Enlightened Bengali writer and social thinker Humayun Azad once said: “Revolutionaries should not live too long, otherwise, they become reactionary.”
Well, we will never know if Che Guevara would have discarded his fiery ideals or not, but one thing is certain -- fifty years after his death, the legacy of the Marxist guerilla who propagated a utopian social revolution until death, is still as potent as ever.
When he was killed in the Bolivian jungle on October 9, 1967, aged 39, seeds fuelling the cult of the romantic revolutionary were sown. In reality, the fervour of triggering a revolution with weapons and a bunch of romantics may be outdated, but, nevertheless, the appeal of the idea remains.
As years go by, the pure form of Marxist society becomes even more incongruent though icons, who once upon a time spread the ideology of equality, remain, curiously intertwined with the capitalist society’s perennial sense of fascination.
Cuba, deemed by many to be the last bastion of communism, has opened up to the world, capitalist ideas are seeping in, and private sector development is happening right before the large images of Che Guevara.
BBC, in a recent report on Cuba, stated that the country was inexorably moving towards Capitalism. I wonder if Che would have approved if he were alive.
The enigma and the mystique
Che rose to prominence at a time when the West was going through massive social upheaval.
Millions of young men and women, imbued with a profound sense of right and wrong, triggered a credo which vociferously denounced neo imperialism. The Vietnam intervention sharply divided the US where the government’s propaganda of lies simply failed to convince the young.
It was an age of stark contrasts: On one side, established governments and their juggernauts of obscurantism with ingenuous ideals of youth. On the other, the protests of the young sent reverberations across the world and developing countries were fast to pick up the rebellious fervour.
The anti-imperialist campaign reached a crescendo globally and when Castro and Che with their rag-tag army toppled a puppet dictator in Cuba to usher in a new era; the passion surrounding Communist-led guerilla movements turned into a rage.
Che went to Congo, but didn’t gain much as Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese socialist leader was killed in a coup. When the campaign in Africa ended prematurely, he left to stir up another uprising in Bolivia.
Suddenly, it was ‘cool’ to have a Che poster pinned to your wall or even a flower vase with the iconic image of the rebel
As fate would have it -- this wasn’t a success either. To be honest, Che had very little achievement outside Cuba but for certain cases, the ultimate result becomes irrelevant and it’s the ardour to bring about change that lingers. In a Bolivian jungle, the death was unglamorous. In fact, it was filthy and, according to many, utterly ignominious. Yet, from that squalid end rose the unassailable mystique.
Like many others, I have read about the unfortunate end in Bolivia, black and white pictures taken of the emaciated dead body etched in our minds. In the photos, a lifeless Che lying unceremoniously on a stretcher.
Amazingly, fifty years later, we are still celebrating the life of that man and his Utopian vision. As for the giant slayers, shown in the photos, looking self-satisfied, well, does anyone care about them at all?
A story, possibly apocryphal, has become a myth of sorts and it goes like this: When the killer came to shoot, Che said: “Go on, shoot, you will only kill the man.”
True or false, the soldier who fired the shot on October 9, 1967, actually killed only the physical manifestation of romanticism. One shot, one death and the beginning of the cult.
Che Guevara and our 80s autocracy movement
When Bangladesh united to bring down the military regime which usurped power in 1982, inspiration was drawn from the romantic revolutionary. The only difference was, here on the streets of Dhaka, revolutionaries did not have weapons or guerilla supporters hiding in the hills.
But the mass movement aimed at triggering widespread social change had Guevara’s passion written all over it.
People sported the iconic Che cap and many adopted an olive-coloured military uniform styled in the cut worn by the revolutionary. Street movements thrived on the spirit of the Cuban uprising.
When Kader Siddique -- a valiant freedom fighter -- came back to Bangladesh in the early 90s, after decades of self-imposed exile, the entourage taking him around the city wore the Cuban revolutionary tunic.
Did Che become a capitalist fad?
Socialism floundered in the 90s. The Cold War capitalism-communism division withered away with the remaining communist states making reforms to make the once rigid ideology adapt to evolving times.
China glossed over their communism, allowing a mind-boggling array of consumerist luxuries to enter their territory. In the spirit of the time, Che also spread out from the front of the T-shirt, to be featured on coffee mugs, chocolates and wall hangings.
The idol of social change from one period became the projector of avant-garde style in the new age. Suddenly, it was “cool” to have a Che poster pinned to your wall or even a flower vase with the iconic image of the rebel.
Hardcore socialists found this to be demeaning, slating the capital manifestation of Che as a perverted move to undermine the man and what he stood for.
Well, it’s easy to have knee-jerk reactions -- but let’s think a little deeply. Having Che on our everyday items or even naming an upscale restaurant after him does not denigrate the man or his cachet.
Instead, the guerilla lives on in new forms -- in an age when armed uprisings are regarded foolhardy, Che can influence in a plethora of ways.
In the current world, the spirit of Che Guevara is not just about violent insurrections; the fervour of the rebel remains the symbol of humane transformations within each and every one of us.
This Guevara does not exhort us to fire a volley of shots or throw a grenade to bring about social change; he asks for subtler reforms through nurturing humanity and tolerance.
A rebel who still has a cause
Fifty years later, hardly anyone knows or cares about the CIA operatives who set up the trap to capture Guevara. This they managed, and eventually silenced, the human voice of the revolutionary, unknowingly elevating a dead rebel to the status of a global symbol against oppression.
The revolutionary was killed, not his revolution. Revolution in the old format is impractical, but revolutions will always happen, in different manifestations.
When the young today take up a social cause and get active on Facebook to galvanise millions, that is another face of revolution; when child marriage is prevented via viral social media posts, that is again an uprising; and when oppressed people driven from their homeland are given refuge in Bangladesh due to overwhelming public plus government compassion, then that is the biggest revolution of all.
In these life-affirming acts, we find the unmistakable presence of Che, killed long ago, yet very much alive.
So, shall we say three cheers for Che Guevara emblazoned on our coffee cups.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist working in the development sector.