by Mark, Detroit
(from Communist Voice #14, August 10, 1997)
. Often activists think by supporting militant action they can shove to the side the theoretical confusion and important controversies that are pervasive in the movement today. Dealing with contending political-theoretical views is often seen as just so much useless bickering that is holding back struggle against the oppressors. But even where groups are waging the armed struggle, having clear theoretical views is vital. Yes, militant mass movements, armed or otherwise, should be given every support. Revolution is the only means to liberate the world's toilers. But it is precisely for the sake of building the revolutionary movement that we must look beyond whether a group is using militant means of struggle. Just because a trend fights militantly does not mean it necessarily has a clear idea of how to bring an end to the exploitation of the working masses, or that the changes it envisions even aim at that. Nor does it automatically follow that armed struggles have a sober appraisal of what to expect from the various class forces in relation to their immediate demands and ultimate goals. In fact, it is often the case that revolutionary work has little or nothing to do with focusing one's immediate efforts on developing armed struggle. Indeed, when the armed struggle is undertaken without a correct appraisal of how much participation and sympathy it will get from the masses it usually leads to disastrous setbacks.
. The legacy of Che Guevara provides an example of why revolutionary theory, and not just a commitment to the armed struggle, has to be taken seriously. This example has particular relevance today, because there is something of a Che revival going on. For one thing, a major campaign invoking Che's name has been undertaken by the Castro regime in Cuba. This campaign has the purpose of covering over the fact that for decades there has been nothing revolutionary about the Cuban government, which is in the midst of transforming their oppressive state-capitalist system more along the lines of private capitalism. They are using Che's name to cloak their system in "communist" garb while they ram austerity measures down the throats of the Cuban masses.
. Despite the fact that the Cuban revolution died long ago, there is no doubt that the Cuban revolution of the 1950s was a progressive struggle and that Che exhibited personal bravery in this revolution and other struggles. As well, Che was adept at expressing the heroism of the guerrilla fighters and eloquently proclaimed many high ideals about liberating humankind from exploitation and oppression. Because of this, Che continues to inspire activists with the idea of self-sacrificing struggle on behalf of the downtrodden.
. But today's promotion of Che generally avoids seriously examining the fact that Che's views have not provided a path to achieve the noble ideals he proclaimed. Instead, since the mid-60s, Guevarism has often been promoted as an alleged alternative to the bankrupt policies of the phony "communist" parties led by the state-capitalist leaders of the former Soviet Union. These revisionist parties mutilated Marxism into formulas justifying reformist reconciliation between the exploiters and the exploited. In line with this, in countries where a powerful revolutionary movement and/or the armed struggle was breaking out, they worked to tone them down. In much of the 60s, although the leadership in Cuba was already heavily tied to Soviet revisionism -- which they wrongly considered to be socialism -- they were still interested in promoting the virtues of armed struggle in Latin America and elsewhere. Che was the most "out-front" spokesperson for this position among the top Cuban leaders. But despite this contradiction with Soviet revisionist views, Che could offer no coherent alternative to these views, had great illusions in Soviet revisionism, and at times even denounced the efforts to expose Soviet revisionism.
. Thus, while Che has inspired many activists about revolution in general, the realization of those
high ideals requires rejecting Che's views as a viable revolutionary doctrine. Moreover, to the
extent that Che and others have paraded his views as communist theory, they have undermined
Marxism-Leninism, the most valuable guide to revolutionary action yet devised.
"Focoism": the mythological role of small guerrilla bands
. One of the best-known legacies of Che is his views on armed guerrilla struggle. This is a form of struggle that has proved valuable under certain conditions. It played an important role in the Cuban revolution. But Che, Castro and the Cuban leadership of the mid-60s created a whole mythology about the role of small guerrilla bands ("focos"). Much of this mythology was codified in the theories put forward by the French intellectual Regis Debray in his book Revolution within the revolution? which was pushed heavily by the Cuban regime at that time.This does not mean that every formulation of Debray was endorsed by Che or Castro. As well, Debray's conclusions were not always based on an accurate understanding of what had happened in Cuba. That aside, there is little doubt that generally Debray's work represents a semi-official theory approved by the Cuban leadership at that time.
. According to "foco" theory, the creation of small guerrilla bands in the countryside was not merely a useful form of struggle appropriate at certain times and under certain conditions, but was the only task worthy of the attention of revolutionary activists in Latin America. Some day other types of organization might be needed, but that would have to wait until the guerrilla bands themselves organized them.
. One of the underlying premises of this theory was that the establishment of the guerrilla focos would themselves create the conditions for an insurrection. About the only precondition Che recognized as necessary for starting the armed struggle was that a country have a government which relied on dictatorial methods. As for a country with a bourgeois-democratic government, Che apparently did not see what revolutionary work meant in such a situation. In Che's theorizing, either there was armed struggle against a dictatorial rule or there was peaceful work within a reformist framework.
. Such rigid formulas are fairly useless, however. The mere existence of a dictatorial regime is not sufficient grounds to decide that a successful armed insurrection can be launched. For instance, it ignores the "minor" matter of whether or not there is a high tide of struggle or if the revolutionary activists have sufficient influence and organization among the masses to carry off such types of actions. Under conditions when not only the armed struggle, but mass organizing in general is illegal, finding ways to develop varied forms of illegal organization of the masses (underground political groups, strikes, demonstrations, etc. ) is of the utmost importance and requires great determination and courage. Moreover, just because legal avenues of struggle may be very restricted does not mean that such forms can be ignored. Nor does the existence of a parliamentary regime preclude an intense class struggle, fierce clashes, militant (and sometimes armed) tactics, and the need to provide revolutionary class orientation even in relatively peaceful times.
. The "foco" theory's lack of concern for carefully evaluating the objective conditions in a country
was reflected in its downplaying of political organizing among the exploited. Che and Debray
spread the dogma that the universal pattern for struggle was that the armed struggle must first
develop in the countryside. (1) Yet Debray went out of his way to belittle political work and
organizing among the peasantry in support of the revolution and the armed units. He mocked
efforts of other Latin American guerrillas who attempted such things. In Debray's view, the
guerrillas should basically avoid the peasants until such time as they made the surrounding region
militarily secure. Then, organizing among the peasantry could begin. Thus, he ignored the
inherent military weakness of an armed band without popular support. Che and Debray based
their views on the armed struggle on the assumption that revolutionary conditions were
imminent, yet these "revolutionary" conditions were such that it was considered premature to
make an approach toward the peasant masses! (2)
Guevarism and proletarian organization
. Even less of a priority was organizing the working class. The Guevarist guerrilla theory did not see revolutionary potential among the urban proletariat. Che (like Fidel) theorized that revolutionary struggle was doomed to defeat in the city. Meanwhile he argued that armed guerrillas in the countryside were the proletarian force, having allegedly become so through a guerrilla existence. (3) Debray agreed and considered the movement in the cities to inevitably be riddled with corruption and "bourgeois. " Elaborating on this, Debray argued that either there was the armed struggle in the countryside, or the political corruption of "obsessive pursuit of alliances . . . from which the ruling classes have so far reaped all the benefits . . . unity at any price, regardless of revolutionary principles and interests. . . ". (4)
. They rejected the idea that a revolutionary proletarian party was vital in organizing the revolutionary struggle. To some extent this was a reaction to the actual corruption of the allegedly "communist" parties that were part of the Soviet revisionist trend. But revulsion at the antics of those betraying proletarian principles cannot be an argument against a truly revolutionary workers' party. Debray and Che talked about a continental socialist revolution in Latin America. But these self-proclaimed Marxists didn't recognize that the socialist uprising is the culmination of a high tide of the workers' class struggle. Che and Debray paid homage to the bravery exhibited by workers in some powerful class battles in Latin America, but did not see this as evidence of the potential revolutionary power of the workers. Instead they considered the workers' struggles as basically futile and reformist.
. That focoist theory did not focus on the workers reflected the fact that this stand was largely an attempt to turn into general laws the petty-bourgeois views that dominated the leadership of the Cuban revolution. Castro's July 26th Movement, the main revolutionary front in the revolution, was not a socialist movement. Its ultimate goals did not go beyond parliamentary democracy, modest social reforms, and a relationship with the U. S. on terms more favorable to the domestic exploiters. It was not oriented toward the class struggle nor was it opposed to capitalism as such. Hence, while the July 26 Movement had some organization among the workers, it was limited to the needs of the moment of the petty-bourgeois leadership and their ideas of a reformed capitalism.
. The fact that after a couple of years in power the Castroite leadership supposedly embarked on the path of socialism did not mean the end of their petty-bourgeois outlook. Genuine socialism cannot be built unless the workers are mobilized to be the masters of the new society. Instead, Castro relied on a bureaucratic apparatus where the workers merely took orders from Castro's clique. Despite carrying out some reforms helpful to the masses, the basis for a new type of class rule over the toilers was created. The type of workers' initiative and organization that would be needed if the proletariat was to put its stamp on the revolutionary process was not in the plans of the Castro leadership. The petty-bourgeois outlook was reborn in pseudo-communist colors.
. Despite theorizing against urban movements, the guerrilla struggle in Cuba was in fact supported from the cities and Castro's July 26th movement had organization there. But as the petty-bourgeois leadership of the July 26th movement relied on a coalition with various bourgeois forces who were prone to curtailing the revolution and using it to place themselves in power, and as the allegedly "communist" PSP had an overall reformist orientation, it was not surprising that that particular urban movement proved lacking in various ways. An example of this problem was the attempted general strike in April 1958. Castro agreed with the urban wing of his movement on attempting a general strike. It was not well-considered or organized, failed to materialize, and the urban underground suffered heavily at the hands of Batista's repressive apparatus. Some pro-Castro Cuban sources claim that the ill-conceived strike was pushed by bourgeois figures in the urban wing of the July 26th Movement who thought they could force a coup that would propel themselves to power. They argue that Castro felt a lot of pressure to go along with this because these bourgeois elements could funnel lots of funds to the Movement.Yet the theoretical conclusions drawn from this were mainly opposition to stronger organization in the cities. But such a conclusion does not make sense. The solution is not theorizing against the movement in the cities, but in building revolutionary proletarian organization which seeks the most resolute struggle and is guided by the most thorough-going revolutionary perspective.
. Such conflicts between Castro's guerrilla forces in the countryside and the urban wing of the
July 26th movement were also the basis of the idea that armed guerrilla bands could carry out all
the functions of a revolutionary political party, which was, therefore, not necessary. Again, this
theorizing missed that in Cuba the urban movement, whatever its shortcomings, was not
organized from the hills of the Sierra, but in the cities itself. The organization of the proletariat
and urban poor cannot be carried out by isolated guerrilla bands. Moreover, since the focoists
belittle proletarian organization, political parties, other forms of struggle besides guerrilla bands,
don't see the need to seriously evaluate the conditions, etc. , there is nothing much left of their
party concept except armed bands. As well, if the proletariat is to unleash all its potential
strength, its organization cannot be left in the hands of reformist or radical petty-bourgeois
trends. Theories that reduce the party concept to armed guerrilla bands do not eliminate the need
for organization in the cities and among the workers in particular. Railing against a proletarian
political party and neglecting the class struggle in the cities in general, does not eliminate the
armed guerrillas need to have support from the cities. Rather, it pushes the guerrillas to rely on
the bourgeois or petty-bourgeois trends in the cities. It's not surprising then that in practice,
"foco" theory often winds up forcing the armed units to rely on the corrupt forces the theory
purports to avoid.
Che in Bolivia: focoism in practice
. Che puts his views into practice with his attempt to set up "focos" in Bolivia in 1966-67. The results were tragic. Che's diary of the events admits that the bands of several dozen guerrillas were unable to garner support from the local peasants. Meanwhile, after a few minor military successes by the guerrillas, the Bolivian armed forces, with training and support from the U. S. , were able to corner the guerrillas and then brutally wiped them out. Che was captured alive and then murdered in cold blood. Debray, who was summoned to the guerrilla focos, was earlier captured when he tried to leave the guerrillas and was sentenced to a lengthy prison term.
. This disaster can be traced to a number of features of foco theory. Che showed no particular
concern for the mood of the Bolivian peasantry, since he wrongly assumed that winning some
military skirmishes would automatically rally them to the rebel's side. No preparatory work or
organizing was done among the peasantry before the guerrillas started fighting. Thus, the
government had free reign of the villages to isolate the guerrillas politically and successfully
recruit informers. Though foco theory held that all the other types of organizations would
magically develop from the armed bands, in fact, they relied heavily on the pro-Soviet revisionist
party in Bolivia, which mainly opposed Che's efforts and is widely suspected of collaborating
with the Bolivian dictatorship to do Che in. Meanwhile, while the conditions for the armed units
among the countryside did not exist, Bolivia copper miners had a long history of powerful
struggles which included their owned armed militias which boldly clashed with the
government.Government troops had put down a recent miner's revolt. Despite this setback,
clearly there was a lot of potential in organizing among such workers, but this violated foco
dogma. Che's forces had drafted an appeal to the miners, but it basically urged the workers to
abandon their militant struggles and join the guerrillas, where they supposedly could avoid
crushing blows from the government. Before the appeal was issued, the guerrillas were crushed.
Belittling the need for theory
. The Guevarist disregard for a serious analysis of the concrete conditions has gone hand-in-hand with a tendency to belittle the need for revolutionary theory. In direct response to the well-known statement of Lenin that "without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement", Che argued that "one can make a revolution if historical reality is interpreted correctly and if the forces involved are utilized correctly, even without knowing theory. "(5)
. Such reasoning ignores that revolutionary theory is what allows for a thorough analysis of reality. Marxist theory permits the attentive observer of reality to make sense of their perceptions. Thus, revolutionary theory must be based on the most all-sided information about historical reality. It is no coincidence that Guevarism downplays theory while basing its strategy and tactics on the most shallow estimate of the social conditions.
. Debray ran with the anti-theoretical tone of the Cuban leaders. He goes so far as to argue that it
was a good thing that (allegedly) the Cuban leaders were ignorant of other revolutionary
experiences, since this only would have clouded their ability to adopt a correct path under Cuban
conditions. Thus, for Debray, the narrower the knowledge of world historical reality, the better.
Debray equates such knowledge with "preconceived ideological constructs" that only bog down
the revolutionary activist. (6) Debray's distorted notion of revolutionary ideology is that it means
dogmatically repeating each and every feature of a previous struggle, thus ignoring the new
conditions. In fact Marxist theory considers an examination of the particular economic and social
conditions in a country to be mandatory for deciding how its general theory will manifest itself
there. The flip side of Debray's notion of theory is his idea that each and every feature of the
Cuban revolution is automatically elevated into a universal principle, or at least a cookbook
recipe for Latin America.
Attitude toward Marxism and revisionism
. But if Che didn't think revolutionary theory was a necessity, why did he portray himself as a Marxist? Che certainly did read some Marxist works, but he did not accept Marxism as an integral theory. Instead he picked up on certain features that he could reconcile with his overall petty-bourgeois revolutionism. A clear example of this is his statement that "the Cuban revolution takes up Marx at the point where he put aside science to pick up his revolutionary rifle. " (7) In this instance, Marxism is reduced to the notion that armed struggle is good.
. Che did not draw a fundamental distinction between Marxism and revisionism. For him, even the likes of traitors to communism like Khrushchov were Marxist, and he considered the Soviet revisionist bloc to be socialist. It's true that Che had some disagreement with the Soviet revisionist leaders. For example, in the mid-60s the Cuban leadership was developing guerrilla groups in other Latin American countries which clashed with Khrushchov's efforts to reconcile with U. S. imperialism. Che also had some criticisms over how aid was dispensed by the Soviet bloc although in general he highly praised the Soviet revisionist aid. He also had objections to certain features of Soviet economic planning, even while holding that it was socialist. But these objections were not based on anti-revisionism. Rather, certain features of Che's petty-bourgeois radicalism were in contradiction to some corrupt revisionist views.
, In fact, in the main Che openly disagreed with the ideological struggle to unmask revisionism.
When, in the early 60s, the Maoist leaders of China (who themselves had developed another
variant of revisionism) along with a wave of revolutionary activists all over the world began to
question Soviet revisionist doctrine, Che criticized this as senseless bickering that detracted from
the cause of fighting U. S. imperialism. Thus, he wrote: "That big controversies are agitating the
world that is struggling for freedom, all of us know. . . " but "it is time to moderate our disputes
and place everything at the service of the struggle. " (8) Thus, Che's concept was not to fight
revisionism, but reconcile with it. For Che, the revisionist leaders were really revolutionary
fighters who had gotten sidetracked in minor disputes.
Illusions in third world bourgeois development
. While Che supported the armed struggle, this did not mean he was able to break out of the overall outlook of fashionable revisionist doctrine. When we go beyond the question of guerrilla tactics, it turns out there is a great deal of similarity between Guevarism and the Soviet revisionist doctrine of so-called "non-capitalist development. " The Soviet revisionists theorized that if only the capitalist regimes in the developing countries tied their development plans to Soviet aid, then they would be departing from capitalism and could head toward socialism. The need for the class struggle in the developing countries was buried beneath fairy tales about these regimes being staunch opponents of imperialism and bastions of social progress.
. Che's views were very similar. He didn't see socialism as the product of the class struggle of the proletariat. Instead, he imagined that many of the developing countries in Asia and Africa that had won their political freedom from the colonial powers merely had to adopt the right economic policies to put them on an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist course. He considered extensive economic aid from the revisionist Soviet bloc and the Chinese revisionist leaders as a key factor in these plans which would allegedly lead to abolishing exploitation. True, for Latin America, Che had no faith in change being brought about by the regimes that had come into existence by the 60s. In fact, he denounced the Latin American bourgeoisie as entirely reactionary and declared that the whole continent was ripe for socialist revolution. But Che's idea of the measures the new governments (installed by the hoped-for revolutions in Latin America) should carry out were similar to those he envisioned for many of the newly-independent Asian or African regimes. Thus, for Che, if a regime took up some measures against U. S. imperialism, he considered it something apart from the bourgeois regimes he railed against.
. An example of Che's approach to many of the developing countries is his speech of February 24, 1965, delivered to representatives of 63 African and Asian governments and representatives of various groups in the national liberation movements of the day. In it, he includes many of the regimes of exploiters he was addressing as allegedly having "a common aspiration [that] unites us in our march toward the future: the defeat of imperialism. " (9) He added that this march would lead to "a new society of justice and plenty. " What was needed was:
"that socialist countries [i. e. , mainly the Soviet revisionist bloc -- Mk. ] should help pay for the development of the underdeveloped countries. . . . But the underdeveloped countries must also steel their forces to embark resolutely on the road of building a new society -- whatever name one gives it -- where the machine, an instrument of labor, is no longer an instrument for the exploitation of man by man. "
. Che then goes on to describe particular measures for the bourgeois leaders of the underdeveloped countries to take which will allegedly bring about socialism. Don't use aid from the revisionist countries as leverage to get aid from the Western imperialist bloc, "the means of production should preferably be in the hands of the state, so that the marks of exploitation may gradually disappear," have planning, and make sure investments are done in such a way that developing countries don't wind up competing against each other in the market. In essence, Che here concocts a formula for capitalist development which avoids all the inevitable features of capitalism like anarchy of production, competition for markets, being tied to the world imperialist system, and, finally, class oppression. Various measures like developing state-run industry and ties with the Soviet Union were commonly adopted by the exploiters in the third world. But it didn't lead to the wonderful, harmonious, and imperialist-free development anticipated by Che.
. When referring to Latin America as opposed to some other developing countries, Che took on a harsher tone toward the regimes in power. The following quote, where the first part is referring to Latin America, illustrates this point:
. "On the other hand, the indigenous bourgeoisies have lost all capacity to oppose imperialism -- if they ever had any -- and are only dragged along behind it like a caboose.There are no other alternatives. Either a socialist revolution or a caricature of revolution.
. "Asia is a continent with different characteristics. The liberation struggles against a series of European colonial powers resulted in the establishment of more or less progressive governments, whose subsequent evolution has in some cases deepened the main objectives of national liberation, and in others reverted toward proimperialist positions." (10)
. Thus, while Che thought all the Latin American regimes must go, for Asia there was merely fretting that some regimes are aligning with imperialism. As concerns the Asian countries, his judgement of the post-independence governments was confined to how far they are independent from the big powers. Che supported the regimes that are less tied to Western imperialism, overlooking that independence did not end class oppression, but generally deepened the field for domestic capitalist development and the class struggle. Also overlooked is that aid from the revisionist countries was not going to bring the glorious development imagined by Che, but was merely another variety of imperialist aid.
. Although Che talks about "socialism" being the immediate stage of the revolution throughout Latin America, the content of this "socialist" struggle is similar to the path he advocates for many of the bourgeois regimes in Asia. Take the issue of Che's reasoning for calling the revolutions in Latin America "socialist. " Here we cannot attempt to analyze what the actual stage of revolution was in each Latin American country in the 1960s. But according to Che, the decisive issue was that the Latin American bourgeois rulers were flunkies of U. S. imperialism. No doubt the Latin American ruling classes were closely tied to the U. S. capitalists. But the socialist character of the revolution is not determined merely by the degree to which these countries were tied to a big imperialist power. To define a socialist revolution that way is to paint independent development as sufficient for socialism. Indeed, we have seen above how Che and the Cuban leadership preached that if the bourgeois regimes in the developing countries stopped taking Western imperialist aid (while taking Soviet social-imperialist aid) their societies would evolve along socialist lines.
. Che's tendency to turn independent capitalist development into something like socialism is
reflected in his attitude toward certain bourgeois reformist regimes in Latin American history
which took a few mild measures which antagonized some U. S. interests. Thus, he was an ardent
supporter of the Arbenz government in Guatemala, which he called "revolutionary democracy."
(11) As well he highly praised the Lazaro Cardenas government that came to power in Mexico in
the mid-1930s. He cited it as an example of the economic independence that he admires since the
regime nationalized U. S. and British oil companies. He praised it as an antecedent to what was
needed in Latin America and declared "Cardenas is recognized as the greatest president the
republic has had. " (12) Unfortunately, Che failed to mention that Lazaro Cardenas, in assisting
the development of Mexican capital, assisted in the brutal exploitation of the masses and rigged
up the infamous repressive PRI machine that for decades has been a dead weight on the workers
and poor peasants.
. This brief analysis of some of Che's views shows that they cannot be considered a guide to
action today. For all Che's personal fortitude and activity in the revolutionary movement, his
views do not offer us a guide to achieving the elimination of capitalist-imperialist
oppression.Rather, Che's legacy offers a cautionary tale that militancy alone is insufficient for
building a revolutionary movement. That task also requires theoretical clarity, not belittling
theory. It requires casting away all illusions about revisionism, not trying to tone down the fight
against it. On these matters, and on the question of political orientation as a whole, the movement
of today is served by rejecting the legacy of Che.
2.While the conditions for armed struggle were supposedly ripe everywhere in the Latin American countryside, in Debray's opinion the conditions there were such that they "should rid a given group of armed propagandists of all hope of remaining unnoticed, 'like fish in water' " because "a stranger inspires distrust" while "the army, the guardia rural, the latifundista's private police, or nowadays the 'Green Berets' and Rangers, enjoy a prestige. " Therefore, he considers premature "going into villages, holding meetings, speaking here and there, in order to explain the social goals of the Revolution, to denounce the enemies of the peasantry, to promise agrarian reform and punishment of traitors, etc. " Also premature is the idea that "cells, public or underground, will be organized in the villages". (See pp. 47-51 of Debray's book Revolution in the revolution?, Monthly Review Press, 1967. ) (Text)
3. According to Che, "the [Cuban] Rebel Army was already proletarian in its ideology, and it
thought in terms of the dispossessed class. " (See Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution,
p.191.) Here Che simply ignores that the armed guerrillas' social program of the time was not
proletarian nor were they based in the proletariat or composed of proletarians, and that even as
regards the dispossessed peasantry, their program of land reform was very modest. (Text)
4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.
4.Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution, p. 103, Pathfinder/Pacific and Asia, 1987. (Text)
5.Ibid. , p. 133. (Text)
6.Debray, Regis, Revolution in the revolution, p. 21, Monthly Review Press, 1967. (Text)
7.Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution, p. 135. (Text)
8.Ibid. , p. 358. (Text)
9.Ibid. , p. 337. In similar fashion, Che's December 11, 1964 speech to the U. N. refers to the bourgeois regimes of the so-called "non-aligned movement" as "the group of Nonaligned countries that struggle against imperialism, colonialism and neocolonialism. " (p. 321) (Text)
10.Ibid. , p. 351-2. (Text)
11.Ibid. , p. 34. (Text)
12.Ibid. , p. 101. (Text)
Last changed on October 17, 2001.