Photo (Public Domain): Cuban photographer Alberto Korda taking a picture of Che Guevara walking through a throng of cameramen down the streets in Havana, Cuba, with arms linked to his wife Aleida March in 1960. - Photo: 2018

Guevara and Marx: Critical Remake of an Old Film – 4

By Roberto Massari*

This is the fourth of a nine-part series. Read Parts 1, 2 and 3.

BOLSENA, Italy (IDN) – Everything that happened between Guatemala and Mexico is now a known story, recounted in the main biographies; but in the late 1960s Hilda was the only direct and reliable source of Che’s Marxist training, given that she had been his “teacher”: this was able to happen because she was more prepared than Ernesto, having a degree in economics, and above all because she had an anti-orthodox Marxist training with roots in APRA (therefore more genuinely Latin American) and not Sovietic (that is, Stalinist and dogmatic).

I have already provided an account of those “Roman” conversations with Hilda in my book of 1987, Che Guevara. Pensiero e politica dell’utopia [Che Guevara. Pensamiento y política de la utopía], and it is not the case to repeat here.

It may be interesting, however, to mention the titles or names of the authors that the two read, commented on and discussed (sometimes even animatedly as Che wrote in a letter to the family): Tolstoy, Gorky, Dostoevsky, Kropotkin (Memoirs of a Revolutionary), Engels (Antidühring, Origins of the Family, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, etc.), Lenin (What is to Be Done?, Imperialism) and of course various works by Marx, in addition to The Communist Manifesto and Capital. About the latter, Hilda wrote:

“…and Capital by Marx, with which I was more familiar for my studies of economics” (p. 36)].

Wanting to summarise Hilda Gadea’s point of view regarding that phase of intense theoretical sharing and fresh and enthusiastic Guevarian adherence to Marxism, I must say that in the conversations she had with me she placed the emphasis on two aspects which were then indeed crucial and which time has instead dispersed among the mists of the theoretical divergences that are now surpassed and obsolete.

In the first place, Hilda kept alive and transmitted to Ernesto the conception that the revolution in backward, dependent or developing countries cannot rely on the national bourgeoisie, neither as such – that is collectively in historical concretions of certain dependent capitalist classes (those which when I talked with her I referred to as “sub-imperialistic”) – nor on their allegedly progressive sectors.

These sectors appeared inevitably marked by class interests that ultimately would have led them to clash with the processes of real social emancipation, both in the rural world and with the urban proletariat.

With regard to Hilda and to the credit of Guevara, it must be recognised that he never failed in this fundamental political intuition derived from the best theoretical tradition of 20th century revolutionary Marxism.

Secondly, she tried to win Ernesto over to a radical critique of Soviet Marxism, both for the responsibilities it had in the past for the degenerative process of the October revolution, and for its contemporary policy of convergence with imperialism in maintenance of the global status quo.

It is true, however, that Hilda harboured illusions about Chinese communism, and at the time the USSR-China conflict was a burning topic. We will see that Guevara will not always listen to her on this double aspect of a single international reality born in Yalta and will go through oscillations in favour of and against Soviet Marxism, for and against so-called “Maoism”, unfortunately losing life before arriving at a superior synthesis of both these refusals. But more about that later.

On the commitment Ernesto put into the study of Marxism in the years of Guatemala and Mexico (1954-56) we also have three testimonies of his friends or future companions on the expedition to Cuba. Mario Dalmau de la Cruz, a Cuban exiled in Guatemala after having participated in the attack on the Moncada Barracks, talks about it (Ernesto “had read a whole Marxist library” in Granma of October 29, 1967). Darío López talks about it and tells us that it was Che who chose the Marxist works in the library of the training camp for those taking part in the Granma expedition and that the Mexican police would seize (in Granma of October 16, 1967).

And it is talked about by Argentine Ricardo Rojo (1923-1996), the travelling companion who wrote the first highly contested biography of Guevara and who invented the famous phrase erroneously attributed to Che (“Hay que endurecerse, pero sin perder la ternura jamás” [“One has to grow hard but without ever losing tenderness”]).

Rojo informs us that thanks to the friendship with Arnaldo Orfila Reynal (1897-1998), the Argentine who ran the largest publishing company in Mexico (Fondo de Cultura Económica – FCE), Guevara could put himself to selling books and therefore had access to many works that otherwise he would not have been able to buy:

“The classics of Marxism, the collection of the works of Lenin, texts relating to the military strategy of the Spanish Civil War passed before Guevara’s greedy eyes during the night, and in the morning they returned to the leather folder with which they visited offices and private houses” (Mi amigo el Che, p. 87).

The director of FCE provided Che with the three volumes of Capital and – whether he had read them in full or not, given the limited time available and the difficulties of study that they involved – he found himself within a few months giving lessons to Cubans of the 26th of July Movement on Marxism and Marx. The latter now jokingly called by him “San Carlos” [Saint Charles], ironically referring to the “heroes” of the Holy Family.

Ernesto communicates his new commitment in a somewhat coded letter sent to his mother on June 17, 1955. And similarly he writes to the beloved aunt Beatriz Guevara Lynch on January 8, 1956:

“… I often read Saint Charles and his disciples, I dream of going to study the cortisone [the countries beyond the border (ed.)] with one of these French girls who know everything …”.

The theme of “San Carlos” appears in various other letters of the period sent to loved ones: on April 15, 1956 to his father; between August and September to his mother; towards October to Tita Infante (“assiduous reader of Carlitos and Federiquitos and other ‘itos’”); again in October to his mother (“Now St Charles is primordial, is the axis, and will be in the years when the spheroid allows me in to its outermost layer”.

There can be no doubt, therefore, that while adherence to Marxism was initiated in conversations with Hugo Pesce, it was actually built with the avalanche of readings carried out in Guatemala and Mexico, partly under the guidance of Hilda Gadea, in part under the pressure of events and new political commitments including the military training given by the Spanish Civil War general Alberto Bayo y Giroud (1892-1967), his arrest and Mexican prison, and final preparation for the Granma expedition.

In between there was also “discovery” of the class struggle, the real, armed and mass struggle, which was worker in social composition and demands: it was the Bolivian revolution that started in 1952 and which Guevara experienced as a direct witness in the summer of 1953.

And this decisive experience should also be seen as one of the elements that won Guevara over to Marxism, above all to a characteristic and more authentic conception, for which the commitment in practice should never have been separated from the theoretical elaboration. However, on the importance of the first Bolivian experience of the young Ernesto, one can only refer to other works.

The same applies to the experience of the failed revolution of Jacobo Árbenz (1913-1971) in Guatemala: an event in which Guevara saw his first true revolutionary dream frustrated and in which he actively participated in a mass struggle for the first time.

Disillusioned by the conciliatory and submissive behaviour of the local communist party, the Partido guatemalteco del trabajo (PGT) [Guatemalan Party of Labour] he drew up a negative balance of that experience in his first political article.

He also blocked his adherence to the party he was about to join, having understood that it was not enough to call oneself “Marxist” to actually be so: his distrust towards the party form as such began from that moment.

In the course of his intense political life as a fighter for the cause of the revolution he was not to join any party that was really such. Instead, he was a member and active member of the M26-7 and of its armed expression (Exército Rebelde) as long as this movement survived. In fact, it is known that Guevara left Cuba before the constitution of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) was formalised and the October 1965 designation of its Central Committee of which Che was never part.

Interval: Scene 5 [Sierra Maestra, 1956-58]

The interval was real: an authentic “epistemological” break it could be said with Althusserian irony, since between departure for the Granma expedition and the victorious conclusion of the Las Villas campaign – which Guevara ended with the battle of Santa Clara which gave rise to his “legend” – there was an interruption in philosophical reflection on Marxism texts and reading itself of the texts.

The interruption lasted a little more than two years, starting with the departure from Tuxpan (when the only person with a previous military experience was the Italian Gino Doné [1924-2008] who had taken part in the Resistance in Veneto), passing through occupation of the two main military strongholds in Havana – under the leadership of Che and Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-1959) – and ending with the establishment of the new regime headed by Fidel Castro.

They were times of guerrilla warfare on the mountains and attacks in the cities, strikes, agrarian reform, expropriation and nationalisation, and the creation of a new state structure. Certainly not times of theoretical reflection, of study or of exploring the Marxian message.

Guevara’s Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War and the memoires of various fighters give the perception of a profound disregard for the problems of political theory by the Castro leadership – in this very differently from what had happened in the first period of the Russian revolution – and one gets the impression that Che was closed in a sort of theoretical self-isolation.

He admitted this himself in writing to the political figure that I personally consider to have been the most representative of the Cuban revolution (commander René Ramos Latour [“Daniel”, 1932-1958]), who died in combat, but only after having stood up to Che in a controversy that deserves the greatest attention and instead, out of political hypocrisy, is almost always ignored or in any case belittled.

On December 14, 1957, Che wrote him a long letter, very critical of the positions of the llano (the M26-7 in the cities where Daniel had been the main leader after the death of Frank País [1934-1957]), stating:

“I am, through my ideological preparation, one of those who believe that the solution of the problems in the world is to be found behind the so-called Iron Curtain and I consider this movement as one of the many provoked by the anxiety of the bourgeoisie to free itself from the economic chains of imperialism.

I have always considered Fidel as an authentic leader of the left bourgeoisie, even if his personality is characterised by personal qualities of extraordinary value, which place him far above his class.

With this spirit I started the struggle: honestly without the hope of going beyond liberation of the country, willing to leave when the conditions of the next struggle turn all the action of the Movement to the right (towards what you represent” (my italics).

It would be too long here to explain the subject of the polemic that is however of the greatest interest for understanding the dynamics of the Cuban revolution, and in any case I have already done so in detail on other occasions.

But at least two aspects must be kept in mind: a) Guevara had come to consider himself definitively part of the communist (Soviet) camp and, as a Marxist, he considered himself an isolated militant within a bourgeois democratic movement like the M26-7 and, although he was engaged in an armed struggle, he was willing to trust only up to a certain point (here Hilda Gadea’s teaching was evident); b) as early as 1957 he believed he could not conclude his revolutionary action within the Cuban movement and, with authentic prophetic spirit, announced his intention to leave for “other lands of the world” – as was to happen less than ten years later – if his ideological training should become incompatible with the ongoing revolutionary process. It was unequivocal proof of the internationalist spirit that animated his recent adherence to communism, although for the moment it coincided with the Soviet orientation.

It was much, but it was also everything. Nothing more of interest for our reflection on the evolution of his Marxism can be obtained from the years on the Sierra Maestra and the first formation of the new Cuban regime.

Roberto Massari, an Italian publisher, graduated in Philosophy in Rome, Sociology in Trento and Piano Studies at the Conservatory of Perugia. He has been President of the Che Guevara International Foundation since 1998 and is moderator of the Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia) blog. Translated from Italian by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 19 August 2018]

Photo (Public Domain): Cuban photographer Alberto Korda taking a picture of Che Guevara walking through a throng of cameramen down the streets in Havana, Cuba, with arms linked to his wife Aleida March in 1960.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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