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Che Guevara Is the Opiate of the Masses

Monday, July 06, 2009 at 08:49 AM EDT

Just a few years ago, his image was everywhere. These days, its still there, but its not “The T-Shirt” that everyone wears. But the film (or perhaps more accurately, films) that came out recently reminded me of an idea for a post I had a while back, and it goes like this….

Karl Marx famously wrote that “Religion is the Opiate of the Masses” in the last but one century. His ideas have since been taken and turned into a kind of religion, one he declared he didn’t believe in; he once said (and I haven’t the original to hand, so to paraphrase) “I’m not sure what a Marxist is, but I’m fairly sure I’m not one”.

I wonder whether Che Guevara might say much if it were possible to ask him about the T-Shirt wearing mob of fans he seems to have acquired. There are many reasons why one might find him attractive. Beyond his looks, one could cite  his politics, and that in part he put Love back into Revolutionary Thinking, after years of absence at the hands of the Russians and others. There’s the utter addiction to celebrity which has occured during this time frame as well. But perhaps he is held up because he is dead, because he cannot dash our hopes and any threat of failure is now neutralised. He was a successful revolutionary, and therefore we wish to emulate him, no matter how unhelpful that might be.

A revolution should be a learning process. But sadly for many, its a chance to look backwards with bleary eyes and think variously “it’ll be like Russia 1917 all over again!”, “it’ll be like 1969 again” and “it’ll be like Mexico in 1994”. Its a trap all those attempting revolution fall into. But we must move along, develop new ideas and plans, and find new ways to change the world. People look backwards and see hope in the past. But even if the past might have conditioned us, it has no further power over us. The benefit of knowing about it should surely be to avoid its mistakes and to understand where we are now, not to try and recreate it in today’s world.

What Marx was definitely right about was this idea of Religion as a construct that needs to impose a historic message and hope of an indeterminably far-off future salvation/revolution being hugely distracting. If a Religion offers distractions, it can be described as an Opiate, given his social context in which Opiates are used to dull the pain of life, as they are, for instance, by many homeless people today. What is rather sad is that any number of things can also be described as an Opiate, despite their supposed message of imminent whole-sale improvement of life.

Of course, much of religion offers salvation through denial prior to death, something which encourages those with vested interests to place tough priests over all those they can, so that they can live in splendour, whilst everyone else suffers waiting for heaven. The promise of revolution at first seemed to get past this; you can’t hold down the poor forever. But in a sense, even this message of Revolution became a way for an elite, albeit a different elite, to hold people down.

And so we come to the T-Shirt wearing which coincided with much of the anti-globalisation rhetoric of the 90’s and early 20-hundreds. Shops were able to sell an image which represented something hugely appealing, historically largely undeniable, but which essentially distracted from the point entirely. Here is an image of revolution and freedom, but one who’s means have little to no bearing on the world facing those seeking to challenge globalisation. The same has come to be largely true of the Marxist organisations of the world; a pipe-dream continues, and people study the Communist Manifesto for signs of a coming Revolution in the exact way certain hugely-deluded Christians study the bible (particularly Revelations) for signs of the Second Coming.

If the communist manifesto offers us no relevant pathway to a better world because its starting conditions no longer exist, and thus the steps need rewriting (it was, after all, a pathway for a world which, by way of one example, appeared to be about to lose all vestige of a Peasantry), the T-Shirt offers us nothing but the hope of somehow recreating a situation we have little sign of. There is no practical pathway attached to the T-Shirt, and I suspect few, if any, wearers ever felt one existed. Instead, it becomes a source of relief from the troubles of the current order that even it’s bearers (or wearers) admit reflects a future hope that is so indeterminate as to be pointless.

Whether Christianity is in the same position or not is not the point i want to address here (though the program of the Sermon on the Mount would be a good place for such an argument to start out from). Instead, I want to point to the huge weapon of distraction that such an image as Che Guevara’s has come to convey. Suddenly, there’s a very real risk that we become so tied up in history that we aim to repeat it verbatim, rather than being radically critical of even the most radical historical events. A lecturer once stated complained to me that too many of my contemporaries wanted to study past revolutions when there were far more exciting real-and-present examples, and all I can wonder is whether even Cuba in 1959 must now belong to that list.