“Che,” now in theaters in the U.S. and worldwides, makes strong points. But, being a commercial movie, it misses the main political reason why Ché’s guerrilla tactics failed:without building a mass-based Marxist-Leninist party, communist revolution will fail.
“Che” is directed by Steven Soderburgh, and is based on the writing of Ernesto Che Guevara, the Argentinean doctor who fought in the guerrilla rebel army against the Batista dictatorship. Shot in documentary style in two parts, this four-and-a-half hour film realistically depicts the military operations of 1956 to 1959 that defeated the Batista army and the 1967 failed guerrilla attempt in Bolivia that led to Che’s murder under orders from the CIA.
The film treats revolution as a serious business, showing armed struggle necessary to end capitalist exploitation. It shows the tough, day-to-day struggle of guerrilla warfare, the rigorous training, the hardships when food is scarce and lives are lost. We see the constant effort needed not to degenerate politically in life-threatening circumstances and experience the exhilaration that comes when, in village after village Cubans join the guerrilla army, providing the support to make the uprising successful.
Guevara is portrayed as a committed revolutionary who gave his life in the service of the working class that inspired him, not as the glamorous “Icon of Revolution and Liberation,” of the face on a million T-shirts. But still Guevara comes across as a central figure in the struggle to overthrow Batista.
Barely acknowledged is the critical role of the Cuban workers, peasants and students who for decades had been organizing against the regime and U.S. imperialism. Its concentration on the military aspect of the struggle against the U.S.-supported Batista regime, with only passing reference to the politics, raises many unanswered and important questions.
The first part, “The Argentinean,” hints at ideological struggle between different factions within the Cuban guerrillas but doesn’t present the ideas fueling their disagreements. Battle scenes are cut with flash-forwards to 1964, with Guevara — now Cuba’s ambassador to the UN — addressing the General Assembly. He attacks U.S. imperialism and its lackeys in Latin America and correctly places the blame for poverty and misery on capitalism. But we don’t learn what kind of society was being built in Cuba or where, for instance, Guevara stands on the great political debate of the day, between the revisionist betrayal of the Soviet Union and the more leftist forces led then by China.
In Part II, “Guerrilla,” Guevara leads a small group of Cubans and Bolivians in an attempt to seize power in Bolivia. The armed struggle fails, largely because the indigenous peasants don’t join the guerrillas and because of the betrayal by the pro-Soviet Bolivian “Communist” Party. “Che” doesn’t discuss how Guevara’s main political idea, the “foco” theory of revolution, contributed to the failure. Abandoning the Marxist idea of building a mass base in the working class, Guevara believed that a small band of insurgents, a “focus group,” could jump-start a revolution by example. Tragically in Bolivia, practice disproved this theory.
“Che” is a gripping and thought-provoking film but lacks the complexity the revolutionary process deserves. In the struggle to change society, the ideological battle to win the masses to communist politics is as important as the military, if not more so. “Che” adds to the knowledge of our past and, with discussion and further reading to fill in the blanks, can strengthen and inspire our fight today. (See the above article and the 1/14/09 issue, for PLP’s analysis