The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Ernesto Guevara


Liam O Ruairc • June 22 2003

Ernesto Guevara (1928-1967) was one of the most remarkable historical figures of the twentieth century. He is a cultural icon (just think of Madonna exploiting his image in her latest album), and while many have T-shirts and posters with his effigy, few actually know what he stood for. His writings, his dedication and commitment, his self sacrifice continues to inspire all the oppressed fighting imperialism.

Originally from Argentina, he joined Fidel Castro’s guerrilla forces in the 1956-1959 struggle against the right-wing US backed Batista dictatorship in Cuba. It is in that context that he became an outstanding guerrilla strategist. His ideas were later systematised by his French companion Regis Debray in a famous book: “Revolution within the Revolution”. Che Guevara bases his book on Guerrilla Warfare: A Method (1963) on a number of key arguments. The first is that popular forces can win a war against an army with guerrilla tactics. What has been done in Cuba can be done elsewhere, whatever the odds. The Cuban model is not an exceptional case, it can be universalised. Guerrilla will give political leverage. “To have a guerrilla force gives prestige. It makes it possible to raise one’s voice and to impose oneself on the stage of power.” (Regis Debray, 78) The second argument is far more controversial. One does not have to wait for the right conditions to be present before starting the revolution, the insurrectionary nucleus (foco) can contribute to making them appear. Guerrilla has thus a decisive political role, it is a “focal point”, it functions as a catalysing agent. “It is the ‘small motor’ that sets the ‘big motor’ of the masses in motion” (Debray, 83). It will act as a stimulus to existing struggles and will intensify the political crisis. Waiting for the “right time” and the “right conditions” is an opportunist excuse to delay the actual start of the fighting until an ideal moment which never comes. “If that had been our way of thinking, we would never have initiated a revolutionary process. It was enough for the ideas to take root in a sufficient number of men for revolutionary action to be initiated and through this action, the masses started to acquire these ideas, the masses acquired that consciousness.” (Castro, 222) Revolution do not happen, they are made. This is why “the duty of a revolutionary is to make revolution”. Minimal resources, little initial popular support are no reason for not starting the fight. The role of the vanguard is to contribute creating the conditions needed for the seizure of power “and not to await a revolutionary wave that will appear from the masses.” (Che, “Marxist Leninist Party”) As Castro said in 1967: “Whoever stops to wait for ideas to triumph among the majority of the masses before initiating revolutionary action will never be a revolutionary.” (Castro, 222) What distinguishes the “true revolutionary” from the “false revolutionary” is precisely this: “One acts to move the masses, the other waits for the masses to have a conscience already before starting to act.” (ibid) One does not have to first wait until people become revolutionary or have the perfect political platform and then start the fight, rather starting the fight first is the best way to learn to become a revolutionary. Guevara’s third argument is that in the underdeveloped countries of Latin America, rural areas are the best battle fields for armed struggle. Why? Because the bulk of the population lives in rural areas. The country side, rather than the city is the terrain most suitable to people’s war. It is the “weakest point”, as rural areas are far more difficult to control by the central government, and the guerrillas can easily hide and move around. Fourth, the peasantry rather than the industrial working class constitutes the base of the guerrilla. It has the highest potential force for revolution. Che’s final argument is that the guerrilla group does not need to be subordinated to a political party. The revolutionary struggle should be directed by those actually doing the fighting rather than a central party organisation based in the cities. The armed struggle of the guerrilla against imperialism is capable of creating by itself, on the long run, a vanguard capable of leading the people to socialism. The guerrilla plays the role of the vanguard, it is the nucleus of the revolutionary movement. It is necessary for the guerrilla to take over the political functions of the party. “A guerrilla force cannot develop on the military level if it does not become a political vanguard.” (Debray, 107) Those were the essential ideas of Che Guevara on the revolutionary struggle.

Practice has proved that most of these ideas were false. First, the question of Cuban exceptionalism. Castro/Guevara/Debray were wrong to believe that what had worked in Cuba could also work elsewhere. The guerrillas were able to succeed in Cuba due to very specific conditions that do not necessarily exist elsewhere (in Ireland for example). Exporting the Cuban model from Bolivia to the Congo proved a real failure. Secondly, if Castro/Guevara/Debray had a point that one did not have to wait for the right time and the right conditions to start the fighting, they fatally underestimated the risk of the guerrilla foco ending in isolation with no support from the mass of the population, ultimately leading to the defeat of the guerrillas. This is what Guevara realised too late; a few weeks before dying he wrote in his diary: “We failed to recruit one single peasant.” Thirdly, Castro/Guevara/Debray overestimated the importance of the country side. Guevara was also wrong in thinking that urban warfare was a mere by-product of rural guerrilla activity. It doesn’t make sense at all to concentrate on rural guerrilla in countries like Argentina, where the majority of the population lives in urban areas. Finally, the opposition between party and army has proved to be a false debate. Their roles can be complementary, not opposed.

Once Fidel Castro was in power in 1959, Che served as President of the National Bank and as Minister for Industry. Between 1963 and 1965, Cuban Communists had a major debate regarding the problems faced by the Cuban economy. As Minister of Industry, Che made an important theoretical and political contribution. Che Guevara exposed his economic ideas in his essay “Socialism and Man in Cuba”. Traditionally, Communists believed that they had to set up a socialist economy first, and once that was successful, a true socialist mentality would develop in the workers. So the priority is industrial development, productivity, and material incentives can be used to reach that aim. Che disagreed. The idea of rewarding individuals with material incentives to boost production serving collective ends is a contradiction. This will give rise to pro-capitalist tendencies and ambitions. He argued that it was impossible to build a socialist society with capitalist methods. “Pursuing the wild idea of trying to realise socialism with the aid of the worn out weapons left by capitalism (the commodity as the basic economic cell, profit making, individual material incentives, and so forth), one can arrive at a dead end…To construct communism simultaneously with the material base of our society, we must create a new man.” (Socialism and Man in Cuba) Productive forces should be developed by socialist methods. The emphasis should be on the development of a revolutionary consciousness rather than material incentives or economic efficiency. He believed that “in a relatively short time, the development of conscience does more for the development of production than material incentive.” (Budgetary System) As Castro said in 1968 the slogan is: “Creating wealth with political awareness, not creating political awareness with money or wealth.” (Castro, 406) To achieve this, economic planing must do away with the law of value (profitability) and people have to work for moral incentives rather than material ones (promotion of voluntary work etc). Guevara’s point is that if everybody works just to make more money rather than for the well being of society, and if economic decisions are based on profitability rather than social utility then there is no real qualitative difference with how people behave within a capitalist society. For Che, “There are no other alternatives: either a socialist revolution or a make believe revolution.” Socialism is more about the creation of a “new individual” than the growth of the productive forces. Whatever the utopianism and the ascetism of his proposals, Guevara’s great contribution is that economic production cannot be separated from the production and reproduction of communist social relations and consciousness. The economic base of socialism will only be successful if developed in parallel with conscious political and ideological struggle against individualism, etc. It is thus not hard to understand why Cuba generated such enthusiasm during the 1960s. Here was a society that was trying to do away with economic profitability and material incentives, and was engaged in creating a “new man”. However, the difficulties faced by the Cuban economy prompted a limited reintroduction of both law of value and material incentives.

Guevara resigned of his official positions in 1965 and went to create new guerrilla fronts against imperialism. A foreign policy of armed revolution goes hand in hand with a domestic policy of development through moral incentives. In 1965, Che declared in Algiers: “There are no frontiers in this struggle to death. We cannot remain indifferent in the face of what occurs in any part of the world. A victory for any country against imperialism is our victory, just as any country’s defeat is a defeat for all. The practice of proletarian internationalism is not only a duty for the people who struggle for a better future, it is also an inescapable necessity.” In October 1966, he opened a new guerrilla front in Bolivia. He died trying to create “two, three, many Vietnam” (1967). His internationalism was remarkable. He concluded: “Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry, may have reached some receptive ear, and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons, and other men be ready to intone the funeral dirge with the staccato chant of the machine gun and new battle cries of war and victory.

Castro Speaks, edited by M.Kenner and J.Petras, Penguin Books, 1970
Sheldon B Liss, Fidel! Castro’s Political and Social Thought (Boulder: Westview Press), 1994
Rock Against The Blockade, The Streets Are Ours: Revolutionary Cuba, Larkin Publications, 2001
Regis Debray, La Revolution dans la Revolution et autres essais (Paris: Maspero, 1968)
Ernesto Che Guevara, Le Socialisme et l’Homme et autres ecrits (Paris: Maspero, 1968)




Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Intellectual freedom is essential to human society. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorships.
- Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov

Index: Current Articles

22 June 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Censorship at the Irish Echo
Patrick Farrelly and Eamon Lynch


The Pen Mightier Than the Sword
Mick Hall


The House that Who Built?
Anthony McIntyre


Angrytown News Responds

Jimmy Sands


Pedro Albizu Campos

Aoife Rivera Serrano


Ernesto Guevara
Liam O Ruairc


Motion Passed
Na Fianna Éireann



19 June 2003


Andersonstown News: Voice of Banana Republicanism?
Eamon Lynch


A Gnat on the Back of an Elephant
Mags Glennon


In Defence of Eamon Lynch
Anthony McIntyre


Left Right?

Eamonn McCann


President-in-Exile in Jail

Pedram Moallemian


The Letters Page has been updated.




The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices