The Sense of Commitment
In the post cold war period, the impact of left politics stood diluted with the triumph of western capitalism. But Che Guevara is one iconic figure that looms potently large and stands for a counterblast to the right- wing dominance through his notion of armed resistance against opponents of socialism and in his own words ‘A relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machine’.
This symbol of revolutionary fervour, paradoxically practical and idealistic, died forty years ago this month. ‘Che considered himself a soldier of this revolution, with absolutely no concern about surviving it,’ wrote Fidel Castro in his Che: A Memoir. After admonishing the communist regime in Russia, he left his political position in Cuba, traveled to Africa and raised a battalion for the Congo Civil War. Later in Bolivia, he along with his army was surrounded by the American trained Bolivian forces at Vallegrande. Like a true existential hero he faced his death with a smile. A true revolutionary had met his death at the hands of a drunk soldier. Later his hands would be hacked for foolproof evidence of his death.
I too belong to that era, a time of rebellion and reactionary politics that permeated every academic institution around the world. We would read Sartre, discuss existential drama and the tragedy of choices facing man. Coffee houses became the site for engagement in the polemics of the creative confidence and the critical intelligence that went with transformative politics emerging from Latin America. We had admired Che’s involvement with lepers in Argentina and Peru where he had submitted his complete self for their welfare, an experience which would impact his political ideology of ending inequality in the name of justice. It was important to the intellectual in those days that Sartre and de Beauvoir went all the way to Cuba to meet him. Che himself traveled to Russia and India meeting Khrushchev and Nehru to gain a deeper insight into vital issues of freedom and justice.
When he died in October 1967, Che Guevara had become the hero of my generation and the impetus behind the only socialist revolution that saw victory on the American continent. As Ariel Dorfman writes ‘The images were thereafter invariably gigantic. Che the titan standing up to the Yanquis, the world''s dominant power. Che the moral guru proclaiming that a New Man, no ego and all ferocious love for the other, had to be forcibly created out of the ruins of the old one.’
Che had experienced on his road journey the ruthless working of the ‘capitalist octopuses’ and swore that he would not rest till he had brought about land reform and the end of American hegemony. Peasants in Cuba flocked to join his war of liberation, support that would enable Castro and him to finally gain victory in 1959 over the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, a lackey of the US.
With his passing ended the life of a man who had scarified his career in medicine and had clasped hands with Fidel Castro to oppose colonial rule, capitalism, and orthodox Marxism and American interference in Cuba. His death touched my generation so deeply that many were meaningfully provokto continue with intensified defiance. In his famous article, “Notes on Man and Socialism”, he emphasized the creation of a ‘New Man’: ‘the goal of socialism is the creation of more complete and more developed human beings’. His definition of guerilla warfare became a message of legitimation of oppositional strategies in his celebrated book Guerrilla Warfare : "The guerrilla band is an armed nucleus, the fighting vanguard of the people. It draws its great force from the mass of the people themselves. The guerrilla band is not to be considered inferior to the army against which it fights simply because it is inferior in fire power. Guerrilla warfare is used by the side which is supported by a majority but which possesses a much smaller number of arms for use in defense against oppression."
We as young students were taken in by his motorcycle ride through South America which ended in many of us voraciously reading his The Motorcycle Diaries
that expressed his horror at the condition of the natives. Our social consciousness received a rough jolt as it had done his and we all began to lean towards the liberal and the anti-Nazi stance in our thinking. He remains now a potent political force in Latin America as is visible in the anti-American wave sweeping Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Mexico. The dream that he shared with the Left, and more so with Fidel Castro is now turning real especially after the victory of democracy in a few countries. This could be rather contagious in spreading to Colombia, Peru and Guatemala in the days to come. ‘Che’ (literally stands for ‘buddy’) would be probably heaving a sigh of relief in his grave with his disarming smile at the disappearance of American power in some of the Latin American nations and the triumph of the downtrodden of whom he was always a friend.