The Cult of Che

Better ideas.
Oct. 30 1997 3:30 AM

The Cult of Che

Knowing what we know, why do we still celebrate him?

Illustration by Chad Crowe

So they have finally given Che Guevara a proper burial--the interment took place Oct. 17--in Cuban soil, in the town where he achieved his greatest revolutionary victory. You might suppose that, in these after-days of communism, Che's legendary glamour will soon enough find its way to a similar interment, though perhaps not in Cuba itself, where glamour, like everything else, remains under state control.

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Che was not, after all, the best of communists. He was, in his dashing manner, the worst--an extreme dogmatist, instinctively authoritarian, allergic to any democratic or libertarian impulses, quick to order executions, and quicker still to lead his own comrades to their deaths in doomed guerrilla wars. Love of the Soviet Union was his first instinct, and when he evolved a second, more critical instinct, it was only because the Soviet leaders turned out to be less rigidly Marxist-Leninist and less suicidal than himself.

Of the innumerable commentaries on Che that have been published in the last few weeks, Alma Guillermoprieto offered the clearest, in The New Yorker. "He was a fanatic," she wrote, "consumed by restlessness and a frightening abstract hatred, who in the end recognized only one moral value as supreme: the willingness to be slaughtered for a cause." But I am struck most by a commentary that appeared in the Mexican weekly Etcétera, under the byline Gilberto Guevara Niebla--no relation to Che himself, yet a figure of great importance in the revolutionary history of the 1960s. Gilberto Guevara Niebla was arguably the single most important student leader of the Mexican student uprising of 1968--the uprising that was finally put down in a massacre by the Mexican army in October 1968.

He wrote, "Che offered his life to the cause of the disinherited, but he did it by offering a political method that, in the long run, had disastrous effects on whoever tried to uphold it. Guerrilla war imposed a militarist logic and closed the space for democracy. What Latin America lived since Che launched his slogans was a bloodbath and a wave of destruction and terror. ... The myth of Che has been a wall impeding the observation of those fatal historical results." Who was Che? A man who "wanted to change the world through the means--always sordid--of killing other men."

Couldn't be clearer. Yet, among the kind of people who once upon a time had admired Che and his cause--a lot of people, especially in the generation that was young in the 1960s--the more typical commentaries have balanced on a "but," as on a fulcrum. Che was wrong; but he was good. His ideas were hopeless; but he remains the embodiment of an ideal. Let me quote the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, which devoted an issue to Che earlier this month: "That his politico-military theory ... failed matters little. What remains, on both sides of the Andes, is the example of a man, the child of his continent, who knew how to die for his generous ideas in an unequal struggle." Or last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, which concluded, "What is left is simply the man--a rebel who could not part with his dream, and who earned a place in history precisely because he refused to yield to it."

Or a Portuguese writer in Etcétera's special Che issue, "Che Guevara is only the other name of what is most just and dignified in the human spirit." And so forth, one commentator after another, which would be hard to believe, except that right now the world is awash in Che T-shirts, mugs, barroom décor, a Che beer (in England), posters, and utterly pointless editions (let us hope) of Che's military writings. And the mania is not just a matter of mass culture.

Illustration by Chad Crowe

Among the books about Che that have just now come out, one by Jorge G. Castañeda, Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, offers an exceptionally lucid analysis of Che's life and doings, based on a tremendous amount of research both in Cuba and in American-government files. (Castañeda knows more about Latin American guerrilla movements than anybody, outside of Castro's secret agencies.) Yet in a few paragraphs at the front and close of his book on Che, even Castañeda, this most intelligent and admirable of historians, extols "the fervent idealism and generational arrogance of 1968" around the world, and then anoints Che as "the one man who most closely embodied its deeper meaning." Régis Debray, Che's comrade, wrote a memoir last year in which he warned against exactly that delusion--"the anti-authoritarian revolt of '68 taking this hardcore partisan of authoritarianism for its emblem." But then, I can understand that particular confusion. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece of my own about Che in The New Yorker and, though I knew better, I ended up adding a superfluous nod to the innate "nobility" of this man whose fanaticism and lack of human sympathy brought about so much suffering and death.

Why do people who know better say such things? It is not because of the doctrines of communism. It is because of the doctrines of glory, which are much more primitive. What is glory? This: an absolute commitment to your own principle, whatever it may be--the kind of commitment that expresses itself in only one way, by a willingness to kill other people on its behalf, and to be killed in turn. A commitment, finally, to defeat. For victory is always partial and compromised, but defeat and death are total and grand. Victory is secular; defeat is sacred.

A Che who, like any ordinary communist politician, had never killed anyone; a Che who had survived his guerrilla adventures, and was today an elderly figure, administering some grim bureaucracy for Fidel Castro or, alternatively, writing books at home in Argentina, surrounded by his anti-communist grandchildren--a Che like that would cause no stir at all today, and writers around the world would not be straining their brains to draw ever finer distinctions between the man's calamitous influence and some undefinable greatness.

There is a precedent to the Che cult. It was the cult of Napoleon in the 19th century, a young man's craze that went on for generations--the craze that Stendhal described in his character Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black and Victor Hugo in his character Marius in Les Misérables. In the 19th century, intelligent people in France knew perfectly well that Napoleon had embodied the worst aspects of the French Revolution, had betrayed the revolution's democratic ideals, and had spread death and fire from Spain to Moscow. Yet those same clear-thinking people found ways of separating Napoleon's horrors from his glamour. They would say: He was wrong, but he was great. It was a question of glory--of his having risen in the world, and having killed his thousands, and having failed spectacularly, and not having flinched. It was the appeal of death--doled out, and accepted. And so the cult of Napoleon was, finally, a cult of the tomb.

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