The Seven Errors Made by Che Guevara
by Joseph Hansen (1969)
In considering the limitations of the Cuban leaders, some points were brought out at the congress which have not been discussed before. Our view on the Cubans as we presented it at the congress was that the Cubans made an enormous breakthrough in their revolution. They succeeded in gaining a victory due to the default of the Communist Party, and the fact that they, as a young generation of revolutionaries, refused to follow the Communist party, and struck out on their own. Under the peculiarities of the situation in Cuba at that time, they succeeded, through guerilla warfare and its development, in gaining power. This was their great positive achievement. But this very achievement, in the peculiar form in which it occurred, also tended to set the subsequent course of this leadership along lines which they have not yet transcended.
First of all, in Cuba they utilized the Communist Party. They dismantled it, tried to put it together and make something new out of it. It was like using old bricks in a new building. They found the Cuban CP useful in this respect.
Then, in extending the Cuban revolution, thereby defending Cuba in the most effective way, they sought to repeat the Cuban pattern, that is, the pattern of the Cuban revolution. They sought to utilize the Communist parties in other parts of Latin America.
After a time, this effort to utilize the Communist parties in Latin America ended up in a real faction fight. Because the Cubans, in utilizing the Communist parties, did not try to build a combat party in any of these countries; instead they tried to utilize the Communist parties to build guerrilla forces. This proved not to be successful. So they ended up in a factional struggle with the CPs, in which the key issue became armed struggle versus peaceful coexistence.
On that issue, of course, all of us were on the Cuban side against the concept of peaceful coexistence.
The faction struggle ended in a split with the important Venezuelan CP, and this was codified more or less at the OLAS conference in 1967. Here, one of the limitations of the Cubans showed up, that in splitting with the Venezuelan CP, they did not make any political accounting. No political accounting over what the role of Stalinism was, and they sort of buried the whole thing and ended up in a very small minority. Because of their incorrect political course, the Cubans ended up with a small minority not only in Venezuela but elsewhere in Latin America. Nowhere did they succeed in building, or putting together, forces of a size and quality capable of carrying out a revolution in the pattern of the Cuban revolution, or any other pattern.
At the OLAS conference, they projected a new course-that they would work with anybody. We interpreted that to mean, well, "anybody" - that includes Trotskyists. How else would you designate Trotskyists from the Cuban viewpoint?
The defeat of Che Guevara followed that. It had a dampening effect on the whole Cuban line, and its implementation. At the OLAS conference the OLAS had a definite structure, had a definite set of rules, and was projected as a definite organization. And if you'll recall what was said at the time, it was projected that the OLAS might even constitute the core of a new International. This appeared in different newspapers and magazines written by people who had very close contact with the Cuban leadership. Such an article appeared in Ramparts, for example. But Che's defeat had a dampening effect, and the OLAS began to wither. It eventually became more and more reduced, until, at the congress, the comrades who were closest to the situation in Latin America said, "OLAS does not exist. What does exist is a number of currents, or tendencies, who more or less agree on the necessity of armed struggle, or guerrilla warfare, who come under the general designation of OLAS, and that's all that remains."
Despite these bitter experiences, the line of the Cuban leaders--and this is primarily at the present time the course and the line of Fidel Castro-remains rural guerrilla warfare on a continental scale over a prolonged period. That's their line. But our assessment of it-we're talking now of the assessment we made at the congress in presenting a minority view-is that it is more difficult today to repeat that pattern than it was in 1958 and 1959. The enemy, that is, the imperialist enemy, has learned a bit, and there has been a series of defeats which have had their effect in Latin America.
In presenting these views, we asked, or rather called for, a drawing of a balance sheet on the whole experience of guerrilla warfare, as to what conclusions could be drawn from it, its weaknesses, whatever positive qualities it has, how far it should be included in the program of the Fourth International, just what assessment should be made of it.
In the process of this discussion, we brought up the question of Che Guevara and the lessons to be learned from the defeat of his undertaking in Bolivia. We drew some rather sharp political conclusions concerning Che Guevara's course in Bolivia.
First of all, we talked about Che Guevara as a symbol. He really is a very admirable figure. He is an admirable figure to all youth who are inclined in a revolutionary direction. He caught their imagination. For one thing, he was a man of action. That's a type of revolutionist coming into increasing prominence --revolutionists of action. Che Guevara's dedication is particularly impressive. He was second or third in the leadership of Cuba, had enormous prestige, an assured government career. He gave that up. He gave up his wife, his children-everything. He gave up all this in order to dedicate himself to a struggle that was very hazardous, a difficult, hard struggle. No wonder he caught the admiration of the youth everywhere. We share this feeling about Che Guevara. We share it very deeply, because to us, he's our kind. We're the kind who dedicate ourselves in the same way, really dedicate our lives to the revolution.
At the same time, we have to make an estimate of him politically, of what he did politically, and what happened politically.
First of all, on the points where we agree with Che Guevara. We agree with Che Guevara on his overall goal of revolutionary socialism. But we disagree with him that this can be precipitated at any given moment by the will of a revolutionary.
We agree with him on the concept that the best aid that can be given to the Vietnamese revolution would be to create one, two, many Vietnams. But we disagree with him on its being possible to do this through the action of a small group that decides in a selected country that it will precipitate a Vietnam there.
We agree with Che Guevara on his internationalism, and particularly with his concept that the best way to defend Cuba is by extending the revolution. Here we disagree with him on one simple thing. We disagree with his concept that a revolution can be exported. In saying this we are taking into consideration more what he tried to do than what he may have said on this point. That's what he actually tried to do in Bolivia-export a revolution.
We agree with him on his opposition to Stalinism. What we disagree with him on is how to oppose Stalinism. Our concept is that in opposing Stalinism, we must work this out through political confrontation with Stalinism, through the elaboration of differences with Stalinism, through the assessment of the historical experience with Stalinism, so that the whole development of Stalinism and its meaning becomes understood to the core. It's not enough simply to be anti-Stalinist. Much more is required.
We agree with him in his opposition to the politics of peaceful coexistence. Our alternative to that policy is to construct a combat party in the Leninist tradition, and what we stress is the importance of political leadership.
We did not take up the technical side of Che Guevara's operation in Bolivia, simply indicating that very little has been said on this by experts. Fidel Castro only went so far as to say that Che Guevara had a tendency sometimes to be much too bold in these operations; but he might have meant that in the sense of throwing himself personally into sectors of the battle where he could easily have been killed.
What we were concerned about was Che's political errors. And these we listed as follows:
First, he assumed that a particular situation in Bolivia followed directly from a general situation on a continental scale. If all of Latin America is in an explosive condition and if the whole situation is prerevolutionary, then if you look at Bolivia, you must say that Bolivia is the weakest link in Latin America. And you can list all the reasons why it should be the weakest link. But what Che left out in making this estimate was that there are also ups and downs within a particular country, and that it becomes very, very important in a revolutionary struggle to know when the movement is actually rising among the masses, and when it is declining. This involves the question of timing-when to throw yourself into action, how to conduct yourself, what slogans to raise, what actions to engage in.
Second, Che Guevara left out the timing in relation to the Bolivian class struggle. Timing is a crucial question in an important revolutionary action. I should say that it's also a very difficult question for even a revolutionary party to determine. We know that from the Bolshevik experience. It is very difficult for even a revolutionary party to determine precisely the moods of the masses, the exact extent that they're moving forward, and to be able from this knowledge to undertake the correct action at the correct moment. It does not follow directly from a general situation and it requires a party in order to determine it. Che had no party. His timing was conceived in the light of a general continental situation and on the objective need to help the Vietnamese and to defend the Cuban revolution, not on a direct and immediate appreciation of Bolivian realities.
To be noted in this conjunction was his belief that a revolution can be precipitated through the action of a small force, even from the outside, because most of the people whom he brought into Bolivia in the beginning were from the outside. This whole approach of Che Guevara in this situation resembled a sectarian approach. Preconceived ideas. The general situation is explosive, you've got to help the Vietnamese, and the revolution can be precipitated by a small force. He proceeded almost dogmatically. He formed his concept of the situation in Bolivia in much the way sectarians do.
His third political mistake was that in place of relying on a combat party, in place of constructing that, or having it available to him in Bolivia, he depended on a very treacherous ally. In the first place, you shouldn't depend on an ally, any ally at all; you should have your own forces. But he didn't have his own forces -political forces-and he had to depend on an ally. And the ally was a very treacherous one-it was the Bolivian CP. Even with the Bolivian CP, his political preparations were inadequate. He did not work out his alliance with the Bolivian CP carefully. What he should have done, since they were treacherous, was to have a showdown with them in advance, before the operation was even engaged in. He had to have this showdown with them in order to determine how reliable they might be when the fighting began. It was absolutely essential for the success of his guerrilla operation in Bolivia to have good connections with the miners, and to have good connections with the masses in the cities, particularly in La Paz.
The fact that he did not undertake this showdown, but simply engaged in the action, made it much easier for the Bolivian Stalinists to shift their differences with Che Guevara from a political level-that is, the difference between the lines of peaceful coexistence and armed struggle-to shift it from the political level to organizational questions, which happens nearly always in a factional fight with an unprincipled group. They raised the organizational question against him. They were all for what he did, but they had organizational differences with him. First of all, they accused him of a lack of consultation. And, of course, they had a point there. He did not consult them about the operation. Next, they raised the question of who should have command. That's not a very good question to debate because it involves personal qualifications and the whole thing gets lowered to a very vulgar level. The Stalinists did this very deliberately to avoid the main political question. It was an error to permit this kind of situation to develop.
Che Guevara's fourth error, which I have already referred to, was to begin an armed action without a political party or even a nucleus of a party either in the countryside or the city. He did not even have any ties with the Trotskyists, who had a certain connection with the masses both in La Paz and in the mines, and he did not have any connections with the peasants, or any organized political forces in the countryside, so that when he began his action, he was faced with a situation in which, if the peasants did not rally immediately to his cause! then he would have to substitute for them. So he fell into a position where a small force substitutes for the masses, or tries to substitute for them. I'm quite sure that in the writings of Che Guevara you can find statements against this, against any substitution for the masses, statements that certain preconditions are required for guerrilla warfare; but the fact is that this is what he fell into in Bolivia.
His fifth error was that he made no advance political preparation among the peasants of any kind. Not the slightest of any kind whatsoever. Party or no party, simply no kind of preparation whatsoever with the peasants. So they were taken completely by surprise. All of a sudden, here are these guerrilla fighters, and it takes them some time to estimate this, and to judge what it may mean. Precious time was lost by that while the enemy mobilized.
Then, his sixth mistake was to underestimate the will, the readiness, and the technical capacities of the CIA and the Pentagon to initiate countermeasures against him. This he badly underestimated. They, on the other hand, did not underestimate him at all. When they learned about his action, we now know, they held a top-level meeting in Washington, involving all the forces around Johnson-the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department, all their top men were involved with all their connections in Bolivia, their vast resources, technical apparatus, and we don't know how many millions of dollars were spent. They estimated Che Guevara as being a very serious person, one who required their special attention. In other words, they had a better appreciation of him than he had of them. That's a bad mistake for a political person to make. You've got to estimate the enemy very, very carefully.
His seventh error was to choose a position-and this involves a technical side, too-where it was difficult to break out or to receive aid. It may have been a very good area to practice the technique of guerrilla warfare, but it wasn't very good to receive aid, or to break out of. And he was actually caught when he tried to break out of that place. So this choice made it easier for the counter forces to isolate him when the peasants did not rally immediately, as he had hoped they would.
If we summarize all these errors, we come to the following general conclusion about them: that Che Guevara put guerrilla technique --armed-struggle technique-- above politics. He put military action above party building. And I think that this is incontrovertible, that this is what he actually did.
The conclusion to be drawn from this, remembering that Che Guevara was a very important advocate and practitioner of guerrilla warfare, is that first of all, guerrilla warfare does not stand up as a general strategy, however well it may fit in as a tactic in certain situations when it is used by a well-constructed combat party.
A second conclusion to be drawn from this experience is that it presented fresh proof that the struggle in Latin America has become more difficult and requires a better instrument than previously-it requires the construction of a combat party to a much greater degree than, say, in 1958 or 1959.
Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution: The Trotskyist View
Pathfinder Press, New York and Toronto (1978)