Martin Hyder portrays Che Guevara in the Mark Steel Lectures
When Che Guevara was executed by CIA-backed Bolivian forces in October 1967 he died as revolutionaries are supposed to die: actively engaged in the liberation struggle. He died young enough to never grow old and largely untainted by corruption and compromise.
Jean Paul Sartre proclaimed him the most complete human being of the age and immortality was ensured by that one photograph which translated a man into an icon. He died at a moment when the youth of the West were ready to embrace an icon: as anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements spread through the campuses of the US and students took to the streets in Paris, as Soviet tanks drove into the heart of Prague.
He supported and spoke directly to anti-imperialist struggles in the still recently independent nations of South America, Africa and Asia. He wrote that "the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love" and when his washed corpse was displayed, local nuns declared that he looked like Christ.
From such raw materials a myth can be built and the complexity of an actual life erased. Prefiguring his death by nine years, he wrote to his mother: "I am not Christ or a philanthropist… I fight for the things I believe in, with all the weapons at my disposal and try to leave the other man dead so that I don't get nailed to a cross or any other place."
Che was often to stress that in a revolutionary situation the choice is to kill or be killed: a principle he applied not only to the immediate conditions of his own survival but also to the wider and long-term survival of the revolution. The revolutionary leader "must combine a passionate spirit with a cold intelligence and make painful decisions without flinching".
As a leader of guerrilla forces he took enemy lives and both ordered and enacted the summary execution of traitors. As part of the revolutionary government he oversaw as 'supreme prosecutor' the purging of the army of Batista's supporters and the execution of 'war criminals'.
The industrial and economic policies he pursued were both Utopian and ineffective. His travels abroad failed to secure the export of the revolution and at the time of his death after nine months in Bolivia he had failed to recruit a single peasant to his revolutionary cause.
Che's commitment to the revolution was absolute. By the time he joined Castro's nascent liberation force he had travelled widely in South and Central America seeing at first hand the poverty, exploitation and oppression of that continent. He had read widely in politics and philosophy including Marx, Lenin and Mao. He had witnessed the defeat of revolution in Guatemala. As an Argentinean with a vision of an anti-Imperialist struggle throughout Latin America, his attachment to this Cuban revolution was necessarily different from that of Fidel and the other Cuban nationals.
Whilst Fidel had expressed strong anti-imperialist sentiments, his struggle like that of many other groups was to overthrow the corrupt Batista government and the exploitation of Cuba by US interests.
It was only in 1961, just prior to the US backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, that Fidel was to 'reveal the socialist nature of the revolution' to the people of Cuba, and then for political reasons as much as ideological.
It was in the early stages of the armed struggle in Cuba as a part of a group of only twelve revolutionaries that Che formed his theories of guerrilla warfare and the centrality of the rural peasantry to revolutionary change. He held that the conditions for revolution can be created by a guerrilla force acting as a revolutionary vanguard, that it is possible to radicalise the peasantry through "violent struggle against imperialist powers and their internal allies" and organise into a popular force capable of defeating the armies of the state.
This argument in many ways runs counter to elements in both classic Marxism and Marxist-Leninism which see history as driven by the motor of class conflict. At the end of this conflict comes the final revolution when the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production can no longer be contained, when the conditions of the industrial proletariat enable them to realise their class consciousness and act as the revolutionary class.
In emphasising the role of the peasantry, Che shares elements with Maoist thought. Even so, official Cuban accounts prefer to emphasise Che's originality in proposing a theory derived from the dialectical process of doing a specific revolution: that theories of revolution are formed from and then inform and transform the practice of revolution which in turn feed back to reform the theories in an endless process of transformation.
Che Guevara on a mural at a Caracas university
In the early stages of the revolutionary government the existing structures of capitalist ownership were left in place. Put in charge of industrial development, Che initially took over companies that had been abandoned by owners fleeing the island and subsequently increasingly 'intervened' in companies where investment had failed due to economic uncertainty. For Che, both the nationalization and enormous and rapid expansion of industry was the obvious path.
In rural areas his policies moved increasingly to the collectivisation of agriculture. As head of the national bank his aim was the final eradication of money. Marxist economic advisors warned against this path: managing the transition of a society from capitalism to Communism cannot be achieved overnight. The Soviet experience had shown that workers needed to feel they had a direct personal stake in their factory or farm and that stake comes through a sense of ownership and financial incentives. In rejecting this argument Che argued for nothing less than the creation of a new kind of human being.
In 1965 he set out his vision in Socialism and the New Man. His analysis starts from the familiar Marxist analysis of the nature of alienation under capitalist conditions of production. Reduced to the conditions of labouring only for a wage the individual is reduced in his or her humanity. In such conditions even those areas of life where freedom of expression and fulfilment seem possible are implicated in the oppressive nature of society, they are not truly free. It is only through the eradication of private property that such freedom can be found but only then through the creation by the vanguard forces of a new kind of person.
This person learns through education, labour and the experience of the struggle to be guided not by individualistic notions of competition or love but by a revolutionary morality wherein the individual is fully realised as a human being through the experience of the collective.
Revolutionary competition and revolutionary love are both about submerging the self in the whole, working always to achieve the common good. Critics would argue that since the 'common good' is defined by the vanguard class who occupy positions of state power this is but another form of dictatorship. His rebuttal of this point is the least developed section of his argument.
The obligation upon revolutionary leaders to live this new morality is absolute and the revolutionary path is not without consequences for individuals entering upon it with their consciousness formed in capitalist conditions. It requires a toughness of mind to resist placing the wants of ones own children above those of all children, to sacrifice small doses of daily affection and family life, to resist the lure of material comfort and settling for the successes of the revolution in one country when proletarian internationalism is a duty.
Che undoubtedly lived the path that he outlined and found for himself a life that made sense – working incredible hours (including voluntary labour in the countryside), travelling the globe as Cuba's representative, giving away personal gifts from foreign visitors and comrades, refusing to accept his salary as head of the national bank.
He spoke of his own situation when he referred to "[t]he leaders of the revolution have children just beginning to talk, who are not learning to say 'daddy'".
He frequently utilized metaphors of the machine to describe the revolutionary society and the place of workers within it: happy as cogs in a great machine, playing their part. In a 1960 Christmas letter to his parents he wrote: "Receive an affectionate embrace from this machine dispensing calculating love to 160 million Americans, and sometimes, the prodigal son who returns in the memory."
So what is the enduring legacy of Che? The collapse of the Soviet Union, China's embrace of the market, heightened globalization, US hegemony and the war on terror make the world geopolitically a very different place from the one that Che knew. Some authors point to the Zapatista uprising in Mexico lead by Subcomandante Marcos as a struggle against US interests and for progressive social reform.
Yet this struggle is for autonomy for the indigenous peoples and since 1994 has been largely peaceful. Some also point to the rapid-fire military campaign which brought Laurent Kabila to power in The People's Democratic Republic of the Congo in May 1997, Kabila having been involved directly with Che in a failed attempt to liberate the Congo in 1965. Kabila himself was assassinated in 2001 having presided over extreme abuses of human rights. Neither, then, are struggles that Che would recognise as his.
Che's final contribution to the Cuban revolution is as a tourist attraction, bringing ideological credibility and much needed foreign exchange to the country.
It is the icon not the man or his beliefs that lives. Recently I bought a Che Guevara watch in a rather trendy and middle class shop. The watch was on display along with a range of other designs.
Pointing to the one I wanted I asked for the Che Guevara watch.
The assistant looked blank
"The black and white one?"
"The one next to Bob Marley..."
The assistant brightened: "Who is it?" she asked.
"Oh, is he a reggae singer too?"