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A Radical Humanist

Saul Landau: Make It Better

by NELSON P. VALDES

I would like to add my voice and memories to the recognition and honors paid to Saul Landau, a Cuban, a North American, and universal man of many talents who was friend, poet, writer,  popular teacher, university professor, documentalist and filmmaker, a radical, a humanist, a defender of just and democratic causes, an iconoclast, a journalist, a radio worker, a historian, an athlete, a father, a grandfather, a friend of thousands and certainly an example to all.

He was also a master of the pen, the microphone, the TV camera, the pulpit, and friendship. He wrote novels; he organized and established organizations like the Institute for Policy Studies, the National Security Archives, the Center for Cuban Studies, and Holland’s Transnational Institute. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin and wrote a remarkable master’s degree thesis. He also went to Stanford. He published 14 books and 50 documentaries and films, and wrote more than 500 articles and as many book reviews. And he was mentor to hundreds.

José Martí once said at Hardman Hall, in New York, on October 10, 1890: “A true man does not seek the path where the advantage lies, but rather where duty is found…” Saul, who was born just a few blocks from there, lived his life exactly as Marti suggested.

Saul was born on January 15, 1936 in the Bronx, New York, in a neighborhood brimming with Jews, Blacks, Catholics, Irish, Russians and Latinos. As a child, he saw his neighborhood demographically grow at a very rapid rate, almost as fast as the subway trains he used to take. Central and Eastern European Jews accounted for the majority of the population at a time when they were –politically speaking– the American left’s one of the most influential sector. Saul told me that he didn’t remember his father, who owned a pharmacy, as a left-winger. However, his urban environment was.

The Jewish intellectual tradition joined the Black one –the “Harlem Renaissance”– precisely as Saul was growing up. As a high-school student he was already taking part in progressive actions. He was a young leftist when he went to study in Wisconsin. Together with other personalities such as Tom Hayden, James O’Connor and Lee Baxandall, he created what would be known as the new left, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and other organizations.

He founded the journals Studies on the Left and Ramparts. He helped C. Wright Mills with his book Listen, Yankee and together they edited the book The Marxists. But Mills was not the only renowned sociologist that Saul collaborated with when he was barely 23. There was also Max Weber’s best student –Hans Gerth– with whom Saul wrote a famous essay in 1960 about the integration of history and sociology. Gerth was already in his sixties.

Saul’s life deserves a detailed biography. The FBI, considered  Saul a bad example for the rest of humanity and accumulated over  15,000 classified documents on him.

I had the chance to talk with Saul every day over the phone, more than once. We did so every day for the last five years. He connected many of us, through his phone calls. We also wrote articles for CounterPunch and other venues. I remember the sequence for each article. He would start an article one week and I would do the same the following one. I remember that every time he sent me his draft  he would tell me, “Make it better”. Such was, basically, his daily philosophy: make the world better. To Saul, that was a DUTY. And that is how we should remember him.

[These words were read in Havana, Cuba, on December 18, 2013]

Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

Translated by Walter Lippmann, editor of CubaNews.