by Susan Babbitt for The Saker Blog

Margaret Randall’s new memoire, I Never Left Home, [1] is a story of resistance in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua. Now 83, in New Mexico, she is writer, teacher and mentor to younger artists. Randall is an intrepid, compassionate example of anti-imperialist creativity, with more than 150 publications of poetry and non-fiction, all demonstrating profound respect for ideas from the South.

It is not common. Two 2019 books on the Cuban Revolution, sympathetic to the leaders of that revolution, ignore the ideas that explain it. Centuries-long philosophical traditions, challenging popular ideas arising in Europe, now dominant in universities, are just left out. I return to this.

Randall integrated the 1968 protests in Mexico supporting the Cuban Revolution. With Sergio Mondragón, she founded El corno emplumado /the plumed horn, a bilingual quarterly publishing vanguard poets from North and South America from 1962-1969. In all, it published 31 issues and a dozen books. According to Roberto Fernandez Retamar, legendary director of the iconic Casa de las Américas in Havana, recently deceased, El Corno was a “great achievement”.

Randall worked sacrificially, without a salary. After the journal’s defense of Mexico’s 1968 Student Movement, it was closed. Randall was forced to leave Mexico (without a passport) and worked and raised children in Cuba from 1969-80. She then joined the “explosion of exuberance” that was the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua until its “death” provided reason to leave.

She returned to the US (1984) where she fought deportation from her country of birth for five long years.

Lived Lies

Yet Randall does not question the philosophical roots of imperialism. This is not a criticism. It is precisely because Randall is so respectful of ideas from the South that her fascinating story shows just how hard it is to question the philosophical roots of imperialism or even to identify them.

They are behaviour patterns and values. They are identity. In Dostoevsky’s Demons, liberal academic Stepan Trofimovich says before dying: “I’ve been lying all my life. Even when I was telling the truth …. The worst of it is that I believe myself when I lie. The most difficult thing in life is to live and not lie.”

It’s because lies are behaviour. Dostoevsky was a liberal in the 1840s and Demons (written in the 1860s when Russia was being flooded by new ideas like feminism, atheism, nihilism) exposes a problem. Its characters “eat” ideas. They don’t believe them, and they don’t know they don’t believe them. [2]

Beliefs can be tacit, presupposed, not acknowledged, just lived. This aspect of thinking is known in analytic philosophy of science in North America.[3] Philosophers call such beliefs “non-propositional”. They are not expressed in sentences. They explain behaviour, movement. You know what you believe by looking at how you live. And you may not believe that you believe what you in fact believe.

It is partly why, in the anti-war movement in the US in the 60s and 70s, there was a slogan: There are no innocents. It meant that a quiet white life was collusion in the slaughter abroad. Behaviour patterns and values lived day by day, sustained ideology justifying slaughter abroad.

Toni Morrison calls it the “story beneath the story” and James Baldwin a “burning fire”. The phenomenon – lies that are lived, without knowing – has been known in Cuba since the early nineteenth century. It’s been known elsewhere, in fact in many philosophical traditions outside Europe (and within Europe by Marx). The Buddha, for instance, was very clear that beliefs, which we identify with and out of which we create an image of or story about ourselves, arise mostly arbitrarily from habit patterns, our own and society’s. We are in bondage to such (often tacit) beliefs.

They prevent choice. It is partly why the Buddha taught mental control, through the practise of meditation, although this is not understood in the current “mindfulness” craze in the US. [4]

Randall picks out elements of the ideas that challenge dominant worldviews but does not put them together or draw the consequences. They have to do with power, as I explain further below. Throughout the memoire, she comes back to the question of power. It is, she writes throughout the book, the explanation for political failures in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua.

Maybe, but the problem is not power as such, as we will see. This is a mistake and she could know it. But again, this is not meant as criticism ; it is indication of how hard it is to recognize lived ideology.

In 1999 in Caracus, Fidel Castro said, “They discovered smart weapons. We discovered something more important: people think and feel.” The statement is about lies that are lived and how to know them.

José de la Luz y Caballero, in early 19th century Cuba, a priest who wanted independence, taught philosophy because of a lie: slavery. Progressives accepted it.[5] They couldn’t imagine life without slavery. Luz taught philosophy in order that privileged youth could know injustice when injustice is identity: lived lies.

Cuban philosopher and revolutionary, José Martí, later, identified another lie: that the South must look North to live well. He built a revolution resisting it in the nineteenth century. It extended into the twentieth. It was not just about the lie, but about how to know it: a revolution in thinking.[6]

Early independence leaders, and later Martí, studied thinking. This point gets missed.

About her experiences in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua, Randall comments on the deep connection, in each of these societies, between art and politics. Cuban philosopher Armando Hart, admired by Randall, has said the connection between art and politics is one of the Cuban Revolution’s most important ideological strengths.

It is about how we know. “People think and feel”. It has consequences, including for power.


Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, said everyone is a philosopher but only some are called philosophers. This is because everyone, at some moments, thinks philosophically. You ask yourself whether you’re living a good life, whether you’ve done the right thing, or whether you’ve been a good friend to someone. In such moments, you employ philosophical concepts. You do so without realizing.

How we think determines how we act. This is known in many philosophical traditions. In the West, we think that how I act and what I say is most important and what I think is private, of no practical consequence. For the Buddha, just to mention one philosopher who thought otherwise, “mind matters most”. [7]

What you think results inevitably in actions and words. It includes what you think of “human”, that is, what you think it means to be human and to realize your unique potential as a human being. But how you think about “human” depends upon your society. We consider this further in the next section.

Marx made this point and his philosophy[8] challenges an idea that dominated in nineteenth century Europe and even more so today. It is the view that who I am – my self – is my mind, my thoughts. It goes back to René Descartes (1641) and evolved into ideas of identity, rationality and most notably freedom. They are ideas that are so deep-seated, culturally, that they are difficult to point out.

They are assumed, lived. This is part of the rationale for this current work, inspired by Randall.

Both Luz and Martí taught that “people think and feel”. It’s about reciprocity. Interconnectedness is a trendy idea among some philosophers, especially feminists, who emphasize relationships and emotional sensitivity. They urge connectivity as an antidote to liberal individualism, and a source of knowledge. Cuba’s philosophers, especially Martí, broke that trail in this hemisphere long ago, as I explain.

A new book on the US medical system identifies just such thinking, known to science, but hard to practise. Reciprocity involves experiencing – that is, feeling – relations between people, and becoming motivated, even humanized. Anyone seriously ill in the US (and Canada), knows medicine is not about care. Soul of Care, by Harvard psychiatrist, Arthur Kleinman, explains why.[9]

The failure is systemic. He cites an educator at a major US medical school, who feels like a “hypocrite” teaching about care. She knows doctors don’t have time to listen and are not so encouraged. Medicine is about “cost, efficiency, management talk”. Survival “depends on cutting corners, spending as little time as you can get away with in human interactions that can be emotionally and morally taxing.”

As Kleinman tells his personal story, of caring for his beloved wife, Joan, he offers a different view. Caregiving is not a moral obligation; it is existential. At its heart is reciprocity, the ““invisible glue that holds societies together”. In caregiving, one finds within oneself “a tender mercy and a need to act on it”. Caregiving, Kleinman argues, made him more human

Reciprocity offers solutions not identifiable previously. It matters for science, for truth. But the capacity must be cultivated. “Being present” means submitting intellectual judgment, on occasion, to experience of feelings. One can’t just decide to do it without preparation.

Yet such training is not happening. It’s not likely to. It contradicts “politically useful fictions” like the “self-made man”.

Two points stand out: Reciprocity makes you. Its value is not moral. It is about who you are, as a person. It explains capacities. Exercising reciprocity, you gain capacities. You gain energy, drive, wisdom. Second, reciprocity has epistemic value. It leads you to truths that could not be accessed otherwise.

These points are made by a US scientist. He is not a Marxist. He is a caring, sensible, medical professional and he draws on his own personal experience to make a case of urgent philosophical merit.

The same case was made by the nineteenth century independistas who rejected, thoroughly, a view of freedom arising from Europe. They understood that (1) it disallowed the acquiring of human capacities and (2) it made truth, especially about what it means to be human, inaccessible. On this, more anon.

Kleinman says medicine needs help from sociology and “even philosophy”. But the myth of the self-made man is taught in philosophy. It’s called philosophical liberalism. Liberalism is not just a political view. It is importantly philosophical, and it is assumed by many who do not call themselves liberals: feminists, anarchists, Aristotelians, environmentalists. If you look closely at the arguments you discover they assume liberal ideas of identity, rationality and autonomy.[10]

Philosophical liberalism denies person-making reciprocity. It becomes unimaginable in the way Kleinman so compellingly describes.

Marx taught such reciprocity – the kind that recognizes receiving back, cause and effect, giving. So did Lenin, the Buddha, and Christian philosophers, Thomas Merton, Jean Vanier and Ivan Illich. We don’t teach these philosophers in philosophy departments in North America. We barely recognize them.

Caregiving is so alien to medical practise that Kleinman’s “modest proposal” is to omit it from the curriculum altogether. Nonetheless, as he points out, health institutions claim to care about care. Kleinman’s colleague says: “We can’t even tell ourselves lies we can believe in”.

But they can. Whole societies can, and we do. “There are no innocents”, as they said in the 70s.

Group Think

The early Cuban independence activists, not radical, knew something about thinking that is now uncontroversial in analytic philosophy of science in North America. What they knew is this: All individual thinking is “group think”.

Everyone wants to be “authentic”: a real individual. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor referred to an “age of authenticity” in which the priority is happiness and choice: my own, of course.[11] But philosophers of science argue that in every instance of individual thinking, you name what you are thinking about. You say to yourself, “I am falling in love”. Why call it “love”? it is because of what you saw on TV.

Every act of thinking, no matter how private, involves naming. And names come from society. They are not from you. Names are socially dependent, a result of the “group”. Your “private”, individual thinking is always group think.

There is only one way to avoid group think. Cuban philosopher Cintio Vitier uses the word “teluricidad” (earthiness) to link Luz y Caballero and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, then Martí and eventually Fidel and Che Guevara.[12] Teluricidad has to do with feeling and how it moves us beyond conformity, if we have the guts to think it matters.

It takes guts because it challenges an entire world view: liberalism. Part of philosophical liberalism is an intellectual idea of rationality. It makes feelings suspect, as is explained further below.

That Descartes was wrong is cliché, but his view is influential. It is the idea that my self is my story, my memories. I act freely when I act from “within.” Yet there is no “within”, at least not unless you learn mental control, which Is not valued in the West and the North, although it was in ancient times.

Brilliant Cuban philosopher, diplomat and politician, Raúl Roa, argued in 1953 that the world was passing through its gravest crisis ever.[13] It was because the consolidation of US power brought with it a conception of human beings. It was an idea that arose in the Renaissance, which was not a rebirth of ancient humanism which recognized contemplation but, instead, the invention of a view appropriate for capitalism: homo faber, the man of action.

Roa calls it the “world’s gravest crisis” precisely because it makes moral and human truth implausible. Liberalism separated fact and value: There is no truth about value. It’s a convenient view if you live in the rich and powerful part of the world.

When I started reading philosophers from the South – those who resisted imperialism and colonialism – I discovered that they didn’t ask whether there is knowledge about value.[14] They had no doubt. I discovered the same about the Buddha. He didn’t ask whether there is knowledge about value. He assumed there is. [15]

The existence of moral and human truths is, arguably, an essential dividing point between Eastern and Western philosophy. It has significant implications.[16] The point for now is that philosophers from the South – at least those who resisted imperialism and colonialism – are more Eastern than Western in this crucial respect.

Roa could see this. Luz, mentioned above, taught philosophy because of the implication of European (liberal) philosophy for truth. He knew slavery was a lie. But slavery was an injustice lived by the privileged classes, somewhat like the division between North and South is lived by the rich North today: an identity. We consider ourselves “lucky” when we should, if we were honest, feel shame.

Luz saw the intersection between art and nature, feelings and science, faith and proof. He was a scientist who taught philosophy, credited by historians for teaching Cubans “how to think”. Roa’s point, in 1953, from Cuba, in the South, is that homo faber doesn’t contemplate such intersections. Homo faber doesn’t tolerate insecurity. Homo faber controls.

Desires, preferences, values, life plans are from without. They are a result of cause and effect. Thinking, desiring, planning, no matter how supposedly private, involves naming. Feeling does not. Alright, it sometimes does, such as in the example above about falling in love. But it doesn’t have to. Thinking always involves naming. It can’t happen without naming. And names are shared.

The Buddha knew this 2500 years ago, and he taught people to control their minds, so they could feel without naming.[17] That’s partly what meditation is about, although it is not how it is understood currently, as mentioned above.

The “Problem” of Power

Even before Martí, radical Cuban liberation activists condemned a popular presupposition of European philosophy: We act on “our own” when we follow our dreams just because they are ours. Some call it “the bourgeois myth of self-origination”, the idea that we ourselves cause our desires.

Che Guevara called it a cage: One attempts to escape alienation by doing one’s own thing but the remedy “bears the germs of the same sickness”, not permitting “escape from the invisible cage”.[18]

The cage is not just power structures. It is also accepted beliefs, stories, memories. But these depend on power structures. Martí mistrusted “the Yankee and European book”, at least for democracy, because “imported forms and ideas … have in their lack of local reality” prevented real self-government. Some of those ideas were about freedom itself: what Isaiah Berlin called “negative freedom”. It is the idea, roughly, that you are free if nothing gets in your way, within limits.

It is not the only idea out there in the history of philosophy. It is certainly not the most sensible. Human beings, like every other entity in the universe are subject to cause and effect. Reciprocity. It means, as Marx said, that we change the world that changes us. We know the world as it acts upon us, changes us, transforms us, sometime in ways we do not choose or even understand.

This is how we get truth, not by looking “inside” at a mythical “self”, mostly invented.[19]

Martí praised the poet José María de Heredia who dared “to be free in a time of pretentious slaves”, suggesting that “pretentious slaves” are “so accustomed . . . to servitude that [they become] … slaves of Liberty!” We can only become free when we understand the causal forces that determine our thinking and do the work to properly challenge and change such structures.

In doing so we exercise power.

Martí, admired by Randall and translated into English by her mother, states in his famous “Our America” that Latin American leaders must bring about “by means and institutions . . . the desirable state in which every man knows himself and is active”. [20] This is a remarkably unliberal claim. Individuals, Martí is saying, know themselves, not by looking “within”, but “by means and institutions” brought about by good government, that is, through the government’s exercise of power.

It doesn’t mean there have not been misuses of power in Cuba. In 26 years of going there regularly I have not met anyone who would deny misuses of power. But it changes the analysis.

Randall admires Cuba’s humanism, writing that “one of the Cuban revolution’s saving graces is [that] … a great humanity underpins its initiatives” (196). She quotes Che Guevara, who says a true revolutionary must be guided by “great feelings of love”. [21]

Philosophical liberalism devalues “feelings of love”. They are irrational. They cannot involve truth. Rationality is intellectual. It is what Fidel Castro was referring to when he said that better than smart bombs is recognition that “people think and feel”. He is referring to a philosophical view that has existed in many cultures, including the indigenous cultures of Central America that so profoundly influenced Martí, and which Randall cites.

It was the view of ancient philosophers like Chuang Tzu and the Buddha, and poets such as Rumi.

Cuban history makes such humanistic motivation believable. Cuban presence in Angola, according to historian Richard Gott, was “entirely without selfish motivation”. Cuba sent 300,000 volunteers between 1975 and 1991, more than 2,000 of whom died, to push back and eventually defeat apartheid South Africa. In Pretoria, a “wall of names” commemorates those who died in the struggle against apartheid. Many Cuban names are inscribed there. No other foreign country is represented.[22]

The US claimed that Cuba was acting as a Soviet proxy but according to US intelligence, Castro had “no intention of subordinating himself to Soviet discipline and direction.” He criticized the Soviets as dogmatic and opportunistic, ungenerous toward Third World liberation movements, and unwilling to adequately support North Vietnam. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoire 25 years later that Castro was “probably the most genuinely revolutionary leader then in power”.[23]

US Intelligence even identified the real motivation for Cuba’s costly involvement. Castro, it was reported, “places particular importance on maintaining a ‘principled’ foreign policy . . . [and] on questions of basic importance such as Cuba’s right and duty to support nationalist revolutionary movements and friendly governments in the Third World, Castro permits no compromise of principle for the sake of economic or political expediency.”

In 1991, Cuba’s “great crusade” led Nelson Mandela to ask, “What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?”

Cuba’s internationalism continues. In 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Few have heeded the call [to fight Ebola]s, but one country has responded in strength: Cuba.” Cuba responded without hesitation, sending more than 450 doctors and nurses, chosen from more than 15,000 volunteers, by far the largest medical mission sent by any country.

Explained philosophically, though, internationalism is a practical, not moral, obligation as it is often portrayed. Human beings are part of nature, and we depend upon nature, including other human beings. In 1998, Fidel Castro said that Cuba’s humanist project explains Cuba’s resistance to the US financial, commercial and economic blockade.

He cited the power of ideas, specifically ideas about the practical, not moral significance of internationalism. This gets missed. It is reciprocity: lived, not just theorized

Two books published in 2019, both sympathetic to Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution (to a point) miss it. Cubans call it the “battle for ideas”. It is about ideas but also about the nature of ideas, that they arise from feeling, for example, and not just from rationalization.

Cuba Libre! Che, Fidel, and the Improbable Revolution That Changed World History by Tony Perrottet [24] tells stories – good ones – about the guerilla struggle between 1956-8, leading to the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista. There is only caricatured reference to Martí and no explanation of the history of resistance that explained and energized the sacrifice that Perrotet describes as “improbable”.

It is not improbable if philosophical liberalism is rejected, as it was, and reciprocity is lived.

The second book, of note, is a “revisionist” view of young Fidel Castro [25] describing Fidel Castro as an individual with strengths and weaknesses, that is, as a normal human being. Jonathan Hansen does not explain why we should expect otherwise. Although Hansen mentions the struggle for “cuba libre”, he does not explain it. In particular, he does not mention resistance to European ideology and the driving force of a quite different vision of human freedom than the one the consolidation of which Roa identifies as “the world’s gravest crisis”.

It’s like writing a biography of Stephen Hawking without mentioning collapsing stars or imaginary time. No one would do it. But Hansen makes the strange claim that Castro loved only one thing: the revolution. He didn’t love anything else, not even his son. Would anyone say Hawking loved only one thing: cosmology? And nothing else? Cosmology shaped his life, and the revolution shaped Castro’s. Does that mean no love for human beings is possible?

It is a silly view, only plausible if not examined. And there’s the rub. Philosophers of science argue that we only find empirical evidence to support theories if we first, to some degree, believe such theories, even without evidence.[26] This means that we don’t examine that which we don’t find surprising.

It’s why Cuba’s “battle for ideas” does not get proper attention in Randall’s memoire. It is not expected. There is no question the answer to which is expected to be useful and interesting. This is how theory works. It depends upon judgments of interest and plausibility. There is no question about the battle for ideas because there is nothing we care about that the battle for ideas might explain.

So, ironically, the battle for idea can only matter if there is a battle for ideas: against philosophical liberalism. It makes human truths implausible and inaccessible. In the “age of authenticity”, as Charles Taylor points out, the priority is happiness and choice, and humanness is whatever you believe it to be.

It is not a plausible view for those who have struggled for centuries against dehumanizing imperialism and, for anyone who cares to look seriously, plenty of compelling evidence supports their position.


Cuba resisted the US embargo for sixty years. It defied predictions of imminent collapse after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. And when Fidel Castro stepped down in 2006 because of illness, Cuba again defied predictions— this time of internal squabbling and chaos. Julia Sweig, US Rockefeller senior fellow, noted a “stunning display of orderliness and seriousness” and concluded that the Cuban Revolution “rests upon far more than the charisma, authority and legend of [Raul and Fidel Castro].”

Far more than power.

The “far more” is philosophical, a vision of who we can be, and know ourselves as, as human beings. It predates Martí but was most radically realized by Martí, who thought political liberation does not long endure without spiritual freedom. He meant that sensitivity and humility matter more than knowledge because we gain capacity to respond to beauty, whether in ideas, people or events.

Only with such responsiveness can we know the unexpected, which may be humanness.

It is Cuba’s gift to the world. But it must be understood. It Is not simple and can even be disruptive. But it is urgent. It is not clear that Randall sees this. However, she has done more than many and deserves enormous credit. But what is missed matters. I believe she’d agree.


  1. I Never Left Home: A Memoire of Time and Place (Duke University Press, 2020)
  2. Richard Pevear “Introduction” Demons (Vintage, 1995).
  3. E.g. Boyd, Richard N. “How to be a moral realist”, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (Ed.), Essays on moral realism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988) 181-228; Kitcher, Philip, ”The Naturalists Return”, The Philosophical Review 101(1992 1): 53 – 114.
  4. E.g. Ronald Purser, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness became the New Capitalist Spirituality (Penguin Random House 2019) HOW MINDFULNESS BECAME THE NEW CAPITALIST SPIRITUALITY HOW MINDFULNESS BECAME THE NEW CAPITALIST SPIRITUALITY By RONALD PURSER
  5. Cintio Vitier, Ese sol del mundo moral (Havana, Editorial Félix Varela, 1996)10-18
  6. Rodriguez, Pedro Pablo Pensar, prever, servir (Havana: Ediciones Unión, 2012)
  7. Chapter 1 of Dhammapada found here:
  8. Allen Wood, Karl Marx (Routledge 2003) is arguably the best account of Marx’s philosophy (as opposed to his politics). Wood argues that many Marxists do not sufficiently consider Marx’s philosophy.
  9. Penguin Random House, 2019. Review is here:
  10. I have argued this in “Anarchy a false hope? Latin American revolutionaries knew dhamma and saddha” Kalmanson, Leah, ed. Comparative Studies in Asian and Latin American Philosophies (Bloomsbury Press, 2018); “Political Freedom and Epistemic Injustice” in Ian Kidd, José Medina, Gaile Polhaus eds. Handbook on Epistemic Injustice (Routledge Press, 2017).
  11. A Secular Age (Harvard University, 2007), 473-479).
  12. Ese sol, op. cit., 14-18
  13. Roa, Raúl “Grandeza y servidumbre del humanismo”, Viento Sur, Havana: Centro cultural de Pablo de la Torriente Brau 2015) 44-62 .
  14. E.g. Brazilian philosopher, Paulo Freire, wrote that “authentic humanism” is “impossible” not to discover, even with deep-seated cultural, intellectual and political acceptance of imperialist and colonialist dehumanization. See Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Myra Berman Ramos (Trans.) (New York: Continuum Press, 2000) 43. 93.
  15. I have explored this in Humanism and Embodiment (Bloomsbury 2014)
  16. Ernesto Limia Díaz explains the ineffectiveness of the international left by this phenomenon: denial of moral truth in Cuba:¿fin de la Historia? (NY: Ocean Sur, 2015) 90
  17. Hart, William, The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka ( Harper Collins, 1987).
  18. “Man and socialism in Cuba”. In David Deutschman (Ed.), The Che Guevara reader: Writings on guerilla strategy, politics and revolution (pp. 197– 214). (Ocean Press, 1997). (Originally published 1965)
  19. Patrick Modiano’s Sleep of Memory (Yale University press, 2018) See review at
  20. 1891 rpt. In Esther Allen (Ed. and Trans.), José Martí: Selected writings (Penguin Books, 2002) 290
  21. “Man and socialism”, op cit, 211
  22. Gleijeses, Piero, Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976 (University of North Carolina, 2002) 300-327.
  23. Gleijeses, Piero, Visions of Freedom: Havana. Washington, Pretoria and the struggle for southern Africa (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2013) 306, 373, 521, 525, 526
  24. Blue Rider Press (January 22, 2019). See review
  25. Hansen, Jonathan M. Young Castro: The Making of a Revolutionary (Simon and Schuster, 2019). See review at
  26. E.g. Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case against Creationism (MIT Press, 1982) ch. 2


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