Friday, October 19, 2007

Che's nuclear winter or a Socialist summer?

Will we need to explain for another forty years that Che Guevara was as Socialist as the state capitalist DPRK is democratic? Reading assorted articles on the anniversary of his murder in 1967 has been a frustrating experience. The Economist, for example, (October 13th 2007) describes him as "..a ruthless and dogmatic Marxist, who stood not for liberation but for a new tyranny." Replace Marxist with Maoist and that quotation would not look out of place in the Socialist Standard. But The Economist does make an interesting aside: "In Cuba, he is the patron saint: at school, every child must repeat each morning, "We will be like Che." In a similiar Orwellian fashion students in Venezuela chant Che's "fatherland, socialism or death." Moving swiftly on, The Independent (6 October 2007) has "two prominent thinkers", George Galloway and Johann Hari (!?), debating "should Che be an Icon?" George's contribution is as stimulating as his appearance on UK national television in a black leotard. By way of contrast, Johann the columnist whose other offerings include "taxing the wealthy is the best way to erode inequality" (fundamentally flawed and sleep inducing) provides a tour de force leading up to him quoting Che one year after the Cuban missile crisis: "the people {of Cuba] you see today tell you that even if they should disappear from the face of the earth because of an atomic war is unleashed in their names...they will feel completely happy and fulfilled"!

Unbelievable but true - rather like finding George and Johann in your bed! But they, as well as those Hari insists on calling communist, are political bedfellows who seek only to reform capitalism. A clear explanation of where Che went wrong and why a Socialist revolution is necessary is given below.

"...On one level socialists can sympathise with the life of Guevara; from his travels he became aware of the poverty and oppression of the majority of the people in Latin America. This made him a social critic and he was determined to do his part to change society. Undoubtedly the Cuban revolution in which Guevara played a major role brought some initial benefits to the people of the island. The worst forms of worker exploitation (widespread prostitution, the plight of landless labourers) were ended and advances in health and education were tremendous by comparable standards. But side-by-side with this went political oppression; the independent press was closed down, trade unions became an adjunct to the state, there was imprisonment and sometimes execution of political dissidents. Workers were expected to put in long hours in dangerous conditions to satisfy Castro's various industrial schemes. In a further parallel with Stalin these dictatorial measures were always justified by reference to an external threat. More recently over the past ten years with the ending of Soviet aid, the fate of the Cuban workers has worsened considerably under the Beijing-like gerontocracy of the Havana leadership. In the popular mind Che Guevara is never linked with this repressive state apparatus though he was an important element in its construction. Ironically too, while Guevara has always in the west been associated with the libertarian "student counter-culture", the regime of which he was a member carried out a severe and ultimately fruitless campaign against western pop music, "decadence" and homosexuality. In fact gay people have been treated particularly harshly in Cuba.

Confusion about the basis on which society is organised meant that Guevara was destined to become part of a doomed experiment in social change. That this same process has repeatedly happened to so many reformers is of immense frustration to socialists. We have a number of reasons for opposing the politics espoused by Che Guevara.We would point to the mistaken Leninist equating of capitalism with imperialism which as in so many other cases inevitably led down the blind alley of nationalism. A good illustration of this is that for the past thirty years in Cuba the 19th century patriotic figure of Marti has been invoked by the establishment as often as Marx.

Another disagreement lies in seeing military action by the self-chosen few as the force to change society. Socialists are not pacifists and have genuine sympathy for those fighting political dictatorship but we recognise that the only meaningful translation that can occur in society is when the majority of people on a world-wide basis make a conscious voluntary decision to re-organise their lives and change the system that they live under. At the heart of our difference with Guevara was his belief that an equal wages society would be the spring to a socialist summer. The essence of socialism is a moneyless society; the break with using a means of exchange must be distinct and irrevocable. Equal wages and labour vouchers must inevitably lead back rather than forward as they are based on, and assume, capitalist consciousness continuing. Denouncing Che with the easy benefit of hindsight would be facile. Socialists are keen to analyse and discuss such people's lives for the lessons to be learnt. We understand that historical figures like Guevara, Lenin, Garibaldi and Connolly cannot be wholly responsible for the societies that arose in their wake. Such an approach overestimates the role of the individual as opposed to the political/economic/cultural factors prevailing at the time. Hindsight does show us though that without a proper understanding of the material basis of society any attempts at social change, no matter how initially laudable they may be, will certainly fail." (Socialist Standard, April 1996)

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