Lenin and Che Guevara



A comparative analysis of the political trajectory of the two revolutionary leaders.

In the book The development of capitalism in Russia, Published in March 1899, VI Lenin analyzes the formation of the internal market in that country from the process of disaggregation of small farmers into agricultural entrepreneurs and salaried proletarians, resulting in the stratification of the peasantry, a fundamental element for the composition of the macroeconomic panel of the nation in its era. Relations in rural areas, therefore, would be addressed in this pioneering work, which would discuss the tendency to concentrate production in the hands of a minority and the interdependence with the industrial sector.

At the same time that he examined the particularities of tsarist Russia, however, he understood that the local space could not be dissociated from the “world system” and from the trends and variables of monopoly capitalism in general, showing that his country was embedded in the economy “ global” from what he called “semi-peripheral integration”, in which pre-capitalist forms are preserved as enclosures to secure a subordinate role that served extrinsic corporate and financial interests, in a unique “center-periphery” relationship.

In this sense, the question of the internal market would also represent a problem linked to the “world economy” (recalling that the accumulation and export of capital goods would be part of the same phenomenon that would tie dependent nations to the capitalist center). Even if endogenous archaic forms were suppressed, traces of “obsolete” social configurations could, therefore, coexist with the “modern” system, where different modes of production or distinct historical structures would coexist, which would lead Russia to be a region characterized by “ overdetermined contradictions”. The possible inherent incompatibilities or discrepancies would certainly be able to be overcome (in addition to a broad development, which was achieved), if a revolutionary process were to triumph that led, ultimately, to socialism.[I]

A similar vision was possessed by Che Guevara when dealing with Cuba (and Latin America more broadly). Therefore, his effort to understand the advance of monopoly capitalism in the country throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the permanence of chinchales, the productive infrastructure inherited from the previous administration, the insertion of the island in the bigger picture of imperialism and its appendicular role in international terms. Essential here, as he himself pointed out, are political sovereignty and economic independence.[ii]

Just like Lenin, Guevara saw in the deepening of the nationalization of the sphere of production and in the formation of “conscience”, fundamental elements for the advance of socialism. Volunteer work, defended by the “heroic guerrilla fighter”, to a large extent, can be associated with the “communist Saturdays” encouraged by Lenin, an attitude that would forge the individual's character and could have favorable consequences for productivity.[iii] Socialist emulation in the factories, ditto.[iv] Not to mention the role of trade unions, a topic of paramount importance, hotly debated by both leaders. All of this, of course, linked to the conception of the “vanguard”, of professional revolutionaries and of the ulterior construction of the “New Man” (both Lenin and Che embodied this ideal, in their asceticism, abnegation, theoretical concern and total dedication to the cause; after all, they did not undertake sterile “academicist” elocubrations, but actively participated in the political struggle, even occupying positions of great responsibility and prominence as high dignitaries within the State apparatus).

As a master axis, the “transition to socialism”. At this point, the then Minister of Industries of Cuba would consider that “the sum of Lenin's works on the economy of the transition period serves us as a very valuable introduction to the subject”, even though the Russian lacked having developed and deepened the subject, which the time and experience should give you.[v] A whole range of discussions in this regard would be addressed, from the banking system to planning methods. The conduct and orientation of the labor sector, in turn, would enter speeches and public expositions, such as “The working class and industrialization in Cuba” (televised conference on April 30, 1964), “The plan and the man” (conversations shorthand at the Ministry of Industries), “Communist labor certificate” (at the CTC-R, January 1964), “A communist attitude towards work” (MININD, August 15, 1964) and several others[vi] (Lenin's interventions on similar issues are also numerous).

After all, as the author of the April Theses, in his 1916 reply to P. Kievski (Y. Pyatakov) (published 1929), “Capitalism in general and imperialism in particular turn democracy into an illusion… You cannot overthrow capitalism and imperialism with any democratic transformation , no matter how 'ideal' it may be, if not only with an economic revolution... You cannot defeat capitalism without 'taking over the banks', without abolishing 'private ownership' of the means of production…”[vii]

It is good to remember, however, that both were fully aware that, in isolation, an experience of radical and profound transformation within limited territorial frameworks would hardly survive. The Bolshevik leader recalled that “the inequality of economic and political development”, an “absolute” law of capitalism, would make possible the victory of socialism first in a few countries or even in just one, taken separately, and that later, “the proletariat of that country , after expropriating the capitalists and organizing socialist production in his country, he would rise 'against' the rest of the capitalist world, attracting to his side the oppressed classes of other countries”.[viii] In this way, he said, “all nations will reach socialism, this is inevitable; but they will all arrive in a way that is not absolutely identical, each one of them will bring its own peculiarity”.[ix]

In other words, the importance of understanding both the “particularities” and the “universality” inherent to every process. After all, Lenin was looking closely at events in Germany and Hungary at the end of the war. The creation of the Comintern in 1919, in turn, shows its constant concern with proletarian “internationalism”. And dialogues with foreign militants, such as the Indian MN Roy, would broaden his field of vision to national experiences and variegated societal formations.

Che faced the issue in a similar way. The promotion of struggles in the Third World, the creation of “two, three, many Vietnams”, its operations in Congo and Bolivia, clearly indicate the need for an expanded struggle in the weak links of capitalism, opening new fronts of combat and building the possibility of another rearguard for the Cuban revolution, which went beyond Soviet support (after all, the USSR at the time defended the policy of “peaceful coexistence”, something that Guevara vehemently disagreed with). If Lenin had driven the construction of the IC, the Argentine combatant, in turn, would support initiatives such as the Tricontinental Conference and OLAS.

As the author of guerrilla warfare, in an emblematic phrase, “Habana particularly attracts me to fill the heart of landscapes, bien mezclados con pasos de Lenin”.[X] And, if we want another symbolic representation, we can recall that in his office at home, in the Cuban capital, he had as decorative objects a bronze bas-relief of Lenin next to a statuette of Simón Bolívar, made of the same material…[xi]

The Bolshevik leader, in fact, was recurrently remembered by Che. In September 1961, for example, in an interview with Maurice Zeitlin, he would say: “The value of Leninism is enormous, in the same sense in which the work of a great biologist is valuable in relation to other biologists. Lenin is probably the leader who has made the greatest contribution to the theory of the revolution. He has been able to apply Marxism, at a given moment, to the problems of the State, and leave with laws of universal validity”.[xii]

One cannot, either, leave aside aspects of the intellectual trajectory of the characters under discussion. If Lenin, rooted in local literary and cultural traditions since adolescence, was interested in writers such as Chernyshevsky, Saltykov-Chedrin, Nekrasov, Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and Chekhov, the young Ernesto would read a heterogeneous series of Latin American authors, including including Domingo Sarmiento, José Hernández, Carlos Luis Fallas, Ciro Alegría, Ruben Darío, Miguel Ángel Asturias, José Enrique Rodó, José Ingenieros, Aníbal Ponce and Pablo Neruda. While the influence of Zaichnevsky, Nechaev and Tkachev, mixed with the “hard core” of Marxian thought, can be felt in Leninist ideas (in other words, a political inspiration based on Russian history linked to the works of the Moor), Guevara is clearly inserted in a line of progressive, liberating and integrationist thinking in Latin America, and can be seen, in a way, as a continuator and political and intellectual heir of men like Simón Bolívar, José Martí, Julio Antonio Mella and José Carlos Mariátegui.

In addition, both dedicated themselves, at some point, to philosophical themes. In the case of Lenin, in a critical dialogue and in fierce debates with contemporaries in works such as Materialism and Empiriocriticism[xiii](his clashes with the ideas of Mach, Avenarius and Bogdanov) or in the Philosophical notebooks.[xiv]Che, on the other hand, in his youth, elaborated his philosophical dictionary (also known as philosophical notebooks),[xv] with entries on Hegel, Plato, Schopenhauer, Marx and Engels. Still in the formative stage, he would read different volumes on historical and dialectical materialism (including an introduction to the subject prepared by Thalheimer). And later, he would produce texts such as “Socialism and man in Cuba” (in which he would outline, in general terms, his ideal model of a workers' party, very close to the traditional Leninist format), continuing to be interested in the area, with selections of quotes or reading guidelines that included names like Hegel, Althusser, Mondolfo, Aristotle, Abuchafar, Lukács, Dynnik, Rosental and Straks.

Not to mention Lenin himself, whose work he came to know deeply in his mature period. In his “dictionary” (or “notebooks”), the future commander would write an entry about the founder of the Iskra (he described his profile based on a work by RP Ducatillon) and another, on “Marxism”, in which he would cite some Leninian works as a source. In the list of works read in the period, “The poor of the countryside”, “The catastrophe that threatens us and how to combat it”, El imperialismo, phase superior del capitalismo e A forward step, two steps behind.[xvi]

Years later, in his list of readings, in the Sierra Maestra, selected works by Lenin would appear, and later, when he was a minister, he would make critical observations and notes on texts by the same author collected in the complete works (volumes 32 and 33) and in selected ones. (volume III): The State and the Revolution (he had studied this in Mexico, shortly before the expedition of the Granma); “VIII Congress of the PC (b) of Rusia”, “IX Congress of the PC (b) of Rusia”, “X Congress of the PC (b) of Rusia” and “XI Congress of the PC (b) of Rusia”; The childhood illness of “disquierdism” in communism; “II Congress of the Communist International”; “VII Congreso de los Soviets de Toda Rusia”; “About the tax in kind”; “Informe sobre la actividad del Consejo de Comisarios del Pueblo (24/01/1918)”; “The trade unions, the current moment and Trotsky's mistakes”, “The immediate tasks of the Soviet power” and “The 'Izquierdista' infantilism and the petty bourgeois spirit”; “Con el motif del IV Aniversario de la Revolución de Octubre”, “La NEP y los objectives de la educación politica” e “La Nueva Política Económica (informe en la VII Conferencia del Partido de la Provincia de Moscú)”; “About the meaning of gold now and after the complete victory of socialism”; “About the role and tasks of trade unions under the conditions of the New Economic Policy”; “Speech delivered at the Plenum of the Soviet of Moscow on November 22, 1922”; “For the section on the increase in the number of CC members”; “About cooperation” and “Notes from a publicist”. Furthermore, he apparently appreciated the biography of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov written by the French historian Gérard Walter[xvii] (originally released in 1950), which would eventually be published in Cuba in 1967.

Finally, the Russian leader would be on Che's reading lists during his campaigns in Congo and Bolivia. In the first case, volumes 32 and 33 of the complete works, in addition to volume II, of the chosen ones. In the selection made for the end of 1966, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Materialism and Empiriocriticism e Philosophical notebooks.

Guevara, however, felt free to make any criticisms he deemed necessary. And he would be tough on some aspects of Lenin's ideas, even if his admiration and respect for him continued. On the one hand, he would claim that The State and the Revolution it could be considered “as a pocket Bible for revolutionaries. The last and most important theoretical work of Lenin from which the integral and orthodox revolutionary appears. Some of the Marxist recipes I could not fulfill in his country and he had to make concessions that still weighed heavily on the USSR; pero los tiempos no estaban para Long term experiments; it was necessary to feed a village and organize its defense against possible attacks. Faced with today's reality, The State and the Revolution is the clearest and most fruitful theoretical-practical source of Marxist literature”.[xviii] On the other hand, however, I would say that at certain times two (or even three) Lenins coexisted,[xx] “the safe march towards a communist future that awaits and the desperate pragmatist who tries to find a rational way out of economic disarray”.[xx]

In the shorthand minutes of a well-known meeting at the Ministry of Industries, in 1964, Che would go so far as to comment that “we are in the presence of some phenomena that occur because there is a theory crisis, and the theoretical crisis occurs because we have forgotten the existence of Marx and because they are based there on only part of Lenin's work. The Lenin of the 1920s is only a small part of Lenin, because Lenin lived many years and studied a lot… It is a fact that among the Lenin of The State and the Revolution and that of Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism and NEP's Lenin there is an abyss.

Nowadays, this last period is mainly considered, admitting as true things that are not theoretically certain, that were imposed by practice, that are still covered by the practical profile and are analyzed theoretically, like all the problems of the political economy of the transition period”.[xxx] In other words, the former director of the period it would be “the revolutionary of great theoretical knowledge, developing what Marx says and speaking of a whole series of similar things, of worker control; and the revolutionary after he has had to come to grips with the revolution, in a backward Russia and which has another different language”.[xxiii]

In fact, the way in which the economic panel, the planning mechanisms and the industrial management of the USSR were configured in the 1960s, greatly bothered the member of the Cuban government. And how did the Soviets look retrospectively at the Novaya Ekonomicheskaya Politika, Also.

Che would be an acid accuser of the NEP and of the Bolshevik leader's postures at the time of its implementation. In yours Critical points of political economy the guerrilla, in a controversial, daring and almost heretical way, would accuse Lenin himself as the main culprit for what he called “inconsistent pragmatism” in all fields of life of socialist peoples and the economic situation in which the Soviet Union found itself at that time . For Guevara, if the country continued with the reformist measures of the time (supposedly inspired by the political-economic setback represented by the Nepian experience), it would gradually move towards a return to capitalism. And, as history has shown, he was right...

Luiz Bernardo Pericas He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of Caio Prado Júnior: a political biography (Boitempo).


[I] See VI Lenin. The development of capitalism in Russia. Moscow: Editorial Progreso, 1975.

[ii] For more information on Che Guevara's economic thinking, see Luiz Bernardo Pericás. Che Guevara and the economic debate in Cuba. Havana: Fondo Editorial Casa de las Americas, 2014.

[iii] See VI Lenin. “A great initiative”. In: VI Lenin. Selected works 3. Lisbon: Forward; Moscow: Progress Editions, 1979c. v. 3, pgs. 152 to 158.

[iv] See, for example, VI Lenin, “How to organize emulation?” written 24-27 December 1917, originally published in Truth, At the. 17, January 20, 1929, and reprinted in VI Lenin. Selected works, volume 2. Lisbon and Moscow: Edições Avante and Edições Progresso, 1978, pgs. 441 to 447.

[v] See Che Guevara, “The Conception of Value (In Response to Certain Assertions on the Subject),” originally published in Our Industry, At the. 3, October 1963, and reproduced in Che Guevara, Economic texts for the transformation of socialism, São Paulo, Popular Editions, 1982, p. 180.

[vi] The aforementioned texts and speeches by Guevara can be found in Che Guevara. Economic texts for the transformation of socialism. São Paulo: Popular Editions, 1982; and Che Guevara. Economic themes. Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1988.

[vii] See VI Lenin, “Respuesta a P. Kievski (Y. Piatakov)”, written August-September 1916, originally published in Proletarian Revolutionary, At the. 7, 1929, and reproduced in VI Lenin. Against dogmatism and sectarianism in the worker movement. Moscow: Editorial Progreso, undated, pgs. 67 to 73.

[viii] See VI Lenin, “On the slogan of the United States of Europe”, August 1915, apud Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union. Lenin: biography. Lisbon and Moscow: Edições Avante and Edições Progresso, 1984, p. 230.

[ix] See VI Lenin, “On a Caricature of Marxism and on Imperialist Economism,” in Ibid, p. 242.

[X] See Roberto Massari. Che Guevara: greatness and danger of utopia. Navarra: Txalaparta Editorial, 1993, p. 108.

[xi] See Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: a biography, Rio de Janeiro, Editora Objetiva, 1997, p. 646.

[xii] See Roberto Massari. Che Guevara: greatness and danger of utopia, p. 111.

[xiii] See VI Lenin. Materialism and Empiriocriticism. Mexico: Editorial Grijalbo, 1967.

[xiv] For a discussion of Lenin's philosophy, see Anton Pannekoek, “Lenin filosofo”, Karl Korsh, “La filosofía de Lenin” and Louis Althusser, “Lenin contra a Hegel”, all in Anton Pannekoek et al. Lenin philosopher. Córdoba: Cuadernos de Past y Present, 1973. See also Louis Althusser. Lenin and philosophy. Lisbon: Editorial Estampa, 1970; and Tamás Krausz. Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015.

[xv] Reading lists and excerpts from the “dictionary” (or “cuadernos”) can be found in Che Guevara. Latin America: awakening of a continent. Havana: Ocean Press/Ocean South, 2006.

[xvi] See Che Guevara. Latin America: awakening of a continent. Havana: Ocean Press/Ocean Sur, 2006, pgs. 175 to 177.

[xvii] See Gerard Walter. Lenin. Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2007.

[xviii] See Che Guevara, Commentaries on VI Lenin, The state and the revolution (second edition), Havana, Imprenta Nacional de Cuba, undated. In: Che Guevara. Critical points of political economy. Havana: Ocean Press/Ocean Sur, 2006, p. 225.

[xx] See Che Guevara, “The Plan and the Man”. In: Che Guevara, Economic texts for the transformation of socialism, p. 69.

[xx] See Che Guevara, Commentaries on VI Lenin, “Las tareas inmediatas del Poder Soviet”. In: Che Guevara. Critical points of political economy, p. 251.

[xxx] See Che Guevara, “The Plan and the Man”. In: Che Guevara, Economic texts for the transformation of socialism, p. 69.

[xxiii] See Che Guevara. Critical points of political economy, pages. 338 and 339.

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