The populations in the British West Indies have no native civilisation at all. People dance Bongo and Shango and all this is very artistic and very good. But these have no serious effects upon their general attitude to the world. These populations are essentially Westernised and they have been Westernised for centuries. The percentage of literacy is extremely high. In little islands like Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica and even in your own British Guiana, the population is so concentrated that with the development of motor transport, nobody is very far from the centre of things. There is an immense concentration of knowledge, learning and information. People live modern lives. They read modern cheap newspapers, they listen to the radio, they go to the movies. The modern world is pressing upon them from every side giving rise to modem desires and aspirations. There is no national background to mitigate or even to influence the impact of these ideas upon the social personality of these islands.
CLR James. 1958.
Lecture on Federation, (West Indies and British Guiana)
Delivered: June 1958 at Queen’s College
Printed at the “Argosy” Co., Ltd., Bel Air Park, East Coast, Demarara [Guyana]
- 1 Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London, Verso, 1993.
1Studying the impact of colonial culture on a society implies an analysis of the relationship between that society and the colonizer. The specificity of the Caribbean is that societies were indeed the products of colonization, since they did not pre-exist the colonial process. This is not to say that relationships of exploitation and domination were accepted, but that colonialism, had far more than an impact on the Caribbean: it created societies . The point made in this paper is that many of the most radical thinkers and leaders who challenged the established order in the English speaking Caribbean reached out to the whole world, well beyond their native islands and the “mother country”. Their thinking was not limited in scope to the culture of the colonizer. It was global, at a time when this was not a fashionable slogan for eco-warriors. Interestingly, the first port of call for the radical diaspora was Britain, especially for the generation born in the early 20th century, the likes of CLR James or George Padmore. It was either the US for people like Eric Williams or Cheddi Jagan, or again Britain for an even younger generation, that of Maurice Bishop. However, for a variety of reasons, even though the formative years in Britain had their impact, radical thinkers broadened their scope well beyond the English Channel, the spires of Oxford and the chimneys of Battersea Power station. They were in contact with the international socialist movement, and were aware of and sometimes involved in crucial internal debates. Britain and the US were stepping stones in their intellectual careers, but by no means were they considered as focal points or exclusive seats of intellectual power. This was true of diasporic intellectuals, as well as of some local radical movements, such as the Oil Workers Trade Union in Trinidad. The term “Black Atlantic”, referring to the dialogue between American blacks, the Caribbean and the Black diaspora in Britain is in fact too limited in scope. Africa, and the Soviet Union were at times central concerns for Caribbean radicals.1
2Remarkably, the radical tradition, which started with CLR James, seems to have ended with Maurice Bishop, who died in 1983. Over the last decade, critical intellectuals, such as Norman Girvan, have tended to focus on the nuts and bolts of the Caribbean Common Market and the economic negotiations with the EU. The messianic character of socialism, and the power of internationalism seem to have spent their momentum, for some time at least, in the meanders of the cold war, which, in the Caribbean as well as in Europe, froze ambitions and created unbridgeable demarcation lines .
3This paper will first of all examine the intellectual and political careers of two famous Trinidadians, George Padmore and CLR James. I will then consider the case of the most radical Trade Union in the region, the Oil Workers Trade Union of Trinidad. The last part will be devoted to an analysis if Maurice Bishiop and Bernard Coard, the leaders of the ill-fated revolution in Grenada.
- 2 Fitzroy Baptiste, Rupert Lewis (eds.), George Padmore: Pan-African Revolutionary. Kingston, Ian Ran (...)
4CLR James, born in 1901 and George Padmore, born in 1903 were both middle class Trinidadians. Padmore left Trinidad for the US in 1924, where he started medical studies and joined the Communist Party in 1927. He soon became a communist organizer among American Blacks, only to be absorbed by the fledgling Communist International in 1929. He became a full time organizer for the International in Moscow in 1929, and was subsequently posted in Austria and Germany until the Nazi take-over in 1933. His political career was extremely rapid. After leaving Germany, he went to Britain, where he became critical of the Third International, and left the communist party. The crucial issue at the time for black communists in the US was: to what extent should the opposition between blacks and white society be considered as the key issue, or on the contrary as secondary to struggles involving both whites and blacks ? In other words, the connection between “race” and “class” could not be taken for granted. Within the US party, the theory of the “Black belt” prevailed, until the 1940’s, when Earl Browder led the CP to adopt a social democratic, less confrontational line. US blacks should be encouraged to demand self determination, and the creation of an agrarian black state in the South of the US should be seen as the objective. US communist Harry Haywood defended this line well into the 1960’s. The relationship between the racial factor and class was the crucial one for black radicals of the diaspora2.
- 3 Holger Weiss,"The Road to Hamburg and Beyond: African American Agency and the Making of a Radical A (...)
5Padmore left the party in 1934, angered by the attempts made by the USSR to improve its relationship with colonial powers such as Britain and France, so as to seek allies against the Nazi threat. In Communist jargon, his line was defined as “ultra leftist”. However, it illustrates the difficulty for a colonial radical to consider the defense of the Soviet Union, or international power struggles, as more important than the fight against colonial rule. Padmore remained associated with the left, and, until the 1950’s, London became fairly central for future African leaders such as Kenyatta, and later N’Krumah. Solidarity did not exclude rivalry, however. The concerns of the black intelligentsia engulfed much more than the “black Atlantic”. After Ghana’s independence, Padmore remained there until his death in 1959. 3
- 4 CLR James, Black Jacobins. London, Secker & Warburg, 1938.
- 5 CLR James, Lecture on Federation, (West Indies and British Guiana), Delivered: June 1958 at Queen’s (...)
- 6 The CLR James archive on line provides access to many of James’s articles. See <http://www.marxists (...)
6CLR James left Trinidad for Britain 10 years after Padmore, in 1932, when he was already teaching. He earned a living writing articles on cricket, and joined a proto-trotskyst ginger group within the Independent Labour Party in 1933. The ILP was a non-sectarian radical socialist organization which consistently opposed Stalinism and sponsored a number of successful writers, the most famous of whom is probably George Orwell. James’s twin concerns for African issues and the international struggle against fascism were reconciled in 1935 in the campaign against Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia. Like George Padmore, his main concern became the need to take on board the national or racial issue on the one hand, and the overall universal struggle for socialism on the other hand. By the time James moved to the US in 1938, he was already a prolific writer of novels and political essays. His book on the Haitian revolution Black Jacobins, was widely acclaimed and is still read4. It is a historical reconstruction which purports to change the way the black masses should be considered. They were real historical subjects, not just the prey of demagogues. James got involved in arcane debates within the trotskyst movement, concerning the real nature of the Soviet Union. Should it be defended after all, in spite of the elimination of Trotsky? Was it purely a police state, or did it retain some elements of a truly proletarian regime (a “degenerate workers state”) ? Such abstract considerations had in fact a very real translation in practical terms, during the cold war. In practice, radical socialist currents which dissented with Moscow had to decide where they would stand in this global struggle. A few currents decided to choose “non alignment” and adopted the slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow”. Interestingly, James chose Washington. This is never acknowledged openly, especially by the stream of enthusiastic supporters James’s work gave birth to. The brunt of his criticism against imperialism was always directed at Britain, which symbolized racial superiority and conservatism, and never at the US. During the second world war, James refused the argument whereby American blacks should take part in the war once the Nazi offensive against the USSR had started. The Soviet Union was not worth fighting for. During the crisis in Guiana in the 1950’s, which led to the establishment of the disastrous Forbes Burnham regime and the marginalization of the suspected communist Cheddi Jagan, James was very critical of Jagan, and, in practice, contributed to Burnham’s assent5. There is probably more in this than the resentment of a historical trotskyist towards a communist sympathizer, since the US were clearly hostile to Jagan at the time. In broad geopolitical terms James avoided challenging vital American interests. This was an extremely realistic stance on the part of a Caribbean radical. There is no need to embark in plot theories or spy stories to interpret this. Eric Williams, a true historian who became the Prime Minister of Trinidad, and a Marxist by training, chose exactly the same approach, contrary to Maurice Bishop in the early 80’s. This enabled Williams to widen his room for manoeuver, even vis a vis the US. In 1963, Williams was able to negotiate the return to Trinidad of the Chaguaramas base, occupied by the US since the Second World War. This had been a soft spot in the Caribbean, since this prime site for maritime activity was supposed to be the capital of the Federation of the West Indies (FWI). It was still under US control at the time, and this had affected the credibility of the FWI. As a further proof of independence, Williams was very critical of the US intervention in Grenada in 1983, when the leaders of Barbados and smaller islands welcomed it. However, in spite of a number of nationalizations in the oil industry, Trinidad has maintained a working relationship with the Oil Majors, which is obviously necessary in order to remain abreast with technological change in the field, and exports a lot of its LNG to the US. The role play between Trinidad and the US is under control. Trinidad and Tobago is allowed to maintain an independent stance, within reasonable limits.6
- 7 Kent Worcester, CLR James, A Political Biography, New York, State University of New York Press, 199 (...)
7James devoted a lot of efforts to the nurturing of a small faction within American Trotskyism, the “Johnson Forest tendency”. Indeed, “Forest” was CLR James’s pseudonym within the party. He provided a lot of the inspiration for this group, whose chief idea was that negroes all over the world constituted an exploited mass whose political potential had so far been underestimated. In a sense, he heralded the movements which, in the 1960’s, came to consider the third world as the new revolutionary vanguard and took to direct action on its behalf. This was true of the French followers of Pablo, during the Algerian war of independence, as well as of the South American followers of Che Guevara. James was therefore ahead of his time, and survived the militants who took literally his metaphorical calls to arms 7.The deadliest weapon he was familiar with was the cricket bat.
8James’s writings were rather eclectic, since he embraced literary criticism as well as the visual arts and popular culture. This also explains the cult surrounding him and his considerable popularity in the West Indies. His lack of sectarianism and his ability to discover and uphold new causes earned him a lot of support in the 1960’s. He was no real doctrinaire, when factionalism plagued small revolutionary groups. For instance, he provided generous support for the idea of “Black Power”, but gave the expression an extremely wide meaning, engulfing Booker T Washington as well as his fiercest critic, W.E.B. Du Bois, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. This stood in stark contrast with the relationships within the Black movements: Malcolm X was probably murdered by the Nation of Islam, and Stokely Carmichael took the Black Panthers to task for accepting the support of white radicals.
- 8 The OWTU has published a detailed account of its own history on its website : <http://www.owtu.org/(...)
- 9 Black Stalin :Burn dem. 1987.
9In Trinidad itself, James was seen as an icon of radicalism. His non-sectarian leadership was looked up to by the movements which tried to avoid the ethnic polarization which plagued Guyana. The ethnic mix of Trinidad was comparable to that of Guyana, except that the numbers of Africans and Indians were roughly the same. The ruling party under Eric Williams was mostly made up of Blacks, who tended to occupy the state apparatus. This created some resentment, especially in areas far removed for the capital city Port of Spain. The oil field workers of Trinidad had always been the most multiracial and the most radical sector of the working class movement. Their mobilization in 1937 had led to long strikes, riots, the deployment of British troops, but at the end of the day, compromise, and the report of the Moyne Commission. The Oil Workers Trade Union of Trinidad (OWTU), the most militant Labour organization in the island was a direct outcome of this crisis. The OWTU still exists and, although it faces competition from other unions today, it remains a significant force. It is now a general union, organizing well beyond the ranks of oil workers . In the first decades of independence, the OWTU was associated to communism, although no formal communist party existed in Trinidad. The OWTU belonged to the World Federation of Trade Unions, which was dominated by communists, and, when it came out on strike in the 1960’s, it was claimed it had a political agenda 8.This is far from clear, even if its leader, George Weekes, joined a small party created by CLR James, the Workers and Peasants’ Party. The legacy of traditional working class militancy is very strong, as is radical culture in the oil fields of San Fernando. A popular and widely acclaimed calypsonian and rastafarian from San Fernando adopted as his nom de plume Black Stalin, a defiant gesture, which matches his sometimes very political lyrics. The best known of his songs, Burn Dem, proposes to send to Hell Ian Smith, Queen Victoria, Margaret Thatcher, “ The English woman who on South Africa refuse to put sanctions” as well as Ronald Reagan: “Because of the things they do we (sic), I want to fix them personally”. Stalin, the singer, is entrusted with a divine mission on Judgment day: “ These people had their day, well now is time for Stalin to play”. This represents a creative synthesis between Marxism-Leninism, Rastafarianism, Christianity and the tradition of “Kaiso” (Trinidadian term for Calypso)9.
- 10 Letters deposited at UWI St Augustine.
10There is a radical climate in this part of the island, which could have offered a favourable spawning ground for socialist ideas. This remained limited, and the power of the OWTU has been much eroded. A coup was attempted in 1970, in the name of Black Power, by discontented army officers, fresh from Sandhurst. This was supported informally by a lot of people who demonstrated in the San Fernando region, although the OWTU did not provide official backing. In practice, the OWTU remained a strongly working class organization, and refrained from entering directly the political arena and challenging Williams on that field. Its connection with the USSR is not all that clear. After all, the union organized the funeral of CLR James, a former trotskyst, the casket being born by members wearing their blue shirt uniform. Orthodox Communists would certainly not have condoned this. On the other hand, the Union also had good relations with Maurice Bishop, the leader of the Revolutionary People’s Government in Grenada, who totally aligned himself on the Soviet positions in the United Nations, much to the embarrassment of the USSR, who recommended caution and never committed themselves to supporting Grenada. So on the whole, the OWTU would seem rather close to the British National Union of Mineworkers under Arthur Scargill, sharing a confrontational approach to industrial relations and a distaste for traditional politics. But with steel pans rather than brass bands. Indeed, CLR James and Scargill corresponded 10.
11The 1970 crisis must have been taken seriously by the government. Little is known about the extent of the repression, but George Weekes, the leader of the OWTU, spent 7 months in jail.
12The last of the radical leaders so far in the English speaking Caribbean is obviously Maurice Bishop, from Grenada. The US will be celebrating this year the 30th anniversary of their massive intervention in Grenada against the People’s Revolutionary Government, 5 days after Bishop’s murder. Bishop and the other leaders of the “New Jewel Movement” were trained in Britain in the late 1960s and early 1970’s. Bishop himself was a lawyer, and spent some time at the LSE. His close companion , who is often blamed for his murder, Bernard Coard, had been trained both at Brandeis, in the US, and then at Sussex, where he defended a Phd in development economics. He was a typical diasporic intellectual, taking up lecturing positions at UWI, in St Augustine (Trinidad) and then at Mona in Jamaica. Bishop was the charismatic leader of the movement, which emerged after Grenada’s ill-conceived independence in 1974. Britain had granted independence hastily, in spite of the opposition of Grenadian society: unions, churches, employers demonstrated to postpone independence, but their protest went unheeded. A weird repressive and cranky regime was set up, under one Eric Gairy, famous for building a landing pad for potential UFOs. This regime was overthrown by a coup led by Maurice Bishop in 1979. The new “People’s Revolutionary Government ruled until the fatal crisis of October 1983.
- 11 Maurice Bishop (March 13th 1979) “A Bright New Dawn”. First address to the Nation on Radio Free Gre (...)
- 12 Bernard Coard,How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School Syste (...)
- 13 Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray. The Bell Curve. Intelligence and Class Structure in American (...)
- 14 Maurice Bishop (April 13 th 1979) “In Nobody’s Backyard” also known as “Grenada is now Free. Onward (...)
13Bishop had a direct contact with the masses, and shared with CLR James an ability to shun sectarianism and concentrate on the issues which he felt were central, and also struck a chord in people’s minds. He combined passion, and a shrewd analysis of local mentalities. The reform package he put forward and partly implemented included education, social security, the buttressing of Trade Unionism, improving the lot of women, and the development of a new type of tourism, a reasonable social democratic agenda11. However, his thinking must also be related to that of Coard. Coard’s academic standing was much higher than Bishop’s. He was also directly associated to the Communist Parties of the USA and Great Britain at some point in his career, even though his later evolution towards revolutionary tactics and international confrontation took him very far from the CPGB, a very moderate euro-communist party which introspection and in fighting led to self dissolution in 1991. Coard made quite an impression among British educationalists and Black militants in Britain for publishing a pamphlet in 1971 blaming the “institutional racism” of the educational system for the underachievement of black pupils12. The question of the underachievement of black school boys became a very central one in America, in Britain as well as in the Caribbean, and opinions on its causes diverge significantly. Charles Murray’s book The Bell Curve blames the culture of the black community, and the lack of involvement of black fathers in family matters13. Conversely, he British black “anti-racist” movement considered that white society was inherently, “institutionally” racist, and excluded black children precisely because it rejected their culture. So it is very much the case that Coard’s interest in the subject put him at the core of strategic debates. However, the most striking contribution Coard made to the Grenadian revolution, and probably the most disastrous one, was in the field of international relations. Coard was probably the inspirer of Bishop’s speeches in the United Nations. The People’s Revolutionary Government adopted a stance which defies the logic of the cold war, and certainly the logic of the USSR. It openly stood by Cuba, by the Ortega regime in Nicaragua, provided uncritical support to all the Soviet backed movements in the world, from Palestine to Western Sahara in Morocco or to the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia. This did not tip the balance of forces in any way, given the size of Grenada, but this was an irritant for the US. The Soviet Union never encouraged the PRG to act so provocatively. By the early 1980’s, the Soviets were mostly concerned to avoid turmoil in their own sphere of influence, and certainly did not welcome trouble in the Caribbean, the Americans’ backyard. They were certainly not prepared to run any risk on behalf of Grenada. The provocative stance of Coard and Bishop, which led to the US intervention, could only be motivated by a totally unrealistic appreciation of the regional situation14.The Caribbean as a whole was not prepared to contemplate a global rebellion against “imperialism”, which meant that a showdown between the US and Grenada could only lead to the swatting of the mosquito.
14Perhaps the Grenadian regime was a victim of its own rhetoric about world revolution, and seriously believed the “South” would rise against the USA. This interpretation is based on the psychological mechanisms at work within revolutionary movements, such as self-induced delusion that the dynamics of revolution are irresistible. Perhaps the unrealistic standpoints of the PRG in the United Nations can be attributed to its “small nation” status, which gave it the impression it enjoyed diplomatic immunity, whatever cause it actually promoted, because it carried so little weight. Be that as it may, the US intervened after Bishop had been murdered by a faction possibly headed by Coard. Coard himself was jailed and was only released in 2009. The ostensible cause for the US intervention was the building of an international airport with Cuban support, and the security of a few American students staying at a private US University in Grande Anse.
15The “Big Game”, ie the geopolitical struggle between East and West was therefore fatal to the Grenadian revolution. Repeating dogmatically the slogans manufactured by the Soviet regime without any consideration for the regional circumstances only lead to defeat, and the crushing of the hopes of radical socialist movements in the Caribbean. This stands in stark contrast with the realism of CLR James and Eric Williams, who, with the same Marxist background as Bishop’s and Coard’s, followed an entirely different agenda, and attempted to use whatever space was available for political action, without going “a bridge too far”.
16To what extent can socialism be considered as part and parcel of colonial culture ? Even though Marxism originally sprung from Europe, the political practice of socialism became global in the XXth century. In the case of the English speaking Caribbean, the training of most radical thinkers took place in the UK or the US, with the exception of the leaders of the OWTU. Indeed, the Caribbean was a privileged spot for exploring the relationship between social domination and ethnic domination, a favourite theme for academic Marxism in the US and Britain. However, the geo political location of the Caribbean also made it and still makes it an interesting observation point on the fault line between major tectonic plates. As geologists and vulcanologists know, observing such unpredictable movements can be pretty hazardous. The cold war, and the relationships between the neo Bolivarian movements of South America and the USA certainly affected the Caribbean, sometimes tragically. The intellectual game was not always abstract and confined to conferences and University staff rooms. What is at any rate clear is that radical intellectuals in the region were never parochial, and were active participants in global ideological debates.
Baptiste, Fitzroy and Rupert Lewis (eds.). George Padmore: Pan-African Revolutionary. Kingston, Ian Randle Publishers, 2009.
Bishop, Maurice. (March 13th 1979) “A Bright New Dawn”. First address to the Nation on Radio Free Grenada. 10.30 am. <http:/thegrenadarevolutiononline.com>.
Bishop, Maurice (June 15th 1979) “Women Step Forward”- National Conference of Women. Marryshow House, UWI Lbrary Extension, St George, Grenada. <http:/thegrenadarevolutiononline.com>.
Bishop, Maurice. (July 2nd 1979) “Education in the New Grenada.” Speech at the National Education Conference July 2-3rd 1979. <http:/thegrenadarevolutiononline.com>.
Bishop, Maurice. (April 13 th 1979) “In Nobody’s Backyard” also known as “Grenada is now Free. Onward to Socialism: On month After”. National Broadcast, Radio Free Grenada and television Free Grenada. <http:/thegrenadarevolutiononline.com>.
Bishop, Maurice, (6th September 1979) “Imperialism is Not Invincible.” Sixth Summit Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, September 3-8th Havana, Cuba. <http:/thegrenadarevolutiononline.com>.
Bishop, Maurice, (1O October 1979) Address to the 34the Assembly of the United Nations. New York. http:/thegrenadarevoultiononline.com.
Bogues, Anthony, Caliban’s Freedom, the Early Political Thought of CLR James. London, Pluto Press, 1997.
Coard, Bernard, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain. London, 1971.
Dhondy,Farukh, CLR James, a Life, New York, Pantheon Books, 2001.
Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London, Verso, 1993.
Herrnstein Richard J. and Murray, Charles. The Bell Curve. Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York, Free Press, 1994.
James, CLR. Black Jacobins. London, Secker & Warburg, 1938.
James, CLR. “Lecture on Federation, (West Indies and British Guiana)”, Delivered: June 1958 at Queen’s College, Printed at the “Argosy” Co., Ltd., Bel Air Park, East Coast, Demarara [Guyana].
Weiss, Holger."The Road to Hamburg and Beyond: African American Agency and the Making of a Radical African Atlantic, 1922-1930." Comintern Working Papers, Åbo Akademi University, 2007- 2011. Available on line.
Worcester, Kent . CLR James, A Political Biography, New York, State University of New York Press, 1996.