Che Guevara was my father, and in his letters he reveals himself candidly, spontaneously, so reading them is a fascinating way to really get to know him. I Embrace You with All My Revolutionary Fervor, Letters 1947–1967, is the first-ever collection of his letters in English, or in any language, and most of them stand out for their candor and historical impact. Here is one he wrote to an esteemed fellow Argentine, the writer Ernesto Sábato, and one to Fidel Castro of March 26, 1965, in which he analyzes the situation in Cuba and shares his thoughts about errors in the approach to political economy, the budgetary finance system, the internal functioning of the newly formed Communist Party, and a range of other issues. Che urges Fidel to consider the importance of political consciousness in the challenge of creating a new society, explaining that the new human being will emerge in the process of transforming Cuba’s economy.
The book ends with several letters of farewell, which I cannot read without crying. In one my father instructs me, as the oldest child, to “study hard and help [my] mother in every way [I] can.” I was annoyed when I read this letter as a child. But later I came to forgive him when I saw that he had so many photographs of me in his office. I realized that, although he would never take me to the moon, he always carried me in his heart.
—Aleida Guevara (adapted from the foreword to
I Embrace You with All My Revolutionary Fervor,
Letters 1947-1967, by Ernesto Che Guevara)
These letters have been edited for length and clarity.
To Ernesto Sábato
Havana, April 12, 1960
“Year of the Agrarian Reform”
Mr. Ernesto Sábato
When we were in the Sierra Maestra, a leader of the communist [Popular Socialist] party visited us and told us that he admired how much we improvised and how we had been able to bring together all the groups that operated independently into a centralized organization. He commented that this was the most perfectly organized chaos in the universe. Certainly this revolution is like that because it has rapidly outgrown its early ideology.
Those of us who followed Fidel were a group lacking political experience but with a lot of goodwill and basic honesty. We proclaimed: “In 56 we will be heroes or martyrs.” Not long before that, we would have been proclaiming, as Fidel did: “Shame against money.” Our simple slogans encapsulated our simple ideas.
The war [against US-backed Cuban military dictator Fulgencio Batista] revolutionized us. There is no more profound experience for a revolutionary than the act of war: not the isolated act of killing or carrying a rifle or initiating some kind of battle, but the total experience of war, knowing that an armed [guerrilla fighter] who no longer fears another armed man is equal to an [army’s] combat unit or any other armed soldier. As leaders, we explained to the defenseless peasants that they too could take up arms and show the soldiers that an armed peasant was worth as much as the best of them. We learned along the way how an individual’s effort is worthless unless it is accompanied by the efforts of everyone around them. We also learned how revolutionary slogans have to respond to the actual desires of the people, and we learned how to absorb the people’s deepest desires and convert them into banners for political agitation. Each one of us experienced this and came to understand that the peasant’s yearning for land was the strongest stimulus for the struggle in Cuba.
That is how this Revolution was born, that is how its program emerged and that is how, little by little, our theory developed as we went along; our ideology always lagged behind events. By the time we launched our [first] Agrarian Reform Law in the Sierra Maestra, we had already redistributed land there. Even after learning a lot through practical experience, our first timid [agrarian reform] law didn’t dare touch the most fundamental issue: the expropriation of the latifundistas [large landowners].
The [Latin American] media has not dismissed us out of hand for two reasons: first, because Fidel Castro is an extraordinary politician who never reveals his hand beyond what is necessary, and he knew how to win the admiration of sympathetic reporters from large media companies who would normally take the easy option of sensationalism. On the other hand, North Americans always apply certain tests or yardsticks to assess everything and they used this same approach in analyzing [our Revolution]. Thus, when we said, “we will nationalize all public services,” they thought we meant “we will avoid this if we receive reasonable support.” And when we said, “we will eliminate the latifundistas,” they believed we were saying, “we will use large farms as a good base from which to fund our political campaign and to line our own pockets,” and so on. It never entered their heads that what Fidel Castro and our Movement said—so dramatically and sincerely—was the honest truth when it came to our intentions. Thus, in their eyes, we were the biggest fraudsters of this half century because [they believed] we said one thing but did something else.
Eisenhower said we betrayed our principles, and this is partly true: We betrayed their image of us, like in the story of the lying pastor, but in reverse, because they never believed [what we said].
Today we are using a new language because we continue to advance at a much faster pace than our thinking and our ability to structure our thoughts. We are in continuous motion and theory trails far behind, so slowly that, after writing the manual I’m sending you, within a very short period of time, I realized it was almost of no use for Cuba. It may, however, be useful for our country [Argentina], if applied with intelligence, without haste or embellishment. That is why I am afraid to try to define the ideology of the Movement; by the time I get around to publishing, the entire world will think the book was written years ago.
As the external situation becomes more acute and international tensions rise, due to its need to survive, our Revolution must intensify, and each time that the Revolution intensifies the tensions increase, and this leads to a further intensification until we reach a breaking point. We’ll see how we can extract ourselves from this quagmire.
What I can assure you is that our people are strong because they have fought and won and they know what victory tastes like; they have tasted bullets and bombs and they have tasted oppression. They know how to fight with exemplary integrity. At the same time, I can assure you that when the time comes, despite the modest remarks I’ve shared with you on this topic, we will have theorized very little, having had to resolve many challenges with the agility that guerrilla life taught us.
Ernesto Che Guevara
* * *
To Fidel Castro
Havana, March 26, 1965
“Year of Agriculture”
In the last period of Lenin’s life, if one reads him carefully, a great tension can be observed; there is a most interesting letter [he wrote] to the president of the [state] bank, in which he ridicules its supposed profits and criticizes payments and profits transferred between enterprises (i.e. paperwork simply being passed from one institution to another). This Lenin, who is also overwhelmed by the divisions he can see within the Party, is not confident about the future. Although this is something completely subjective, I get the impression that if Lenin had lived [and been able] to continue leading the [revolutionary] process, of which he was a principal actor and over which he had complete authority, he would have rapidly introduced changes to the relations established by the New Economic Policy. In this last period [of Lenin’s life], there was often talk about copying some aspects of the capitalism of that era, certain types of exploitation, such as Taylorism, which don’t exist today. In reality, Taylorism is nothing more than Stakhanovism: simply piecework, or rather, piecework dressed up with tinsel. This type of payment system was proposed in the first Soviet plan as a supposed creation of Soviet society.
The reality is that the entire legal-economic scaffolding of Soviet society today originated with the New Economic Policy, which maintained old capitalist relations and all the old categories of capitalism, including commodities, bank interest, and profit (to a certain extent). Moreover, the direct material interest of workers continues to [be used]. In my view, this entire scaffolding belongs to what we could call, as I have already said, pre-monopoly capitalism. […] We want our system to advance along two fundamental lines in order to reach communism. Communism is a phenomenon of consciousness: You cannot get there by leaping into the void, changing the quality of production or through a simple clash between productive forces and the relations of production. Communism is a phenomenon of consciousness and we must develop this consciousness among the people, which is why individual and collective education is an essential part of communism. Economically speaking, we cannot talk in quantitative terms. Perhaps we may be in a position to reach communism within a few years, before the United States moves away from capitalism. We cannot measure the possibility of attaining communism in terms of per capita income; there is no complete correlation between income and the communist society. China will take hundreds of years to reach the per capita income of the United States. Despite this, we believe that per capita income is an abstraction; measuring the median salary of the United States worker, even if we include the unemployed, even if we include Blacks, even then this level of lifestyle is so high that it will cost the majority of our countries a great deal to reach that level. Yet, we are advancing toward communism.
The other aspect is that of technology; consciousness plus production of material goods is communism. Fine, but what is production if not the increasing use of technology, and what is the increasing use of technology if not the product of an increasingly fabulous concentration of capital, that is, the ever greater concentration of fixed capital or dead labor in relation to variable capital or living labor. This phenomenon is occurring in developed capitalism, imperialism. Imperialism has not succumbed thanks to its capacity to extract profits and resources from dependent countries and by exporting conflicts and contradictions to them, due to its alliance with its working class against the rest of the dependent countries. In developed capitalism, we find the technological seeds of socialism much more than in the old system of Economic Calculus that is, in turn, the heir of a form of capitalism that has already been surpassed but which, nevertheless, has been taken as a model for socialist development. We should, therefore, take a look in the mirror, where we will see reflected a series of correct methods of production that still don’t clash with the relations of production. Some might argue that this is due to the existence of the imperialism on a world scale; but nevertheless, this would allow for some corrections to our system and we are only speaking here in general terms. To give you an idea of the extraordinary practical difference that exists today between capitalism and socialism, just look at the case of automation: While in capitalist countries automation is advancing at an extremely rapid pace, the socialist countries are lagging a long way behind. We could argue about various problems that the capitalists will have to confront in the near future due to workers’ struggles against unemployment, something that is very real; but it is also true that, today, capitalism is developing much more rapidly along that path [of automation] than socialism.
If, for example, Standard Oil needs to remodel a factory, it will halt production and provide compensation to its workers. The factory is closed for a year, the new equipment is installed, and production begins again with greater efficiency. What happens in the Soviet Union? The Academy of Science has hundreds and perhaps thousands of projects for automation that cannot be put into practice because factory directors cannot allow themselves the luxury of failing to meet their annual plan. And because this is a problem related to fulfilling plans, if a factory is automated, it will be asked to produce more, which fundamentally works against increasing productivity. Of course, this could be solved, from a practical point of view, by giving automated factories greater incentives; this is [Soviet economist Evsei] Liberman’s system and it is the system they are starting to implement in the Democratic Republic of [East] Germany; but all this shows the level of subjectivism into which one can fall and the lack of technical precision when it comes to managing the economy. The harsh blows of reality need to be felt before we begin to change; and we always prefer to change the form, that which is most clearly visible as being negative, rather than tackle the real essence of all the difficulties that exist today, which is this false conception of the communist human being based on a long-established economic practice that tends, and will always tend, to convert humans into little more than numbers in the production process through the lever of material interest.
There’s a big gap in our system: how do we get people to identify with their work so that it’s no longer necessary to use what I myself call material disincentives? How to make every worker feel the vital necessity to aid their revolution and, at the same time, how to make work a pleasure? How to make them feel as all of us in the leadership feel?
If the people cannot grasp the bigger picture and we can only ever get the person in charge, the one capable of running a project, to take an interest in the work they do, then we will never be able to get a lathe operator or a secretary to work with enthusiasm. If the solution were to lie in that same worker being offered material incentives, then we would be going about things the wrong way.
How to get the workers to participate? This is a question I haven’t been able to answer. I consider this as my greatest stumbling block and my greatest failure, and it’s one of the things we need to think about because it’s bound up with the problem of the Party and the State, with the relationship between the Party and the State.
Now to the third point I wanted to address: the role of the [Cuban Communist] Party and the State.
So far our poor party has been like one of those wind-up Soviet soldier dolls with a cord you pull. It started walking Soviet-style: Like a good doll, it began to strut about of its own accord until it crashed into the crockery and we solved the problem by removing the cord. Now it’s stuck in a corner but we’re trying to reanimate this doll by moving one leg and then another. I dare say that at any moment now it will break another piece of porcelain, because there are deep-seated problems which have not been adequately addressed and which hinder its development.
In my conception, the Party is an apparatus with a dual nature. It is both the ideological engine of the Revolution and its most efficient oversight mechanism. It is the ideological engine by virtue of the fact that the Party and its members must take the government’s key guidelines and transform them, at every level, into directives for the relevant bodies and individuals. The Party [must act as] an oversight apparatus in the sense that its grassroots committees and its leadership bodies, to a greater degree at each successive level, are able to tell the government what is really going on about everything that isn’t conveyed in statistics or economic analyses, such as morale, discipline, leadership methods, public opinion, etc.
Even if the Party remains chaotic in some ways, it can establish a firm foundation at the grassroots level.
[Commander] Osmany [Cienfuegos] said something very sensible the other day: We delay public works in order to send people to cut sugar cane, yet the entity responsible for cane cutting keeps its own workforce busy with its own construction projects. These things continue to happen.
It’s important, as I said, that the Party’s role be clearly defined: If it cannot be involved in everything, then it should at least play a major role at certain lower levels, more or less consistently throughout the country. [We must] start educating party cadres in philosophy in a broader sense, including more advanced Marxist humanism. This is not a matter of labelling a position in a debate as either correct or incorrect, but rather of participating in study circles or at least studying compilations of documents, trying to analyze what the debate is about. [Let’s] turn the Party cadres into thinking beings, not only in terms of our country’s reality but also in relation to Marxist theory, which is not an ornament but an outstanding guide to action.
My criticisms here are grounded in our long-standing friendship and in my appreciation and admiration for you, and in my unconditional loyalty to you.
This is such a long letter that I’m not sure you’ll get this far.
Homeland or Death.
* * *
To Che’s children
My dearest Hildita, Aleidita, Camilo, Celia and Ernesto,
If you ever have to read this letter, it will be because I am no longer with you. You will hardly remember me, and the littlest ones will not remember me at all.
Your papa has been a man who acted on his beliefs and has certainly been loyal to his convictions. Grow up as good revolutionaries. Study hard so that you can master technology, which allows us to master nature. Remember that the Revolution is what is important, and each one of us, alone, is worth nothing.
Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. This is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary.
Until forever, my children. I still hope to see you. A great big kiss and a great big hug from Papa.