Reviewed by Eduardo Frajman
Renzo Llorente’s The Political Theory of Che Guevara is an outstanding work of explanatory synthesis. Though far from the first attempt at a concise outline of Guevara’s thought, it stands out for the care Llorente takes in guiding his reader through complex and potentially forbidding material. A professor of social and political philosophy at the Madrid campus of Saint Louis University, he proves himself a skillful teacher on the page. His prose is remarkably clean, accessible and free of jargon. He patiently explains concepts upon introducing them and provides relevant historical or theoretical information when necessary, though not so much as to overwhelm the reader. Instructors looking to introduce high school and college students to the ideas of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating minds will be hard pressed to find a better textbook.
Readers, however, should beware. Llorente has chosen to present Guevara’s thought in a wholly sympathetic light, less as a response to the vituperations of the Right than to the tendency in the Left to downplay Guevara’s theories as superficial, unrealistic, doctrinaire or as artifacts of their own time. ‘I reject the view that Guevara’s thought is of merely historical interest’, he declares (3), and in the course of the book employs some questionable rhetorical tricks to support this position. On the whole Llorente is frustratingly uncritical of his subject, despite the fact that he often creates opportunities for himself to explore the ideas from different perspectives. His discussion of Guevara’s legacy and relevance for our time is particularly obsequious and simplistic, not to mention historically myopic. Instructors, especially those inclined to sympathize with Guevara’s worldview, would do well to balance this book with a less deferential account of his life and/or work.
Argentine-born Ernesto Guevara, known to posterity as ‘Che’, was not even forty years old when he was captured and executed while trying to bring about a socialist revolution in Bolivia. Brilliant, passionate, a whirlwind of energy, Guevara lived a life crammed with incident and momentous, world-ranging significance. ‘Guevara’, recounts Llorente, ‘was variously a physician, photographer, soldier, military official, banker, journalist, industrial analyst, government minister, diplomat, military strategist, management theorist, economic planner, and revolutionary theoretician’ (123). It is the very last of these roles that concerns this volume. Guevara wrote only one full-length manuscript, a manual on guerrilla warfare, but left behind a vast quantity of writings: essays, articles, speeches, interviews, journal entries and more. In them he discusses all manner of subjects concerning Marxist theory, revolutionary activity, economic policy and the future of humanity under communism. Llorente seems to have read every last letter of it. For better or worse, he ascribes canonical status to the whole lot: a published piece is of equal value as a hastily written note, an official mission statement as an offhand comment during a meeting, a personal letter as an interview on television. Llorente finds, and shows the reader, Guevara’s thought to be ‘remarkably consistent’, free ‘of any major inconsistencies, contradictions, and tensions’ (4).
He begins, appropriately, with the best-known concept in Guevara’s oeuvre, that of ‘the new man’, which Llorente for obvious reasons rechristens ‘the new human being’. Like Marx and most of his intellectual descendants, Guevara believed that human nature is not fixed, but rather a function of specific historical conditions. Since the future communist society he was fighting to bring about would radically reshape material conditions, it followed that human nature would change accordingly. The communist human being Guevara envisioned would be free from pettiness and selfishness, would embrace radical egalitarianism, would exhibit a powerful sense of social duty, a ready willingness to sacrifice self for others, and a love of work for its own sake (14-17). The question is not whether such angelic creatures are possible nor whether they will exist in the future, neither Guevara nor Llorente seem to doubt that they are and they will, but only how to bring the transformation of human nature about.
There is no doubt that Llorente is faithful to the primary sources, both in letter and in spirit. The problem is when this attitude leads him to be too defensive about criticisms of his subject. He is adamant that Guevara’s view of the human future is not utopian, as, he argues, it ‘does not appear much less realistic, or any more chimerical, than that of other highly respected Marxist thinkers’ (21). Even when he identifies a problem in Guevara’s thought, he reminds the reader that it is ‘perfectly consistent with Marxist orthodoxy’ – which for Llorente is concomitant to being generally accepted wisdom. There is no discussion of how Guevara’s view of human nature fits or conflicts with post-Marxist thought, critical theory or many other intellectual developments within the Left that are at odds with orthodox historical materialism. The chapter ends with a coda in which Llorente wonders whether Guevara was the embodiment of the transcendent ‘new human being’. After suggesting that placing Guevara on such a pedestal ‘is both understandable and plausible’ (26), he demurs and ultimately concludes that the man was merely ‘a most exemplary communist in a noncommunist society’ (27).
So go the rest of the chapters. Llorente provides excellent summaries of Guevara’s views on work, on the international system, on bringing about the revolution and building socialism, and then communism, and, in the weakest chapter, on his economic theories and policies regarding the reorganization of the Cuban industrial and financial systems following the 1959 revolution. Each section is complemented by Llorente’s defense of Guevara from critics, and topped with the assurance that Che Guevara remains a hero, that his ideas are practical, relevant and still useful to would-be revolutionaries half a century after his death. References to Guevara’s superhuman personal qualities pepper the volume.
In Llorente’s considered opinion, there is ‘little to challenge in Guevara’s views on socialism, communism, and revolution’ (75). This, as he well knows, is not the majority view. The book returns several times to the criticism that Guevara strayed too far from historical materialism by embracing ‘voluntaristism’ – i.e., the belief that a socialist revolution can be brought about even if material conditions are not ready for it. Llorente’s case for Guevara amounts to insisting that he was no more voluntaristic than Lenin or Mao, and to providing a handful of comments in which Guevara expressly addresses the importance of material factors. This defense is not very successful. Even in Llorente’s telling, Guevara seems to have used Marxism as a justification, rather than a springboard, for his actions. He emerges from the book as a man who was certain he could change conditions by the intensity of his belief, the depth of his sacrifice and the power of his personality.
Guevara’s preferred means of political struggle was guerrilla warfare. He believed that a small group of armed warriors could, and should, violently depose sitting governments with the goal of establishing a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which would eventually lead to the redemptive era of communism. Guevara killed and died for this idea. What are we in the twenty-first century to make of that? Llorente obviously believes in the rightness of Guevara’s cause, but does he believe in the wisdom of Guevara’s actions? He is evasive about this, to the point of disingenuousness. ‘Whether or not we can justifiably speak of voluntarism in connection to Guevara’s approach to the theory of guerrilla warfare’, he announces, ‘is a separate question and one I will not address’ (115).
Although he is supposedly interested in Guevara’s historical significance, Llorente is conspicuously silent about the effects, both direct and indirect, of his revolutionary activity. Never once does he mention that the socialist government Guevara helped bring to power in Cuba was ruled in autocratic fashion by two brothers for sixty years, or that a second victorious guerrilla in Latin America (the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua) likewise devolved into a corrupt and repressive dictatorship. Never once does he bring up other revolutionary guerrilla movements in Latin America – the Montoneros in Uruguay, Shining Path in Peru, FARC in Colombia – which explicitly held up Che Guevara as a model, and then became murderous, terrorist, drug-trafficking organizations.. Grudgingly, one feels, he does admit that ‘there is, at present, little justification for armed struggle in the form of guerrilla warfare as a method of combatting contemporary imperialism’ (57).
More generally, he minimizes the dark aspects of Guevara’s embrace of violence. Guevara, for example, advocated a ‘continental’ war in Latin America – ‘it will be a protracted war, it will have many fronts, and it will cost much blood and countless lives’ (54) – a notion that Llorente accepts without qualm. He neglects to mention that Guevara was angry at Khrushchev for removing the Soviet missiles from Cuba during the October 1962 crisis and that, like his comrade-in-arms Fidel Castro, he vociferously called for a massive nuclear strike against the United States. He also has little to say about Guevara’s role as administrator of the La Cabaña detention center after the victory of the Cuban revolution. There, Guevara was in charge of officially approving all executions of prisoners found to be guilty of criminal acts during the previous regime or enemies of the revolution. Llorente finds this unproblematic (65).
Llorente accepts Guevara’s pronouncements with blind conviction, refusing to take advantage of historical hindsight. ‘We have no reason not to endorse Guevara’s view’, he affirms, ‘that the principal agent of imperialism is the United States, whether in Latin America or in the rest of the world’ (57). The geopolitical conditions are more complex than Llorente allows and the comment is patently false regarding Latin America. Llorente was perhaps too engrossed in researching the past to notice that the last American military intervention in the region occurred in Haiti in 1994, or that today China far surpasses the United States in financial investment in Latin America. In fact, other than its unsavory involvement in the coup d’etat in Honduras in 2009, the United States has all but disengaged from Latin American politics except for its protracted and utterly unsuccessful War on Drugs.
In the rare occasions in which Llorente finds fault with Guevara’s thinking or actions, he is quick to forgive and justify. He finds that Guevara’s claims that he became a Marxist only during the revolutionary fighting in Cuba ‘highly misleading’ (68) – Guevara almost certainly considered himself a Marxist before then – but concludes that this was done out of support for Fidel Castro’s belated conversion. Of the fact that Guevara defended Stalin against criticism from the Left, Llorente comments that many other young activist during the 1960s were equally supportive (108). Regarding Guevara’s open advocacy for anti-democratic means of governance during the ‘transition to socialism’, Llorente unearths a handful of offhand comments by Guevara on the importance of a free exchange of ideas, as long as they are consistent with the aims of the revolution (72-73).
“Be like Che”, Llorente extolls in closing (123). Readers will learn much from this volume, but they should show caution and a critical attitude before accepting this advice.
1 October 2018