Many of us have at one time or another owned an image of Che Guevara. It might have been, like me, during the first year of university, bought from a poster sale at the student union and stuck proudly on the blank wall of an unsure self. Or perhaps it was in the form of a T-shirt, with a suave Che, sex symbol and revolutionary rolled into one, peering out across a Cuban dewy dawn. Either way, it’s likely that anyone with vague rebellious instincts has at some point used this icon to express to the world their anti-bourgeois dreams.
The laughable thing about this – and it is easy to laugh – is the by now obvious point that Che, the great opponent of the commodity form par excellence, has now become a commodity in his own right. T-shirts, posters, photos, calendars, screen-savers and so on, are sold in their thousands around the world on a daily basis, all sporting the image of this great man of the people, and in doing so lining the pockets of the very people he opposed. There is a certain delicious irony inherent to the suburban bourgeois who struts his modestly Marxist stuff in a Che shirt while his CEO father pays his tuition fees.
So what’s the solution? Do we simply indulge this safely commodified form of opposition, brushing it off as so many cases of juvenile angst? Or do we take the easy route of abandoning the image and mocking those who wear it, gleefully pointing out to them the hypocrisy of their actions? Or is there another way?
It seems to me that we should not abandon the icon. At the heart of that image, beneath the layers of commodification, personality cults, adolescent self-expression, there remains a pulse of revolutionary desire. We should not ditch Che because he is contaminated with an empty world; rather, we should organise ourselves and revolt against that empty world in order to make it the equal of his image. To destroy Che the Commodity, you must first destroy the commodity form itself.