Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I spent about 5 hours over the weekend in a darkened cinema in the company of Che Guevara, or rather Benicio del Toro doing a damn good impression of Guevara, via the two-part film 'Che' directed by Steven Soderberg. It is definitely worth seeing them together - indeed part two would I think be quite disappointing if you just saw that by itself. Louis Proyect is as usual well worth reading on the film, and there was a slightly more sympathetic article in Socialist Worker a few months ago. Personally, I am glad I saw the films, not least for the landscape and scenary of jungles in Cuba and Bolivia - three not particularly deep thoughts struck me after seeing it.

1) The film does succeed in bringing alive a sense of the personality of Che, as an 'incorruptible' revolutionary with a high moral code (and asthma). As Soderberg notes after interviewing people who knew him, he got the sense that personally Che 'was not embraceable, really.'

'The word "warm" never came up. He was a caring person, especially when he was doctor mode, but there was also a distant quality to him. How much of that is his personality and how much of it is a function of him becoming Che and a leader, I don’t know, but you could tell that these people cared for him a great deal and there was a lot of emotion in the way that they talked about him, but you could tell he was difficult. He didn’t have an off switch. The guy never dropped the revolutionary code of behavior, at no point was that relaxed.'

2) The first part is about the making of the Cuban Revolution by Castro's small group of Guerillas - and then the second part is Guevara's tragically doomed and ill thought out attempt to spread that revolution using exactly the same tactics in Bolivia. It was a reminder that while Che thought that 'if one is a revolutionary, then make a revolution', in reality revolutions are not made in a subjective manner by a few professional revolutionaries - they are made in certain objective circumstances by the activity of the many in society, even though they are often not even fully conscious of the fact that they are making a revolution. Moreover, while it is one thing 'to make' one revolution, spreading it elsewhere is a much harder affair - not simply because the objective conditions are often different but also because the forces of counter-revolution are far more prepared and organised subsequently. There are faint echoes here - and I would not want to push the parallels too far - between the October Revolution led by Lenin's Bolsheviks and then Luxemburg's group's failure to make the German Revolution of 1918 into a success - and the brutal rise of fascism as a response to the threat of socialist revolution spreading in Europe.

3) Regarding the strategy of guerilla war, watching Part 2 brings to mind the current situation in Northern Ireland - the utter futility of attempting to take on and defeat a professional army in armed combat with a handful of fighters. Louis argues that

'About part two of "Che", the less said the better. Like Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ", it is pretty much two hours of fairly graphic suffering, all intended to resonate with the popular image of Che Guevara as martyr to the cause. I only sat through it because I felt obligated to review both parts of the movie. But all in all, part two did not have anything to say that wasn’t already said in the 1994 documentary "Ernesto Che Guevara, The Bolivian Diary" that is a nonstop nightmare of asthma attacks, betrayal, and futility.

I don't fully agree with this - we heard in the film about the militancy and repression of the miners of Bolivia throughout - and we even seemed to have another possible strategy based around the activity of the organised working class and less atomised peasants seemingly counterposed to that of Che's strategy by the Stalinist leader of the Bolivian Communist Party, who he tells Che in quite uncompromising terms how bankrupt his strategy for revolution is. I'll leave readers to decide whether emerging from the cinema with a slightly higher respect for Bolivian Stalinists is an entirely healthy thing or not...

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