José Martí, the son of Spanish immigrants from Valencia and the Canary Islands, was born in 1853 in Havana. His father worked as a bureaucrat in the Spanish colonial administration. The young Martí was greatly influenced by his teacher, the Cuban patriot Rafael María de Mendive, through whom he internalized the teachings of Cuban nationalist thought and its concepts of Cuban independence and the abolition of slavery (see “The Cuban war of independence of 1868” 6/17/2014). Martí was imprisoned in 1869 at the age of 16 for his activities in support of Cuban independence, and he was deported to Spain a year later. He subsequently lived in Madrid, Guatemala, Mexico, and New York City, spending fourteen years in the United States from 1881 to 1895. He played a central role in the further development of the Cuban nationalist ethic, seeking to overcome the divisions and ideological limitations that had led to the failure of the independence war of 1868-78 and the “Guerra Chiquita” of 1879-80. Seeking to establish in political practice the necessary unity and ideological clarity, he formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892. He died in combat in 1895, shortly after the beginning of the third Cuban war of independence (de Armas and Rodríguez 1994:391).
Martí was profoundly impacted by the injustice of colonial domination in Cuba and by the violence and brutality to which the Cuban black population was subjected. He synthesized a wide variety of intellectual and moral tendencies, including naturalism, positivism, and the perspective of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America. He sought to form a common consciousness that would be the basis for political action and for the forging of a popular democratic revolution by all, regardless of race or class. He envisioned not only independence from colonial Spain but also from the imperialist intentions of the United States. And he envisioned a republic by and for the good of all, regardless of race or class (Vitier 2006:74-78; de Armas and Rodríguez 1994:387-90).
Martí formulated this vision at a time in which the public discourse in Cuba was dominated by conservatism and reformism. Even in its most progressive expressions, reformism did not advocate independence, much less an independent republic characterized by inclusion and social equality. Thus, what Martí proposed seemed impossible. But Martí believed that the task of Cuban patriots was to make possible the impossible. And this is attained through a commitment to integrity and duty, which involves above all the seeking of truth, thereby overcoming distortions and confusions. For Martí, such incapacitating of the distortions that emerge from colonialism, slavery, and domination constitutes the necessary foundation of a struggle for liberation, for “the first task of humanity is to reconquer itself” (quoted in Vitier 2006:89) He believed that heroes emerge that lead the way, heroes that are dedicated to the “redeeming transformation of the world” (Vitier 2006:91) through sacrifice and the seeking of the truth (Vitier 2006:78-91).
Because of the confusion dominating the public discourse in Cuba as well as restrictions imposed by the colonial situation, Martí focused his efforts on the Cuban émigré community. But even the Cuban emigration was characterized by many divisions: class divisions between the petit bourgeoisie and the factory workers (concentrated in tobacco factories in Florida); racist attitudes among white Cubans; various currents of conservative and reformist thought among the petit bourgeoisie; and currents of socialist and anarchist thought that disdained nationalist patriotic struggles among factory workers. Accordingly, Martí formed in 1892 the Cuban Revolutionary Party in order to unify the struggle. The purpose was not control from above, inasmuch as the Cuban émigré clubs that joined the Cuban Revolutionary Party were permitted substantial authority in local affairs. The goal was unity in support of fundamental principles: the independence of Cuba; the formation of an independent republic not controlled by colonial or imperialist powers; the development of an inclusive republic by all and for the good of all, regardless of race or class; and identification with the oppressed and the poor (Vitier 2006:92-97; Arboleya 2008:55-57; de Armas and Rodríguez 1994:403-11).
As a result of his fourteen years in the United States, Martí was aware that capitalism was entering a phase of monopoly capital, of large and concentrated industries and banks, and that this made possible an imperialist penetration by the global powers in nations that are formally politically independent, a phenomenon that we today call neocolonialism. He thus considered anti-imperialism to be a necessary component of a genuine struggle for national liberation. He believed that imperialism has a psychological base in disdain for the peoples of the world and an ideological base in the belief in the superiority of whites over blacks and of Anglo-Saxons over Latinos. He believed that the Cuban struggle for national liberation was part of a global struggle against US imperialism that would not only establish the sovereignty of the colonized peoples but also would save the dignity of the people of the United States (Vitier 2006:98-102; Arboleya 2008:58; de Armas and Rodríguez 1994:392-99).
Vitier considers the work of Martí to have been an “historic creation” (2006:85). The work of Martí was both intellectual and political, and it brought the Cuban Revolution to a more advanced stage. It was rooted in an evolving Cuban nationalist ethic that had been based on the principles of Cuban independence and the abolition of slavery. Advancing these two principles further, Martí discerned the imperialist and neocolonialist obstacles to true independence, and he advocated the formation of an inclusive republic by all and for the good of all. And he formed a political party that unified the various social sectors and intellectual currents. We have seen in previous posts the importance of charismatic leaders in the development of revolutionary processes (see “Toussaint L’Ouverture” 12/10/2013; “The isolation and poverty of Haiti” 12/17/2013; “Reflections on the Russian Revolution” 1/29/2014; “Lessons of the Mexican Revolution” 2/19/2014; “The dream renewed” 3/6/2014; “Is Marx today fulfilled?” 3/20/2014; “On the charismatic leader” 4/30/2014; “Ho’s practical theoretical synthesis” 5/9/2014). José Martí was one such charismatic leader. His premature death in 1895 was an important factor in the successful imposition of neocolonial structures on Cuba by the United States beginning in 1898, which we will observe in future posts.
Speaking at the first Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in 1974, Fidel Castro noted that Martí, like Lenin, saw the importance of a political party in order to unify the various popular social sectors and currents of thought, thus establishing a force capable of challenging and overcoming the global power of imperialism (Castro 1990:7-8). Fidel considered Martí to be the foundation of the Cuban Revolution. Fidel would forge a synthesis of the integral national liberation perspective of Martí and Marxism-Leninism, as we will see in future posts.
We today can learn an important lesson from José Martí. In the United States today, as well as in other societies of the North, there is considerable ideological confusion, even among tendencies of the Left. This situation makes impossible a popular revolution that could take power and take decisive steps toward the construction of a just and democratic nation and world-system. But we should be aware that this situation is similar to what Cuban revolutionaries confronted between 1878 and 1895. We should be inspired by the example of Martí. He sought to make possible the impossible, through commitment to integrity and duty, which involves seeking to understand what is true in order to formulate the basic principles for united collective political action on a foundation of universal human values. In our time, the attainment of the impossible is aided by important global developments: the reemergence of popular revolution in Latin America (see “A change of epoch?” 3/18/2014) and the terminal structural crisis of the world-system (see “The terminal crisis of the world-system” 3/28/2014). I have maintained in previous posts that the key to commitment to the search for truth is cross-horizon encounter (see “What is personal encounter?” 7/25/2013; “What is cross-horizon encounter?” 7/26/2013; “Overcoming the colonial denial” 7/29/2013).
Arboleya, Jesús. 2008. La Revolución del Otro Mundo: Un análisis histórico de la Revolución Cubana. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Castro Ruz, Fidel. 1990. Informe Central: I, II y III Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba. La Habana: Editora Política.
de Armas, Ramon, y Pedro Pablo Rodrúguez. 1994. “El pensamiento de José Martí y la creación del Partido Revolucionario Cubano” en María del Carmen Barcía, Gloria García and Eduardo Torres-Cuevas, Eds., Historia de Cuba: La Colonia: Evolución Socioeconómica y formación nacional de los orígenes hasta 1867. La Habana: Editora Política.
Vitier, Cintio. 2006. Ese Sol del Mundo Moral. La Habana: Editorial Félix Varela.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Cuban Revolution, José Martí