[Marxism] Before Bolivia: one more thought about Che

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Fri May 21 09:31:48 MDT 2004

As Tricontinental Press notes, in early 1965, Che Guevara travelled to seven
countries in Africa, where he had received specific requests for military
assistance from three armed revolutionary movements: the MPLA, the African
Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, and the Supreme
Council of the Congolese Revolution made up of Lumumba's followers.
Specifically, Massemba Debat, president of the former French Congo,
requested the dispatch of Cuban military forces in the face of the danger of
aggression by the neighboring Tshombé-Mobutu-Kasavubu régime in the other
Congo. In response, the Cuban government then agreed to provide assistance.
Che himself headed the troops that cooperated with the Lumumbist movement.
On April 24, 1965, Che along with 13 others, crossed Lake Tanganika from the
Tanzanian bank to the Congolese shore. The Cuban campaign in Africa began in
sub-Saharan Africa, and lasted for 26 years, one month and one day.

Che's brigade ended up having about 120 Cuban soldiers, and stayed in
eastern Congo until November 21st 1965. In the seven months time the Cuban
troops, together with the Lumumbist guerillas, engaged in over fifty actions
where the opposition suffered several dozens of losses. Cuba itself lost six
soldiers. There were vain hopes that 1,000 white mercenaries paid by United
States, fighting against the Lumumbist rebellion, would abandon the country.
Tanzania then suggested to the Cuban detachment that they should leave the
Congo, a request with which the Lumumbist leaders also agreed - they decided
to suspend the struggle given the unfavorable conditions. The Lumumbist army
was actually routed by the white mercenaries and armed forces that supplied
them with superior weapons and use of military aircraft. Specifically, the
mercenary-Mobutu forces had full logistical backing and US troop carriers
with marine crews and guards to supply and transport them. Che summarized
this experience of this African episode in "Passages of the Revolutionary
War: The Congo", and after that began preparing for his trip through Latin

In my way of thinking, though, two things stand out in this experience: (1)
the Cubans intervened in Africa in response to a request from the local
people there for medical, military and educational assistance, and not
unilaterally; and (2) Che Guevara's heroic expedition in reality just had
very little effect, except that by his trip, he promoted international
political solidarity in practice, captured the political imagination and
promoted mutual political support between Cuba and Africa. Whereas Che
excelled in capturing the political imagination with "exemplary practice"
subsequent to the Cuban revolution, his actual policies themselves just did
not have a lot of real effect. I think you have to admire Che as
revolutionary, for trying to expand the bounds of the possible in the Cold
War epoch, but I don't think a modern mythologisation of Che is very
helpful. In that case, we no longer look at how Che did what he did, but
think that just sentimentally repeating his ideas is revolutionary. But that
is an idealism that Che himself would never have subscribed to.

A political movement that endlessly tries to conserve and recycle symbols
from the past, in order to make headway in the present, really signifies
that it is unable to come to grips with the present and its symbols, never
mind the future. If that is true for Bush's christianist "war against
terrorism", it's also true for the Left. If we refer to precedents from the
past, then I think we ought to be clear about why we are doing it. There is,
for instance, no particular virtue in defending Marx's insights for their
own sake. If we defend Marx's ideas, it is because he made an enduring
contribution to understanding human history, capitalist society and its
future, and to the struggles and aspirations of the working classes and
oppressed peoples seeking to transform the world into something better. Even
so, there is not much point in just repeating all the time what Marx said,
outside of scholarly verification or exposition perhaps, the question is
rather one of applying or validating the content of his insights in a new
modern setting, and show their relevance.


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