Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 12, 2012

Was Che Guevara a Stalinist?

Filed under: cuba,Latin America,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 11:33 pm

Spain Rodriguez and Che Guevara

Working my way at a leisurely pace through Sam Farber’s egregiously wrongheaded “Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959”, I came across this remarkable comparison between Joseph Stalin’s foreign policy and Che’s:

The second major source of Cuba’s foreign policy was the independent Communist perspective of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who according to his biographers was a self-described admirer of Stalin even after Khrushchev’s revelation of the Russian leader’s crimes in 1956. Guevara was an ally of the old Cuba Communists from 1957 to 1960, a decisive period during which the key divisions about the kind of society that would be built in Cuba were made. But after 1960, Guevara’s views and practices began to differ from those of the USSR and the old Cuban Communists on matters of domestic and foreign policy. The Soviet Union and the old Cuban Communists were supporting the “right-wing Popular Front approaches, which as I earlier indicated, were initially developed in the mid-thirties by the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties involving alliances with forces to their right including the “progressive bourgeoisie.” Guevara’s approach was more similar, although not identical, to the far more intransigent and aggressive policies that Stalin adopted during other periods.

I really don’t want to make this article any longer than it has to be so I will not take apart all the factual and analytical errors contained in this excerpt but limit myself to Farber’s observation about Guevara adopting a policy “more similar” to the “the far more intransigent and aggressive policies that Stalin adopted during other periods.” They say that very observant Muslims can be identified by the appearance of a bruise-like marking on their forehead developed through a lifetime of prayer. I sometimes worry that I will develop the same kind of mark through slapping my forehead from reading such Farber howlers. What in god’s name is this professor emeritus talking about? Stalin’s “aggressive” policies? If this is a reference to the “third period”, then aggressive is hardly the operative term. Instead, imbecilic ultraleftism might obtain. There was nothing “aggressive” about the policy of lumping together National Socialism and “social fascism” (in other words, the German Social Democracy).

An obvious obligation for a scholar writing about Che’s foreign policy would be to examine the Organization of Afro-Asian Solidarity, the Tricontinental, or Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS), three groups that reflected both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s foreign policy outlook. In a 1967 message to the Tricontinental, Guevara said the following:

America, a forgotten continent in the last liberation struggles, is now beginning to make itself heard through the Tricontinental and, in the voice of the vanguard of its peoples, the Cuban Revolution, will today have a task of much greater relevance: creating a Second or a Third Vietnam, or the Second and Third Vietnam of the world.

What in the world does this have to do with Joseph Stalin’s foreign policy (a wonkish term that I only use  to remain consistent with Farber’s Cubanology)? Most people at the time, including members of the Fourth International, recognized this call as a return to the proletarian internationalism of Leon Trotsky (as well as Marx, Engels, and Rosa Luxemburg) even if the practical application of it in Bolivia was poorly thought through.

If you go to the index of Farber’s book, you will find no reference to the Organization of Afro-Asian Solidarity, the Tricontinental, or Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS). As a rule of thumb, anything that inconveniences his ideological agenda gets swept under the rug. Furthermore, despite all his efforts to tarnish Che Guevara as a Stalinist, there is evidence that Farber found the Cuban Communist Party (called the Popular Socialist Party, the PSP) much more “Marxist” than the movement led by Castro and Guevara.

Ironically, although at the beginning of 1959 the PSP was neither popular nor prestigious and Fidel Castro and his Twenty-sixth-of-July movement were monopolizing mass support, the results of the revolutionary process would prove to be much closer to the PSP program than to any other Cuban political group or party.

Last but not least, the PSP was the only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist and therefore stressed the importance of a systematic ideology and program as the basis for the development of strategy and tactics. Its ideology and program were tools used to win ideological support from radicalized Cubans seeking a systematic explanation of the country’s situation. This aspect of the PSP is even more noticeable when contrasted with the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.

“The Cuban Communists in the Early Stages of the Cuban Revolution: Revolutionaries or Reformists?”, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1983), pp. 59-83

I want to call your attention to the use of the terms “program” and “ideology” in the excerpt above. They are a dead giveaway that the author is in the throes of what Marxists call idealism. This is not the idealism of boy scouts but of Plato. It is a philosophy that held sway until the mid-19th century when Marx appropriated materialism as a weapon in the class struggle. For Sam Farber the “positions” of the PSP matter much more than its role in the Cuban class struggle as a conservative enemy of the “putschism” of the young rebels. The irony in all this is that Farber got his political training in Max Shachtman’s YPSL, a group that when he joined in 1961 still had some Trotskyist blood flowing in its increasingly hardening arteries.

In September 2011 Jacobin Magazine published an article by James Bloodworth titled “The Cult of Che” that repeats the slander about Che’s Stalinism.

It was here [in Guatemala after Arbenz was overthrown] that Guevara, in his own words, became a communist, or more specifically, a believer in the quasi-religious doctrine of Stalinism: “At which moment I left the path of reason and took on something akin to faith I can’t tell you even approximately because the path was very long and with a lot of backward steps. ”Jorge Castañeda, in Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, describes how Che, writing to his aunt back in Argentina, had “sworn before a picture of our old, much lamented comrade Stalin that I will not rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated,” signing-off his letters as “Stalin II.”

I have a totally different interpretation of Che’s letter to his aunt. If you were a serious Stalinist in the 1950s, the last thing you would be talking about is seeing “capitalist octopuses annihilated.” The Communist Parties of Latin America were like those everywhere else in the world, committed to class-collaboration. In fact, it was a desire to see these octopuses (do you think that this was the inspiration for Matt Taibbi’s “vampire squid”?) annihilated that drew Che Guevara into the arms of the July 26th Movement despite its failure to adhere to the programmatic points of the PSP. (Now what was it that Karl Marx wrote in a letter to Bracke? Oh, I remember: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”)

Frankly, I would advise the Jacobin Magazine comrades to think twice about publishing articles by people who have given interviews to Norm Geras, the scabrous British professor emeritus and arch-Islamophobe—as James Bloodworth did in June 2012. I am generally not disposed to applying litmus tests, a hallmark of the Trotskyist movement, but if I were, high up on my list would be Norman Geras’s blog. Getting his approval is the kiss of death.

When asked by Geras what he was reading at the time, Bloodworth responded, “Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’m quite embarrassed that I haven’t read this already.” One suspects that if Bloodworth had been asked to name his favorite blog, he might have answered Pam Geller’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

Geras’s last question was: If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? Bloodworth replied: “Christopher Hitchens, Che Guevara, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” If I was sufficiently motivated to do a follow-up with Bloodworth, I might have asked if Che Guevara was going to be the main course or dessert.

As an antidote to these sorts of noxious efflorescence, I can’t recommend Spain Rodriquez’s “Che: a graphic biography” highly enough. Published by Verso in 2008 (edited by the good Paul Buhle), it was sitting on my shelf for the past four years as one in a collection of books I had promised to review.

Spain Rodriguez’s death last week was just the impetus I needed to read the book and pull together some thoughts. For those who knew as little about Spain as I did, there’s an obit by Paul Buhle that should make it obvious why he would have developed a working relationship with the artist:

The whole comix artistic crowd moved to San Francisco around 1970, joining Robert Crumb and a few others already there, part of the acid-rock, post–Summer of Love setting. Underground comix, replicating the old kids-comics format but now in black and white, grew up alongside the underground press, whose reprinting of comix created the market for the books. Crumb was the artist whose work sold the best, in the hundreds of thousands, but Spain was widely regarded as the most political. He was heavily influenced by the most bohemian of the EC comics world, wild man Wallace Wood, whose sci-fi adventures depicted civilizations recovering from atomic war and whose Mad Comics stories assaulted the 1950s commercialization of popular culture. Wood’s dames were also extremely sexy, too overtly sexy for the diluted satire of the later Mad Magazine.

Trashman: Agent of the Sixth International was Rodriguez’s signature saga in these early years, serialized in underground papers, comix anthologies, and eventually collected in comic book form as Subvert Comics. These revolutionaries took revenge on a truly evil American ruling class in assorted ways, many of them violent, but they also had fun and sex, and were subject to many self-satirizing gags, in the process. By the middle 1970s, his work had broadened into more social and historical themes, often with class, sex, and violence highlighting his points. Histories of revolutions and anti-fascist actions (and all their complexities) inspired some of his closest reading of real events, but he had no fixed point on the left-wing scale. He admired and drew about anti-Bolshevist anarchist leader Nestor Makhno also anti-Stalinist Spanish anarchist Durruti, but he also drew about Red Army members facing death fighting the Germans, and so on. (Several of these pieces are now reprinted in Anarchy Comics: The Complete Collection, an anthology from that 1980s series, just published by PM Press.)

I would argue that if Paul had an affinity for Spain, Spain obviously had one for Che who in many ways was the same kind of eclectic rebel. If Che signed a letter to his aunt “Stalin II”, this by no means precluded him carrying around Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” (a gift from Regis Debray) in his knapsack in the Bolivian countryside.

And quite frankly, there is a dotted line between Paul and me and through him, Spain and Che as well. Not long after I had decompressed from 11 years of membership in the Socialist Workers Party, I began to draw away from the sorts of “litmus tests” that people like Farber and Bloodworth were wont to impose. Some fifteen years ago or so I became good cyberfriends with Mark Jones, a Briton who was about as pro-Stalin as you can get. He was even brassy enough to defend Stalin’s purge of the Red Army officers’ corps, a position that by the 1960s was only popular among Hoxhaite circles. But it was our shared belief in the need to confront the environmental crisis that made us political allies. The other stuff was secondary.

Turning now to Spain’s book, the conclusion that you will be left with is that Che Guevara was a man of deep principle whose hatred of injustice guided his every step.

che_spain

This page from early in the book is drawn from “The Motorcycle Diary”. It gives you both a flavor of Spain’s amazing graphic capabilities as well as his insight into what made Che Guevara tick. In the top right Che says farewell to a miner and his wife who he met on his way through Chile. He says, “Even if communists are a danger to ‘decent life’ it seems like the natural longing for something better, a protest against persistent hunger.” That says it all, a protest against persistent hunger.

Despite all attempts to either demonize or sanctify Che Guevara, he was simply a product of his generation. Seeing the exploited and oppressed with his own eyes, either on his father’s plantation or “on the road” in Latin America served as a categorical imperative: you must help make the socialist revolution.

Che Guevara called himself “Stalin II” not because he had conducted a meticulous study of the writings of Leon Trotsky versus Joseph Stalin and decided that the ideas of the latter were more correct. The powerful historical momentum that begun just ten years earlier when the Red Army wiped fascism off the face of the earth was the decisive factor. So was the colonial revolution that was to turn the Congo, Algeria and Vietnam into a maelstrom. Che was not a “Stalinist”. He was simply a servant of history.

One of Karl Marx’s most frequently citations is from the 18th Brumaire:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

The problem with people like Farber and Bloodworth is that they are not interested in historical context. Everything takes place in a vacuum that has more in common with a graduate school political science seminar than the beating heart of the class struggle. Che Guevara arrived at his ideas in the same way that millions of young radicals did in the immediate post-WWII era. That period of history came to an end a long time ago. For the radicals of today we have the obligation to identify the progressive historical forces today that are gathering momentum today and help midwife them to victory. About the best thing you can say about Che is that he rose to the occasion. Let us not succumb to the easy temptation in a period of deep reaction to treat him as our enemy. While no revolutionary leader should be mythologized, the martyrdom of Che Guevara was something that should be respected by each and every one of us no matter our ideology.

The Associated Press Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Bolivian President Pays Tribute to Guevara
By CARLOS VALDEZ

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Evo Morales celebrated the birthday of Che Guevara Wednesday, the first time a top Bolivian leader has paid tribute to the revolutionary who was executed in the Andean nation four decades ago.

Surrounded by Cuban and Venezuelan officials, Morales observed the 78th anniversary of Guevara’s birth, using the occasion to praise his close allies President Fidel Castro of Cuba and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Guevara, an Argentine, launched an armed revolt in 1966 to bring communism to Bolivia after helping lead the 1959 Cuban Revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista and thrust Castro into power.

He waged a guerrilla insurgency for 13 months in Bolivia but was captured and executed by the Bolivian army at age 39.

Morales flew in a helicopter loaned by Venezuela to the small town of La Higuera– the site of Guevara’s execution– 480 miles southeast of La Paz.

Local children and nearby residents blew out a birthday cake with 78 candles representing how old Guevara would be if were alive.

He said in a speech that a decade ago he had a dream that there would be other Cubas in Latin America.

“I wasn’t wrong,” he said. “Now we do have another commander, colleague Chavez.” He also praised Castro’s Cuba, and he said both leader have shown they unafraid of “the empire,” a reference to the United States.

Since taking office in January, Morales has forged close alliances with Cuba and Venezuela, which have flooded Bolivia –South America’s poorest country– with aid.

Morales thanked Venezuela and Cuba for their aid and said he would make Castro a cake for his next birthday made of coca — the leaf from which cocaine is derived.

The coca leaf has traditional and legal uses in Bolivia although the U.S. has long backed its eradication.

21 Comments »

  1. This is bizarre beyond belief.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 13, 2012 @ 1:32 am

  2. I found this very interesting.”Despite all attempts to either demonize or sanctify Che Guevara, he was simply a product of his generation.” “About the best thing you can say about Che is that he rose to the occasion.” I have some of Spain’s panels in my volume of San Francisco underground comix artists. His was a powerful, striking style. I think Che was a man oriented to take action, intuitively, hopefully for “real movement,” and without letting himself be delayed by the theoretical ideal of first mapping out a complete and self-consistent “programme.” I think this is the basis of his continuing Byronic charm.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — December 13, 2012 @ 8:16 am

  3. Agree with practically every word. Keep it up, Louis.

    Really must pick up a copy of the late Spain Rodriguez’ graphic biography of Che, sounds brilliant.

    Comment by sebthered — December 13, 2012 @ 11:14 am

  4. Would you all recommend the John Lee Anderson biography of Che?

    Comment by Pandora — December 13, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

  5. I would recommend it (I have read it) but found the sections dealing with Che’s role in post-triumph Cuba problematic. Anderson tends to support the “Stalinist” version of things unfortunately. But that is to be expected from a liberal. Why socialists in the ISO would is another story of course.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 13, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

  6. I guess I just assumed Anderson was himself a communist since I never heard about the biography serving as red smearing–is that a word? I figure I should learn about the man. What little I “know’ about him I get from the movies starring Benicio del Toro–I find it remarkable a film by an English speaker didn’t go out of its way to demonize Castro–and from the film adaptation of The Motorcycle Diaries. Is there some biography out there that doesn’t go in for the Stalinist stuff?

    Comment by Pandora — December 13, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

  7. This is not a biography but it is a good introduction: http://monthlyreview.org/press/books/pb1771/.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 13, 2012 @ 11:06 pm

  8. Thanks Proyect.

    Comment by Pandora — December 13, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

  9. Interesting for someone like me who knows little or nothing of Stalinism or the Communist Manifesto ~ thank you ~ i like the part that Marx spoke of about the weight of history summarily suffocating a movement. i plan to read more on Marx

    Comment by Darwin26 — December 14, 2012 @ 3:02 am

  10. I found the Communist Manifesto a model of clarity and concision. It’s a great read. I recommend you do what I did: read it in the middle of a mall to take your mind away from the mindless consumerism all around you.

    Comment by Pandora — December 14, 2012 @ 4:31 am

  11. I liked Paco Ignacio Taibo’s biography of Che a lot. One of the best, I think.

    Comment by Thomas Weyts — December 15, 2012 @ 8:04 pm

  12. According to a historian of Cuban Trotskyism, Guevara used to release them from prison and have discussions with at least one of them on the way forward.

    Comment by Jim Monaghan — December 22, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

  13. He used to release who? Trotskyists? On the way forward? Am I misunderstanding or is that a euphemism for on the way to a firing squad? I’m confused here.

    Comment by Pandora — December 22, 2012 @ 8:08 pm

  14. Here is a detailed thesis which in part deals with Guevara. http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fi/cuba/tennent/PhD/contents.html.

    Comment by Jim Monaghan — December 23, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

  15. I can’t possibly read all that but I gave the last section a glance. So Guevara wasn’t killing them out of sport but due to capitulation to the Stalinist apparatus?

    Comment by Pandora — December 23, 2012 @ 8:21 pm

  16. Maybe you know better but aside from a lot opf p[etty harassem,ent there were no Trotskyists kiled in Cuba.Guevara opposed the repression. Read the thesis and don’t use the excuse it was too long.( and you could just do a search for Guevara and read the relevant secftions. I am not saying by the way that Guievara was perfect.

    Comment by Jim Monaghan — December 24, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

  17. Dear god Jim I wasn’t dismissing anything you said. I was simply asking you in good faith. I simply didn’t understand what you meant in your initial post. It seemed to me it might have been a euphemism you used as opposed to what it now appears: that Guevara spoke with Trotskyists about the way forward for the Cuban people.

    Comment by Pandora — December 25, 2012 @ 1:17 am

  18. We are now on the same message. I overreacted to the comment “So Guevara wasn’t killing them out of sport “. The Healyites sectarians used to say things like this. Cuba has its faults, lots of them. But it is not a totally Stalinist State. Likewise Guevara had his faults but killing Trotskyist was not one of them. The isolation of Cuba was the cause of a lot of its problems. Now that South America is not totally dominated by the USA, the situation has changed somewhat.

    Comment by Jim Monaghan — December 25, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

  19. I don’t know much about the man but anyone who moves in communist circles hears about him and his dedication to proletarian revolution. I certainly would hope he wasn’t killing them; as a fellow Latin American we certainly need some symbol or point of reference.

    Comment by Pandora — December 25, 2012 @ 5:51 pm

  20. Spain was a true great, not just among undergrounders, but comic artists generally. He probably crossed paths with others you knew in the 60s downtown left. When I was at MRP, I commissioned him to do a cover for ‘How to Read Karl Marx’, a reissue of Ernst Fischer’s “What Marx Really Said.” It’s classic.

    Comment by Ethan Young — March 13, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

  21. […] Bloodworth used the same talking points as Sam Farber on Cuba. In my article on the twosome titled Was Che a Stalinist, I called attention to Bloodworth’s highly questionable endorsement of a character who […]

    Pingback by James Bloodworth and the real nightmare threatening Venezuela | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 24, 2014 @ 2:20 pm


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