Bob Gould, 2005

Che Guevara and the left
A response to Louis Nowra

Source: Ozleft, January 12, 2005
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The gap between the rapid right-wing shift in the public print culture in English-speaking countries and the underlying persistence, or even new emergence, of radical attitudes among sections of the population is underlined by the right-wing attack on the radicalisation revealed in the population of the movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, about the young Che Guevara.

One-time Australian leftist Louis Nowra writes an ignorant attack on Che and the left generally (Sydney Morning Herald, January 10), another one-time leftist David McKnight follows him up, I muscle in with a careful op-ed piece tailored to the size allowed, less than 1000 words, and I get a prompt rejection from the Herald. I get an indication that there’ll be another op-ed piece tomorrow (January 13), by Anne Summers (prominent feminist and former adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating), in the McKnight vein of jumping on Marxism from a great height. So much for the liberalism of the Fairfax press.

I’ve had the experience of writing a number of carefully crafted op-ed pieces from a leftist point of view, and they’re invariably rejected. As Joseph Furphy used to say, such is life. My op-ed piece is attached.

It’s beginning to be my experience that opinion editors in the Australian press are chosen for a smarmy liberal demeanour that masks a steely spine of deliberate compliance with the right-wing opinion-moulding desired by their capitalist masters.

Louis Nowra, who used to be vaguely leftist, and has reinvented himself at least once, makes a broad political statement in the Sydney Morning Herald of January 10 slandering a number of political figures on the left, Australian and overseas, all of whom for Nowra’s purposes are conveniently dead, except for the historian Stuart Macintyre.

I’ve spent nearly 50 years as a socialist opponent of Stalinism, and I find Nowra’s broad attack ahistorical, ignorant and historically inaccurate.

Nowra has a problem explaining the appeal of political figures such as Che Guevara and Lenin to a new generation. He ascribes it to banal fashion, but the real source of their appeal is that a big section of young people are looking for figures who they can identify with in their opposition to the oligarchs and imperialist figures who run the world.

After all, we live in the West, where Bush, Blair and Howard took us into a completely unjustified war in Iraq, the awful consequences of which are now obvious to everybody.

I wonder if Nowra was one the many who demonstrated against that war, or in support of refugees who are victims of imperialist policy adventures in Asia and elsewhere. I see many greyhairs who were once members of the Communist Party in all those movements, and also in the green movement.

The real mystery is, with the public culture so right-wing in the newspapers and on television, how do oppositional attitudes persist?

Nowra’s attack on the now departed Frank Hardy and Dorothy Hewett is mean-spirited and smacks of a certain literary jealousy. Dorothy Hewett, in her autobiography, settled accounts with Stalinism, for herself, very thoroughly.

Frank Hardy did the same in the powerful novel, But the Dead Are Many, of which Nowra is apparently jealous.

Nowra’s current literary opinion of Hardy’s novel was not shared by a large number of reputable literary critics in the 1970s, when it appeared. They considered it an extraordinary book inquiring into the Stalinist phenomenon.

Hardy also wrote an important general political piece attacking Stalinism, Heirs of Stalin, which caused considerable argument at the time.

Nowra is none too scrupulous about his alleged historical facts. Unless you choose to make Lenin responsible for the civil war that ensued after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, when capitalist governments intervened to try to overthrow the Bolsheviks before they had established themselves, Nowra’s proposition that Lenin killed hundreds of thousands is historical nonsense.

It’s also nonsense to make Lenin responsible for Stalin’s coup d’etat after his death, and for Stalin’s mass murders, which actually did kill millions, including about a million communists. Stalin killed the communists to consolidate his power, because they were the ones most dangerous to him.

I find Nowra’s attack on Che Guevara utterly bizarre. He might as well attack the Irish rebel military leader Michael Collins for the same kind of crime. Che Guevara was a military leader in a guerilla rebellion, and like any military leader he shot several spies and deserters, agonised about it, and discussed it publicly in his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War

Perhaps military leaders such as Churchill and George Bush are more to Nowra’s taste these days.

Che Guevara’s political judgments were sometimes mistaken, but by any standards he’s a towering moral figure. One part of his appeal to idealistic youth is that he put his own body on the line. What other revolutionary political leader has participated in the overthrow of a reactionary regime, been for several years a leading figure in the new government and then voluntarily gone off to another front in the revolutionary struggle, as he saw it?

His tactical sense may have been overwhelmed by romanticism, but no one can doubt the courage of his attempt to overthrow a reactionary regime in another country with a small guerilla group led physically by himself, with the ultimate consequence that he was murdered by agents of the CIA after being captured in battle.

The image of the executed Che Guevara resonates with the radical section of the youth of the world, particularly in Latin America, where he is identified with the other figure in Latin American history who did much the same, the liberator, Simon Bolivar.

Louis Nowra can vent his literary spleen on dead leftist writers, and Bob Gould can snap back at him in relatively comfortable Australia, but Che Guevara died in the Bolivian jungle fighting for his cause, which is on an altogether different plane to Australian literary disputes.