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An Introduction to Milton’s Satan, Part 1 (Critical History and Reception)

What matter where, if I be the same?

Milton’s Satan has cast an enduring shadow over literature and the tropes we use to this day to portray the fall of a character from a proverbial (or literal, if you ask Milton) heaven to hell. I’ve written previously on this blog about the modern use of Miltonic theodicy (1) in the much watched television series Breaking Bad(Scars of Thunder: Walter White, Satan and the Material Roots of Reemergent Miltonic Theodicy). Yet, a student freshly entering Milton or specifically his masterwork Paradise Lost for a survey course at the college level may be less interested in the nuances of the vitality of Milton’s theodical project, and more so on the central critical debates surrounding the epic’s most captivating character, Satan. I certainly remember fondly my first paper on Milton as an undergraduate – a four page answer to the question “does Milton support Satan?”

This introduction, then, will serve the utilitarian purpose of introducing one unfamiliar with Milton’s most (in)famous character. Below, I will cover some of the major concepts one needs to consider when they endeavor to write and understand Satan’s role in the epic by pulling on the history of criticism of the epic, Satan’s transformation, Milton’s religiosity, the mythological roots of Satan’s character, and the political implications of Satan’s depiction in illuminating the beginnings of an answer to the age-old question of just what Milton is doing with his provocative textual depiction of the arch-fiend. In this introduction I will endeavor to include as many references as I can to encourage further study, and I have also included a very basic suggested reading list at the conclusion of the blog.

Scholars in Milton will notice that many corners have been cut and some dialogues omitted. This is a product of several things. Namely that I, like Milton’s Adam, am imperfect. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the intended audience of both the medium and this post itself is better served with introductory materials. This is meant as an introduction and should be treated as such. The primary goal of this post is to help those in Milton surveys and those with some bearing in literary studies  become acquainted with the dialogues surrounding Milton, and provide avenues for further research.

For ease of use, I will break this introduction into multiple parts to be released in the future. These parts will cover the following:

  • (1) Critical History and Reception 
  • (2) Satan’s transformation in the text of Paradise Lost
  • (3) Milton’s Puritanism and Satan’s appeal
  • (4) Charles II and Miltonic Satanism
  • (5) The New Milton Criticism and Satanic ambiguity

A History of the Critical Reception of Milton and Satan:
A unique facet of John Milton’s work and specifically his epic is that it was recognized as one of the finest works of poetry every written in his own lifetime; and because of this his epic has been a lynch pin on which succeeding generations have constructed their ideal literary forms and styles. This is key in understanding Satan as critical reactions to Satan, while now relatively homogeneous, have a conflicted past. In the fourth edition (the first edition to have engravings) of Paradise Lost published in 1688, Milton is proclaimed as Homer and Virgil in one. In his essay “Milton’s Readers,” scholar Nicholas Van Maltzhan highlights the rare celebration of Milton as one of the greatest poets of all time during his life and immediately after. Quoting contemporary critics, Van Maltzhan writes, “Hobart already reports ‘the opinion of the impartial learned’ that Paradise Lost is ‘not only above all modern attempts in verse, but equal to any of the ancient poets.’ Milton’s nephew also proclaimed to continental audiences that the poem “reached the perfection of this species of poetry” (2). To the point, Milton’s characters and his epic were considered a masterpiece by a majority of his audience.

The frontpiece of the fourth edition of Paradise Lost, where Milton is described as Homer and Virgil in one – “To make a third she joynd the former two.”

Yet the admiration of Milton as a master poet began to falter even as he was being immortalized in his fourth edition. In restoration England (Charles II was restored in 1660), specifically on the stage, his epic style was satirized. Samuel Butler’s Hudibras mocks the epic tenor and biblical nature of Paradise Lost, and Aphra Benn lampooned Milton’s concept of “know, yet abstain” (Areopagitica) in her famous play The Rover.  Milton’s erudition and humanism (3) where replaced by libertinism and later moderation. Alexander Pope would famously address Milton’s own effort “to justify the ways of god to man” in his “Essay on Man” by claiming proudly “What is, is RIGHT.” Satan, and all the wordy evil that he represents (which will be discussed in a later part), was robbed of his spiritual fangs by the increasingly secular discourse of restoration and 18th century England. In his ranter-esque (a religious sect from Revolutionary England) assertion that whatever God created on earth is right (4), Pope, in directly addressing Milton’s theodicy, endeavors to undermine the necessity of Milton’s project. This is certainly demonstrative of the move away from both the epic genre and the deeply religious undertones of Paradise Lost in the long 18th century. Ultimately, Satan and all he represented was removed as a serious threat to society and rendered as a product of dogmatic and fearful puritans.

“Beside, he was a shrewd philosopher / And had read every text and gloss over; / Whate’er the crabbed’st author hath, / He understood by implicit faith; / Whatever skeptic could inquire for, /For every why had a wherefore.” -Samuel Butler, Hudbiras (5)

As bourgeois sentimentality rose to prominence on the stage and on the page as the 18th century progressed, Milton’s ideology of temptation became more prevalent. In plays such as Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers and novels such as Burney’s Evelina, the idea of being tempted but refusing began to become more important and specifically linked to Milton his work, from Areopagitica and Paradise Lost. In such sentimental projects, the epic became an orthodox one; a pedagogical tool to warn the tempted away from sin and death. Satan’s character had moved from an overly dramatic relic of a dead ideology to a character of the highest evil – one who, by deception, turned the good and wholesome to the bad and corrupted. The villains of sentimental tragedies and comedies are often keenly Satantic. They have good in them, but abandon it for evil.

Sentimentality, like the libertine dramas of the Restoration before it, faded  into disfavor as society changed in the crucible of industrialization and empire. At the turn of the 19th century, England had undergone great change economically, politically, and socially. Out of this change emmerged romanticism, and the romantics are perhaps the most famous critics of Milton’s Satan. To the romantics, Satan’s heroic struggle against the “tyranny of heaven” (PL Book I) mirrored their own antiheroes like Prometheus, Frankenstein, and the romantic poet.  Shelley claimed his Prometheus was better than Milton’s Satan, if only for the reason that he as the author was willing to allow the character to achieve its full potential.

—“The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest.” (6)

The romantics, as Shelley suggests in the above quote, saw Milton’s Satan as potentially out of the author’s control which is still a key point of criticism around the epic. William Blake, another romantic and author of the abortive twelve volume poem Milton, remarked famously that, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Many scholars still debate this very thing; is Milton’s Satan out of Milton’s control? Did Milton’s own grief over the fall of the Republican paradise (7) inhibit his ability to portray a just and kind God who could stand up to the cunning rhetoric of Satan? These are questions outside the scope of this summary, but they are questions that the romantics first raised in their desire to portray Satan as the true hero.

A main point of the romantic defenders of Satan is his Promethean quality. If, as the epic suggests, choice is the most important quality, Satan brings this power to Adam and Eve in an environment (Eden) where they have no choice. In this way, Satan emerges as Promethean; one who gives of himself to give a gift to humanity. A student looking to find reasons to defend Satan should know that this reading is almost universally denounced in modern Milton studies and with good reason, as Adam’s growing anxiety in Eden in the books leading up to the fall prove with very little doubt that Milton has intentionally established that the choice is long made clear to Adam and Eve, and they, our grandparents, chose wrongly in the end.

 photo satanparadise_zps2000234a.png

The picture adorning chapter 1 in the fourth edition of Paradise Lost (on the left), when compared to Dore’s famous 19th century engravings of Satan (seen on the right), demonstrates the impact of the romantics on our understanding of Satan. Notice that Dore’s Satan is much less demonic.

With the rise of institutions of literary criticism at universities in the English speaking world in the 20th century to today, movements in Milton criticism become less definable by era and are thus necessarily designated by critical school. In the heyday of New CriticismWilliam Empson published the famous Milton’s God in 1961 which is still used to frame the debate on the nature of Milton’s Heaven in Book III. Empson essentially makes the argument that the chief source of interest in the epic is the very ambiguity with which critics now wrestle, and to endeavor to explain away these ambiguities via Milton’s religious orthodoxy ultimately robs the epic of all its literary meat. This argument has reemerged in The New Milton Criticismwhich will be covered later.

the poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions, which ought to be clear in your mind when you are feeling its power. I think it horrible and wonderful; I regard it as like Aztec or Benin sculpture, or to come nearer home the novels of Kafka, and am rather suspicious of any critic who claims not to feel anything so obvious. (Milton’s God)

In the same year, C.S. Lewis published his much used A Preface to Paradise Lost, where he essentially argues the exact opposite of Empson. Lewis portrays Milton as an orthodox christian spinning a tale of orthodox validation, concluding, “Unorthodoxy must be searched for.” (8) As stated above, contemporary Milton criticism celebrates rather than deflates the importance of Milton’s moments of ambiguity, and Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana is miles away from orthodox. Jesus, provocatively, is not a part of a trinity but rather appointed by merit in Paradise Lost which rather oddly gives Lewis little pause. Because of these facts and a current critical appreciation of ambiguity, Lewis and other critics’ assertions of orthodoxy in Milton have come under fire.

The concept of Milton’s orthodoxy become central to late 20th century Miltonics when Stanley Fish published his canonical Surprised by Sin, which introduced the now common notion that Paradise Lost is a pedagogical text. Satan’s character and his early heroism are but a theological trap set by the ever in control Milton. It is a development of Lewis’ search for orthodoxy, as Fish, in line with his Reader Response critical method, illuminates an orthodox message in Satan’s seemingly sympathetic nature. Instead of demonstrating Milton’s own ambiguous theology, Satan’s character demonstrates a clever textual trap by Milton; intended to ensnare the sinful and then “surprise” them with their own sin as Satan’s evil is slowly, over the course of the epic, revealed.

While the New Milton Criticism avoids such efforts to dissolve Milton’s ambiguity, Fish’s critique was central to Miltonics for the latter half of the 20th century and still holds measurable critical support at the academy. Over the course of history, in sum, Milton and his most famous character have moved freely between the usually rigid categories of hero, genius, hack, villain, and god. This is critical in understanding Satan as whether or not Milton has full control of his archdemon is in much debate to this day, and it is a debate with many sides from many eras. In the next part, I will cover the way Satan develops as a character over the course of Paradise Lost itself, and highlight some hurdles and lynch pins for those readers with “sympathy for the devil.”


Further Reading on Milton’s Satan (included in each part):

Critical editions and collections of short criticism with essays about Satan:

(1) The New Milton Criticism. Ed. Peter Herman, Elizabeth Sauer. Cambridge UP. 2012.

(2) The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson. Cambridge UP. 1999

(3) Paradise Lost. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Gordon Teskey. Norton. 2004.

(4) Milton’s Selected Poetry and Prose. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Jason Rosenblatt. Norton. 2010.

Introductory/notable critical works that are about/have sections on Satan:

(1) Milton’s God. William Empson.

(2) Surprised by Sin. Stanley Fish.

(3) Milton and the English Revolution. Christopher Hill.

(4) A Preface to Paradise Lost. C.S. Lewis.

(5) The Satanic Epic, Neil Forsyth.

(6) The Romantics on Milton, Joseph Wittreich.

(7) Representing Revolution in Milton and his Contemporaries, David Loewenstein.


(1)An explanation of evil in a universe with a god, or, as Milton put it, “to justify the ways of god to man.”

(2) From Von Maltzhan’s essay The Cambridge Companion to Milton, cited above, Page 243

(3) Reading and use of classical texts, in this context.

(4) For more information on ranterism, see Lawrence Clarkson’s “A Single Eye”



(7) The English Commonwealth, headed by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector

(8) A Preface to Paradise Lost,  C.S. Lewis

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On Marxist Literary Criticism, Its Problems, and Its Value

A Marxist needn’t spend much time in academic, literary circles before they receive an eye roll catalyzed by the usage of cobwebbed-covered terms such as “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” or perhaps, if the perpetrator is feeling daring, “class conflict.” Postmodern academia, like the Victorians to the Romantics, wants nothing more than to distance itself from “the red decades” where  the Frankfurt school, French philosophical and economic discourses, and the Communist Party Historians Group in the United Kingdom made significant advances in the fields of history and literary criticism.

It is a process with a historical precedent – we make the dominant discourses of the day concrete through an interaction with its negative; we mock the Romantics for their idealism, and we castigate the Victorians for their racism and imperialist attitudes. As the latter example proves, this process is not always in error. Dialectical advancement in thought is a necessary and often fruitful endeavor, but for this process to move forward beneficially, it must be based on accurate depictions and renderings. This, sadly, has not been the case for modern Marxist literary criticism, and the purveyors of a bastardized Marxism are diverse in politics and theory.

For too long have postmodern ideologies used Marxism as a crutch for their synthetic construction of antithetical ideologies. For example, Michael Foucault claimed proudly, “Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else,” suggesting inexplicably that postmodern discourses are free from the chains of history. (4) Of all the anti-Marxist lingo that floated and floats around 20th and 21st century universities, this one is worth stopping upon as it is the root of many others. There is a deeply held belief that Marxism is “outdated.”This seems like a rather dubious accusation coming from departments still proudly teaching Russian Formalism and New-Criticism, two aged, if not sometimes useful, critical schools; and that is to say nothing of the present admiration of digging up obscure classical documents that our favorite early modern authors must certainly have read in Renaissance studies.

That’s not to say postmodern critics are the only ones castigating and co-opting Marxist literary theory. There is a distinct feeling on the left that theory, and even more so for literary theory, is for “academics.” Marxist literary critics are seen by many leftists as a bunch of less significant Althussers running around from journal to journal stringing five-dollar words together into a generally unintelligible mass of intellectual ego stroking. This is partly true, and party our fault. The pressures of making a living in academia are partly to blame, but that is the subject for an entirely different article. In this abbreviated medium, I want to explore the accusations that Marxism is outdated, historically dependent and abstract, and offer, with the help of Friedrich Engels (the first Marxist literary critic), some avenues for movement between abstract and real.

History and Propaganda:

The perceived crudeness and historical particularity of Marxism is a two-fold problem. For one, the idea supposes any ideology is not “crude” in terms of its relationship with the historical epoch in which it was created and resides. For another, many Marxist critics have indeed been crude in their analyses; seeking propaganda over truth, or, as critic Gaylord Leroy wrote, “seek(ing) songs of social significance” (3). The former can be unraveled by a peripheral study of history and theory, and the latter can be undone by an analysis of Marx and Engels’ very own vision of literature and criticism.

The postmodern love of accusing all other forms of literary criticism as being “outdated” or tied to limiting and historically specific metanarratives is one of the foundational aspects of their critical method. Lyotard, one of the first writers to identify “the postmodern condition,” elaborates: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives[. ..] The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language-” (8). Lyotard goes on in his canonical The Postmodern Condition to lump essentially all past human thought into the “metanarrative” camp. Marxism, a materialist strain, was particularly guilty. An ideology dependent on a progression towards communism, a conclusion based upon the implementation of the grand critical method of class struggle, was surely vanquished; dispersed into the netherworld of narrative and discourse.

We need only consider postmodernism’s own place in history to reject its authority on the issue of historical dependency. It’s quite peculiar that a critical method so vitriolically opposed to Marxism and even New-Historicism should suppose itself to be free of the chains of history. Indeed, a rejection of societal metanarratives is uniquely and keenly suited for our present historical epoch, sitting but a decade after “an age of extremes” as Hobsbawm would call it. The 20th century, and the modernist ideas that defined it, was a crucible of war, genocide, poverty, contradictory ideologies, states, and globalization. It is not so surprising that theorists would, in reaction to the tail-end of this age, reject the grand narratives of society. The very construction of postmodern thought, through its chief purveyors, was done through a specific rejection of not only Marxism but also the myths of bourgeois progress.

This inherently suggests that such ideology does indeed have fruitful uses, namely the rejection of capitalist notions of the individual and unlimited progress. We should read it as a reaction to the collapse of modernity and its ideology in the fires of the 20th century, just as we should also read Marxism as a reaction to the heightening of contradiction in emergent industrial capitalism in the 19th century. We should not think that since we have escaped the confines of a particular historical epoch that birthed both, for we are certainly no longer in the same historical conditions that procured Lytoard and Derrida, that the contributions of both schools are no longer valid.

In use, the contrary is true. It is a critical method’s interaction with its historical epoch that lends the most use-value to contemporary readers and practitioners. In seeing a theorist interact with his or her specific historical circumstances, we see his or her method in action. We are able to, as John Milton would say in his canonical Areopagitica, discourse with the author and their historical moment. We, perhaps most importantly, are able to substantively look at theory in relation to the material world, and judge freely on its merits and pitfalls in the divergent historical circumstances of today and tomorrow. It is the historical specificity of a critical method that lends the theory a long historical shadow. Ultimately, to tie history to a school of thought is to only add to its richness for contemporary readers. To strive for ahistorical thought as many postmodern critics have is to rob not only Marxism but also their very own critical method of much of its intellectual meat.

I haven’t forgotten those marxist critics that fail in this important task of presently implementing historically specific theory. For Freidrich Engels, the job of literature was to portray society, that is, a historically specific and identifiable one, realistically. Engels meant “real” denotatively; a Marxist novel portrayed the relations in society exactly as they existed. It was for this reason that Engels’ favorite author was Balzac, a political reactionary. For Engels, the Marxist seeks realism at all costs. Engels elaborates,

“I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under, our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides.” (Engels, Engels to M. Kautsky)(2).

The author needn’t concern him or herself with “taking sides” or “serving” Marxist analysis on a platter to the reader. This is as true for critics as it is for authors. Marxist critics should avoid at all costs taking a critical stamp to every text or event, but seek instead to unravel the social reality of the text. We need, in short, to avoid propaganda and seek analysis. The previously quoted Gaylord Leroy elucidated a useful marxist analytic method along these lines: “The critical principle involved is that symbolic form should not be assigned to a closed and self-relating universe of meaning; it should be derived from social reality (as represented in the work), and that social reality should be recognized as primary” (3). Thus Marxist criticism must seek this second reality, one that is dialectically attached to our primary reality but fundamentally made different through individual synthesis and authorial creation. Attached to this is the foundationally Marxist concept that the individual, like the theory that sprouts from his hands, is historically specific.

In short, our job as critics and as authors is to seek the social realities of a text using the critical methods of Marxism and apply them sensitively to history, time and place. Engels reiterates:

“Failing to comprehend the ‘external circumstances’ and ‘class grounds’ for the development of the new, she (Kautsky) creates heroes that are ‘incarnations of a principle’… prepared models of ideal new people, standing outside society- Not analyzing the real live forces of social development Kautsky ardently strives for the ‘new’ principles my means of declarations, standarized propaganda.” (5)

We must analyse the “real live” forces at work within a text, and not bring into it fabricated notions and Marxist buzzwords and instead take the synthesized, historically specific method of Marx, Engels and others, and apply it to our specific historical moment or the specific historical moment of the text and the person who wrote it. Marxist literary criticism cannot be effective in using lazy analyses and crude class reductionism on texts that would be better served with an Engelsist elucidation of the real social relations at play within the text. We must stand inside of the society of the work and author, and in doing so, move from abstract to “real,” as defined by Engels.

From Abstract to Real:

Having considered postmodern critiques of Marxist literary theory and the school’s own faults, it’s high time we analyzed the notion that literary theory is a useless academic endeavor offering little to no value to a leftist movement. I will not argue, for reference, in defense of the liberal arts or humanities at large; as that is a job better left for an LAS administrator. I will, instead, argue for the relevancy of literary criticism in the collective consciousness of the left.

The notion that the study of literature is a “petty bourgeois” (who knew shop-keepers had such an interest in literature?) or “academic” endeavor that is largely useless to the left and working people is a prime example of the “crude Marxism” highlighted above. It supposes that the arts (of which literature is but one part) and criticism of the arts has no use to a working person, which is a ridiculous claim. Literature impacts the consciousness of those who read it, with very little doubt. On this issue, Engels agrees:

“The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.” (Engels, Engels to J. Bloch)(1).

As Mariela Castro, daughter of Vilma Espin and Raul Castro and member of the Cuban Communist Party said in a talk given in Havana in 2013, “-revolutions cannot transcend the minds of revolutionaries.” This, essentially, is the point Engels is making. A revolution is undoubtedly a class war, but a class war is fought by warriors – each with a consciousness interacting with varying discourses, religions, and politics (to use Engels’ examples). Literary theory is but a part of the consciousness of part of the revolutionaries, but the effect is substantive in both revolutionary movements and the establishment of revolutionary states. In Cuba, for example, Nicolas Guillen inspires an urban renewal project in the streets of Havana. Maxim Gorky’s socialist realism had material impacts on the Soviets’ conception of themselves and the ideal.

In summary,revolutions are indeed class wars, but they are fought by people influenced by their society. Engels castigated the bastardized Marxism that renders economics as the only catalyst in revolution in his letter to J. Bloch, writing,

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase” (7).

Engels’ word choice is convenient (or manufactured?) for our point. When we reduce revolutions and the people who fight them to pawns in a game of class chess, we move from the real to the abstract. Literary theory practiced correctly and grounded in Marxist ideas of society and the real can and has had substantive effects on revolutionary societies. Thus, Marxist literary criticism is not abstract as many leftists suggest when partaken by a careful and sensitive practitioner, but the opposite. It is a catalyst of real thinking, an illuminator of those troublesome facets of the societies of today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

When we truly look at Marxist literary criticism and its supposed weaknesses, its historical specificity as a weakness, its crudeness, and its supposed uselessness to leftist movements, we find the opposite is true in each case. We find instead historical specificity as a mark of effective criticism for modern implementation, its crudeness a product of bastardized and lazy readings, and its supposed uselessness a product of an incorrect rendering of true abstraction and revision.

As Marxist critics in a critical world that seeks to annihilate history and reduce texts to microcosms of the intellect of its author (or even its reader), the important task of finding Engels’ reality falls to us. To our various eras and literary movements we must seek that primary reality in the secondary reality of literature, avoiding with care a propagandist approach. Our job, as Engels suggests, is to find the tendrils connecting those primary and secondary realities and bring them to the fore; and in doing so, we proactively, if not explicitly, advocate for change in both.

Works Cited:









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The Classroom of Revolution: The Revolutionary Cuban Intelligentsia’s History and Legacy

A truck used by student insurgents in their attack on the presidential palace in Havana, 1957.

The Cuban Revolution is a historical singularity; a revolution, unlike its socialist counterparts, that included a vast left-center coalition that resulted in the establishment of soviet-styled socialism (Wolf). Yet, the parts that made up that coalition, so critical for revolutionary success, did not vanish from Cuban Society nor did they simply appear in 1959.  The college students and the intelligentsia at large as a part of this coalition is worth stopping upon, as Education and its ease of access in Cuba is commonly highlighted as one of the most successful aspects of the historical Cuban Revolution and the revolution of today.

When I went to Cuba I intended to find the remnants and ancestors of those first college students from the early 20th century to the mid-20th century students that stormed Batista’s palace in Havana, and appraise in what relation these remnants interact with the Cuban Revolution of today. By studying (1) the historical role of the Cuban college students and greater intelligentsia in the revolution of 1959 and earlier oppositions movements, (2) and the dynamic of the University of Havana in Cuban revolutionary society a greater understanding of the relationship between past rebellion and present reform concerning the intelligentsia emerges. I found in my trip to Cuba that the intelligentsia remains detached yet critically engaged with Cuban socio-political life in a uniquely Cuban way, one that critiques the Communist Party but rejects North American hegemony and is desirous of true Cuban autonomy. It is my contention that this is a remnant of the historical presence of a critical yet skeptical opposition movement centered in the urban intelligentsia in Havana , that saw the necessity of revolution and at the same time remained ever critical of socialist policies.

The first era that I will highlight as important in the development of the Cuban Intelligentsia’s keen desire for self-determination is the period of the Platt Amendment’s domination (subsequent to the original Cuban Revolution of Marti), and the periods of disillusionment before and after the presidency of Gerardo Machado and Ramon Grau San Martin from 1925 to 1933. The revolutionary upswing of the turn of the 20th century is still remembered in the countless statues of Jose Marti throughout Havana. These revolutionary sentiments and victories were future looking but inherently chained to the occupying North American forces who entered Cuba in 1912 and 1917, to finally leave in 1923 (Sweig 13). Before the rise of Machado, author Julia Sweig highlights in her book Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, that, “Throughout the 1920s, public frustration and fervor grew pervasive among an ever wider swatch of Cubans. Intellectuals, labor activists, veterans of the Wars of Independence, and student movements all grew jaded by the failure of Cuba’s leaders to fulfill the idealism and potential of the independence movement itself” (Sweig 13). It is here that we see the first unique character of the Cuban intelligentsia that we see still today; a keen sense and desire for self determination. Sweig continues, “the liberal-democratic student movement remained not so much anti-American but anti-interventionist” (Sweig 14). This is a concept keenly reflected today in Cuba, were a desire for self-determination transcends any national rivalry, even in the case of the United States who has quite literally attacked Cuba from every side.

Author Eric Wolf would elucidate this point further in his chapter on Cuba in Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century; quoting the Cuban historian Herminio Portel Vila, who wrote, “The incendiary torch, the struggle the reconcentration camps, the defeat of the Spanish party, were preparing the future for a new Cuba when North American intervention re-established and consolidated the economic and social aspects of the destroyed regime, with all their political implications” (Vila 255). Wolf concludes, with the reader, “In this perspective, Cuban intellectuals long spoke of a ‘frustrated revolution,’ frustrated by the United States” (Wolf 255). Even before the disappointing presidency of Machado, the Cuban intelligentsia and student movements had developed anti-imperialism without the name – a desire to be free of the tyranny of the Platt Amendment and be at once free to self-create a state of their making. So we see that the Cuban intelligentsia and indeed the Cuban revolutionary movement had its roots in opposition to foreign occupation in the nationalist movement of Marti, made more concrete by the Platt Amendment  and Machado’s failure to free Cuba from US hegemonic control (Sweig 15). The impulse for self-determination  is one that is profoundly seen in Cuba today where reform is seen as necessary in the face of “Stalinist bureaucracy” as professor Antonio Romero Gomez (University of Havana) called it – the specter of reform is ever present but in a “Cuban way” as professor Rafael Betancourt (San Geronimo de la Havana) stressed so keenly in a lecture. This idea will be highlighted later in this article, but first we must move our historical narrative forward were disillusionment in the intelligentsia would become even more crystallized in the failed regime of San Martin and the rise of Fulgencio Batista.

Both during Machado’s reign and the short-lived regime of Grau San Martin, students at the University of Havana staged an occupation of the campus; demonstrating their power and fervent participation  in these opposition movements before the final triumph of 1959 (Wolf  267), and the fall of San Martin and the rise of Batista made concrete through synthesis the previously highlighted desire of the Cuban intelligentsia for self-determination and introduced another unique characteristic of the Cuban intelligentsia – a contentious relationship with the Cuban Communist Party before the revolution and its post-revolution reconstruction . In the “campus seizures” during Machado’s reign, the youthful communist party played a preeminent role but the CP would quickly oppose mass action in fear of an foreign intervention, oppose Grau and eventually actively support the Batista regime (Wolf 267). This tension between student unrest and CP policy mounted during the years of Grau’s fall and Batista’s rise, as the official communist party fell monumentally short of the revolutionary student’s ideals. Due to the communist party’s failure to either reconcile with student radicalism  or fully support Grau, Grau San Martin found himself attacked on all sides, by conservatives for his radicalism, by radicals for his liberalism (Sweig). It was perhaps for this reason that Grau San Martin lasted for so short a time, yet some of the socialist sources I have consulted on this period have over idealized the connection between the Communist Party and early student radicals.

Author Ricardo Alarcon De Quesada, and president of Cuba’s national assembly for many years wrote in an article “Cuba: Education and Revolution” found in the “Monthly Review” that during this period,

“Public education was a refuge for Cuban patriotism throughout the first half of the twentieth century. But during the U.S. domination of the island, either in a direct form or via repressive and corrupt U.S.-sponsored regimes, it was education that enabled the student movement and the best of Cuban intellectuals to resist. In fact, student movements and Cuban intellectuals participated decisively in the political and social struggles of the Cuban nation both during the long period of Spanish colonialism and U.S. hegemony, initiating and developing socialist and anti-imperialist thinking.”

While it is objectively true that the University of Havana did and continues to shelter opposition to the regime and offer an avenue for criticism in Cuban society, it is important to note that while socialist thought intermingled in the student radicalism of this period, as Wolf points out, there was a keen sense of separation between the radicalism of the students and the institutionalized leftist parties that self-labeled as socialist and this separation grew in the period of the fall of Grau San Martin, his ultimate return at the head of the Autenticos, the subsequent return of corruption in Havana and eventually the rise of Batista, the political “chameleon” (Swieg 19).

The emergence of violent radicalism in Cuba can be traced, as we have here, to two key problems in Cuban Society; (1) The Cuban Communist Party was a front for counterrevolutionary statesmanship and (2) elected liberal parties failed utterly to meet the expectations of the revolutionary intelligentsia in Havana. For these reasons the student movements against Batista became increasingly violent and increasingly threw their support behind the July 26th movement (not explicitly a socialist movement). Of import, the students of this period before the struggle against Batista were critical of the regime but skeptical of the Communist Party, a theme that remains today. So we see that each period beget the next, or at the very least, each period of student rebellion cast its shadow on the next; the revolutionary sentiment of  Marti leading to a desire for self-determination that ousted Machado under pressure from  the urban intelligentsia in Havana (Sweig) that intern lead to a disillusionment with institutionalized parties and leaders; leading the students of Havana to more radical means to their ends in the period of Batista – which was not unnoticed by the populist turned dictator.

The early 1950s marked the high-tide of student resistance to the Cuban regime, and much of this resistance was violent and radical in nature. Yet not all resistance was this way, as evidenced by the Orthodoxo Party, founded by Eduardo Chibas, himself a former student activist (Sweig 19) in opposition to yet another former student activist, Carlos Prio Socarres, standing President of Cuba and Autentico. Fidel Castro was originally a member of the Orthodoxos yet following Chibas suicide on public radio, the Autenticos turning the University of Havana into the capital of “political gangsterism” in Havana, and the ever present fear of the growing clout of the Orthodoxos and leftism in general, Batista launched a coup months before an election he was certain to lose (Sweig 19). This coup, as Sweig points out, made concrete the disillusionment with electoral systems in the face of such corruption and willing disrespect for the comparatively radical constitution drafted by the Batista regime but a decade earlier (in the coup of 1933). This frustration, rooted in the first failure of Grau and even the Platt Amendment of the early 20th century, came to a head in Havana when Batista subverted the electoral process. The year 1953, merely a year after Batista’s rise to power , proved violent and  radical. Fidel launched his attack on the Moncada Barracks and University of Havana professor Rafael Barcena lead a short-lived anti-Batista conspiracy (Sweig 28). Fidel and his rebels were banished, but revolutionary sparks met dry tinder in Havana in their absence. Tensions reached a fever pitch with the arrival of the Granma and the actions of the Revolutionary National Action group headed by Frank Pais, which, as Sweig points out, played a critical role in exporting Sierra socialism to the country entire in 1956.

In March of 1957, a group of clandestine students, members of the Revolutionary Directorate and future enemies of Fidel, stormed Batista’s presidential palace, the bullet-holes of the event still adorn the wall of the building. Ultimately the attack failed and its members defeated and killed, but the stunning success of the rebels in the Sierra Maestra both elevated Fidel’s power and inspired continued struggle (Wolf 271).  Keenly, the directorate’s leader, a student named Jose Echeverria was killed in a shootout at a radio station in a related assault. The directorate itself stands as a historical testament to the division of students and the intelligentsia on the subject of socialism, given the directorate’s staunch anti-communist approach that lead to their forceful dissolution and incorporation into the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba in 1961. It’s important to note, as Sweig does, that the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba was indeed a coercive attack on fractious student revolutionary movements, but it was also a move against the PSP that had backed Batista and was subservient to Moscow; as Fidel himself desired the unification of student groups under the tent of the CPC to allow for truly autonomous nation-building to begin in earnest (Sweig). So we see that ultimately the student revolutionary movements that moved in the era of Batista, notably the directorate, were indeed absorbed and dissolved, but their influence was a dialectical one, one that does not simply vanish when the institution of their ideological power vanishes. Put simply, Cuban society after the triumph of the cuban revolution retained much of the ideas that formed in the days of Marti, Machado and Grau, namely a desire to be truly autonomous, a deep skepticism of outside influence and to be skeptical of organized parties and ideologies including the PSP and future CPC. The influence of the intelligentsia, put differently, the purveying desire of the Cuban revolutionary movement to be autonomous, can be found in one final place, and that is in the very sailors of the Granma.

For socialist revolutionaries, Fidel and his fellow rebels aboard the Granma were keenly abstracted from the rural proletariat they endeavored to liberate. Eric Wolf makes note of this in his class analysis, but the fact is not lost in an analysis of the importance of the intelligentsia in the Cuban Revolution namely because Fidel was a member of the intelligentsia. Wolf remarks, “How did the rebel group galvanize the masses? The original core of the rebel force was composed primarily of what have been called “revolutionary intellectuals,” mostly middle-class origins. Some were students (Raul Castro, Faure Chomon), some lawyers, (Fidel, Dorticos), some doctors, some teachers (Frank Pais)…”(Wolf 269). Che Guevara himself went on to remark, “none of the first group who came on the Granma …had worker’s or peasant’s backgrounds” (Wolf 269). Wolf continues his analysis in saying that Fidel’s move to guerilla tactics after the catastrophe of the Granma’s original landing was keenly anti-Marxist, from a Leninist perspective. Here we see the role of the intelligentsia in action; socialist revolutionaries heeding not the words of Marx or Lenin (or his Muscovite successors) but the realities of their material conditions. So we see, not only was the revolution a conglomerate of revolutionary students, lumpen proletariat, proletariat, petty-bourgeois peasants and even bourgeois elements but also one that preserved the original revolutionary urge to attain autonomy in practice. These urges remain today, and I found that out profoundly upon visiting Havana and its university.

The University of Havana remains a center, as Ricardo Alarcon De Quesada remarked upon its historical role, of dissent and criticism for the regime. I learned about this role by simply being around it, hearing lectures from professors and talking to a few students and college-aged youths in the city of Havana. Dr. Antonio Romero Gomez of the Universities’ international economy department gave a lecture with a keen sense of both factors I have highlighted about the historical role of the intelligentsia in Cuban society.  Firstly Dr. Gomez highlighted the necessity of change in light of the special period and critiqued the lack of foresight in the planning of the Cuban Economy. When the crises occurred, Dr. Gomez and his colleagues had encouraged Fidel and the Communist Party to take immediate action (Gomez), but the CPC leadership for too long blamed the crises on external factors according to Dr. Gomez. Immediately I saw the relationship I had read about in action – the intelligentsia centered in Havana ever skeptical of party dialogue and urging for reform. Yet, this reform was not like that in Guatemala, Chile and others where national movements were crushed by foreign backed coups – the reform advocated for by Dr. Gomez was one intimately interested in Cuban sovereignty.

I found in my historical survey that such a motion was in line with over a hundred years of revolutionary development. The classroom of revolution had taught the Cuban intelligentsia much about reform, practicality and defending their autonomy. Admittedly, the perspective was historical and validated, but I remained skeptical that such reforms could occur while at the same time respecting their original tenants – mainly remaining autonomous and free from international monetary control. Indeed, a recent Reuters article declared that school enrollment had dropped 27% between 2008 and  2012 and that extensive cuts had been made to education spending (Reuters). I agreed with Dr. Gomez critique of the old system in a world without the Soviet Union, yet this point was something to stop on – had Cuba really achieved the autonomy it so desired during the period of its alliance with the Soviet Union? Dr. Gomez suggested not, given that the fact that imports decreased over 70% after the fall (Gomez) and planning had lacked the backwards and forwards linkages between industries with an over-focus on industry in the soviet-style. Perhaps, I pontificated, could this period after the special period produce a true autonomy of Cuban development devoid of a greater state’s influence? Could the reforms be the outcome of a historical process spanning back centuries, made possible by the revolution, but necessitating a new approach to reach? This idea was elucidated further by another professor.

Rafael Betancourt, himself a professor in Havana highlighted the victories of the revolution while in line with the long history of the intelligentsia in Havana critiquing the weaknesses of the bureaucratic system currently in place.  Having seen Dr. Gomez’ presentation previously, I went into Professor Betancourt’s presentation with the questions raised above in mind. Professor Betancourt highlighted in detail the Guidlines published in 2011 by the Communist Party on the new reforms, chief among them that the state will continue to own the main means of production while at the same time giving more autonomy to the private sector and also to state-run operations. Again the distrust of bureaucracy yet focus on making something of unique Cuban character was at the heart of the professor’s analysis. I remained skeptical, as the professor claimed that 7% growth for almost 30 years was necessary to stabilize the Cuban economy, and in an era of scarcity, growth every year will become impossible. That notwithstanding, Professor Betancourt stressed, as Dr. Gomez did, the necessity of change in a Cuban way. The analysis seemed universal in the Cuban Intelligentsia and Cuban society at large; change is necessary, but the Cuban people most come to it through consensus and mutual work, to come to their own synthesis of planned and private, in their own national way. I found, by surveying the historical struggle of the intelligentsia in Cuba that such a desire was an inevitable product of the political developments of the first half of the 20th century and into Cuba’s soviet-influenced, socialist transition.

Cuba was for me a place of socialist victory, my choice to go a sign of solidarity; and it is perhaps for this reason that their move away from socialist policies left me fearful for the future of the Cuban revolution’s gains. Yet by studying history and looking to the ancestors of those first professors and students who fought against the Platt Amendment a keen insight emerged about the revolution of 1958/9; its socialist character was crucial and influential, and from this base came an emergent quality of the revolution – the revolution had empowered all of the people of Cuba, the intelligentsia included. By studying the history of the student movements and their influence on the Cuban revolution at large and then offering two anecdotes on my experience with modern Cuban intellectuals at the University of Havana a greater understanding of the thread I am connecting between past revolution and current reform emerges. We should not be surprised that in the nation born out of student riots and Sierra idealists should continue to be a synthesis of these two competing yet irrevocably attached ideological threads. Cuban Socialism has, after all, been but one step in a long historical progression towards autonomy for Cuba manifested noticeably in the intelligentsia’s unending desire for it; and perhaps in time, history may “absolve” both  Fidel and his compatriots in their struggle for political autonomy and procure a future best fit for Cuba – at the decision of none other than Cubans themselves.

Works Cited:

Alarcon De Quesada, Ricardo. “Cuba: Education and Revolution.” Monthly Review. N.p., July-    Aug. 2011. Web. 25 July 2013.

Betancourt, Rafael. “Cuba in Transition: Towards a New Economic Model.” Colegio  Universitario San Gerónimo De La Habana, Havana. June  2013. Lecture.

Gomez, Antonio R. “Cuba: Economic Transformations and International Re-Insertion.”   University of Havana, Havana. June 2013. Lecture.

Sweig, Julia. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford UP,   2009. Print.

“With Cuts, Free Education Is No Longer a Cuban Birthright.” New York   Times. Reuters, 3 Oct.   2012. Web.

Wolf, Eric R. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.    Print.

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