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Lao-Zi and Che Guevara
A Comparison of Two Political Theorists

by Daniel Krook • December 1997, RELG 151 • Trinity College
"There is nothing softer and weaker than water.
And yet there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong things."
Lao-Zi, Dao De Jing, 78 (186)

"The guerrilla band is not to be considered inferior to the army against which it fights simply because its is inferior in fire power."
Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare, p. 17

The political scientist, in studying the tenets of Daoism, may come to find great similarities between the founder of this religion, Lao-Zi, and the twentieth century Latin American socialist insurgent, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. Indeed, it has been said that Lao-Zi gave rise to the concept of "guerrilla warfare" while the title of Che Guevara's most well-known book is Guerrilla Warfare, which explains its methods. The purpose of this paper is to compare the personages of Lao-Zi and Che Guevara and to point out the similarities in their beliefs and theories. A comparative study of individuals who have been pigeonholed into specific disciplines has the power to make us reevaluate the artificial barriers that exist between academic fields. In so doing, this approach allows us to exchange information free from disciplinary blinders.

The Men
Lao-Zi and Che Guevara resemble each other in their personal lives as well as in their similar beliefs. First, both had thorough exposure to libraries of varied books and ideas. Lao-Zi was by trade an archivist and therefore sorted and absorbed ideas without prejudice, accepting them and finding a place for all of them. Che Guevara, too, was a very avid reader, exposed to the many volumes of his father's library and forced to read them as his severe childhood asthma and bedridden boredom offered him little else to do. This left them both well educated and enlightened to form their own opinions. Second, one notes after reading a biography of Guevara and comparing the reported personality of Lao-Zi that both were carefree, humorous, sharp-witted and mischievous men. They both loved the natural world, respecting and valuing experiences in the harmony of nature. Guevara travelled extensively throughout South and Central America becoming one with the world, much of it while riding on a bike or relying on the kindness of strangers for rides, housing and provisions. Lao-Zi did the majority of his travels in meditation, riding his mind to far away places and times before making his final long journey west to the "Gate." Third, the most important similarity of their personalities, was the commitment to spreading their ideas and insight, combined with a success in influencing large numbers of people with these ideas for "perfect societies" while vigorously criticizing "less enlightened" viewpoints. Lao-Zi was well known for proferring his wisdom and even the great Confucius had come to glean knowledge from him. Guevara looked to spread the seeds of socialism and inspired revolutionaries throughout Latin America with his idealism.

The Beliefs
There are at least three areas in which the beliefs of Lao-Zi and Che Guevara concur. These agreements are, one, that man must be in attunement with and adapt himself to the environment surrounding him, two, they both reject subjective value systems in following the way of the Dao and in the promotion of a socialist society, and three, they share the criticism of vertical class hierarchies.

"..the most important characteristic of the Dao is naturalness (ziran), the quality of a thing's just being itself, spontaneously and without deception or calculation...A person who is in tune with the Dao is spontaneous.."
Fenton p. 174

"Another fundamental characteristic of the guerrilla soldier is his flexibility, his ability to adapt himself to all circumstances, and to convert to his service all of the accidents of the action. Against the rigidity of classical methods of fighting, the guerrilla fighter invents his own tactics at every minute of the fight and constantly surprises the enemy."
Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare, p. 25

The above passages show the value placed on spontaneity by Lao-Zi and Che Guevara. Lao-Zi believed that the way to longevity is to conform to one's surroundings, to follow the flow, to be with the Dao. By being invisible and committing oneself to wu-wei, or non-action, one survives the longest and is therefore successful. Guevara's notion of blending in with the surroundings and being able to adapt to any situation led to the survival of his weaker group against a stronger enemy. Therefore they increased their longevity and strength and were thus successful.

The principles of Marxism and the tenets of Daoism are against set value systems. Daoism criticizes the judgement of anything as good or bad, strong or weak. Since both of these things exist in the rhythm of the Dao, they are equally important. Indeed, according to the Waley reading, Lao-Zi berates Confucius for saying that to have goodness and duty is "to have heart without guile, to love all men without partiality." Lao-Zi contends that "to make up one's mind to be impartial is in itself a kind of partiality." [Waley p. 13] He would rather let nature decide what is appropriate, the way of the Dao. Guevara's political affiliation too rejects the fundamental assumptions and values that are held in most modern civilizations. Socialism is incompatible with organized religion, gender divisions, and traditional concepts of value that are ascribed an object. Individual labor, not the exploitation of another's labor, becomes the means for obtaining value or giving an object value.

The most important similarity of thought between the ideas of Che Guevara and Lao-Zi, however, is their mutual contempt of class hierarchies. Che detested the societal and class stratifications of Capitalism and Lao-Zi detested the societal and class stratifications of Confucianism. These systems both breed corruption and oppression. Che and Lao-Zi feel that it is the job of the government only to represent those whom they rule and not to follow their own personal agendas, and most importantly, to be of the people, living a life of example for the people:

"Desiring to rule over the people,
One must, in one's words, humble oneself before them;
And, desiring to lead the people,
One must, in one's person, follow behind them."
Lao-Zi, Dao De Jing, 160

"The guerrilla band is an armed nucleus, the fighting vanguard of the people. It draws its great force from the mass of the people themselves...We must come to the inevitable conclusion that the guerrilla fighter is a social reformer, that he takes up arms responding to the angry protest of the people against their oppressors, and that he fights in order to change the social system that keeps all his unarmed brothers in ignominy and misery."
Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare, p. 17

Interesting observations can be made concerning the similarities of character and ideologies of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Zi and the 20th century's Argentine-born, Cuban revolutionary Ernesto Guevara. A more comprehesive project would certainly be of value to the political scientist as well as humanities students in other disciplines, since this might be evidence of a universality in though transcending culture, geography, and time. Further comparative studies like this may perhaps break down the barricades between the fields of history, religion, and political science and may therefore foster mutually beneficial interdisciplinary dialogue on common subjects.

from: Moreover &
Cuba Information Access


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» Juan Almeida
(1927- )
Participant in Moncada attack and imprisoned subsequently; Granma expeditionary; became Rebel commander February 1958 and headed Third Front of Oriente; currently member of Central Committee and Politial Bureau of Communist Party of Cuba; headed Commission to Perpetuate the Memory of Commander Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.