Che Guevara’s Foquismo in Theory and Praxis

Grant Forssberg


History functions as the praxis of social scientific theory; empirical evidence of a theoretical postulate affirms its validity, while its absence serves as a quintessential foil. Perhaps no better example of this axiom exists than the development of a diverse philosophical school of ‘Neo-Marxists’ during the 20th century. Troubled by social and economic problems that conflicted with, or were seemingly unanswerable according to traditional Marxist thought, particularly the delay of socialist revolution when conditions seemed to favor it’s foment, the resurgence of past national identities at the expense of ideological solidarity between socialist states, and the revolutionary regression towards fascism before and during the Second World War, scholars like Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Antonio Gramsci adapted past Marxist/Leninist interpretations to recognize of the complexities of social, cultural, and political conditions. Unwilling to abandon the teleological construct of dialectical materialism with its assurance of the eventuality of revolution, these scholars turned their attention inward to critiques of method. The advent of critical cultural theory, including new forms of production such as mass consumerism indicated an increasingly complex sociocultural geography founded on more than economic status alone. They created new ‘objective’ revolutionary conditions. Marxist scholars also imagined new interpretations of the necessary ‘subjective’ conditions for revolution, particularly in respect to the development of the Marxist notion of ‘revolutionary consciousness,’

As the intellectual spokesman for socialist revolution in Latin America during the late 1950s and 1960s, guerilla fighter and veteran of the Cuban revolution, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, contributed from his experiences a unique set of interpretations of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ revolutionary conditions which he proposed for application in various Latin American contexts

His eclectic, pragmatic form of Marxism gained institutional adoption in Cuba during the 1960s and inspired revolutionaries continent-wide, some of whom he would personally lead on subsequent revolutionary campaigns in the Congo and Bolivia. The ‘Guevaran line’ also, however, drew vocal criticism from many in the so-called Latin American New Left and the ‘Old Line’ Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[1] Che’s vehement assertion of the primacy of guerilla focos, or concentrated cadres of revolutionaries-from which the descriptive term foquismo, or foco theory derived-in the revolutionary struggle neglected a range of more traditional, Marxist revolutionary outlets: mass organization, labor conflict, general strikes, among other civil alternatives.[2] Moreover, Che proposed immediate armed insurrection as the preferred method of engendering revolutionary consciousness (again, the root offoqismo-a focal point, or focalism) in contrast to the gradualism espoused by many Marxists.Foquismo’s situation of the guerilla as revolutionary vanguard solicited structural questions about Guevara’s distinction between political and military revolutionary leadership, and the exact role and location of thefoco within the larger class struggle, leading some Marxists to discount it as unsophisticated and simplistic. [3]

The onus ultimately falls to the historical record. The failure of foco in promoting revolution in Bolivia stands as its most glaring criticism. Acknowledging this, one of the primary concerns of the theorist or historian passing judgment on the merits of foquismo should be an comparative analysis of both the Cuban and Bolivian contexts in an attempt to determine what, if any, theoretical or pragmatic errors or inconsistencies contributed to foquismo’s success in one case and failure in the other. This essay represents a necessarily limited attempt to just that. A thorough portrait of the Cuban revolution reveals disparities in Guevara’s own appraisal of the Cuban revolution. The success of the sierra maestraformed the basis for Guevara’s claims for the centricity of guerilla cadre; however, participation in the revolution, as scholars have since argued, consisted of more than the sierras alone.[4] The mythologizing of the sierra by Guevara, Castro, and Cuban and contemporary scholars alike contributed to the marginalization of non-guerilla actors, particularly the llanos, or urban resistance, according to Julia Sweig.[5] Guevara’s incorrigible idealism and personal conviction, suggests thatfoquismo served as a self-empowering rationalization to him, in addition to the propagandistic iconography for the new Cuban state. Foquismo’s principle flaw lies in its totalizing application, ignoring as it does immutable geopolitical conditions in favor of subjective, actionable ones through the form of revolutionary consciousness.

The formal philosophy that would develop into Foquismo, as devised by Guevara, operated on three principal propositions: first, that “popular forces can win a war against the enemy;” second, that it “is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making a revolution exist; the revolution can create them;” and third, that “in underdeveloped America the countryside is the basic area for armed fighting.” [6]Each tenet constituted a perceived historical reality in revolutionary Cuba. Together they represent an ideological and actionable (tactical and strategic) synthesis. Guevara had developed an acute cognizance of the suffering of the Latin American rural peasantry from his extensive traveling of the South American continent that would later play an integral role in his motivation and methodology for revolution. He believed that Latin America constituted a unique context apart from other continental nations; its industrial underdevelopment, poverty, and exploitative agrarianism (Guevara refers to this as “feudal agrarianism”) created an unique rural, rather than urban proletariat, as is typically identified with traditional Marxist philosophy.[7] Guevara revered the rural peasant at the expense of the urban worker, emphasizing their revolutionary potential as a result of the alienation and oppression of thelatifundia,. The guerilla was inherently an “agrarian revolutionary,” whose responsibilities, a proxy to the Communist Party, were to uplift the peasantry in all facets, “technically, economically, morally, and culturally,” and stir in them revolutionary fervor. [8]

Several of these assertions undergirding foquismo are simplistic representations of the Cuban conflict they are based on. The emphasis on the rural population as a complement to the guerilla cadre belies the influence of the aforementioned urban constituency. Back when they were one of the several variegated revolutionary movements on the island, thesierra relied heavily on urban-based operatives for intelligence, armament, and political networking. Urban agents frequently aided the sierrasindependent of the central leadership of Castro and Guevara. [9]

The Revolutionary success of the sierra guerillas likely confirmed for Guevara that concentrated guerilla warfare was the optimal means to revolution. Guevara, like all dialectical Marxists, believed in the eventuality of socialist revolution. [10] The debate, then, especially with the failure of seemingly advantageous conditions to materialize into socialist revolutions during the mid-Twentieth century, was how or what factors or actions would best precipitate it. Not the first to recognize the benefits of guerilla warfare, Guevara’s identification of guerillas as the embodiment of a subjective condition of revolutionthemselves diverges from previous interpretations of the utility of guerilla warfare. Marxists Mao Zedong and Lenin, as well as non-Marxists such as military theorists Carl von Clausewitz and T.E. Lawrence understood guerillas, or irregular forces, to be useful auxiliaries and extensions of regular military force.[11] Communist Party officials endorsed the use of ‘partisan’ warfare in Russia during the Second World War under extenuating circumstances, and under their direction. In a case logistically consonant to the Cuban revolution, guerillas under Mao played an integral role in the Chinese communist revolution. However, in this case, too, the pretext for the utilization of guerilla troops hinged on convergence of objective structural conditions rather than the guerilla itself as catalyst.

The success of ‘will’ in Cuba convinced Guevara to isolate guerilla warfare as a subjective condition in itself for revolutionary struggle. In a totalizing turn, Guevara all but abandoned the Leninist conception of the party as revolutionary vanguard, replacing it with the form and function of the guerilla cadre.[12]This is problematic for two reasons: first, pragmatically, any absolute insistence on method has the inherent effect of marginalizing the circumstances dictating it; second, theoretically, Guevara’s identification of the guerillafoco as a subjective condition by fiat confuses the latency of a structural condition with the activity of a social actor-one is acted upon while the other completes the action. While conditions can certainly be affected by social action-and arguably only are-to equate the two without clarification constitutes a significant category error.

Guevara’s eventual insistence on the wide-spread application of guerilla focos, regardless of location and geopolitical context, required at some level a uniform categorization of Latin American nations. In other words, any comparative analysis had to be leveled so a single formulation, guerilla insurgency, would be feasible elsewhere in Latin America. Guevara’s solution, as hinted at in his prescription, is a reliance on the objective condition that he argues all Latin American nations exhibit: industrial underdevelopment and exploitative agrarianism. [13] While this generalization may hold true in many cases, it further neglects a wide range of different economic, political, and social nuances that would render each nation a unique revolutionary context in and of itself. While Guevara is undoubtedly cognizant of many of these complexities (indeed, given his travels he probably witnessed many firsthand) he rationalized them away through his artificial construction of foco,enabling each Latin American nation to psychically conform to his revolutionary ideal through guerilla warfare. The moment of this ideal and its translation into action is best evidenced in Guevara’s own intellectual development. From the time he had published his first major theoretical work, Guerilla Warfare, in 1960, until his death in 1967, foquismo had expanded from “Caribbean type” dictatorships exemplified by Cuba under Batista, to all of Latin America.[14]

While Bolivia fulfilled Guevara’s formulaic caricature of economic disparity and an impoverished peasantry, it had several factors that militated against a successful guerilla-led revolution.[15] During previous decades, Bolivia had undergone significant agrarian reform which left the country with no significant land problem, decreasing the likelihood of the indigenous population supporting an insurrection. Though the incumbent government of General Rene Barrientos had removed a democratically elected administration in seizing power, his administration had significant popular support. The oft expressed concerns over the suitability of armed struggle when civil alternatives had not yet been exhausted came to bear on Guevara in Bolivia, further tempering the social elements Guevara hoped to awaken.

The failure of the foco in Bolvia epitomized the simplistic prescription of foquismo and its inability to both account for variance in geopolitical conditions and to treat it with serious regard. Perhaps the best evaluation of foquismo comes from Guevara’s compatriots, who shared with him the vision of socialist revolution but disputed, often contentiously, his assuredness in his methods. Marxists in Latin America and elsewhere found Guevara’s absolute insistence on guerilla focos stultifying. Guevara’s foquismoignored traditional Marxian debates, settling instead for the sweeping revolutionary dictates of what one Marxist scholar tellingly labeled ‘Guevaran adventurism.’ [16] Paramount among these concerns was the disregard of the formal Communist party as revolutionary vanguard and civil forms of resistance, change, and any sort of revolutionary timeline. The ‘Guevara line’ mandated action now, without hesitations. For his part, Guevara remained intractable on the “ideological guidance” provided by the guerilla cadres, and the necessity of armed conflict to “carry reforms in Cuba all the way and with no concessions, like Mexico, Guatemala, or Bolivia.”[17] Delegates from the Marxist Tri-Continental Conference in 1966 contrasted Guevara’sfoquismo with a more variable prescription for the organization of a revolutionary movement that held to the idea of revolutionary process from self-sustainingconditions.[18]

The extent to which foquismo lived and died with Che Guevara is evident in his legacy. In Cuba, his death spelled the end of his ideological direction of foreign policy, pronouncing in no short measure that the idea would not outlive the man. However, in geographical regions near and far and especially Latin America, Guevara was extolled as a revolutionary martyr and his ideas fused into revolutionary rhetoric and agenda. Guevara’s principles of guerilla warfare and his epithet of foquismo contributed to many of the anti-political and terrorist regime that haver seized power in Latin America since 1964, as well as the responses to them by the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union. [19] For its theoretical shortsightedness, the fundamental strength of foquismo is indistinguishable from Che Guevara himself. As long as Guevara remains a cultural inspiration for revolutionaries, Marxist or otherwise, his ideology will have import. Their successes or failures will only have to wait.
Originally published at The History Roll.

[1] Guevara, 15.

[2] Guevara, 16.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The historiography in the two decades after the Cuban revolution responded favorably to the official reproductions of the conflict emanating from the Cuban state, in part, it seems, because of a lack of source material with which to base accounts. In the 1980s, more critical interpretations of the revolution began to emerge, aided in the 1990s by increased access to archival material relating to the subject.

[5] Julia Sweig, Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[6] Guevara, 48.

[7] Guevarra, 183.

[8] Guevara, 51.

[9] Chapters 1-3 in Julia Sweig, Inside the Cuban Revolution cover the organization of the urban llanonetwork

[10] Guevara, 182.

[11] Guevara, 3.

[12] Guevara, 183-4.

[13] Guevara, 183.

[14] Guevara, 12,419.

[15] Thomas C. Wright, Latin America in the Era of the Cuban Revolution (Westport: Praeger, 2001), 82-3.

[16] Guevara, 12.

[17] Guevara, 164.

[18] Guevara, 13.

[19] Guevara, 29.


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