Reflecting on José Martí

Revolutionary activist, humanist, visionary

José Martí

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References to Martí's work are from Obras completas. 27 vols. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Socials, 1975

Scroll down for a bibliography of works cited

Caliban as symbol for the Americas

In a seminal essay that identifies Martí’s transformative vision of nuestra América’s culture as Calibanesque (Calibán y otros ensayos), Roberto Fernández Retamar delineates the history of Caliban and the eventual positive identification of Shakespeare’s character with the condition of colonized peoples.

It is a view of Prospero as the embodiment of the civilizing mission of European enlightenment and the institutions that obliterated or marginalized the autochthonous world; of Ariel as the colonized intellectual conditioned to see through Prospero’s eyes and to do his bidding; and of Caliban as the progenitor of the new people of the Americas, protagonists in their struggle for freedom and dignity in a just society.

Unlike the institutionalized representations of the autochthonous world by the ruling elites of the new republics, Marti’s vision acknowledges the spirit, traditions and values that both characterize Caliban’s world and represent its human potential and capacity for development; it also resists the colonial institutions that perpetuate injustices; it condemns the colonized mentality that is ashamed to be Caliban’s descendants and ashamed also of his continuing presence in the new republics; and it values the unifying mestizo identity of his people.

The appropriation of the symbolic Caliban—an “alien elaboration” based on “our concrete realities,” Fernández Retamar puts it—to represent the human potential of the people is both a reminder and an acknowledgement of the inescapable hybridity of nuestra América’s culture which integrates indigenous, African and European elements into a unique mestizo identity.

José Martí projects his Calibanesque vision

This inescapable hybridity, however, is characterized by very unequal social relations. And it is against the characteristic supremacy of European culture and values in the colonized mentality that seeks validation from Prospero that Martí projects his Calibanesque vision which emerges relatively free of the conditioning and limiting parameters of Prospero’s dominant world.

Indeed Martí reminds us that though Europe is indeed part of the history and identity of nuestra América, it is not the wellspring of the cultural and political transformation required to ensure justice and dignity for all its citizens. His challenge to the “European rationality” represented in the institutionalized discourses of the dominant elites is focused on its inappropriateness for the task of creating a new people and founding original republics.

“Ni el libre europeo ni el libro yanqui, daban la clave del enigma hispanoamericano” (6:21), says Martí. “Injértese en nuestras repúblicas el mundo; pero el tronco ha de ser de nuestras repúblicas” (6:18). [Neither the European nor the Yanqui book contained the key to the Spanish American enigma; graft the world onto our republics, but the trunk must be of our republics.]

Martí’s Calibanesque vision has informed my understanding of his work. The humanism, anti-colonialism, and transformative spirit that constitute the foundation of his vision and intellectual ideas provide the conceptual framework for this reading of selected prose, the goal of which is to demonstrate the coherence and integrality between poet and revolutionary activist that is characteristic of his creativity and praxis.

Spirit and substance of the writings of José Martí

Martí’s commitment to social justice, his resistance to colonialism in all its manifestations, and his struggle for political and cultural independence—that is, his humanism—are the spirit and substance of his writings and constitute, I believe, a relatively autonomous and self-sufficient theoretical space within which to examine the seamless fusion of politics and aesthetics in his work, the product of a revolutionary spirit wherein a poetic imagination is inseparable from political activism.

Intellectual tools outside the conceptual frame informed by Martí’s ideas are not foundational to my approach to understanding his contribution to the world of ideas, literature, politics, and revolutionary activitism, but not to rely on them as a theoretical background for Martí’s ideas is not deny their usefulness to an understanding of Martí’s contribution to and his situation in the political and intellectual world beyond nuestra América.

The debt I owe to intellectuals from within Prospero’s world, if you will, is obvious I believe, from my analysis of his work, the purpose of which is to establish a shared understanding of the moral foundations of the humanism and the transformative purpose of the aesthetic criteria that inform Martí’s revolutionary activism, thereby delineating a frame of reference for the reading of the prose I selected for study.

Revolutionary discourse the power of an emancipatory aesthetic

Foucault’s ideas specific to the power of institutions in defining social relations, and in determining what is true and who can speak with authority, and Althusser’s useful distinction between “real” and “imaginary” relations underline concepts that are foundational in Martí’s understanding of the power of discourse to create knowledge, determine what is true and to redefine social and historical relations. Furthermore, it was Terry Eagleton who proposed that radical criticism is well-served by the “reinvention” of rhetoric, for rhetoric examines discourses as forms of activity with intended effects and designed modes of appeal. It provides critical strategies for the political analysis of texts and for understanding how writing like Martí’s contributes to human emancipation and social transformation.

The grounding of the ideal in the historical world is characteristic of the creative genius and revolutionary praxis through which Martí reconciles the poetic and the political. His idealism is evident in the idea of good that represents the human potential of every individual to resist injustices, achieve freedom and develop within a just society. Notwithstanding its embodiment in the metaphor of the “pure tear of eternal sentiment” within each person’s soul, it is not an inward-looking concept—it grounds the human essence in social relations, for empathy is the manifestation of the will to recognize the other as a fellow human. And it is in reaching outward that empathy resolves what may otherwise appear to be a contradiction between Martí’s humanist idealism and his active engagement with others and with the world.

Metaphor as the vehicle of truth

The symbolic tear in every person’s soul metaphorically conveys his belief in the dignity and equality of rights of every individual as inalienable entitlements and inherent characteristics of all people and in their potential to change themselves and the world. As Gaspar Jorge García Galló affirms, Martí’s humanism is characterized by the complete awareness of the real and the historical that informs it—“la plena conciencia de lo real y lo histórico”

That historical understanding is represented in his belief in the dignity and equality of rights of every individual and the potential for human development as the inalienable entitlements and inherent characteristics of all people. It is often conveyed poetically, for the metaphor, in Martí, is the figurative expression of “copious and burning” ideas that are anchored by historical reality.

Furthermore, the mutual inclusiveness of aesthetics and politics—they condition and make each other possible—is inherent in Martí’s conceptualization of revolutionary change, centred on his concern with human development and social justice, as an exigency in both the political and aesthetic domains, both being integral to the process of national development.

“Ni será escritor inmortal en América,” he writes, “sino aquel que refleje en sí las condiciones múltiples y confusas de esta época. . . . No hay letras, que son expresión, hasta que no hay esencia que expresar en ella. Ni habrá literatura hispanoamericana, hasta que no haya—Hispanoamérica” (21: 163-64). [The immortal writers of America will be those who reflect within themselves the multiple and confusing conditions of this epoch. . .There are no truly expressive writing without the expression of true essence.]

Culture, in Martí, therefore, would include all manifestations, forms or processes that relate to intellectual, spiritual, aesthetic, moral and affective aspects of human and material development, represented in the values and traditions of a people, and involving their aesthetic and material productions as well as the political, social and economic structures with which individuals identify and through which they recognize and interact with each other.

And beauty, for Martí, as expressed in and through literature, art and other forms of cultural production, resides not in the perfection of form, but in the perfection of the idea that inspires—the “copious and burning idea” contained in the shining verse. Furthermore, the perfection of form should not be achieved at the cost of the perfection of the idea.

In his “Prólogo” to Pérez Bonalde’s Poema del Niágara (7: 223-40, published in New York in 1882), he reflects on the age as “an epoch of elaboration and splendid transformation” when “all that is logical appears in a contradictory fashion.” It is an age in which “the mind solicits ideas from everywhere—and ideas are like polyps, like the light of stars, the waves of the ocean.” In this “decentralization of the understanding,” says Martí, “ideas are like the sun that “penetrates the cracks of old trees.” Ideas are “born with wings, on horseback, saddled with lightening. They do not believe in only one mind, but rather the commerce of all.”

In this seeming dismemberment of the human mind, God walks about in confusion. Nature “lights the solemn sun in the middle of a clearing” and “the beautiful has come to be the domain of all.” Nature, human labour, and the human spirit “open up like pure, unexhausted wellsprings to the dry lips of the poets . . . Let their cups of precious stone,” he continues, “be filled with the rays of the sun, the echoes of manual labour, prized and simple pearls, taken from the depth of the soul.”

For Martí, this intuitive understanding of the world is part of the poet’s genius. And the poet is most forceful when he or she is sincere: when the poet is not the scholar who reads, but the feeler who triumphs. Martí’s Prologue exemplifies the convergence of politics and aesthetics that characterizes his revolutionary discourse. The analysis of historical changes alongside the elaboration of aesthetic ideas in this critique of modernity is integral to the understanding it conveys, both thematically and figuratively, of the poetic imagination.

Indeed, in Martí we have the radicalization of the poetic imagination: knowledge and ideas are anchored in the real and poetically synthesized in the metaphor. In Sección constante he wrote: “El arte de escribir ¿no es reducir? La verdad mata sin duda a la elocuencia. Hay tanto que decir, que ha de decirse en el menor número de palabras: eso sí, que cada palabra lleve ala y color” [Isn’t the art of writing that of reducing to the essence? Truth undoubtedly destroys eloquence. There is much to express, but it must be done with the minimum of words: certainly, let each word possess wings and colour] (OC XI, p. 196, Edición Nacional de Cuba, 1964).

Figurative language, intuition, rationality and authority

In establishing the metaphor into a key vehicle for truth, Martí creates a discursive space wherein figurative language becomes a locus of authority of his revolutionary discourse.

And I should clarify here that it is within the context of a moral, just society that recognizes the dignity of every individual that the people’s affirmation of truth will legitimize the literary work and other forms of national culture.

His belief that an intuitive understanding of the world is an element of poetic genius does not privilege intuition over rationality. However, it does assign a key role for intuition in the critical evaluation of “truth” and “knowledge” in institutionalized discourses. Grounded in humanism’s underlying moral principles, and informed by the bonds of empathy, intuition guides the intellectual’s understanding of the world and provides a standard against which to critique institutionalized discourse.

Notable here are Martí’s well-known recollections of a childhood sojourn in the countryside with his father: “face-down whippings,” the handling of newly arrived slaves, the corpse of a slave dangling from a tree. These heartrending memories are later poetically immortalized as experiences that made him vow “to wash the crime with his own blood.”

This commitment to social justice is grounded in an intuitive, humanist understanding of, and empathetic response to the human suffering caused by slavery, the economic mainstay of colonial Cuba. It is also founded on a strongly held belief in the equality of human beings and in their inherent potential to transform themselves and change the unjust conditions of their world.

Grounded by his principled beliefs and guided by his moral reactions, Martí trusted his intuitions.

When the “rationality” of scientific research and knowledge of his time served to establish and legitimize a hierarchy of race and to inform unjust social and economic practices, his humanism and intuitive understanding were a standard against which he examined for bias and critiqued the evidence presented by social Darwinists.

Martí stressed intuition, feeling and sentiment without rejecting reason, for rationality defines the intellectual activist: “To think is to serve.” His rational understanding of the world is informed by a lifetime of study and reflection. And his critical understanding of scientific and historical knowledge conveys an awareness of knowledge as being determined by the conceptual limits of the institutionalized discourses of the dominant sectors.

For Martí, the responsibility of intellectuals and artists is to transcend those limits and to re-present the real relations of the dominated sectors within the social structures, thus enabling their understanding and empowering them to transform themselves and their world. If at times in his idealism and intuition may appear to contradict his activism and rationality, a critical analysis of the creative genius he displays in both the political and literary spheres leads us to observe, without detracting from the rationality of Martí’s discourse, that paradox and ambiguity are not necessarily the enemy of reason—for idealism and activism, intuition and rationality are not mutually exclusive in Martí

We have seen that in Martí’s view, ambiguity and contradictions are characteristic of modernity, and it is not unusual for tensions between idealism and historical awareness to be noted in his work. There is no doubt, however, that his ideas and activism are oriented towards revolutionary change—spiritual as well as material, both being integral to the identity and well-being of the nation and its people. Notwithstanding Hegelian overtones that may appear in Martí’s idea of the “transcending unity of mankind,” “transcending unity” is arguably, in Martí, historically grounded. It is specific to the capacity for empathy that characterizes and unifies human beings. This potential extends beyond the ruptures and divisions brought about by the relations of power and domination, and also beyond differences in moral development and social relations.

These ruptures and divisions are rooted in historical circumstances and not derived from racial or genetic differences. Cuba, for example, must struggle against Spain and the defenders of colonialism to effect the changes that will ensure dignity for all and a just society. Cubans and Spaniards are, however, ultimately united through human bonds that exist in the potential for good. This human potential, represented, for example, in the human capacity to resist injustices, achieve freedom and develop within a just society, exists, therefore, in human possibilities that are historically created.

Consequently, at different moment in history, Spaniards and Cubans may find common ground and be joined in a shared struggle for freedom and justice. Martí the idealist thus co-exists with the revolutionary activist: ambivalence, ambiguity and paradox are reconcilable in the poetic imagination, anchored in the real, where ideas are “born with wings,” the metaphor is the embodiment of truth and beauty, and figurative language becomes a locus of authority.

A moral framework of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism

Part of my critical approach to Martí connects him with Franz Fanon to demonstrate that humanism is the underlying moral framework of the anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism that characterize the revolutionary ideas and activities of both Antillean intellectuals and their challenge to the colonial rule of two European imperialist countries—Spain and France. I use Fanon, not only to emphasize how substantially Martí anticipates him, but also highlight the currency and relevance of Martí’s ideas. For while frequent references in contemporary discourses to Fanon’s writings on imperialism and colonialism confirm his continuing contribution to radical ideas in our twenty-first century, Martí’s revolutionary discourse is yet to be adequately explored, discovered and appreciated outside of Our America.

However, the measure of Martí’s relevance to our era is not determined by whether or not his ideas are sufficiently acknowledged in institutionalized discourses in the world of Prospero. What is more significant is that they have materialized in the most transformative, enduring, humanist project of our time—the Cuban Revolution, of which he is the architect and the continuing inspiration, and current economic and political initiatives involving collaboration among the republics of America.

Martí’s requirements for leadership and government in Our America, his insistence on original ideas for original republics, values ideas according to their appropriateness for the task of transforming society. Not the origin of ideas, but their utility and appropriateness to the conditions of the nation and the goals of its people determine whether they are to be rejected or embraced. The Cuban Revolution and the current momentum toward unity throughout the Americas have their in the ideas and nuestroamericanismo of Martí.

That Martí work lives on and his relevance to our century and our times are universally acknowledged throughout the Americas is cause for optimism. For this indefatigable Nineteenth Century activist, humanism is the foundation of the nation that establishes the conditions for the moral and political imperatives that recognize the dignity of every individual, protect equality of rights, and achieve human development through its cultural, political, social and economic structures and resources. For self-development, freedom, justice and dignity are inalienably the right of every individual, and a just society is the critical measure of human progress.


Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1996.

Fernández Retamar, Roberto. Calibán y otros ensayos. La Habana: Editorial Arte y Literatura, 1979.

Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca, New York: Cornell U. P., 1977.

_______________. The Order of Things. New York: Random House, 1973.

_______________. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

García Galló, Gaspar Jorge. “El humanismo martiano.” Universidad de La Habana 219 (1983): 26-40., p. 17.

Copyright 2012 Pamela Barnett