Che Calls on Us to Think

By: Graziella Pogolotti

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2012-10-09 | 11:55:56 EST

We know the face of the guerrilla fighter Ernesto “Che” Guevara. We have admired him as a thorough organizer, an austere combatant, who always lent a hand to the fighters under his command, who was prickly in the face of formalism and void rhetoric, a teacher to his comrades, a physician ready to care for his friends and his enemies, who was capable of showing sympathy for those who died in action. But we haven’t delved enough into Che as a studious man and a thinker who would dedicate sleepless nights to knowledge.  

Thanks to the recent publication of the Che Guevara’s Philosophical Notes by Ocean Press Publishing House, we have learned that in the rough days in the countryside of Bolivia, while he was left isolated by a divided left wing, suffering hunger and thirst, lost at times among unknown routes, surrounded by the troops and the untrustworthy fear of the peasants, he always found time for the indispensable theoretical inquiries. Ernesto “Che” Guevara combined words and actions. Likewise; he conceived life experience, practice and theoretical conceptualization to go all together. He considered, based on Engels’ words that tactics separated from a strategic perspective led to opportunism.

From a very young age, Che understood that Latin America was a pending subject for him, despite having known the main traits of its geography and its history through textbooks. He needed another type of knowledge, the one that is obtained by living the experience of touching reality with his hands, of touching the human, physical, cultural, social and economic reality of the continent.

In the personal field, it was a way of growing in all aspects. Struggling with an asthma that never left him, he walked as a man, using the means he found on his way. He lived with the locals and he could understand the meaning of a behaviour forged in a long culture of resistance in which solidarity and generosity lived together with meanness, selfishness and even manifestations of predatory hunger. He didn’t judge: he just observed.

I can imagine that impatient young man, raised in an environment of high intellectual tension. His high school training was based on a remarkable humanistic base. Argentina reflected its intense cultural life to the continent, with its editorials, magazines, high profile newspapers and renowned university professors. The intellectual debate manifested on the ideological level and on the confrontation of literary currents, some of them heavily based on the European models, and others deeply rooted in the popular tradition in the style of Martin Fierro, registered in the memory of those born in the territories of Río de la Plata.

Thoroughly, Che wrote down on cards the titles that would later be part of his reading list that will accompany him in his guerrilla backpack and in his personal library. As customary in his birth country, classics of psychoanalysis, of history of philosophy and of renowned thinkers of the 20th century abounded in his list.

However, Che didn’t have enough time to shape his own ideas. The Philosophical Notes recently published are a compilation of the passages underlined by Che, together with the marks, comments and questions he wrote in the margin. Although these are just pieces, they give an insight into his thoughts. These notes offer a lesson of method to professors and students which should become a guide to contemporary pedagogics in order to leave behind all trace of memorization. The foundation of all learning is in the exercise of creative reading. The substance of knowledge is not to repeat, most of the times in a mechanic way, but to fire a barrage of questions at the text.

When we read Engels or Marx, we don’t do it in the same way as those who joined the first International, in a world that is no longer the same. We do it as inhabitants of an island in the Caribbean facing the United States, which is living through a most dreadful crisis, as the children of a Revolution that faces rising emergencies without giving up to its independentist project. The ascent to abstract thinking starts in the concrete daily experience we are living.

The mosaic made up of excerpts mixed together gain sense when they are ordered following Che’s train of thought, which is explained in the contrast between practice and the adjustment to a strategic vision.

In the light of the contemporary, I would like to highlight the permanent effort to avoid the traps of making things easier by simplifying the truth. Aware of the great complexity of the social knit, he insists in paying attention to the multiple intermediaries in the relation between the base and the superstructure, and in highlighting the determining nature of the economic factor. He holds his opinion in the analysis of the relativization formulated by Engels, according to the words of Marx’s friend.

The selection of works underlined by Che does not include all the materials he must have read about social thinking. They are arranged in a particular order and in response to some concerns that are implicitly asked. Universally renowned classics are complemented with passages of Mao Tse Tung from the period of the Long March and of Louis Althusser, both widely read in Cuba during the 1970s.

From Mao, we find the evaluation of contradictions as the source of development in allusion to the metaphor of the one hundred flowers, which was received at the time as the acknowledgement of the necessary coexistence of varied cultures and flows of thought. A little more complex to understand, Althusser’s pages set the inseparable unity of theory and practice, to the point of considering the former as a specific expression of the latter.

Che accumulated all these materials of study when he was a mature man. He had already gone through the guerrilla fighting in the Sierra Maestra, he had already implemented the Cuban Socialist model based on his knowledge of the European countries and on the tough confrontations with imperialism. He has pointed out the weakening flaws of the Soviet model. He understood the need to encourage critical thinking, the importance of preserving the vocation to help other countries in the world to stimulate consciousness as a way of overcoming dogmatic indoctrination.

Throughout the transformation of a society, its makers, the citizens committed to it are constantly learning from their experiences, reinterpretations of history and adjustments of the tactical route in order to achieve a strategic purpose.

Sometimes, we may be blinded by passion. But it also enlightens the path of lucidity. Since his death in Bolivia, the world picture has endured unforeseen changes at a surprisingly fast pace. The collapse of Socialist Europe speeded up the dormant crisis of the left-wings, it displaced Marxist tradition, established scepticism and replaced the explicit ideology by another one hidden in the light message of the media. The financial power exerts its power as a force independent from real economy and turns politicians into servants of their interests.

Neoliberalism lessons learned, Latin America offers a platform for the much-needed resistance that needs a revamp of thought, of a left-wing always suffering divisions. In these circumstances, Che makes a wake up call. It is pressing to think what to do in order to avoid mistakes, in order not to raise false expectations, avoid improvisation and set up a tactic that is in line with strategic thought. Let’s go back to Che. Let’s accept the challenge of turning the exercise of creative thinking into practice.


Translated by ESTI

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