The cigar smoking bearded young man with deep eyes stares at you from beyond the grave… through the tee-shirts and from the Facebook walls and in the posters of countless youth hostels across India. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara lives on, relentlessly marketed in every conceivable consumer item of youth life today.
Che Guevara the failed revolutionary is a grand success as a youth icon.
Perceived by a vast majority of youths as a rebel who fought for a just cause, he comes in handy to declare one’s own inner rebel. A youth who wears Che Guevara on his extended epidermis that we call as tee-shirt, it’s a proclamation that he is a co-rebel in the cause. Forget that the youth in question may actually be toiling in the call centre for consumers in the US or may drink Coca Cola and burp fried chickens with Kentucky labels. Still with Che Guevara’s stern eyes peering out of his chest, he can consider himself the quintessential rebel – the eternally angry youth. In other words, it is the easy way out to be a rebel and at the same time lead a life conforming to all consumerist and peer pressures.
But the problem is not just merely about making a superficial statement of being a pseudo-rebel. Che Guevara is also a Trojan for certain memes. In adoring Che Guevara, unknowingly these memes get internalised and enter the youth psyche. It is not unlike the worm malware tunnelling into your system. The youths begin to venerate the ideology that created Che Guevara and the violence that is inherent in it. In fact, violence has been cardinal to Che Guevara’s life philosophy. It’s not mindless brutal violence but cold blooded calculated violence.
In the famous – or perhaps the notorious – ‘message’ he sent to his comrades from Bolivia, he urged them to develop “hatred as an element of struggle”. He elaborated saying: “unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine.” The supreme irony is that the youth who wears Che Guevara on his clothing may even be wearing him as an icon of universal humanism! And slowly the poison enters his system: the poison of hatred for the ideological enemy – the demonising and dehumanising of ‘the other’.
Che Guevara made diary entries when he was leading his ‘revolutionary’ life. They reveal a pathological killer in love with murder. For example, in January 1957, Che Guevara had a problem. He developed doubts about one of his comrades, Eutimio Guerra, that he might be a spy. In his own words let us find out how he solved the problem: “I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain…. His belongings were now mine.” The pattern is repeated in the diary entries – His solution seems to be simple: when in doubt, kill.
Even Che Guevara’s martyrdom was an after-constructed myth. The reality of his martyrdom is far from being a socialist martyr felled by the despicable capitalist and imperialist forces. In reality, information about Che’s movements in Bolivia which were passed on to the army, seemed to have originated from Cuba and reached the CIA through Soviet hands. The treacherous source seemed to be ‘Tania’, the girl friend of Che Guevara, outside his wedlock, who was actually a honey trap from East Germany working for Soviet KGB. Socialist regimes were as much to blame, perhaps more so to blame as that ‘imperialist Satan’ US, which we all love to hate. And even in the end when he actually had an opportunity to become a martyr fighting the army, Che Guevara voluntarily surrendered himself to the authorities. He came out of his hiding with hands raised, pleading to spare his life as he was ‘more valuable to you (Bolivian army) alive than dead’.
The peak of paradox is that the very capitalist forces which Che Guevara despised so completely were the ones who had converted his face into a youth icon. Marketing him as the face of the rebel youth started in 1997 – coinciding with the spread of globalisation. As Che Guevara merchandise – from basketball caps to coffee cups – generates profits in the market, the photo has also generated copyright battles. In the globalised economy, he is the coke and cola of revolution international. And like coke and cola, he has replaced in developing countries the local – more related and more rooted revolutionary icons. For example, with Che Guevara cult entering India, one finds Indian revolutionary heroes like Bhagat Singh edged out in left hoardings. What happened to Indian soft-drink companies in the market space has been repeated for India’s own revolutionaries in the market space of ideology and propaganda. After all Marxism is in reality more a colonial Euro-centric dogma than a liberating ideology as it has been peddled in India and other developing societies.
Nevertheless youths do need an icon. They need an icon, who can enthuse the consumed youths of this consumerist age, with ideals to live and grow by. The world needs an icon who can inspire the youth to become harbingers of true reform not in little bits and pieces but “root-and-branch reform”. We need an icon to galvanise the international youth into action by appealing to their innermost being and their most profound love. We need a personality who can assure the youth of today with conviction that love and not brutal violence that shall bring the final victory. We need as our icon someone who will ask us at our face, “Do you love your fellow men? Where should you go to seek god – are not all the poor, the miserable, the weak, gods? Why not worship them first? Why go to dig a well on the shores of the Ganga? Believe in the omnipotent power of love. Who cares for these tinsel puffs of name?”
Let us replace the imported coke of pseudo-revolution with Swami Vivekananda and his nectar of all embracing Vedantic humanism in his 150th anniversary.
Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.
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