torsdag 19 maj 2011

Michael Löwy: La pensée de Che Guevara – un humanisme révolutionaire ("Che Guevara's thinking – a revolutionary humanism")

How do you know that a biography's going to suck? Well, you can't be certain, of course, but a pretty good indicator is if it starts out by claiming that its subject lived a dazzling, meteoric, exemplary life and is easily compared to the giants of the Renaissance thanks to his multifaceted, unique personality as doctor and economist, revolutionary and banker, deep political thinker and populist agitator, a secular Christ who used the pen and the machine gun with the same ease, etc, etc, ad nauseam.

In other words, Che Guevara – en revolutionär humanist (the Swedish title) is a distasteful hagiography jam-packed with the sort of ridiculous superlatives that graced the more dogmatic "Marxist" (or, if you prefer, far left-wing) writing that was so common during the seventies. Unsurprisingly, this book was originally published in 1969; it is more surprising that anybody would have considered it worthy of republishing in the nineties – yes, it is that bad, and the Röda Rummet publishing company ought to be ashamed of themselves for publishing this drivel.

Anyway, Löwy works very hard to paper over some very basic facts about Guevara:
a) he had a fondness for killing;
b) he pretty much sucked at organizing the "new society" (except for the "killing one's predecessors as the ruling elite" part, that is); and
c) he failed rather miserably as a revolutionary, because he didn't think through what he did, and because his so-called brilliant revolutionary thought was, basically, a shambles and totally useless as analysis of the situation.

For this papering-over, however, he unfortunately has to resort to logical and linguistic contortions of a rather bizarre variety. Now, that's not much of a problem for a 70s far-left-wing intellectual, because they engaged in it all the time – they had to, in order to keep up the pretense that communist dictatorships were the true democracies and the Western democracies horribly oppressive hellholes – but for a more modern or less ideologically pure reader, it makes for pretty awful reading.

Che's analysis told him that the bourgeoisie was to timid and treacherous for the "people" to work together with them. Thus, the true Latin American revolution could only come about through the cooperation between workers and peasants. They would work together to accomplish the important democratic reforms: land reform, national liberation and bringing the country out of underdevelopment. Exactly how he intended that to be done without resorting to the tried-and-true methods of democratic capitalism remains a bit unclear, partly because Che – and Löwy – remains pretty much silent on the actual details (preferring to pepper their theorizing with empirically meaningless catchphrases like "revolutionary consciousness" and "revolutionary praxis" instead), and partly because, hey, Che had the opportunity to show the superiority of his methods when he ran Cuba's economy, and that supposed superiority failed to result in the successes it had promised.

So what did Che do then? Did he take in the empirical information of that lack of success, process it, and adjust the policies to achieve the results he envisioned?

Nope. He quit, and started gallivanting around the globe in search for new revolutionary wars to participate in, found one in Congo and threw himself into it without much in the way of success to show for his troubles. Then he went back to Latin America, and failed there as well. He got himself – and a bunch of others – killed for his troubles. The end.

Well, not quite. He also became an icon for disaffected youths in the Western world (you all know the famous picture on all those posters and t-shirts, I trust) and actually still works pretty well as a symbol for quite a lot of "radicals" in the Western capitalist world today – on two levels, even: First, they seem to like to think of themselves as Che supporters; it seems to give them a sense of connection with the revolution they're never going to take part in. Second, and from a more outside perspective: like Che, they're never going to accomplish much to improve the lives of poor people in the Third World – post-the literacy campaign in Cuba, that is; even if it would most likely have been very successful under any leader who implemented it thanks to the enthusiasm of the Cuban people, Che did head it if I'm not misinformed, so give him credit for that. But don't read his "philosophy", it isn't actually philosophy but an attempt to justify the violent methods he chose to use for regime change, methods that turned out to be pretty much useless for actually improving the world.

In closing, apart from the recommendation to not waste your time reading this wretched book, I have a small suggestion for the fashionably revolutionary, safe-in-their-snug-jobs-paid-for-by-capitalism bourgeois and the (in their own eyes) heroic outside-society-and-proud-of-it-while-demanding-that-the-welfare-state-pay-for-their-upkeep revolutionary romantics (frequently idolizing "direct action" as somehow acts of revolution): why don't you first of all have a

– and then go to the Third World country of your choice as a volunteer to help people learn to read, get safe water, get functioning infrastructure like roads and electricity, and set up democratic grassroots movements that'll actually help them improve their lot? Because strutting around in comfortable Western democracies pretending that you're making a difference for the poor people in the world by idolizing murderers and incompetents like Guevara and his ilk is pretty darn transparent.

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