Che Guevara — the philosopher

Last of the revolutionary’s unpublished writings finally come to light

Che Guevara in the Bolivian jungle.
Che Guevara in the Bolivian jungle.CENTRO DE ESTUDIOS CHE GUEVARA

The last great unpublished compendium of Che Guevara's thoughts on Marxism has just hit the bookshelves. Now readers have the chance to peruse Apuntes filósoficos(or, Philosophical notes), a collection of sometimes acid and mocking comments that critically analyze classic works of Marxism-Leninism, as well as the writings of Socialist authors that Guevara considered "unorthodox and revisionist."

The volume, which is more than 400 pages long, begins with a letter that Che sent in 1965 to the historical leader Armando Hart, who was education minister in Cuba at the time. This was while Guevara was in Tanzania — following the guerrilla's failures in Congo — where he was waiting to enter Bolivia clandestinely.

"During this long vacation I buried my nose in philosophy books, which is something I'd been meaning to do for a long time. And I came across the first difficulty: there is nothing published on the subject in Cuba, if we exclude those long, dull Soviet tracts that have the drawback of not letting you think, as the party already did the thinking for you and all you must do is digest it," wrote Che.

"The second \[difficulty\], and not the least important one, was my unfamiliarity with philosophical language (I struggled with the master Hegel and in the first round he knocked me out twice)."

In the book, the Cuban-Argentinean guerrilla fighter comes across as very critical of the Manichean thinking found in the philosophical manuals of the former USSR, and he suggests that Hart, who at the time had just been appointed secretary of state for organization within the Communist Party, should draft a new philosophy study program for Cuba: "I created a syllabus for myself, which I think can be analyzed and much improved on before it can constitute the foundations of a true school of thought; we have already achieved much, but some day we will also have to think."

This letter to Hart had already been published, but the missive simply serves as an introduction. All of Guevara's comments on his readings in Africa, Prague, Cuba and Bolivia between 1965 and October 1967 are here as well. His "youthful reading list" had never been published before now, either.

The first thing that one notices is the large amount of authors that he read in those two-and-a-half years, and the breadth of his interests. Together with his rifle, Guevara kept a comprehensive list of the books he read in an old address book, while he waited in Congo. Between April and November 1965, he listed volumes 32 and 33 of the complete works of Lenin, A History of the Middle Ages by Kosminsky, volume four of the selected works of Mao Ze Dong, several volumes of the complete works of José Martí, Aurora Roja and Pío Baroja, Homer's The Illyad and The Odyssey, and even the controversial play La noche de los asesinos (Night of the murderers), by the Cuban playwright José Triana, who would later be ostracized and considered a damned auteur during the greyest period of Cuban culture.

Between August and September 1966, while Guevara was in Cuba, where he was secretly training for the Bolivian adventure, he jotted down in his notebook Papini's Michelangelo, his life and his era, Juan Goytisolo's The Island of Women and The Circus, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Hamlet, Marx's A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and the correspondence between Marx and Engels.

Many of the texts in Apuntes filosóficos, which was compiled by María del Carmen Ariet of the Che Guevara Research Center, show a man at war with orthodoxy. In one passage, he says that "scientists have made valuable contributions to the fields of philosophy and economics, but their idealist basis takes them down the wrong roads. We must eliminate dogmatism and address the new problems facing us with a spirit that is open to a certain degree of scientific agnosticism."

But the comments made in the text do not mean that a revisionist approach to Che should be taken. At no point does he go back on his vision of the new man, nor does he ease up on his rejection of anything smelling of capitalism. He was a militant Marxist and his goal was to strip Socialism of its doctrinaire bonds and to confront "bureaucratic tendencies aimed at freezing the revolution, reducing it to a single country and holding it prisoner in ministerial hallways," in the words of Argentinean philosopher and researcher Néstor Kohan.

"The unyielding dogmatism of Stalin's era has given way to an inconsistent pragmatism. And the real tragedy is that this does not only apply to a specific scientific field; it is there in all aspects of life in Socialist communities, creating disturbances that are already enormously harmful but whose final results are impossible to calculate," wrote Guevara to justify his Critical Notes on Political Economy, where he comments on a paragraph in a Soviet manual about building a Socialist economy in European countries with a popular democracy. "This is the last straw. It seems written for children or idiots. And what about the Soviet army? Was it scratching its balls?"

His theoretical approach to political economy is the forerunner and the complement to Apuntes filosóficos, which is divided into three major blocks: his early readings, the notes he wrote in Africa, Prague and Cuba (1965-1966), and the Bolivia notes.

And so now, the previously unpublished works of Che Guevara have all found their way into print, 45 years after his death.

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