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The Motorcycle Diaries

The life of a modern despot has three stages. In the beginning he loves the people. Then he falls in love with an idea. Then he murders people on behalf of the idea. This final stage is the mortal consequence of ruthless political passion. People will never be as perfect as ideas: they must therefore suffer for their sins.

Che Guevara was not a despot—though perhaps it was just a matter of time. But only his first years really lend themselves to popular entertainment since that’s when a revolutionary gunman can be portrayed as playful, loveable, and humane. The script-writer is free to let the emphasis fall where it may, comic or tragic as the case might be, and given the clownish inability of Che and his travelling companion to stay upright on the old motorcycle they’re riding, the temptation to play for laughs is understandable.

But director Walter Salles knows you can’t do this forever. His film is not just about a Latin icon on “a journey of discovery that becomes one of self-discovery as well”. It’s about political choices too, and mere motorcycling through South American landscapes is not nearly enough for this. Sooner or later there have to be scenes where Che discovers what oppression looks like at first hand, and these scenes must bring an epiphany: the sudden flash when communism is revealed as the salvation of mankind.

Here Salles has a problem. Che didn’t discover Marx the hard way. He didn’t do ten years’ labor under a fascist thug. All that happened was that he felt badly about three things he saw when riding round South America on his bike: (a) a poor old lady with asthma (b) labor being hired at a mine, and (c) a leper colony. That’s not much to work with but the director does his best. The old lady we see is plainly having a hard time, has no puffer, and deserves treatment. And there can be no question that the miners are very rudely shouted at by the hiring boss—‘you!’ and ‘you!’ and ‘you!’

This hiring scene looks vaguely familiar. It has echoes of another time and place. I feel it really belongs fifty years back in the days of The Grapes of Wrath and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. At that time all American bosses were bad, but worst of all were the villainous hiring bosses. That’s the way it was for the fruit-pickers in California. That’s the way it was with the oilrig boss hiring roughnecks in Tampico too. Respectfully acknowledging these predecessors, virtue in this Robert Redford-backed movie is represented by the victims of the capitalist system, while evil is represented by labor bosses, supercilious bourgeoisie, and nuns.

Nuns? How come? Aren’t they doing their best to help the Wretched of the Earth? But Che, God bless him, sees through this at once. The head nun at the San Pablo leper colony is “butch-looking” (a phrase in his book that the film dialogue judiciously omits). Worse still, she imposes a typically oppressive colonial rule requiring visitors to wear rubber gloves when touching patients. Che nonchalantly ignores the rule, brushing the rubber gloves aside as he warmly presses the flesh and very publicly and conspicuously asserts class solidarity.

With the rule on wearing rubber gloves director Salles realizes that at last he’s got a revolutionary issue—unsafe socializing—and he makes the most of it. It becomes far and away the biggest sequence in the film, with lots of music and dancing, plenty of relieved and smiling faces to offset the nuns, and grateful lepers symbolically representing the oppressed. Medical student Guevara knows very well that rubber protection isn’t necessary for rare contacts by temporary visitors (Hansen’s Disease is not contagious enough for single contacts to matter). But the directorial gambit succeeds: audiences warm to the defiant Che—the naked-handed hero going skin-to-skin with adoring patients—while condemning the inhumanity of those who insist on protection. That the rule imposed by the nuns was medically appropriate for all those regularly in contact with patients, and was in 1952 a sensible general precaution to apply to visitors whose medical history is unknown, is of course entirely ignored. Bohemian defiance of convention is what counts most.

We said before that only the first stage in the modern despot’s biography lends itself to this sort of romantic treatment. The second stage when he develops an infatuation with politics appeals more to intellectuals exploring the pathology of ideas. The third stage, when the hideous maw of power opens and whole peoples or whole generations are destroyed, should probably be left to historians of apocalypse like Antony Beevor.

Anyway, once in power in 1960, Che Guevara lost no time visiting such bastions of progress and enlightenment as Moscow, the German Democratic Republic, and North Korea. He wrote theoretical articles piously quoting long passages from Marx:

Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself… etc

With pathetic eagerness he pointed out the importance of the italicisation—and this in a sermon on Cuban economic development! Great chunks of Lenin and Stalin are also quoted for the deep wisdom they offer. But perhaps the most interesting thing is his absolute faith in economic planning by the state:

The watchword of the moment is planning: the conscious, intelligent restructuring of all the problems that will face the people of Cuba in future years. We have to make an effort to draw up a whole plan to be able to predict the future… There will be—and let there be no doubt about it—a happy and glorious future.

Needless to say, this was written in complete ignorance of both the calamitous consequences of trying to centrally plan the production of consumer goods in the USSR (which was more than obvious by 1960), and the theoretical critique of planning made by Mises, Michael Polanyi, and Hayek. One feels that the problem in Latin America is not economic underdevelopment: despite flashes of enlightenment here and there, it’s the intellectual underdevelopment of the intelligentsia.

Footnote: Not all bosses are bad: but the moral character of many CEOs in corporate life is just revolting. Even though his continental ride seems to have done little for Che except confirm his prejudices, one can’t help feeling that a glimpse of the poorer parts of South America might benefit some people. Perhaps as part of their penance Kenneth Lay, and Bernard Ebbers, and Dennis Kozlowski might be sent off on suitably clapped-out Harleys somewhere south of Buenos Aires. The one-year onyerbike cure for corporate crime.

Posted in Notes.

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