Let us hope that Guevara is admired only for what he appears to symbolise – idealism, youthful vigour, a feverish desire to make the world a better place, stuff like that – and not for what he actually did or asked others to do. Guevara’s moral standards were much the same as those of the military thugs who would soon rule his home country though, unlike him or their Peruvian counterparts, they let themselves be typecast as “right-wingers,” a mistake that would cost them dear.
The man was a born serial-killer who delighted in mowing down peasants who got in his way, wanted to see Latin America torn apart by ferocious wars like the one then raging in Vietnam, worshipped “daddy Stalin” and made no secret of his hatred for homosexuals. There can be little doubt that he would have been happy to line up against a wall the businessmen who since his demise have been making a packet by flogging Che Guevara T-shirts to middle-class youngsters. Perhaps he would have taken an equally unfriendly view of those Irish politicians who, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death, issued a postage stamp with the iconic image of him that was devised by an artist in Dublin.
Guevara lives on because most adolescents, and large numbers of older folk, like to pose as rebels against the established order. Once upon a time, such people would have been despised as destructive trouble-makers and, to the cheers of the multitude, dealt with severely by the local authorities but, as the years passed, attitudes began to change until, as is now the case, it is taken for granted that, before settling down, young people will think the world could do with a thorough overhaul and will behave accordingly.
This makes for difficulties. Being a rebel in societies in which dissent is hailed by politicians as “a higher form of patriotism” is by no means easy for those who seek to differentiate themselves from the common herd. Rebellion has become such a competitive business that to make an impression they either have to discover something as yet unnoticed to complain about or, failing that, adopt a far more radical stance than any of their rivals when it comes to condemning the malevolence of just about everything around them.
Unfortunately for the more ambitious, these days their attempts to make a mark by being even more outrageous than their predecessors are more likely to invite ridicule than win them the plaudits they yearn for. Not only here in Argentina, where schoolboys who took over classrooms in order to protest against some modest educational innovations received little sympathy, but in many other countries the tax-payers who finance their antics are rebelling against them. In the United States, a backlash against what many thought was a drive by leftist professors and pampered students to force people to submit to a “politically correct” tyranny helped give Donald Trump the extra shove he needed to get him into the White House. In Western Europe, an equally powerful reaction against the heirs of the 1968 student revolts in Paris and other cities is remodelling the political landscape.
Until fairly recently, aspiring rebels could plausibly argue that all they really wanted to do was to replace a manifestly unjust social order by one which, they said, would be far better. They thought they had all the blueprints they would need before getting down to some serious work. But then the abject collapse of Soviet Communism, followed by the perceived failure of many democratic leftwing administrations to do much to improve the lot of “the victims of capitalism,” deprived them of the political utopias they thought could be set up once all the scoundrels who supported the old order had been swept aside.
Since then, Che’s would-be emulators have concentrated less on “building socialism” than on progressive causes he would surely have treated with contempt. Most are strongly in favour of gay marriage, a development he would have found disgusting, support the war feminists are waging against the patriarchy, agree that the time has come to remove the many old-fashioned prejudices that are enshrined in the languages people speak by introducing gender-neutral pronouns, and deplore the wickedness of whites who appropriate bits of black culture such as dreadlocks.
Back in the early 1950s, when Cyril Connolly wrote “it is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair,” existential angst was very much in fashion. Though he was not aware of it, Connolly was being optimistic. He assumed that the most influential artists and thinkers would continue to be obsessed with what, after all, are serious matters. Perhaps many still are, but if the laments about the diminished role “public intellectuals” have been reduced to playing are anything to go by, they have been elbowed aside by “edgy” comedians, pranksters and political activists. Meanwhile, demographers inform us that Europe is dying. Few people seem to find that particularly disturbing.