Che Guevara and the Study of Philosophy in Latin America

The photogenic deity of guerrilla warfare also aimed to jumpstart a quieter revolution in Latin America, one based on the study of philosophy.

The portrait snapshot Alberto Korda captured by chance under a hazy sky early in March 1960 figures as one of the multiple ironies that were to accompany the existence of Che Guevara. Korda, a former fashion photographer and bon vivant, then a visual chronicler of the Cuban Revolution, was adjusting the scratched lenses of his Leica M2 at a memorial service. He then panned at random, caught Che Guevara as he stared from the stage, and by an instinctual call, shot the dark, somewhat blurred and originally rejected picture that has become one the most contagious images in the history of photography.

Che Guevara would stymie the near holy fuss his portrait has stirred among the youth today, but for the opponents who tried to delete him forever, another lock of ironies cobbles up: the once middle-class asthmatic medical doctor from Argentina who turned into a bereted, cigar-smoking Cuban revolutionary seems to carry on, alive as never before.

Many more stood far from guessing that the controversial movie-like icon brooded within a serious student of philosophy. Judging from a disclosed personal letter written in 1965, we now know that one of Che Guevara’s greatest ambitions was to systematize the study of this subject throughout Latin America.

Objectionable Features and Amends

In Cuba, complains Che Guevara from the onset of his letter, there is little to find in philosophy aside from the pushy Soviet “bricks” that never allow readers to think on their own. Nothing in the works of the mind conspires more against the interest of a true revolution than this rubbish bore, he implies. As a remedial head start, an acquaintance with philosophical jargon would do before embarking onto the eight independent stages of study into which Che Guevara splits his proposed curriculum.

It may seem ironic to his fieriest hecklers that he refuses to bowdlerize any given philosopher from his reading list. Albeit his adherence to radical change, Che Guevara presents instead a fairly well balanced assortment of authors that comprises names of all shades in the political spectrum. He stresses the need to analyze in depth capitalist theoreticians in the likes of A. Marshall, J.M. Keynes, J. Schumpeter, Adam Smith, and many others often swiped by a fiat in leftist doctrinarian literature.

Syllabus for a Nation

Che Guevara handwrote the letter in question at once under his nom de guerre, Ramón, on his return to Cuba from Africa, while stopping briefly at Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania. Away from the cockpit (ironically, the name of this east African city translates as “House of Peace”), or on a short “vacation,” as he puns, allowed him to reflect further about his own advancement in philosophy. He had designed on this account a self-study guide he then thought useful for its scaled implementation in Cuba as well.

Though citing by heart, this syllabus for a nation whose incipient revolution was becoming a role model to depose educational underdevelopment in the Third World, lays out a rationale, complete with referential annotations to which he chimes in with critical commentaries. For the final phase of study, he recommends “polemics” as the main topic, whereby the informed student can judge all the clashing approaches.

Philosophy as Liberation

Philosophy in Latin America evolved from a pre-Columbian base by osmosis, gaining from the start a distinctive tone not so much with respect to Spain and Portugal as within the late liberating influxes of France and Germany. This selective construct and the preferential artistic forms it adopted to max widespread expression, defines Latin American’s originality and its richness in suitable elaborations, such as in the still prevalent mix between neo-scholastic humanism and a sui generis version of Marxism.

The historical point of departure for a Latin American “philosophy of liberation” coincides with Che Guevara’s childhood home schooling. He was not by any order of magnitude leveled afterward to a transmogrified agent of imports; he was rather a student player that team-worked entrenched in Latin America’s genealogy of ideas.

Yet in his Greater Homeland, the methodic study of philosophy still lacked auspices freed from the drain of colonial remora, and that led to the last irony of his life. Freedom precedes order, reads a key axiom in Latin American thought. This may explain why he chose first to wield the rifle, and perhaps fall in battle by an enemy’s bullet.

[January 6, 2011]

Top image: Southern Gardens by Paul Klee,1936

Photo: Liborio Noval, c. 1962