José Martí: Cuban Nationalist, Critic of American Imperialism

In the mid-19th century it was still possible for a public figure to be a liberal, a Romantic, and a nationalist, simultaneously. Giuseppe Mazzini, for one, comes to mind. By the end of the century, such a combination was increasingly rare, at least in Europe. There, nationalism – whatever its early associations with liberalism and the French Revolution – was now the cause of the Right. Conservative elements in and out of government fielded nationalism as a slogan having greater potential mass appeal than mere defense of monarchy, feudal landholding, and established churches.

In so doing, the Right abandoned "conservatism" in the European sense and wedded itself to a cause which contributed to some subsequent situations and problems. Napoleon III, whose comic-opera regime gave Karl Marx so much good material, was a pioneer in bringing together themes from Right and Left to win mass support while pursuing a rather unspecified national "glory." The Lesser Napoleon combined nationalist rhetoric, welfare programs, strong executive government ("Caesarism"), frequent plebiscites, and interference in markets overseen by his ideological mentors, the Positivists, who had all gone into banking and engineering and did quite well under the Second Empire. The Suez Canal, built by France and then not-too-subtly alienated by Britain, was an outstanding Positivist engineering project and suggested, at least, a partial withdrawal from social engineering into plain engineering. Whether we may call Napoleon III a "proto-fascist" is perhaps a matter of taste.

The real revolutionary in terms of wedding a great territorial state to the formerly left-wing doctrine of nationalism was, of course, Bismarck. In 1879, the Iron Chancellor abandoned his liberal, free-trading supporters and forged new alliances with mercantilist Sonderinteressen (special interests) in industry and agriculture and founded the welfare state to draw support away from socialist parties. Thereafter, German politics became a fight between various programs of national-socialism and plain old socialism, as F.A. Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1944 [pp. 167-180]).

In France, the program of Charles Maurras and the Action Française – the eternal French Nation ruled by a legitimate King, Catholicism with the sentimental bits (that is, Christianity) taken out, and whatever else came to mind – helped re-define the political spectrum. The terms "Left" and "Right" – rather useless, anyway – never fully recovered from all these shifts. Romanticism, too, became the property of the new "right-wing" nationalists. As I pointed out last week, this emerging European synthesis left little work for those who took the final steps into "national socialism" and "social imperialism."


The good news, I suppose, is that what I call the Atlantic theory barrier still held. The broad differences between life and politics in the New and Old Worlds tended to slow down the transmission of new European social theories to North America. Since most of these new ideas were pretty awful, this was all to the good. Only in the 1880s did German-trained American scholars bring word of the great advances being made under Bismarck’s "social monarchism" and it took a while, after that, for us to be blessed with similar institutions. Around the same time, European immigrants brought us that other great discovery, Marxism, further increasing our potential happiness.

This chronology is only approximate, and I would be the first to admit that Francis Lieber had already brought a working knowledge of Hegel’s philosophy to Abraham Lincoln’s War Department, where, I am sure, it was extremely useful. George Bancroft was already applying Hegel’s system to the writing of American history, finding out, rather shockingly, that American "democracy" – and not the Prussian monarchy – was History’s end-goal, a discovery which renders Francis Fukuyama’s recent meditations quite unnecessary.


Some of this may explain why José Martí – on our side of the water – could still be, at once, a liberal, a Romantic, and a nationalist in the late 19th century. Martí was born in Cuba to peninsular (Spanish) parents in 1853. He early committed himself to republican and liberal ideals. Already in 1870, he was exiled to Spain for his support of the 1868 rebellion, which became the Ten Years War. There, Martí acquired a law degree and acquainted himself with the liberal and radical politics of the Spanish Left. He read and traveled widely, living in Mexico and the United States among other places, and developed a unique viewpoint based on his experiences, observations, and reading.

Martí developed a body of thought centering on liberalism, republicanism, and a broad notion of social reform, all of which entered into his nationalism. In this, Martí bears some resemblance to Thomas Paine, another widely read propagandist with a straight-forward style. Cuban nationalists – Castroite and anti-Castroite – draw on Martí ’s work and claim his legacy. Martí was a prophet and his religion was liberal-republican Cuban nationalism. Asked at his famous trial, following the failed attack on an army barracks near Havana in July 1953, who was responsible for the raid, Fidel Castro answered, "José Martí."

As a Romantic and eclectic thinker, Martí never built an elaborate system of thought like that of, say, Karl Marx. He wanted Cuban independence from Spain, "social justice," a republic, and a broad class of small landowners – that hardy perennial of republican theory. Beyond that, he hoped for a resurgent Latin American civilization based on cooperation between the Spanish-speaking nations of the New World. To achieve these goals, Cubans needed to drive Spanish power from their island, while somehow avoiding the clutches of the rising American empire. A true "Pan-American," Martí found much to admire in the North Americans – Emerson was one of his heroes – but he didn’t see them as divinely appointed to run the western hemisphere, much less the world.


I leave it to the reader’s imagination why Cubans like Martí might have wished for an end to the plunder-seeking, favoritism, and mercantilism associated with Spanish rule. What is more interesting, for our purposes, are Martí ’s finely etched comments on the United States and its (formerly "their") people. For example: "Between the shanties of Dakota and the virile and barbaric nation in process of growth there, and the cities of the East – sprawling, privileged, well-bred, sensual, and unjust – lies an entire world. From the stone houses and the majestic freedom north of Schenectady, to the dismal resort on stilts south of St. Petersburg, lies another entire world. The clean and concerned people of the North are worlds apart from the choleric, poverty-stricken, broken, bitter, lackluster, loafing Southern shopkeepers sitting on their cracker barrels."1

I would merely add that the loafing shopkeepers were probably engaged in story-telling, a Celtic art-form well developed in the South, of which Martí was perhaps unaware.

Writing in the New York Evening Post in 1889, Martí described Cubans’ view of the United States: "They admire this nation, the greatest ever of those which liberty has raised up; but they distrust those elements which, like worms in the blood, have begun in this marvelous republic their work of destruction." Cubans could not "honestly believe that the excessive individualism, the worship of riches, and the prolonged celebration of a terrible victory are preparing the United States to be the model nation of liberty…. We love the country of Lincoln just as much as we fear the country of Cutting."2

But surely it was Lincoln’s terrible victory as much as individualism and riches, which made possible the country of Cutting. As historian Clyde Wilson observes, "Historians who are well aware of the corruption that followed the war, for instance, seem to imply that it mysteriously appeared after Lincoln’s death and somehow miss the obvious conclusion that it was implicit in the goals of the Lincoln war party."3 But Martí , like many Romantic liberal nationalists, admired Lincoln, and rather than stage a running debate with the founder of Cuban nationalism, I move on.

Martí had a strong sense of the "plunder-seeking"4 alliance of business and government which characterized late 19th-century America, an era still held by mainstream historians to illustrate the evils of "laissez faire." Martí described the Gilded Age: "These new tartars sack and pillage in the modern manner, riding in locomotives…. These birds of prey form syndicates, offer dividends, buy eloquence and influence, encircle Congress with invisible snares, hold legislation fast by the reins as if it were a newly broken horse, and, colossal robbers all, hoard and divide their gains in secret…. Senators visit them by back doors, cabinet members visit them in the quiet hours after the working day is over; millions of dollars pass through their hands….5

This actually sounds a lot like our present ruling alliance of state and business – whether we call it corporatism, corporate syndicalism, or neo-mercantilism. The interested parties in politics and business have perfected the system in the meantime and the millions are now billions. Finally, the politicians were actively creating crony-capitalism, as Walter Karp always pointed out, and were not merely pawns open to corruption.

Other aspects of American life gave Martí pause: "They [the Americans] believe in need, in the barbarous right as the only right: ‘this will be ours because we need it.’ They believe in the invincible superiority of the ‘Anglo-Saxon race over the Latin.’"6 He also criticized the norteamericanos’ racial attitudes towards blacks and Indians, but since whole brigades of critical theorists remind us daily of these matters, I doubt that my adding to the discussion is really necessary.

Martí saw the United States as a "nation of different interests, hybrid composition, and frightful problems, a nation resolved, before putting its own house in order, to engage in an arrogant and perhaps childish rivalry with the world."7 Here, Martí was perhaps more right than he knew, for it was precisely the desire of those who favored the "large policy" of overseas economic empire to externalize perceived problems overseas instead of putting their own house in order. As "Marse" Henry Watterson, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, put it with characteristic bluntness and bombast: "We escape the menace and peril of socialism and agrarianism, as England has escaped them, by a policy of colonialism and conquest…. We risk Caesarism, certainly, but Caesarism is preferable to anarchism."8

Why "expansionists" like Watterson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Brooks Adams believed overseas imperialism to be the only alternative to socialism, anarchism, and the like is less than clear. Self-interest may enter into it, as well as the drive to exercise power and seek glory. William Appleman Williams and Walter Karp both have something to say to us, here. Making the case that there were, and are, alternatives besides socialism and empire is precisely the point of


As for José Martí – that eloquent if unsystematic critic of the emerging American empire: he was already dead when Watterson issued his manifesto. Martí was killed in May 1895, fighting in the first phase of a war for Cuban independence, a war he had helped organize and whose most eloquent spokesman he was. It was probably just as well. He would have hated to see the arrogant norteamericanos resolve the Spanish-Cuban War on their own terms, shoving aside the Cuban leadership and using their war with Spain as the jumping-off point to Pacific empire. Marti had launched the war in 1895 precisely because he feared US intervention. The rebels, with a broad base among Cuba’s black population, were close to victory in 1898. The US intervened to keep the radicals from winning.

He knew the dangers. He wrote to a friend shortly before his death that it was his duty "as far as I understand it and have the courage to realize it – to prevent for a time, with the independence of Cuba, the United States from extending itself through the Antilles and falling, with this greater force, upon our lands of America. Whatever I have done up to today, and shall do, is for this…. I have lived in the Monster and I know its insides: – my sling is that of David."9 We who live in the limbs of the beast, if not exactly its entrails – those would be between Virginia and Maryland, wouldn’t they? – can sympathize. After all, our lands were conquered even earlier.


Martí predicted that a lengthy war in Cuba would create a pretext for US intervention. Cuba would become an American colony. "Once the United States is in Cuba," he asked, "who will drive it out?"10 We have the answer to that question and it wasn’t pretty. Later Cuban revolutionaries wedded to very bad theory managed to transform an American protectorate into a Soviet protectorate. There are those who say that "after Castro falls" we can "normalize" relations with Cuba. Actually, we could do it ten minutes from now. Sanctions against Iraq punish and brutalize the Iraqi people in a vain attempt to bring down a despised leader. The same thing applies to Cuba. We might as well open up trade before the Canadians and Europeans get all the best deals. Yes, I know that socialist "management" accounts for much of Cuba’s decline into a stone-age economy. But this is part of the larger case against socialism and is by the way. Why add to the Cubans’ misery with sanctions which even Mr. Lincoln might have hesitated to impose on the Confederacy?

And what about "defense"? I should think that with all his spending in this area, Uncle should be able to repel any actual Cuban invasions rather easily. If we can’t defend ourselves from Cuba, a lot of money must have gone down some domestic and foreign "rat-holes."


It would be very interesting to compare Martí’s views on America with those of another keen foreign observer, Alexis de Tocqueville. No less than Newt told you to read Tocqueville. This would be an interesting project for some keen young historian as we enter the Second American Century.


  1. Quoted in G. K. Lewis, Main Currents in Caribbean Thought (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1983), p. 298.
  2. Quoted in John M. Kirk, "José Martí and the United States: A Further Interpretation," Journal of Latin American Studies, 9, 2 (1977), p. 285 (my translation and emphasis).
  3. Clyde Wilson, "War, Reconstruction, and the End of the Old Republic," Society, 33, 6 (September/October 1996), p. 71.
  4. Economist Walter Block suggests substituting this phrase for "rent-seeking," which creates confusion with ordinary economic rent.
  5. Lewis, p. 299.
  6. Ibid., p. 300.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Quoted in Leon Wolff, Little Brown Brother (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961), pp. 269-70.
  9. Kirk, p. 288 (my translation).
  10. Quoted in Louis A. Perez, Jr., Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 147.