What Can We Learn from Che Guevara for Our Times?

by Vishal Wilde

It was when I became particularly interested in theories of warfare that I began to explore some brief introductions by some famous authors; of those authors, Che Guevara stood out. He recounts his experiences, gives specifics and tries to put you in the shoes of a guerilla fighter. He says that it is merely guidance from his and his comrades’ experiences in Cuba but they can be learnt from and adapted by revolutionaries across the world. What, therefore, can ordinary, modern people learn from Che Guevara? Of course, the lessons learned should not translate into actual, physical violence – that would be counter-productive, dangerous and tragic. However, they can be applied to the war of ideas to persuade people and thereby win them over.

Applying Guerilla Warfare to the ‘War of Ideas’

In Guerilla Warfare, Che writes about what differentiates a guerilla fighter from the Imperialist or Oppressor, the life of a Guerilla Warrior, the moral and ethical dilemmas that one faces, the means of organizing supply chains, the importance of particularly essential commodities, how to treat the local populace, the sacrifices one must be prepared to make, the lifestyle and so on. I will just recall a few examples and anecdotes and explore how to apply them to the ‘War of Ideas’.

Be skilful, sparing and accurate

Che suggests that, whilst the Oppressor’s gunfire is characterised as being dispersed, plentiful and somewhat clumsy since they are more well-resourced, the guerilla fighter will be more careful, sparing and accurate with the bullets since they must conserve their resources.

Lesson: Think of how truly radical, positive and revolutionary ideas almost always face far more well-resourced entities – they can afford to expend resources generously, we cannot but, for that very reason, we are more sparing and careful in the way we take aim and in the ‘damage’ that we do to that which runs counter to Freedom and Justice.

To harass from all angles

He says the guerilla is quick and light on his feet, that they must harass the enemy from several fronts so that the enemy does not know respite and is always on-guard. This harassment leads to inability to know where to expend resources on defence, general exhaustion and demoralisation.

Lesson: Think of how, to defeat an oppressive institution, we must take aim from all (ideological) angles, to undermine their assumptions, arguments and positions not only when and where they expect it but also when and where they do not so that its crumble and demise is inevitable.

On the vanguard, capture and virtuous, reasonable mercy

He says, when confronting the enemy column, to always at least ‘kill’ the person at the vanguard before retreating. Then, eventually, the enemy becomes increasingly demoralised and they become more afraid to volunteer to lead at the vanguard. When particular leaders call for increased injustice and impositions toward the already disenfranchised, disempowered and marginalised, perhaps a principled character assassination is in order (though not to the point where we stoop to the level that they do to achieve their evil ends).

Indeed, Guevara states that when the revolutionaries captured an enemy soldier, instead of executing them, they must be given a good lecture, told of why they are wrong and informed of the revolutionaries’ just cause before being released (unarmed) and sent back to their enemy camp. He does, however, advocate execution (again, do not take this literally) for the ‘heroes’ of the enemy camp who have killed many of the revolutionaries since they are too dangerous to continue as they are.

Resilience and the armour of our dreams

He talks of how the guerilla fighter sweats and, when the sweat dries, another layer of sweat develops on top of it, and on top of that and so on and so forth so that the guerilla fighter wears their sweat as if they were clothes.

Lesson: Do we not need resilience? To persevere through the exhaustion because we know that these ideals are worth fighting for? So that our sweat and suffering acts as the armour for our dreams of an ideal world?

Appropriate use and context

He talks of how, in the country, larger guns and more ammunition can be carried than in the urban areas. However, in the urban areas, the weapons must be concealed since the enemy has the advantage here; the urban guerilla may use sawn-off shotguns and fight in close-quarters to sabotage vital communication lines before retreating.

Lesson: Intellectual weaponry must be chosen wisely and adapted flexibly according to purpose and context.

Equality amongst comrades

When fighters ate together, no one would have more food than another and portions were carefully measured. The tobacco was also shared equally except on special occasions where comrades agreed on rewards. That equality should be observed off the battlefield.

Lesson: Although some comrades may be seen to ‘perform’ more so than others, this does not mean that they should necessarily be afforded privileges over-and-above fellow fighters.

On essential commodities

He describes the importance of salt not only for preserving and seasoning food (that can often be tasteless but will have to do for the purpose at hand) but also in its importance for the manufacture of leather (good shoes being of vital importance for the guerilla fighter who is always on the move) and, therefore, priority must be given to securing salt manufacture and/or procurement.

Lesson: Critically evaluate and understand what resources we need to carry on and ensure that these are secured so that we can. Perhaps there are vital supplies that we are not yet aware of? Perhaps knowledge is our salt in the war of ideas.

On feasible solitude

That the guerilla fighter must be prepared to be a solitary animal for indefinite periods of time. They must possess the necessary skills and knowledge to be able to function on their own as well as within a group.

Lesson: Although working together as a collective can achieve great results, we must be prepared to work on our own for those goals and, therefore, have the skills to do so feasibly.

Concluding Remarks

Again, as I have affirmed throughout the article, what Che Guevara writes must not be taken literally but his teachings about literal (physical) warfare can be applied to intellectual ‘warfare’ also but must be done so in a principled and peaceful manner for it to be in the spirit of Freedom and Justice.

One particularly inspiring story I once read about Che Guevara was that, when one of his comrades was badly wounded and there was no way he could single-handedly suppress the heavy gunfire, he put his pistol in his back pocket and ran, unarmed, to his wounded comrade. He carried him on his back such that the enemies could have easily shot and killed him if they wanted to. However, they were so inspired by his bravery that they ceased fire out of respect. Ideas come from people and, if we are to win people over to a way of thinking, people need to be treated with respect.

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