No Country for Old Men - Guevaran pedagogy and the New Man

I originally wrote this piece for 'Beyond the Blockade: Education in Cuba', a collection of writings on the Cuban education system edited by myself, Aretha Green, Malcolm Richards and Gawain Little. The book is available from the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and Manifesto Press.

Cuba Solidarity Campaign shop Manifesto Press shop

At the end of the Second World War, Germany opened the teaching profession up to tens of thousands of 'Neulehrer', graduates of a fast-tracked teacher-training course. All applicants were accepted, provided that they held a degree and had no prior link with the NSDAP or the Nazi state. But why bother? Although there was no shortage of teachers, the teaching profession in Germany had been heavily influenced by Nazism. In constructing a post-Nazi society, the values of the old state could not be allowed to be propagated to the youth. As such, Nazi-affiliated teachers were no longer tolerated, and were largely replaced by the ideologically more desirable, if less experienced, 'Neulehrer'.

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, too, recognised how the education system transmitted values to the youth, both explicitly through curriculum and implicitly through teaching praxis. To sustain and carry forward the Revolution, the values of the old society had to be cast aside, and replaced with socialist values. He therefore invested no small amount of intellectual effort in developing the metaphor of the 'New Man', embodying the quintessential revolutionary personality to which all Cubans should aspire. The New Man sits at the very heart of Guevara's pedagogical thought, and its continuing relevance and implications for pedagogy under capitalism will be explored below.

Where do values come from?

Before meeting the New Man, it is important to first consider why education is so influential on the values held by an individual. Writing several years after Guevara's death, Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser argued that "the ultimate condition of production is […] the reproduction of the conditions of production".[1] In order to produce, a social formation must simultaneously reproduce the productive forces and the existing relations of production. The education system plays a crucial rôle in this. Not only does it train workers in the technical skills that are required of them by society, but it also trains them to submit to the established order of things. For working-class youth, this means submission to the ruling ideology. For the ruling class, this means use of the ruling ideology to dominate, not through physical force, but through words and ideas.

Education functions as what Althusser terms an Ideological State Apparatus,[2] a coercive facet of the State that functions not by violence, but predominantly by ideology. Every aspect of the education system conveys norms and values that are internalised by participants therein. Explicitly taught content, such as so-called 'British Values' or the content of the History curriculum, are supplemented by the entire social construct of the school, which largely mirrors the bourgeois workplace, with its rigid hierarchy, strict discipline and tying of success to productivity. This is especially evident under the 'zero tolerance' systems that have emerged in recent years.

Guevara's concept of the New Man somewhat prefigures Althusser's work on Ideological State Apparatuses, reflecting an understanding of the part that institutions of the State such as the education system play both in the repression of the working class under capitalism and in its liberation under socialism. Just as education can be used to hold the people back, so it can be used to empower them to drive society forward.

Collectivism and individualism

What kind of person is the New Man? How does he behave? Which principles guide his actions? Guevara wrote and spoke extensively on the qualities of the New Man, which Cuban educationalist Lidia Turner Martí summarises in the following characteristics:–[3]

Collectivism in particular is of special importance, but this is not at the expense of the individual. Indeed, the individual is, in Guevara's view, integral to work for the collective good. Guevara's aim is to transform oppressive bourgeois individualism into an emancipatory socialist individualism, in which individual expression and critique contributes to the collective socialist project for the benefit of all. Fernando González calls this vision of individualism in the service of collective "a profound act of self-determination".[4]

"The revolutionary's social and political commitment […] does not consist in permanently upholding lineal positions that coincide with the prevailing criteria but rather in knowing how to disagree when the situation demands it while continuing fully devoted to the cause, without resentment or demobilization due to the contradictions that could arise from his attitude."[5]

Guevara himself crystallises this, arguing against both uncritical acceptance of the wisdom of the vanguard and passive receipt of welfare in the pursuit of an active, critical citizenship:–

"We do not want to create salaried workers docile to official thinking nor 'fellows' who live under the wing of the budget, exercising freedom in quotation marks."[6]

He therefore places considerable importance upon critical analysis and debate, following Mao's paradigm of unity-struggle-unity.[7] Beginning from a position of unity, multiple schools of thought bloom and contend, and, through struggle, unity is once again achieved as a path is agreed upon and followed. The cycle repeats ad infinitum, driving progress.

Guevara's concerns are therefore very valid: uncritical acceptance of official thinking would undermine the popular basis of Cuban politics, weakening or removing entirely the people's political input. Passive agreement would not allow new ideas to grow and compete in the arena of popular opinion, and thus, progress would stall. Similarly, citizens as mere recipients of welfare have no incentive to continue to drive progress. Whilst the socialist State is able to provide the necessities of life, without a desire to work towards a brighter future, society would stagnate. Mao likened this kind of static unity to a "stagnant pool", in contrast to "the inexhaustible Yangtse […] roaring past" that is unity-struggle-unity.[8]

Work, study and critical consciousness

Guevara placed great emphasis on the transformative nature of work, and especially voluntary work, as the fulfilment of one's societal duty. With the means of production in the hands of the people, the machine is transformed from a site of exploitation into "merely the trench where duty is performed".[9] He called for education to instil a love of work as an enriching experience for all participants, far removed from the capitalist experience of alienated labour as a means of survival.[10]

Alongside work, Guevara was clear that continuous study was the duty of every revolutionary, in order to keep pace with the developments of the Revolution.

"Attaining a sixth grade of schooling is not a goal to be accomplished and then sit idle [sic] by; you must go onward […] because the revolution will continue to advance at a quick pace, and when they think it's fine because they have attained a sixth grade, they will suddenly find that they are illiterates again…"[11]

The synthesis of work and study held a special importance for Guevara, who saw it as the crucible in which critical consciousness is formed. This is crucial to the success of the revolution and to the advent of the New Man, as it is only through building this consciousness that a desire to struggle for liberation is achieved. In this way, Guevara's influence on education can still be felt today through the critical pedagogy of theorists such as Paulo Freire, who argued, "The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscientizaçao."[12] For Guevara, theory and practice, study and work, were inseparable. He actively encouraged even young students to go out and share in the tasks of the workers, and similarly encouraged workers to engage in continuous study, and sought to embody these values himself through his own actions. He particularly encouraged social and economic study, further enabling the student to critically analyse the conditions and mechanisms of society, in order to drive progress forward.

"What does the development of consciousness mean? It means something deeper than learning theories strictly from books; theory and practice, implementation of theory, must always go together, cannot be separated in any way, in such a way that the development of consciousness must be closely linked to study, to the study of the social and economic phenomena that direct this era, and to revolutionary action…”[13]

Implications for pedagogy under capitalism

The New Man has values far removed from those espoused by bourgeois education. Guevara's emancipatory vision of the development of critical citizens, actively engaged in the collective struggle to drive forward the Cuban revolutionary project, clearly demonstrates his fundamental commitment to the empowerment of the Cuban people. He saw that, without a population fundamentally invested in progress, the Revolution would be doomed to fail. Guevara's ideas have continued to have a profound influence on the Cuban experience, from the lively grassroots politics of the local Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, to the classroom democracy of the Organización de Pioneros José Martí, to the recent popular rewriting of the Constitución. At all levels of Cuban society, the New Man emerges through the actions of conscious citizens striving to continually improve their shared society.

For education workers in capitalist contexts, there is much to learn from the pedagogy of Che Guevara. Although he was not a teacher by profession, Guevara's deep insight into the relationship between the education system and the reproduction of fundamental values enabled him to develop a model of socialist morality that has empowered his people. Educators under capitalism should take time to reflect upon the values that they impart, both explicitly through curriculum and implicitly through teaching praxis. Education has the power to either oppress or to liberate: the conscious educator must make the choice.