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Che Guevara’s legacy

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Mark Abram reviews Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson Bantam Press, London 1997, £25

The conditions for writing a biography of Ernesto “Che” Guevara have improved dramatically since 1989, though for reasons its subject would hardly have welcomed. The overthrow of the ruling bureaucracy in Moscow has released many Stalinist officials, agents and diplomats involved in Cuban affairs from their vows of silence. Even in Cuba there has been an increased degree of Glasnost. The friends and family of Che Guevara are now prepared to share documents and reminiscences in a way unthinkable before.

Anderson’s book takes advantage of this changed climate to put together a fascinating account of Che’s life. It fills in many gaps, lifts the veil of secrecy around certain key political events and brings new testimony to barely explored sides of Che’s character and personality. While not indulging in the cult of the personality, Anderson’s book bears witness to the power of Che’s personality; a driving, self-sacrificing, utterly demanding character. It is a portrait of a fierce disciplinarian but at the same time of a man of action capable of inspiring remarkable devotion, not least through his own ability to overcome the disability of severe life-long asthma. It is also clear that throughout his life he renounced all material privileges, either as guerrilla leader or as minister in the Cuban state.

It is not an iconoclastic biography; nor is it a critique of Guevara’s ideas. It does not challenge Guevara’s writings on guerrillaism, nor his positions in the debates among the Cuban leaders over the transition to socialism, for example. But it does provide new information that allows a clearer appreciation of Guevara’s relations with Fidel Castro, with Cuban Stalinism and his changing views on the USSR and China. His disastrous campaigns in the Congo and Bolivia are painstakingly presented, based on hitherto unpublished diaries and first hand accounts from those who were active with him and even those who were responsible for his death.

Since 1967, Guevara has been different things to different people: icon of the Cuban revolution against Batista; architect of the Cuban Stalinist counter-revolution; implacable anti-imperialist fighter willing to sacrifice his life in another country’s cause; or even, as the man who lost a volume of Trotsky’s writings in a skirmish days before his death, an “unconscious” advocate of “permanent revolution”.

Anderson’s book allows us to understand more exactly both the man and the ideology of “Guevarism”, the nature of the “Marxism” Che evolved towards from the mid-1950s to his death.

From scepticism to Marxism

Ernesto Guevara was born on 14 May 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, into a family of Cuban aristocratic background which had fallen on hard times. But they were not short of money and Guevara had a comfortable middle class, somewhat bohemian, upbringing. A voracious reader and debater, he was certainly politically aware but remained stubbornly aloof from commitment well into his twenties. He earned the nickname “Sniper” for his barbed remarks aimed at others’ convictions.

He studied medicine and qualified at the age of 22. He interrupted his studies with travel, first into the interior of Argentina and then throughout South and Central America. His diaries and letters reveal a gradual but growing awareness of injustice, poverty, and oppression. In this period he also read widely, including Lenin, Marx, Engels, Stalin and Freud. But despite the fact that his adolescence and early manhood coincided exactly with the “heroic” years of the Peronist movement in Argentina (1944-52), he stood aside from all political activism for or against Juan and Eva Peron and their movement.

However, history was about to present the young doctor with an opportunity to take sides. In Guatemala Jacobo Arbenz, a leftist colonel, had just been elected as President. In 1952 he signed a radical land reform into law, nationalising the property of the major US company in the region – United Fruit – as well as attacking the land holdings of the local oligarchy.

Arriving in Guatemala on a post-medical school trip in December 1953, Guevara found himself in the middle of momentous events. Hundreds of Latin American leftists arrived to witness this “socialist experiment” first hand.

On his way to Guatemala Guevara wrote to his family:

“Along the way, I had the opportunity to pass through the dominions of the United Fruit, convincing me once again of just how terrible these capitalist octopuses are. I have sworn before a picture of the old and mourned comrade Stalin that I won’t rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated. In Guatemala, I will perfect myself and achieve what I need to be an authentic revolutionary.” (p126)

The US State Department and CIA spent 1953 planning the overthrow of Arbenz. A showdown was inevitable. But what to do about it? Guatemala was a cauldron of debate among various groups.

Guevara denounced the bourgeois nationalist parties, such as the Peruvian APRA and Bolivian MNR, for their refusal to espouse violent revolution. And while his reading had already made him an admirer of the achievements of the USSR, he was critical of the region’s Communist Parties (CPs), holding that no party that participated in elections in Latin America in the current conditions could remain truly revolutionary:

“…he was critical of the Communist Parties, who he felt had moved away from the ‘working masses’ by engaging in tactical alliances with the right in order to gain a quota of power.” (p132)

He refused to join the PGT (the CP in Guatemala) for this reason, even though this would have helped him secure a job as a doctor for Arbenz’s government.

Anderson notes that:

“For the first time in his life, Ernesto openly identified with a political cause. For better or worse, he had chosen Guatemala’s leftist revolution.” (p.128)

In marginal notes in his travel diaries, he wrote of his decision in somewhat hysterical language which testified to an intellectual’s long struggle with his own scruples:

“I, the eclectic dissector of doctrines and psychoanalyst of dogmas, howling like one possessed, will assault the barricades or trenches, will bathe my weapon in blood and, mad with fury, will slit the throat of any enemy who falls into my hands.” (p124)

As CIA activities increased Che became critical of Arbenz for his failure to organise and arm a peoples militia to defend the government. Just after his 26th birthday celebrations, the bombs of US mercenaries rained down on Guatemala City announcing the start of Operation Success; an invasion force entered from Honduras. Che signed up with the health brigades during the day and the militia patrols at night. At end of June he tried to reach the war front but was forced to help out in a hospital. All the time he was agitating for Arbenz to arm the people to overcome the impending treachery of the armed forces.

By 3 July the US had won and Arbenz resigned. Guevara went into hiding in the Argentine embassy as a witch-hunt of leftists began. By mid-September he was able to get a visa for Mexico and leave to join thousands of other exiles and refugees there.

By December 1954 he was writing to his mother explaining his conversion to Communism:

“The way in which the gringos… treat America had been provoking a growing indignation in me, but at the same time I studied the theory behind the reasons for their actions and I found it scientific. Afterward came Guatemala.” (p165)

Yet his yearning for adventure still held him back from making a commitment to an organisation:

“…sooner or later I will join the Party; more than anything else what impedes me from doing it now is that I still have a fantastic urge to travel through Europe, and I couldn’t do that submitted to an iron discipline.” (p165)

Che the petit-bourgeois guerrilla

In Mexico City Guevara met up with the Cubans he had known in Guatemala. In July 1955 he was introduced to Raúl and Fidel Castro who had arrived after being released from jail in Cuba for their part in the 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks. Fidel Castro made a powerful impression on Guevara and when they invited him to join their guerrilla movement as a medic Che (so nicknamed by the Cubans for his habit of always using this Guaráni word for “mate”) “accepted on the spot”. From that moment, until his death 12 years later, Che submitted himself and all those around him to the “iron discipline” that he had previously avoided.

From the beginning Che was aware of an important difference between himself and Fidel Castro. For Guevara “politics were a mechanism for social change, and it was social change, not power itself, that impelled him” (p177), whereas Castro’s July 26 Movement (J26M) had no consensus at all about what, if any, fundamental social change was needed in Cuba. It was united only by the desire for an armed struggle to overthrow the US-backed dictatorship of General Batista.

This difference was highlighted in July 1956 when the Mexican police arrested the Cubans and Che. Hitherto “carefully guarded papers” reveal that under interrogation Che “now openly admitted his Communism and declared his belief in the need for armed revolutionary struggle, not only in Cuba but throughout Latin America.” (p198)

In November 1956, 18 months of preparation and training culminated with Castro, Che and 80 others setting sail for Cuba on the Granma. The trip and landing in Cuba were a disaster. They were two days late arriving and the J26M group awaiting them had left. They were ambushed, shot up and dispersed. Che was wounded and only 18 survived to find their way up into the Sierra Maestra mountains near Santiago. It was not until end of March that they regained their numbers.

Che’s differences with the majority of the J26M were confirmed once the guerrilla struggle was under way and Castro was able to assemble what Che called “these young, mostly upper-middle class urbanites” (p234) who were the core J26M leaders. Anderson remarks:

“In general Che already viewed Fidel’s July 26 colleagues as hopelessly bound by their middle-class upbringings and privileged education to timid notions of what their struggle should achieve, and he was correct in thinking that they held radically divergent views from his own. Lacking his Marxist conception of a radical social transformation, most saw themselves as fighting to oust a corrupt dictatorship and to replace it with a conventional Western democracy . . ‘Through isolated conversations’, he wrote in his diary, ‘I discovered the evident anti communist inclinations of most of them’.” (p235)

Given the history of Cold War and Catholicism in Cuba, the (mainly rural) rank and file of J26M were also “overwhelmingly anti-communist” and Castro refused to appoint Che as political commissar for this reason. He did not want to give ammunition to the US administration and Batista.

The course of the two-year guerrilla war hardened Guevara and he forged a well-trained, highly motivated guerrilla column. He undertook the same duties as all the others, endured immense suffering as a result of his asthma, which often immobilised him. He was not afraid to take responsibility for enforcing harsh discipline. Within a few days of the campaign the rebels seized a traitor, the first of the war to be executed. In what was a “closely guarded secret for 40 years” Che’s private diaries reveal that, “the situation was uncomfortable for the people and for E, so I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain…” (p237). Anderson notes:

“This incident was seminal in the growth of Che’s mystique among the guerrillas and peasants in the Sierra Maestra. From then on he acquired a reputation for a cold-blooded willingness to take direct action against transgressors of the revolutionary norms.” (p238)

Building support for the guerrillas was critical for the success of the war. At the beginning peasant support for J26M was grudging and precarious and given for reason of the narrowest self-interest; some were paid smugglers or provided food for money. But Che used his medical skills to hold clinics and this helped to draw support from peasants. More importantly, he soon came to understand that, as with Mao’s Chinese revolution, practical, on-the-run agrarian reform was critical.

Although various decrees were “proclaimed” by the Rebel Army, in practical terms agrarian reform only really took off in the autumn of 1957 with the widespread rustling of cattle from landowners and their distribution among the peasants, “one of the rebel army’s most popular measures” (p305) according to Anderson.

Che’s “Marxist” convictions strengthened as the war progressed and this brought him into increasing conflict with right-wing of the J26M who dominated the urban cells on the plains (“llano”). By the end of the first year the relationship between Che and the llano leaders reached the point of open acrimony. Amando Hart and “Daniel” were alarmed that the radical Marxist Che was in command of his own column and his own supply lines to the city.

Things came to a head in a fierce row over the Miami Pact (November 1957) signed by all Cuban oppositionists, which gave a majority of leadership positions in a new Cuban Liberation Junta to the J26M. The right-wing had signed it for the J26M, but in so doing they put their names to a pact which called for the dissolution of the J26M movement after the downfall of Batista, and “pandered openly to Washington”.

In a letter to Daniel, Che made it clear that “I belong to those who believe that the solution of the world’s problems lies behind the so-called iron-curtain, and I see this Movement as one of the many inspired by the bourgeoisie’s desire to free themselves from the economic chains of imperialism.” (p757)

Daniel replied for the llano Directorate:

“We want a strong America, master of its own fate, an America that can stand up proudly to the United States, Russia, China, or any other power that tries to undermine its economic and political independence. On the other hand, those with your ideological background think the solution to our evils is to free ourselves from the noxious ‘Yankee’ domination by means of a no less noxious ‘Soviet’ domination.” (p758)

After Castro repudiated the Miami Pact Che became more open about his “Marxism”. Contrary to the official Cuban view that the path towards socialist ideas within the J26M evolved as a result of an “organic fusion” with the life of the masses during the war, it was clear that Che was, from the outset, a systematic propagandist for his programme. In the summer of 1957 the Cuban Stalinist party, the PSP, sent a young cadre, Pablo Ribalta, to work with Che and set up a political education school in the Sierra.

Anderson notes that “the young fighters were clean slates upon whom Che made a lasting impression” and one young fighter recalled a conversation among them at the time:

“…there is a great mystery surrounding his books, and they read them at night in a closed circle. That’s how he works, first he recruits those closest to him, and later they go filtering it through the troops.” (p298)

Castro’s attitude to Marxism was equivocal. He was neither a communist nor an anti-communist. While Che was ideologically committed to the Soviet model of the economy at this time, Castro was writing articles in late 1957 defending free enterprise, arguing against nationalisation and for a junta of middle-class professionals to lead the new Cuba. In an interview in mid-1958, Che explained to a journalist that Fidel was a “revolutionary nationalist” and he a “Marxist” (p309).

On the other hand, Castro understood the importance of working with the Cuban Stalinists since they controlled important trade unions in the towns and cities and even had significant support among the small farmers. Although the PSP opposed the guerrilla war at the outset they soon went from solidarity with it to actively seeking to work with the J26M in the llano and sending members to fight in the Sierra Rebel Army.

But the right-wing opposed collaboration with PSP. Things came to a head when the general strike, called for April 1958, ended in failure not least because the llano leadership refused to work with the PSP. After this Castro moved against llano leaders on the Directorate, removing them at its meeting on 1 May. Castro understood that if the political revolution against Batista was to succeed then the popular front had to include the PSP.

Che used the changed balance of forces to deepen collaboration with the PSP in the final months of the war. In autumn 1958, Che’s column moved down into the Las Villas and Escambray plains, and forged close ties with the PSP’s own columns which had previously been shunned by J26M leaders.

It was Che who led the Rebel Army in the decisive battle for Santa Clara in December 1958. With this victory the Cuban army and state collapsed in disarray; Batista fled abroad. A general strike ensured that Havana fell into the hands of the Rebel Army relatively easily.

The creation of a degenerate workers’ state in Cuba

Che arrived in the capital on 2 January 1959. For the next 18 months a government embracing left-wing pro-Stalinists and pro-landlord nationalists held office. It was in effect a popular front. At this point the majority of the J26M leaders, including Castro, had no intention of overthrowing capitalism in Cuba. But while Castro appointed members of the right-wing of the J26M into key ministries and the US immediately recognised the new regime, real power did not lie with these government ministers. It lay with the Rebel Army and the rebels were determined that in Cuba there was not going to be a repetition of the Arbenz fiasco. The pro-US right were allowed no share in power.

In the first months of 1959 Che and Raúl Castro were in charge of overseeing the reconstruction of the state machine, particularly the army. Purges of those who could not be re-educated and re-integrated into a new armed force were widespread. The G-2 was set up as a new secret service, with a PSP politburo member as its deputy chief. Che also began political education classes of the remaining officers in the Cuban army in March 1959 which covered the social structure of the USSR, Lenin’s life etc.

Che was directly involved in dispensing revolutionary justice against those guilty of the worst crimes under the Batista regime. Over 1,000 prisoners of war were held in jail. Trials, which Anderson calls “above board if summary affairs” (p387), were organised with proper defence and prosecution counsel. Victims were not allowed to preside over any of these trials which often lasted six to eight hours. Che was supreme prosecutor on the appellate bench. During the first months, several hundred were tried and executed by firing squad for their role in torture and killings. Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan journalist, called Che “the Jacobin of the revolution” (p609).

The reconstruction of the state apparatus in Cuba went alongside the implementation of a series of social reforms. Che pressed from the start for more radical measures than the official government policy. In a 27 January speech, “Social Projections of the Rebel Army”, he called for a more radical agrarian reform, a programme of industrialisation, protectionism and the diversification of markets away from the USA.

He urged that Cuba’s mineral wealth, electricity generation and the US telephone company (ITT) should all be nationalised. He also argued for measures such as a shortening of the working day to increase employment, which Castro rejected.

But the measures that were undertaken during the first year were enough to cause major divisions within the popular front government. Over the summer of 1959 the agrarian law caused ructions inside the J26M and a polarisation occurred between Castro and Huber Matos, the latter championing the landowners. Castro realised such measures were necessary if he was to preserve his social base among the rural supporters of the J26M. Resistance forced Castro to sack a clutch of bourgeois ministers in June. In July Castro provoked strikes and demonstrations to demand the resignation of President Urrutia for giving credence to “Communist infiltration” charges by the USA.

All the ministers were replaced by J26M Castro loyalists. For the moment Castro allowed bourgeois figures to remain in charge of the economic ministries. A further round of US inspired attacks and criticisms in October and November, however, forced Castro to break up the popular front government once and for all. He expelled the remaining bourgeois ministers except one; he purged the Defence Ministry and reduced the army by 50%. Che meanwhile undertook the creation the first peoples’ militias.

The new government, built around the left-wing of the J26M and PSP, was still pledged to defending Cuban capitalism even though it attacked the big landowners and aggressive US interests. It undertook a series of radical measures transforming land ownership. In January 1960 the government expropriated all large cattle ranches without compensation and all sugar plantations, including US-owned ones. On 19 January all large land holdings were taken over.

Despite its radicalism and its control over the armed forces the government’s commitment to defending capitalism marked it out as a left version of what the revolutionary Comintern described as a “bourgeois workers’ government”. But the Cuban revolution now stood at a cross-roads. This period of a bourgeois workers’ government formed a watershed between the original maximum programme of Castro and the more radical social transformation envisaged by Che from the beginning.

The actions of the US in the first half of 1960 forced Castro to move further in Che’s direction. Attempts to diversify Cuba’s trade links, by selling sugar to the USSR and getting oil in return, led to resistance by the USA. When the oil companies refused to refine the incoming Soviet crude oil the government seized all oil refineries on 29 June; this was swiftly followed in July by a decree allowing the nationalisation of all US property in Cuba. Between August and October, 166 US companies were nationalised as was all private Cuban industry. By the end of the year 80% of all Cuban industry was in the state’s hands.

At no point was the Cuban working class involved in this process as an independent force. At no point did the initiative for these sweeping measures come from the workers’ own organisations. Independent and democratic workers’ councils, such as those that made the revolution in Russia in 1917, did not exist. In Cuba the role of the working class was limited to that of a stage army, responding to the government’s call to demonstrate in favour of the measures taken by the leaders.

The precedent for this development lay not with the Comintern’s categories of workers’ government, nor with the Russian revolution of 1917. It lay with the Stalinist bureaucratic revolutions that followed world war two. In the face of imperialist pressure the Stalinists had been compelled to act against capitalism in order to ensure their own survival. But their overthrow of capitalism was a bureaucratic act, which totally excluded the working class from political power. They set up what we have designated bureaucratic anti-capitalist workers’ governments. The same process was now unfolding in Cuba.

The fact that during the summer of 1960 the government passed over into a bureaucratic anti-capitalist workers’ government was not simply the result of the hostility of the US. It had been prepared for by a long period of consolidation of a reconstructed state machine and a one-party structure under Che and Raúl Castro’s direction.

But it was also possible because the USSR itself was increasingly prepared to provide the economic, diplomatic and military framework for Cuba to become a degenerate workers’ state once the decision had been made to expropriate Cuban and US capitalist property.

Once again Che was at the centre of events, forging this new relationship with the USSR and the Cuban government. Anderson’s book brings forth new evidence on this score.

Involvement of the USSR

Anderson notes that “a mystery that has endured over the years is the question of when the Soviets became involved with the Cuban revolution.” The official line of those involved in Kremlin’s Cuba policy at the time now says that, “the Soviet ball started rolling only after Castro’s rebel victory”(p414), although initial informal contact between Kremlin agents and Che go back to Mexico City in 1955. But Anderson argues that all the evidence suggests that the Kremlin began to take an active interest in the fate of the Cuban revolution from mid-1958 when victory appeared possible, precisely at the time that the PSP began to throw its weight behind Castro’s wing of the J26M in the Sierra.

At this time, however, the CPSU leadership was very “sceptical” because “the revolution was not the result of PSP strategy, the party was not in control” (p415).

The Latin American Department of the CPSU Central Committee naturally saw it as a bourgeois revolution, even though it welcomed its anti-US stance. When the PSP arrived in Moscow in 1959 to convince the Kremlin that a “socialist course” was open to Cuba the Kremlin remained unconvinced. Moreover, relations between the USA and USSR were relatively stable at this time.

Only on 1 October 1959, did the first Kremlin official arrive and speak with both Che and Castro. Both sides agreed on a slow opening up of diplomatic and trade links with the USSR. Deputy Prime Minister Mikoyan visited Cuba in February 1960 on a trade visit which led to the signing of a new sugar deal and the securing of credits for industrialisation.

According to Anderson’s interviews, Mikoyan’s talks in Cuba indicated that both Che and Castro “wanted a socialist Cuba and needed USSR aid to do it.” At this stage they did not ask for military help but a month later when a ship full of Belgian arms was blown up in Havana, Castro asked for arms. Khrushchev agreed and this was swiftly followed by the restoration of diplomatic relations in May.

It was at this time, with military aid secured, that Castro’s government “felt strong enough to take on the Americans” (p466). Over the summer of 1960, with arms and advisers arriving every week, the Cuban government began to expropriate US and Cuban industry.

Che cemented the new ties between the Cuban bureaucratic workers’ government and the Kremlin by attending Moscow’s 1917 celebrations, followed by a two-month tour of Eastern Europe and China in November and December 1960.

Throughout 1961, Che was in the forefront of further overseeing the domestic consolidation of the state and party apparatus consistent with a one-party Stalinist state: the attacks and repression of the left-wing Trotskyist critics of Stalinism; the fusion of the old PSP and J26M apparatuses into a new party (ORI) in July 1961. Che commanded forces just outside Havana in April when the new military machine saw off the challenge of the US backed invasion force at the Bay of Pigs. Following this clash it was Che who pressed time and again for USSR missiles to be sited in Cuba, travelling twice to Moscow to negotiate the deal.

Anderson reveals that in August 1961, during a trip to Brazil, Che met an aide of US President Kennedy for secret talks and gloated that the Bay of Pigs fiasco had put the final seal on the fate of the Cuban revolution – its Stalinisation. The aide’s report noted Che’s view that “they will establish a single party system with Fidel as Secretary General of the party. Their ties with the East stem from natural sympathies, and common beliefs in the power structure of the social order.” (p518/19)

Above all Che, as head of the National Bank and INRA, was in control of the two decisive economic agencies that helped prepare a single economic plan for the Cuban economy from early 1962. The implementation of this plan marked the last act of the bureaucratic workers’ government in its task of creating a degenerate workers’ state.

Che’s support for the “single party system” in Cuba in 1961 expressed his Stalinist attitude to democracy in the transition to socialism. Castro refused to consider holding any kind of elections, believing that any democratic assembly would merely be the “mirror of our discord” and aid the enemies of the Cuban revolution. “Unity” around Fidel as the revolutionary bonaparte was the only, and essential, safeguard of the revolution.

Che agreed with the refusal to hold elections. However, he believed that the transition to socialism did require an institutionalised role for the masses. In 1961 he told Maurice Zeitlin, “our task is to enlarge democracy within the revolution as much as possible and … assure channels for the expression of the popular will.”

But what kind of “expression of the popular will” did Che have in mind? As K Karol points out in his book Guerrillas in Power, when Che convened the 1961 “Convention on Production” during the whole three days, “no one so much as raised the question of popular democracy or workers’ control.”

The fact is that Che did not believe in workers’ management of industry or that the state should be immediately and directly accountable to the mass of workers through sovereign workers’ and peasants’ councils. His Stalinism led to the belief that the interests of the people and its state were identical and the “vanguard” – that is, the leadership – was best placed to interpret those interests.

But Che did believe in something more than just secret police supervision and the odd plebiscite. He was instrumental in creating from scratch various forms for the “expression of the popular will”. The neighbourhood courts and the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) were instruments of control and supervision but they were also forums for dialogue. But it was a dialogue between the organised leadership and the disorganised and atomised masses. Without the right to form groups, factions and parties, the all-powerful leaders could never be replaced. These were not organs of power and control but rather channels of communication from the top down to the masses and safety valves for registering elemental discontent.

By the time he left Cuba in 1965 Che’s views on the role of the masses in democracy had become even more paternalistic. In Man and Socialism in Cuba, he provides an example of how this “direct democracy” worked:

“We are using the almost intuitive method of keeping our ears open to the general reactions in the face of the problems that are posed. Fidel Castro is a master at this . . . In the big public meetings, one can observe something like the dialogue of two tuning forks whose vibrations summon forth new vibrations each in the other . . . a dialectical unity which exists between the individual and the mass.”

This patronising attitude to the Cuban masses, this refusal to allow them real power in the decisions that effect their lives is one of the worst aspects of Che Guevara’s legacy.

Che’s disillusion in the USSR and sympathies with Maoism

Unlike Che, Castro refused to declare himself any kind of socialist before 1961. Anderson suggests, however, that Castro was probably committed to the “socialist course” of the revolution very soon after the ousting of Batista (if not before) but that he played a clever game of buying time for the Cuban revolution in 1959/60 by making soothing noises to the USA. This way he could restructure the state apparatus and build up Cuba’s military defences before he (not the USA) provoked the inevitable breach with Washington.

In reality, Castro tried to carry out the programme of the “olive green” revolution and the “third way” between communism and capitalism for a full two years before US and Cuban capital’s obstruction of the J26M programme of radical agrarian reform and trade diversification posed Castro with the dilemma: abandon it or go further than he himself wished.

He chose the latter and finally announced the “socialist” nature of the Cuban revolution during the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. During the next two years Castro was to overtake Che in his loyalty to the USSR while Che underwent a process of disillusion in the “socialism” of the USSR and made sympathetic noises about China.

After the public Sino-Soviet split in October 1961 the old Moscow-loyal Stalinists in the Cuban PSP used their influence to get their people into jobs in the state apparatus and party in Cuba. Castro had no intention of being a figurehead for the Cuban Stalinists, to be pushed aside when they had consolidated a grip on power. In March 1962 Castro attacked the PSP leaders’ “sectarianism” and purged the party’s chief Anibal Escalante. Che was very pleased at this action since, “he loathed the holier-than-thou party apparatchiks who sought to impose themselves and their own ideological guidelines throughout Cuba…”

As early as his December 1960 visit to China, Che praised the Chinese revolution as an example for Cuba, something that irked his USSR sponsors at a time when a rupture was in the making between Moscow and Peking.

Indeed the only Chinese technicians in Cuba were those attached to Che’s ministry and Che gave jobs to people who had lost theirs as a result of PSP purges. As Minister of Industry he rapidly became disillusioned with the poor quality of USSR technical aid and equipment. From his first trip to the USSR he was shocked and annoyed at the level of material privileges of the Russian bureaucracy and in 1964 he called Russia a “pigsty” because of the conditions it kept the workers in.

The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when the Kremlin backed down in the face of Kennedy’s ultimatum, was a turning point for Che. He repeatedly urged the use of the missiles against the USA and insisted that if he had been in charge of them he would have fired them off. Che denounced the Kremlin sell-out.

By 1963 the differences between Che and Castro had grown significantly. In a visit to Moscow in the spring of that year Castro came out squarely for Moscow over the Sino-Soviet split. Castro went to Moscow again early in 1964 and came back more Moscow loyal than ever, going out of his way to praise the policy of “peaceful co-existence” with the USA.

Che, on the contrary, denounced the strategy of “peaceful co-existence”. Anderson also notes that Guevara became publicly “extremely critical of the western Communist Parties for adopting a ‘peaceful parliamentary strategy for power’. He said this would deliver the working class bound hand and foot over to the ruling class.” (p545).

While Castro, right up to the time of Che’s death, was prepared to support Che’s “foreign adventures” on a tactical basis as a bargaining tool with the US, Che was strategically committed to a generalised programme of anti-imperialist wars aimed at US-backed states. To this end, in 1962 and 1963 Che stepped up his efforts to organise the guerrilla forces for wars in Argentina, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Peru. This alarmed the Kremlin, since they wanted to avoid another run-in with USA after the missile crisis and were afraid that Che’s guerrilla warfare perspective for Latin America would do just that.

Anderson writes:

“To Che the term ‘peaceful co-existence’ was anathema, mere appeasement of the imperialist system dressed up in diplomatic language. For the moment he kept his mouth shut, but there was no longer any doubt that his and Fidel’s path had begun to diverge. Fidel’s goal was to consolidate Cuba’s economic well-being and his own political survival, and for that he was willing to compromise. Che’s mission was to spread the socialist revolution.” (p587)

Castro went on an appeasement offensive in the summer of 1964 in an attempt to influence the outcome of the impending US presidential elections. In his 26 July speech he offered to end aid to other revolutionaries and live within the “norms of international law” (p602). He offered to end support for Latin America’s revolutionary movement if hostilities against Cuba ceased.

Che ignored this and made a public speech at the same time in Santa Clara, arguing that it was the common duty of all Cubans to fight imperialism “whenever it appears and with all the weapons at our disposal” (p603). On 15 August in Havana Che argued trenchantly against peaceful co-existence and once again called for nuclear war, if necessary, to defeat imperialism.

Naturally, the Kremlin was highly distrustful of Che by the summer of 1964:

“In direct contradiction to the policy of ‘peaceful co-existence’, his ceaseless calls to armed struggle, his emphasis on rural guerrilla warfare, and his stubborn determination to train, arm and fund Communist party dissidents – even Trotskyists – over the protests of their national organisations had led to the growing suspicion in Moscow that he was playing Mao’s game.” (p579)

Eventually, CPSU CC member, Metutsov, went to Cuba and met with Che. He concluded that although he thought Che was a sound “Marxist-Leninist”:

“…one could truly say that, yes, Che Guevara was contaminated by Maoism because of his Maoist slogan that the rifle can create the power. And certainly he can be considered a Trotskyite because he went to Latin America to stimulate the revolutionary movement…” (p585)

By 1964 Che’s relationship with his old comrade Raúl Castro, now a close collaborator with the USSR’s defence chiefs, “had steadily deteriorated to the point of becoming adversarial.” (p597)

The ideological schism between Che and the Kremlin was also evident in the debates over Cuba’s economic policy. From 1961, as head of the National Bank, Che had argued that Cuba could achieve socialism and communism simultaneously by organising industry and agriculture according to a single economic plan. He argued for a model of planning which was highly centralised and bureaucratic, the budgetary finance system, which was similar in structure to the command economy of the USSR under Stalin in the 1930s, but with one major difference.

Guevara was highly critical of using material incentives for the workers as the main stimulus to higher productivity and performance. Rather, once again drawing on Maoism, he urged that the “new man” and “communist consciousness” could only be achieved if the working class understood and acted upon the notion of sacrifice for the collective good. To this end, Che introduced “voluntary labour brigades” on Saturdays.

In addition, during 1961-64 a theoretical debate raged which was a reflection of this issue; namely, whether the “law of value” operated in the transition to socialism. Che offered no new insights on this debate but was generally correct in his criticism of the PSP economists who echoed the Stalinist line that it did and that it was just more “transparent” and therefore controllable under socialism.

One of Che’s last works (still unpublished) was a savagely critical set of marginal comments to Stalin’s textbook on political economy for the USSR. Che rightly understood that this theoretical error had a larger purpose; namely, to justify the growing trend in the Eastern bloc to use market indicators (such as profit of the enterprise) as a tool for an economic policy which Che argued led back towards capitalism.

Nevertheless, Che’s own views of the transition to socialism were thoroughly Stalinist in that they were based on its central starting point of socialism in one country, an impossibility in principle and an utter absurdity for a small backward island such as Cuba. But like Mao, he gave a strong voluntarist emphasis to this process. Che severed the development of consciousness from its material underpinnings in the massive development of labour productivity which would be necessary to overcome the generalised scarcity of goods and which would at the same time allow for a massive reduction in the working week. The latter two conditions are critical for any qualitative leap in communitarian and solidaristic notions and for making egotistical and selfish economic motives redundant and counter-productive.

Che’s belief that the mass of workers could leap over this by an act of subjective commitment to extra work was of a piece with his generally adventurist, as opposed to routinist, bureaucratic approach to leadership and the pure mobilising and transforming power of the leadership’s example.

By 1964 Che’s ideas were under increasing attack within the Cuban state, reflecting the Kremlinisation of the ideology and structure of the bureaucratic apparatus. Finally, as a result of Castro’s visits to Moscow in 1964 Che realised that the material basis for his programme of transition – a stepped up industrialisation for Cuba – was being sidelined in favour of Cuba’s continued dependency on sugar.

Che visited the USSR in November 1964 for the last time to argue the case for anti-imperialist wars in Latin America but while the Kremlin were prepared to tolerate low key practical assistance to guerrilla forces in those countries where the CPs were outlawed, they would not sanction or tolerate a general strategy of guerrilla war, especially not in the USA’s backyard.

Che was summoned to see Vitali Korionov, deputy chief of the Central Committee’s America’s Department, and was told that the Venezuela and Bolivian CPs had protested to the Kremlin about Cuba’s proxy wars. Che was intransigent and Korionov concluded:

“The Argentine was determined to push ahead with the armed struggle in Latin America, he distrusted the Kremlin’s policy of peaceful co-existence, and in the Sino-Soviet schism, he was on the Chinese side.” (p615)

On returning to Havana Che boycotted the Congress of Latin American CPs being held there and spoke elsewhere in Cuba, castigating the region’s moderate strategy. According to Anderson’s sources in Cuba, on returning to the country in November Che had made his mind up to resign from the government, “having determined that the Soviet pressure on Fidel to accept the Kremlin’s socialist model in Cuba was overwhelming.” (p616)

Che’s final struggles

In a farewell letter to his parents, written in March 1965, Che Guevara said:

“I return to the trail with my shield on my arm. Nothing essential has changed, except that I am more conscious, my Marxism is deeper and more crystallised. I believe in the armed struggle as the only solution for the peoples who fight to free themselves and I am consequent with my beliefs.” (p633)

On 1 April 1965 he left Cuba, headed for the Congo. On 24 April Che and 13 Cubans arrived in the central African state to work with the Chinese-backed Congolese Liberation Army (CLA).

It did not take Che long to realise that the CLA was ill-disciplined, ill-motivated, poorly managed, badly trained, and abused the peasants in “liberated territory” that bordered the west flanks of Lake Tanganyika. On the few occasions he could get the CLA to attack the enemy they often ran away, or fired randomly at enemy and friend alike.

It did not help that an internal struggle was taking place within the CLA, mainly in Cairo and Dar-Es-Salaam (Tanzania), which kept the commanders away from the front. Che was by and large contemptuous of the CLA leaders (like Laurent Kabila) who preferred to be driven around the capital cities of friendly African states in their Mercedes than actually participate in the fighting.

By September the situation on the ground was a fiasco. By October Che gave up hope of reforming the existing rebel army and proposed setting up a new one, recruited from peasants and under his command. But he was blocked from doing this.

In October the government offensive began, led by white mercenaries, which quickly gained territory. On 13 October a coup within the Congo government led to an OAS brokered deal between it and the rebels, one which involved the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Crucially, in the light of the OAS deal, the Tanzanian government ended its political and logistical support for CLA from the other side of the Lake and the Kremlin followed this up with an appeal to the Cubans and Che to end their intervention. Che stalled but on 24 October his main camp was overrun. The final month was one of more Cuban deaths and a complete rout before their final evacuation on 22 November.

After this disaster Che was holed up secretly for three months in the East German embassy in Dar-Es-Salaam where he wrote up his diaries. These have only been made available recently in Cuba and Anderson uses them to piece together the story of the campaign. The opening page states: “This is the story of a failure.” (p672)

However, it did not shake his belief in his chosen strategy. He insisted that, “I have come out with more faith than ever in the guerrilla struggle.” He was to make one more attempt at anti-imperialist war. After a further three months hidden away in Prague, Che returned to Cuba secretly in July 1966. His presence was never admitted but Castro allowed him to make preparations for his last, fateful adventure.

Castro urged Che to go to Bolivia rather than Peru which was Che’s preference. On hearing of it the Bolivian CP complained to the Kremlin but failed to prevent Che leaving for Bolivia in November 1966.

By New Year’s Eve 1965, Che still had only 24 men with him (nine Bolivians). Almost from the start, Guevara’s campaign was fraught with bad luck, ill-judgement and open treachery from the local Communist Party. In what his wife was to call “an act of conscious treason” by “the man who betrayed her husband”, Bolivian CP leader Mario Monje, the Stalinist chief first pledged support for the war but then urged all Bolivians in the group to leave. He failed to provide the promised logistical support from the towns.

Next, the French journalist, Régis Debray and the Argentine guerrilla, Roberto Bustos, who were, respectively, Che’s communication links with Cuba and Argentina, were arrested leaving the rain forest, effectively cutting the guerrilla column off from outside help.

Finally, Che was forced into a premature war for survival when the column’s presence was discovered by unsympathetic peasants.

As if this was not bad enough, once news of Che’s campaign got out internationally the Czech Communist Party denounced his actions in Bolivia. When the Hungarian CP followed this up with criticism of Che and praise for the Chilean CP, Che denounced them for being “cowards and lackeys”.

In the final weeks, starving, ill and losing men and equipment, Che made the fatal error of moving into exposed country in the foothills of the Andes. The guerrillas moved around in daytime and the army knew from peasants where they were.

By 8 October there were only 17 guerrillas left when the final firefight broke out in a little gully near the village of La Higuera. Most of Che’s column were killed; Che was captured when his automatic rifle seized.

Bound and bedraggled Che was kept overnight in the village schoolhouse. A CIA agent, Félix Rodríguez, who flew in when news of Guevara’s capture reached him, told Anderson that the CIA was opposed to Che’s execution as they wanted him interrogated and paraded to the world’s press. But the Bolivian general staff in La Paz ordered his execution.

A sergeant, Mario Terán, volunteered and on 9 October at 13.10 he entered the school and emptied the magazine of his machine gun into Che.

His body, minus his hands which were amputated for proof and verification, was hurriedly and secretly buried two days later near a small airstrip in the nearby town of Vallegrande. They have still to find his remains.

Anderson reveals that “in Cuba, it is acknowledged off the record that Che’s Bolivian operation was a total catastrophe from beginning to end”(p767). Even Che is said to have told his captors that he failed “due to the effective organisation of Barrientos’s political party, that is to say, his corregidores and political mayors, who took charge of warning the army of our movement.” (p767)

Officially, of course, in Cuba there is no such frank acknowledgement of either the Congo or Bolivian fiascos, still less any attempt to draw up a balance sheet of guerrillaism as a strategy, why it succeeded in making a political revolution in Cuba and failed so abysmally in the Congo and Bolivia, not to mention the failures of other Che-sponsored guerrilla interventions into Argentina, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic between 1961-64.

The failure of the strategy is clear and even some of Che’s supporters were opposed to his “focist” policy in predominantly urban and proletarian societies, such as Argentina, where Che insisted it could also work. Focism elevates the role of the small, mobile, rural based guerrilla band – the focus – into the absolute leadership of the struggle. All other aspects of struggle are subordinate to the foco, are primarily a means of support for it. Mass action is stimulated by the foci, who of course, are not accountable to the masses they are trying to stimulate into struggle. The foci are “the soul of the revolution” as Che said.

The root and branch problems with this strategy were cruelly exposed in Bolivia. It could not work in Bolivia because the working class, particularly the tin miners, had already established themselves as the vanguard revolutionary force in society, strongly influenced by centrist Trotskyism and left-MNR nationalism. Furthermore, the peasantry had been turned into a small landowning class by the land reforms which followed the Bolivian Revolution of 1952. The foco was therefore unable to ignite a peasant war for land or intervene in the politics of a highly organised and class conscious workers’ movement.

Revolutionary Marxists do not reject any form of struggle. If the class struggle develops into an outright war for territory then guerrilla warfare may play an essential role, particularly as a defensive harassing operation against a stronger enemy, where the open engagement of an enemy military force would be suicidal.

As a strategy for seizing political power the guerrilla war, with strong auxiliary support from the towns and its urban working class movement, has succeeded twice in post-war Latin America in bringing down a hated dictator. These were exceptions. Both in Nicaragua and Cuba this success was due to the incredible weakness of the state machine the guerrillas faced, the lack of support for the ruling oligarchy from US imperialism and the fact that the main part of the national bourgeoisie had gone over to the guerrillas.

As Robin Blackburn stated, the Cuban state fell apart under the challenge of less than 3,000 armed guerrillas in January 1959 because the state had disintegrated long before and “lacked any decisive institutions or ideological structures.”

Even where the geographical terrain is best suited to protracted guerrilla war (easily defensible terrain in which movement is hard to detect), it still requires a set of minimal social and political conditions to make it possible to survive and grow. Che himself acknowledged that in Bolivia, the MNR’s policy of land reform and organisation among the peasants had created a layer who were mistrustful of their so-called liberators.

The successful guerrilla armies have been able to secure significant liberated territory in which the army of the state has been banished and therefore incapable of exacting heavy reprisals against the peasants for supporting or supplying the guerrillas. Moreover, in this territory the peasants’ trust has been won on the basis of land reform, medical help or literacy campaigns which have brought tangible improvements to their everyday lives.

From the political standpoint guerrillaism cannot rock the foundations of the state in societies which are fundamentally urban and industrial and in which the great social power rests in the working class and the cities, or in which the national bourgeoisie and institutions of social and ideological control are strong. The fate of the EZLN in Mexico today proves this.

But even despite its few exceptional “successes” (the Cuban revolution degenerated along the path of a degenerate workers’ state, the Nicaraguan FSLN government did not overturn capitalism, demoralised its social base and lost power), guerrillaism must be rejected as a strategy. It is incompatible with the strategy of proletarian socialist revolution – revolution made by the mass of workers through their own democratic organisations, their own councils and militia, and led by a revolutionary workers’ party.

Guerrillaism is intrinsically elitist. That is, it is a strategy for political power which, even where successful, as in Nicaragua or Cuba, leaves the masses – especially the urban working class which has to make socialism – politically expropriated from the start. Che himself provided an ideological rationale for this.

Che was always clear that the Cuban revolution was made for the people not by the people. In his focist strategy leaders were not elected but rather selected by dint of their actions. They initiate the struggle, battle against the odds and by their victories earn their right to be followed and obeyed.

Che believed that the masses could be drawn behind this narrowly based “vanguard”, but since they could only begin to overcome their backwardness and oppression in the transition to socialism and not before, the working class, as a class, could not expect to be conscious of its historic mission under capitalism. Therefore, they must be led by the nose. Such an ideology, while it may under exceptional circumstances win political power for the guerrilla army, inevitably leads to bureaucratisation and oppression.

Guevara’s Marxism

When Che marched into Havana on 2 January 1959 he was a sincere anti-imperialist. He was also a convinced proponent of the guerrilla strategy. Thus in his fundamental method he was a revolutionist, albeit a petit bourgeois one. Unfortunately he was also a committed Stalinist.

He had admired from afar the “achievements” of the USSR under Stalin and was committed to emulating them in Cuba, after the seizure of power. But he had long been critical of the Latin American CPs for their rejection of the armed struggle. As a member of Castro’s Rebel Army he grafted his Stalinism onto the tradition of revolutionary petit bourgeois nationalism in Cuba exemplified by Jose Marti.

After political power had been won Che became an architect of the degenerate workers’ state in Cuba, having been a key figure in the incorporation of Cuba into the economic and military orbit of the USSR.

Together with Raúl Castro, Che was pivotal in drawing the PSP more and more into leading positions within the Cuban state and economic apparatus and fusing the elements of the J26M and the PSP under Castro’s leadership into a new party in 1961.

Like Stalin after 1924, Che believed in the possibility of “socialism in one country”. His programme was thus incapable of leading to a successful proletarian socialist revolution based on sovereign workers’ councils. He opposed the idea of political power residing with the workers themselves, as opposed to its self-selected vanguard. He was a willing repressor of criticism and, having eliminated the right-wing enemies of the Cuban revolution, went on to persecute and jail the left-wing vanguard, such as the Cuban Trotskyists in 1962.

But throughout all of this, his “socialist” strategy, both for Cuba and the rest of the world, were not entirely compatible with the programme and ideology of Russian Stalinism as it emerged in its fully counter-revolutionary guise after 1933.

Important differences remained even when Guevara was helping construct a Stalinist state in Cuba, differences which deepened during the years 1961-64.

The Kremlin was prepared to tolerate (as was Castro) the limited use of armed struggle in the search for a better balance of forces within the framework of peaceful co-existence. Guevara was an enemy of this core Stalinist counter-revolutionary strategy.

In the Congo the Kremlin backed a deal which left Che isolated. In Bolivia it was the Communist Party that did much to sabotage his effort and must take a share of the blame for his death.

His anti-imperialism stemmed not from a narrowly nationalist struggle against imperialism. As a Cuban fighting in foreign lands he set his stall out wherever there was an internationalist duty to fight imperialism and its local agents.

The question remains then, in his disillusionment with the Kremlin did he merely shift allegiance to Beijing? The influences of Maoism are there to be seen: the lessons he drew from Mao’s guerrilla war for his Cuban and other campaigns; his emphasis on moral incentives in the building of socialism; his sympathy for China in the Sino-Soviet split; his collaboration with the Chinese-backed CLA in the Congo; and Beijing’s rhetorical denunciation of the foreign policy of the Kremlin seemed to coincide with Che’s own hatred for the doctrine of “peaceful co-existence”.

But Guevara was not a representative of the foreign policy of the Chinese bureaucracy anymore than he was of the Kremlin, or even the Cuban bureaucracy. In breaking with the Kremlin he was moving to the left. His anti-imperialism clashed with the imperatives of Stalinist foreign policy. Insofar as he remained faithful to the anti-imperialist struggle wherever it was being waged, his evolution was towards a form of centrism.

While it was not identical to the centrism of Stalin in the latter part of the 1920s, it was similar to this brand of “bureaucratic centrism”. That is, Che’s opportunism was manifest in his adherence to the programme of socialism in one country, but his leftism was manifest in his genuine belief in the need for an implacable struggle against imperialism using methods of revolutionary violence. And this leftism was a partial break with post-1933 Stalinism.

As Trotsky said of Stalin’s policy in the Chinese revolution in 1926, subjectively Che wanted to see the victory of revolutions against imperialism and its local agents.

Che was not, like Brezhnev or Mao, a counter-revolutionary, willing to drown revolutions “abroad” in blood to protect a bureaucratic dictatorship in one country.

Indeed, Che was an implacable opponent of the strategy of “peaceful co-existence”, the hallmark of post-1935 Stalinism. Not only did he not believe in watertight stages between the democratic and socialist revolutions, he underestimated the importance of the democratic tasks even in Latin America.

But this does not make Guevara a Trotskyist nor even that he was moving towards Trotskyism. At best Che believed in an “uninterrupted” revolution, from the revolutionary democratic anti-imperialist “stage” to the fight for a bureaucratised degenerate workers’ state.

The continuity between them was represented by the guerrilla organisation and its leadership, not by the masses consciously fighting for and passing beyond democratic and anti-imperialist objectives to socialist goals, creating in this struggle the organs of a new, higher form of democracy—soviets. Che had no conception of proletarian democracy and counterposed to this a mixture of paternalistic populism and supervised institutions of the “popular will”.

Che’s mystique remains, in part, because he died in action at the hands of a brutal class enemy; in part, because he died before he became a consolidated member of a fixed social strata – the bureaucracy of a degenerate workers’ state. He excoriated the Russian bureaucracy for its privileged lifestyle. In Cuba he renounced all such privileges for himself and his family while a key member of the government.

But his reputation endures too because he never had to confront a working class-led revolution. If he had in any of his campaigns, then on the basis of his politics at the time of his death, he would have had to derail and defeat such a revolution. Either that or he would have had to break definitively with Stalinism.

It is possible that, had he lived, had he reflected upon the failures of his Congo and Bolivian campaigns, he might have done so.

Above all he would have had to recognise that the real failure of his last campaigns was due to the fact that he based his strategy on the wrong class.

How should history judge him?

For Anderson Che is “an enduring symbol of passionate defiance to an entrenched status quo.” While this undoubtedly captures something of his timeless appeal to rebellious youth it turns our attention away from what we can learn from Guevara’s shifting doctrine as well his actions.

The Mexican sociologist, Jorge Castañeda, who has also published a new biography of Che, insists that, in ideological terms:

“There is no room in Latin America today for ideas of armed struggles, of the collective good, not even of sacrifice.”

For Casteñada, whatever merit Che may have had, the end of the Cold War, and the shallow “democratisation” of the region’s states, mean there is nothing to be gained from a study of Guevara’s life.

But he is wrong. The violent and persistent struggle to overthrow oppressive and exploiting regimes and the system of imperialist alliances that underpin such regimes is as relevant as ever. Che may have had a false strategy for seizing power but there was hardly ever, if at all, a better non-Trotskyist at pinpointing the crimes of imperialism. He told us never to make our peace with imperialism since it will strike back at us until we consign it to the grave.

Sartre said Che was “the most complete human being of our age”. We need not resort to a philosopher’s flattery for the man of action. But Trotskyists, who disagree fundamentally with Che’s strategy, and indeed his goal—a bureaucratically degenerated workers’ state—can well recognise and respect his character and his attributes. His intransigent struggle against imperialism, his physical courage and daring, his utter selflessness, his breadth of intellectual curiosity and his dedication to ideas, held out of genuine conviction not dogmatism, are qualities every revolutionary must strive to possess.

If he did not finally break with Stalinism as an ideology he remained, at the end, a subjective revolutionist and not a bureaucrat.

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