Over the course of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s youthful motorcycle trip across South America, he learns about the class system that structures South American societies, and he comes to understand the injustice of oppressing the working class (called the “proletariat” in the Marxist terminology that Ernesto uses). Ernesto, an ambitious young man from the middle class who has many opportunities available to him, does not at first understand the importance of class-based analysis of social issues. At the beginning of the memoir, he depicts his experience without a significant focus on class, but seeing firsthand the dire and unjust effects of poverty causes him to shift his analytical frame, recounting his experiences to highlight the plight of the working class and the unjust behavior of the ruling classes. Ernesto’s observations lead him to correctly predict that drastic inequality between classes (and, in particular, the oppression of the lower classes) would have revolutionary consequences in South America—consequences which, the reader knows, Ernesto would ultimately help to bring about.
Ernesto’s realization that social class affects every aspect of a person’s life begins on a personal level. When others treat him and his traveling companion Alberto differently based on arbitrary and shifting signifiers of their social class, Ernesto comes to see that people offer respect, kindness, and help not based on who he is, but based on what class they perceive him to be. Ernesto and Alberto come from middle-class backgrounds, but they’re treated like poor people for the first time when their motorcycle breaks. Becoming “bums without wheels” makes finding people to help them on their journey much harder. For example, during a boat trip, the first-class passengers are unwilling to associate with two young men who they believe to be of small means. By contrast, when Ernesto and Alberto convince people that they are leprosy experts (when the truth is that they’re medical students), they are perceived as upper class professionals, so the townspeople are eager to feed and help them.
Ernesto and Alberto recognize, however, that these kindnesses do not extend to people who seem less wealthy. A soldier who was “so kind to [Ernesto and Alberto] just the day before” is cruel when he’s in charge of a group of poor and indigenous conscript soldiers, showing clearly that people are more helpful to those of higher class status. In one telling episode, the local police procure mountain horses for the “doctors” by stealing from some passing indigenous people (the lowest group on the class ladder). The rightful owners of the horses follow Ernesto away from the town and ask for the return of their property. Ernesto’s inability to communicate with them until a translator arrives demonstrates his initial naivety, but his immediate return of the horses and refusal to be complicit in class oppression shows that his experiences of differential treatment based on class have led to a moral conviction not to benefit from class privilege.
Ernesto’s political evolution is not just one of awareness, but also one of action. Just as he becomes more aware of the effects of class oppression, Ernesto begins to admire people he meets who work to alter the status quo, which foreshadows his becoming a political revolutionary. The doctors Ernesto and Alberto meet in the leprosy colonies leave a profound impression on Ernesto. Instead of using their profession to enrich themselves personally and socially, these doctors work to ameliorate the lives of the most neglected and despised groups. By noting that “the people who are in charge do a great job, even if it goes unnoticed,” Ernesto stresses that it’s noble to work for the betterment of others with little possibility for reward.
Ernesto also finds inspiration in working class and poor people, which marks a more radical departure from his middle-class upbringing. When Ernesto and Alberto are staying near some Chilean mines, Ernesto has an inspiring encounter with a working class couple who have been labeled Communists (at the time, this was illegal in Chile) and barred from employment because they agitated for better wages. Describing the husband as having “a mysterious, tragic air,” Ernesto portrays him in almost mythic proportions despite his lowly circumstances. Subsequently, Ernesto declares that this couple is “a living representation of the proletariat in any part of the world,” thus showing that he sees the couple as a general example of how class struggle can better the lives of the poor. This reveals that Ernesto is transforming his personal experiences into both moral convictions and political strategies.
Ernesto’s sprawling journey across his home continent eventually leads him to sweeping conclusions about South America’s political future. Noticing the dire living conditions and simmering frustrations of the impoverished proletariat, Ernesto expresses grave doubts as to “how long this present order, based on its absurd idea of caste” can persist. Similarly, after parting from the Communist mining couple, Ernesto concludes that Communism is only “a natural longing for something better” and “a protest against persistent hunger,” which rebrands Communism—an ideology feared and despised by the middle classes—as a rational and sympathetic reaction to an unjust world. This is one of Ernesto’s most explicit indications of his revolutionary future, showing that he believes that a Communist rebellion against the status quo is the only way to liberate oppressed South Americans.
While Ernesto begins his trip with little awareness of the injustices of social class, his experiences and observations give him a strong sense of the oppression faced by those in the lower classes. By the end of the memoir, Ernesto sees everything through the lens of class, and his critique of class-based oppression solidifies his commitment to working to better the lives of others. Notably, Ernesto does not, in the face of oppression, commit himself to compassion or charity; instead, he comes to believe that the simmering resentment of large swaths of oppressed people has the potential to overthrow oppressive systems. As such, he commits himself to helping those people revolt.
Class Consciousness ThemeTracker
Class Consciousness Quotes in The Motorcycle Diaries
The enormity of our endeavor escaped us in those moments; all we could see was the dust on the road ahead and ourselves on the bike, devouring kilometers in our flight northward.
I remember the day my friend the sea came to my defense…The beach was deserted and a cold onshore wind was blowing. My head rested in the lap tying me to this land, lulled by everything around. The entire universe drifted rhythmically by, obeying the impulses of my inner voice…And then, for the last time, I heard the ocean’s warning.
I now know, by an almost fatalistic conformity with the facts, that my destiny is to travel, or perhaps it's better to say that traveling is our destiny, because Alberto feels the same.
A feeling of profound unease came over me; I felt that I was incapable of feeling anything. I began to feel afraid for myself and started a tearful letter, but I couldn't write, it was hopeless to try. In the half-light that surrounded us, phantoms swirled around and around but "she" wouldn't appear. I still believed I loved her until this moment, when I realized I felt nothing.
To a certain extent we had been knights of the road; we belonged to that long-standing "wandering aristocracy" and had calling cards with our impeccable and impressive titles. No longer. Now we were just two hitchhikers with backpacks, and with all the grime of the road stuck to our overalls, shadows of our former selves.
It is there, in the final moments, for people whose farthest horizon has always been tomorrow, that one comprehends the profound tragedy circumscribing the life of the proletariat the world over.
How long this present order, based on an absurd idea of caste, will last is not within my means to answer, but it's time that those who govern spent less time publicizing their own virtues and more money, much more money, funding socially useful works.
By the light of the single candle illuminating us, drinking mate and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man's shrunken figure carried a mysterious, tragic air. In his simple, expressive language he recounted his three months in prison, and told us about his starving wife who stood by him with exemplary loyalty, his children left in the care of a kindly neighbor, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his compañeros, mysteriously disappeared and said to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea.
It's a great pity that they repress people like this. Apart from whether collectivism, the "communist vermin" is a danger to decent life, the communism gnawing at his entrails was no more than a natural longing for something better, a protest against persistent hunger transformed into a love for this strange doctrine, whose essence he could never grasp but whose translation, "bread for the poor," was something which he understood and, more importantly, filled him with hope.
And how many of those mountains surrounding their famous brother enclose in their heavy entrails similar riches, as they wait for the soulless arms of the mechanical shovels to devour their insides, spiced as they would be with the inevitable human lives…
But the people before us are not the same proud race that repeatedly rose up against Inca rule, forcing them to maintain a permanent army on their borders; these people who watch us walk through the streets of the town are a defeated race. Their stares are tame, almost fearful, and completely indifferent to the outside world.
Even today, when the bestial rage of the conquering rabble can be seen in each of the acts designed to eternalize the conquest, and the Inca caste has long since vanished as a dominant power, their stone blocks stand enigmatically, impervious to the ravages of time.
Afterwards some of [the patients] came to say goodbye to us personally and in more than one case tears were shed as they thanked us for the little bit of life we'd given them. We shook their hands, accepted their gifts, and sat with them listening to football on the radio. If there's anything that will make us seriously dedicate ourselves to leprosy, it will be the affection shown to us by all the sick we've met along the way.
There are 600 sick people living independently in typical jungle huts, doing whatever they choose, looking after themselves, in an organization which has developed a rhythm and style of its own. There is a local official, a judge, a policeman, etc. The respect Dr. Bresciani commands is considerable and he clearly coordinates the whole colony, both protecting and sorting out disputes that arise between the different groups.
We constitute a single mestizo race, which from Mexico to the Magellan Straits bears notable ethnographical similarities. And so, in an attempt to rid myself of the weight of small-minded provincialism, I propose a toast to Peru and to a United Latin America.
Littered along the edges of the road are containers for transporting cars, used by the Portuguese as dwellings. In one of these, where a black family lives, I can just glimpse a brand new refrigerator, and from many of them radios blare music which their owners play at maximum volume. New cars are parked outside the most miserable "homes."
The terrible thing is the people need to be educated, and this they cannot do before taking power, only after. They can only learn at the cost of their own mistakes, which will be very serious and will cost many innocent lives.
I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I would be with the people. I know this, I see it printed in the night sky that I, eclectic dissembler of doctrine and psychoanalyst of dogma, howling like one possessed, will assault the barricades or the trenches, will take my bloodstained weapon and, consumed with fury, slaughter any enemy who falls into my hands.