José Martí
José Martí; drawing by David Levine

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement of July 26 was created out of hatred and love: hatred of Batista the Tyrant and love of Martí the Apostle. When I spent some time in Cuba in the early Sixties the revolution still seemed inspired by Martí. Martí was everywhere: there were quotations from José Martí on the back of bus tickets, exhibitions with locks of his hair and samples of the ground he had trod. Plaster busts and pictures of Martí were not then accompanied in shop windows by portraits of Marx and Lenin. When the Soviet astronaut Yurí Gagarin visited Cuba his first official act was to lay a wreath on the Martí monument. The lines of the poet Nicolás Guillén still seemed to contain the essence of the revolution:

Vino Fidel y cumplió
Lo que prometió Martí
(What Martí promised
Fidel came and fulfilled)

What Martí stood for—or could be made to stand for—helps one to understand the Cuban Revolution in those early days, when Castro’s triumphant entry into Havana in 1959 seemed to the intellectuals of the West like the fall of a Latin American Bastille.

José Martí, the son of a Spanish sergeant who had settled in Havana, was born in 1853 when Cuba was still a colony of Spain. In 1868 Céspedes, a cultured Creole landowner, declared that the Spanish must leave and an independent Cuban Republic be established. The first War of Independence against Spain was to last until 1878. By the end of the war Cuba had escaped the control of the Creole landowners of the west to fall into the hands of the great mestizo and Negro guerrilla leaders of the east, a shift to a more democratic movement that Philip Foner underestimates in his commentaries on Martí’s writings. Martí was to consolidate this shift and make it the basis of a new revolutionary struggle.1

When the war began Martí was too young to fight, but he was already suspect to the Spanish authorities as a revolutionary nationalist. He was seventeen in 1870 when he was arrested and sentenced to six years’ hard labor; six months in the stone quarries left him with a hernia and impaired eyesight. The next year he was deported to Spain, where, as a university student, he moved in radical circles. From Spain he went to Mexico and married a woman with little sympathy for his revolutionary politics. In 1881, after visits to Venezuela and the Caribbean, he settled in New York, where, for the last fourteen years of his life, he supported himself as a working journalist, writing a regular column for La Nación of Buenos Aires that made him well known throughout Latin America.

After the secessionists’ defeat in 1878 came the guerrilla resistance known as the “Little War.” When the guerrillas were defeated in 1880 its leaders went into exile and the Cuban revolutionary movement, as Foner writes, “degenerated to the point where it offered only rhetorical forms of resistance.” Many Cubans hoped that Spain would settle the Cuban question by a generous grant of Home Rule. But Martí, then in New York, was convinced that autonomy under Spain was neither a dignified nor a permanent solution.

Against a background of apathy he set about trying to shape a new revolutionary movement devoted to the total independence of Cuba to be achieved by the armed struggle of a people’s war. He was the intellectual inspiration, the organizer and propagandist of the Cuban Revolutionary party founded in 1892. From its small New York office the party coordinated the scattered exile groups and established contact with the revolutionaries on the island. Its military leader was the guerrilla chieftain Máximo Gómez, hero of the 1868–1878 war; its war chest was to come from the contributions of the exiles, above all from the eight thousand Cuban tobacco workers in Florida.

Martí’s fear was that the US would step in and annex Cuba before the revolution could get underway. “We must act,” he wrote in early 1895. “Cuba must be free from Spain and the United States.” After a disappointing failure when the US seized a cargo of arms destined for Cuba, Martí and Gómez decided that the time for action had come. On April 11, 1895, they landed in Cuba. On May 19 Martí was shot in an ambush. “He died,” wrote Charles Dana in the New York Sun, “as such a man might wish to die, battling for liberty and democracy.”

Martí transformed the struggle against Spain from a purely political movement into one whose aim was that the “humble” should find their reward in a free Cuba, and which saw the Cuban Revolution in its continental setting, as part of a second hemispheric war of liberation. Martí gave the revolution a social content and an enemy—the United States—as heir to Spain and its imperialism. Cuban revolutionary thinkers in the early stages of Castro’s revolution were influenced by the concept of the “frustrated revolution,”2 which derives in part from the failure of Martí’s revolution. Martí’s revolution had been “frustrated” as a result of the military intervention of the United States, which finally defeated Spain in 1898. Instead of a free, sovereign, independent democratic republic, the War of Independence handed over the new nation to a corrupt oligarchy backed by the United States. The last representative of this humiliating system was Batista, whose army had been trained by American officers and had fought Castro with American guns and tanks.


The three volumes under review, carefully edited by Philip Foner, give the reader who knows no Spanish the opportunity to appreciate Martí’s greatness and his limitations as a nationalist leader. He was cast in the classic nineteenth-century mold, the last of the great Latin American liberators who saw himself as heir to Bolívar. He often used a soaring rhetoric intended to keep up the hopes of exiles in the United States and revolutionaries in Cuba. This prose style is of a Proustian complexity that verges on the incomprehensible and often defies translation.

Martí was tireless in his devotion to the chores of revolutionary organization: tedious committees, exhausting fund-raising tours, a stream of letters to rally the wavering who might compromise and accept the delusory gift of autonomy from Spain—or even worse, annexation by the United States—rather than take up the fight for sovereign independence, which Martí saw as the only dignified solution for Cubans. He struggled to impose some unity of action on the warring factions that beset all exile communities. The combination of faith in the final triumph of the revolution against all odds and the capacity to endure the tedium of organizing it—a task to which Martí sacrificed his marriage and his health, undermined already by his harsh prison sentence in Cuba as a youth—is the mark of nationalist leaders before Marxism endowed revolution with the intellectual prop of historical inevitability. Finally there is the apotheosis of martyrdom. Martí was killed with a revolver and a copy of Cicero in his pocket, a month after he had landed in Cuba. The image of the Apostle-Martyr became fixed in Cuban minds, available later for both inspiration and manipulation.

The volume Our America, with an excellent introduction by Philip Foner, concentrates on Martí’s writing in connection with the Cuban Revolutionary party he founded in 1892. Three features dominated his revolutionary strategy. First, he wrote, the revolution must embrace the black population so that when “the flag of the revolution waves over Cuba, the Cuban negro will be embracing that flag as he would a mother.” The leaders of the first War of Independence in 1868 inherited the prejudices and fears of a former slave society with a large, recently liberated black population. “Others [i.e., the white leaders] may fear him [the black]: I love him.” He detested the racism he had observed in the American South.

Secondly, the revolution must be a civilian project with only a temporary military phase during a “swift and brilliant war.” He feared the emergence of a victorious war leader as caudillo of an independent Cuba. “It is my determination,” he wrote to General Gómez,

not to contribute one iota…to bringing my country a government of personal despotism more shameful and regrettable than the political despotism it now endures, and more difficult to uproot because it would be justified by some virtues, established by the idea it embodies, and legitimized by success…. For just as it is admirable to give one’s life to a great idea, so it is despicable to make use of a great idea for the benefit of a man’s personal hopes of power and glory, even if he exposes his life for them. A man has a right to give his life only if it is given unselfishly.

This was strong stuff, addressed to the veteran guerrilla leader of 1868 without whose cooperation the war of liberation against Spain could not have got off the ground.

Third, Martí saw the Cuban Revolution as part of a second liberation struggle, completing the unfinished task of the earlier liberators, a struggle that Latin America would have to wage against US economic imperialism. In a series of articles on the Pan-American Congress of 1889, he warned that US promises of reciprocity were a colonialist trick to enable the United States to dump its surplus products on the Latin Americans, dominating their economics as a prelude to the political control of the hemisphere.

Martí had placed all his bets on his “swift and brilliant war”; but the struggle against Spain was long and messy. It was ended not by the guerrillas of General Gómez, but by the navy of the United States, which blew the Spanish Atlantic fleet out of the water at the cost of one casualty. Martí had always warned of the perils of any independence achieved with the military help of the United States. “And once the United States is in Cuba,” he asked, “who will drive it out?”


He had a clearer vision than most Latin American leaders of the dangers that threatened formally independent nations confronted with the economic power of the United States, eager only to export to weak nations the surplus products of its industry—and to acquire raw materials on the cheap. He witnessed the consequences of the collapse of the domestic market during the depression of 1893. His nightmare, a sadly prescient one, was that a politically independent Cuba, formally a sovereign state, might find itself condemned to a single export crop—sugar—and a single market—the United States. “A people that entrusts its subsistence to one product alone commits suicide…. The nation that buys, commands…the country that wants to die, sells only to one country.”

Martí’s fears of the United States as an imperialist threat contrast with his earlier enthusiastic admiration of the United States as a vigorous democracy. From 1881 to 1895 he lived most of the time in New York, and his impressions are collected in the volume Inside the Monster. “At last,” he wrote shortly after his arrival, “I am in a country where everyone seems to be his own master. Here one can be proud of the species. Everybody works. Everybody reads.” This vision dimmed. By the 1890s he saw the ideals of the Founding Fathers corrupted by the advance of monopoly capitalism; America had become a land of millionaires in their mansions and paupers dragging themselves about “like worms” in “infected slums.” The primitive virtues were swamped by an alliance between big business and politics. “Because of its unconscionable cult of wealth and lacking any shackles of tradition this Republic has fallen into monarchical inequality, injustice and violence.” Proof of this moral decline he found—and it is typical of his streak of male chauvinism—in American women; they were too richly dressed to be happy.

Martí’s sympathy with the “humble” and the sufferings of the oppressed was the emotional mainspring of his life. His views on the social and economic structures of independent Cuba were somewhat vague—they did not go far beyond a plea for a better deal for the humble, which he saw as bound up with the creation of a diversified economy of small farmers. His suggested remedies for social injustice in the United States only gradually moved away from a rejection of violence, and a belief that workers and employers should harmoniously cooperate in humanizing capitalism, to outright support of the workers’ struggle against ruthless capitalists.

Marx, with his advocacy of violence, he regarded as an old man in a hurry.3 At the same time that he wrote a long essay to honor the Haymarket Martyrs of 1886 he also feared the violence of American industrial workers—mostly immigrants “without the brakes of patriotism.” Embittered by their treatment at the hand of their employers, the workers had developed

a despotic inclination and are not content with becoming the equals of those who have made them suffer, but going beyond all reason would raise themselves above them, submit them to terms which would deprive their employers of the very dignity and human freedom which they claim for themselves.

Capital was as important as labor in the process of production; but by the 1890s Martí had come to the conclusion that it was the inhumanity of the employers, their ruthless pursuit of profit, that drove the workers to violence and destroyed the possibility of harmonious cooperation. Only late did he move toward a socialist position.

My only criticism of Foner is that he neglects the influence of Martí’s forced exile in Spain in the 1870s. The University of Zaragoza, where he took a degree in law and philosophy, was his London School of Economics. In the metropolitan university Martí, like many other political exiles, not only sharpened his weapons against the colonial power; he came into contact with native radicals.4 Martí’s optimism about the possibility of the capitalist lion coming into a peaceful accommodation with the proletarian lamb derives from the “Associationism” current in radical thought during his stay in Spain. “Associationism” was not abandoned for revolutionary socialism until the Spanish workers had become thoroughly disillusioned with the performances and prospects of bourgeois reformism.5

Martí’s oratorical style, like that of so many other Latin American politicians, was much influenced by contemporary republican Spanish windbags: the hour long vaporings of the political writer Emilio Castelar (1832–1899) were a favored model. In Martí’s prose writings the tendency to heady abstraction was reinforced by his admiration for Emerson, “this giant of a man whose piercing eyes search in the gloom for the divine mind.” If Emerson was more concerned “with deriving universal principles from nature than with apprehending particulars,”6 Martí saw nature as a quarry for lofty metaphor. Walt Whitman’s “apparent irregularity” of meter, he wrote, possesses that “sublime order and composition with which mountain ranges stand out on the horizon.”

It is Martí’s transcendentalist leanings that make the volume On Art and Literature disappointing. The range of Martí’s essays is enormous: from Pushkin to the French Impressionists and Darwin. It represents the miscellaneous output of the exile perpetually hard up and forced to earn his living as a working journalist. Some of it is hack work; but, as Foner claims, Martí opened the minds of “Our America” (i.e., the continent minus the United States) both to the art, literature, and politics of Europe and to the “other America” (i.e., the US). But his role as an educator and his influence as a political thinker waned with time and the growing influence of Marxism. In his Siete ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana, published in 1928, the influential Peruvian revolutionary writer Mariátegui (1895–1930) abandoned his earlier aestheticism for a Marxist interpretation of Peruvian reality. He would have dismissed Martí’s literary tastes as representing “mere pirouettes of a decadent bourgeoisie”: revolution was not a spiritual experience but a historical necessity.

When Martí writes of General Grant that “mountains culminate in peaks and nations in men,…can it be that men are merely embodiments and concentrated and intensified spiritual forces,” he is writing for a generation for whom poetry was as important as sociology and who found Mazzini more to its taste than Marx. His writings resound with the archaic ring of sublime idealism and exaggerated hero worship. Whitman, like Gladstone, “is a powerful mastiff standing unchallenged above the crowd and those at his feet a pack of terriers.” His knowledge of the history of the wars of independence in Latin America was unparalleled; but his essays on the great liberators are a blend of detailed information and transcendental philosophizing. His essay on Darwin is a sharply etched portrait of the man; but though it has brilliant phrases it lacks substance.

Only with the Cuban Revolution did Martí become fashionable once more. This was because Fidel Castro described his revolution as “fulfilling the words and fulfilling the doctrine of the Apostle.” Yet no two men could have been more different, even physically: Castro, the robust record cane-cutter and baseball champion; Martí the fragile semi-invalid who found one of his heroes in another invalid, Keats, and who wrote a laudatory article on Oscar Wilde’s appearance and aesthetics. Martí was a poet and an intellectual who could write that “poetry is more necessary to a people than industry itself,” that “a dawn is more revealing than the greatest book”—a lapse into anti-intellectualism for which one of his other heroes, Walt Whitman, must take the blame. Castro was neither a poet nor an intellectual. He courted some friendly intellectuals—I saw him embrace the novelist Alejo Carpentier in public—but he was not ashamed to have the poet Heberto Padilla falsely arrested as a CIA agent. This was the final straw for Vargas Llosa’s waning enthusiasm for the revolution, leaving García Márquez as the only prominent Latin American writer whose faith in Castroism seems untroubled by doubt.

Earl Browder, in his attempts to win over American liberals to what many considered a Communist cause, used to ask, “Where would Jefferson and Lincoln stand?” on the struggle of the Spanish Republic against Franco in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939. One might well ask where would Martí stand on Cuba today. Certainly he would approve of Castro’s continental campaign against the Colossus of the North, of the recovery of Cuban national dignity. Both Martí and Castro were great believers in the battle against illiteracy—Martí practiced what he preached by teaching in a night school for poor blacks in New York. But for Martí literacy would equip the masses (other than perhaps women, for his views on the role of women in modern society were distinctly Hispanic) for the exercise of the vote; for Castro, the capacity to read enabled Cubans to read the regime’s propaganda. (One of the most moving and disturbing sights I observed during the “Year of Literacy” in 1963 was that of peasants in buses ploughing through Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program”—presumably the only Marxist book generally available at the time.)

What would Martí, given his repeated warnings against the emergence of a caudillo by the transformation of the successful military leader of the revolution into a permanent fixture of the post-revolutionary political system, make of Castro—still in power after nearly thirty years of uncontested rule? While it is true that Castro’s subservience to the Soviet Union has always been mitigated by the nationalism that on occasions has made him an awkward ally,7 how can Martí’s sense of the political dangers implicit in a single-crop export economy tied to a single market be reconciled with Cuba’s dependence for its economic survival on its sugar exports to the Soviet Union? “Whoever says economic union.” he wrote, “says political union.” Perhaps Martí might think that “his” revolution was still frustrated after all.

This Issue

July 21, 1988