Peter Sedgwick

Guevara: Right or Wrong?

(January 1968)

From Labour Worker, January 1968, p.6.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Peter Sedgwick writes:

I have lived in the monster, and know its entrails; and mine is the sling of David – Jose Marti, first martyr of Cuban independence, 1895; quoted by Che Guevara.

THREE MONTHS after Che’s death, we are no nearer to burying him. Ian Birchall wrote an obituary of the man in the November issue. It seemed to some of us to be an inadequate assessment, and the following letter (here slightly shortened) was sent to the editor:

The career of Che Guevara was in so many respects a miniature of Trotsky’s life. Che was the main organiser of the military victories of the Cuban revolution against Batista, and generalised this experience of revolutionary action in a number of writings.

After Fidel’s victory, he became the chief proponent of “voluntarism”, of moral as opposed to material incentives, in economic policy; in this regard he resembled the better, more heroic side of Trotsky’s economic policies around 1920, without the latter’s drive to compel.

Like Trotsky, he chose to go into exile to work for international revolution, rather than reap the fruits of “socialism in one country”. This conscious renunciation of the pinnacle of power is a quite remarkable feature of Che’s life, rendering him an exemplary model for the history of socialism.

It is not yet clear how far Guevara’s death was brought on by carelessness on the part of Regis Debray, who seems to have had his failings as an intermediary in secret work. At this point, the parallel with Trotsky ends, for Che had the honour to die, as he had prophesied, facing the agents of dollar imperialism; over the years of his absence some of us had feared that treachery from within his own camp might have destroyed him, a prognosis which did us little credit.

If Che was something of a mini Trotsky, the regime in Cuba is far from being a mini-Russia. The influence of Guevara, even during his exile and after his death, has proved extraordinarily powerful, pushing the official position in Havana over to a much more positive anti-imperialist stand (in OLAS) than we have yet seen from any governmental quarter, and even enticing Fidel in plans for the impending abolition of the wages system.

In turning to the brief manual of marxist etiquette with which BirchaIl listed the ideological failings of Guevara, we must note its extraordinary dualism: “will the main impetus come from the countryside or the towns ... is the major need devoted bands of guerrillas or mass popular involvement?” On these points, apparently, we “must differ sharply” from Guevara.

I should like to refer Ian Birchall to the article by Tony Cliff, on “permanent revolution” (International Socialism, spring, 1963) where he details the several factors which tend to make the urban working class in emerging nations into a conservative, anti-revolutionary social form, Guevara may have generalised this quiesence into an absolute law; but one cannot deny to the anti-imperialist revolutionary the right and duty to act and get on with the job wherever he is.

As a matter of record, the position of all the classical marxists on the role of the working class in countries with a peasantry has been to insist, not on the sole reliability of the working class, but on the conscious synchronisation of the proletarian struggle with that of the countryside. If Lenin had not inserted the programme of peasant liberation into the Bolshevik slogans of 1917, the revolution would have collapsed, no matter what theorems of “permanent revolution” might have been woven to describe the possibilities of history.

On Birchall’s other point, to imagine that guerrilla bands, or other types of armed revolutionary leadership in the countryside, are opposed to “mass popular involvement”, or that mass popular involvement is possible without some leadership of this variety, is beyond belief.

For some while we are not going to see any large-scale urban radical movements in Latin America; we are probably not going to see any large-scale peasant ones, either, for any length of time. We are not going to see simultaneous insurrections or uprisings following on in various countries in rapid succession, in what certain people imagine to be “permanent revolution” but is actually just the dominoes theory.

Until it starts happening on this scale, can’t we be a bit more thankful for the small examples of struggle that we have, and somewhat more conscious of the lessons they contain?

The editorial board decided that the point of view expressed in Birchall’s obituary should have a fuller development before readers should reply and so they held over the above and printed, in the December issue, the article Peasant illusions and brutal reality which repeats judgements similar to Birchall’s.

There is little that one can now add to the objections made in the letter printed above, except the following. The article displays a fantastic ignorance of what guerrilla warfare theorists have actually said. According to this essay “Guevara as well as Debray defend a conception according to which the birth of a guerrilla force is automatically followed by peasant insurrection”. Che and Debary “do not understand the deeper mechanisms” of the process that brought Castro to power; they both place “an exclusive emphasis on the military side of guerrilla warfare”.

As a result of this terrible ignorance of Che and “the Castroites”, “hundreds of men have been sent to a certain death”. Guerrilla warfare in Latin America has recently “been a complete failure down the line.”

Two points have to be made, one theoretical and one in regard to the practice of making this type of statement. It is a serious injustice to the thoughts of Guevara and Debray to make a simplified amalgam of their respective theses. Debray exalts into a virtue the independence of the armed column from the tasks of political mobilisation, whereas Guevara treats it as a temporary expedient. Guevara places more emphasis than Debray on open political work in the countryside; his guerrillas are like armed worker-priests whereas those advocated by Debray (who so far have a purely theoretical existence) are like armed Jesuits or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It is true that Fidelist guerrilla theory may tend to over-generalise, as in its postponement of the effective urban struggle until the final crisis of the society. Actually, the experience of the NLF in South Yemen displays a much more complex dialectic than this, from town to rural areas and back to town, all in a matter of days.

The article denies the usefulness of minority actions in triggering off national consciousness among the masses. I do not think we can say that there are any rules here. What Che speaks of, in his last message to the Tricontinental, as “the galvanising of the national consciousness” through the action of an armed group, is a definite, determinate stage in the history of various liberation struggles.

The prospect of “failure” was anticipated both by Guevara (in his Tricontinental message) and by Debray. They both said, in effect, that defeat isn’t a failure if other people take up the struggle and try to do better.

In all this talk about spontaneity and the role of the politicals, one thing has been omitted: the spontaneity of the politicals themselves. Che went out there and started things. As a result, we know some more. There is no tragedy about this; only a crime, the crime of his murder by the imperialists, not by “objective conditions”.


Last updated on 5.12.2004