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El Che” Guevara

Almost always the statements were hortatory or polemical, even if they came in the guise of strategic studies, budgetary analysis, or wisecracks. Because they were morally urgent, “El Che” could never develop them into a system of explanations. The “rigorous coherence” that Lowy describes in his useful booklet, La Pensée de Che Guevara, was a feature not of the thought itself but of the character that produced it. Because he appealed publicly to feelings, he could no longer keep his own feelings private, where he had them in fine control. In his two Cuban books, Guerrilla Warfare and Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, where he let his literary talent go, some passages on military affairs are worthy of Hammett or Traven, but the passages on “love of the people” read like Kahlil Gibran. But welling purely out of his life, carrying the full momentum of his conviction, his statements rolled into powerful themes.

The world was a dark and bewildering place, where malevolent giants ruthlessly exploited the ignorant and helpless.

Physical danger was illuminating, the only condition in which a man or woman could recognize how oppressive the world was, believe the perception, and revolt. The more intense the danger, the more certain the grip on reality, the more determined the revolution.

Danger was humanizing, for it allowed sympathy among the endangered, dissolved divisions of class, intelligence, geographical location, ideology, race, politics, nationality, even health, and nurtured “new men” in revolutionary solidarity. In revolution men and women would “graduate as human beings.”

Revolution was a pledge of allegiance to men and women in danger everywhere, which obligated revolutionaries not merely to feel the anguish of others, but to strive to take the worst torment on themselves. Revolution was a competition for the most terrifying and lonely duty in the world, the vanguard of the struggle, which was the highest honor. “One wins or dies if it is a real revolution.”

The consequence, “El Che” decided, was Marxism—the expectation of communism. The decision was not a conversion, intellectually or politically. “El Che” had developed in Cuba no special concern for workers, much less an interest in the parties that pretended to represent them, less still a need for superior sanctions for economic planning and anti-imperialism; and in Marxism he did not change. The decision was more like the abstraction of a proof. “El Che” made it because the resolution of honesty, generosity, and commitment into belligerence, which he had managed himself, became “scientific” in Marxism. He made it because he found the “new man,” more than kin, more than friend, more than buddy, in the image of the comrade, the soul of revolutionary virtue, who figured only in Marxist theory and traditions.

From his experience he avowed Marxism, not as a set of eternally valid laws, in economics or sociology, but rather as a particular field of research and operations, the field of revolutionary ethics, the discipline of belligerent honesty, generosity, and commitment, the practice of comradeship. His avowal met its test when he denounced the Soviets in the name of Marxist ethics, for not behaving like comrades. He would always, he wrote to Fidel, “feel the responsibility of being a Cuban revolutionary”—which meant a total and constant revolutionary, the truest comrade.

Until 1965 “El She” remained a Cuban revolutionary in Cuba. But by then “the focal point of all contradictions,” as he later called it, had shifted to another small country on another continent. “This is the sad reality,” he like many others saw: “Vietnam—a nation representing the aspirations, the hopes of a whole world of forgotten peoples—is alone…. It is not a matter of wishing success to the victim of aggression, but of sharing his fate; one must accompany him to his death or to victory.”

His shift into a new dimension was difficult. Retreating into a hospital, his asthma at its worst, he reportedly had hallucinations that his bravest Cuban buddy (killed in a plane crash in 1959) was urging him to ignore his “antagonists” and “extend the revolution.” Whether he was going crazy or not, he disturbed Fidel. After April, 1965, he never appeared in public in Cuba again. The Cuban G-2 foxed the CIA into believing he died in the Santo Domingo rebellion. And outside Cuba the rumor prevailed that he had died.

But through the spring “El She” managed the decision to leave for “other sierras.” To his five children he left strict orders: “Always be ready to feel in your bones any injustice against anyone anywhere in the world.” To Fidel he asserted (“with a mixture of joy and sorrow”), “The time has come for our separation,” and formally renounced his post in the party, rank in the army, office in the government, and Cuban citizenship: “I have fulfilled the part of my duty that tied me to the Cuban Revolution in its territory.” To his parents he wrote with inimitable ironic pride,

Again I feel Rocinante’s ribs beneath my heels. I am back on the road with my shield on my arm…. In essence nothing has changed, except that I am more conscientious, my Marxism is rooted and purged. I believe in armed struggle as the only answer for people who fight to free themselves, and I take the consequences for my beliefs. Many will call me an adventurer, and I am, but of a different kind, one who risks his skin to prove he is right…. I have loved you dearly, only I have not known how to express my feelings; I am extremely stiff in my actions, and I think that at times you did not understand me…. Now a will I have polished with an artist’s care will hold up shaky legs and tired lungs. I will do it. Remember sometimes this little condottiere of the twentieth century….

To Latin American leftists he wrote epiphanally, “Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”

The first field of new duty was Africa. Late in the summer of 1965, with troops and funds Fidel provided, “El She” moved secretly into the Congo, near where Schweitzer had been, into the region where seventy-five years before Conrad had discovered the heart of darkness. There through the tropical winter of 1965-66 he fought incognito for the Kinshasa rebels, only to discover that “there was no will to fight, the leaders were corrupt, there was nothing to do.” Still incognito, he returned to Havana to plan another campaign.

The next field was Latin America again—no longer in continental terms, to repeat the Sierra Maestra in the Andes, but now in a global vision, to start “Two, Three, Many Vietnams.” With Fidel “El She” decided to subvert Bolivia for a base against other countries. And there he settled in disguise in the fall of 1966. “In a couple months,” he noted in his diary, “I’ll be myself again.”

The guerrilleros started their campaign in March, 1967, in almost complete isolation, just as “El She” wanted, lost in Bolivia’s southeastern wilds, without political connections. For a while the campaign went clumsily but not badly. When the Bolivian government announced in June that “El She” was leading the guerrilleros, it was on the verge of collapse. But the guerrilleros remained in isolation, geographically and politically, and the government recovered the initiative. In October “El She” was captured in an ambush, and executed. The international furor exploded about the circumstances of his death and the disposition of his body and diary, and the legend began—at least among the newspaper-readers of the world.

Now the biographies accumulate. So far all have been rush jobs, each with its own imbalances in coverage, its own errors (like the place of the subject’s birth or the date of his first marriage), its own half-baked interpretations (that the subject was a Marxist long before he came to Cuba, that he was always an idealist, or a cynic, that he was a mama’s boy gone suicidal). In contrast Rojo’s My Friend Ché [sic], a memoir, not a biography, is a genuine book. Though devout Guevaristas have attacked it for presenting their man as less than the Compleat Ideologue, “El She” does live there in funny stories, slangy quotes, and nice sketches of scene, freshly translated.

Some of the current biographies are useful as tentative compilations of material. Gambini’s El She Guevara (in Spanish) is the most thorough and most accurate. The biographical introductions to the selected writings are reliable summaries, Bonachea’s and Valdés’s dry record more than Gerassi’s effusion and the others’ evocations. Ebon’s Che, Gavi’s Che Guevara, and Nattiez’s “Che” Guevara are also worth consulting, as much for the interpretations they attempt as for the material they contain. Valuable also are the seven biographical essays in Che Guevara und die Revolution. But the other publications available for review are only curiosities. The daintiest is Sinclair’s Guevara. The zippiest is Resnick’s Black Beret. The most monomaniacal is Rodríguez’s “Che” Guevara. The slipshoddiest is Sorel’s Che. The puffiest is Pierini’s “Che.” The thickest, the most pompous, the most gossipy, and the most devious is James’s Ché [sic] Guevara, which does to “El Che” dead what Victor Lasky did to Bobby Kennedy alive.

Now also mockery becomes inevitable. It is obvious why kids from comfortable families in cities here, in Europe, and Latin America have taken “El Che” for a big-brotherly sponsor of shoplifting, smoking pot, passing bad checks, and breaking windows. In a world evidently grinding toward regimentation or destruction, their respect for “El Che” is a rededication to the faith in personal defiance, a resistance against the fear of futility, which is nevertheless futile.

It is obvious too why intellectuals on the New Left here, in Europe, and Latin America have canonized him, and do him such homage as in Alexandre’s Viva Che!, a psalm-book four-fifths of whose chants are wailings about impotence. Against the bad faith of their established colleagues, four-fifths of whom would find an excuse not to revolt against the worst tyranny, they see “El Che” as posing the most pertinent and hurtful political questions. Do they themselves mean what they say about liberty and justice for all? How do they know they mean it? Do they have to take risks to prove they mean it, or is writing an article enough? Does the scarier risk prove the cleaner belief? Is the authenticity of belief a matter of guts? Should those who fear taking scary risks say they must never have meant what they said before, and crawl into their shame? How can they still honorably claim their belief? Can they invoke a revolutionary God, who gives one man the grace to take risks, but not another? Should a man not in a state of revolutionary grace revolt anyway, as if he were? All just questions.

The difference “El Che” makes to the guerrilleros of Latin America is like the difference that he earlier made to his family, friends, and comrades. He bequeaths them a provocation and an inspiration, which together make a challenge. The legacy is confusing, because the injunction to act on conviction, on conscience, on love, is a politically indiscriminate demand, which falls equally on every soul. The injunction now applies as tightly to the armies of Latin America as to the revolutionaries. And among the revolutionaries, as “El Che” once granted, it has had as much allegiance from the regular Communist “cadres who can silently endure the most terrible tortures in jail” as from the Fidelista “cadres who can take a machine gun nest.”

In itself the injunction is not a strategy of revolution, nor does it prescribe a specific strategy, like rural instead of urban actions. Ultimately it is no more than the hero’s battle cry, “Victory or Death!” In slacker times it would quickly have lost its ring, echoing only as a slogan. But because the struggle in Latin America has turned ugly, because the guerrilleros there dread that they might flinch, the hero’s challenge haunts them with a vengeance. As the struggle here also turns ugly, the challenge haunts the guerrilleros among us too.

(This is the first part of a two-part article.)

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