It has been 50 years since Che Guevara was murdered by the CIA and their accomplices in Bolivia. Among the wretched allies of the west was Klaus Barbie, the famous Nazi responsible for anti-partisan operations during WWII and for the mass murder of Jews and Communists in France, of course history makes no mention of his relationship with amerika. Nevertheless, while a plethora of shirts, posters and literature have served as the legacy of Che Guevara in the North, there exists a much richer legacy in the South, where his legacy survives in notions of Third World unity and anti-imperialist struggle. It is shameful that, even among the First-Worldist left, little is known about him beyond the consumer-friendly revolutionary aesthetic he now embodies. As we move into the next great conflagration in the Third World (which is already upon us), it is more important than ever to revive and reexamine his legacy, and replace the rotten one we have been handed.
Che made no secret of his feelings toward the relationship that existed between the imperialist countries and the Third World, and his firm belief in an internationalist alternative to the highly liberal, nationalist impotency which existed in the First World left. Indeed, Che was among the anti-imperialist tendency which formed the basis of a developing Third-Worldist Communism. In an act of total self-gratification, the Northern left likes to repeat his overused quotation: “I envy you. You North Americans are very lucky. You are fighting the most important fight of all—you live in the belly of the beast.” The exceptionalist self-importance in full view, First-Worldists use this quotation to tempt us into the belief that Che Guevara saw them as indispensable as they see themselves. However, the truth was much the opposite, whether by misjudgment or sarcasm, it appears this quotation had little effect on his broader strategic views.
In his critique of the soviet “Manual of Political Economy” he made this skepticism of First World workers very obvious, and discussed the unity between the Northern labor aristocracy and their bourgeoisie. He discusses the counter-intuitive rising wages in the First World as an example of such unity in practice, born out of both class struggle on the part of the labor aristocracy, and consumptive expediency on the part of the imperialist bourgeoisie.
The tendency of modern imperialism is to share with the workers the crumbs of their exploitation of other peoples. On one hand, this tendency to increase production demands increase in consumption, that is only achieved in a stable way when making new articles form an essential part of the worker’s life, so they are part of the formation of the value of labor power (radio, television, cinema, domestic equipment, etc.).
This tendency has more or less become law as the bourgeoisie is, on some level, conscious of the need to maintain an ever expanding velocity of exchange to sustain their imperialist accumulation. This has, as Che observed, made the labor aristocracy a virtual partner of their imperial bourgeoisie in the exploitation of the Third World. Of course, this does not mean that they literally exploit the global proletariat in a fashion fitting of the bourgeoisie. Rather, this relationship between labor and capital in the First World has made it difficult for the working class movement to break out of the loop of “conservative” class struggle. The constant struggle for higher wages and a greater consumptive capacity has rendered the labor aristocracy useless to the international struggle for liberation, as they will not poison that system which feeds them, and will struggle as the petty bourgeoisie do: fighting both those below and those above to maintain their current privileges and reach for greater ones.
The World Revolution
It is important to note, however, that Che’s resolution was not toward insular Third World nationalism, and emphasizing extreme specificity as an opposing pole to the decadent impotence of First World socialism. Rather, he was perhaps one of the first conscious Third-Worlders, in that he imagined the Third World as a political idea which could be brought into a subjective unity based on the objective commonality of conditions faced at the hands of the imperialists. In many ways this was informed directly by his experiences in transition from Argentine doctor to Cuban, Congolese and then Bolivian revolutionary. It is here that we imagine the first steps taken toward the realization of proletarian internationalism on a concrete level, rather than the abstract notion casually tossed around by Northern academics and would-be revolutionaries. A concept even more commonly discarded in the postmodern digestion of Marxist principles by the current First World so-called left.
The notion that there could be a conscious political entity in the Third World, which superseded the ultra-specificity touted by the “Afrikan Socialists” criticized by Kwame Nkrumah and the reactionary bourgeois nationalists which substituted vague notions of pre-colonialism as the historical ideal, obscuring the existence of independently developed class relations. Che understood that this kind of proletarian internationalism, welding together the suffering colonial peoples in an effort to build a common consciousness and realize a common destiny, was the key to burying imperialism under the ashes of the plantations and cane fields. The constitution of Third World as a conscious body was the first step toward the breakdown of the international division of labor. In this scheme, the confluence of all movements for national liberation would break through toward the final liberation of humanity.
After all, Che uncompromising on the absolute necessity for world communist revolution and a final victory against capitalism and the west. While the soviets wavered in their support for international revolution, vacillating between the many peaceful alternatives to violent confrontation and periodically endorsing the notion of an indefinite coexistence between socialism and capitalism, Che was resolute: there can be no lasting peace between the sheep and the wolves. A final victory was necessary, and any hesitation or compromise by the revolutionary forces on this issue would serve as the highest betrayal of the oppressed masses.
It was to this effect that he addressed the Tri-Continental in 1967 proposing a strategy which paralleled that issued by Lin Biao.
Let us sum up our hopes for victory: total destruction of imperialism by eliminating its firmest bulwark: the oppression exercised by the United States of America. To carry out, as a tactical method, the people’s gradual liberation, one by one or in groups: driving the enemy into a difficult fight away from its own territory; dismantling all its sustenance bases, that is, its dependent territories.
This means a long war. And, once more we repeat it, a cruel war. Let no one fool himself at the outstart and let no one hesitate to start out for fear of the consequences it may bring to his people. It is almost our sole hope for victory. We cannot elude the call of this hour. Vietnam is pointing it out with its endless lesson of heroism, its tragic and everyday lesson of struggle and death for the attainment of final victory.
There, the imperialist soldiers endure the discomforts of those who, used to enjoying the U.S. standard of living, have to live in a hostile land with the insecurity of being unable to move without being aware of walking on enemy territory: death to those who dare take a step out of their fortified encampment. The permanent hostility of the entire population. All this has internal repercussion in the United States; propitiates the resurgence of an element which is being minimized in spite of its vigor by all imperialist forces: class struggle even within its own territory.
How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its forces under the sudden attack and the increasing hatred of all peoples of the world!
A Word on Internationalism
The real importance of Che’s legacy is not in an abstract call to free oneself from the grips of systemic oppression, but rather on the complete emphasis on the necessity of collective action in doing so. He makes it quite clear, it is not about seeking a way “out” of the current system, through the achievement of whatever piecemeal “liberation” that can be through the individual separation of people or nations from the world system. Such a model is neither effective nor revolutionary in its international consequences. Rather, importance is placed upon the seeking of a greater narrative, something which binds us rather than enforcing division. For Che, the Third World, independence and national liberation meant the first steps toward a new world. It was not simply an alternate course of development, or an escape from the nightmare of imperialism. These are tools, components belonging to an overall strategy of abolition and replacement of the world system.
Unfortunately for the postmodernity of leftist academia today, this means synthesizing disparate conditions, rather than isolating them. The attempts to digest Marxism and neutralize all active revolutionary concepts into an incoherent, ultimately impotent “critical theory” which supposes only ways “out” has failed to produce a strategy for world liberation on all counts. That said, equally so have the attempts by nominal Marxists of the First World to draw a complete, unsegmented and ultimately imaginary international commonality between their conditions and that of the Third World. No such commonality yet exists, aside that causal relationship which exists between the relative prosperity and wealth of one, and the immiseration and destitution of the other. The failure of these dogmatists to adapt Marxism to new and specific conditions has resulted in an inability to synthesize a universal way forward.
This is where Che’s legacy, should it be understood, will bring the most valuable insights to correcting these dogmatic and revisionist errors. To move forward in the 21st century and achieve the liberation that was stolen from the world in the 20th, we must ruthlessly reassert our internationalism. This should not be taken lightly, and should be the result of synthesized subjective interest, brought about by a specific response to material conditions. In other words, in the First World we do not act according to the interests of others, but must break with all affiliations whose interests conflict with those of the global proletariat; we must submerge ourselves in this class, and their interests must be our interests. No revolution can be done as a favor, liberation cannot come from a bleeding heart. However, in order to come upon this consciousness, and to fully adopt these interests in the most sincere fashion, we must tie, inextricably, our movement to the movement of the Third World against the First World. On this question, hesitation is betrayal.
Avoiding too much open-endedness, as the academics and their colleagues in the petty bourgeoisie require constant care and specific instruction, we will be very clear on what this means. All struggles, all contradictions which present themselves in the First World must be leapt upon, but only in such a way that they can be connected directly to a feeling of international class. Imperialism is the binding system, which conditions all international relations, and therefore any struggle waged by Communists which does not directly answer to this contradiction will trade final victory and class consciousness for piecemeal appeasement and petty self-interest. This is all the more acute in the First World, where the temptation of these piecemeal struggles, divorced entirely from international class struggle, draw focus away from the struggle against imperialism and toward an insular, reformist movement for greater shares in plunder. Non-revolutionary struggles everywhere will go on regardless, but it is the role of Communists to transform these struggles, create class consciousness and build a hegemonic struggle for power, not for better things.
We cannot be a movement without a pole-star, and as Che made absolutely clear in his life, and his heroic death, this must be the international call to arms against imperialism. Every breath, every iota of energy must be expended toward this goal, and every action must be considered in relation to this goal. We must be both principled and pragmatic, and work in the spirit and example of Che Guevara and the millions of revolutionary martyrs like him to achieve this. We cannot allow ourselves to get lost in the moment, to lose our bearings and drift hopelessly between the rocks; we must synthesize the immediate with the distant. We must admit that there is universality in the experiences of humanity, and that this must be met with a universal theory. In the example of Che, we must dare to reconstruct ourselves as genuine internationalists, and connect all struggles toward the replacement of the imperialist world-system.
Rest in Peace Commandante
Death to Imperialism!
- Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) pp. 241
- Che Guevara, Message to the Tri-Continental (1967)