The Absurdity Of Socialist Leaders: Ernesto's Will To Power

The Absurdity Of Socialist Leaders: Ernesto's Will To Power

the first in a series critically analyzing "socialist leaders", dealing with Che Guevara

The "left" has far more folk heroes than any other movement and many of those folk heroes achieve the status of what I would call "socialist leaders". Lets define "socialist leaders" before we go any further. To be a socialist leader one can't merely lead a social movement, or influence other socialist thinkers. One needs to take power and reshape the socialist movement, leaving your mark on it for generations to come. These figures have been revered by the left for decades, yet they are cast from a contradiction that can't be resolved.

These figures combine the goals of a socialism; liberation and equality, with the goals of what one might call "the will to power"; accumulation of control, repression against revolutionary social movements, aligning themselves with the status quo in order to stay in power. These figures are illustrative of the contradiction between state power and revolutionary ends. These figures continue to be celebrated as liberators when in reality, their positive legacy is that of reimposing domination. If the left is ever going to learn from it's myriad mistakes then it must develop a radical critique of these sacred cows. Thus a new series on this blog will be systematically dredging up the legacy of these figures and showing the utter bankruptcy of "socialist leaders". The first installment in our series will be dealing with one Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

Che is certainly one of the most recognizable socialist leaders. Merchandise with his face on it moves money around the world. He is seen as a liberator of Cuba and one of the most important revolutionaries of the last hundred years. His real legacy is that of an aspiring strong man who helped Castro turn the real Cuban revolution into a state-capitalist regime. The real Guevara is a grave digger of revolution.

Ernesto, or "Che", came from a middle class family of temporarily embarrassed aristocrats. He was radicalized when in the early 50s Arbenz was elected in Nicaragua and nationalized the productive empire of the US backed United Fruit Company. During the same decade the Cuban working class rose up against the U.S. backed dictator Batista. They staged massive street demonstrations and terror attacks were carried out against the regime. Part of the Che legend is that it was he, the Castro brothers, and their guerilla unit who overthrew Batista, but this is a rewriting of history. The guerilla war (which was largely impotent until Batista fled the country) had little to do with the mass popular movement that forced Batista to give up power. As a guerilla leader, Che himself wrote in his journal about his iron fisted approach, using the death penalty as a punishment for those who did not fallow his orders closely enough.

By making a deal with one of Batista's underlings the Castro band was able to take power and declare their victory in Havana. Soon the Communist Party would take power absolutely. The agenda for the new Cuban regime was not a revolutionary program, in fact their most revolutionary acts were to carry out reforms drawn up by Batista in his more liberal years. Like all of the other communist states, including the Soviet Union that Cuba had aligned itself with, it's focus was to construct a nation-state with a foothold in the capitalist economy. Likewise the revolutionary movement had to come to end.

Trotskyists and Anarchists were repressed and shut down, Che being a main architect in this activity. In the state capitalist regime where production was developed through state extraction and investment of surplus value produced by workers Che was a main bureaucrat. During the Cuban missile crises when the United States and the Soviet Union (with Cuba as it's satellite) were playing hot and fast with the threat of a nuclear apocalypse in order to mobilize their respective subjects and underlings, Che had trouble maintaining his cool. While neither side in the cold war actually wanted to go to war (this would undermine the point of the cold war as essentially a source of bravado for both sides), Che had other ideas. He wanted to use the nukes against the United States, killing millions of innocent people, and had to be talked down by Castro of all people.

Che taking the side of China in the split between it and the Soviet Union lead him to leave Cuba and take part in revolutionary adventures elsewhere in Latin America. He was then captured and executed, getting an honorable funeral in Cuba. From the beginning Che's idea of "socialism" was essentially state control of the capitalist system, as evidenced by his radicalization at the hands of the nationalizer Arbenz. Likewise his aspirations for power clearly outstripped his aspirations for real social change as evidenced by his murderous, authoritarian role as an army official. This is a common theme with "socialist leaders".

These people are more attracted to being leaders than they are to socialism. Thus the construction of a new exploitative regime, state-capitalism, suits their political careers perfectly. Even if Che eventually left Cuba, he played a major role in eliminating revolutionaries, flexing the state's power, and administrating state capitalism. The contradiction of someone like Che is the contradiction between social revolution and state power. The state is a constrictive institution, organized to enforce the power of an elite and maintain the status quote. It always stands against a social revolution looking to overturn the status quo and create a relatively democratic and egalitarian society. The figures we should celebrate are those who did not seek power for themselves, but helped organize the masses of people to take power collectively and transform society. This, simply, is not Ernesto's legacy.

Che Guevara: Why Anarchists Should View Him Critically, van der Walt & Organize!
Cuba: 50 Years of Fidelismo, Solfed
State-Capitalism: The Wages System Under New Management, Buick & Crump

Posted By

Jun 12 2019 23:48


  • The figures we should celebrate are those who did not seek power for themselves, but helped organize the masses of people to take power collectively and transform society. This, simply, is not Ernesto's legacy.

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Jun 21 2019 12:54

Hey Ivysyn, thanks for writing this. I think its cool that its a smaller read. It however suffers also from it I am afraid. There is an overall lack of references to back up your claims, which sometimes make it quiet hard to accept the things you state. You talk about the mythology that is surrounding Ché, but one thing about mythologies, is that they are very strong and need facts to break them.

You state that "The real Guevara is a grave digger of revolution" but tot that I see hardly any evidence, although I do want to believe you and I think there are tons of arguments and facts to find about it.

What I also miss is why this myth is so strong. Is this only because of the propaganda? I think not. Ché also had a very charismatic character (which he clearly also used it his ascension). From conversations with comrades in Cuba, one thing that they said that also had to do with the special status of Ché in the hearts and minds of the common people, is that he has the image of being the true revolutionary in contrary tot the reformist and statist Fidel. Ché, they told me, was seen as the one keeping the internationalist spirit high. This is of course something that in a way blinds out the other things you put forward. The question is, how can that be?

I look forward for a reply. Thanks again for the piece because its an important issue you put forward and a question that in my opinion within anarchist thought, there seems a kind of a blind spot - although we say we are against leaders and hierarchy, there seem always to be some. The question is how do we deal with them as a movement, because they also inspire. Think about the chararcters of the Durruti's, the Machno's, the Maria Nikiforova's.

Jun 19 2019 10:24
These people are more attracted to being leaders than they are to socialism. Thus the construction of a new exploitative regime, state-capitalism, suits their political careers perfectly.

What do you make of his debates with Charles Bettelheim and Ernest Mandel? It feels a bit too simple to just disregard the legacy of Che as him feeling a (personal) need for power and therefore state-capitalism arises when it is clear that the Cuban economy did not move along one linear track.

Jul 21 2020 15:13

Appreciate your effort to debunk "socialist" saints. When is the next installment?