Acorn and the Che Myth
by Terry Barker
Shortly after the death of Che Guevara in 1967, a biography of this hero of the Cuban Revolution appeared which differed from most of the writing about the guerrilla leader published at the time. This was Daniel James’ Ché Guevara (1969), which deliberately set out to explode what its author believed was a growing international cult surrounding the late revolutionary’s life, death, and exploits. While obviously written from the point of view of an American social-democratic (and anti-Communist) journalist, the book was thoroughly researched and closely argued, and James was at pains to detail parallels to aspects of Guevara’s thought in the Marxist-Leninist tradition and its antecedents, and in plausible cultural influences (e.g. the Jesuits and Don Quixote), in an effort to explain both his subject’s undeniable wide appeal, and ultimate failure (as James takes it) in terms of the structure of his character. In his final chapter, “Does Ché Live?”, James brings this analysis to a focus in a discussion of the guerrilla tradition in Latin America and of the Nicaraguan Augusto “César” Sandino, the anti-U.S. imperialist guerrilla of the early part of the twentieth century, “whose ideas were . . . closer perhaps to Che’s thought and style” than those of any other Latin American predecessor. However, just at the point where the reader expects a revelation of the sources of Guevara’s extensions of orthodox Marxism-Leninism, the author drops this line of inquiry, and no more is heard of Sandino, or of his ideas.
Both Che’s “extensions” of Marxism-Leninism and Sandino’s ideas (which fused elements of Marxism-Leninism with theosophy, millennialism, Masonic lore, and nationalism) constitute a “spirituality” (in Che, expressed in Socialism and Man in Cuba, as James acknowledges). The “Che myth” (in any sense of the latter word), it would seem, needs to be analyzed spiritually, i.e., from a “religious” point of view.
Sandino’s “religion”, in which he came to understand himself and his movement as manifestations of a new humanity, returns modern political ideology to its roots in the apocalyptic-Gnostic movements of early modernity, a development which facilitated the spread of these ideologies in the so-called “underdeveloped” world. Sandino’s life and martyrdom at the hands of a U.S.-backed military regime became paradigmatic not simply for Latin American revitalization and revolutionary movements, but internationally; when the Guomintang (Chinese Nationalists) entered Beijing in 1928, one of their divisions was named after Sandino, and the Nicaraguan guerrilla leader was a hero to the interwar U.S. Peace Movement. A revival of interest in Sandino in the 1960s accompanied the rise of “Third World” socialisms, the development of the “New Left”, and the emergence of new international socialist heroes, such as Guevara himself, who combined nationalism and socialism.
The Canadian People’s Poet, Milton Acorn, whose apogee as a writer and public figure occurred in the 1960s and early ‘70s, captures this new-old socialist spirit, in its form as guevarismo, in his poems about Che, two of which appear in the new edition of Acorn’s selected poetry, In a Springtime Instant (Mosaic Press, 2012). Acorn’s own combination of Marxist-Leninist, Canadian nationalist, Gnostic, and Christian structures of consciousness makes him the perfect vehicle for the understanding of the full amplitude of the “Che myth”, as expressed in these lines from his “Where Is Che Guevara?”:
These are miraculous days . . . Worms sing! The sound
from their burrows is as lively as birds
but not so pleasant. And right now they are singing
“Where is Che Guevara?”
Che Guevara is beauty . . . The terrible and persistent beauty
that’s the end of those who can’t stand it,
The end of worms.
December 30, 2013
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Dec. 30, 2013
Thank you for posting the Terry Barker piece on Che and Milt. Too bad it was left out of The Ambassador.
. . . James
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