Photo: Che Guevara Statue, Santa Clara, Cuba (CC0 Public Domain). - Photo: 2018

Guevara and Marx: Critical Remake of an Old Film – 6

By Roberto Massari*

This is the sixth of a nine-part series. Read Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

BOLSENA, Italy (IDN) – With regard to the “Marxism” of Marx there is not much more, because the rest of the article launches itself into a very imaginative analysis of the progress of the Cuban revolution which I leave out here without remorse.

In the past, however, I have devoted some attention to the hasty manner in which Che had dismissed some statements in that text from the two founding fathers related to Mexico and Bolivar. Here I limit myself to mentioning the piece by Guevara, but for my comment I refer to the detailed analysis I made in Che Guevara. Pensamiento y política de la utopía (pp. 54-9).

With a word of caution: as incredible as it may seem, the piece of criticism of Marx that I am about to mention was suppressed, in an evident attempt at censorship, by the editors of Escritos y discursos in 9 volumes of Editorial de Ciencias Sociales (which is the collection that is normally used for the works of Che after 1957): see to believe Vol. IV, p. 203.

Moreover, in the past the Guevara Foundation has identified various other examples of censure in this “official” collection and in other Cuban editions of the Works of Che, then making the denunciation of such a scandalous and ridiculous situation public (see CQGF No. 6/2006, pp. 73-84).

But since the right hand of bureaucracy often ignores what the left does, the piece can be found entirely reproduced in the collection of Works 1957-1967, curated not by chance by the Casa de las Américas in 1970, when it was directed by an intelligent and anti-conformist woman like Haydée Santamaría. From there I report it in full, both because it is a beautiful piece by Che (which does not seem to have softened the soul of the censors), and as a humble tribute to Marx on the occasion of his 200th birthday:

“Marx as a thinker, as a scholar of the social sciences and of the capitalist system in which he lived, can obviously be accused of some inaccuracies. We Latin Americans, for example, cannot agree with his judgment on Bolivar and with the analysis which, together with Engels, Marx made of Mexicans, taking for granted certain theories about race or nationality which are inadmissible today.

But great men, discoverers of luminous truths, survive in spite of their small errors, which serve to make them more human: they can make mistakes without this damaging our clear awareness of the level reached by these giants of thought. And for this reason we say that the essential truths of Marxism are an integral part of the cultural and scientific community of peoples and we accept them with the naturalness that comes from something that needs no further discussion” (pp. 93-4).

The criticisms that Guevara addressed to Marx-Engelsian texts on Latin America could refer to some entries compiled by Marx and Engels for the New American Cyclopaedia (published in New York in 16 volumes between 1858 and 1863, under the direction of Charles Anderson Dana [1819-1897], also director for some twenty years of the New York Daily Tribune), but above all to a letter from Marx to Engels dated December 2, 1854 (in Complete Works, XXXIX, p. 434).

After having reconstructed the complicated story, in my comment I openly agreed with the two great friends and disagreed with Guevara. But I added a much more serious consideration about the fact that, in the essay dedicated by Che to analysis of the ideology of the Cuban revolution, there was no mention of the great libertadores (liberators), no mention of any Latin American thinker or writer involved in the anti-Spanish ideological struggle, not even José Martí (1853-1895) himself.

Greek philosophers, physicists and mathematicians from various eras were mentioned, as well as a lot of Marx, but no one indigenous to Cuba or Latin America. A foolishness certainly produced by the anxiety of the neophyte who wanted to show himself more Marxist than Marx, flaunting an acquired familiarity with his work, but that cannot fail to leave one taken aback.

More than the vulgar materialist conception of Marxism exhibited therein, it is the absence of references to Latin American ideologies or political conceptions which constitutes the most serious deficiency of that unfortunate text, which was so popular at the time and may still continue to delight.

This was not, however, an isolated case because in other texts of the period there were similar reductive and distorted visions of the Marxist method of analysis, accompanied by a clear ignorance of the great tradition of debate that had developed during the whole of the 20th century starting from the original Marxian legacy.

See, for example, the most interesting interview ever with Guevara. I refer of course to my friend Maurice Zeitlin (b. 1935) who interviewed Che on September 14, 1961, and immediately published the interview in Root and Branch(photostatic copy in CQGF No. 9/2014, pp. 219-26), a magazine based at the University of Berkeley in California, which was repeated on various occasions (see, for example, Cuba, an American Tragedy).

For the occasion, despite having touched on political topics of great theoretical actuality, Guevara repeated in synthesis the previous materialistic vulgate, including the comparison with biology which, as a doctor, he was evidently fond of:

“We regard Marxism as a science in development, just as, say, biology is a science. One biologist adds to what others have done, while working in his own special field. Our specialty is Cuba” (p. 54).

To make the comparison with biology even clearer (and more serious), in the subsequent answer Guevara extended it also to Lenin: a “eulogy” that he would have to regret later (in 1964) when he was to clearly distance himself from fundamental aspects of the Leninist vulgate:

“The value of Lenin is enormous – in the same sense in which a major biologist’s work is valuable to other biologists. He is probably the leader who has brought the most to the theory of revolution. He was able to apply Marxism in a given moment to the problems of the State, and to emerge with laws of universal validity”.

This is the interview in which Guevara, pressed by Zeitlin (who in fact offered an exemplary model of behaviour for a true “interviewer” who does not want to remain passive and supine in the face of the answers of the person being interviewed), had to recognise that he was not familiar with great figures of socialism like Eugene Debs (1855-1926) or Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919).

As for the latter, he formulated only a kind of ungenerous epitaph, saying that “she was a great revolutionary and she died a revolutionary, as a consequence of her political mistakes” (p. 54). Six years later, the same words could have been applied to the Bolivian Guevara, just as ungenerously.

The use of the formula “dialectical materialism” appears widely in a speech given by Guevara during a prize-giving at the Ministry of Industry on January 31, 1962 (Escritos y discursos, VI, pp. 79-90). After enthusiastically praising a book by Blas Roca, Che presents a sort of synthesis of the degree of understanding of Marxism he had achieved in that phase, totally unbalanced on the side of the last Engels, as was now unanimously accepted in Soviet Marxology.

The passage that follows (p. 81) brings together a) the naively materialistic (and in any case unfounded) theory of the existence of two sciences, the bourgeois and the proletarian; b) the attribution to Engels even of paternity of the theory for the origin of life on earth; c) the applicability of the dialectical materialistic method to all aspects of reality (with Stalin we had reached linguistics and genetics); and d) and the de facto identification of such a method with non-capitalist science, thus with “proletarian” science, even if not further specified.

In short, Guevara shows an integral adherence to the theory of Diamat and its claims of cultural hegemony over every aspect of individual and social life.

“The concept of life that dialectical materialism offers us is different from the concept of life that capitalism offers us: the concept of the sciences of dialectical materialism is also different. Many years ago, Engels had defined life as a way of being of albuminoid material; it was a new concept, something that at the time revolutionised ideas […]. For this reason we must look for such bases, learn to think correctly through the method of dialectical materialism in every field, not only in political discussions or on specific occasions, but for applying it as a method in every scientific or practical task that we have to fulfil. All interpretations of the technique, and above all interpretation of the economy, change enormously if examined in the light of dialectical materialism or under the false lights of capitalist conceptions”.

Moreover, if the Che Minister of Industry displayed uncritical adherence to the conceptions of Soviet Marxism in the first years of the revolution this was due to the fact that those conceptions were naively imported and accepted in all their crude and brutal mechanicism by the entire Cuban leadership.

By some passively, by others actively: among these and first of all Guevara and Raúl Castro (b. 1931), considered from the beginning the only other “communist” present in the leadership of M26-7. They were then to be joined by Osmany Cienfuegos (b. 1931), immediately after the death of his brother Camilo, coming from the PSP and future leader of the Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL).

These are also the years when ideological work (propaganda, cadre schools and publication of the main magazines) ended up in the hands of the leaders shaped in the old PSP who, in the meantime, had been called to be part of the new Cuban leadership. They were entrusted practically – and for a few crucial years – with management of the properly “cultural” activity of the party in view of a true fact: namely that they were the only ones to have some sort of theoretical preparation.

But even this is a page that Che was to rewrite radically in his ideal testament of March 1965 (Socialism and Man in Cuba, see the edition edited by Argentine José “Pancho” Aricó [1931-1991]), denouncing the “socialist realism” and official culture that, under the pretext of being “within reach of all”, was in reality “within the reach of officials” that is, of the bureaucracy.

In that text he was also to make a harsh criticism of “the scholasticism that has held back the development of Marxist philosophy” and the fact that “a formally exact representation of nature” has been converted into “a mechanical representation of the social reality that was wanted to be shown”.

On May 30, 1963, Guevara had written a laudatory preface, which verged on ingenuity and apologetic intent, for a book published in Cuba by the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution (PURSC). This was the name of the intermediate party that existed practically only on paper – from March 1962 to October 1965 – in the phase in which Fidel Castro imposed the unification of a single organisation of the three main political currents that had survived in Cuba: the pro-Soviet communists of the PSP, Directorio Revolucionario 13 de Marzo and M26-7. Those who did not share that choice (the most famous case was Carlos Franqui [1921-2010], author of Libro de lo Doce) were excluded or emigrated abroad.

The title was high-sounding (El Partido Marxista-Leninista), but in reality it was a question of some of Fidel Castro’s speeches added to one of the most “celebrated” liturgical texts in the Soviet world, namely Manual of Marxism-Leninism by Otto Wilhelm Kuusinen (1881-1964).

He had been the historic leader of Finnish Stalinism who remained unscathed through decades of purges and political wrangling, “famous” for having been placed at the head of the puppet government created by the Soviets when they had vainly attempted to occupy Finland (1939-40) according to the clauses of the Secret Protocol that had accompanied the Pact signed by Stalin (Molotov) with Hitler (von Ribbentrop).

The preface by Guevara to that pamphlet can be considered as the lowest point he reached in the exaltation of “naturalistic materialism”, that is, of Soviet-type Marxism-Leninism. A date that marks the limit in the theoretical degradation of his Marxism and after which there began to re-emerge with difficulty the anti-conformist, lucid and anti-dogmatic Marxist, who had admired the Mariateguian Hugo Pesce years earlier and had listened, but not sufficiently, to the theoretical counsels of young leftist member of APRA Hilda Gadea.

Guevara’s commitment to bringing Cuba closer to the USSR and identifying the ideological aims of the Cuban revolution with the Marxist vulgate spread by the Soviet propaganda apparatus was enthusiastically reconstructed (and in large part invented) in a book of “Guevarological-Marxist paleontology”, published in Russian in 1972 and in Spanish (Editorial Progreso of Moscow) in 1975. The title was simple – Årn∂sto C∂ G∂vara (Ernesto Che Guevara) – but the background of the author, Iosif P. Lavretskij, was less simple, being the pseudonym of a Soviet secret police agent, also hidden behind another name.

For some time it was believed that Iosif P. Lavretskij was a Soviet scholar, although there remained the suspicion that he could be identified with a Lithuanian-Russian author of works on Guevara: Iosif Romual’dovič Grigulevič (1913-1988).

At one point it was clear that Grigulevič and Lavretskij were two different names and surnames of one author: the first was a physical person, an agent of the NKVD and then of the KGB (with the name of “Teodoro Castro Bonnefil”), involved in various important murders (Nin, Trotsky, etc.) and at some point commissioned to kill also the president of Yugoslavia Tito; the second was one of his pseudonyms.

The library catalogues of Harvard University in the United States report that the two names identify the same author. On p. 427 of his book La vida en rojo, una biografía del Che Guevara (1997), Jorge Castañeda Gutman (b. 1953) wrote that “Lavretskij” was the pseudonym behind which Soviet historian and KGB agent Josef Grigulevič hid.

In June 2001 in a speech at the conference of the Guevara Foundation in Acquapendente, Zbigniew M. Kowalewski (b. 1943), the leading Polish scholar of Che, confirmed that “Lavretskij” was the pseudonym of Grigulevič, a former Soviet secret police officer. In the same meeting, Czech scholar Vladimír Klofáč reported that Miloslav Ransdorf (1953-2016), vice president of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, had indicated the name Lavretskij/Grigulevič (thus associating the two names) in the note on p. 50 of the book Muž Svědomí (Man of Conscience). Ernesto Che Guevara, Nakladatelství Futura, Prague 2000.

All these hypotheses were definitively confirmed by the publication of the Archive of Vasilij Nikitič Mitrochin (1922-2004) in 1999-2000 and, posthumously, in 2005. I add a little curiosity: in the “Reading plan in Bolivia”, Che included Pancho Villa by the same I. Lavretskij in the books listed in November 1966.]

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 – 14 August 2018]

Photo: Che Guevara Statue, Santa Clara, Cuba (CC0 Public Domain).

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