It has become a cliché to say that Che Guevara was a monster. Sometime around the mid-2000s the reaction to Guevara’s gross overestimation in the mid-1960s set in. It became fashionable to complain about Guevara’s “genocidal” tendencies and to make careful note of the guerrillas he shot for desertion. “The left happily applauds films about Guevara, but would they celebrate a man like Heinrich Himmler? Would they wear a t-shirt with Himmler on it?” So went the smug moral condescension of official conservatism. The analogy was wrong: Guevara was not a figure like Himmler, basically a desk jockey; Guevara was more akin to Otto Skorzeny, a dashing figure—a commando.
It is true that the cause Guevara fought for was basically “bad”; thanks to his actions, the people of Cuba are not as wealthy or free as they would otherwise be. Yet, as in the case of Skorzeny, there is something about Guevara that goes beyond mere ideology. It does not matter much to me that Skorzeny fought for National Socialist Germany or that Guevara fought for Marxism: these men transcend their ideological commitments.
Guevara was, quite simply, heroic: he was cool. Yes, he shot deserters—entirely normal in war. Yes, he supervised firing squads for the fallen Batista regime. I doubt those kangaroo courts were very just, but, then again, I doubt that Batista’s guys were awfully nice either. There can be no illusions about “Cuban socialism”: a colleague visited the island and, being naïve, was whisked from the airport terminal by some Cuban “New Men” to a Russian-built apartment block to be sold cigars stolen from the local factory and—bizarrely—a flatscreen TV. I am only surprised that these “Socialist Men” did not sell the gringo their sister for fuckee-fuckee, but perhaps Socialist Man was, at that time, rediscovering some old values regarding the chastity of women.
Despite this, heroic men—men like Byron or Skorzeny or Guevara—often commit themselves to quixotic projects. National Socialism, Latin American Marxism, and Greek independence are, in many ways, “irrational” causes—as the smug conservatives, who never risked anything in their lives, lest the neighbours complain, would say. People got hurt, but people are always getting hurt and sitting in a suburb being a “decent human being” is a perversion of its own type.
Byron, Skorzeny, and Guevara are cool in a way sensible conservatives will never be: they are heroes. In this way, they transcend ideology. I acknowledge that if Guevara and Castro did not win that the Cubans would have more flatscreen TVs and, probably, a bit more liberty to write LGBT-friendly poems. Yet, despite the collapse of the USSR, the Cuban Revolution has survived. It survived because it was not just about Marxism; it also had an element of national pride. Now, the Cuban Revolution was grotesque in the way Marxist revolutions always are, but, like the Korean Revolution, it also had a deeper value. There is a certain pride in saying to the regional superpower: “Fuck off!” And this is why Cuba and North Korea remain, despite the hardships incurred, nominally Marxist. There are human needs beyond having a new iPhone every year, and those revolutions fulfilled those needs, albeit in a perverted way.
What is a hero? A hero is a man like Odysseus. He is a man who leads a small band of men on a journey; he leads them on the only journey there can be: the journey home. Not every hero makes it back: some, like Guevara and Byron, die far from home. Odysseus was not some simple “good” man, such men never left home in the first place—their women would not approve of that. No, Odysseus was celebrated by the Greeks for being cunning; he was full of tricks and ruses—he would never be caught. In short, I prefer the sly fox, whatever his putative ideology, even if he is a bit amoral, to the good boy who never left home in the first place.