Photo: Speaking at the UN General Assembly on December 11, 1964 on behalf of Cuba, Argentinean-born Ernesto "Che" Guevara responds to questions regarding his accent, affirming he is Cuban and willing to die for the liberation of any Latin American country. Credit: UN - Photo: 2018

Guevara and Marx: Critical Remake of an Old Film – 5

By Roberto Massari*

This is the fifth of a nine-part series. Read Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

BOLSENA, Italy (IDN) – Second half: ORTHODOXY STORY: Scene 6 [from Havana to Moscow, 1959-63]

As is well known, the revolutionary government assigned commander Guevara with tasks of great importance, but all within the economic sphere as president of the Banco Nacional de Cuba, in a first phase, and then as Minister of Industry (at the time unified in a single ministry) until the day of his resignation became operational between the end of 1964 and the spring of 1965.

He was also entrusted with important missions abroad which he carried out almost as a real foreign minister – at the United Nations, the Organisation of American States (OAS), the COMECON countries, the new African nations and various national liberation movements – becoming a sort of “itinerant ambassador” of the Cuban revolution.

This very important part of his government activity goes beyond our reflection. Practically all biographies of Che speak about it, but for an overview and a direct testimony, I recommend in particular Caminos del Che by commander “Papito” Jorge Serguera (1932-2009) who, thanks to his total identification with the secret directives of the Cuban government, found himself playing a major role in very “delicate” operations: for example, as ambassador to Algiers at the time of Ben Bella or in charge of relations with Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974) in Spanish exile.

Che’s years as Minister of Industry are years in which he takes up his studies of Marxism again, as well as of the various other subjects necessary for the management of his ministry: a field in which he had to learn everything from scratch, but in which he demonstrated really exceptional learning skills.

It is obvious that the particular nature of the position led him to deepen his study of Marx and followers, especially in the field of critique of political economy. But as we shall see in the next scene, this did not produce economicistic-type derivations in him. Far from it.

And even his assiduous and hyperactive frequentation of factories and other production centres did not make him a “workerist”. From this point of view, his anti-dogmatic and originally unorthodox Marxist training constituted an effective vaccine against deformations that would have been “natural” in a neophyte of communist statism, admirer for a whole first phase of the Soviet model and the works of its ideologues in the economic field; these began to circulate in Cuba in Spanish long before the country officially became part of the COMECON [CMEA] (1972).

This part of Guevarian activity and economic formation has been largely reconstructed by his former deputy minister, Orlando Borrego (b. 1936) in the 2001 book Che, el camino del fuego (in particular in the first five chapters).

The best anthology of Che texts devoted to economic issues was instead published on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his death, edited by historian Juan José Soto Valdespino (Temas económicos, 1988). Obviously, it could not contain the Guevarian texts dedicated to the polemics with Soviet economic conceptions, publication of which was delayed by the Cuban government until 2006, when the USSR had no longer existed for about 15 years (I will talk about this later).

For a more up-to-date study of Che’s economic ideas, one can resort to Introducción al pensamiento marxista (Introduction to Marxist Thought) edited by Néstor Kohan for the Cátedra Ernesto Che Guevara of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.

Outside the commitment in the economic field, Che continued to read as much as possible of Marx and official Marxism, being totally identified for this phase in the policy of rapprochement with the Soviets that Fidel Castro undertook on the island starting from the first months after revolutionary victory.

On this road Guevara played a leading role in proposing that the state publishing company should publish theoretical texts produced beyond the “Iron Curtain”, but above all in the difficult task of “rehabilitating” the local Communist party (Partido socialista popular [PSP].

In addition to the original hostility towards the M26-7 and the absence as a ruling group (but not as grassroots militants) from the revolutionary process, this party had also to be forgiven for the support given in 1940-44 to the first government of Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) – in which it had taken part with two ministers – and subsequent relationships of ambiguous collaboration with the second government (after the Batista coup of 1952), even coming to oppose attempts to overthrow him such as, for example, the attack on Moncada Barracks.

Did Guevara know about these past collaborationist episodes of the PSP? It is difficult to say to what extent and up to which point, also because after the victory of 1959 all the possible compromising documents about the PSP of Blas Roca (1908-1987) disappeared from the Havana main library, as I was able to verify in person in 1968. But after the seizure of power, Che’s identification with the Soviet model was so strong as to push him to underestimate these episodes of Cuban Stalinism.

He was to come to regret it bitterly later, when the hardest attacks on his management of industry were to come precisely from the former PSP while, after his disappearance, the apparatus of international Soviet propaganda would launch a campaign of slander about his alleged loss of reason, so much so as to have become … Trotskyist.

But in the early 1960s, none of this seemed to be on the horizon for minister Guevara. In fact, these are the years in which his Marxism is homologous with the dogmatic and scholastic standards of Soviet brand “dialectical materialism” – the notorious Diamat – pushing him to formulations imbued with vulgar evolutionism and mechanicism that only later he would reject.

The basic and most famous text for this “scientistic” reduction of Marxism is «Notes for the study of the ideology of the Cuban Revolution» (in Verde Olivo, October 1960) in which the adherence to Marxism in the ambit of the social sciences is equated with the definition that the scientist self-attributes in the field of natural, physical or mathematical sciences.

The comparisons that Guevara provides are very significant when he states that no one will ask a physicist if he is “Newtonian” or a biologist if he is “Pasteurian” because they are these by definition and by natural impulse. Even if new research and new facts lead to changing the initial positions, there will always remain a background of truth in the tools used to reach presumed scientific certainties. And this is what happens to those who consider themselves Marxist and actually are.

The “scientific-naturalistic” comparison with Marxism continues, citing Einstein with relativity and Planck with quantum theory which, according to Guevara, have taken nothing away from the greatness of Newton: they have surpassed him but only in the sense that “the English scientist represents the necessary passage” for this further development (Escritos y discursos, IV, p. 203).

Guevara does not escape from a conclusion definable as deterministic and evolutionistic at the same time, when he states that there are “truths so evident, so inherent in the conscience of peoples, that it is useless to discuss them. One must be ‘Marxist’ with the same naturalness with which one is ‘Newtonian’ in physics or ‘Pasteurian’ in biology” (pp. 202-3). This is a not even refined way of affirming a dogmatic conception of social science, that is to say, in the case of Marxism.

Continuing the analogy with the mathematics in which we have had £”a Greek Pythagoras, an Italian Galileo, an English Newton, a German Gauss, a Russian Lobachevsky, an Einstein, etc.”, Guevara states that also in the social sciences the itinerary of a great process of accumulation of knowledge could be traced from Democritus to Marx – but this, I add, in total disregard for the discontinuity that Marxism attributes to the historical dialectic marked by ruptures, leaps, rearrangements and syntheses.

But by now Marx has become for Che not only the scholar who “interprets history and understands its dynamics”, but also he who “foresees future events”, who “prophesises” (further on he even speaks of the «predictions of Marx the scientist»), who is “architect of his own destiny” and, besides interpreting nature, now has the tools to “transform it”.

Hence the obvious reference to the need for revolutionary action as a logical consequence of so much scientific knowledge of nature, history and the world made possible by Marxism, now considered definitely to be a science.

This flatly materialistic vision was certainly derived from very simplistic interpretations of works by Engels (Anti-Dühring, Dialectics of Nature, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) and Lenin (Materialism and Empirio-Criticism) which are not cited here, but which Ernesto had read in Guatemala and Mexico.

The equation of Marxism with the mathematical, physical or biological sciences – which had been a common currency for Marxology in the Stalinist period – now opens into the grossest philosophical evolutionism when Guevara draws a line of continuity among “Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong”, even going so far as to include the “new Soviet and Chinese rulers” in this pyramid scheme of presumably Marxist thinking (Escritos y discursos, p. 204]): of all these, according to Che, one should have followed “the body of doctrine” and even “the example” (but on Khrushchev he would change his mind shortly thereafter …).

It would be ungenerous to continue with other quotations from this naive listing of the presumed scientific-naturalistic merits of Marxism – which strangely however is never called here “dialectical materialism” according to what instead Stalinist tradition would have prescribed – and if anything we should take it up with how many (many, too many) have indicated in this article one of the top peaks reached by Guevara in his re-elaboration of Marxism.

Unfortunately, C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) – who included this unique Che text in his famous anthology, The Marxists (1962) – is one of these. (Guevara will reciprocate by including in his own Apuntes (Notes) of 1966 – which we will speak of – various passages taken from The Marxists.)

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 – 21 August 2018]

Note: Click here for Che Guevara’s speech at UN (1964) with English subtitles.

Photo: Speaking at the UN General Assembly on December 11, 1964 on behalf of Cuba, Argentinean-born Ernesto “Che” Guevara responds to questions regarding his accent, affirming he is Cuban and willing to die for the liberation of any Latin American country. Credit: UN

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top