Photo: Guevara meeting with French existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at his office in Havana, March 1960. Sartre later wrote that Che was "the most complete human being of our time". In addition to Spanish, Guevara was fluent in French. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2018

Guevara and Marx: Critical Remake of an Old Film – 7

By Roberto Massari*

This is the seventh of a nine-part series. Read Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

BOLSENA, Italy (IDN) – HERESY STORY: Scene 7 [from Moscow to Havana, 1963-65]

The starting scene for describing this intellectual revival of Guevara’s Marxism is set in Moscow and he described it himself in one of the stenographic recordings of the bi-monthly conversations he held at the Ministry of Industry from 1962 to 1964. Here we are especially interested in some of the recordings of Che’s last year in Cuba as a minister. They are informal but precious materials; even more precious because they have not been re-elaborated or reviewed thus, reflecting Che’s immediate – and by no means diplomatic – thoughts.

These recordings were published in 1967 (but Guevara had already been able to see the drafts in 1966) in Vol. VI of the first extremely limited edition (around two hundred copies) of his works, edited by Orlando Borrego (El Che en la Revolución cubana).

In Cuba they were never republished, nor ever included in collections of his works and therefore for a long time they could be read above all in editions and translations made abroad: the first were in French, edited by Michael Löwy (b. 1938) and published by Maspero (1932-2015), and in Italian by Il Manifesto in 1969 and then in my collection of Scritti sceltiSelected Writings] of Che in 1993. Until they were finally included in the volume of Apuntes, published in Cuba in 2006.

The scene takes place on December 5, 1964 in the Cuban embassy in Moscow where Che is listened to by some fifty Soviet students, but also challenged by some of them regarding his theory of the priority of moral incentives, based on the growth of conscience of workers more than the use of material incentives.

“At this point, when (the problems) began to be posed, the confrontation became violent. The Bible – namely the Manual – because unfortunately the Bible here was not the Capital but the Manual. Some points began to be challenged, while things that were dangerously capitalist were also said: it was then that the question of revisionism emerged» (Apuntes, p. 369).”

It is important to point out that the ‘Manual’ ironically referred to here is the Manual of political economy of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, to which Guevara was to dedicate a whole volume of devastating criticism at the beginning of 1966 and which we will return to.

For now it is important to establish that the atmosphere changed in Moscow with regard to Commander Guevara (considered ‘glorious’ above all for his military exploits and not for his Marxism) and that the criticisms he addressed in the meantime to Soviet economic conceptions left their mark.

He is no longer the ultra-Soviet apologist, slavish supporter of the almost metaphysical superiority of dialectical materialism, but an intellectual in a ‘revisionist’ crisis, as he is accused of in Moscow, who has now understood that for the emancipation of the human being “the exact method to do so has not been found in any country and in some cases people have fallen into the extremes that today we call ‘Stalinists’” (September 12, 1964, p. 548)].

And since in Moscow no doubt on fundamental questions of this nature is allowed, one can imagine what reaction could have been caused by the negative judgements on Soviet economic management that Che had formulated during the great economic debate. The verdict could not be anything other than the classic damnatio iudicii, propaedeutic to damnatio memoriae: it was clearly “Trotskyism”.

“But because I am identified with the budgetary financing system, I get confused with that of Trotskyism. They say that the Chinese are also fractionists and Trotskyists, and they put the San Benito [a penitential garment of the Inquisition (ed.)] even on me” (p. 370).

“And so it was there, precisely in the Soviet Union, that greater clarity could be achieved. Does this mean that it is about revisionism up to Trotskyism, passing through the middle? […] Rather, Trotskyism emerges from two sides: one (the one that least attracts me) comes from the side of the Trotskyists who say that there is a series of things that Trotsky had already said. I believe only one thing, and it is that one must have the capacity to destroy all the contrary ideas on a given subject or let the ideas express themselves. The opinion according to which they should be destroyed with blows is not an opinion that brings benefits” (p. 369).

To understand the true Marxist maturation of Che it is essential to read carefully and go into the ideas that are scattered among the stenographic recordings, mixed with a thousand other problems (the operation of factories, problems of workers, polemics of opponents, negative but not yet drastic judgements on the economic ideas of the Soviets). It is not easy to reconstruct the thread running through Guevarian reflection and it is not even possible to summarise it here. I will limit myself to pointing out two references to Marx’s works which have a great qualitative importance for our reflection.

The first concerns the «young Marx». It was the mid-1960s and in France the stir produced by the great controversy over Marxian humanism (which can be reconstructed starting from the Writings of the young Marx on Philosophy and the Manuscripts of 1844) had not yet died down, both because of the rigidly anti-humanist positions of Althusser (1918-1990) and of the stance taken by Soviet ideologues. Guevara appears clearly fascinated by the controversy and comes out on the side of the humanism of the young Marx. He had already done so in the course of the economic debate, citing it explicitly: he returns to it in the virtually contemporary conversation of December 21, 1963.

He reconstructs the terms of the controversy, admits that the “Hegelian” language of the young Marx is not that of the “mature” Marx (author of Capital), but affirms that the basic Marxian thesis – according to which the development of society corresponds to the development of its economic contradictions in relation to the class struggle – was already contained in the Marx of 1844.

The reconstruction made by Guevara of this starting point acquires a particular value because it leads it back to the Marx of maximum acquired maturity, expressed in the text in which the philosopher of Trier had given his own conception of socialist society and of the transition to it: the Critique of the Gotha Programme. And this is the second important reference to Marx that flows through various conversations (e.g. pp. 270, 309, 311-12).

The attention given by Che to the Marx of 1844 and to the Marx of Critique of the Gotha programme leads him to develop his own personal hobby-horse, namely the importance of the subjective element for Marxism not only during the revolutionary struggle, but also during the transition to socialism, of the construction of the new society and of the new man.

According to Guevara, there cannot be communism that does not make Marxian “concerns” with respect to the humanistic nature of revolution its own. Indeed, there can be no revolution if the right role and the right importance are not attributed to the subjective commitment – in the ethical sense – of the worker considered as a class.

This characteristic position of Guevarian Marxism allowed Michael Löwy to speak first of the revolutionary humanism of Che (La pensée de Che Guevara, l970). It was then to be my turn to take up the concept and develop it extensively in my frequently cited 1987 monograph: Che’s entire philosophy or vision of the world can be summed up in this phrase – revolutionary humanism.

Over time I have become increasingly convinced that any attempt to place Che’s theoretical heritage outside of his personal and original revolutionary humanism makes it practically impossible to explain his behaviour: not only of his relationship which was experienced existentially and with extreme coherence between theory and praxis, but not even his ethics of socialism and personal commitment. From this point of view, a commitment that was very Sartre-like, and it is no coincidence that Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was able to recognise great personal and intellectual qualities in him as early as 1960 (Visit to Cuba).

In conversations and in other texts, Guevara also takes on the Marxian problem of alienation which, as we know, was a fundamental element of Marx’s criticism of Hegel and, in my personal opinion, the main element of philosophical differentiation from Hegelian statism for an entire initial phase, and of political differentiation for the rest of Marx’s life.

While it is not part of my reflection, it is interesting to recall that Guevara contrasts the idea of transition to Marx’s socialism (starting from the relationship between given subjective consciousness and the process of self-emancipation from the mechanisms of capitalist alienation) with the uncertainties and real turning points that he rightly attributes to Lenin without, however, giving the question the importance it deserves.

During the conversations, Guevara talks about his change of judgement with respect to Lenin. The vulgate of “Marxism-Leninism” no longer belongs to his baggage of ideas, even if the process that led him to this view is in a sense historically reversed: Guevara does not like the NEP, because he does not like the idea that elements of the market, methods of capitalist functioning, are reintroduced in an economy of transition to socialism. He does not accept it for the USSR and Cuba of his days, and retrospectively does not accept it for the Russia of the 1920s. Hence a drastic review of the judgement about Lenin, which is now presented in conflict with the essence of Critique of the Gotha Programme (pp. 310-12, 316, 324-6), or even with his State and Revolution, previously admired and cited by Guevara.

Many of the ideas expressed in the conversations at the Ministry of Industry are reflected in the articles written almost simultaneously for the great economic debate. The discussion took place roughly between the beginning of 1963 and the end of 1964. The interventions appeared freely in several Cuban journals and not only the main leaders of each sector of the economy took part in the discussion – from industry to banks, with the sole exception of Fidel Castro who did not take part – but also some famous European economists such as Charles Bettelheim (1913-2006) and Ernest Mandel (1923-1995) without forgetting the importance attributed to that discussion by the Monthly Review of Paul Sweezy (1910-2004) and Leo Huberman (1903-1968). The best presentation of that historical discussion has been given in O debate econômico em Cuba by Luiz Bernardo Pericás (b. 1969).

An additional note should be added regarding the sources used by Che to become familiar with the personal story of Marx and Engels. He certainly read part of the correspondence between the two which had been available for some time in Spanish, but his favourite source was The life of Marx by Franz Mehring (1846-1919). He cites it expressly on more than one occasion. For example, in the conversation of October 2, 1964 (p. 325) when he affirms the need to publish the famous biography (which he describes as “moving”) in Cuba and emphasises in particular the importance that Mehring attributed to Marx’s polemic with Ferdinand Lassalle (1825- 1864).

Unfortunately Che does not develop the theme and it is a real pity because we could have better understood his attitude towards the statist conception of socialism, on which I have always had doubts that Guevara was a convinced adept.

On the other hand, I have no evidence that Guevara could have read the monumental biography dedicated to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels by Auguste Cornu (1888-1981), the first half of the Spanish translation of which was published by the Instituto del Libro in Havana in an enormous volume of over 700 pages only in 1967, although – I have been told – on explicit request made by Che before leaving.

But Guevara did something more than simply recommend Mehring’s biography. He made it a real compendium, which can be read as “Síntesis biográfica de Marx y Engels”, either in its natural location – within the Notes as a chapter endowed with a propaedeutic theoretical function with respect to the subsequent polemic with the Soviets – or as a banally commercial operation (by Ocean Press), that is as a separate booklet, devoid of notes and information explaining the reasons for such an extrapolation: it is a further damage which is added to the many others done to the possibility of a scientific edition of Che’s Works. In this case, the Guevarian project of actualising the heritage of Marx and Engels aimed at the focus of the controversy with the Soviets has been also hit.

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 – 25 August 2018]

Photo: Guevara meeting with French existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at his office in Havana, March 1960. Sartre later wrote that Che was “the most complete human being of our time”. In addition to Spanish, Guevara was fluent in French. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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