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Vol. 71/No. 37      October 8, 2007

‘Che was won to the vanguard
fighting arms in hand’
Introduction by Mary-Alice Waters
to ‘Che Guevara Talks to Young People’
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Che Guevara Talks to Young People. It is one of several titles from Pathfinder Press on Cuba’s living revolutionary example highlighting the communist course of Ernesto Che Guevara. In last week’s issue we ran excerpts of a 1960 speech in the book by Guevara that inaugurated a series of discussions by Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health. Below we print excerpts from the introduction to the book by Mary-Alice Waters. We reprint it on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Guevara’s death in combat in Bolivia on Oct. 9, 1967. Copyright © 2000 Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

Che Guevara Talks to Young People is not a “Che for Beginners.” The legendary Argentine-born revolutionary, who helped lead the first socialist revolution in the Americas and initiate the renewal of Marxism in the 1960s, speaks as an equal with the youth of Cuba and the world. He never talks down. He sets an example as he urges young people to rise to the level of revolutionary activity and scientific thought necessary to confront and resolve the historic contradictions of capitalism that threaten humanity.

He challenges them to work—physically and intellectually. To learn to be disciplined. To become revolutionists of action… .

From a young student rebel attracted to revolutionary ideas, Guevara—like other great communist leaders before him, starting with Marx and Engels themselves—was won to the popular revolutionary vanguard fighting arms in hand for liberation from oppression, exploitation, and all the accompanying indignities. Along that trajectory of revolutionary action by the toilers combined with systematic, disciplined, hard work and study, Guevara emerged as one of the foremost proletarian leaders of our epoch… .

By consistently taking the political and theoretical conquests of Marx, Engels, and Lenin as his guide, by making the early years following the October 1917 revolution a point of reference, Guevara worked to lay a foundation that would help lead the Cuban Revolution to a different fate than that suffered by the regimes and parties of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It is no accident that his name and example are associated so closely with what is called in Cuba the Rectification process, the policies initiated by Cuban president Fidel Castro in 1986 (well before “the meringue fell” across Eastern Europe, as Cubans say) that strengthened Cuban working people and set the revolution on a course enabling it to survive the severe test of political isolation and economic hardship in the 1990s known as the Special Period.

Che Guevara’s profound Marxism informs every page of this book. “On the most basic level,” he told the international meeting of architecture students in Havana in September 1963, “our country has what is scientifically called the dictatorship of the proletariat, and we do not allow anyone to touch or threaten the state power of the proletarian dictatorship. But within the dictatorship of the proletariat there can be a vast field for discussion and expression of ideas.”

Among the many delightfully rich moments readers will encounter in the speeches that follow is Guevara’s lesson in the practical connection between the class foundations of ethics and aesthetics. Speaking to architecture students in 1963, and explaining that technology is a weapon that serves different classes for different ends, Che pointed to a mural on the wall of the auditorium. He remarked that there is a weapon depicted in the mural, “a U.S.-made M-1, a Garand rifle. When it was in the hands of Batista’s soldiers and they were firing on us, that weapon was hideous. But that same weapon became extraordinarily beautiful when we captured it, when we wrested it from a soldier’s hands, when it became part of the arsenal of the people’s army. In our hands it became an object of dignity.”

A similar thread of scientific clarity and an uncompromising dialectical materialism on questions such as education and human nature, links Guevara to fundamental writings of Marx, such as his 1845 “Theses on Feuerbach.” Criticizing the mechanical materialism of some of the progressive bourgeois forces of the time, Marx wrote: “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated.” Human nature is not an immutable characteristic of human beings considered as abstract individuals, he said, but concretely “the ensemble of the social relations.”

In his farewell remarks to the international volunteer work brigades, Guevara asks: “Have the people of this country made a revolution because that’s just the way they are?”

“Absolutely not,” he answers.

“The people are the way they are because they are in the midst of a revolution.” Through their actions, they are forging different social relations and a different understanding of themselves and the world—thus becoming different individuals, creating a different “human nature,” on the road to becoming socialist men and women.

Youth must march in the vanguard, Guevara insists throughout, taking on the hardest tasks in every endeavor. That is the only road toward becoming leaders of other women and men—just as the officers in the Rebel Army won their stripes on the battlefield. Youth must learn to lead not only their peers, but revolutionists older than themselves as well. You must be a model “for older men and women who have lost some of that youthful enthusiasm,” Guevara told the UJC [Union of Young Communist] leaders in October 1962.

Above all, you must be political. “To be apolitical is to turn one’s back on every movement in the world,” he says to the international meeting of architecture students.

And to the youth working at the Ministry of Industry—which he himself headed at the time—Guevara explained the need to “politicize the ministry.” That is the only way you can fight to change it from being a “cold, a very bureaucratic place, a nest of nit-picking bureaucrats and bores, from the minister on down, who are constantly tackling concrete tasks in order to search for new relationships and new attitudes,” he told them. Only by bringing the broadest world and class perspectives—and the most uncompromising acceptance of the laws of motion of modern history—into the most routine of tasks can you counter the depoliticizing, bureaucratizing pressures of day-to-day existence that can undermine the morale, confidence, and combativity of even the best revolutionary fighters… .

If “politicize the ministry” is one part of the answer he gives, voluntary work is another.

“Why do we emphasize voluntary work so much?” asks Guevara. “Economically it means practically nothing.” But it is “important today because these individuals are giving a part of their lives to society without expecting anything in return… . This is the first step in transforming work into what it will eventually become, as a result of the advance of technology, the advance of production, and the advance of the relations of production: an activity of a higher level, a social necessity” that we will look forward to in the way we now anticipate a Sunday off….


“To the powerful masters we represent all that is absurd, negative, irreverent, and disruptive in this America that they so despise and scorn,” Guevara told the students at the University of Havana in March 1960. But to the great mass of the people of the Americas, “we represent everything noble, sincere and combative.”

Forty years later those words continue to ring true. Guevara’s talks with young people continue to point the way forward—the way toward becoming revolutionary combatants of the highest caliber, and, in his own words, “politicians of a new type.”  
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