Che Guevara, Argentine-Cuban Revolutionary Speaks to CBS-TV's "Meet the Press" on December 13, 1964 (AP Photo).
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File
THE SEARCH FOR A DEMOCRATIC AND COMMUNIST ALTERNATIVE
Che Guevara: the thinking behind the action
Newly available writings by Che Guevara make clear just what he thought about Soviet - and Cuban - communism, and how his feelings and ideas about the socialism he so believed in changed in the years before his assassination
by Michael Löwy
Ernesto Che Guevara gradually lost his illusions about the USSR and Soviet-style Marxism. A 1965 letter to his friend, the Cuban minister of culture Armando Hart, criticised the way Cuba toed the line by publishing Soviet manuals on Marxism - he called them Soviet tomes and said they prevented people from thinking: the party did that for them, they only had to digest the results (1). Che was looking for another model, a different way of building socialism, more radical, more egalitarian, with greater solidarity.
His work is not a closed system, a complete theory with an answer to everything. On many questions, including socialist democracy and the battle against bureaucracy, his thinking was incomplete, interrupted by his death in 1967. But as Martínez Heredia rightly points out in this connection, the incompleteness has certain advantages: the great thinker is present, pointing out problems and possible courses; it is up to his comrades to think, study, and combine theory with practice.
At first, in 1960-62, Guevara had high hopes of countries with real live socialism. But he became critical after visits to the Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries, and after experiencing the beginnings of the transition to socialism in Cuba. He voiced his deviant views several times, especially in his famous 1965 speech in Algiers.
But his attempt to formulate a new approach to socialism had already been set out in the great economic debate in Cuba in 1963-64, in which advocates of market socialism as practised in the USSR, with business autonomy and profit-seeking, were opposed by Guevara, who was in favour of central planning, based on social, political and moral criteria.
Instead of productivity bonuses and market prices, he proposed that certain goods and services should be free. But he did not make it clear who was to take the basic economic decisions -the problem of democracy in planning remained.
Guevara's critical notes about the Soviet Academy of Sciences' manual of political economy (1963 Spanish edition) - one of the tomes mentioned in his letter to Hart - shed new light on this.
This previously unseen material, produced in 1965-66 during his stay in Tanzania and Prague and recently published in Cuba, is not a book but a collection of extracts from the Soviet work with Che's frequently bitter and ironic comments (2). We have waited a long time for this material.
For decades it remained out of circulation, with only a few Cuban researchers allowed to consult it and quote some passages. Now it has been collated by Maria del Carmen Ariet Garcia of the Centre for Che Guevara Studies in Havana.
This edition contains other unpublished material: a letter to Fidel Castro in April 1965, which serves as a prologue; notes on the writings of Marx and Lenin; selected records of conversations between Guevara and his colleagues at the ministry of industry, 1963-65 (parts of these had already been seen in France and Italy in the 1970s); letters to eminent people including Paul Sweezy and Charles Bettelheim; and extracts from an interview with the Egyptian periodical El Taliah in April 1965. The work displays Guevara's independent spirit and his limits.
To take these limits first: we do not know if Guevara's views on the subject changed in 1966-67, but he did not seem to understand Stalinism.
He actually attributed the USSR's impasse in the 1960s to Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP). True, he thought that if Lenin had lived longer - he made the mistake of dying, Che quips - he would have corrected the most retrograde effects of this policy.
But he was still convinced that the introduction of capitalist elements in the NEP led to disastrous tendencies signalling a return to capitalism, observable in the Soviet Union in 1963.
Sometimes - as when Guevara noted that managers welcomed the NEP, in which they had a privileged position - his views coincided with those advanced by leftwing opposition critics in the USSR in 1925-27.
But the idea that the NEP was responsible for the pro-capitalist trend in the USSR under Leonid Brezhnev was unsustainable. Guevara was aware of Stalin's disastrous role; one note makes the striking comment that Stalin's terrible and historic crime was to treat communist education with contempt and institute a boundless cult of authority. This may not be an analysis of the Stalinist phenomenon but it is a categorical rejection.
In his speech in Algiers, Guevara called on countries which claimed to be socialist to end their tacit complicity with their western exploiters by ceasing to trade on unfair terms with nations struggling against imperialism. He made this point again several times in the notes on the Soviet manual.
The authors of the manual spoke in glowing terms of mutual assistance between socialist countries but Guevara, with his experience as minister of industry in Cuba, conceded that this did not correspond to the facts. If the spirit of proletarian internationalism were to preside over the actions of governments in all socialist countries, he said, internationalism would triumph.
But it was replaced by chauvinism, in great powers and small countries, or by submission to the USSR: an affront to the honest dreams of communists everywhere.
A few pages later, in an ironic comment on the manual's celebration of the division of labour between socialist countries, based on collaboration, Guevara observed that this claim was undermined by the fact that the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance was a nest of vipers and so the manual was talking about an ideal that could be achieved only if proletarian internationalism were really practised, which it wasn't.
In another passage, he noted that the relations between countries claiming to be socialist were riddled with expansionism, unfair trade, competition, exploitation, and weak states bowing to the strong.
When the manual spoke of establishing communism in the USSR, Che put a rhetorical question: can communism be established in one country? He observed elsewhere that Lenin insisted on the universal nature of the revolution, which was subsequently denied (3).
Most of Guevara's criticisms of the Soviet manual were in line with his economic writings in 1963-64: for central planning and against the primacy of value and independent factories operating in accordance with the rules of the market; for communist education and against individual financial incentives.
He was also concerned about the material involvement of factory managers, which he regarded as a source of corruption. Guevara advocated planning as the central axis in the process of building socialism, because it liberated people from being economic objects. But he recognised, in the letter to Castro, that in Cuba the workers had no part in the production of the plan.
So who was to do the planning? The 1963-64 debate did not answer this question. And it is on this point that the 1965-66 critical notes show the most interesting marks of development. Certain passages establish quite clearly the principle of a socialist democracy in which the important economic decisions are actually taken by the people. The masses, Guevara wrote, must have a part in forming the plan but its execution was purely technical.
In the USSR, he considered that the concept of the plan as an
economic decision of the masses, conscious of their role, had been replaced by a system in which everything was determined by economic factors. The masses, he insisted, must be able to control their fate, decide how much was to be saved and how much spent; economic policy must be conducted on the basis of these figures, decided by the people, and the consciousness of the masses must be the ultimate guarantee.
This is a recurring theme. The workers, the people as a whole, will decide on the main problems facing a country (growth rates, saving/spending), even if the actual plan is drafted by specialists.
The unduly mechanical division between economic decisions and their execution is debatable, but in drawing these distinctions, Guevara came close to the idea of democratic socialist planning.
He did not draw all the political conclusions,
"democratisation of government, political pluralism, freedom of organisation", but there is no denying the importance of this new vision of economic democracy. These notes can be regarded as an important stage in Guevara's quest for a democratic/communist alternative to the Soviet model, ended so abruptly in October 1967 by Bolivian assassins working for the CIA.
Michael Löwy is author of La Pensée de Che Guevara, Syllepse, Paris, 1997, and, with Olivier Besancenot, of Che Guevara: une braise qui brûle encore, Mille et une nuits, Paris, 2007
(1) This letter, long unpublished, is reproduced in Nestor Kohan, Ernesto Che Guevara: Otro mundo es posible, Nuestra America, Buenos Aires, 2007.
(2) Ernesto Che Guevara, Apuntes criticos a la economia politica (Ocean Press, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, Havana, 2006).
(3) Unlike the internationalist principles advocated earlier by Lenin, this political theory, propounded by Stalin in 1924, was adopted at the 14th Soviet Communist Party congress on 18 December 1925.
Translated by Barbara Wilson
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1997-2007 Le Monde diplomatique