Jim Dann

On ’Super-Revolutionariesí – Why Che Had to Fail

First Published: Progressive Labor, Vol. 7, No. 1, May 1969
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The Diary of Che Guevara, a document rare in the annals of revolution, has been made public by the Cuban Government, reprinted by Ramparts magazine and then by Bantam Books in a widely-circulated pocket book. In his introduction to the book, Fidel Castro urges us to be silent if we do not applaud it: “Since no one really has an honest answer or a consequent action that implies a real hope for the almost 300 million human beings who compose the population of Latin America... the most honest thing to do would be to remain silent in the face of Che’s gesture...” But the diary’s wide circulation in the United States forces us to ignore Fidel’s admonition.

Although the book confirms our impression of Che as a man of extraordinary courage and tenacity it also confirms our fears that the anti-Marxist-Leninist outlook of the Cuban Communist Party in recent years was shared by Che. Presented in its most complete form by Regis Debray in Revolution in the Revolution? (PL, Vol. 6, Nos. 2, 3), this outlook is opposed to the revolutionary theory of People’s War. It elevates the military over the political, the individual over the collective, the “vanguard” guerrilla band over the masses.

In essence, the Castro-Debray theory denies the need for a communist party, denies the primacy of political work, and denies the need to build a base among the people. Those who follow it are self-serving instead of serving the people. It blurs the distinction between revolutionaries and revisionists, holds that revolution can be exported, and in the final analysis surrenders to bourgeois individualism.

The theory of People’s War “is all-powerful because it is true” (as Lenin said about Marxism). The principles formulated by Mao Tse-tung reflect the real needs of the masses, and guided by these principles People’s War cannot fail. Its application is world-wide; the principles do not depend for their basic validity on geographic, demographic, linguistic or meteorological factors. The Castro-Debray theory, however, will lead to co-option by the ruling class. Che Guevara was a man who would not be co-opted – the theory led to defeat.

In countries throughout the world the people can overthrow the oppressive rule of imperialism and seize state power to build a bright future under socialism. Despite inevitable twists and turns in the struggle, the working class will eventually win victory. Defeats, in general, cannot be explained by an extraordinary series of accidents or because “adverse factors unbelievably built up” (as Fidel says in the introduction), but by defects in the political line.

Many people around the Left have wishfully thought of Che as one of the foremost practitioners of People’s War. Unfortunately, this was not the case, as we shall show.

“The liberation of the masses is accomplished by the masses themselves – this is a basic principle of Marxism-Leninism. Revolution or people’s war in any country is the business of the masses in that country and should be carried out primarily by their own efforts; there is no other way.” (Lin Piao, “Long Live the Victory of People’s War”)

The truth of this statement becomes clear when we examine the relative forces in a revolutionary situation. The class enemy retains superiority in numbers of armed men and in weaponry until the last battle. Despite serious study of military tactics, the enemy may often prove superior in his knowledge of the purely military aspects of war – he’s been at it longer. To this “superiority,” the revolutionary forces answer with the inexhaustible power of the working people. Their labor, organized into a fighting force behind the revolutionary outlook of seizing state power and establishing the dictatorship of the working class, can bring down the entire imperialist structure. Their strength is crucial.

This means that no outside army can make a socialist revolution for the masses, or sustain it for very long if it attempts to. Unless the masses themselves make the revolution, it will eventually fail. Working people throughout the imperialist world are taught that they are powerless, cannot think, and must depend on “great leaders.” But the workers will learn to produce their own leaders, to rely on their own resources and labor, and to make their revolution.

Of course, a socialist country must give aid to revolutionaries; for the consolidation of socialism in any country is tied to the victory of proletarian revolution throughout the world. Sometimes a revolutionary may even leave his own country and take part in the revolution of another land. But he will do so not because of “romantic sympathy for adventure and the thought that it would be worthwhile to meet death on a foreign beach for so pure an ideal,”[1] but by an analysis of the objective needs of the people. For example, the Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune was sent by his comrades to China to help organize the medical services of the Chinese Red Army.

Norman Bethune came to China to give his skill to the Chinese people’s struggle. He put himself under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party and the people, and died heroically at his post. Such a life is worthy of emulation. But there’s a world of difference between this kind of proletarian internationalism and the mistaken idea that revolution can be exported. Che came to Bolivia to take “political and military leadership” of the revolution there. His army was made up primarily of Cubans and Peruvians (at least 20 out of 35 on June 12 [2]). This is not giving aid to the struggle of the Bolivian masses; this is export of revolution, attempting to make their revolution for them. As such, it was bound to fail.

Incidentally, the diary tells us of two other instances where the Cuban Government attempted to export revolution. On July 31, Che mentions “the failure” in the Congo, in which he took part. On May 13, he comments on a frustrated Cuban landing in Venezuela – “everything indicates something went wrong.” (A similar adventure in Argentina, led by the head of Prensa Latina, Cuba’s press agency, met a similar fate.)

The followers and worshippers of Guevara, Debray and Castro, argue that “internationalism” means it should not matter what country a man is from as long as he is a guerrilla fighter. This is wishful thinking, and Che’s sad story from Bolivia proves it. The language (which, incidentally, Che’s forces in Bolivia didn’t know), the culture, the immediate grievances built up over the centuries must be as familiar to the revolutionary leadership – or at least to many of the leaders – as it is to the people, if the revolutionaries are to succeed.

There is a revealing sentence in one of Che’s communiques to the Bolivian people (Communique No. 4, Dec. 24) that makes this point clear. In it, Che maintains that the Bolivian people should accept foreign nationals in the revolutionary ranks “with the same rights and duties as Bolivian combatants’’(and then he adds) “who, naturally, make up the vast majority of our movement.” (Communique printed in Granma from Havana July 14, 1968.) Che Guevara, known and revered around the world for his fearless devotion to the truth, whose communiques to the Bolivian people are entitled, “Revolutionary Truth in the Face of Reactionary Lies,” must resort to this shameful lie about the composition of the little guerrilla band in a desperate effort to win support of the people.

How to ’Incorporate’ Peasants

“The revolutionary war is a war of the masses; it can be waged only by mobilizing the masses and relying on them.... What is a true bastion or iron? It is the masses, the millions upon millions of people who genuinely and sincerely support the revolution. That is the real iron bastion which it is absolutely impossible for any force on earth to smash...” (Mao Tse-tung)

The key questions in People’s War are not military but political: How to mobilize the masses of working people. In Che’s case in Bolivia, the key question was whether the peasants could be mobilized not so much to support Che’s war but to wage their war, a war of the people. The failure to do this was the most striking failure of all the failures of the campaign. In Fidel’s “necessary introduction,” to the diary, he apologizes for this: “Che had numerous contacts with the peasants. Their character – extremely mistrustful and wary – didn’t surprise him, as be knew their mentality perfectly for having dealt with them on other occasions, and he knew that prolonged, patient and arduous work was required to win them over to the cause. But he never harbored any doubt that this would be obtained in the long run.”

But precisely such doubts were expressed by Che in his diary. From Che’s monthly analysis

(April): “The peasant base is still not being formed, although it seems that through planned terror we can neutralize most of them...”

Is this “patient arduous work” or “planned terror”? What a far cry from mobilizing the masses to fight a people’s war. And in May, Che wrote: “Now comes the period when both sides shall exert pressure upon the peasants, but in different ways; our triumph will mean the necessary qualitative change for a leap in development.”

Here he expects a military victory of his forces to ”exert pressure upon the peasants.” As if the peasants had no stake in the outcome, but would only choose the winning side.

In June: “The army continues to be nil with respect to military tasks, but they are working on the peasants in a way that must not be underestimated, as they transform all the members of the community into informers, whether by fear or by deceiving them with respect to our objective.”

And July: “The lack of incorporation of the peasants continues to be felt, although there are some encouraging signs in the reception given us by old peasant acquaintances.”

This is as optimistic as Che allowed himself to get about the peasants. But even here, note the passive role he assigns to them. He wants to be received well by them. Not a word about their initiative, or their struggles (let alone their conditions of life).

In August: “We continue without any incorporation on the part of the peasants...”

September: ”The mass of peasants does not help us at all and have become informers.”

How then does a revolutionary “incorporate the peasants”? Mao gives the answer: “To link oneself with the masses, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses. All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned. It often happens that objectively the masses need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet conscious of the need, not yet willing or determined to make the change .... We must not make the change until, through our work, most of the masses have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. Otherwise we shall isolate ourselves from the masses. Unless they are conscious and willing, any kind of work that requires their participation will turn out to be a mere formality and will fail.”

During the Cuban Revolutionary War, there was a beginning of this link with the peasants. The guerrillas won over the masses and convinced them of the need for revolution. And in turn the revolutionaries became changed by the people. Here is what Che wrote then about that earlier struggle:

“As a result of daily contact with these people and their problems we became firmly convinced of the need for a complete change in the life of our people. The idea of an agrarian reform became crystal-clear. Communion with the people ceased to be a mere theory, to become an integral part of ourselves.” (Episodes, p. 56-57)

Che wrote these notes just about five months after the Granma landing in Cuba. They had so many peasant recruits then that they had to turn down all those who could not bring weapons with them. What a contrast with Bolivia where Che had excess weapons but not a single peasant came forth to wield them. In fact, the comparison between the Cuban experience and the later disasters is striking. And while there may have been many unique features of the Cuban experience, including the vacillation of the imperialists, one of the most important – if not the most important – factors which led to the Cuban success was that the men of the Granma were almost all Cubans, knew the language, many (including Fidel and Raul) were from the very province in which the fighting took place and knew the terrain and the dialect. Even in his book Guerrilla Warfare, based on notes made at the time of the Cuban struggle, Che reflected this difference:

“It is important to emphasize that guerrilla warfare is a war of the masses, a war of the people. The guerrilla band... draws its great force from the mass of the people themselves.... The guerrilla fighter needs full help from the people of the area. This is an indispensable condition.... The guerrilla fighter needs to have a good knowledge of the surrounding countryside, the paths of entry and escape, the possibilities of speedy maneuver, good hiding-places; naturally, also, he must count on the support of the people.... To the question as to what the guerrilla soldier should be like, the first answer is that he should preferably be an inhabitant of the zone. If this is the case, he will have friends who will help him; if he belongs to the zone itself, he will know it (and knowledge of the ground is one of the most important factors in guerrilla warfare); and since he will be habituated to local peculiarities he will be able to do better work, not to mention that he will add to all this the enthusiasm that arises from defending his own people and fighting to change a social regime that hurts his own world.”

Contrast this to the farce described by Che in which the guerrillas are always getting lost, always finding that the map (their only guide to the countryside) is wrong by 20 or 30 miles, and always fearful that some passing peasant may see them in their hiding places!

Marxist-Leninists maintain that ideology plays a decisive part in historical development. New social ideologies arise at a point in the development of society’s material life. Once born, these ideas become a strong force, even a decisive force. At a point such as the present, revolutionary ideology among the people is such a force. And winning people to that ideology – to the need to destroy imperialism, racism and capitalism, and build a dictatorship of the working class – is crucial. It is the primary task. The better and quicker it is done, the faster and more powerful will be the revolutionary movement. A revolution can be made only by people with revolutionary ideas. Marx said: “Theory too becomes a material force as soon as it grips the masses.”

But Che’s opinion was the opposite. Action was primary, politics something someone else could do later. If he put forward a political program to the masses, there is not a hint of it in the diary. The only mention we have of political work among the guerrillas is a “short course” given on Debray’s reactionary book (April 12). Che’s communiques “To The Bolivian People” are almost entirely military accounts of skirmishes between the guerrillas and the army, listing casualties and prisoners taken. No politics.

The clincher is contained in the diary in Che’s monthly summary for December, in which he describes his meeting with the revisionist CP leader Monje. Che knew Monje to be a bad element, a revisionist and opportunist, yet he agreed to give him at least political leadership of the struggle and put him in charge of relations with other parties. Che then explains: “Monje’s attitude can hold back the development on one side but contribute on the other, by releasing me of political entanglements.” Instead of a political program for the masses, Che had the “legend of the guerrilla.”

But it’s neither necessary nor desirable that the masses believe the revolutionary army is invincible. They must be convinced of their own strength. Only the people, armed with Marxism-Leninism, are invincible. In that sense, a people’s army will be invincible, too, not because of any “legend” but because it is an integral part of the people. Yes, the masses must see that their enemies are paper tigers, but only because of their strength, not because of a legend of a guerrilla.

This ideology is summed up succinctly by Regis Debray in an interview, from prison, with the Saturday Review, Aug. 24, 1968: “It’s true we didn’t get the support of the peasants, but neither did we expect it...”

The Fight Against Revisionism

Lenin said “the only choice is: either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course... Hence to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn away from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology.” Lenin’s great debate with the opportunists was a necessary prelude to the October Revolution. Those who belittled his efforts, even honest revolutionaries like Rosa Luxembourg, fell victim to their own mistake.

In our own day, the great debate with revisionism has been led by the Chinese Communist Party, which has correctly maintained “that to oppose imperialism it is imperative to oppose modern revisionism. There is no middle road whatsoever in the struggle between Marxism-Leninism and modern revisionism. A clear line of demarcation must be drawn with respect to the modern revisionist groups whose center is the leadership of the CPSU, and it is imperative to expose resolutely their true features as scabs. It is impossible to have ’united action’with them.” (Communique of the Eleventh Plenary Session of the Eighth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China)

The Cuban leadership has always opposed and belittled this debate. They and all other right-wingers have thus rendered yeoman’s service to opportunists, while hiding behind false militancy. In fact, by this act they have put themselves in the revisionist camp.

In his last messages, Che, too, belittled this “Byzantine” debate. He pretended we were merely debating some abstruse theoretical point rather than the future of the revolutionary struggle. Che saw no substantial differences between revisionists and Marxist-Leninists. He worked with open revisionists in Bolivia. Thus he invited the treacherous Monje to his camp and offered to divide responsibilities.

From the very outset of the Bolivian “project,” Che and Fidel depended on Monje’s revisionist clique for their contacts with the city. Of course that clique of revisionist scabs stabbed Che in the back at the earliest opportunity. They isolated him from the cities at a difficult point in the struggle. The complete isolation that Che later complained of was at least partly the result of his own dependence on the revisionists and his willingness to have “united action” with them. It is another bitter lesson of the Trojan Horse-nature of revisionist “aid.”

Lessons for the PLP

The question of this diary and its influence is no academic question for our Party. Che’s personality had and still has a tremendous influence on American radicals. (In addition to its influence on honest radicals, fake radicals like the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party have made Che their latest patron saint to stand alongside Malcolm X.)

In our Party, in the past, many of us too were strongly influenced by Che, His picture was on our walls, his writings were published in our magazine. When Fidel launched his vitriolic attack on China at the Tri-Continental Conference a few years ago, we deluded ourselves that Che’s silence indicated disagreement. We never really subjected Che’s writings or actions to Marxist-Leninist analysis.

Our attachment was subjective and romantic. It was a reflection of our own predominantly middle-class origin and our fear of or lack of confidence in the U.S. working class. It reflected our fear of building a base among the people, our resistance to an all-out fight against revisionism, and lack of struggle against bourgeois individualism.

Through sharp struggle, we have begun to overcome these weaknesses. However, Che’s diary and the discussion of it should cause us to intensify that struggle against these tendencies. It should be a reminder to all of us that even the most courageous can become lost in the swamp of bourgeois ideology, and how easy it is, without internal struggle, to slip into that trap – and how tragic it is.


[1] “Episodes of the Revolutionary War,” Che Guevara, International Publishers, 1968.

[2] Dates in this article refer to corresponding dates in the diary.