Fifty years after his death, young hipsters and old socialists still lionise Che Guevara, who was killed on the orders of the Bolivian government on 9 October 1967. But the romantic image of the immortal revolutionary papers over nasty cracks in his legacy.
Yesterday, Kate Janse van Rensburg remembered “Che Guevara through the lens”. The article is styled as a coolly detached opinion about the significance of iconic images in documenting history; the image in this case, of course, being Alberto Korda’s famous photograph of Guevara that adorns grafitti walls, protest posters and commercial merchandise to this day.
Janse van Rensburg says this image exists, for the most part, “…empty of Guevara’s revolutionary character and indifferent to the historical context in which it was born. Guevara was a communist and anti-imperialist, a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary.”
In that, she is entirely correct, except that she neglects to add an important adjective: Guevara was a violent communist revolutionary. He considered the capitalist class to be brutally oppressive of the poor people of the world, and believed that it could only be overthrown by armed revolt.
Like his modern followers, he entirely ignored the role governments played in the oppression and poverty he witnessed and described; that colonialism really was a government-led, militarily enforced system of cronyist mercantilism, and that its faults can better be blamed on these factors, than on the emergent system of private property, lawful contract, and free markets. On the contrary: the latter are highly correlated with prosperity.
When he became angry with the United Fruit Company in Guatemala, he ignored both the cause of the conflict – government seizure of private property – and the result: the overthrow of one government not by any company, but by another government.
The same is true for the Cuban revolution in which he would later participate: he never had the subtlety of mind to recognise that corruption and dictatorship were the enemy of prosperity and progress. Sadly, he did not live long enough to witness that communist dictatorship led to even worse outcomes for the Cuban people, and made the island much poorer than it was in the century leading up to the revolution.
Guevara believed in imposing strict discipline on the revolutionary movements he was involved with, and presided over summary executions of counter-revolutionaries. In this, he would mirror the experience of other socialist and communist countries: they invariably require brutal dictatorship and brutal silencing of dissent.
What struck me most about her article was the way in which a student of history noted the lack of historical context, and then promptly glossed over it herself. The piece leaves little doubt that she, too, views Guevara in a very favourable light. After all, while studying history at what she superfluously calls “the University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR)”, she is also a committed socialist, being “associated with the Movement for Socialism in Numsa and the Numsa Research and Policy Unit”. Her closing sentence says it all: “[The Korda photo of Guevara] remains alive with the potential for propelling us into action, for the good of humanity and the Earth.”
The problem with this view is that although Guevara might have been motivated by real injustice and genuine sympathy for the poor, and while he probably intended to act for the good of humanity, the effects of his interventions, and more broadly, his communist ideology, were not good for humanity. History ought to judge people not on their intentions, but on the outcomes of their actions. Did their ideologies produce peace and prosperity? If not, why should anyone lionise them?
Missing from Janse van Rensburg’s editorial is any suggestion that Che Guevara is historically a complex character and remains highly divisive, let alone the reasons for this. Those who idolise him often ignore his many faults, such as his early racism.
In 1952, he wrote in his famous diaries: “The black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meagre wage on frivolity or drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving, which has pursued him as far as this corner of America and drives him to advance himself, even independently of his own individual aspirations.”
In his Congo Diary, which he wrote after his secret mission in 1965 to export the communist revolution there, he lamented the “human failure” of the resistance against the military dictator Mobuto Sese Seko. According to John Gerassi writing in the LA Times, “Che had described [Laurent] Kabila [who would overthrow Mobuto more than 30 years later] as a lazy, hard-drinking, womanising opportunist (albeit with great charisma) and his ragtag forces as superstitious, incapable of military discipline and too proud to listen to instructions.”
For all his support for the liberation struggles of black Africans against colonial powers, Guevara appears himself to have been a political opportunist, acting not out of a desire for justice for oppressed races, but exploiting their anger to spread communist revolution around the world.
Those who oppose Guevara perhaps make too much of his racism. In some ways, he merely reflected his time, when racist opinions were casually held and not widely condemned. (Ironically, that puts him in the same category as Cecil John Rhodes.)
They also wrongly associate him with the Cuban work camps where conscientious objectors and homosexuals were badly abused, but which were established after he had already left Cuba. That isn’t to say he wasn’t a homophobe. He certainly contributed to the culture of machismo that was prevalent throughout Latin America. However, in this, his views were also more likely just a product of his time, and it may not have occurred to him to question the moral basis of his prejudices.
Perhaps opponents of Che Guevara ought to moderate their attacks, and instead of attributing murderous zeal, blatant racism and implicit homophobia to him, should focus their criticism on the violence of his political methods and the dire consequences of the communism he promoted.
Socialist and communist states generally tend towards dictatorship and poverty, just as nationalism and mercantilism lead to corruption and oppression. By contrast, free-market capitalism has historically resulted in rising living standards, even for the poor.
By the same token, however, socialists like Kate Janse van Rensburg ought to be much more honest about the nature of the man and his ideology. He may be a romantic icon and a revolutionary martyr, but even if he thought he acted “for the good of humanity and the Earth”, that was not the consequence of the revolution he preached.
Unlike the communism that Guevara fought for, economic freedom has produced higher growth, higher income per capita, lower poverty rates, higher life expectancy, higher share of income earned by the poorest 10%, better political and civil rights, more gender equality and greater happiness, as evidenced by the charts starting on p.23 of the Economic Freedom of the World: 2017 Annual Report.
Korda’s photograph immortalised a violent and misguided communist revolutionary, and turned him into a romantic icon. He has indeed become like the celebrities whose posters adorn the walls of teenage bedrooms, free of historical context. However, one would expect a history student to take a more critical view of such a complex, divisive figure. Perhaps it is too much to expect a self-described socialist to learn from history. DM
The 2016 Rio Olympic medals are already showing defects including rusting and chipping.