Che Guevara: Man and Socialism in Cuba

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One of Cuba’s leading public intellectuals, Fernando Martínez Heredia, died on June 12, 2017. His legacy was marked by a tireless defence of Cuban Marxism and the pursuit of its critical renovation, a task that saw the philosopher assume the role of head-editor for Pensamiento Critico – one of Latin America’s premier journals of the New Left – as well as director of Havana’s Juan Marinello Institute. Below is an English translation of a lecture delivered by Martínez Heredia at the Center for the Study of Che Guevara, in March 2015, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Guevara’s “Man and Socialism in Cuba”

June 14th, 2018, marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of Che.

Translated by Nicolas Allen

Che opens his “Man and Socialism in Cuba” with a word of apology to his editor and then goes on to explain that he only narrowly finished the essay while travelling through Africa. This was no exaggeration. The article would be published just two days prior to the Argentine’s return home to Cuba on March 14, 1965, bringing to a close a four-month diplomatic tour that had taken him to the Soviet Union, New York, all across Africa and, briefly, China. Beginning with his departure from Geneva on March 17, 1964, Che effectively covered half the globe as a representative of the Cuban government, while still finding time to return to the island and attend to his duties as Minister of Industry. Simultaneous with his travels, Che had opened an important new front in the war of ideas that was then unfolding at the heart of the Cuban Revolution and within the consciousness of its people, and it was there that he could be found outlining, defending and disseminating a truly revolutionary vision for the future.

“Man and Socialism in Cuba” is a pamphlet, a manifesto; it is brimming with succinct, powerful ideas that stick together as if bound by a taut steel wire. The general tone of the article is a call-to-action, to abandon passivity. But the text was not composed in a frenzy: this is a truly mature work. Insofar as its author stakes a position and puts forth his principal ideas, this was Che’s communist manifesto, a declaration addressed to the world that simultaneously sought to explain the true nature of socialism and to chart the correct path towards its attainment. The spectre of communism was no longer haunting Europe but the entire world, and Che here addresses himself to those countries who until recently had lacked a personality of their own: the colonies. At the same time, this rich theoretical work heralded an important body of Marxist writing to come.

“Man and Socialism in Cuba” also serves as the preface to a new chapter in Che’s own life, marked by a set of intellectual tasks that began to take shape starting in April 1965. Intellectual commitment was of course only half of his charge at the time, the other being that of internationalist combatant, which would lead him to the Congo, and eventually, Bolivia.

The true scope of his essay can be best appreciated if we bear in mind the questions that Che was confronting, as well as the constraints imposed upon him. The question of the individual and that of the organization of society, the relation between one and the other, these are, as I see them, the basic issues underlying any type of social thought. As for matters of liberty, conduct, justice, morality, politics, systems and conflicts, none of these can be properly grasped without thinking of their connection to those two larger problems, that of the individual and society. European thought –often called modern– has confected a vast array of questions, theses, theoretical concepts, methods and propositions, all concerning the correct combination of personal and social conditions, which are then expressed as tendencies, schools and polemics. They have scored a good many achievements, but they have also created new problems.

Social change towards a more just and humane society, and the improvement and perfectibility of human beings, these are the two main objectives of any form of social thought that purports to intervene and have some effect beyond its immediate, limited milieu. Modern Europe saw these two objectives take shape in close connection with the unfolding of capitalist societies, born along with all their contradictions and conflicts.

It was in this context that the social theory and the communist proposal of Karl Marx came into existence; the enduring nature of this two-sided contribution can be measured by appreciating its antithetical opposition to any ostensible correspondence between ideas and their condition of existence, whereas Marx’s proposal announced a new antagonism that could only find resolution through a revolution that would end all forms of domination and make possible the creation of a new society for human beings and for liberated societies. But such a subversion, and so early in an era that was only just beginning to see the full potential of imperialist global domination, proved to be impractical. In Europe, socialism had been incorporated and subordinated within bourgeois hegemony, while for the rest of the world –brutally colonized– the topic could hardly even be raised.

The triumph and consolidation of the Bolshevik Revolution represented a great leap forward. That spectacular and unprecedented experiment in the creation of a non-capitalist society had ushered in a great wave of hope, provided rebellions across the globe with a new sense of purpose, and broadened the scope of Marxism in the process. Imperialist capitalism for its part underwent a long period of crisis between 1917 and the Second World War, and by the post-war period found itself forced –in the so-called developed countries– to pursue improvements in wealth redistribution, social policies, the rule of law and representative political systems; it was also forced to acknowledge the right to self-determination of the colonized nations. The Bolshevik Revolution meanwhile had been annulled by one of its main protagonists in the 1930s. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union had turned into a formidable state and a bulwark of autonomy within the broader global economic geography, not to mention the main player in the colossal epic of 1941-1945 that led to the defeat of Nazism.

The world in which Ernesto Guevara grew to become Che was one in which a new era was dawning. New revolutions scored victories in countries that had until recently been colonized or neocolonized –the so-called Third World–, becoming in the process the emerging centres of anti-capitalist liberation struggles. New identities, new representations, new ideas and new demands too began to surface, speaking on behalf of hundreds of millions. The political action of the poor and subordinate classes was multiplying, sometimes as the radical wing of larger processes, sometimes autonomously. New countries were appearing across the globe and learning to engage in coordinated organization and struggle.

This new era called out for a form of thought all its own, one that would be capable of freeing itself from colonization while breaking with the intellectual hegemony of the “First World”. This thought embraced the basic Marxian hypothesis, according to which all ideas and action are based on the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; it thus distanced itself from any possible negotiation or deal-making with the dominant classes, and, it equally rejected all fantasies of a return to a lost paradise. For their own revolutionary practice and theory, the protagonists in this struggle could draw on the example of Lenin’s magisterial conversion of theory into politics. But in seeking to transcend pure action, or, to move beyond strongly worded phrases, matters became extremely difficult and there were numerous chances to be led astray. The apparent paradox of being both orthodox and heretical was, in reality, the only available way forward. In other words, to critically embrace the task –the only way to do so, in fact– and create without fear of excess, reprisal or error, was the only way to create.

This new form of thought had to be critical and uncompromising: compromise was not an available option. Likewise, it had to be capable of perceiving the facts, processes and potentialities where the untrained eye saw nothing; to subject reality to rigorous and honest analysis while also resisting submission to the realities analysed; to draw on the extraordinary repertory of existing ideas while defying the temptation to apply that repertory as if it were a set formula; to break free from the prison of possibility-bound thought and enter upon fresh new territory; to champion the decisive role of the will and of praxis; to chart the correct path and the necessary conduct corresponding to a new politics and morality; to offer up the ideal instruments and establish the immediate goals, as well as the final, non-negotiable objectives. To engage in prophesies –exercising a form judgment that does not shirk from passions nor convictions– and to prefigure the person and the society that would be forged in the furnace of the revolution and in the processes of liberation.

In setting out to define this form of thought in his “Man and Socialism in Cuba”, Ernesto Che Guevara had succeeded. And yet, even as a unique testimony of his intellectual grandeur, he had never intended to write a personal intellectual treatise. He did so in the name of the Cuban Revolution, to issue a call to the world from the centre of Latin America’s first socialist revolution, to outline the path for a process of liberation that seemed within reach for much of the planet in the second half of the 20th century, a path that, at one and same time, sought to achieve the peak of human ambition while recognizing itself to be the only viable option.

Che also wrote his essay for the benefit of the Cuban Revolution itself. The Argentine had stood side-by-side with Fidel –political and ideological leader for over nine years of revolutionary turmoil–, together with him in all his struggles and creations, throughout all his conquests of the impossible. Now poised on the threshold of his role as Cuba’s internationalist leader, Che wrote a text that was intended to answer a fundamental problem: what kind of socialism to build, who will build it, how will they themselves be built in the process of building socialism, what might the socialist transition look like, how to align power and project in a harmonious balance, how to amass the necessary strength and achieve superior qualities, to insure the growth of human beings and the society where those human beings are interrelated. The objectives, the instruments, the path, the strategy and tactics, the dangers and the enemies, all of these needed to be well defined from the outset. Engaged as it was in multiple battles, Cuba must stand firm and triumph in one decisive battle above all others: the struggle to determine the nature of a society that is built upon liberation, and what would be the scope of its creative project as it forges a new culture radically different from, and superior to, capitalism.

The old separation between Cuban socialism and the Soviet-style communist party has been brushed aside by the Cuban triumph, through the victorious insurrection and the socialist revolution for national liberation. But different positions began to take shape after 1959, centring on the question of the socialist transition within the revolutionary camp; although there were two basic tendencies that essentially reflected the aforementioned separation, in the Sixties they too were mediated by new events, complex situations, dilemmas and decisions that the Revolution had to confront once in power. The debates of those years were a partial expression of the contradictions and conflicts of the time; liberty and the freedom from fear, these elements best expressed the formidable strengths that had been unleashed by a process that had grasped its own need to be purposeful and creative, to develop consciousness and judgment, to practice self-criticism and lay bare its own contradictions and defects, to mobilize the will and forge consensus among revolutionary men and women.

But those fine debates were not some exercise in a second-degree freedom, never meant to bring solace to today’s “objective” reader. They are the testimony of a historical juncture whose outcome could spell life or death for a whole people, about making the right decision during a process of liberation, and about a whole repertory of issues whose relevance remains with us today and that have a great deal to teach us about our own history.

Fidel was forced to assume all the tasks belonging to a supreme leader and popular educator; Che, whose responsibilities comprised a number of different competencies, was busy elaborating a theoretical corpus that remains to this day the most important intellectual monument of the Revolution, especially in its first stage. Both figures found themselves forced to entertain controversy, and did so quite capably. By way of illustration, we should recall that Fidel and Che always insisted that the Cuban socialist revolution would not adhere to specific “stages” with their corresponding “tasks”, an option that would have amounted to the establishment of an intermediate regime of domination. To be a communist and a socialist in countries that had suffered colonialism and neocolonialism, they argued, it was vital to go beyond the argument of the best-possible evolution: it was necessary to subvert, rupture, create and transform people in the deepest way possible, affecting their relations, institutions and society as a whole, repeatedly. Contrary to the slogan that so typified the classical thinking of the time, it was necessary to first establish socialism and then later aspire to development. Socialism is the command post for the economy: to suppose that the latter can simply “direct itself” is in fact a cornerstone of capitalist ideology. Riches must be created with consciousness, not consciousness with riches.

I have been writing and speaking about Che now for several decades, about his theoretical vision and the great intellectual battle he waged within the revolutionary field; about his conceptual labours, his weaving together of ideas and behaviours; about his struggle for the foundation and practice of a culture of liberation; about his practical experiences and all the details of his life and work. “Man and Socialism in Cuba” is one such example of his work, characterized by its meticulous analysis. Better that I not discuss the finer points of that text here, since nothing I could write could substitute for the close study of Che’s own essay.

I will however hazard a summary of the text, if only to provide some idea of its extraordinary power. “Man and Socialism in Cuba” is, as its title suggests, a finely crafted presentation of the necessary dialectic for the creation of socialism and communism, in which all elements enter into relation: the individual – “the actor in this strange and moving drama that is the building of socialism, in his two-fold existence as a unique being and a member of the community”–, the masses, leadership, consciousness, production, work, education, social coercion, commercial relations, underdevelopment, moral and material stimuli, the vanguard, the state, institutions, community, art, the youth, the party, the revolutionary figure, proletarian internationalism. His account of their interrelation always has in its sights the creation of the New Man, who should be forged by “methods different from the conventional ones”, always advancing towards the “ultimate and most important revolutionary aspiration: to see man freed form alienation.”

The ideology that is guided by “objective” laws –derived from “material reality”– can serve for establishing institutions and for regulating the type of behaviour that does not violate the basic existing order, to “instruct” in what is correct and incorrect. This ideology is imposed on the individual, it subordinates them to necessity; its function is not to unleash individual energies or initiatives, nor inspire it to leap beyond a determinate field of action. It is only natural that, for this ideology, the human being is a marginal figure. What Che demands is that the subjective factor become the dominant one in any period of socialist transition, that the human being should assume a central role in the ensuing revolution –revolutionized by their practice–, that they should change themselves along with society, performing an act of self-realization through revolutionary activity and thus transcend individualism and egoism through labour, organization, struggle, solidarity and sacrifice.

The creation of a different reality from the actually existing one, without which there is no socialism, must also include the critical spirit; it must encourage independence of judgment and the capacity to think and exercise one’s own discretion, to learn to distinguish between available paths and perceive all that they involve, as well as their possible results. While participating in the difficult and often exhausting business of day-to-day work, Che also perceived the serious dangers involved in committing mechanical imitations and thus failing to perceive the pitfalls of what at that time was called “real socialism”; hence his opposition to bureaucratic tendencies, to inertia and resignation in the face of all that was actually existing. Che was always reflecting on situations as they were actually unfolding, trying to determine what kind of action was called for, as well as the methods required and objectives to be procured, always engaging in theoretical activity with an eye for the fundamental underlying issues.

As with all of Che’s theoretical output, this text can be of great value as an instrument for the comprehension of the current world’s circumstances and problems, to determine what is the correct conduct and what are the viable strategies in light of those problems, and how to combat the formidable ideological demobilization suffered by the people in the last several decades.

As concerns Cuba, finding itself today in the midst of a conjuncture whose outcome could prove decisive for the great historical movement inaugurated sixty years ago [sic], it must be said that Che’s thought remains suspended in the mists of time, separated from the fervour that the movement continues to inspire to this day. I offer here what is only a brief glimpse of what we might still recover today, if we were prepared to embrace all that Che has to offer:

- a peerless politico-ethical socialist model, enhanced by its own subsequent impact and its enduring exemplarity; in addition, the example of the Argentine’s heroic downfall and sacrifice;

- the full confidence –today more vital than ever– in the possibility and feasibility of raising oneself above the surrounding circumstances;

- the practical experiences that he imparted to the Cuban economy, with all its instruments and ideas, and their connection to the general notion of the revolutionary transformation of the people, their social relations and institutions;

- the extraordinary theoretical tools –concepts, questions, ideas, hypothesis, principles– and the Marxist dialectical method that Che used for the analysis of realities, conflicts and the projects of Cuba, Latin America, and the Third World;

- a revolutionary Marxist critique of the realities and theories of capitalism and socialism;

- a body of thought ideally suited for concrete analysis;

- one of the most powerful examples available of an efficacious program of political, ideological and cultural instruction;

Twenty-five years ago, as I was finishing a book that dealt with Che’s theoretical and intellectual battles, I decided to add an epigraph by José Martí: “the only practical man, whose dream of today will be the law of tomorrow”. With it I intended to draw a line of filiation between the ideas, projects and lives of two of history’s greatest Cuban revolutionaries, to emphasize their bravery and the potential impact for that current of thought, which remains so vital for our own future. The reception of such great figures does not depend on them, but rather on those who, in new situations and with new tasks and ideas, can reassert their importance and find some use for that legacy. “Man and Socialism in Cuba” still has an important role to play in that sense.