A look at cults: Dalai Lama, Swami Vivekananda and Che Guevara

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You speak of Rastafari, but how can you justify-

-belief, in a god that’s left you behind?

Haile Selassie: Propagandhi

The cult of Rastafarianism (or Rastafari, proponents of which claim they are above all “-isms”), which is basically another plagiarized version of Christianity (or Abrahamic religion) emphasizing the black people as the chosen ones, Haile Selassie as an incarnation of their God and Ethiopia as their Promised Land, would probably not like to answer the question above. But the answer is simple enough. Apotheosis of a mere mortal doesn’t lead to that mortal acquiring supernatural powers, or even for that matter, natural powers. The opening lines of the song by Propagandhi allude to Haile Selassie’s desertion of his army and the Ethiopian capital in the face of a vicious attack against his kingdom by the Italian Fascist forces and its allies. He left his people behind to face the fury of the enemy, but apparently that kind of betrayal had no effect on his followers who continued to pretend that they thought Haile Selassie was The One.

There have always been cult figures in human history. The idea behind cultism is that there is a perfect human being who everyone ought to emulate. One who is flawless and who is the saviour of all humanity. One who brought along with them epiphanies or great intuitive or divine wisdoms that were hitherto unknown to human beings. Everything they said or did was supposed to have great meaning. Eventually the cult figures would pick up mannerisms and affectations that would complete the picture. Some cults have lasted in time, some haven’t, some have been revived and for some, a new cult figure has adopted a modified version of an old cult philosophy. Objectively speaking, these were just people who were either smarter than the ones they influenced or were charismatic or both. They carefully picked their audiences and appealed to their popular notions, and then challenged some, making people think that they had stumbled upon a gem. And this is how their popularity spread. Some extended their popularity with the sword while some did it through peaceful and measured, peripatetic sophistry. From Buddha to Dalai Lama, from Jesus to Mother Teresa and from Muhammad to David Koresh, we see the same general aspects, the same hunger for soft or hard power over the masses. Here I want to take a closer look at three cult figures belonging to disparate backgrounds.

The 14th Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, more popularly known to the world as the Dalai Lama, was born in 1935 to a farmer family in Tibet, and was baptized as Lhamo Dhondup . Apparently at the age of two, he was identified as the spiritual descendant of the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso. For some clarification:

The Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron saint of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are believed to be enlightened beings who have postponed their own nirvana and chosen to take rebirth in order to serve humanity.

Essentially, the Dalai Lama is held to be the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. And even though Tibet is grandly named the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) by the Chinese administration, the Tibetans have been fighting for self – government for decades now. Anyway, back to Dalai Lama:

His Holiness began his monastic education at the age of six. The curriculum consisted of five major and five minor subjects. The major subjects were logic, Tibetan art and culture, Sanskrit, medicine, and Buddhist philosophy which was further divided into a further five categories: Prajnaparimita, the perfection of wisdom; Madhyamika, the philosophy of the middle Way; Vinaya, the canon of monastic discipline; Abidharma, metaphysics; and Pramana, logic and epistemology. The five minor subjects were poetry, music and drama, astrology, composition and phrasing, and synonyms. At 23, His Holiness sat for his final examination in Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple, during the annual Monlam (prayer) Festival in 1959. He passed with honors and was awarded the Geshe Lharampa degree, the highest-level degree, equivalent to a doctorate of Buddhist philosophy.

There is something ludicrous about “His Holiness sat for his final examination”. All the while he was getting an education, he was aware of his special status, like a king’s progeny.

In 1950 His Holiness was called upon to assume full political power after China’s invasion of Tibet in 1949/50. In 1954, he went to Beijing for peace talks with Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping and Chou Enlai. But finally, in 1959, with the brutal suppression of the Tibetan national uprising in Lhasa by Chinese troops, His Holiness was forced to escape into exile. Since then he has been living in Dharamsala, northern India.

I call this the “Graceful Exit” or “Haile Selassie” syndrome. When things start hitting the fan, these cult leaders retreat with their heads and tails held high, or they enter into treaties with the enemy, just what you would expect mere mortals to do. However, let’s not be mistaken in this case, because:

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a man of peace. In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent struggle for the liberation of Tibet. He has consistently advocated policies of non-violence, even in the face of extreme aggression. He also became the first Nobel Laureate to be recognized for his concern for global environmental problems.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to people like Mother Teresa and Yasser Arafat too, so that endorsement probably doesn’t have much value. And he has hardly been “in the face” of extreme aggression. The hapless people in Tibet left to the Chinese wolves are being forcibly relocated, tortured and murdered. All this while His Holiness has been inaugurating and “gracing” events and teaching people the meaning of life while the people of whom he was supposedly the leader were struggling to make their lives meaningful. He has also been busy proselytizing Hollywood personalities and as ambassador for multinational companies, thus clearly becoming a cult figure. But what about the claim of being a “man of peace”? This piece makes a few revelations:

….Dalai Lama has come out in support of the thermonuclear tests recently conducted by the Indian state, and has done so in the very language of the chauvinist parties who now control that state’s affairs. The “developed” countries, he says, must realize that India is a major contender and should not concern themselves with its internal affairs. This is a perfectly realpolitik statement, so crass and banal and opportunist that it would not deserve any comment if it came from another source.

Supporters of the Dorge Shugden deity — a “Dharma protector” and an ancient object of worship and propitiation in Tibet — have been threatened with violence and ostracism and even death following the Dalai Lama’s abrupt prohibition of this once-venerated godhead. A Swiss television documentary graphically intercuts footage of His Holiness, denying all knowledge of menace and intimidation, with scenes of his followers’ enthusiastically promulgating “Wanted” posters and other paraphernalia of excommunication and persecution.

Shoko Asahara, leader of the Supreme Truth cult in Japan and spreader of sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway, donated 45 million rupees, or about 170 million yen (about $1.2 million), to the Dalai Lama and was rewarded for his efforts by several high-level meetings with the divine one.

In the latter two cases, one might argue, he had no direct involvement, but you cannot support acquiring H bombs and preach “eternal bliss” in the same breath, if you are by principle a man of peace. But do religious swanks and cult leaders ever have principles? If we allow ourselves to be a little sympathetic, however, we can see that he has been under pressure to behave a certain way, even before he had the ability to distinguish right from wrong. His fate, as it were, had already been decided at age two. He probably also grew up believing that peace could help resolve everything, even dispute with the most aggressive of enemies. He never wanted any of what the Chinese inflicted upon him and the Tibetans. That, however, did not keep him from promoting himself and from betraying his lack of understanding of the uneasy relationship between peace and a thermonuclear deterrent.

Swami Vivekananda

Narendranath Dutta, better known as Swami Vivekananda, was born in Kolkata (then Calcutta), India in early 1863 to a well-to-do family. He was an evangelist for a revivalist-reformationist school of Hinduism (Vedanta) and Yoga and gained worldwide cult status after his famous “Sisters and brothers” speech at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions, thereby exposing Hinduism to America and the world. The official site for the Parliament even falsely claims that

This speech, which introduced Hinduism to America is memorized by school children in India to this day.

Apart from “Sisters and brothers of America”, I am positively sure that the great majority of school children in India have no clue about what the rest of the speech is. But then, religion and faith are mostly built on myths. As for the impact that it had on America, there are now more than a million Hindus in America who are not of Indian origin. Of course, there have been other Hindu missionaries who went to America after Vivekananda, and who have their own cults, but they have Vivekananda to thank for the popular interest in Hinduism and its mystical traditions in America.

In India, he was responsible for setting up the Hindu philanthropic foundation Ramakrishna Mission and the affiliated monastic order Ramakrishna Math in 1897, named for Vivekananda’s spiritual guru, Ramakrishna Deva. Ramakrishna Mission was responsible for setting up schools across India to impart education to children, disaster relief centres and hospitals. It is run by monks, but they do hire experts to do the experts’ job, unlike Mother Teresa’s death camps. The fact that Vivekananda’s order became a well – established cult is well illustrated by the fact that it demanded to be given protection as a minority religion, separate from Hinduism in early 1980s, citing a variety of reasons.

Vivekananda was a person well – educated and well – read in philosophy, religion and literature. He had read Darwin’s works and was interested in the concept of evolution. When he first met his eventual guru Ramakrishna, he was skeptical and dismissed his “visions” of God and divine apparitions (Ramakrishna allegedly had visions of “goddess” Kali, “prophet” Muhammad and Jesus, all in a lifetime. Commendable.) as mere hallucinations. But the death of his father when he was in his early twenties, coupled with the charisma and rustic charm of Ramakrishna generated a pull and he went off the deep end. After his father’s death, for a brief period, he engaged in excesses, as he was emotionally overwhelmed:

He reportedly confessed …. that after his father’s death he visited brothels and consumed alcoholic beverages in the company of his friends.

He found solace in Ramakrishna’s ready paternal affections for him. Soon he became engrossed in Ramakrishna’s deluded fakery and vowed to propagate the original cult of Ramakrishna. Intelligent people who preach universal brotherhood and peace through enigmatic religious epigrams have an easy way of insinuating themselves into the milieu of the rich and educated believers.

Vivekananda was already versed in the principles of Transcendentalism, a school of thought then trending in 19th century America -popularized through the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau-  and also in India through Brahmo Samaj, that emphasized the importance of spiritual connection with nature rather than rituals and theological literalism. So, he did believe in spirituality. He just thought that there were real and fake versions of it, and initially came to view Ramakrishna as a faker. He thought God was attainable. Henry David Thoreau’s Transcendentalist streak (expressed in the classic essay Walden) came strongly to be influenced by Hinduism and its tenets in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the few holy Hindu books. So, what Vivekananda came across was a revival and a regurgitation of basic Hindu principles through the Western route. He also studied Vedanta extensively, and decided that Hinduism had, over time, become corrupt and degraded with abuse by its followers, a common leitmotif in the rationalization used by all religious apologists. He wanted to revive the “glorious age” of Hinduism by teaching people what it was originally supposed to mean. Thus he set out to attend to his vocation, through the path of enlightened mendicancy. After 1893, he became a religious celebrity (read, cult) figure worldwide. Indian (mostly Hindu) children might not know his famous speech by rote, but are certainly taught to adopt him as an idol.

It might be easy to miss the fact that Vivekananda too suffered from the “Haile Selassie” syndrome.

Narendra’s father’s sudden death in 1884 left the family bankrupt; creditors began demanding the repayment of loans, and relatives threatened to evict the family from their ancestral home. Narendra, once a son of a well-to-do family, became one of the poorest students in his college. He unsuccessfully tried to find work and questioned God’s existence,but found solace in Ramakrishna and his visits to Dakshineswar increased.

One day Narendra requested Ramakrishna to pray to goddess Kali for their family’s financial welfare. Ramakrishna suggested him to go to the temple himself and pray. Following Ramakrishna’s suggestion, he went to the temple thrice, but failed to pray for any kind of worldly necessities and ultimately prayed for true knowledge and devotion from the goddess. Narendra gradually grew ready to renounce everything for the sake of realising God, and accepted Ramakrishna as his Guru.

It’s not known what exactly happened to his family, which was in financial arrears, and whom he left behind for his spiritual pursuits. One might argue that his family did need him the most at that point in time. I wouldn’t like to judge, but I would probably have been able to think more highly of Vivekananda if it were not for this episode. In any case, it’s a wrong example to follow.

He gained a great fan following in the West, and started getting more attention in the East after his 1893 tour de force. In India, he preached religious nationalism, which unintentionally or otherwise formed the seedbed of present day right-wing Hindu extremism, and claimed that Hinduism, or Vedanta, was the Sanatan Dharma, or the Eternal Faith, and hence hinted at its supremacy. He wanted to use the superior tenets of Hinduism to fight poverty. He also looked for flaws in other religions and faiths. For example, apart from noting that Islam was a religion full of violence , his objection to the idea of Muhammad being a prophet was that

though Muhammad was inspired, “he was not a trained Yogi, nor did he know the reason of what he was doing.”

The way I look at it, a trained practitioner of yoga is as effective as a trained practitioner of Falun Gong. Both draw on ancient religious inspiration for their appeal and make scientifically irrelevant and morally redundant claims. While one might argue that being a follower of either of these cults would have made Muhammad less of a mass – murdering maniac, it would have no better overall effect. For that matter, even Islam has settled into more peaceful and syncretic traditions like Sufism, which Islamic conservatists treat to be a form of heresy (yes, the umpteenth one) and which is widely preached and practised in India.

I was not being merely cynical when I insinuated that he was an apologist. Here is what he thought about the caste system, a Hindu equivalent of Christian mandating of slavery:

Caste is a very good thing. Caste is the plan we want to follow. What caste really is, not one in a million understands. There is no country in the world without caste.

Sounds like a watertight argument. He seems to argue that caste basically means social division of labour, and that it’s legitimate to have such a structure.

Caste is good. That is only natural way of solving life. Men must form themselves into groups, and you cannot get rid of that. Wherever you go there will be caste. But that does not mean that there should be these privileges. They should be knocked on the head. If you teach Vedanta to the fisherman, he will say, “I am as good a man as you, I am a fisherman, you are a philosopher, but I have the same God in me, as you have in you.” And that is what we want, no privilege for anyone, equal chances for all; let everyone be taught that the Divine is within, and everyone will work out his own salvation. The days of exclusive privileges and exclusive claims are gone, gone for ever from the soil of India.

The principle of equality is admirable, but a fisherman, at least in India, rarely ever finds “salvation”. Teaching Vedanta to a fisherman is not my idea of salvation. Providing him a fair opportunity to pursue his ambitions, maybe. Apart from the delusion of having “the same God” in him, Vedanta can help him achieve little else. This is nothing but mere sophistry.

As there are sattva, rajas and tamas – one or other of these gunas more or less – in every man, so the qualities which make a Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya or a Shudra are inherent in every man, more or less. But at time one or other of these qualities predominates in him in varying degrees and is manifested accordingly. Take a man in his different pursuits, for example : when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shudra-hood; when he is busy transacting some some piece of business for profit, on his account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God, or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brahmana. Naturally, it is quite possible for one to be changed from one caste into another. Otherwise, how did Viswamitra become a Brahmana and Parashurama a Kshatriya?

The only safety, I tell you men who belong to the lower castes, the only way to raise your condition is to study Sanskrit, and this fighting and writing and frothing against the higher castes is in vain, it does no good, and it creates fight and quarrel, and this race, unfortunately already divided, is going to be divided more and more. The only way to bring about the leveling of castes is to appropriate the culture, the education which is the strength of the higher castes.

Does it not sound like proselytizing? Vivekananda thinks there is only one way to live, and that he knows what that way is. The caste system. Does that not sound like smug and arrogant apologism at best? By talking about “safety”, is he not issuing a veiled threat somewhere? For someone who knew about evolution and took interest in it, is it not strange that he bought the bizarre Hindu theory of origin of the caste system?

Let’s take a look at some more of his “teachings”:

Let each one of us pray day and night for the downtrodden millions, who are held fast by poverty, priestcraft, and tyranny. Pray day and night for them. I care more to preach religion to them than to the high and the rich. I am no metaphysician, no philosopher, nay, no saint. But I am poor and I love the poor.

This sounds a bit like Mother Teresa to me (But of course, the Ramakrishna Mission isn’t a death cult like the Missionaries of Charity). “I am poor and I love the poor” is a refrain that seems to be the motto for all forms of religious philanthropy. It’s basically meant to say that “I don’t want to take any responsibility for the real uplift of the poor”. It is also the most favourable demographic group for recruiting acolytes to your cult, because they are most likely to be fearful, ignorant and gullible. And once you give the more fortunate people the impression that you are serving the poor and know them intimately, you are likely to inspire deference and devotion among them as well.

Learn to feel yourself in other bodies, to know that we are all one. Throw all other nonsense to the winds. Spit out your actions, good or bad, and never think of them again. What is done is done. Throw off superstition. Have no weakness even in the face of death. Be free.

I hate this world, this dream, this horrible nightmare, with its churches and chicaneries, its books and blackguardisms, its fair faces and false hearts, its howling righteousness on the surface and utter hollowness beneath, and, above all, its sanctified shopkeeping.

Is there any consistency? If I contrive to “learn to feel” myself in other bodies and that “we are all one”, what should I come to know? That it’s all “fair faces and false hearts”, “howling righteousness on the surface and utter hollowness beneath”? Why should I involve myself in such a meaningless undertaking then? What is this if not “howling righteousness” on my part? Isn’t it best to throw this “nonsense to the winds” then?

Desire, want, is the father of all misery. Desires are bound by the laws of success and failure. Desires must bring misery. The great secret of true success, of true happiness, is this: the person who asks for no return, the perfectly unselfish person, is the most successful.

Except desire for something that is not known to exist.

Here is a damning indictment of his pretense of serving the poor:

With all his cosmic compassion and his posthumous glorification by admirers and devotees, the Swami did virtually nothing for the permanent uplifting of the downtrodden. He neither had a firsthand experience of social work nor a theoretical understanding of the task he was preaching with so much passion and panache. Niranjan Dhar has pointed out that “Vivekananda never said anything about forming a national government by removing foreign control with a view to materializing his plan for eradicating poverty from India, even though his plan could conceivably work only through a structure such as a national government.” Even an admiring scholar has admitted,”Indeed I do not think that he intended to produce political or economic solutions of the problems.” He never exerted himself to tour the villages and teach religion to the masses. He preached mainly to the affluent and affable in India and abroad.

The moment you throw religion or any dogmatic philosophy into the mix, it will lead to sophistry of Vivekananda’s sort. Let me be clear, Swami Vivekananda has been an inspiration to many Indians, continues to be, but their sense of devotion to him is misplaced. He is nothing but a cult figure. With the knowledge that he had and with the brilliant oratorial and organizational skills that he had, he could have done a lot better for the poor and the downtrodden. By endorsing the caste system and Sanskrit religious education, he comes across as quite the demagogue, something most cult figures are.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara

Maybe that’s what life is… a wink of the eye and winking stars.

Maybe Jack Kerouac said that with him and his future in mind. A modern day Robin Hood. A Communist fanatic. The 20th century Napoleon. A whimsical fascist. Call him what you like. Che Guevara was a chequered flag. Someone who polarized opinion. Someone who inspired anew revolution and the spirit of rebellion. To Cubans, he is more than the “father of the nation”. They are expected to live and breathe him. Fidel Castro basically played second fiddle to him in recreating and reshaping Cuban destiny. So, we can already see that he is a cult figure. In today’s world, almost 50 years after his assassination, he has become a theme. A face that will help you sell T shirts. Love him or hate him, you cannot keep him out.

Known to the world as Che Guevara, he was born in Rosario, Argentina in 1928 to a family that had leftist leanings. He was exposed to a wide range of political ideologies as a student, and was well educated and well read. He was particularly fascinated by Marxist’s communist ideals, and by all accounts, including his own, actively engaged in helping poor people since he was very young. He ended up training to be a physician in his zeal to serve the poor.

Years later, a February 13, 1958, declassified CIA ‘biographical and personality report’ would make note of Guevara’s wide range of academic interests and intellect, describing him as “quite well read” while adding that “Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino.”

Sounds like the typical bourgeois American condescension. But CIA’s observations were significant in the sense that it was Che Guevara’s sworn enemy. He travelled all across Latin America on a motorcycle, getting familiar with life, rather the quality of life of people.

Guevara was especially impressed by the camaraderie among those living in a leper colony, stating “The highest forms of human solidarity and loyalty arise among such lonely and desperate people.”

The Marxist revolutionary in him grew as he encountered suffering and poverty all across the continent.

Because of the circumstances in which I traveled, first as a student and later as a doctor, I came into close contact with poverty, hunger and disease; with the inability to treat a child because of lack of money; with the stupefaction provoked by the continual hunger and punishment, to the point that a father can accept the loss of a son as an unimportant accident, as occurs often in the downtrodden classes of our American homeland. And I began to realize at that time that there were things that were almost as important to me as becoming a famous or making a significant contribution to medical science: I wanted to help those people.

…. I realized a fundamental thing: For one to be a revolutionary doctor or to be a revolutionary at all, there must first be a revolution. Isolated individual endeavour, for all its purity of ideals, is of no use, and the desire to sacrifice an entire lifetime to the noblest of ideals serves no purpose if one works alone, solitarily, in some corner of America, fighting against adverse governments and social conditions which prevent progress. To create a revolution, one must have what there is in Cuba – the mobilization of a whole people, who learn by the use of arms and the exercise of militant unity to understand the value of arms and the value of unity.

“Militant unity”. Sounds a bit like fascism to me. But that was the zeitgeist of post – bellum political experimentalist epoch. This tempts one to surmise that Che Guevara was merely a product of his time. But there can be no question that his political ambitions were motivated by compassion and purely Marxist ideals. By “militant unity” he meant to advocate pan – Latin Americanism ruled by Marxist politics. He would eventually tie up with young Cuban Marxists Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl Castro in an effort to overthrow the dictatorship there. It is around this time that Ernesto became Che. And “Che” stuck after Guevara’s adept generalship of the guerrilla Cuban revolutionaries led to landmark victory on New Year’s day in 1959 over the Cuban forces and the dictator Fulgencio Batista was forced to flee. Fidel Castro took Guevara’s advice on reshaping Cuba’s political and economic structures, and Guevara proposed aligning with post – Stalin Soviet Union. He made it clear that industries would be nationalized and there would no space for capitalist ventures, thus bringing him in direct conflict with US interests for the first time.

When, shortly after the triumph of the Castro revolution, Ernesto Guevara took over the direction of the Cuban National Bank, it became his duty to sign the newly minted ten- and twenty-peso notes. This he did with a contemptuous flourish, scrawling the bold nom de guerre “Che” on both denominations. By that gesture, which made those bills a collectors’ item in some quarters of the left, he expressed an ambition to move beyond the money economy and what used to be termed “the cash nexus.” It was a stroke, at once Utopian and puritanical, that seemed to sum up his gift both for the improvised and the determined.

The first act after victory, though, was mass murder. Here is an excerpt from an account:

Once in power in Havana, and immediately charged by Castro with purging and punishing Batista’s police apparatus, Guevara set up an improvised drumhead tribunal at the harbor fortress of La Cabana, where he sent for Marks again and re-employed him as an executioner.

Some justified this kind of “people’s court” as utilitarian. Herbert Matthews of The New York Times had a go at defending them “from the Cuban’s perspective.” (The paper wouldn’t print his efforts.) But other foreign correspondents were appalled by the lynch trials, ordered by Fidel Castro himself, that were held in the Havana sports stadium. Raul Castro went even further in the city of Santiago, machine-gunning seventy captured Batistianos into a ditch dug by a bulldozer. When challenged by friends and family, Guevara resorted to three defenses. First, he claimed that everybody at La Cabana had had a hearing. The speed at which the firing squads operated made his argument seem exiguous. Second, as reported by Anderson, “he never tired of telling his Cuban comrades that in Guatemala Arbenz had fallen because he had not purged his armed forces of disloyal elements, a mistake that permitted the CIA to penetrate and overthrow his regime.” Third, and dropping all pretense, he told a protesting former medical colleague: “Look, in this thing either you kill first, or else you get killed.”

Methods and rationalizations of this kind have a way of establishing themselves, not as “emergency measures” but as administrative means of dealing with all opposition.

Fidel Castro, true to his first name (perhaps excessively so), declared Che Guevara to be Cuban born.

The US broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 (and which have been resumed only since last year) because the latter had joined the Communist bloc. After several attempts at destabilizing the Castro government through acts of sabotage and dissident and exile – assisted terrorism, relations reached a crisis point during the 13 – day global auscultation of the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962. This episode was the closest human beings have ever come, till date, to having a nuclear war. It was also the start of the three decade long Cold War. It also brought out the fanatic in Che:

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the United States accused the Soviet Union of building nuclear missile bases in Cuba, Guevara argued for a first strike and was bitterly disappointed when the missiles were withdrawn without a fight. By the time the missile crisis was over, relations between Guevara and Castro had become strained. The economy was faltering, leading many Cubans to have serious doubts about Castro’s ability to care for them. In addition, Guevara’s overzealous urge to carry the socialist revolution into other parts of Latin America and into Africa was beginning to make even the Soviets nervous.

Indeed he did attempt to take his socialist revolution into Africa and Asia. At his 1964 UN address, he denounced Western imperialism and emphasized the importance of the rise of the “Third World”. He also broke up with Communist Soviet Union over the Missile Crisis:

It is certain that he was enraged by Khrushchev’s compromise with Kennedy over the missiles, and by the generally lukewarm attitude of the Warsaw Pact toward revolution in the Third World. In February 1965, while addressing an “Afro-Asian Solidarity” meeting in Algiers, he went so far as to describe the Kremlin as “an accomplice of imperialism” for its cold-cash dealings with impoverished and insurgent states. This, and the general chaos arising from his stewardship of the Ministry for Industry, made him an easy target for inner-party attacks by the unsmiling elements among the Cuban Communist Party: people for whom the very words “romanticism” and “adventurism” were symptoms of deviation. His dismissal from the ministry followed immediately on his return from Algiers, and he soon afterward set off for Africa with no very clear mandate or position.

This is where he had his “Haile Selassie” moment. For someone who denounced the US for having carried out the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Holocausts, he completely disregarded the interest of the proletarian when he advocated a first strike against the US. What was he thinking? That all of US was a capital-guzzling society? And was he not aware of the repercussions of a first attack? He abandoned his very own principles in his madness. His rage was understandable. The Kennedy administration in the US had continued with their campaign of sabotage and embargo against Cuba, and this drove Che to the edge, but surely he knew better than to endanger the lives of millions, a great majority of whom would have been proletarians or poor people? It was also strange that the country whose liberation he had fought for was neglected in his zeal to spread the revolution worldwide. And he was more like an unrewarding authoritarian than a sympathetic patron in relation to the proletarian:

Whatever the merits or demerits of Guevara’s economic principles, his programs were unsuccessful. Guevara’s program of “moral incentives” for workers caused a rapid drop in productivity and a rapid rise in absenteeism. Decades later, the director of Radio Martí Ernesto Betancourt, an early ally turned Castro-critic and Che’s former deputy, would accuse Guevara of being “ignorant of the most elementary economic principles.” In reference to the collective failings of Guevara’s vision, reporter I.F. Stone who interviewed Guevara twice during this time, remarked that he was “Galahad not Robespierre”, while opining that “in a sense he was, like some early saint, taking refuge in the desert. Only there could the purity of the faith be safeguarded from the unregenerate revisionism of human nature.”

So what he became was a Communist zealot who was misguided by a kind of fascistic paternalism. He was a hero because he aspired to become a leader. His principles were misleadingly humanistic. Power corrupted him, as it does almost everyone.

In 1967, he was captured and executed in Bolivia. You could argue that he had been martyred for the cause of the global revolution. As much as he divided opinion when he was alive, his assassination and alleged brave Napoleonic conduct in the face of imminent death made him legendary. As Hitchens writes:

Much of the attraction of the cult has to do with the grace of an early and romantic death. George Orwell once observed that if Napoleon Bonaparte had been cut down by a musket ball as he entered Moscow, he would have been remembered as the greatest general since Alexander. And not only did Guevara die before his ideals did, he died in such a manner as to inspire something akin to superstition. He rode among the poor of the altiplano on a donkey. He repeatedly foresaw and predicted the circumstances of his own death. He was spurned and betrayed by those he claimed to set free. He was by calling a healer of the sick. The photographs of his corpse, bearded and half-naked and lacerated, make an irresistible comparison with paintings of the deposition from Calvary.

Since 1968, the “Year of the Heroic Guerrilla,” Cuban children have been instructed in almost Baden-Powell tones that if they seek a “role model,” they should comport themselves como el Che (like Che).

The influence of Che’s cult was so widespread that it led a noted cynic like Jean Paul Sartre to venerate him:

[He was] not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.

The same has been said about Ayn Rand somewhere, but never mind. This is the definition of cultism. The illusion of perfection of a human being always accompanies it. In effect, the person becomes a demigod. Che did a lot for Cuba, he strove to make Cuba literate and have a comprehensive plan for its economy, but as pointed out here, there is lot to denounce him for. He was just a product of his time, his environment, and has become another figure in history from whom we can learn something about human nature and the suitability of certain political ideals, but let’s leave it at that. Idealism has its limits. It’s unchanging, and anything that is unchanging in a world which changes as a rule, is a stifling, if not utterly dangerous, proposition. At the same time, we must thank Che for his contribution to revolution. It’s just that, with the benefit of hindsight, we now know how not to do it. We need not become fanatics to uplift the poor and to do the right thing.



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