Catechism for the Universal Church:
Che is not at all influential among the various wings of the Cuban opposition. In a broader sense, for many rebellious young people throughout the world, Che Guevara is seen as a key leader of the Cuban Revolution—one of the most important revolutions of the twentieth century—and the only one who coherently practiced what he preached.
To many of the contemporary rebels active in anticapitalist movements, Che is not only a radical, uncompromising opponent of capitalism, but—given his opposition to the traditional pro-Moscow Communist parties—also a revolutionary who shares their own ideals in pursuit of revolutionary and antibureaucratic politics.
This book analyzes the substantive political ideas and practices of Che Guevara from a standpoint that shares this anticapitalist, antibureaucratic sentiment. It does so, however, based on the belief that socialism and democracy are indispensable requisites to realize those aspirations.
I was born and raised in Cuba and participated in the anti-Batista high school student movement of the s, and have been involved in socialist politics for well over fifty years.
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My political roots are in the classical Marxist tradition that preceded Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Soviet Stalinism established the structural paradigm of a one-party state ruling over the whole economy, polity, and society—a paradigm that was later implemented in its multiple national variations by countries such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba.
Central to my perspective is a view of socialist democracy in which institutions based on majority rule control the principal sources of economic, social, and political power at the local and national levels.
To be a fully participatory democracy, socialism must be based on the self-mobilization and organization of the people, and the rule of the majority has to be complemented by minority rights and civil liberties. I have written three books and numerous articles on Cuba based on this perspective.
Che Guevara is a central part of the story of the Cuban Revolution, but his life and politics have international and theoretical repercussions that go beyond the Cuban story itself. In that sense, this study is closely related to another of my books, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy, published in While clearly distinguishing Leninism in power from Stalinism, I nevertheless argued that, under the great pressures of the civil war and severe economic crisis, mainstream Bolshevism changed its political character, converting the necessity of repression under civil war conditions into a virtue, thus weakening the resistance to the subsequent emergence of Stalinism.
Although of course the political background and historical conditions under which Guevara fought for his ideas were very different from those of the Russian Revolution, they also require us to consider the relationship between revolution and democracy.
Thus, his revolutionary perspectives were irremediably undemocratic, based on a conception of socialism from above rather than below, which raises serious questions about the social and political order he would have brought about had he been successful in his efforts to spark victorious revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia.
To Che, the state was the fulcrum of change and its takeover was the goal of the socialist revolution. But he was an idiosyncratic Communist: But even when he became more critical of the Soviet system after leaving the Cuban government, he upheld until the end of his life the monolithic Soviet view of socialism as a one-party state.
Che was neither a libertarian nor a democrat in his theory or practice. For Che, the essence of socialism consisted in the absolute elimination of competition and capitalist profit, and in having the state, led by the vanguard Communist Party, control the economic life of the country in its totality.
In his conception of economic equality and his insistence on an exclusive dedication to the goals of society, he implicitly accepted the old Tocquevillian dichotomy of equality versus individuality.
Che Guevara considered himself a Marxist and seriously studied the Marxist classics but was very selective of the aspects of Marxism he adopted as his own. But, as we shall see, as early as when he was in the Sierra Maestra inGuevara in contrast became the principal proponent of the view that the guerrilla rebel army itself—and not the working class or, for that matter, the peasantry, except as supporting actors—would overthrow the Batista dictatorship and carry out the social revolution in Cuba.
But it was entirely consistent with the establishment of a socialism from above, which initially enjoyed overwhelming support; it emphasized popular participation while excluding popular democratic control.
Thus, the system established by Guevara and the other Cuban leaders on principle did not allow for the establishment of socialist democratic institutions and the political liberties and rights necessary for their fulfillment. Che used the same fundamental approach in his guerrilla incursions in the Congo and especially in Bolivia without ever reassessing his assumptions regarding the socioeconomic and political conditions necessary for the success of guerrilla warfare.
In the case of the Congo while he later acknowledged the absence of conditions for a social or even an anti-imperialist revolution in the eastern part of that countrywhere he had led Cuban and Congolese soldiers, he nevertheless insisted, with extreme voluntarism, that the solution to those very real objective obstacles was the creation of a vanguard party.
And in the case of Bolivia, he advised militant miners to abandon the mass struggle in the places where they lived and struggled and instead to join his faraway guerrilla army, which, in contrast with the democratic revolutionary traditions of the miners, was organized on a strictly military hierarchical basis and led mostly by people foreign to their class and country.
In this context, revolutionary violence is unfortunate, but necessary and inevitable in light of what oppressive ruling groups will do in order to preserve their power. His clear implication is that reform, not revolution, is the only viable, sensible alternative in fighting for liberty and democracy.
At least since the Russian Revolution, it has become accepted almost as political common sense that revolution and its violence are incompatible with democracy and liberty and that only parliamentary social reform can coexist with a democratic political order.
In the mid-twentieth century, this perspective was not only maintained by prominent critics of Marxism such as the philosopher Karl Popper but at least implicitly by authentic socialist leaders such as Salvador Allende. As the democratically elected president of Chile, overthrown and killed in a military coup supported by the CIA, Allende sacrificed his life to remain faithful to that notion.
The relationship between revolution and democracy is a very important issue and a difficult one to disentangle. Nevertheless, I would assert that the following two points are vital: First, revolution does not automatically lead to dictatorship, totalitarianism, or democracy.
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