Still a messiah?

Forty years after his death, Che Guevara has little to offer as a guide for making revolution. So wh

In 1968, when the photographer Don Honeyman was experimenting with Alberto Korda's iconic image of Che Guevara, he discovered something curious. Honeyman had been experimenting with a process of solarisation as a way of making fashion images more exciting and had been asked by a poster company to try the same thing with Korda's photograph of Che - said to be the most reproduced photo in the world. But he was having trouble duplicating the look of the image as it had first been published in Europe by the revolutionary press.

"I worked over the image for several days," Honeyman wrote, "but couldn't seem to get the same idealistic gleam in Che's eyes. I finally compared the first Che with the second, and discovered that some canny designer, presumably at [the original Italian printers], had made Che slimmer and his face longer, by about one-sixth. It was so effective that I, too, stretched him, and it worked like a charm. It doesn't really do to have a revolutionary who's too plump."

There is something fitting about the world's most iconic revolutionary image having been manipulated. Che's legacy, 40 years after his death in a failed attempt to ignite revolution in Bolivia, rests heavily on an image so powerful and so plastic that it still serves both as a generalised inspiration to rebel and as a vehicle for the sale of everything from ashtrays to T-shirts.

The photograph was taken in March 1960 at the funeral of the victims of an explosion on board the French freighter La Coubre in Havana harbour, in which 81 people had died. The Cuban leadership suspected sabotage by the CIA and the funeral, attended by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others, became an anti-American rally. Guevara did not speak, and came into view only briefly for Korda, who was recording images of the event from the crowd. Korda had started out as a fashion photographer, but was then Fidel's personal photographer. He managed two shots with his Leica before Guevara disappeared from view.

The pictures were not published in the reports of the event, but Korda pinned them up in his studio in Havana, and in 1967 gave two of them to the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who was planning to publish Che's Bolivian Diary. Within six months Che had been assassinated in Bolivia and both Feltrinelli and the Cuban government published the first posters.

Even in death, Che was lucky with his photographers. Freddy Alborta, the only professional photographer allowed to see his body shortly after his execution in Bolivia, wired a haunting photograph of the corpse, lying on a table, surrounded by military men. The image is Christ-like and has been compared both to Andrea Mantegna's Lamentation Over the Dead Christ and to Rembrandt's Anatomy Lecture of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. But it was Korda's lucky shots that ensured Che Guevara was not for gotten. Korda's photograph, suitably doctored, took on a life of its own, creating an irresistible combination of celebrity and rebel glamour that gave Che an influence in a world that had long forgotten the details of his exploits.

Through the image, the complexities of Che's life and thought are reprocessed into an abstraction that can serve any cause. It was later used in a fake Warhol, a fake that Warhol authenticated, on condition that the revenues go to him. Che's transformation from revolutionary martyr to pop celebrity, with all that it implied in ubiquity, was complete. Forty years on, it is still going strong: when the Victoria and Albert Museum in London mounted an exhibition last year of the history of the Korda image, the curators assembled objects from more than 30 countries, used in contexts as diverse as Madonna's album American Life and Ricky Gervais's Politics DVD to Jean-Paul Gaultier's sunglasses campaign. It has been painted as graffiti in Bethlehem, carried in demonstrations from Palestine to Mexico and borrowed by such artists as Pedro Meyer, Vik Muniz, Martin Parr and Annie Leibovitz. It has been used to represent causes as diverse as world trade, anti-Americanism, teenage rebellion and Latin American identity. It has sold dolls, French wine, model cars, cigarette packets, stamps, Swatch watches, Austrian skis, ashtrays, mugs, keyrings and nesting Russian dolls. Nor is it under capitalism only that Che's image stimulates sales: souvenir shops in Cuba are festooned with Che tourist tat, and in Bolivia, where the left-wing president, Evo Morales, has installed Che's image constructed from coca leaves in his presidential suite. Tourist agencies even offer package tours to the spot where he died.

Emotional appeal

Che's durability owes little to his revolutionary achievements, though his revolutionary credentials are authentic. He was radicalised as a young man by the US-backed coup in Guatemala that overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz and he played a central part in the Cuban revolutionary struggle. After the revolution he served as finance minister, but grew increasingly alienated from the Castro brothers. He went to the Congo to support revolution there before setting out on the fatal Bolivian adventure, hoping to spread revolution across the subcontinent. Ernesto Guevara was certainly a revolutionary, but so were many others whose names have long been forgotten and whose records inspire more critical assessment.

Che's appeal is emotional. His death in Bolivia as a relatively young man created Che as secular Christ, the man who took upon himself the sins of the world and gave his life for the cause of the oppressed. His memory remains available to the oppressed; his image continues to inspire the hope of change and the virtue of rebellion, enhanced rather than diminished by his defeat. Christ, too, was defeated on earth and, again like Christ, Che's death conveys a promise of redemption through inspiration. He is the rock-hero biker revolutionary, the martyr to idealism, a James Dean in fatigues. When Pope John Paul II celebrated mass in Havana's Revolution Square, the giant image of Che that hangs there served as a revolutionary counterpoint.

But beyond his quality of universal icon of rebellion, what survives of Che's life's work? The promotion of Marxism and violent revolution? Forty years after his death, it is hard to imagine what an octogenarian Che would have felt about his younger self or about the world that he did not live to see. Would his personal and political asceticism have survived in an age in which rampant consumerism has captured the mass imagination? Would he have been distressed or gratified that the USSR, embraced by Fidel Castro against his objections, had collapsed? In 1964 he called Russia a "pigsty" because of the conditions in which it kept the workers. Would he have been any more gratified by the conditions of Cuban workers, nearly 50 years after the revolution? Would he have been encouraged by the rise of China, whose revolution he praised, or appalled at China's new character as a state-managed market economy?

In Cuba his image serves the mythology of the revolution that is used to glamorise a sclerotic state structure: old men in freshly laundered fatigues preside over a dollarised economy, heavily dependent on tourism, in which young women turn to prostitution to buy the consumer goods their counterparts in Miami take for granted.

In wider Latin America, his legacy is mixed. The perceived failure of the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s has intensified opposition to the Washington consensus and produced a series of left-wing victories at the ballot box that guarantee his name is honoured - as in 2006, when Daniel Ortega's Sandinista movement, now a party of dubious revolutionary credentials, was elected to power and the party faithful wore Guevara T-shirts to the victory party. Hugo Chávez, the populist leader of Venezuela, who is known for his eagerness to wear the clothes of the Cuban revolution, often dons a Che T-shirt. Some of his ideas, too, are back in vogue with Latin America's new left: pan-Americanism, support for the region's popular movements, nationalisation and centralisation of government. The various "expressions of the popular will" that he favoured over ballot-box democracy - neighbourhood courts and the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution - have found new expression in Venezuela and Bolivia.

But even here, Che might have felt a little unease. He was critical of much of the Latin American left for its rejection of the armed struggle, and grafted his Stalinism on to the tradition of revolutionary petit bourgeois nationalism in Cuba exemplified by José Martí, much as the Sandinistas were to use Sandino as an inspiration in Nicaragua. Yet many of those now most enthusiastic about his memory came to power through the ballot box. Only in Colombia, where he remains an inspirational figure for the dissident Farc, would he recognise true heirs.

Politically, there is no movement that could be called Guevarist. In Peru, Fidelistas and Guevarists are in opposing camps, as they are in Panama and Mexico. For contemporary intellectuals of the left, Che's legacy, with its romanticism and heroisation of the guerrilla, is problematic. For instance, Jorge Castañeda, the Mexican writer and sociologist, wrote in his biography of Che that Che's ideas had nothing to offer present generations. For Castañeda, his "refusal of ambivalence" and his unwillingness to understand life's contradictions were relics of a damaging era in Latin America. In an age in which the absolutes of Marxism and market capitalism were judged to have failed, Che had nothing to say.

Nor has his popularity in the west translated into any coherent politics. Che's image is still carried by the left, but is also adopted by thousands who have only the vaguest idea of his life, beyond the Hollywood version of The Motor cycle Diaries. In London, a small torchlit rally held in Trafalgar Square to commemorate the 35th anniversary of his death gave a flavour of the portmanteau character of Che's image. In the heroic prose of the participants, "banners and placards were held high" and "chants and speeches rang out from the megaphone across Trafalgar Square to the listening ears of the demonstrators and the passing public and readings from Che's writings were read out". Speakers came from Rock Around the Blockade, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, Victory to the Intifada, the Colombia Solidarity Campaign, the Africa Liberation Support Campaign and the people's movement of the Philippines.

To this assorted list, as to oppressed peoples elsewhere, Che has little to offer as a guide to making revolution. What he does have is the messianic image of sacrifice for the sins - or sufferings - of others. Regardless of his failures and contradictions, or the obsolescence of his methods and ideology, the potency of that image, with its symbolic, religious quality, continues to inspire.

As the Portuguese writer José Saramago wrote, in characteristically mystical terms: "Because the photo of Che Guevara was, before the eyes of millions of people, the image of the supreme dignity of the human being. Because Che Guevara is only the other name of what is more just and dignified in the human spirit.

"He represents what sometimes is asleep in us. It represents what we have to wake up to know and to learn to know even ourselves, to add the humble step of each one of us to the common road of all of us."

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever

© LEWIS MORLEY/NATIONAL MEDIA MUSEUM SCIENCE & SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY. COURTESY OF VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON
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Nostalgia without memory

We had a terrific time in the Sixties – but at what cost to the millennial generation?

There is a flurry of Sixties-worship at present, with an exhibition at the ­Victoria and Albert Museum in London and a cinema documentary about the Beatles’ ­touring years directed by Ron Howard. Next month, two more books on the ­subject will join the pile to which I have admittedly contributed more than my share. Steve Turner’s Beatles ’66: the Revolutionary Year reconstructs the band’s exploits in that eventful season (also recently chronicled in Jon Savage’s weighty 1966: the Year the Decade Exploded). And Paul Howard’s I Read the News Today, Oh Boy tells the story of Tara Browne, the gilded young Guinness heir whose death at the wheel of a Lotus Elan inspired John Lennon’s greatest song, “A Day in the Life”.

Truly, this is the decade that never dies. At frequent intervals since the mid-­Eighties, glossy magazines have announced that “the Sixties are back”, with fashion spreads of Paisley fabrics, Mary Quant-ish bobs, ­shorter-than-ever miniskirts and elastic-sided Chelsea boots. Sixties pop music eternally dominates radio playlists, while the Rolling Stones, the decade’s most notorious band, though now withered old-age pensioners, are still widely reckoned the coolest, most dangerous dudes on the planet.

For that, we largely have to thank the “Sixties children”, who lived through the most magical time for youth there ever was, survived its surfeits of alcohol, sex and mind-shredding drugs, and now seek to perpetuate their glorious heyday even unto senility. But the greatest celebrants of the era are often people who never experienced it first-hand yet still yearn for it in a syndrome that psychologists call “nostalgia without memory”. Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” shtick in the Nineties, for instance, pastiched the Swinging London of three decades earlier, right down to the Union Jack carrier bags. In folk memory the Sixties are as a rosy blur of psychedelic colour, free love and Beatles music, their complexity and manifold horrors either unrealised or disregarded.

***

The mythic decade, as opposed to the real one, was no straight ten-year stretch. It didn’t get into gear until 1962 with the satire boom that produced BBC TV’s That Was The Week That Was, David Frost’s first starring vehicle, and Private Eye magazine, and didn’t absorb pop music until the Beatles’ historic first visit to America in 1964. Its closing year, marked by a series of vast open-air festivals – Woodstock, Bob Dylan on the Isle of Wight, the Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park – felt almost like a decade on its own. When 1970 dawned, so much resembling a grey morning-after, many Sixties children simply refused to believe the party was over and clung to their caftans and joss sticks far into the harsh new eras of glam rock and punk.

Its prime time is generally agreed to have been 1965, when London gave vent to a concerted burst of youthful creativity in music, art, fashion, photography, cinema and graphics, and a shabby, sleepy metropolis, bombed to ruins not long previously, received the unlikely sobriquet of “swinging”. At this stage, the swinging was confined to a small circle of musicians, models, actors and photographers, congregating in the same few, unpublicised bistros and clubs: the most emblematic pop single, among so many, was Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd”.

It is seen above all as an era of burgeoning freedom and tolerance when Britannia seemed to be loosening her Victorian stays one by one. The contraceptive pill became widely available, ending centuries of shotgun marriages and perilous backstreet abortions, and theatre censorship by an archaic royal flunky called the Lord Chamberlain came to an end. Male homosexuality was decriminalised, though not yet destigmatised, and the first feminist voices spoke out. The word “fuck” appeared in the Times (during the farcically unsuccessful obscenity prosecution of Penguin, publisher of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) and was heard on BBC Television, albeit only in quotation marks, from the National Theatre’s literary manager, Kenneth Tynan.

Yet alongside the pop-cultural harlequinade, Britain faced many of the same problems as we do today – some, indeed, significantly worse. Industrial strife was so common that the rest of Europe came to know strikes as “the English disease”. Harold Wilson’s Labour government, continuously in power after 1964, imposed a strict wages freeze, then known as a “pay pause”, and failed so utterly to solve its own financial deficit that in 1967 Wilson was forced to devalue the pound by 14 per cent. The World Cup-winning 1966, that supposed annus mirabilis, also brought two events whose horrors still resonate: the Moors murders trial and the Aberfan disaster, in which a south Wales primary school was engulfed by a giant slag heap, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

Meanwhile, the outside world was taking its first steps backwards into hell. America’s inspirational young president John F Kennedy was assassinated, as, in horrifically quick succession, were his brother Robert and the great civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King. The United States was shamed at home by racism and police violence (not much change there, then) and abroad by its war in Vietnam, which nightly filled British TV screens with images of bombed civilian enclaves and maimed children (little change there, either – except today barrel bombs replace napalm). A democratic movement in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia was crushed; there was incalculable murder and terror in China’s Cultural Revolution, genocide in Indonesia and Biafra, apartheid in South Africa and endemic famine in India. June 1967 brought not only Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the “Summer of Love” but the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, whose cumulative effects remain seemingly impossible to resolve.

Throughout the Sixties, Britain, along with the rest of western Europe, faced the threat of nuclear war with Soviet Russia and more-than-possible total obliteration. And yet, paradoxically, this was a time of enviable domestic peace and stability. There was full employment, with almost nobody ever getting sacked except at the very top. Inflation was marginal; the NHS and other public services functioned without any hint of crisis; the nationalised railways, shorn of unprofitable branch lines by Lord Beeching, were dirty but dependable; the postal service, even after the introduction of an avowedly “second-class” tier, remained the envy of the world.

Pending that terminal flash in the sky, people felt safe. The only communicable disease left to be feared was smallpox. ­Terrorism was something that happened only in the distant Middle East: it could not conceivably take root among Britain’s hard working and law-abiding Indian and Pakistani immigrants despite the unfettered racism constantly hurled at them. One walked on to aircraft or into official buildings or the BBC without security checks. The first shadow of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, which were to bloody the Seventies and be described by American commentators as “Britain’s Vietnam”, did not appear until 1968.

Two world wars in the space of 30 years had trained ordinary Britons to feel guilty about any conspicuous consumption. In the Sixties, the advertising industry set about remedying this. The new Sunday newspaper colour supplements bulged with adverts for Scandinavian furniture, stereo systems and white Kosset carpets, and bombarded their readers with recipes for exotic dishes such as chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, using quantities of butter and cream that once would have seemed downright immoral. When Rowntree launched a new wafer-thin chocolate mint, the company made a last-minute name change from Minty Thins to After Eight, suggesting elegant high-society dinner parties to a demographic only recently weaned from high teas. So older generations, too, could join an “in” crowd and share the feeling of life becoming measurably better every day.

The attention paid to youth was an extraordinary volte-face from that ancient British maxim “Children should be seen and not heard”. Young people now not only wielded huge economic power through pop music and fashion, but kicked aside class distinctions and social barriers. Following the Beatles template, almost all of the decade’s brightest new celebrities were in their twenties and from humble backgrounds: the photographer David Bailey, the model Twiggy, the painter David Hockney, the comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, the film stars David Hemmings, Rita Tushingham, Tom Courtenay and Terence Stamp. A northern or a cockney accent was almost a prerequisite of success. In Britain in the past, the working class had always tried to talk “up”; now the upper and middle classes strove to talk “down”. It still goes on.

Without any form of social media other than underground newspapers and ­flyers, Sixties youth culture managed to be remarkably united. It assumed that every figure of authority – indeed, anyone over 30 – was a pitiable lunatic. Unlike its counterparts in America and across Europe, it raised up no demagogues: its figureheads were lead singers in bands and radio disc jockeys whose dimness in no way reduced their potency. The hippies, who arrived post-1966, are now viewed as hopelessly naive and deluded, with their mantra of “Love and Peace”. Yet their pop festivals, love-ins and “happenings” were occasions that brought hundreds of thousands together without the slightest violence. There were ­moments when even their fiercest detractors wondered if they might really be a force for changing the world for the better.

***

The V&A exhibition “You Say You Want a Revolution?” focuses on the decade’s final phase, when Britain’s initially playful underground hardened into a many-headed protest movement containing every kind of extreme-leftish ideology; churning out insurrectionary literature amid the comforts of the consumer society; holding marches, demos and sit-ins of increasing militancy despite having nothing to protest about nearer than the Vietnam War (in which the Wilson government played no part whatsoever). It was always more serious in other European countries and the US, where former hippies made an easy transition to urban guerrillas and to Charles Manson’s serial-killing “Family”.

Simultaneously, the British police declared war on leading musicians whose songs seemed to encourage their fans to take drugs, whether the pot known to jazz players for generations or the new, man-made, “mind-expanding” lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which leaked from the very pores of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. The fear was legitimate – in fact, nowhere near proportionate to the long-term problem in the making – but the reaction was hysterical scapegoating. In early 1967, with the collusion of MI5 and possibly the CIA, 18 police officers raided the Rolling Stone Keith Richards’s cottage in Sussex and Richards and Mick Jagger were charged with drug possession. After a grotesque show trial – yet another strike against that supposed Summer of Love – both Stones received prison terms for offences that normally would have rated a small fine or merely probation.

The recent death of Richard Neville, the founder of Oz magazine, awoke further memories of that moment when the Sixties’ indulgence of youth was suddenly turned off. The 1971 trial of Neville and his two co-editors for conspiracy to corrupt youthful morals (specifically by depicting Rupert Bear with an erection) was just as self-defeatingly comical as the Lady Chatterley prosecution almost a decade earlier.

For millennials who grew up around the year 2000, the Sixties are an object not so much of nostalgia without memory as envy without memory. My 25-year-old daughter often remarks what a terrific time my generation had and what a messed-up world we created for hers. I can’t argue with that.

Philip Norman’s “Paul McCartney: the Biography” is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. He tweets at: @PNormanWriter

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation