Paul Anderson, Tribune column, September 3 2004
Like every other leftie teenager of my generation I had that poster of Che stuck on my bedroom wall — in my case taking pride of place in a collage that included an International Socialists placard demanding “Defend the Portuguese workers’ revolution!”, some arty French shots of girls with not much on, bills for gigs I’d peeled off boards in town and assorted beer mats.
I was very proud of the overall effect, which I thought compared very well with the efforts of the Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters, but my mum and dad redecorated the room when I went to university.
I protested, but to be honest by then I’d moved on. Most of the bands whose promotional materials I’d artfully arranged had become unfashionable with the arrival of punk, and I was no longer at all enamoured of the International Socialists, who had become the Socialist Workers Party and chucked me out. But I was particularly embarassed by the poster of Che, based on Alexander Korda’s famous photograph of him taken in 1960.
I know the image is always talked about reverentially by media studies types as iconic and everlasting — but in late-1970s Britain it became about as cool as flared trousers, for one simple reason: Wolfie Smith, the ludicrous bedsit revolutionary in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith, who looked just like the Che in the poster. Wolfie, played by Robert Lindsay, was, to put it mildly, not the sort of character any serious (or fashion-conscious) socialist would ever wish to emulate, particularly if he had younger sisters.
More seriously, I’d also started to have big doubts about Guevara’s politics. When I put the poster up, I hadn’t known a lot about him. I knew he’d been a guerrilla leader with Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution, and I knew he’d subsequently worked tirelessly to foment revolution elsewhere and had been killed while leading an armed guerrilla uprising in Bolivia in 1967. All very romantic. But that was about it.
As I read more about the Cuban revolution and Latin America in the 1960s and the 1970s, however, it became clear that Che wasn’t quite the revolutionary hero I’d assumed him to be. Yes, he was personally courageous, single-minded and ascetic. But the guerrilla strategy he expounded and epitomised had been a miserable failure everywhere in Latin America except Cuba — and was roundly (and convincingly) condemned as suicidal adventurism by most thinking Latin American leftists.
Worse, Guevara, from the mid-1950s until his death, was an out-and-out dogmatic Stalinist — show trials, gulag and all — who was such an admirer of the Soviet dictator that he insisted on putting flowers on his tomb when he visited Moscow in 1960, fully four years after Khruschev’s “secret speech”.
If this Stalinism had simply been a matter of opinion with no effect on others, it might have been forgivable. But Guevara put his worldview into brutal practice. As a senior figure in Castro’s administration, he played a leading role in creating a single-party police state, throwing opponents into jail and banning free trade unions. And although he broke with Moscow in 1964, it was not because he had given up on Stalinism but because he thought the Soviet leadership was, unlike his hero Stalin, insufficiently committed to world revolution and crumbling in the face of petty-bourgeois deviationism.
And so it was, 25 years ago, that I came to the conclusion that Guevara was even less of a role-model than Wolfie Smith. Big deal, you might well think, but this rambling reminiscence does have some contemporary relevance. It was brought on by seeing The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles’s movie about Guevara’s trip around Latin America in 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado on a battered Norton motorbike, long before he became a Stalinist.
I loved the film: it’s not quite in the class of Kings of the Road or Easy Rider or Thelma and Louise, but it’s an accomplished cinematic spectacle, as good a road movie as I’ve seen for a long time. One of the main reasons it works so well is that it doesn’t preach politics — all we see is the young Che and his mate coming up against appalling poverty and squalor and, well, being moved to do something about it.
Paradoxically, however, this is also the film’s greatest failing. What matters most about Guevara as a real historical figure is not that he was horrified by poverty and exploitation and decided to “do something” but that (after a brief flirtation with Gandhianism) he specifically and tragically chose the dead-end of armed struggle Stalinism as his mode of action — rather than, say, trade union organising or reformist democratic socialism.
It’s difficult to see how The Motorcycle Diaries could have gone into any of this and kept its coherence as a film, but the effect of its keeping the politics vague is to breathe new life into a myth that should have been buried long ago.