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Why Che still captivates us

Published: October 12, 2007
Section: Opinions


This week marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara. All over the Americas, leftists commemorated his life and work. In Santa Clara, Cuba, Ches widow Aleida March wept as a spokesman read a statement by the convalescing leader Fidel Castro saying that the fallen guerilla was a flower torn up prematurely by the stem. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales stated his belief that Guevara is more and more relevant every year.

News organizations in the capitalist countries have also taken note. The BBC World Service put together a 15 minute radio piece which featured various Latin Americans voicing their conflicting opinions about Ches legacy. Even the New York Times wrote about the anniversary.

This is all a bit of a conundrum. Such high profile remembrances are uncommon for dead leftists. Indeed, the death-days of neither Lenin nor Mao nor even Karl Marx himself elicit full page articles in the New York Times. But for some reason, Che continues to live on in our collective imagination.

One reason is that the great anti-capitalist revolutionary has become something of a commodity himself. His image graces T-shits, posters, flags, and countless other consumer products. Alas, the Che-industrial complex is a multi-million dollar business. Its a cruel irony of our economic system that even its greatest enemies can be transformed into monumental moneymakers for international capitalists.

But to argue that we remember Che only because of his prominence in consumer culture (as the Times article did) is begging the question. His image could never have sold as well as it has if Guevara did not tantalize us in some deeper way.

The answer, I think, lies in the incredible power of Ches revolutionary message. More than almost any other 20th century revolutionary, Che stressed that the process of social and political revolution is a process through which we change ourselves. Che wrote, We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force. If this revolution could triumph, Che argued, we would be transformed into a new, better version of humanity, what he called the humanity of the twenty-first century.

This is only an aspiration;

it still waits to be realized. However, Che stands as an example of a human being who transformed himself though the fight for justice. We remember the famous photograph around which the cult of Che has congealed: the heroic figure looking hopefully into the distance. In fact, he was an overweight asthmatic and, it seems to me, a bit of a nerd. But in the process of tearing the Batista regime asunder, Che the consummate geek emerged as Che the lean, chain-smoking guerilla genius. This is the source of his real power. He offers not only a vision of a new just future, but a new vision of what we as human beings are capable becoming.