Issue #50 March 2022

Amilcar Cabral and John Dewey: For a Culture of Learning and Liberation

Jacob Lawrence - Panel 58 (The Migration Series)

During a 1972 New York trip to address the United Nations, the Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands independence movement leader Amilcar Cabral held an informal meeting with a variety of American black organizations. The visit was in the midst of a long-running armed resistance against Portugal, the local colonial power. In 1973, Cabral would be assassinated and, in 1973-4, Guinea-Bissau would become independent.

The meeting’s intent was to connect “struggles” on the two continents, both on the political level as “comrades” and more broadly as “brothers and sisters.” In the discussion, the “political school for militants” the movement had established in Conakry, the capital of neighbouring and already independent Guinea, was raised. Specifically, given Cabral’s—and the movement’s—Marxist leanings and understanding of “universal scientific laws of revolution,” what sort of theory was taught at the school? The question was getting at the issue of the distinct positions on the subject held by different self-identified socialist countries, “particularly as related to Cuba, China, the Soviet Union” as well as parties involved in other “anti-colonial wars of national liberation.” 

Cabral’s response offered examples of simple laws, such as the primacy of the countryside as the revolutionary starting point in countries “characterized by agriculture,” and made the general point, “we tried to know the experiences of other peoples.” More significantly, he described an approach that did not start with theory or laws at all:

“About one thousand people came from our country by groups. We first asked—who are we? Where are we? What do we want? How do we live? What is our enemy? Who is this enemy? What can he do against us? What is our country? Where is our country?—things like this, step by step, explaining our real conditions and explaining what we want, why we want it and why we had to fight against the Portuguese. Among all these people some step by step, approached other experiences. But the problem of going from feudal or semi-feudal society or tribal society to socialism is a very big problem, even from capitalism to socialism.”

Though Cabral had little philosophical or political commonality with American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, the similarities in framing are striking. Cabral appears to have set education as a society-dependent social process. As Dewey described it, “The conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.” It also seemed to be a scientific process, in the sense of attitude rather than strict methodology. Dewey: “We have ignored science in its quality of an attitude embodied in habitual will to employ certain methods of observation, reflection and test rather than others.” The question at the meeting jumped ahead to the overarching rules the movement was teaching and using. Cabral took a step back to first define the problem of people’s factual and normative conditions using iterative observation and reflection.

Dewey criticized Marxism in Freedom and Culture (1939) as but one example of a monistic theory where a single “factor is isolated and treated as the cause of all social change.” While the theory used the label “scientific,” by setting economic production as the social determinant it was contrary to the “scientific attitude.” A lot of ink has been spilled on the topic. What is important here is that Cabral was both Marxist and apparently careful not to assume any particular factor necessarily, completely or permanently explained the situation of the people. As it happens, his experiences led him to a pluralistic position not dissimilar to that of Dewey. This came out strongly in a 1970 speech entitled National Liberation and Culture.

By initiating the meeting with US American organizations, Cabral demonstrated an openness to discussing and connecting experiences and struggles. Dewey was grappling with American issues, so it seems only proper to delve, with an eye on affinity rather than divergence, into the two notions of culture.



Cabral began his argument as a history lesson. While it was “very easy for the foreigner to impose his domination on a people” under “certain circumstances,” it was far more difficult to maintain that domination:

“In fact, to take up arms to dominate a people is, above all, to take up arms to destroy, or at least to neutralize, to paralyze, its cultural life. For, with a strong indigenous cultural life, foreign domination cannot be sure of its perpetuation. At any moment, depending on internal and external factors determining the evolution of the society in question, cultural resistance (indestructible) may take on new forms (political, economic, armed) in order to fully contest foreign domination.”

Culture was defined as “the vigorous manifestation on the ideological or idealist plane of the physical and historical reality of the society.” The manifestation partially mapped on to the Marxist superstructure, sitting above and being ultimately determined by the society’s economic, and political, structure. It differed, first, by being reciprocal; the economic reality may have determined the ideals and ideology, but resistance on the latter plane led to forms of economic opposition. Moreover, it reflected a much larger complex of relations:

“Culture is always in the life of a society, […] the more or less dynamic expression of the kinds of relationships which prevail in that society, on the one hand between man (considered individually or collectively) and nature, and, on the other hand, among individuals, groups of individuals, social strata or classes.”

When Dewey mentioned revolution in Freedom and Culture, it was in the following way: “For even revolutionaries have to admit that part of their problem is to create in an oppressed class consciousness of their servitude so as to arouse active protest.” With national liberation, however, class was but one facet of burgeoning national consciousness. People came to the school in Conakry primarily as members of groups. They were frequently ignorant of each other’s experiences, let alone of a robust common we. Though the goal was to achieve an independent socialist state through revolution, not categorically different from the movement Dewey was critiquing, the consciousness required was broader than he allowed for.

For Dewey, culture was “the complex of conditions which taxes the terms upon which human beings associate and live together.” It was not limited to the “ideological or idealist plane,” but rather was all interrelated aspects of associative life. It was “the life of a society” and not just in that life. The two definitions vary in emphasis; Cabral put more weight on productive forces, Dewey tried to stay sufficiently high-level to analyze several societies and systems. Insofar as they accepted multiple factors for social change, both fell on the pluralistic side of the fence.

The starting point of Dewey’s argument was US political freedom. Freedom was set ideologically in the Declaration of Independence as a facet of “native human nature,” and so independent of cultural constructs. However, using the example of Jefferson’s preference for an agrarian model of free society over one based on manufacturing and trade, economic influences were undeniable. Given the dependence of economic development on scientific advances, evident in the interplay between industrial and scientific revolutions, economics was no more an isolated factor than politics was. On top of that, the rise of efficient, pervasive propaganda made the connections between arts, science and politics clear: “We are beginning to realize that emotions and imagination are more potent in shaping public sentiment and opinion than information and reason.”

Just as Cabral’s “political school” rested on the broader question of “who are we?”, Dewey’s reflections on US politics quickly turned into an examination of something more general:

“The intent of the previous discussion should be obvious. The problem of freedom and of democratic institutions is tied up with the question of what kind of culture exists; with the necessity of free culture for free political institutions.”

A result with striking similarities to Cabral:

“A people who free themselves from foreign domination will be free culturally only if, without complexes and without underestimating the importance of positive accretions from the oppressor and other cultures, they return to the upward paths of their own culture, which is nourished by the living reality of its environment, and which negates both harmful influences and any kind of subjection to foreign culture.  Thus, it may be seen that if imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.”

Importantly, “For most statements of the problem [of freedom] have been posed as if there were some inherent difference amounting to oppositions between what is called individual and the social.” The approach above viewed this as a false dichotomy, recognizing “ways of interaction between human nature and cultural conditions” as what actually existed—and what can exist—in a society, and so what needed to be addressed. Dewey’s critique was developed in a supposedly unified independent nation that was culturally divided. Cabral’s exploration was with culturally divided peoples and aimed to arrive at a unified independent state. They came at the problem from opposite sides of the point of real or ostensible political freedom. Given the centrality of culture and that politics is a cultural condition among others, these paths need to be considered in more detail.

Jacob Lawrence - Panel 31 (The Migration Series)


Digging deeper into Cabral’s position, he described the cultural situation the liberation movement faced as “complex”:

“In the specific conditions of our country—and we would say, of Africa—the horizontal and vertical distribution of levels of culture is somewhat complex. In fact, from villages to towns, from one ethnic group to another, from one age group to another, from the peasant to the workman or to the indigenous intellectual who is more or less assimilated, and, as we have said, even from individual to individual within the same social group, the quantitative and qualitative level of culture varies significantly. It is of prime importance for the liberation movement to take these facts into consideration.”

The two main ethnic groups in the country were the Fula and the Balante (or Balanta). The Fula had a “vertical” social structure that was exploited by the colonial power. The colonizer maintained a certain prestige for the local upper classes that, while being “purely nominal,” allowed the traditional leaders to “preserve in essence [their] basic cultural authority over the masses.” This had several consequences, first of which was a split in the upper classes between those who wished to keep the colonial power in place in order to maintain their position and those who joined the struggle with a design to take the colonial power’s place at the top of the pyramid. Second, it created a split between this “alienated” or “assimilated” culture and “popular culture.” And without the active participation of the lower classes, there would not be much of a movement.

In contrast, the Balante culture was more horizontal. On one hand, that made it easier to reconcile the members’ positions. On the other, it meant no one in the group could offer the “positive contribution which privileged classes may bring to the struggle” due to educational, economic, etc. opportunities. Beyond that, since both the Fula and the Balante were part of the nation to-be, the contradictions between them had to be addressed. With this in mind, Cabral saw the following as culture’s function:

“In order for culture to play the important role which falls to it in the framework of the liberation movement, the movement must be able to preserve the positive cultural values of every well-defined social group, or every category, and to achieve the confluence of these values in the service of the struggle, giving it a new dimension—the national dimension. Confronted with such a necessity, the liberation struggle is, above all, a struggle both for the preservation and survival of the cultural values of the people and for the harmonization and development of these values within a national framework.”

If culture was a “more or less dynamic” expression of prevailing relationships in a society, the challenge was balancing “preservation and survival” with “harmonization and development.” The difficulty seemed all the greater for the nation being a new society encompassing a variety of existing social groups. The process required a sort of meta-value judgment to determine what existing values were “positive” and therefore worth keeping, and what needed to change.

The assumption underlying the “national framework” was that something like a sovereign nation state was necessary but not sufficient for freedom. Cultural values had to be compatible with the framework but being compatible, as the Fula’s traditional hierarchy would have been, would not lead to meaningful freedom for most of the people. A second assumption, perhaps better expressed as the refusal to assume the contrary, was that all cultures—including that of the oppressor—had values potentially worth holding on to. As to the process itself:

“Without any doubt, underestimation of the cultural values of African peoples, based upon racist feelings and upon the intention of perpetuating foreign exploitation of Africans, has done much harm to Africa. But in the face of the vital need for progress, the following attitudes or behaviors will be no less harmful to Africa: indiscriminate compliments; systemic exaltation of virtues without condemning faults; blind acceptance of the values of the culture, without considering what presently or potentially regressive elements it contains; confusion between what is the expression of an objective and material historical reality and what appears to be a creation of the mind of the product of a peculiar temperament; absurd linking of artistic creations, whether good or not, with supposed racial characteristics; and finally, the non-scientific or a scientific critical appreciation of the cultural phenomenon.”

While Cabral was to a certain extent referring to scientific theories, such as anthropological ones debunking racial essentialism, general “attitudes and behaviors” were at the forefront of the argument. Uncritical denigration and exaltation were equally unhelpful. Instead, a “scientific” approach amounting to the sort of “observation, reflection and test” model used at the school came into play. An understanding of who the people and groups were along with a notion of what their country would be provided criteria for judging existing cultural values.

Development of criteria was a “step by step” social process that occurred largely in the field. National liberation may have been an act of culture, national culture was set in motion through all the relationships forged on the road to liberation:

“The leaders of the liberation movement, drawn generally from the “petite bourgeoisie” (intellectuals, clerks) or the urban working class (workers, chauffeurs, salary-earners in general), having to live day by day with the various peasant groups in the heart of the rural population come to know the people better. […] The leaders realize, not without a certain astonishment, the richness of spirit, the capacity for reasoned discussion and clear exposition of ideas, the facility for understanding and assimilating concepts on the part of populations groups who yesterday were forgotten, if not despised, and who were considered incompetent by the colonizer and even by some nationals.”

Regarding the people:

“The working masses and, in particular, the peasants who are usually illiterate and never have moved beyond the boundaries of their village or region, in contact with other groups lose the complexes which constrained them in their relationships with other ethnic and social groups.”

To sum up, cultural freedom is necessary for political freedom. There is simply no way to disentangle political relationships from all the other interactions in a society. Marxist concepts, such as historical materialism, class and production, are useful in describing conditions so long as they are not set as an isolated force.

Not all cultural values, including traditional precolonial ones, are amenable to cultural and political freedom for everyone. This is the case regardless of the specific concept of freedom adopted. Even if they are, societies are rarely sufficiently homogeneous to avoid conflicts and conditions are rarely stable enough for culture to function as it always has. Achieving and maintaining liberation is a balancing act between “preservation and survival” and “harmonization and development.” This, in turn, requires ongoing observation and reflection.



Striking a balance of cultural values was a particular challenge for a new nation comprised of diverse existing social groups. An established nation state with relatively static political ideology and institutions had its own complications. Dewey saw US’s “predicament” as stemming from, “democracy [involving] a belief that political institutions and law be such as to take fundamental account of human nature.” Just as a monarchy posits some essential and unchanging characteristic of the monarch to justify their rule, democracy assumes a comparable characteristic of human nature to justify the rule of the people.

This “universal truth” about people was not necessarily bad. Dewey argued that it provided motivation to “perpetuate and strengthen the conditions that brought it into existence.” On the other hand, it led to “habits that obstruct observation of what is actually going on.” Freedom and Culture came out in 1939 in reaction to the prevalent “It can’t happen here” sentiment in the face of the totalitarian turn in Europe and the “hate in place of attempt at understanding” of that turn. At that point in history, obstructed observation was the order of the day.

Some understanding of the unique conditions accompanying the creation of the US state did exist:

“The maintenance of democratic institutions is not such a simple matter as was supposed by some of the Founding Fathers—although the wiser among them realized how immensely the new political experiment was favored by external circumstances—like the ocean that separated settlers from the governments that had an interest in using the colonists for their own purposes; the fact that feudal institutions had been left behind; that so many of the settlers had come here to escape restrictions upon religious beliefs and form of worship; and especially the existence of a vast territory with free land and immense unappropriated natural resources.”

Further, at least Jefferson argued for certain environmental requirements to keep democracy going:

“The founders of American political democracy were not so naively devoted to pure theory that they were unaware of the necessity of culture conditions for the successful working of democratic forms. I could easily fill pages from Thomas Jefferson in which he insists upon the necessity of a free press, general schooling and local neighborhood groups carrying on, through intimate meetings and discussions, the management of their own affairs, if political democracy was to be made secure.”

This led to the conclusion that:

“The real source of the weakness that has developed later in the position of our democratic progenitors is not that they isolated the problem of freedom from the positive conditions that would nourish it, but that they did not—and in their time could not—carry their analysis far enough. The outstanding examples of this inability are their faith in the public press and in schooling. They certainly were not wrong in emphasizing the need of a free press and of common public schools to provide conditions favorable to democracy. But to them the enemy of freedom of the press was official governmental censorship and control; they did not foresee the non-political causes that might restrict its freedom, not the economic factors that would put a heavy premium on centralization. And they failed to see how education in literacy could become a weapon in the hands of an oppressive government, not that the chief cause for promotion of elementary education in Europe would be increase of military power.”

Such nuance was all but lost by the end of the 1930s. The US could not become a fascist state because of the essential characteristics of the state and the people, as set out in the original conceptions of both. The sentiment did not match arguments some of the Fathers actually made. Whether it concerned the preference for agriculture over manufacturing, the need for schools or the recognition of geographical factors, contingent circumstances were taken into account. Even starting from a more nuanced position, however, ongoing “analysis” was needed precisely because circumstances were contingent.

This was not to deny the existence of human nature, just the fixity and simplicity of its expression. Since the American “universal truth” was especially individualistic, it tended toward treating complexity and contingencies as the social in the individual-versus-social false dichotomy noted above. Only, that very individuality was embedded:

“The function of culture in determining what elements of human nature are dominant and their pattern or arrangement in connection with one another goes beyond any special point to which attention is called. If affects the very idea of individuality. The idea that human nature is inherently and exclusively individual is itself a product of a cultural individualistic movement.”

Dewey’s argument led to something akin to Cabral’s balancing act. If everything, including rugged individualism, was part of culture, a meta-value was needed to determine which of the myriad cultural values should be kept and which needed to change. The “universal truth” of inalienable rights, like Cabral’s “national framework,” could provide some direction. Beyond that, an attitude Dewey characterized as “scientific” was key.

Countless aspects of society, including the use of schools and the press, had changed since Jefferson considered them. Others did not yet exist for his consideration. Dewey clustered prominent drivers of recent change under “mechanical instrumentalities,” effectively the mechanical processes allowing for mass production, reproduction, opinion, education and so on.  “We have to take into account the attitudes of human nature that have been created by the immense development in mechanical instrumentalities if we are to understand the present power of organized propaganda,” among other forms of influence.

The scientific attitude was far from being a narrow methodology, with the “positive halo [that] surrounds scientific endeavors.” It basically meant people should learn as a matter of course about what was actually happening. They should think over how it fit in the larger picture at the time and over time. That way, opinions, “at once the most superficial and the most steel-plated of all human affairs,” would be better aligned with the rapidly shifting conditions of the modern world and not suffer “cultural lag.”

In the end, Freedom and Culture aimed to move past the false dichotomy of the individual and the social, and set a more accurate problem with which to start the discussion. The problem was one of pluralistic interactions, not monistic forces. People were individuals in a complicated and dynamic community. Individuals existed but could not be meaningfully isolated. Politics existed but could not be addressed alone.

If freedom, whatever its positive and negative specificities, was a value worth maintaining, being formally reflected in the founding political documents and present-day ideology was insufficient. The same went for preserving democracy:

“The serious threat to our democracy is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions similar to those which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon The Leader in foreign countries.”


A Rawlsian Conclusion

Cabral and Dewey wrote about freedom and culture at very distinct points in the history of their respective countries. Guinea-Bissau was nearing the end of its armed struggle for national liberation. The US was contemplating its role given the rise of totalitarian regimes and the approach of the Second World War. Both thinkers argued that without cultural freedom—and a culture of freedom—political freedom was, at best, hollow and, at worst, an unsustainable mirage. 

Taken liberally, this “comprehensive” view might be contrasted with Rawls’ Political Liberalism. The political system in the latter view could and, in order to eliminate “bargaining advantages,” had to be abstracted from “the contingencies of the social world.” Interestingly, this had a direct impact on education. Like Jefferson (and Cabral and Dewey), Rawls recognized the necessity of schools for people to become “fully cooperating members of society.” He emphasized introducing notions of political freedom; “constitutional and civic rights.” However, “requiring children to understand the political conception in these ways is in effect, though not in intention, to educate them to a comprehensive liberal conception.” With “regret,” Rawls admitted schools were a weak point in the isolation of politics.

“Constitutional and civic rights” echo “universal scientific laws of revolution” insofar as they are fixed political positions with unstable relations to their respective cultural contexts. This is where the merit of Cabral’s stepping back and asking “who are we?” in the classroom and in the field comes into play, along with Dewey’s framing of learning as a life-long habit of observation and reflection. They help ensure political principles, opinions and institutions do not lag behind or jump ahead of societal realities, such as agrarian production, and changes, like the rise of mechanical instrumentalities.

Abstraction from the social world, Rawls’ famous “veil of ignorance,” is an attractive idea. If it is possible for a Fula chief or US media baron to participate in political discussion without knowing where they are in the social hierarchy, the discussion’s result may very well be fairer. Only, being ignorant of their own position is not enough for them to be able to imagine themselves in another person’s shoes.  That requires a habit of actively getting to know the experiences and struggles of others, not as facts alone but as strands in the complex of relations. This “scientific attitude” is the most significant connection between Cabral’s and Dewey’s notions of culture.

Trent Portigal is a writer of eclectic curiosities. Novels include Our New Neolithic Age (2021), Simulated Hysteria (2020), Death Train of Provincetown (2019) and The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (2017).

Works Cited

Cabral, A., 1970, “National Liberation and Culture,” in Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral, Africa Information Service (ed.), New York: Monthly Review Press, 39-56.

Cabral, A., 1972, “Connecting the Struggles: an informal talk with Black Americans,” in Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral, Africa Information Service (ed.), New York: Monthly Review Press, 75-92.

Dewey, J., 1916, Democracy and Education, New York: The Free Press.

Dewey, J., 1939, Freedom and Culture, in John Dewey: The Later Works, vol. 13: 1938-1939, Jo Ann Boydston (ed.), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 63-188.

Rawls, J., 1993, Political Liberalism, expanded edition, New York: Columbia University Press.


March 2022


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Amilcar Cabral and John Dewey: For a Culture of Learning and Liberation

by Trent Portigal