This recent fretting at yet another fusillade of Che Guevara phlegmorabilia has rekindled the debate: Was Che a murdering Stalinist maniac who personally killed and watched 100(0)s die (probably with a boner), or a beretted Christ figure who liberated 10 for every oppressor cur or bourgeois swine he liquidated? As ever, the truth is somewhere inbetween, but the debate is so fraught with baggage that a rehash only does the latest Chexploitationist’s marketing for them. Hell, I didn’t know Urban Outfitters had (new) Che T-shirts, and likely no one reading Huffington Post would either until the traffic kept the story indexing in the top items long enough to clear out those T-shirts before they could collect even a mote of Urban dust.
The Che image quickly eclipsed its creator and arguably its subject. The “20th century’s most famous photo” never provided Alberto Korda any royalties. He didn’t mind Che’s image being used to further revolutionary visions, but what did he think about it becoming shopworn and cynical?
Still, this post is neither about flogging a dead horse nor T-shirts. It’s a brief note of other revolutionaries that are both easy on the eyes and principled, at least from what I’m able to tell; I’ll welcome critiques in the comments. They differ in politics, fame, and CVs, and have fewer bloodstains. Besides, their lack of berets and Five-Year-Plan stares makes them more like you or me…except perhaps for sunbathing in the buff at P-town.
Given the Che precedent, I must have one “beret+stare” photo to grab the attention. The above is of Huey P. Newton, who needs no introduction. Those who misunderstand the Black Panthers as framed by smears, infiltration and revisionism are directed to Mr. Newton’s doctoral dissertation, “War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America.” The threat imputed to the above type of picture is discussed therein, and merits reproducing a cited quote from famed psychologist Erik Erikson (emphasis mine):
“Most readers of the news, of course, did not and do not know that according to California law, every citizen then had the right to carry a gun, one gun for self-defense and joint defense. …Inclined to disregard the rights of black citizens, [police] break the law under the guise of defending it. [The BPP] made of the police, then, the symbol of uniformed and armed lawlessness. But [it] did so by ingeniously turning the white man’s own imagery (especially dear to the American West and the Western) around against the white world itself. And in arming [themselves] and [their] brothers against that world, [the BPP] emphasized a disciplined adherence to existing law. In fact, [the BPP] patrol member traveled equipped not only with a gun but also with a law book.”
Today we have no shortage of police impunity splashed across the Internet in images of protestors being beaten, peppersprayed, soundcannoned, and teargassed. Yet I still see more “Free Tibet” bumperstickers than I do “Free USA,” just as I see a lot more of Che than I do of Huey.
One of the best known unjustly executed men of the 20th century also happened to be a handsome fellow and a natty dresser. He disproves most of the stereotypes about anarchists, except that he was sometimes armed…the ’30s were dangerous times for anarchists anywhere in the world. In any event he and his comrade Bartolomeo Vanzetti were accused of two murders and put to death after 7 years of incarceration, a farce of a trial, and spitefully-rejected appeals (presiding Judge Thayer asked a fellow Dartmouth alum, “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards?”). This in spite of much of the world sustaining a chorus calling for their release. I haven’t known him to wax as poetic as Vanzetti, but his better looks would sell more T-shirts. Maybe with a Scarface caption: “Say hello to my little friend!”
Francisco Ascaso was a notable figure of the Spanish Revolution that died early on in the 1936 fighting. (A picture at that link was probably the last taken of him, 2o minutes before he was shot dead raiding the Ataranzas barracks.) Bookchin writes that Francisco, his brother Domingo, Garcia Oliver, and anarchist superhero Buenaventura Durruti “included terrorism in their repertory of direct action. Gun play, especially in ‘expropriations’ and in dealing with recalcitrant employers, police agents, and blacklegs, was not frowned upon.” None of those gentlemen is ugly, but of the existing photos on the web, Francisco’s indirect, contemplative look best lends itself to merchandising. I see Ascaso beach towels next to the Che T-shirts.
It’s funny that we live in a time when sexy women stacking heaps of corpses is popular fodder, but what woman—not including the fictional Rosie the Riveter—has festooned articles of everyday life exhorting us to strive/revolt/stick it to (The) Men? It only seems fair to include a couple here.
I include two photos of the Scotswoman Ethel Macdonald because she looks only cute in one, and the second may not be her. Her broadcasts from the CNT (anarchoid labor union) Barcelona radio station provided an English-language account of the Spanish Revolution, reporting daily on the progress made against Franco’s fascist Falangists. She was committed to the Revolution because she was an anarchist herself from years back. She was an admirable revolutionary in that she lived life on a shoestring, risked her own skin and made an impact without wreaking death or destruction.
Suffragette, journalist and anarchist/Marxist sympathizer Louise Bryant gets two photos as well because one is a profile nude, not so illustrative but thematically irresistible. Wasn’t Che printed on mugs? So would the above provide at least 280 degrees of blue from a Red.
Bryant was not spoiled by her good looks. She was an international correspondent for the Russian Revolution and Civil War, was imprisoned and went on hunger strike, interviewed Benito Mussolini and Enver Pasha, and wrote nuff books, essays, poetry and plays.
Her nonfiction has been characterized as having “gullible schoolgirl charm” (of “Six Red Months in Russia”). Yet she is also described as “beautiful, smart, ambitious and inclined to scandalous behavior.” Was it her appearance and vanity that led to such broadsides as Emma Goldman’s? “I do wish sometimes I were as shallow as a Louise Bryant; everything would be so simple.”
Elisabeth Dmitrieff was also quite a looker. More significantly, she was ahead of her time, particularly for Russia. The illegitimate daughter of a Tsarist official, she was several years ahead of the 1917 revolution by her participation in the 1871 Paris Commune. Sent by Marx to cover the Commune and propagandize for socialism, she co-founded the Women’s Union, which organized women as workers and ultimately as fighters on the barricades when the French army arrived to crush the “world’s first workers’ government.” She, too, fought on the barricades, but survived to return to Russia, where she ultimately died in Siberian exile with a political prisoner she had married to rescue him from the death penalty.
I conclude with a widely-known picture of an enchanting young woman from the Spanish Revolution. Seventeen-year-old Marina Ginestà doesn’t fit in the above company, because as part of a young communist militia, the Juventudes Comunistas, she worked for the Stalinists who ultimately fought both Franco and the anarchists. But after starting with the controversy over Che, it’s only fitting to end with a visual artefact of the controversy over Stalin’s role in the Spanish Revolution. And following Che, faraway stares pregnant with promise are the standard, so this “come hither, new world” look is of a piece.