage achieved by Guevara. But they will also be considered as the most complete testimony of his lucid capacity of analytical prediction in relation to a political world – his political world – which shone for dullness of mind if not real blindness with regard to the imminent fate of the Soviet bureaucratic regime.


Scene 9: Vallegrande, October 9, 2017

The scene is composite, polychrome and multiple-sound. On the large clearing for what in the past was to become the Vallegrande airport in Bolivia, some thousands of people convened by the government of President Evo Morales are gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Che’s fall in combat. There are many multi-coloured flags, but mostly red with the silhouette of Korda’s famous photo, Andean and Caribbean music, and the banners of political, trade union and cultural associations of various Latin American origins. In the days that preceded, scholars of Guevarism from various parts of the world had spoken: the author came from Italy but, incredibly, was the only one from Europe.

“Che lives” is the slogan most repeated, but the church-shaped building erected on the site where the bones of Guevara were found is there to testify to the contrary. And that tomb is mentally associated with the Cuban Mausoleum of Santa Clara, inside which the atmosphere is even more strongly mystical and religious according to a Cuban hagiographic tradition, already started in October 1967. For those wishing to deepen or extend the discourse on this evolution of the figure of Guevara – anti-materialistic (hence anti-Marxian), mystical and popular-irrational – a fascinating research has been conducted for years by a professor emeritus of art history at the University of California (Los Angeles): David Kunzle (b. 1936), Chesucristo. The fusion in image and word of Che Guevara and Jesus Christ.

Che is dead, of that there is no doubt. But through the reflection conducted so far what is dead is above all his relationship with Marx. And this did not happen fifty years after La Higuera, but while the famous Commander was still alive. In fact, after the wealth of theoretical references contained in The Prague Notebooks, no further reflections by Che on issues related to Marxism can be found. We have the titles of the works that he would have liked to read or read again at the end of the Bolivian Diary, but the names of Marx, Lenin or other famous Marxists are totally absent from that famous diary. Trotsky is the exception but only because that day (July 31, 1967) Guevara complains of the loss of one of his books. The reader can easily verify all this because since 1996 there has also been a name index for the Bolivian Diary: I put it together for the version I edited of the Illustrated Bolivian Diary and it is the only one existing in the world. And I have always wondered whether this incredible shortcoming – namely that there exists no edition of the Diary (not even in Cuba) with a proper index of names – is not a symptom of the theoretical disinterest in the last ideological evolution of Che.

If in the first years after the defeat in Bolivia the lack of interest could have had political reasons – since Guevara was totally indigestible for the capitalist countries, but even more so for the countries of the alleged “real socialism” (including China and indeed in pride of place given that there news was ever even given of his death) – as time passed there were other reasons that could explain why the Guevara/Marx union lost much of its potential theoretical attraction.

First, there was the fact that Che’s polemic against the Ussr had lost much of its interest and its subversive potential after the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991 (and yet in Cuba it had long been forbidden to talk about it ever since the end of the 1960s). It should also be added that the Guevarian reflection on the theme of alienation (whether Marxian, Sartrian or humanist) was soon overwhelmed by the birth of the myth of his person and the hijacking of it by the mass society of the spectacle.

This reabsorption of the figure of Che which could not avoid sweeping away his relationship with Marxism has been magnificently described in one of the most beautiful books written on contemporary “Guevarism”, that is, on how the world of culture and entertainment lives on and exploits his figure so many years after his death: see Michael Casey (b. 1967), Che’s afterlife. The legacy of an image.

If the communist and internationalist connotation of his political action, the fascination of his rebellion against any conformism, the ethical value of his renunciation of the management of State power (a unique case in the history of the twentieth century), and his original theorisation of the theory-priaxis relationship that I have defined as “revolutionary humanism” all have been lost, could his relationship with Marx have possibly survived?

Of course not.

All that remains is to close our remake of the old film with a famous aphorism by Woody Allen:

Marx is dead, Guevara is dead ... and I’m not feeling too well myself.