Che Guevara anniversary: Latin America – Marxism or Guerrillaism?

1968 article reprint, with new introduction

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Latin America – Marxism or Guerrillaism?


’Guerrillaism and Marxism’, was first published in the student magazine, Spark, in March 1968. This journal was produced by members and supporters of Militant, now the Socialist Party, based at Sussex University. Such was the paucity of resources at the disposal of Militant we were only able to produce a monthly newspaper and did not have a regular journal. Spark, for a short period, partially filled the gap for Militant at that stage.

This article has an historical relevance today, on the anniversary of the death of Che Guevara. Two polar opposite views existed at the time of his murder and these have been repeated on the anniversary of his death. Guevara was attacked as an ’extremist’ by right-wing figures. They argued that he had met a deserved fate at the hands of his Bolivian and CIA executioners. In this camp today is Johann Hari who, in the British newspaper, The Independent, heaped one calumny after another on Che’s shoulders: he wanted the nuclear annihilation of the world at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, he unreservedly supported Mao Zedong and, therefore, was indirectly responsible for the deaths of "70 million people", and wished the "imposition of authoritarian communism, by force, everywhere".

Marxists did not adopt an uncritical attitude towards Che Guevara, either before his assassination or since, as this article published below demonstrates. But, like millions throughout the world, we hailed his heroic efforts in combating capitalism and imperialism. Che Guevara was and remains an enduring symbol of implacable resistance to a destructive and wasteful system, and the inevitability of a revolt against it by its victims. What a contrast between Che Guevara and the politically bankrupt and cowardly misleaders of the labour movement today!

As Tony Saunois’s analysis published recently on demonstrates, Che Guevara was not a ’plaster saint’; he made mistakes. But he was also capable of reassessing his actions and learning from them. It is a gross falsification – worthy of the Stalinists that Hari allegedly excoriates – to say that those who defend Che would "have to form a group called ’left wingers for creating a universal North Korea, prior to universal death in a nuclear winter’".

Che Guevara, at the time of his death, was an increasingly vocal critic of Stalinism, which he began to reject after he had visited the ’Eastern bloc’. He read Trotsky and had a book by Trotsky in his belongings when he was murdered. Moreover, the charge of ’wanting a nuclear holocaust’ because he supported nuclear missiles being installed in Cuba is false to the core. Does every capitalist government that supports nuclear weapons for ’defence’- including the party Hari supports, New Labour – do this because they want to unleash a nuclear holocaust? Merely to pose the question shows how absurd is the charge that Hari has levelled against Guevara.

The Cuban revolution from the outset was besieged by imperialism. It had just experienced the CIA-sponsored ’Bay of Pigs’ invasion. It was, therefore, entirely understandable for Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to seek to defend, through the acquisition of arms, the gains of the revolution.

There is a discussion to be had as to whether it was tactically wise for Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to support the installation of nuclear weapons in Cuba. They honestly believed it was necessary for the defence of Cuba but the real ultimate defence of the Cuban revolution was in the mass support in Latin America and worldwide. But to accuse Castro and Guevara of wanting a ’nuclear holocaust’, based on statements entirely torn out of context, is shameful.

The tragedy of Che Guevara is that he was assassinated while he was still developing his ideas. We supported this heroic figure in his combat against imperialism. But, at the same time, we pointed to some of the deficiencies in his ’guerrillaist’ strategy, counter-posing to this the social role of the mass working class of Latin America.

The reprinted article below shows the consistent attitude of Marxism towards Che Guevara, not ex-post facto, but at the time of his death and since.

Peter Taaffe, October 2007

Latin America – Marxism or Guerrillaism

Peter Taaffe

The murder of Che Guevara, and the savage 30 year sentence meted out to Regis Debray and the Argentinean Bustos by the rotten Bolivian regime, has provoked a wave of indignation and protest throughout the world labour movement. From the first unconfirmed reports of guerrilla movements in Bolivia, United States imperialism, with a cacophony of the ruling elites of Latin America, reacted with the viciousness of fear. This alone is testimony to the social explosions reverberating throughout the continent at the present time.

The whole of Latin America is today in revolt. Bound to the world capitalist system, in particular US imperialism, it is kept as a semi-colonial field of super-exploitations. The Times (10/11/67) remarked: "With well over 200 million people and threatening to reach 600 million by the end of the century [Latin America] produced (in 1966) less than the United Kingdom’s 55 million." Seventy million of the rural masses earn between £21 and £25 per year! In the towns galloping inflation goes hand in hand with sweat shop brutalising conditions. In Uruguay, to name but one country, "the cost of living has risen by 100% (in one year)… 200, 000 people are unemployed out of a labour force of one million" [Financial Times].

The landlord-capitalist cliques have failed to solve even one of the major problems facing the continent. Thoroughgoing land reform, the purging of the countryside of semi-feudal land relations, the unification of the various countries and the continent, the freeing of the productive forces from the stranglehold of imperialism and the development of the economy along modern lines; all remain impossible on a capitalist basis. The vain attempt at ’reform from the top’, the ’alliance for progress’, is doomed to fail, as even Walter Lipmann, a capitalist ideologist, remarked. Indeed the massive handouts to the various regimes are akin to paying the hangman to hang himself. Instead of the promised reforms, the ruling oligarchies have found temporary refuge from the danger that threatens them from the masses in a series of military dictatorships.

It is against this background that the recent events in Bolivia must be viewed. Guevara attempted to emulate the Cuban revolution first of all in Bolivia and then throughout the whole of Latin America. Undoubtedly, he was a revolutionary who laid down his life for the downtrodden of the continent. Nevertheless, we must seek to understand the lessons of his attempts in Bolivia. These resulted from a mistaken view of the main social forces involved in the Latin American revolution and, on the other hand, from an attempt to artificially apply the lesson of the Cuban revolution and the relationship of the latter event to the struggle for world socialism.

The Cuban revolution

In its eight short years, despite the blockade and embargoes, the Cuban revolution has justified itself in the impressive developments which have resulted from nationalisation and planning, the main conquests of the revolution. Almost in the ’jaws’ of US imperialism, it has made gigantic steps forward in housing, health standards, the wiping out of impoverishment and illiteracy, and in raising the general living standards of the majority of the people. However, the forces involved in the revolution guaranteed from the beginning that the working class was elbowed out of the management and control of the economy, a basic prerequisite for the movement towards socialism. In fact, the Cuban revolution of 1956-59 was, in the main, a peasant war with the working class playing only a minor part in the general strike in Havana (when victory had already been assured). The process was rapid and not at all ’planned ’ by Castro or the leading elements who had led the guerrilla campaign. In May 1959, the Castro regime passed the first Agrarian Reform Law, allowing for the expropriation of large-scale (largely American-owned) land holdings. They also nationalised public utilities and clamped down on the US-owned gambling industry. In July 1960, the US government banned all imports of sugar and immediately Russia stepped in to offer to take Cuba’s cancelled 700,000 tons. Castro replied by taking over the US sugar refineries. By the end of September 1960, almost all US and Cuban large scale industry was state-owned. Thus Castro once in power was pushed into crushing capitalism.

This resulted from a combination of factors, i.e. the enormous pressure of the masses, the complete rottenness of Cuban capitalism which, through Batista, had managed to alienate practically the whole of the popular masses, the diplomatic bungling of US imperialism, and the existence of a series of deformed workers’ states which acted both as a model and basis of support for the new regime. Capitalism was crushed but because the peasantry, rather than the conscious movement of the workers, had played the main role, workers’ democracy never existed from the beginning. And without the constant controls and checks by the masses themselves, together with the isolation of the revolution in a backward country, no real movement towards socialism is possible. Instead, the establishment of a one-party state with the entrenchment and growing separation of a privileged bureaucratic elite has developed.

True, massive rallies of half a million or more have been held in Havana and elsewhere. These undoubtedly indicate the popularity of the regime, but they do not in themselves constitute real workers’ democracy. That a crystallisation of bureaucracy is taking place was recently indicated by Castro himself: "We must de-bureaucratise the commissions of struggle against bureaucracy." [The Times.] Not that this indicates that Castro, as some alleged Marxists maintain, represents working-class democracy as opposed to bureaucracy. Contrast the attitude of the Russian bureaucracy towards the Castro regime, with aid totalling $1 million a day and their bloody crushing of the Hungarian Commune. The latter, if it had been successful, would have tolled the death knell of Stalinism on a world scale. The Cuban regime may complicate the game of courting the colonial capitalists by the Russian bureaucracy, but unlike the Hungarian revolution it is not fundamentally incompatible or a threat to the Stalinist regimes in Russia, China and Eastern Europe.

Guerrillaism in Bolivia

Applied to Bolivia, the guerrilla strategy proved to be both incorrectly based in the concrete conditions in that country and, moreover, incorrect from the viewpoint of world socialism. No country is a national entity; no revolution can be seen other than as a link, as the beginning of the overturn of capitalism on a world scale. Moreover, it is only the working class, organised in big industry, under the gigantic international monopolies, which can develop the necessary understanding and whose interests are indivisible and international to guarantee the victory of world socialism. Where the peasantry plays the main role as in Cuba and China, the revolution can only have national and bureaucratic limitations. But even so, if there is one peasantry at the moment which proves least open to the kind of ’impulsion’ of Debray’s or Guevara’s small band of guerrillas, it is the Bolivian peasantry. If only temporarily, sections of the peasantry have benefited from the 1952 civil war and the half-land reform carried out in its wake. Precisely because it has only gone halfway it has become ensnared in capitalist relations and the landlords are beginning to creep back. However, for the moment, the peasantry was impervious. At the same time, the miners and the working class were not seen as the main social force by Guevara. Yet it is precisely this section which has been the backbone of the Bolivian revolution. Until recently, the possession by the miners of their own radio stations and militia meant a whole period of dual power. The social soil in Bolivia was unresponsive in the main to the theories of Debray and Guevara. If guerrillas are the ’fish’ and the peasantry the ’water’ in Mao Zedong’s famous ’fish in water’ aphorism, then the guerrilla bands were fish without water in Bolivia.

Radicalisation in Latin America

In terms of Latin America, as a whole, the ideas of Guevara and Debray crash against the reality of social relations. In Brazil, Argentina, Chile, amongst other countries, it is the highly organised working class which will play the main role. In Chile and Uruguay, in particular, recent months have revealed the explosiveness and rotten-ripeness for revolution in these countries. In the face of the rocketing of the cost of living, the working class in Chile in the month of October staged a 24-hour general strike: "Such bitterness with class conscious overtones has not been seen in Chile for 10 years." [The Times.] Even the middle class was in ferment at "the 1967 rise in the cost of living of 20%… 17% in last year and 38% in 1965.’" [The Times] The crisis has provoked a split in the ruling class with a ’Nasserite’ section of the ruling Christian Democratic Party advocating a ’non-capitalist road of development’. Thus three of the four conditions laid down by Marx for a revolutionary situation exist. The working class displays its determination to tolerate the old order no longer, the middle class are alienated by the regime and look towards the labour movement for a decisive solution and there is a split amongst the capitalist class itself. Only the fourth but decisive condition is missing; a mass party prepared to mobilise the workers to take power. In fact, it is the Castro-dominated Trades Union Congress which acts as a brake on the masses. The general strike is used as a safety valve to dissipate the anger of the masses instead of a serious attempt to mobilise them to take hold of the levers of power. So, too, in Uruguay where the ’Communist’ Party controlled TUC plays a similar role. Already a military dictatorship is installed in Brazil and Argentine. Now, neighbouring Chile and Uruguay (which is a showpiece of ’democracy’ on the South American continent) face a similar fate unless the workers can take power. This in turn depends upon the ability of the Marxists in both countries being able in sufficient time to build mass parties capable of meeting the demands of the working class and the crisis.

Taken as a whole, it is the working class which is the decisive force. This does not discount peasant wars, land occupations, and even in specific circumstances a revolutionary overturn similar to that in Cuba. But, as was emphasised by the Russian revolution, only a democratic socialist regime with the working class as the leading class can begin the international overturn of capitalism. The Bolsheviks never won the poor peasantry by abandoning their class base. Precisely the opposite; they first of all won over the majority of the workers and through them the peasantry. Thus, the theories of Guevara, Castro and their variants fail to answer the problems posed by the concrete conditions in Latin America. Nor do they stand the test of internationalism which is the cornerstone of Marxism. Not one word do they mention of the overriding importance of the industrial countries of the continent. But if the powerful Brazilian or Argentine working class were to come to power, this would be an event of world-wide significance. It would have the same importance as the 1917 Russian revolution. At the moment certain political and material support goes to the guerrilla bands operating on the continent from Castro. However, this is bound to change given the ever-growing crystallisation of the bureaucratic apparatus in Cuba itself.

Role of Stalinist bureaucracy

Part of the reason for the present verbal denunciation of the stooge ’communist parties’ and the Russian bureaucracy is the role played by the latter in seeking to bolster up a series of rotten regimes. Thus, "the Russians are trading actively with Brazil and with Chile, where they have extended credit large enough to qualify as aid, and while Dr. Castro was speaking, their representatives were in Colombia." [The Times] The very regimes which have systematically organised a boycott of Cuba are marked out for special treatment. This is seen as a blow against the ’national’ interests of the Cuba bureaucracy in the region. It was a similar attempt of Khrushchev to come to a détente with Eisenhower at Camp David in 1957 which began the Sino-Soviet dispute. That the present posture is only temporary is indicated by the fact that Sorensen, a former aide to Kennedy, revealed that just prior to the latter’s death he considered the possibility of diplomatic agreement with Castro. Perhaps this is what Castro was alluding to when he remarked to a US, reporter: "One day it will be revealed that the United States made some other concessions in relation to the October crisis (in 1962 over missiles) besides those made public." When the détente takes place, then the aid to the guerrilla movements, let alone the Latin American revolution as a whole, will be more verbal than real.

Labour and Marxism

Diplomatic agreements or not, though, the revolt of the working class and poor peasantry cannot be permanently held in check. Time and again they have attempted to alter for the better their miserable conditions. From Bolivia to Peru, where the upsurge against landlordism and capitalism is compounded by a national revolt of the indigenous peoples, to the street battles and general strikes in the cities of the more developed countries, and the land occupations and incipient peasant wars, no respite will be given to the ruling oligarchies. It is to the programme of Marxism that the labour movement must turn. With delays and temporary setbacks, the working class and poor peasantry will find the road to victory, to the united socialist states of Latin America as part of the world socialist federation.

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