Che Guevara: a Revolutionary Life

By Jon Lee Anderson Grove Press, 1997, 814 pages


In both its monumental size and the depth of its research, Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Che Guevara appears definitive. Elegantly written and psychologically perceptive, it would reward anybody with even a superficial interest in Guevara. Unfortunately what it lacks is an informed Marxist point of view that in the final analysis leaves the subject something of a mystery, especially the circumstances of his tragic death. This review will cover both the assets and the weaknesses of the book as well as point in the direction of much-needed Marxist research into the career of Che Guevara.


Guevara's Argentine parents can best be described as déclassé gentry, who developed a threadbare aristocratic life-style tinged with bohemianism that strongly influenced Che's personal development. One is reminded of the stubborn desire to maintain appearances found in the fallen southern aristocrats in Tennessee Williams's plays, especially Che's mother Celia, whose romanticism and independent spirit was his greatest influence.


Of Irish lineage, Ernesto Guevara Lynch tried one business venture or another before settling into construction. Using his wife's money, he made his first quixotic stab at success in 1927 with a 'yerba mate' plantation along the Río Paraná. Yerba mate is a plant whose stimulating properties yield a beverage that is as much of a staple in Argentine society as tea is in England. Che favored this drink throughout his life, even after he had taken up residence in revolutionary Cuba.


This plantation was no paradise either for the workers or the Guevara family. Yerba plantations and logging camps often depended on debt peonage. They typically drew upon itinerant Guaraní Indians called 'mensu' who were given binding contracts and cash advances against future work, the same fate that often awaited indigenous peoples or Mestizos north to Mexico. While agrarian capitalism in Great Britain might have been characterized by wage labor, in Latin America unfree labor was the norm. Armed plantation guards called 'capangas' kept watch over peons to make sure none would escape. If one finally did, the local cops would return them to captivity. Anderson notes that Guevara Lynch was not the typical plantation boss: "Horrified at the stories he heard, he paid his workers in cash."


Born in 1928, the infant Che was the target of ravenous insects that infested the Caraguataí region. Every night, while he slept in his crib, his father or the Paraguayan foreman would use the burning tip of a cigarette to dislodge "the day's harvest of chiggers burrowed into the infant's flesh."


In both the carefully observed detail about the social conditions on Argentina's plantations and the personal lives of the Guevara Lynch family, one sees Anderson at his best. It helps us not only understand the harsh realities of Latin American society, but the way in which they impinged on a family that was both typical and atypical.


Eventually the plantation failed and the family returned to Buenos Aires, where Che's mother Celia put her unique stamp on the household:


"Celia, meanwhile, continued to run her house like a salon. The dinner table was her throne. Here she sat for endless hours playing solitaire, which-like the cigarettes she habitually smoked-she had become addicted to, but she was always ready to receive some young person for conversation or to dispense advice.


"As for the practicalities of everyday life, Celia was above the fray. She was clueless about what went on inside the kitchen and, on her cook's days off, threw together meals with whatever happened to be in the refrigerator, with no notion of measurements or recipes. With true aplomb, she was unperturbed when she found nothing there.


"Visitors invariably noted the absence of furniture, adornments, or paintings in the house, but were struck by the plethora of books, shelved and stacked everywhere. There were other peculiarities: The kitchen stove had a perennial short-circuit, and the walls were 'live,' giving off electrical shocks to incautious newcomers who leaned against them."


With a mother like this (the kind any of us would be blessed to call our own), it is no wonder that Che cared little for the pretentiousness of Argentine high society. On one level this expressed itself as a disdain for personal hygiene or fashionable clothing. (He was proud of the nickname "El Chancho" he had acquired as a youth, which means "the pig." After becoming a guerrilla, he found that his neglectful attitude suited primitive conditions well. Yet, he never wanted to force his own personal values on others. In his capacity as economic planner in Cuba, he was dismayed at the inability of the Russians to supply personal hygiene goods in ample number. For the fastidious Cubans, deodorant, shampoo and soap were nearly as important as food, just as is the case today.)


Reaching maturity during the presidency of Juan Peron, Che began to explore Marxist and socialist literature ranging from Joseph Stalin to Alfredo Palacios, the founder of the Argentine Socialist Party. However, it was the example of Perón himself that Che found most inspiring. While Peron has been labeled a 'caudillo' or even a fascist by some segments of the Marxist movement, he had much more in common with Fidel Castro than Mussolini with whom superficial comparisons have been made. Resenting Perón's successful links with industrial unions, the CP lashed out at Perón for stepping on its turf. When Che ran into a CP youth leader at the University of Buenos Aires, where he was studying medicine, he came across as "brusque and difficult." Anderson characterized the 22-year-old Che's overall attitude toward the CP as "very critical of its sectarianism and skeptical about its role in Argentine politics." No matter what he thought of the writings of Stalin or the example of a powerful workers state in the Soviet Union, Che was looking for an alternative.


Despite his wide reading in leftwing literature, it would probably be more accurate to describe the young Che Guevara as a cultural rebel more than anything else. Although deeply opposed to class injustice, he had not really developed a systematic understanding of the capitalist system, nor how to overthrow it.


It was around this time that he began to travel extensively on the continent. His "Motorcycle Diaries," which record only part of these peregrinations, come across as a mixture of Jack Kerouac and John Reed. You can see a longing to be connected with the less fortunate 'other' that evokes Kerouac's strolls through African-American neighborhoods in "On the Road." What you do not find in Kerouac is a desire, such as that expressed in the following impression of Chilean miners, to abolish the conditions that make someone the 'other':


"By the light of the single candle which illuminated us ... the contracted features of the worker gave off a mysterious and tragic air. . . . The couple, frozen stiff in the desert night, hugging one another, were a live representation of the proletariat of any part of the world. They didn't even have a miserable blanket to cover themselves, so we gave them one of ours, and with the other, Alberto and I covered ourselves as best we could. It was one of the times when I felt the most cold, but it was also the time when I felt a little more in fraternity with this, for me, strange human species."


Eventually his travels led him to Guatemala in 1954, where a combination of stormy political events and encounters with key individuals would complete his political education and steel his determination to become a revolutionary. He arrived during the presidency of Jacobo Arbenz, a reformer who had earned the enmity of the CIA, the United Fruit Company, and the local comprador bourgeoisie. After taking up arms in an unsuccessful bid to defend Arbenz's presidency, Che fled with many others to Mexico City, where he would eventually meet Fidel Castro.


Although he did not write up an extensive balance sheet of the abortive Guatemalan social democratic experiment, he did take note of one failing in a letter to his friend Tita Infante. Falsehoods were being circulated all over Latin America about the bloodthirsty character of the Arbenz government, from whose grips the CIA and the army purportedly had delivered the Guatemalan people. To the contrary, for Che "there were no murders or anything like it. There *should* have been a few firing squads early on, which is different; if those shootings had taken place the government would have retained the possibility of fighting back." He would also write his mother that he was "completely convinced that [political] half-way measures can mean nothing but other than the antechamber to treason." Surely this lesson would be applied to Cuba, where Che became administrator of the revolutionary tribunals.


In Guatemala City Che became acquainted with Hilda Gadea, a heavy-set Peruvian woman with plain features whom he would eventually wed. Although Che was blessed with an Adonis-like beauty, he did not necessarily seek physical attractiveness in the opposite sex. What drew him to Hilda was her sophisticated Marxist outlook and strong personality, both of which made her a compañera and not just a romantic interest.


Hilda was an exiled leader of the youth wing of Peru's APRA party working in Arbenz's government. The APRA's leftwing nationalism bore similarities to Peron's "Justicialist" movement. His only disagreement with her revolved around the character of the APRA party which he regarded as middle-class and reformist. However, she was also strongly influenced by the Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui, the founder of Peru's non-Stalinist Communist Party. Unfortunately, Anderson has few comments on their conversations about Mariátegui except that they took place. For scholars of Mariátegui and Latin American Marxism, the encounter between Hilda and Che serve as a key link with the Cuban revolution, which viewed the Peruvian communist as one of their own.


Castro had arrived in Mexico City after being pardoned by Batista for his armed assault on the Moncada barracks in 1953. Upon being freed, he immediately began plans to launch another armed assault on the degenerate dictator and American puppet. Che had already made contact with Raul Castro, a left-leaning member of the Cuban Communist Party, in Mexico City. The two hit it off instantly. After Fidel's arrival in Mexico City, Che and Hilda put on a dinner party in his honor, whose guests included Laura Albizu Campos, the wife of the Puerto Rican revolutionary. When asked by Hilda why he was in Mexico if his struggle was in Cuba, Fidel replied: "Very good question. I'll explain." Characteristically, the answer lasted four hours.


Elaborate preparations were now underway to organize an armed invasion force to join the July 26th movement in Cuba that was already conducting sabotage and propaganda interventions through its largely urban student and middle-class base. In 1956 some of the future guerrillas, including Che, were arrested in Mexico City after word of their preparations had leaked out. Following a week or so of interrogations, Che told the cops that he "openly admitted his Communism and declared his belief in the need for armed revolutionary struggle, not only in Cuba but throughout Latin America."


When Fidel found out about Che's statement, he became furious. With Castro's public utterances to the effect that he was nothing but a patriotic reformer in the best Western nationalist and democratic traditions, Che's red rhetoric made him appear deceitful. In fact, Fidel's future goals were very likely not that different from Che's, but he saw the importance to not create premature divisions between himself and those sections of the Cuban bourgeoisie who were willing to fight against Batista. Always the master of thrust-and-parry, Castro ridiculed the idea of being smeared as an agent of communism. After all, he observed, Batista himself had been involved in an alliance with the Partido Socialista Popular, the CP of Cuba.


Eventually Che was freed from the Mexican jail and the guerrillas sailed to Cuba on a rickety yacht called "Granma" at the end of 1956. After reaching land on Cuba's southeastern coast on December 2nd, the fighters ran into one reversal after another, leaving their revolutionary prospects as shaky as the boat they arrived on.


Three days after landing, they found themselves in the middle of a sugar field en route to the Sierra Maestra mountains in Oriente province. There they ran into a Cuban army detachment at 4:30 in the afternoon, which, in addition to out-numbering and having superior weaponry to the rebels, had the element of surprise. Shot in the neck, Che was lucky to escape with his life. Of the 82 men who arrived on the Granma, only 22 would ultimately regroup in the sierra, including Fidel and Che.


At their newly established camp, Fidel lashed out at Che for losing his rifle in the heat of battle and stripped him of his pistol. Che bore no resentment at being dressed down and worked all the more assiduously in the future to show his battle-worthiness. When he became a commander of his own guerrilla column, he imposed the same kind of iron discipline as Fidel--making sure that he would set a personal example himself. Considering his life long struggle with asthma, Che's determination to march many miles in hot humid weather that aggravated this condition was an inspiration to the men who fought alongside him, most of whom were Afro-Cubans from the most oppressed ranks of the peasantry, the so-called 'guajiros.'


Anderson's narratives of Che in combat are not only gripping, they suggest that this is the Che Guevara who is most important to him. In an encounter in the Mar Verde valley, we see Che as battle-hardened veteran.


"I could at that moment sense the tension prior to combat," he wrote later. "I saw the first soldier appear. He looked around suspiciously and advanced slowly. ... I hid my head, waiting for the battle to begin. There was the crack of gunfire and then shooting became generalized." The forest filled with the roar of combat as the two sides blasted away at each other at close quarters. The army hastily fired mortars, but they landed well beyond the rebels, and then Che was hit. "Suddenly I felt a disagreeable sensation, similar to a burn or the tingling of numbness. I had been shot in the left foot, which had not been protected by the tree trunk."  Che heard some men moving through the brush in his direction and realized he was now defenseless. He had emptied his rifle clip and hadn't had time to reload; his pistol had fallen on the ground and now lay beneath him, but he couldn't lift himself up to get it for fear of showing himself to the enemy. Desperately he rolled over and managed to grab the pistol just as he saw one of his own men, Cantinflas, coming toward him. Cantinflas had come to tell him his own gun was jammed and that he was retreating. Che snatched the gun, adjusted the clip, and sent the youth off with an insult. In a display of courage, Cantinflas left the tree cover to fire upon the enemy only to be hit himself by a bullet that entered his left arm and exited through his shoulder blade.  >>Both Che and Cantinflas were now wounded, with no idea as to where their comrades were. To escape the line of fire, they began crawling until they found help. Fleeing, they set off for a peasant collaborator's house a couple of kilometers away. Cantinflas was in a hammock-stretcher, but Che, his adrenaline still pumping, did the first part of the trip on his own two feet before the pain from his wound overcame him and he had to be lifted onto a horse.


On January 1, 1959, the guerrilla armies made their triumphal entry into Havana. From this point onwards, Anderson's biography begins to meander. Since the Guevara who interests and inspires him most is the Guevara of motorcycle journeys or courageous combat, his stint as economic planner and his failed missions in the Congo and Bolivia are treated anti-climactically. However, these are the exact issues that challenge us as Marxists. How can socialism be built in an underdeveloped island that depends on export agriculture? How can the revolution be extended beyond the shores of the island to relieve pressure, as well as defeating injustice in other countries? These are obviously the questions that the Marxist movement has been grappling with since 1917 and before, and which Anderson lacks the motivation and expertise to address.


Before Che made the decision to leave Cuba and launch guerrilla warfare to relieve pressure both on Cuba and Vietnam, he was working two jobs. One was with the Institutio Nacional de Reforma Agraria (INRA) and the other was as president of Cuba's National Bank. INRA was also where Fidel was working. From this agency, the assault on Cuban agrarian capitalism was mounted. As head of the Cuban army, Fidel could supply the military firepower to put teeth into what would amount to the most radical land reform in this hemisphere's history.


Che's working hours became legendary. Foreign dignitaries would be told of being granted an interview with Che at 3:00, only to subsequently learn that this was 3AM. Mostly Anderson dwells on these superhuman efforts and Che's constant clashes with friends and comrades who apparently lacked this kind of dedication. All in all, he comes across in Anderson's account as an insufferable martinet whose native Argentine haughtiness clashed with the more laid-back style of the Cubans.


The Cuban decision to advance toward socialism is treated, as one might suspect, by Anderson in standard jaded journalist mode. Moreover, this turn is treated as if the issue was style rather than the ability of a nation to go its own way without interference from a hostile imperialist power that had sucked its wealth for most of the century. He writes:


Along with most other American influences-such as Santa Claus, who had been banned-the learning of English was now discouraged; Russian was now the second language to learn in the "new" Cuba. Che began taking twice-weekly Russian-language classes from Yuri Pevtsov, a philologist sent from Lermonstov University to be his interpreter and personal tutor. They had no Russian-Spanish manual to work from, so the two made do with a Russian-French primer.


Inevitably, in spite of the early popular ridicule about the "bolos," a certain Soviet "style" began to seep inexorably into Cuban life in way* that were initially superficial. The government spearheaded the emblematic transformation. There was already the new central planning board, JUCEPLAN, an imitation of the USSR's GOSPLAN. Streets, theaters, and factories were rebaptized with the names of homegrown and foreign revolutionary heroes and martyrs such as Camilo Cienfuegos and Patrice Lumumba. The old Chaplin Cinema on First Avenue would become the Carlos Marx, and before long, there would be day-care centers named Heroes de Vietnam and Rosa Luxemburg.<<


In keeping with the need to depict the Cuban revolution in power as some kind of grotesque Soviet outpost, Anderson tries to find ways to depict government statements as shrill and even hysterical. Time and time again, the reader is not sure whether Anderson is resorting to "scare quotes" to score political points or rather referring to the actual words of Cuban officials. For example, on page 535 Anderson is setting up the first meeting of Tomas Borge with Che, who is described needlessly as "squat and full-lipped." He writes, "Another country whose 'liberation' was a goal close to Che's heart was Nicaragua." Is Anderson quoting some statement of Che or Borge's or is trying to score points against the Central American revolution of the 1980s? After all, it is not unreasonable to think in terms of the liberation of Nicaragua when Somoza's National Guard had been torturing college students and driving campesinos off their land. No need for scare quotes when you are dealing with really scary dictators.


The final one hundred pages of Anderson's biography are taken up with Che's ill-fated interventions in the Congolese revolution and Bolivia. As one might expect, the attempt to assist Laurent Kabila turns out to be something of a fiasco, as the Congolese rebels are depicted as drunkards, whore-mongers and--worst of all--believers in 'dawa,' which is a superstitious notion that the enemy's bullet can not harm them. The subtext of Anderson's chapter on the Congo is that such peoples were not suitable material for revolutionary transformation as long as they maintained such backward notions. A more interesting question probably never would have occurred to Anderson, namely how it is that a country could be colonized by an 'civilized' (my own scare quote) for over a hundred years and retain such unscientific beliefs. It would appear that resolute struggle against capitalism and colonialism is the best prescription for relief from superstition of any sort.


All in all, Anderson betrays some rather racist attitudes toward the Congolese people whose courageous leader Patrice Lumumba is characterized as "erratic-seeming" and whose rebel troops rule over 'liberated' territory rather than liberated territory. While one can have all sorts of questions about the behavior of Kabila's followers, there seems little doubt given the brutality of Mobutu and his mercenary allies that--yes--this territory was liberated. One supposes that true liberation in Anderson's terms would have to wait until the people have received the proper tutelage under serene and wise imperialist guidance.


Anderson's account of Che's tragic fall in Bolivia goes over material that is quite familiar at this point, including the treacherous character of the Bolivian CP and Che's heroic but doomed effort to overcome illness and isolation in order to make some kind of breakthrough.


For a useful assessment of Che's failure in Bolivia, it would require a totally different orientation than Anderson is equipped with. To put it as succinctly as possible, the defeat in Bolivia is not the result of poor tactics by the guerrillas, or a more sophisticated counter-insurgency policy.


The answer, or at least the beginnings of an answer, can be found in Anderson's book itself. Namely, the guerrilla movement in Cuba was an outgrowth of civic movements that combined legal, electoral and extra-legal assaults on the dictatorship. By the time Fidel Castro had arrived on the beach of Oriente province in 1956, he was already well known as the student leader and the candidate of the Orthodoxo party who had challenged Batista. The revolutionary movement he founded existed all over Cuba whether or not members were engaged in combat or not. As a rule of thumb, guerrilla movements cannot succeed unless this kind of mass movement has had a prior existence.


The other flaw in Che's strategy was the belief that a Latin American revolution could be launched without regard to the specific dynamics of a nation-state. In fact, Bolivia was intended to be a launching pad for an assault on Argentina itself, Che's homeland. Unfortunately, Che and his fighters were extremely isolated from any ongoing national struggle in Bolivia itself and were forced to rely on a CP who preferred conventional trade union and parliamentary work to armed struggle, no matter the lip service they gave to this project.


In light of recent anti-globalization protests, with their trans-national ruling class target, it is useful to remind ourselves of the need for a political program based on the living class struggle of a given nation-state. After all, when all is said and done, revolutions grow out of the most deeply felt grievances of oppressed peoples whose consciousness is formed by experiences at the plant gate or the plantation. In other words, the experiences that shaped both Che Guevara's life and the people whose cause he made his own.