Will the Real Che Guevara Please Stand Up?

By Stephen Gowans

It seems every leftist partisan group wants to claim Che as their own. Some admirers of Trotsky believe Che was moving toward worship of their Christ, an idea dismissed by Fidel Castro. Admirers of Stalin point to things Che wrote to suggest he shared their admiration. Maoists make the case Che was on their side. One novelist imagined a scenario in which Che had never been killed in Bolivia but had gone into hiding to emerge later as a social democrat.

Because the idea of Che is enormously popular, partisans try to claim him as their own. If Che is seen to be a Trotskyist (or Stalinist or Maoist or social democrat) maybe Trotsky’s (or Stalin’s or Mao’s or social democracy’s) ideas will become more popular.

It’s a variant of the appeal to authority, the tired and tiring game of trying to make an argument more persuasive by invoking the name of a respected figure, rather than relying on the merits of the argument itself. It’s Pavlov in the service of persuasive communication.

Not too long ago, Michael Karadjis, an Internet gasbag who believes that socialism means condemning in no uncertain terms whoever Western state officials are condemning at a particular moment, invoked Che’s name to make the case that socialists should tremble with indignation whenever George Bush tells them to. Any socialist who doesn’t join in the two minutes hate against Milosevic, Kim Jong Il, Mugabe, and Ahmadinejad is denounced as a thug-hugger, member of the pro-fascist left, a deplorable authoritarian, and so on.

For their exercising a degree of skepticism and critical thinking where the claims of the US government are concerned, Karadjis despises Michael Parenti and Edward Herman. Challenging the pretexts Western governments use to justify intervention abroad (often involving a faux moral crusade to rid the world of some heinous evil-doer) can be such a trial for an aspiring hate party host. Why would anyone show up for the party if creeps like Parenti and Herman keep calling the need for the party into question?

Karadjis is not particularly fond of me either (which is about the kindest compliment I’ve ever received.) According to Karadjis I’m “the guy still dressing up Milosevic and the Serbian Chetnik genocidaires that almost wiped Balkan Muslim civilisation off the face of the earth as some kind of wrongly ‘demonized’ ‘socialists’ a decade later, well now he’s get some other vile, corrupt bloody dictatorship to dress up as ‘socialist’ in some sense but merely ‘demonized’ by the imperialist powers.”


Never one to be accused of eschewing adjectives, Karadjis, resonating with the zeitgeist, has taken to invoking the memory of Che, as if Che would, were he alive, be on the frontlines denouncing every Third World leader whose country is about to be sanctioned, threatened, bombed or invaded by the US and its allies.

After launching one of his recent broadsides against someone who had failed to show up at the latest hate party, Karadjis paused to say: “Yeh well as Che said: ‘If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, you are a comrade of mine.’ That’s our agenda.”

How could you not applaud? The trouble is, everyone believes they have justice on their side. George Bush does. Hitler did. The key question is: is their idea of justice the same as your own?

In the case of Karadjis’s and Che’s, the answer is: no.

At the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria in 1965, Che did something people like Karadjis have been denouncing “pro-fascist leftists” for, for years. He put a plus sign beside countries and movements the US government put a minus sign beside.

“If the imperialist enemy, the United States or any other, carries out its attack against the underdeveloped peoples and the socialist countries, elementary logic determines the need for an alliance between the underdeveloped peoples and the socialist countries. If there were no other uniting factor, the common enemy should be enough.”

Karadjis and his co-liberal-moralists would tremble with indignation at anyone who suggested that “the common enemy should be enough” to unite socialists with the undeveloped peoples and the socialist countries. Putting plus signs where the US puts minus signs is strictly verboten. One can imagine the denunciatory blasts Karadjis would have fired at Che.

Of course, just because Che had put plus signs where the US put negative signs, doesn’t, by itself, make the practice right, but Karadjis’s invoking Che, betrays a good deal of ignorance.

It also stands in a long tradition of people trying to make dead revolutionary figures less revolutionary and more acceptable to polite society. It continues today with Marx, who, if you are to believe some of his recent biographers, would be canvassing for Labour, selling ethical mutual funds and showing up regularly at Karadjis’s hate parties, were he alive.

It should also be pointed out that while some define socialism as the fight for justice in the absolute, others have defined socialism in another way: as a fight for justice, where justice is construed as the liberation of wage workers from exploitation. In some views (including Che’s), this project is furthered by an alliance of wage workers with oppressed nations against exploitation by imperialism. The idea is that if you weaken imperialism, you give socialist countries more room to grow, and make strong socialist movements more likely to arise at home. That means an alliance with people your mother might not approve of.

The idea of justice as contingent can be seen in how different nations define what is just. Zimbabwe’s governing ZANU-PF party believes that when it redistributes land from the descendants of European settlers to the descendants of dispossessed Africans, it has justice on its side. Descendants of European settlers believe they have justice on their side when they act to oust a government that threatens their property. Unfortunately for Karadjis and his friends, there are no absolute standards of justice for them to adopt as their agenda, only definitions contingent on class and nation. Still, that won’t stop them from claiming affinity with an absolute. When Karadjis says his agenda is justice, is it the justice of oppressed nations he’s for, or of dominant nations?

Let’s let Che have the last word: “Ever since monopoly capital took over the world, it has kept the greater part of humanity in poverty, dividing all the profits among the group of the most powerful countries. The standard of living in those countries is based on the extreme poverty of our countries. To raise the living standards of the underdeveloped nations, therefore, we must fight against imperialism. And each time a country is torn away from the imperialist tree, it is not only a partial battle won against the main enemy but it also contributes to the real weakening of that enemy, and is one more step toward the final victory. There are no borders in this struggle to the death. We cannot be indifferent to what happens anywhere in the world, because a victory by any country over imperialism is our victory, just as any country’s defeat is a defeat for all of us. The practice of proletarian internationalism is not only a duty for the peoples struggling for a better future; it is also an inescapable necessity.”

You would be hard pressed to make the case that the person who spoke these words would have much patience for Karadjis and company.