His face is featured on T-shirts, posters, and tea-cups, making money for the capitalists yet among many the idea of Che as idealistic hero and fighter for freedom remains strong. Che's good looks and 'martyr's' death turned him into an icon, an icon duly exploited by all those wanting to turn a fast buck selling 'revolutionary' chic. The truth that the Che cult is used to obscure the real nature of Stalinism is unpalatable to many. Yes, Che was very brave physically. Yes, he was single-mindedly devoted to what he saw as the revolution and socialism. Yes, he refused the privilege and luxury granted to other leaders of Castroist Cuba, taking an average wage and working hard in his various government jobs. But many militarists, fascists and religious fanatics share these characteristics of bravery and self-sacrifice. There is no denying Che was physically very courageous, time and time again he put himself in the greatest danger in the guerrilla struggle. He was a truly brave warrior. While harsh in his methods, he was no hypocrite — his sacrifices, his sufferings, were examples to his men. But physical courage is not that rare, many front line soldiers have it, some criminals as well. Many people who belong to the worst sort of political or religious cults act with immense bravery.
But good looks and bravery camouflage what Che really was. A ruthless authoritarian and Stalinist, who expressed admiration for the Peronista authoritarian nationalists. Che Guevara imbibed most of its ideas. In many ways he was to remain under the spell of Peronist ideology all his life. In 1955, after he had opted for Stalin, he could also claim that “we have to give Peron all possible support...” When Peron fell he stated: “I will confess with all sincerity that the fall of Peron deeply embittered me.." This affection for Peronism never ceased. Che told Angel Borlenghi (Peron's former Minister of the Interior) in 1961, that Peron was the most advanced embodiment of political and economic reform in Latin America.
Che acted as a willing tool of the Soviet bloc in spreading their influence. Even when he fell out with the USSR about the possibility of guerrilla war in Latin America, he still remained a convinced Stalinist with admiration for China and North Korea. He had no disagreements with the Soviets about what sort of society he wanted - a bureaucratic authoritarian state-capitalist set up with contempt for the masses.
Che proved to be the most authoritarian and brutal of the guerrilla leaders. In fact Che went about turning volunteer bands of guerrillas into a classic army, with strict discipline and hierarchy. As he himself wrote: "Due to the lack of discipline among the new men... it was necessary to establish a rigid discipline, organise a high command and set up a Staff". He demanded the death penalty for "informers, insubordinates, malingerers and deserters". He himself personally carried out executions. Indeed the first execution carried out against an informer by the Castroists was undertaken by Che. He wrote: "I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain". On another occasion he planned on shooting a group of guerrillas who had gone on hunger strike because of bad food. Fidel intervened to stop him. Another guerrilla who dared to question Che was ordered into battle without a weapon!
Apart from the drive towards militarisation in the guerrilla groups, Che also had another important duty. He acted as the main spreader of Stalinism within J26M. He secretly worked towards an alliance with the Popular Socialist Party (the Cuban Communist Party). Up to then there were very few Stalinists within J26M and other anti-Batista groups like the Directorate and the anarchists were staunchly anti-Stalinist. The communists were highly unpopular among the anti-Batista forces. They had been junior partners of the regime and had openly condemned Castro's previous attacks on Batista in 1953. They belatedly joined the guerrilla war.
With the Castroite victory in 1959, Che, along with his Stalinist buddy Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, was put in charge of building up state control. He purged the army, carried out re-education classes within it, and was supreme prosecutor in the executions of Batista supporters, 550 being shot in the first few months. He was seen as extremely ruthless by those who saw him at work. According to the journalist and associate of Che, Luis Ortega, Che sent 1,897 men to their deaths in the early years of the Cuban revolution; and is widely reported to have pronounced at the time that “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.” These killings against supporters of the old regime, some of whom had been implicated in torture and murder, was extended in 1960 to those in the working class movement who criticised the Castro regime. The anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists had their press closed down and many militants were thrown in prison. Che was directly implicated in this. This was followed in 1962 with the banning of the Trotskyists and the imprisonment of their militants. Che said: "You cannot be for the revolution and be against the Cuban Communist Party". He repeated the old lies against the Trotskyists that they were agents of imperialism and provocateurs. He helped set up a secret police, the C-2 and had a key role in creating the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, which were locally and regionally based bodies for spying on and controlling the mass of the population. When it came to Guevara’s big idea, that of the “New Man” he was among those who held the belief that gay Cubans be excluded. Viewing them as the “the scum of society”. Guevara founded the forced-labor camp system that held homosexuals, dissidents and later, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, those with Aids. As Castro himself chillingly put it several years later: “We would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary, a true communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant communist must be.”
In 1960 the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) was formed under Che. This organization took control of the entire economy. initially though, its job was to run the State “co-ops.” Now, a State Co-op is a contradiction in terms, for co-ops are by nature voluntary associations and locally owned and managed. What INRA did was to nationalise existing co-operatives (some of which were anarchist) and set up a host of new phoney co-ops — essentially state farms. On February 20 1960, Che announced “Soviet-style planning” for Cuba, something that had been his desire all along. Che was ultimately responsible for the abolition of workers' rights and of the destruction of the independent trade union movement. Of the former, by late 1960, workers had lost the right to strike, job security, sick leave, the 44 hour week, overtime at time and a half, paid vacations, and were forced to do “voluntary labor.” As for the trade unions, as well as liquidating anarcho-syndicalism, the regime tried to get the Communist Party slate elected to the leadership of the Cuban Labor Confederation (CTC). This was rejected by 90% of the delegates. The Stalinists were imposed from above by the State. The leader of the CTC, David Salvador, an important member of the 26th of July Movement, no less, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his opposition to the Stalinist takeover of his union. He spent his time behind bars in a prison with some 700 other political prisoners, many of whom, no doubt, were trade unionists. Che's guilt in these matters could not be plainer, for in October 1960 he stated, “the destiny of unions is to disappear” and supported Law 647, by which “The Minister of Labor can take control of any union, dismiss officials and appoint others...”
Che was the main link, indeed the architect, of the increasingly closer relation between Cuba and the Soviet Union. The nuclear missile deal which almost resulted in a nuclear war in 1962 was engineered at the Cuban end by Che. When the Russians backed down in the face of US threats, Che was furious and said that if he had been in charge of the missiles, he would have fired them off! In an article Guevara wrote during the Cuban Missile Crisis but published posthumously, he revealed his indignation at Nikita Khrushchev for his “treachery” in refusing to start a thermo-nuclear war over the presence of a military base: “What we affirm is that we must proceed along the path of liberation even if this costs millions of atomic victims.”
By 1963, Che had realised that Russian Stalinism was a shambles after a visit to Russia where he saw the conditions of the majority of the people, this after "Soviet-style planning" in the Cuban economy had been pushed through by him. Instead of coming to some libertarian critique of Stalinism, he embraced Chinese Stalinism. He denounced the Soviet Union's policy of peaceful co-existence, which acknowledged that Latin America was the USA's backyard, and gave little or no support to any movement against American control. Fidel was now obsessed with saving the Cuban economy, himself arguing for appeasement. Against this Che talked about spreading armed struggle through Latin America, if necessary using nuclear war to help this come about! It was on this basis that Che left Cuba never to return. He went to the Congo, where he worked with the Congolese Liberation Army, supported by the Chinese Stalinists. This was a shambles of a campaign, and Che ended up isolated with many of his band dead. Despite this, Che still believed in guerrilla struggle waged by a tiny armed minority. His final, fatal, campaign was in Bolivia. This also was a fiasco.Che was unable to relate to either workers or peasants. The local Communist Party failed to support him. Robbed of support, Che was surrounded in the Andean foothills, captured and summarily executed.
Che may look like the archetypal romantic revolutionary. Undoubtedly Che’s charisma and willingness to live out his idealism are part of the attraction; as is his death at a relatively young age – would an elderly Che working in one of Castro’s grim bureaucracies attract such uncritical devotion? One can see a generally fascist influence in many aspects of Che's thinking. In terms of what was needed to make a revolution, Che believed that “What was required to make political headway...was strong leadership and a willingness to use force.” Che was never concerned about Fidel's dictatorial and autocratic ways. He believed the true revolution could only be achieved by a “strongman.” He also had the fascist obsession with the will — “will power will overcome everything... Destiny can be achieved by will power... Die, yes, but riddled with bullets...a memory more lasting than my name is to fight to die fighting.” Che “identified war as the ideal circumstance in which to achieve socialist consciousness.” He regarded the revolutionary army as the “principal political arm of the Revolution” and felt that “freedom of the press was dangerous.” The view that the end justifies the means are essential fascist traits. All of the past must be swept away in a great conflagration and a superior “New Man” created — by force — if necessary. The New Man is necessary — for the Old Man — present humanity — is weak and bourgeois and is only useful as cannon-fodder in the struggle for the glorious future. To sacrifice a generation or two for the cause is nothing to get upset about according to the fascist mentality. As Che stated, “almost everything we thought and felt in the past epoch should be filed away, and a new type of human being created.”
Che stripped of the mythology isn't a pretty sight. In reality he was a tool of the Stalinist power blocs and a partisan of nuclear war. His attitudes and actions reveal him to be no friend of the working masses. He was no saint.
Organise!, journal of the Anarchist Federation