Che Guevara: A legacy of struggle

Che Guevara has become an iconic figure. His face can be seen in the slums of Argentina, and on countless t-shirts across the globe.

Since his death there have been many documentations of his life; the most recent of which is the new film, Motorcycle Diaries. However, most of these commentaries do not make a detailed analysis of Che’s politics. For socialists, assessing the lessons from the successes and failures of Che’s battle against imperialism and capitalism is of the utmost importance.

It was in Bolivia that Che first came into contact with a revolutionary situation, during the struggle that brought the radical Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario to power. Militant action from the workers and peasants forced through nationalisation of some important sections of the economy, most notably the tin mines, and a programme of land reform. During his time in Bolivia, Che Guevara witnessed the pivotal role in the revolutionary movement played by the tin miners. These workers had been central in establishing the new trade union centre, the Central Obrera Boliviana. An indication of the revolutionary consciousness of the working class at this time was the CBO’s endorsement of Trotsky’s Transitional Programme.

Despite witnessing the potential strength of the working class and the role it could play in changing society, even in a mainly rural, agricultural country like Bolivia, Che did not draw the correct conclusions. That the working class is the only class with the ability to effect socialist change. This weakness was to be at the core of Che’s political mistakes in the future.

By the time Che arrived in Mexico, he had become a socialist and saw himself as a Marxist revolutionary. However, his understanding of Marxist ideas was in some ways quite weak, especially regarding the application of these ideas to Latin America. It was at this time that he was drawn towards Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement.

The July 26th Movement supported a series of radical demands that fell far short of a call for socialism. In reality, their demands called for a form of liberal capitalism.

The history of Latin America has shown the indigenous capitalist classes of that continental region are tied by a thousand strings to imperialism, in particular US imperialism. Capitalist rule, whether at the hands of a US puppet regime or a democratically elected national government, means unending poverty and struggle for the masses. Only the working class armed with a socialist programme is capable of solving the nightmarish problems faced by the masses of the region.

Guerrilla struggle

Che believed that the struggle for socialism in the mainly rural countries of Latin America should be based upon guerrilla struggles of the peasantry. By its nature, the peasantry is a divided, heterogeneous class. The peasantry are not concentrated in large numbers, and don’t have the social base to challenge the rule of capitalism and landlordism in a way that the working class can.

In stark contrast, the working class based in their millions in urban areas, working and living in similar conditions, develop a collective consciousness at times of economic and social crisis and have the power, through strike action, to bring capitalism to a grinding halt. The working class have the ability therefore to see the need to challenge, overthrow and replace capitalism with a socialist society. This is even the case in countries where a majority of the population are peasants and rural based as in Russia 1917. In the October Revolution four million workers led the revolutionary movement which inspired and gained the support of the majority of the "empire’s" 100 million plus peasants in a successful struggle for socialism.

Che played a leading role in the struggle that successfully overthrew the US puppet dictator of Cuba, Batista. Their guerrilla struggle had been peasant based in the countryside and not amongst the urban working class. The Cuban working class had not played an independent and central role in the revolution. Thus, the overthrow of Batista was not followed by a "natural" development of workers’ democracy, where the historical traditions of democracy in the workers’ movement and amongst the working class are spread and applied by them to the whole of society. Instead a ready-made bureaucracy, the guerrilla army, with its centralised command structures became the model for Cuban society. Later this model of government was heavily influenced by the Stalinist regime in the USSR.

Many of the leaders of the Cuban revolution including Castro were fighting for a democratic capitalist Cuba. Some even supported the idea of using the USA as their model for the type of society that they wanted to build!

After the successful overthrow of Batista, Castro attempted to make a deal with the "liberal" elements of the Cuban ruling class, reassuring them that the revolution would not threaten their interests. However, despite its moderate aims, Castro’s government was forced to take a number of radical steps, due to pressure from the radicalised peasantry and working class, but also because of Che Guevara. These measures, including the nationalisation of the sugar cane industry and other key sectors, brought the new government into conflict with US imperialism.

Che also pushed for the dismantling of the old Cuban capitalist state. Supporters of the old Batista regime were arrested in their hundreds. Torturers, many of whom had murdered hundreds of innocent people for Batista, were executed. Che oversaw a programme of purges that removed reactionary elements from the army, while also promoting political education and incorporating revolutionary forces into the state military. These measures aimed to defend the revolution from any threat from capitalist counter-revolution. The US government cynically denounced these "injustices", although it actively supported Batista’s brutal dictatorship. But then Batista was serving the interests of US imperialism!

Although Castro maintained that he was not a communist, US capitalism felt that they could not trust him, especially since his actions had already hurt their financial interests in Cuba. Thus, they began to fund and arm pro-Batista Cuban exiles in the US, and underground agents within Cuba. This led to the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. These measures again pushed the regime further to the left by radicalising the masses. However, it was not until 1960 that Castro proclaimed the revolution to be "socialist".

Unlike Che, most of the Cuban bureaucracy was forced into calling themselves "socialist" because of pressure for change from the working class and peasantry. They adopted Marxism out of convenience. Many in the bureaucracy hoped that a socialist façade would help to bring economic aid from the Soviet Union.

In reality the regime was not, and is not, genuinely socialist. The revolution brought real gains to the people of Cuba. Living standards increased substantially. Employment and food were assured for all, through programmes of industrialisation and agricultural modernisation. In two years, illiteracy was abolished. Education became available to all children, and initiatives were also taken in the workplace. Today, Cuba has a healthcare system that is unparalleled in Latin America, and among the best in the world.

Cuba is a deformed workers’ state. Capitalism has been removed, the important sectors of the economy are nationalised and a planned economy is in place. However, the power to democratically control and organise the economy is not in the hands of the working class, but with a self-interested bureaucratic elite, who dictate to the population. This has held back economic development inside Cuba and has also prevented the spread of the revolution throughout Latin America. The Committee for a Workers’ International, to which the Socialist Party is affiliated, fully defends the gains of the Cuban revolution and opposes all attempts by US Imperialism to restore capitalism. But we also believe it is necessary for the Cuban working class to struggle for a political revolution to remove the bureaucracy and put the planned economy under the democratic control of the working class. A political revolution in Cuba which resulted in the formation of a genuine socialist workers’ democracy would have a revolutionary impact on Latin America and throughout the world.

Che Guevara said in 1959 that the solution to the world’s social and economic problems lay "behind the iron curtain", but when he visited the Soviet Union, he became hostile to the Stalinist bureaucratic caste which ruled there. Che saw the need to challenge and fight capitalism internationally. He actively sought to spread socialist revolution throughout Latin America. This brought him into direct conflict with the Stalinists in Moscow, who subsequently denounced him as a Trotskyist.

After a period as an official in the Cuban government Che once again began to play an active role as a participant in trying to spread revolutionary struggle.


Che attempted to spark off mass revolutionary movements through the building of guerrilla armies. He died during one of these struggles in Bolivia. Che Guevara was executed the day after he was captured by the Bolivian Army by a CIA-trained agent, to whom his last words were, "Shoot, coward! You’re only going to kill a man." Che was then buried in an unmarked grave, as the Bolivian government wanted to prevent his final resting-place becoming a place of pilgrimage to those whom his life of heroic struggle had inspired.

Che Guevara was one of the most inspirational figures of the 20th century because of his dedication to the death to the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Che was committed to the struggle for socialism, and at the time of his murder was studying the writings of Leon Trotsky.

Today Che is as an example and an inspiration to the oppressed masses of the neo-colonial world, and all those who see the need for revolutionary change. His slogan, "Hasta La Victoria Siempre!", or "Towards the Eternal Victory!", is a rallying cry for those who struggle to overthrow capitalism and imperialism.

From Socialist View, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

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November 2004