Che

Che poster

Steven Soderbergh’s Che is far from being a conventional biopic. There is, for instance, little to no back-story: no sequences of a young Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, for instance; no narrative of his politicization; no details of his home life, his wife and family. It’s not as though there is not space enough to flesh out these aspects of Che’s life: taken together, the two films that constitute Soderbergh’s epic make up four and a half hours of screen time. But they focus rigorously on two military campaigns: the (successful) Cuban revolution of 1956 to 1959; and the (disastrous) Bolivian campaign of 1966 to 1967, at the end of which Che was captured and summarily executed. Moreover, in telling the tale of these two episodes, though the spotlight is always on Che, there is hardly anything in the way of introspection or interior monologue. We almost always see our hero from without, and he is consistently aloof and distant. One of the most famous images of the twentieth-century remains resistant to the gaze. Or as the New York Times put it, “the film is [. . .] in a very precise and unusual sense, an action movie. I don’t just mean that it is heavy on battles and gunfights, but rather that action–what people do, as opposed to why they do it–is its primary, indeed obsessive concern.” This is, then, less the story of a life than the sketch of a man in movement, a body in motion amid the chaotic interactions, the complex struggles that (may) lead to widespread social change.

Yet even the depiction of these struggles is curtailed: the first film, which deals with Cuba, stops while Che is still (we are told) 186 miles short of Havana. The triumphant arrival in the capital is eliminated. This despite the fact that, shortly beforehand, we see Che respond to a fellow fighter who asks if, the revolution now won, he can go home to his family. “No,” Che replies. “We only won the war. The Revolution begins now.” As such, then, what the movie presents is not so much the revolution itself as the pre-requisites for revolution. Almost everything else is methodically stripped away, in favour of a strangely unemotional examination of the ways that a revolutionary movement either expands and increases its power and its resonance (in the Cuban case) or contracts and dissipates (in the Bolivian example). Che is the nucleus of these films, but in the sense that his own theory of insurrection understood the role of the guerrilla foco: that what matters is what accretes around it, its capacity to affect its surrounding milieu, rather than any essence that it may have of its own accord.

The second half of the movie (its second part: Che: Part Two or Guerrilla) is more meticulous in its commitment to this principle, and to presenting us its action consistently and solely “in the present tense” (as Roger Ebert observes). Here, the linear chronology of its source, Che’s Bolivian Diary, is respected, and what’s more there are relatively few cutaways to what is happening beyond the (ever-diminishing) sphere of action of Che’s own guerrilla band. The first half (Che: Part One or The Argentine) oscillates between the guerrilla campaign itself and two later brief episodes in Che’s life, both set in 1964 (and both shot in grainy black and white): a visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly, and an interview in Havana with US journalist Lisa Howard. As such, this part of the film–again, perhaps in sympathy with its source, Che’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War–allows itself the luxury of, if not introspection, then at least a measure of retrospection. Even in Manhattan, though, Che remains very much the guerrilla commander. Not simply sartorially, in his beret and fatigues surrounded by men in suits and ties, but also in his relations both with his own entourage and with the US high society, UN dignitaries, or the crowds, whether hostile or supportive, that follow him wherever he goes. Throughout, he is unperturbed and unflappable, unhesitatingly direct, and at most ironically amused by the fuss he consistently occasions.

In short, Soderbergh’s film bucks Hollywood conventions most significantly in its determination to present affect shorn of emotion. This is a movie that refuses triumph (in part one) and tragedy (in part two) alike. We never particularly warm to Che, but nor does he inspire (say) fear or disgust. This is the portrait of an individual, but not of a subject with whom we might empathize or identity. Here, affect is always a matter of the correlation of forces, the concatenation and interaction of bodies in motion. Even in the climactic scene at the end of the second part, which gives us perhaps the only point-of-view shot in the entire four and a half hours, extraordinarily from the viewpoint of Che as he dies on the floor of a Bolivian shack, we feel, I think, that this is a thoroughly impersonal death. It’s as though it served to disprove Che’s (alleged) last words, his claim to transcend the individual body: “Shoot, coward. You are only going to kill a man.” For in fact those bullets did indeed put an end to a Revolution. Which is not to say that another could not arise elsewhere, some other time, around some other nucleus or foco.

Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla Warfare

“An army marches on its stomach,” said Napoleon (or maybe it was Frederick the Great; it’s unclear). But in Guerrilla Warfare, Che Guevara is keen to remind us that an army also marches, rather more prosaically, on its feet. For he repeatedly stresses the importance of shoes, “one of the fundamental accessories in the struggle” (83). “Above everything else,” indeed, it is a vital necessity that a guerrilla army “have adequate shoes” (29). These should be “of the best possible construction” and “one of the first articles laid up in reserve” (50). After all,

it is not possible for a troop to walk without shoes in wooded zones, hilly, with many rocks and thorns. It is very difficult to march without shoes in such conditions; only the natives, and not all of them, can do it. The rest must have shoes. (102)

No wonder that one of the very first tasks of the guerrilla army, once it has liberated even the most limited of zones, is to establish “shoe factories” that “can initially be cobbler installations that replace half-soles on old shoes, expanding afterwards into a series of organized factories with a good average daily production of shoes” (29). Along with an armory, this is one of the “two fundamental industries” a rebel army has to establish–and in fact, it is mentioned in first place (102). Not just for the human combatants, what’s more. The mule train also “should be well supplied with shoes” (85).

These comments on cobbling indicate the practical nature of Che’s guide to guerilla strategy and tactics. Nothing is too mundane to go unsaid. He equally notes the importance, for instance, of salt, and methods of procuring it. There are discussions of how to string a hammock, and how much underwear a fighter should carry (answer: not much). More obviously to the point, there are diagrams outlining how to make a device that can launch Molotov cocktails and how best to train new recruits in target practice without great expenditures of precious ammunition. This is a manual for the would-be revolutionary that leaves little to chance.

But more than this, the focus on footwear is a clue to the specificities and idiosyncrasies of what we’d now call “unconventional warfare.” For “the basic tactic of the guerrilla army is the march,” which is also why “neither slow men nor tired men can be tolerated” (119). The guerrilla band is relentlessly on the move: its “fundamental characteristic [. . .] is mobility” (18). It always attacks far from its base, and is prepared to retreat if necessary. At times it “can dedicate itself exclusively to fleeing from an encirclement”; at other times “it can also change the battle into a counter-encirclement” (19). The guerrilla constantly changes front, redefines the lines of combat, advances, steps back, circles around, advances again. No wonder Che compares tactics in the field to a “minuet” (19). Creativity and innovation are at a premium: “Against the rigidity of classical methods of fighting, the guerrilla fighter invents his own tactics at every minute of the fight” (20-21). The all-important shoes have as much in common with ballet slippers as with hiking boots. As well as mobility, guerrilla warfare requires extreme flexibility. The guerrilla must be prepared to turn, side-step, glide, perform arabesques, and then melt away, always en pointe, in a heightened state of awareness.

The foco theory at the heart of Guevara’s book has long been much maligned. The notion that a small vanguard of rural fighters can create the conditions for its own success failed dismally in many Latin American countries, not least in Bolivia under Che himself. Not many people will now be taking this book as the practical guide that it was initially intended–even though it was anxiously examined as much by the would-be experts in counter-insurgency as by trigger-happy leftists. But there’s still surely something for revolutionaries to learn here on a more abstract level. For instance about the importance of space, of knowing the lay of the land, and finding suitable terrain that best aids your cause and disadvantages your enemy. But also the importance of timing, of the tactic of surprise, of knowing when to break off an engagement and regroup. Or the observation that it is the enemy that will be the best source of your ammunition (another reason why shoe factories are if anything more vital than armories), that nomadic adaptability outweighs even the virtues of ascetic purity and sacrifice that the book also (and less convincingly) preaches.

For if Emma Goldman complained that “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” a contemporary Che might respond that the Revolution itself should be a dance, playful and joyous. So go get your shoes.

Cartucho

Nellie Campobello, Cartucho

By their nature, revolutions are both confused and confusing. They are the point at which one regime of sense gives way to another: they register a break in the prevailing discourse and the birth of another way of seeing and telling. By definition, the old ways of describing the world are no longer fit for purpose when the revolution comes around; but the new ways are not yet fully formed. A revolution is always in some sense illegible, unrepresentable, as the conditions of its representation have yet to appear.

But as such, in retrospect, revolutions are always portrayed as too legible, too easily represented. The new discourse assumes the revolution that enabled its emergence as a ground that can never be fully questioned. Revolutions are, in short, quickly naturalized, and their illegibility is erased or over-written by what becomes the common sense of the new order. The moment at which everything is still in play is forgotten or even forcibly repressed in the name of a genealogy that has to secure the new regime of intelligibility.

The challenge, then, is less to explain the revolution than to recover the revolutionary perspective itself, from which what is going on is always beyond full comprehension. Anything else is (quite literally) counter-revolutionary, as it goes against or undoes the force within the revolution that disrupts the existing discursive regime and makes space for a future that has to be strictly unknowable. To put this another way: explanation is the prerogative of constituted power, a tactic by which apparently to confirm that the present is the past’s inevitable telos; but the constituent power that drives the revolution has no fixed end.

This then is the virtue of Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho: that, though it was first published a decade or more after the events that it depicts, it strips them of the sense that had accumulated around them under the PRI. Campobello neither provides nor seeks explanation for the “tales of the struggle in Northern Mexico” that she relates. Rather, she conveys the revolution in all its confusion and indeterminacy, without ever sacrificing immediacy or concreteness.

The fragmentary style of Campobello’s text never aspires to unity or totality. There is no fixed beginning or end; instead, we are always in the midst of things, from the opening lines in which we are told that “Cartucho didn’t say his name. He didn’t know how to sew or replace buttons. One day his shirts were brought to our house” (6). It is not that temporal markers are entirely absent, it is just that they don’t pin the episodes down to any linear chronology, any all-encompassing narrative arc: “It was the fourth of September, but of what year?” (84). At any one moment Pancho Villa’s forces may be in town; but soon enough we will find ourselves among Carranzistas, before the Villistas sweep back in again.

There are endings, of course. Men die. Over and over, men die. But often enough the narrator doesn’t enquire why, and when we are given reasons they are as disparate and disordered as the ebb-and-flow of troops and weapons: “He died for a kiss the officer gallantly awarded him” (25); “He just had the face of a man lulled by fate” (55); “he was dying for a cause different from the revolution” (18). Even cause and effect are apparently inverted, as when one soldier is said to have “embraced the bullets and held on to them” (66), as though bodies drew bullets from guns.

Some of this effect is achieved through the device of a child narrator, whose memory clings to the sights and sounds of life in wartime, rather than to the justification that surround them: “I’m telling what impressed me most, no longer recalling any of the strange words or names I didn’t understand” (42). Overwhelmingly, however, there is also the sense that in a revolution, it is not just bodies that are felled, but with them a set of discourses that can simply no longer be spoken or heard. One man, before he is shot, cries out that “A man who’s going to die has a right to speak!” But moments later “everyone turned their backs on the grey form left lying there, pressing into the ground the words they never let him say” (52).

The Underdogs

It’s a familiar story: the Revolution starts with high ideals and good intentions, but soon goes sour; it takes on a logic of its own, of interminable infighting and violence for the sake of violence. Those who originally railed against corruption become corrupt themselves; things end up as bad if not worse than they were at first. At the end we’re left doubting that so much sacrifice and pain was worth it. It’s the story told, of the Russian Revolution, in Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which ultimately “the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

On the one hand, this is the revolution as senseless expenditure, as upset without outcome. In the words of Jacques Mallet du Pan: “la révolution dévore ses enfants,” the Revolution devours its children. On the other hand, this is equally the revolution as return, as full circle of the wheel of history. In the words of The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” This from a song with the title “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Yet for some reason the impulse to revolt lives on–the Arab Spring might be just the latest example–despite the fact that so many revolutions seem to take a wrong turn somewhere.

The Underdogs

Hence the dilemma for a book such as Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (Los de abajo), which provides this narrative for the Mexican Revolution, focusing on the Northern front in the years 1913 to 1915. It has to account for the revolution’s causes, the reasons why people might have believed that only violence could transform their circumstances, as well as its effects, a world in which all sense of cause or effect has disappeared, in which violence has become its own raison d’être. As one character puts it near the end of the novel, considering which side to choose among the various warring factions: “Villa? Obregón? Carranza? X . . . Y . . . Z! What do I care? I love the revolution like I love an erupting volcano! I love the volcano because it is a volcano and the revolution because it is the revolution!” (124).

One answer to this problem is to point out that, ultimately, revolutions perhaps have very little to do with politics. At least, they have little to do with politics if we conceive of the political in terms of the making of decisions, of choosing between options. Demetrio Macías, the main character of The Underdogs, a man who the book portrays rising through the ranks of the revolutionary forces, actively refuses the right to decide when he, too, is asked “on which side are you going to fight?” His response is to “[bury] his hands in his hair, [scratch] his head” and reply “Don’t ask me questions like that [. . .]. All ya have to do is say: ‘Demetrio, you do such and such,’ and I’ll do it, end of story!” (116). So it is not that the revolution is (to adapt a phrase from Carl von Clausewitz) “the continuation of politics by other means.” If anything, the revolution is actively anti-political, the expression of a dissatisfaction with the limits of the political.

It is not that politics is absent from The Underdogs. It figures primarily through the novel’s other main character, Luis Cervantes, a deserter from the federalist side who attaches himself to Macías’s gang early on, in large part (we are told) for lofty reasons: “the suffering and misery of the dispossessed,” whose cause he sees “as the sublime cause of an oppressed people demanding justice, pure justice” (22). Throughout the novel he seeks to translate the revolutionary violence into lofty sentiment. For instance, as he puts it to Macías: “You do not yet understand your true, your high, your most noble mission. [. . .] You have risen up against the cacique system itself, the system that is devastating the entire nation. We are constitutive pieces of a great social movement that will lead to the exaltation of our motherland.” To which Macías himself responds: “Go on, bring us two more beers” (42).

So politics is disdained and seen as almost entirely irrelevant. Ultimately, Cervantes abandons the revolutionaries, leaving behind only a note encouraging one of them to come north of the border, open a Mexican restaurant, “and in a very short time we can be rich” (120). Yes, he opts out of the corruption and the ceaseless violence. Yes, as a result, he’s the only one to survive to the novel’s final pages. But that’s precisely because, however much he tries to articulate the spirit of the revolution, it is clear at every moment that he misses it entirely. The revolution forever escapes its political articulation. And perhaps that goes as much for its hackneyed narrativization in The Underdogs itself.

Viva Zapata!

Viva Zapata! poster

Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! tells us that the fundamental conflict at the heart of the Mexican Revolution concerns land. Indeed, “land and liberty” (tierra y libertad) has been the banner under which has historically erupted, in Mexico as in many other agrarian societies. But this is a conflict also between the countryside and the city, and between different temporalities. The film opens with a delegation of peasants, from the southern state of Morelos, disarming themselves as they enter the national palace in Mexico City to petition President Porfirio Díaz over a land dispute. By giving up their machetes they are also handing over their instruments of labour, but in any case they are already unable to work as the local landowners have used barbed wire to fence off the fields where they have historically harvested their crops. Díaz, paternalistically addressing them as his “children,” tries to fob them off by telling them to be patient, to verify their boundaries and settle things through the courts. “Believe me, these matters take time,” he tells them. All but one of the group is pacified by the president’s vague reassurances. “We make our tortillas our of corn, not patience,” he declares. “What is your name?” asks Díaz, riled up. “Emiliano Zapata,” comes the answer. Díaz circles the name on a piece of paper in front of him, and we have all the clues we need for the rest of the movie: Zapata is different, a man to watch, who will not bow down to authority.

Much later comes a scene in which the roles are reversed. We are in the same office, but Díaz has been overthrown and now it is Zapata who is, temporarily at least, in the position of the president, receiving petitions. In comes another delegation of men from Morelos, seeking to resolve a problem with their land. The complaint is against Zapata’s brother, who has taken over a hacienda whose lands had been redistributed. Now it is Zapata’s turn to prevaricate: “When I have time, I’ll look into it.” Again, however, there’s one man among the petitioning group who won’t put up with such delays: “These men haven’t got time,” he calls out. “The land can’t wait [. . .] and stomachs can’t wait either.” To which now it is Zapata who bellows: “What’s your name?” But on turning to a list similar to Díaz’s, about to circle the offending man’s name, he realizes the situation in which he has found himself, repeating the sins of the past. So Zapata, the true revolutionary, tears up the paper and angrily reclaims his gun and ammunition belt, to head back to Morelos with the men and sort out the problem straightaway.

Revolutions tend to repeat, the film suggests, but something always escapes. Towards the very end of the movie, as we suspect that Zapata is doomed, about to be swallowed up by the very revolution that he helped to start, Zapata’s wife, Josefa, asks him: “After all the fighting and the death, what has really changed?” To which Zapata responds: “They’ve changed. That’s how things really change: slowly, through people. They don’t need me any more.” “They have to be led,” Josefa says. “Yes, but by each other,” her husband replies. “A strong man makes a week people. Strong people don’t need a strong man.” This, however, is the basic tension around which the film revolves: it wants both to glorify (even romanticize) Zapata, and yet also to suggest that it’s the glorification of men like him that leads the revolution to fail. Indeed, Zapata is paradoxically glorified precisely in so far as he consistently refuses adulation. And so ultimately Zapata has to die, shot down in a hail of bullets, so that something of his spirit escapes, here (rather clumsily) portrayed through his white horse which is scene, as the closing credits roll, wild and free on a rocky crag.

Meanwhile, the more basic contradiction that this movie has to negotiate is that it sets out simultaneously to praise and to damn the very idea of revolution. The people’s cause is portrayed and eminently just, and it is clear that the normal political channels of protest or redress are blocked. What’s more, the film lauds Zapata’s instinct for direct action, his taking sides with the temporality of immediacy and against the endless procrastination imposed by bureaucracies of every stripe. (Surely something of this position-taking has to do with the medium itself: Hollywood always prefers men of action to bureaucrats, however much it is run by the latter rather than the former.) But we are not to take the obvious lessons from this portrayal. This movie was, after all, made at the height of the McCarthyite era, indeed in the same year that director Kazan himself would testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee–and, to lasting controversy, would sell out a number of actors and artists who he reported were (like him) former members of the Communist Party. Viva Zapata! had to be, as Kazan himself testified to the Committee, an “anti-Communist Picture.”

So we see how revolutions soon become morality plays, in which what is at stake is less their immediate impact than the lessons that others should or should not draw from them. Interpreting or representing the revolution soon becomes the site of a struggle that threatens to obscure the battles that the revolutionaries themselves fought. And sometimes the most effective counter-revolutionary narratives are the ones that claim to present the revolutionary cause with the most sympathy. Is it any wonder that John McCain, the former Republican candidate for the US Presidency, should tell us that Viva Zapata! is his favourite film? Or perhaps the point is that even the most counter-revolutionary representation has to acknowledge the attraction of armed revolt in the first place.

Manifesto of the Communist Party

Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party

Some of the least read and least remembered pages of Marx are those in which he takes on various other radical thinkers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a litany of names that are now almost entirely obscure and forgotten: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, and the like. Scanning these pages–and others like them, denouncing for instance the state of German philosophy at the time–the eye tends to glaze over, the mind wander. These are surely intellectual battles that belong in the past. However much Marxism is a minority option today, these other thinkers seem to have left still less trace on our contemporary debates. Where, after all, are the Fourierists and Owenites now?

Yet it’s surely worth reconstructing (what Pierre Bourdieu might call) the full field of positions occupied by the nineteenth-century Left, if only to bring out the stakes of what Marx says elsewhere, and to uncover the limits of what could and could not be said or thought at the time. Plucking Marx alone as the sole voice for radical change is to mangle and misunderstand his ideas as much as it means forgetting a wealth of other options that he chose not to take.

It is quite clear, for instance, that one distinguishing factor for Marx was the Communism in his view had to be revolutionary. To talk of “Revolutionary Communism” would be a tautology. Hence in the Manifesto of the Communist Party he and Engels criticize what they call “Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism”–represented here by Proudhon–for desiring “the existing state of society minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. [It wishes] for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” Or, in a second variant, they argue that “by changes in the material conditions of existence, this form of Socialism [. . .] by no means understands abolition of the bourgeois relations of production, an abolition that can be effected only by a revolution, but administrative reforms, based on the continued existence of these relations” (70). Of course, put like that, we might suspect that there are still a few Proudhonites (in all but name) lurking in contemporary politics. Indeed, in some sense they seem already to have succeeded, rhetorically at least, in their wish for “a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.” Aren’t we all middle class now? And is it not the case that we endlessly see politics replaced by administration of one sort or another, from the Welfare State to the neoliberal technocracy that has all but replaced it?

The paradox, however, is that to be anti-revolutionary is also to be against the very same bourgeois order that the “Socialistic bourgeois” seek to uphold. For the “revolutionary and disintegrating elements” are essential components of modern capitalism, as Marx and Engels argue in an earlier (and rather more famous) section of the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production [. . .] and with them the whole relations of society. [. . .] All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (36, 27). Any attempt to mitigate the constant crises that are intrinsic to the capitalist order are reactionary at best, missing both the spirit of capitalism essence of Communism.

So what kinds of revolution do Marx and Engels endorse? The perhaps surprising answer at the end of the Manifesto is: any and all. “In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” (77). These very much include bourgeois revolutions, too, which is why “the Communists turn their attention to Germany,” precisely because (Marx and Engels argue) it is “on the eve” of just such a revolution that, in turn, “will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution” (76). So for all the now-obscure apparent splitting of hairs with Proudhonites and the like, it’s striking that the Manifesto is also surprisingly pragmatic as it tells us that Communists will work with a wide range of parties–in France, the Social Democrats; in Switzerland, the Radicals; and so on–despite acknowledging their flaws and limitations. For everything is in the service of the goal: “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. [. . .] Working Men of all Countries, Unite!” (77).

Revolution: A Practical Guide

Che

This semester I am finally teaching a course I have long envisaged: a “practical guide” to Revolution. I can’t say that I am not a little anxious. I have already had departmental administrators worriedly suggesting I eliminate that phrase from the information I put about the course. And it’s the first time I’ve felt the need both on my syllabus and in class to state explicitly (for the sake of the lawyers, if no one else) that I am not actively condoning armed insurrection.

Anyhow, this post will be a repository of things I write in connection with the class: