Image: Countries Che Guevara visited (red) and those in which he participated in armed revolution (green). Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Photo: 2018

Guevara and Marx: Critical Remake of an Old Film – 8

By Roberto Massari*

This is the eighth of a nine-part series. Read Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

BOLSENA, Italy (IDN) – MARXIST STORY: Scene 8 [Prague, 1966]

At this point we must devote attention to this polemic, trying first of all to imagine the scene: after the lengthy confinement in the Cuban ambassador’s house in Dar es Salaam, there is a drastic change of continent – from Africa to the heart of old Europe; a large villa on the outskirts of Prague; the semi-clandestine coexistence (Cuban-Czechoslovak “Operation Manuel”) with some of the closest companions (“Pombo” [b. 1940] and “Tuma” [1940-1967]); chess games; study and writing.

Che remained there from March until July 1966, when he returned to Cuba to prepare for Bolivia, which in the meantime was definitively decided as a political goal, having abandoned during summer the previously chosen objective – namely, Peru. (All of this has been reconstructed and documented in detail by Humberto Vázquez Viaña in Una guerrilla para el Che).

And it is in Prague that Guevara writes the work that is used to define “The Prague Notebooks” (but published as Apuntes críticos a la Economía política [Critical notes on political economy], although Che’s target was really the Manual of Political Economy of the USSR Academy of Sciences). An enormous work of recompilation of texts (starting from the biographical compendium of Marx-Engels mentioned above), with long pieces hand-copied from works especially by Marx-Engels and Lenin, but also by Mao Zedong.

It seems right, however, to add to this work of anthology recompilation also the passages that Guevara copies in a separate booklet, in the same months or in a period a little later which, unfortunately, we have not been able to identify better. This booklet, together with the “Green Book” with poetic passages, was to reappear among his personal items sold in Bolivia after his death: in this case bought by the Feltrinelli publishing house, but without further specification.

The booklet was published in a very bad edition by the same Italian publishing house with errors and a ridiculous title (Before Dying. Notes and Reading Notes). It should however be taken seriously because it contains excerpts from The Marxists by C. Wright Mills, from the works of Marx-Engels, of Lenin and Stalin, from Lukács, from the already mentioned M.A. Dinnik and from various works by Trotsky. From a quantitative point of view, Trotsky’s passages prevail heavily over all the other authors mentioned and the passage taken from his History of the Russian Revolution is accompanied by the following comment:

“It is a fascinating book, but it is impossible to make a criticism because it is important to consider that the historian is also protagonist of events. However, it sheds light on a whole series of events of the great revolution that had been overshadowed by myth. At the same time, it makes isolated affirmations the validity of which is still absolute today. Ultimately, if we neglect the personality of the author and stick to the book, this should be considered a source of primary importance for study of the Russian revolution” (p. 94).

The Cuban government succeeded in preventing publication of The Prague Notebooks until 2006 (Apuntes [Notes]), but then had to yield not only to pressure exerted by the International Guevara Foundation, but also because some salient parts critical of the USSR had already appeared in 2001 in the book by Orlando Borrego, Che, el camino del fuego.

And among the passages reported and commented by the former Sugar Minister was the prologue by Che (“Necesidad de este book” [Need for this book]) in which, in addition to the many Guevarian statements inspired by Marxism that dismissed the Soviet claim to march towards socialism, the following lapidary statement referring to the USSR stood out:

“La superestructura capitalista fue influenciando cada vez en forma más marcada las relaciones de producción y los conflictos provocados por la hibridación que significó la Nep se están resolviendo hoy a favor de la superestructura: se está regresando al capitalismo» (Apuntes, p. 27; Borrego, p. 382) [emphasis by Che (ed.)].

[“The capitalist superstructure has come to influence production relations in an ever more marked form, and the conflicts caused by hybridisation that NEP meant are being resolved today in favour of the superstructure: there is a return to capitalism”.]

A similar prophecy formulated in the same months in which Fidel Castro decided to definitively enter the Soviet bloc may perhaps leave one indifferent nowadays, since everyone can see how it has actually come true. At the time, however, it implied a great intellectual courage by a sort of deputy head of state, legendary commander for the Soviet military world, who had matured the second phase of his youthful adherence to Marxism in prone admiration of the USSR as the homeland of socialism.

Any analysis of Che’s thought that does not take into account this profound transformation and instead presents a unilateral and stable vision over time of his economic conceptions does not deserve the slightest consideration. Unfortunately, for many years the books dedicated to Guevara that offer such a monochromatic and therefore deeply erroneous vision of his thought have represented almost the rule in the publishing output of Cuba or by authors related to it.

I could mention Cuban, Chilean, Italian, American [United Statians], etc. examples, but it would be an ungenerous way of being pitiless with the intellectual poverty of an entire generation which in the past I called “Latin-American nomenklatura [nomenclature]” and which is now finally beginning to die out.

The Notes are a very demanding work from a theoretical point of view and should be examined piece by piece, given that each paragraph refers critically to another paragraph of the notorious Soviet Manual. The language is very technical and demonstrates a new familiarity with the basic texts of Marxism: mostly Capital.

The references to Lenin also abound, cited in part positively and in part to challenge certain decisions taken after the end-of-war communism (a topic Guevara does not speak about, even if one might presume that, generally speaking, he tended to favour it). It is evident, however, that Che totally ignored the “heretical” literature dedicated to Soviet Russia since when Lenin himself was alive. Of this great theoretical laboratory, marked by famous names of Marxism and beyond, Guevara had no hint and this was his great theoretical limit.

However, it must also be said that Che lived only 39 years, many of them travelling or fighting arms in hand for his ideals.

With regard to Notes, what interests us most is that there is wide recourse to Critique of the Gotha Programme, both as direct references, and above all as adherence to its substance. This work of the last Marx is commonly considered as the maximum concentration of his utopian vision (as I have also interpreted it in my introduction to a bilingual Italian edition of 2008) and there is no doubt that even for Che this is its most characteristic meaning.

Let us not forget that a year earlier (March 1965), returning from the trip to Africa, he had delivered to the Marcha magazine in Montevideo his utopian text par excellence – Socialism and Man in Cuba – in which the inspiration from that famous text by Marx was clearly felt.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the manuscript of a study programme is also included in The Prague Notebooks (“Plan tentativo” [Draft plan]). We have already recalled two other study plans drafted in the same two-year period, and this is the second in order of time.

It is also the most organic and detailed, given that it has the form of a general index for a book to be written, a sort of scheme for a great monograph on the social history of humanity: from pre-capitalist production modes to imperialism, passing through slave societies and feudalism; from the Marxian categories of interpretation of capitalist development (including a broad summary of Capital) to a definition of the economy of the transitional phase (the whole of the third part); to finally arrive at the problem of building socialism (fourth and last part).

Death was to prevent him from carrying out this ambitious project, about which he certainly continued to think during the guerrilla war in Bolivia, as demonstrated by the readings plan mentioned at the beginning and which is now confirmed as a series of bibliographic notes drawn up month by month as part of a wish list of readings to be completed.

Published too late to have any influence on the theoretical training of the new generations of Cuban intellectuals, Notes will remain forever in the history of Marxism as proof of the highest level of understanding of Marxian theoretical heritage achieved by Guevara. But they will also be considered as the most complete testimony of his lucid capacity of analytical prediction in relation to a political world – his political world – which shone for dullness of mind if not real blindness with regard to the imminent fate of the Soviet bureaucratic 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 – 26 August 2018]

Image: Countries Che Guevara visited (red) and those in which he participated in armed revolution (green). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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