Lowy’s book necessarily suffers from the fact that an essay confined to treating Che as theorist cannot even begin to grasp the essence of the man—though Che’s writings, which reassert the classical egalitarian and liberating vision of socialism, reflect his person well. For in Che’s life there is a clear thread connecting the young doctor working in the leprosarium on the shores of the Amazon to the guerrilla commander, revolutionary leader, philosopher of the self-emancipation of man from backwardness and imperial domination, and the isolated fighter for a continental revolution murdered in the Andes of Bolivia on October 8, 1967. In part, the explosive impact of his writings came precisely from who Che was, that it was one of the principal leaders of a revolution of world historical significance—the first socialist revolution in the Americas and the first anywhere to be led by independent radicals—that was saying these outrageous and wonderful things. Here was Che, Minister of Industries of the Revolutionary Government of Cuba, telling us that the Soviet Union had granted Cuba long-term credits. What for? “Not for building industries,” but so as to “pay for the unfavorable balance which exists in our transactions with the Soviet Union” (Bonachea-Valdés, p. 20). Here was Che on Cuban TV striking a match to light his cigar—a match that wouldn’t light, unfortunately—and remarking “Aha! un producto del socialismo cubano!” Here was Che saying,
at the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality . . . The leaders of the revolution have children who do not learn to call their father with their first faltering words; they have wives who must be part of the general sacrifice of their lives to carry the Revolution to its destiny . . . In these conditions, one must have a large dose of humanity, a large dose of a sense of justice and truth, to avoid falling into dogmatic extremes, into cold scholasticism, into isolation from the masses. Every day we must struggle so that this love of living humanity is transformed into concrete acts . . . (Bonachea-Valdés, pp. 167-168).
Che’s refusal to conform to historically inherited images of ‘the leader,’ his unwillingness to be bound by diplomatic niceties, his penchant for speaking directly and honestly on the most ‘delicate’ issues, undoubtedly gave his words a certain impact which they might not have had intrinsically. Yet his thinking about a multiplicity of difficult questions from ‘revolutionary art’ to ‘socialist realism’ (which he despised) to guerrilla warfare and socialist planning was always provocative and probing. He was never content with prevalent conceptions and received wisdom, and he had an uncharacteristic habit (especially among men of power) of questioning and examining accepted ideas critically, and encouraging others to debate him. And because he was Che, the issues he raised, the questions he posed, and the arguments he made could not be ignored; he compelled the critical analysis of basic premises and orthodox formulae throughout the left. By his rejection of “the scholasticism that has delayed the development of Marxist philosophy and impeded the systematic treatment of the period [of the construction of socialism],” and by his exemplary conduct as a minister of the Revolutionary Government, he stimulated and legitimated the full and free public interchange of views in Cuba and among Marxists everywhere on the most sacrosanct of Communist dogmas.
Indeed, his scorn for artists and intellectuals in Communist countries who had become mere “salaried workers docile to official thinking or scholars who live[d] under the wing of the budget,” his search for institutions that would “permit experimentation and clear out the weeds that shoot up so easily in the fertilized soil of state subsidization,” and, above all, his opposition to the “wild idea of trying to realize socialism with the aid of the worn-out weapons left by capitalism (the market place . . ., profit seeking, individual material incentives . . .),” were integral aspects of his conception of socialism as the self-conscious creation of human activity rather than the inevitable product of an inexorable historic process. It was Che’s return—in an epoch in which much that passed for Marxism had become a mere left-wing variant of positivist sociology—to Marx’s emphasis on man as the creative actor in history, both bound and unbound to the rock of circumstance, which made Che’s contribution to socialist thought so important, and which, as Lowy points out, unified Che’s ideas into a “coherent whole.”
Lowy correctly selects “three major problems” as the primary ones in Che’s thought: “(1) the human significance of communism, (2) the political economy of regimes in transition to socialism, and (3) the politico-military strategy of the revolution in the Third World.” In examining how Che dealt with these questions, it is Lowy’s aim “to show the relation between Che’s ideas and those of Marx and the different Marxist trends of our time, emphasizing the way in which Che’s ideas . . . transcend Stalinism and reformism, and . . . go back to the living sources of revolutionary communism” (Lowy, p. 9). Evidently then, Lowy is a committed writer and shares Che’s views. I believe, though, that Lowy would have served Che better had he attempted a critical analysis rather than partisan exposition of Che’s views. Che himself most certainly would have preferred a joining of issues and clash of arguments rather than a book which extolled his virtues so ecstatically. Not untypical of Lowy’s style, for example, is the following passage concerning Che’s view that “the national bourgeoisie” was no longer, if ever, a viable revolutionary force in Latin America, and Che’s advocacy of a socialist, rather than anti-imperialist, revolution in the Americas. Lowy writes: “Che presents the question in terms that are absolutely clear, sharp, and radical, bursting relentlessly as he does all the multicolored and empty bubbles blown by Latin American national reformism” (Lowy, p. 83). Lowy occasionally permits such hyperbole to replace both the critical exposition and analysis of Che’s own theories and the clarification of the variety of competing interpretations and corresponding revolutionary strategies or developmental methods that Che was combatting. To say, as Lowy does, for example, that Che’s aphorism: “either a socialist revolution or a make-believe revolution” was a “bold, corrosive, and explosive formula,” does not inform us what Che’s reasons were for rejecting a thesis which, in differing phraseology, is held both by Communist Parties in Latin America and American liberal academic social scientists, namely, the need for an “agrarian, anti-feudal and national revolution” prior to or rather than a socialist revolution (depending on who’s speaking). Lowy does not explain cogently why Che’s view more adequately grasps Latin American reality, if it does, than orthodox Communist and mainstream liberal interpretations. He merely asserts its validity.
Such occasional lapses in Lowy’s book mar it, and detract from the book’s generally intelligent, acute, and lucid exposition of Che’s philosophical ideas, and of his theories of revolutionary strategy and socialist planning in the transition period.
Lowy’s book should be read alongside of the brief but very informative essay by Bonachea and Valdés, which introduces their volume. After all, Lowy’s book should not be expected to serve as anything more than a fine preface to studying Che’s own writings, beginning with the excellent selection edited by Bonachea and Valdés.