Monday, October 17, 2016

Business Recorder Column Oct 18, 2016

Che Guevara’s death anniversary Rashed Rahman October 9, 2016 was the 49th death anniversary of Ernesto Che Guevara, murdered by the Bolivian army with the US CIA’s advice and support in 1967. Born in Argentina in 1928 into a comfortably middle class background, Guevara’s revolutionary trajectory was fashioned first and foremost by his youthful travels through Latin America, documented in his Motorcycle Diaries. The universal and widespread poverty, misery and injustice that characterised the continent awakened the young Guevara to what would become his lifelong aspiration to transform the lives of the people through revolutionary means. His travels took him to Guatemala, where in 1954 he got his first taste of political activism (and armed resistance) when the CIA overthrew the left-nationalist Arbenz government. Within a couple of years, he encountered the exiled Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Mexico, and joined his Granma expedition to sail to Cuba and overthrow the Baptista dictatorship. The invading party of 62 fighters were ambushed soon after landing in Cuba and literally cut to pieces. Twelve survived and managed to make their way to the Sierra Madre Mountains. Amongst them were Fidel and Che. Over the next two years, guerrilla struggle in the mountains and clandestine actions in the cities finally resulted in the triumph of the revolution. Che acquired a high profile during the guerrilla struggle and in the new revolutionary government after the victory. However, within the next five years, he began to chafe under the tactical considerations of a revolution threatened by the US just 90 miles away and main ally the Soviet Union that retreated after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. By now, his treatise Guerrilla Warfare had appeared, which argued against the received wisdom of the time that armed struggle could not, or should not, be launched by a revolutionary movement until all peaceful political means had been exhausted and the revolutionary moment had ripened. Instead, Guevara argued, the guerrilla army could act as a catalyst for a general uprising and revolutionary victory. Of course the treatise owed a great deal to the Cuban experience. But it tended to raise to the level of a universal principle the idea of the guerrilla army as catalyst, ignoring in the process the development of the political (and later armed) struggle that led to the universal vilification of dictator Baptista and his eventual ouster. Indeed when Che tried to implement in practice his ideas in the Congo in 1965 and Bolivia in 1966-7, he failed and was killed in the latter country. The reasons for these failures are diverse and worthy of treatises on their own. Suffice it to say that in neither case were the objective conditions or the subjective forces of the struggle at a point on the path to victory. The concrete therefore trumped the seductive conceptual. Perhaps Che should not be blamed too much for these failures. His commitment to and martyrdom for the revolutionary cause has enshrined his status as a revolutionary icon. What he (and many others at the time) were seduced by was the idea of the guerrilla as the warrior of the poor and oppressed who was able through a brilliant strategy to overcome and defeat a far superior enemy. ‘Guerrillaism’ therefore was rife in the 1960s, particularly because of the array of guerrilla struggles being waged in Asia, Africa and Latin America (the Third World). National liberation and revolutionary armed struggles were centre-stage. Che was not the only one to be seduced by the idea of the guerrilla as invincible warrior, who traded time and space to erode (politically and militarily) a far superior foe. A whole generation of 1960s youth in revolt worldwide, inspired first and foremost by the heroic Vietnamese people’s armed resistance against the US, secondarily by the guerrilla struggles mushrooming on all three continents of the Third World, took to the idea like a duck to water. Lin Piao even elevated this phenomenon to a global theory of the cities being encircled from the countryside and eventually conquered, based on the experience of the Chinese revolution. Instead of the ‘cities’ he posited the metropolitan (developed) countries and instead of the ‘countryside’ the Third World. However, the 1960s generation learnt at great cost (as had previous generations) how these formulations were overstated, simplistic, and failed to point to the concrete circumstances in which armed struggles had succeeded (and perhaps even more important, failed). Even the national liberation and revolutionary armed struggles that succeeded in capturing power, soon ran aground in a world still dominated by capital, with the socialist camp unable to provide the resources for the rapid development required to consolidate the revolution and incrementally improve the people’s lives. Such regimes were eventually overthrown by right wing forces backed by the west or succumbed to the dictates of a capitalist-dominated globe. The revolutionary-socialist ambitions of these Third World countries therefore ended largely not with a bang but a whimper. The period of the 1980s was one of retreat and defeat of the revolution worldwide. It culminated in 1991 with the implosion of the Soviet Union and the wrecking of the socialist bloc. Surviving socialist/communist regimes have either willingly (and enthusiastically) embraced capitalism or cut their cloth according to a triumphalist capitalist system’s dictates. The exception is North Korea, but that is a country still at an undeclared war and under siege. All over the former Third World, the period of guerrilla struggles (and their dialectical antithesis, military dictatorships) gave way incrementally and haltingly, and not without hangovers from the past, setbacks, twists and turns, to democracy. Nowhere was this more dramatically in evidence than in Latin America, where the former revolutionary guerrillas changed tack to engage in open political struggle. They participated in electoral politics, emerging with credit to elect many left wing governments throughout the continent. But these moderate left wing governments too ran up against the same set of problems as their revolutionary predecessors: how to survive, let alone prosper, in a world still dominated by capitalism. If the revolutionary enthusiasm of the 1960s generation got the better of them and induced generalised theories of revolution culled from, but not acknowledging, specific experiences, the subsequent generations’ reformist illusions too ran aground in the face of a ruthless and triumphant capitalism led by the west. Today’s ‘revolutionary’ youth may be better informed than past generations, but they still have to answer the puzzle of how to bring about efficacious change that fulfils the necessary condition of overcoming the domination of the global capitalist system.

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