The Caribbean Revolution
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Basil Wilson
Summer 1981

Living standards in Central America and the Caribbean islands have decreased precipitously in the last decade. World inflation and high oil prices have shaken out of balance the delicate mechanism of these developing economies. Countries like Jamaica have experienced consistent years of negative growth, further exacerbating the unemployment situation which even in times of reasonable growth rates was already staggering. Jamaica's unemployed presently constitute approximately 30% of its labor force. This vast army of unemployed, mostly concentrated in urban enclaves, is becoming quite restless and seeking ways out of a desperate situation.

These kinds of horrendous conditions give rise to the germination of radical alternatives to the decrepit established order. Marxist thought is quite new to the Caribbean. Marxist parties of formidable strength are even more recent. Democratic socialism, as epitomized by Michael Manley and the People's National Party, has much deeper roots. This species of socialism was extracted from the British Labor Party and during the colonial era slept in the same bed with imperialism. During the 1980's, parties of this ideological pursuit offered some mild reforms but were dauntless in accommodating themselves to the capitalist order. Under the leadership of Michael Manley, the PNP in 1974 reprogrammed democratic socialism, refrained from taking an anti-communist position, and managed to frighten the hell out of a semiliterate bourgeois class. This class — in alliance with the middle strata, the working class and agro-proletariat incensed at the inability of the Manley government to stem inflation, unemployment and deteriorating living conditions — shifted to the right and voted for the return to power of the conservative Jamaica Labor Party, much to the delight of the Reagan administration. The setback has left the anti-imperialist forces in a serious state of befuddlement.

The nation of Guyana has a much older and established history of radical politics. Unlike Jamaica, Guyana has no bourgeois political party of any consequence. The three major political parties, the governing People's National Congress, the People's Progressive Party and the Working People's Alliance, all subscribe to some form of socialism. The Burnham dictatorship unceasingly makes claims of having established a co-operative republic, but the PNC has managed to cling to state power through adroit management of the voting process. The People's Progressive Party demonstrated during the 1950's and the 1960's that it was the majority party in that racially divided country. The PPP is a Marxist-Leninist Party that continues to give credence to Burnham's dictatorship by its ever-willingness to participate in the electoral masquerades that Burnham holds intermittently before his coronation. This revolutionary party insists there is no revolutionary situation in Guyana and participates in Burnham's charade to preserve its recognized constitutional role as the opposition party.

The Working People's Alliance is a relatively new party that espouses Marxism, but is far more committed to revolutionary democracy than the PPP or the PNC.

Other Marxist and/or radical political parties sprang up throughout the Caribbean in the 1970's. The New Jewel Movement seized control in Grenada on March 13, 1979, and established a revolutionary government that enjoyed excellent relations with the former Manley government and has developed a close relationship with the revolutionary government of Cuba. Marxist parties have emerged in Dominica, St. Vincent, Antigua, etc. All these parties contested recent elections held in their respective territories and the few votes they managed to muster reveal the embryonic stage of Marxist thought and organizations in the Caribbean. Many of these Marxist parties held an unreal notion of their strength in relationship to the bourgeois political parties. The recent elections should force them to return to the scientific path of real politics.

Marxist-Leninist political parties like the Workers Party of Jamaica commenced with a naive conceptualization of what was necessary to become a mass party. It was presumed that lavish quotes-from Lenin would precipitate a flock of workers coming into the revolutionary fold. Experience has taught them that the economistic unions — like the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, affiliated to the conservative Jamaica Labor Party, and the National Workers Union, affiliated to the reformist People's National Party — won the allegiance of workers at the genesis of the working class struggle and thereafter, political loyalties remain deeply ingrained. That kind of first chapter naivete is understandable, but what I find more disturbing is the inability to look at the political heritage of the Caribbean and adapt the theory of Marxism in a creative way. Is that too much to ask of revolutionary political parties?

Although the Caribbean lacks a history of Marxist scholarship, in recent years a number of scholars from the region have been forced to reject capitalism. If one lives in a society where barbarism is seeping in daily, one has no choice but to explore alternative models of social organization. We have begun that process but too many of our exceptional minds have been trapped into becoming prisoners of radical metaphysics. There is a tendency unfolding that critical thought is "counter-revolutionary"; that the recitation of platitudes is a healthy exercise; that intellectual rigor is a bourgeois pastime. The political activists — our people of action — cannot find time to read, which is understandable. This leaves a burden on the scholars in the region, and if they succumb to the apocalyptic "magic" of the activists, who will produce that body of literature necessary to construct the new society? It is not surprising that one seldom finds a radical scholar or political activist in the Caribbean who has read C. L. R. James. Yet many can recite passages from Lenin and are ready to apologize for Stalinism. This goes on in a region that has produced an important Marxist scholar whose life ingenuously combines scholarship and political activism. Even more important, James never flinched from intellectual honesty.

Building the Mass Party

C. L. R. James left the Caribbean in 1932, shortly after completing a biography of the Trinidadian trade union leader, Captain Cipriani. In The Life of Captain Cipriani James eloquently made the case for self-determination in the Caribbean. In his formative years on the island of Trinidad, he studied the intellectual tradition of Western civilization. Like many of his contemporaries, such as Aim้ C้saire and Ras Makonnen, James, a product of plantation society, journeyed to the metropolis not in search of affluence, but to march with the forces of history which were willing to smash Western imperialism and liberate the working class.

After much wandering and many theoretical battles (covered elsewhere in this journal), C. L. R. James returned to the Caribbean in 1958. In that 26-year absence, the power configuration of the world had changed dramatically. The gale force winds of Third World Nationalism unleashed in the post-World War II period were also sweeping the Caribbean. Eric Williams, historian and author of Capitalism and Slavery, was instrumental in forming the nationalist People's National Movement. Williams' party reaped the nationalist whirlwind. From 1956 to the present, the PNM has dominated the politics of Trinidad and Tobago.

As the British prepared to make their gracious exodus from the Caribbean, they attempted to create an impotent federal polity. After centuries of governing the English-speaking Caribbean territories as separate entities, the British now felt compelled to foster a spirit of political unity. This experiment in political ecumenism fell apart in 1962 when Jamaica withdrew from the federation.

It was the determination on the part of the Caribbean masses to resist British colonialism that prompted James's return. Despite his unflagging commitment to Marxism, James was never troubled by nationalism. In 1948, he published the essay, "The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the U.S.A.," and stated quite lucidly that the Black movement in the United States had an autonomy and validity of its own. When James returned to the Caribbean, he did so without any romantic illusions about establishing a revolutionary society. He returned to the Caribbean willing to abandon temporarily his own revolutionary activities and to work sacrificially for the building of the People's National Movement into a mass force. Here, one has to pause, catch a few gasps, and ponder awhile. Now this is truly the act of a remarkable man. Convinced that was where the mass movement in Trinidad was at this historical juncture, C. L. R. James buried his revolutionary Marxist position, not to lead the nationalist struggle but to edit the PNM paper and to do the nitty-gritty, unglamorous, organizational tasks most theoreticians simply shun.

I have attended political meetings with James and heard "revolutionary comrades" from the Caribbean chastise him for his work with the PNM and for the West Indian Federation. Nonetheless, this veteran of Marxist thought is never apologetic. His positions were always so principled that he does not have to tread through the yesteryears and apologize for past action, The decision to return to the Caribbean was not one that was taken lightly. James was convinced there was no revolutionary situation in the Caribbean and the advance of Caribbean people to self-determination was a critical period requiring enormous sacrifice. The native son returned and put his shoulders to the wheel to heave the mass movement forward.

James's sojourn with the PNM came to an end in July 1960. By then, he had his bellyful of the wishy-washy elite who dominated the moribund PNM. During the twoyear span, James tried to get the leadership of the party to take financial responsibility for the party paper, The Nation, He felt the party should be used as the instrument to build the mass party. The PNM leadership now had control of state power and building the party apparatus had become superfluous. Concerned by this state of degeneracy, James lamented:

In many cases the party does not exist, except in name and the most urgent and repeated efforts to correct this, meet with the indifference, carelessness, ignorance and now, the obstinacy and hostility of the party leadership!1

James tried to get the Premier of Trinidad, Eric Williams, to intervene. The goodly doctor remained undisturbed and replied tersely, "There was nothing to discuss."2

Commitment to Revolutionary Democracy

Throughout his long life, James has manifested an unabiding faith in democracy. Revolutionary politics means the deepening of the democratic process. This is what James sought to do with the People's National Movement. Williams would have none of it. He was more fascinated with building a political party that served as the extension of his imperial personality.

Because of this commitment to revolutionary democracy, James went to the trouble to publish a pamphlet on the West Indian Federation. There was no attempt to include the Caribbean people in the making of the Federation. It was left to the hand-work of middle-class politicians and colonial lords. This is why the first time the Jamaican people were given the opportunity to vote on the issue, they rejected the federation outright. James foresaw the dangers. At a time when the federation appeared shaky, he suggested salvaging this noble attempt at political unification by abandoning the present structure and to start anew with a constituent assembly. Constitutions in the region, both national and federal, were offered for ratification without any involvement at the draft stage by the mass of the population. Understandably, the situation was much too far gone to be salvaged and the undemocratic experiment at political unification failed abysmally.

James and the Middle Class

James emerged from that experience convinced that the Caribbean middle class was an impediment to reconstructing the new society. The democratic system had been effectively enshrined, but the politicians were quite adept at playing games with people's lives. "Very few Caribbean politicians had a firm grasp of the productive forces in their country. They were mostly from the trade union' movement, clerical assistants, small business men, and administrators in the public sector. Thus, the politicians carry into politics all the weaknesses of the class from which they came."3

In their quest for office, the aspiring politicians would promise jobs without being clear about how these things could be realized. What incensed James was that the middle class had seized control of the nationalist movement, yet had not been the instigators of the working class unrest that served as the catalyst for mass politics.

The democracy and West Indian nation was won by mass revolt. Even this revolt was led by men who were not typically middle class. When, after 1937-38, the democratic movement started, it was a labour movement. Gradually, however, the British Government felt itself compelled to make the Civil Service West Indian, i.e., middle class. By degrees, the middle class took over the political parties.4

This was what definitely occurred in Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica. Political leaders like Eric Williams, Grantley Adams, and Norman Manley came out of that middle class milieu. They were by nature conservative men, nationalist but subservient to British imperialism, believing in democracy but frightened of mass mobilization. This leadership core and the class to which they belonged had demonstrated an intellectual capacity unequalled anywhere else in the colonial world. They had acquired skills indispensable to the running of a modern society. They were part of the modern world, knew how to survive in it, but nonetheless failed to understand the real nature of that world. As a class, they were too terrified of authority. They avoided struggles and were much more comfortable accommodating themselves to existing institutions.

James saw clearly the deficiencies of this class and wrote quite poignantly:

I do not know any social class which lives so completely without ideas of any kind. They live entirely on the material plane. In a published address, Sir Robert Kirkwood quotes Vida Naipaul, who has said of them that they seem to aim at nothing more than being secondrate American citizens. It is much more than that. They aim at nothing. Government jobs and the opportunities which association with the government gives, allows them the possibility of accumulating material goods. That is all.5

They were certainly not familiar with the politics of ideas. The commitment to democracy was perfunctory. They surely were not interested in asking fundamental questions, never questioning the efficacy of the system inherited. They glorified the British past and always insisted they were "brown men," ensuring that the distance between themselves and the mass of the population was kemptly kept. They were the king-makers and they strutted around in tweedy English three-piece suits, oblivious to the rags of the noon day sun.

Another leadership style had also emerged. These were the gung-ho, trade union type who identified with the mass of the population. From a different class background, these rebels were always willing to fight the British and to lead the workers in rebellion. They empathized with the workers and demanded an equitable distribution of wealth, especially while in opposition. Although excelling in rebellious posturing, these political leaders, once in control, spent their time devising schemes to ensure they would not fall from grace. Maintaining control of state power remained paramount. They cursed the British, yet went cap-in-hand to the Americans, begging for foreign aid. They were ferocious lions in opposition, pussycats in power. Leaders like Bustamante (Jamaica), Uriah Butler (Trinidad and Tobago) and Eric Gairy (Grenada) in particular accommodated themselves to an imposed democratic system and unlike their more educated middle class counterparts, were of an autocratic bent.

Both the grass roots autocrats and the middle class parliamentarians failed to develop any real appreciation for democracy No attempt was made to redefine democracy and/or adapt it to the specific conditions in the Caribbean. One group sought to manipulate the mass movement for its own sense of aggrandizement while the other sought to maintain its distance from the mass movement. Thus, at its new dawn, the Caribbean suffered from intellectually bankrupt political parties.

James sensed the discrepancy that was developing between the conservative political leadership and the restlessness of the multitudes. The political parties were without vision and had no plans to proceed with economic development outside of inviting in foreign capital. James recognized there had to be a reckoning:

The old order is gone. No new order has appeared. The middle classes have their work cut out for them. Their brief period of merely enjoying new privileges after threehundred years of being excluded is about over.6

The mass of the population would not remain indefinitely excluded from the nerve center of power. They were not interested in substituting "new masters for old. They want no masters at all. Unfortunately, they do not know much. Under imperialism, they had had little opportunity to learn anything. History will take its course, only too often a bloody one."7

For James, the mass movement was not static, but an irreversible force propelling history. The task of the revolutionary was to depict the stage and state of the mass movement and push it along. James returned once more to the Caribbean in 1966 to form a revolutionary political party. James's political organization, the Workers and Farmers Party, participated in the 1966 election in Trinidad and Tobago. All the party's candidates except one failed to muster sufficient votes to warrant the return of the cash deposits required by law to discourage the frivolous. The middle class politicians were still in control, the mass movement still feeling its way.

The Rise of the Black Power Movement

The first decade of Caribbean independence was marked by a serious attempt at industrializing the region through attracting Western capital and technology. Especially in the larger regions, such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados, this strategy for economic development produced high growth rates in the gross national product. Concomitant with the high growth rates, however, was growing unemployment. The weaknesses of the strategy of industrialization by invitation was attacked by the radical social scientists whose writings carried them beyond the bourgeois paradigm.

The New World group of academicians critiqued the dependency theory which had become the conventional wisdom of the dominant political parties. This created a climate in which new seeds of social organization could be sown. A new generation shattered the insularity of Caribbean political thought and marched in step with the revolutionary nationalism that was sweeping America. Indeed, a native of the Caribbean, Stokely Carmichael, was a chief architect of the Black Power Movement in the United States.

Walter Rodney was instrumental in adapting the Black Power Movement to the Caribbean. Rodney had just been assigned to the History Department at the Mona Campus, University of the West Indies. An African scholar and Marxist, this young Guyanese scholar had a marked impact on the student body at the Mona Campus. Rodney appealed not only to the intelligentsia but was able to forge links with the more politically inclined members of the Rastafarian Movement.

The Jamaica Labor Party government, epitomizing that conservative middle class which dominated Caribbean politics hitherto, pronounced Walter Rodney persona non grata in October 1968. The University students protested, and on October 16, 1968 there was rioting in downtown Kingston.

The 1970 Black Power revolt in Trinidad was further evidence that a new political trend had crystallized in the Caribbean. The National Joint Action Committee harnessed the energies of the mass movement and challenged the elite democracy in Trinidad and Tobago. Parliamentary democracy of the Westminster variety for a moment teetered but eventually — with the show of military might by the Venezuelan and United States governments — the armed forces remained loyal to Williams and order was restored. The Black Power Revolt nevertheless marks the beginning of a new type of politics. New radical parties emerged, like the New Jewel Movement in Grenada which overthrew Eric Gairy on March 13, 1979 and immediately established a revolutionary state. In 1972, Michael Manley came to power in Jamaica and trail-blazed a new developmental strategy. The left forces in Dominica used mass demonstrations to topple the government of Patrick John, after it was revealed that he was forging links with the racist South African regime. In the election held in 1980 to replace the Patrick John government, however, it was not the left which triumphed but the pro- American Freedom Party led by conservative Eugenia Charles. The Jamaican masses meanwhile struggled with Michael Manley for eight years and decided in October 1980 that the promise of democratic socialism did not match the deterioration in the living standards of the working class.

The rise of radical thought in the Caribbean has put an end to the ideological monopoly that the bourgeois parties enjoyed in the first decade after independence. Socialism of whatever species is no longer just an envisioned theory in the Caribbean. It has been tested in Jamaica and found wanting. The experiment in Grenada is only two years in the making.

The Atavisms of Leninism

Modern Caribbean society was created as an outgrowth of the international capitalist economy. Despite the malady of insularity, the fate of the Caribbean is subject to the state of the world economy. Simultaneously in the Caribbean, there is taking place the birth of new societies and the resurrection of old ones. That dialectic between the old and the new is reflective of the two-tier world crises going on inside and outside the Caribbean. Not only is world capitalism in a severe crisis, but we find Soviet Marxism also in a severe crisis.

The dependency nature of Caribbean society seems to encourage either a willingness to subjugate the national polity to the vicissitudes of imperialism or to break out of that dependency by immersing the body politic into the Marxist-Leninist fraternity of nations. The left forces in the Caribbean, like the People's Progressive Party of Guyana and the Workers Party of Jamaica, have taken this latter route. But the mass rebellion of the working class cannot be seen as a historical aberration. Just as the Communist Party of Poland is forced to come to grips with the working class, Marxist-Leninist parties in the Caribbean, where democratic precepts are highly institutionalized, will have to come to terms with revolutionary democracy. It is a nigh impossible task to patch up capitalism in the Caribbean. What is going to be critical in the coming decade is the debate about the new society. It is in this regard that James's writings become most propitious.

James never succumbed to using Marxism as a dogma. It wasn't to be used as a sledge-hammer to intimidate political opponents. He believed in the innovative capacity of Caribbean people.

We are too much dominated by the ideas and theories of advanced countries. We should, we have to develop, for example, economic ideas and theories and practice of our own, which can help not only ourselves but help to regenerate the bankrupt West; distinguished economists abroad expect it from us.8

Caribbean scholars and political activists have done just that in their struggle outside the Caribbean. James, like Fanon, was calling on Third World people not to follow the European past, but to create a new world. He was aware of the pitfalls of revolutionary consciousness — how callous men could become when power was up for grabs. He never saw these qualities in George Padmore and commented:

Politics, above all revolutionary politics, frequently make men hardened and indifferent to normal human relations and even the elements of civilized intercourse. There was never a trace of that in George, despite all he had been through and all he had seen.9

James likewise never became so intrigued by political power that he was for a moment willing to bury his humanity. He has been appalled by the degradation of official society — the death of ten million soldiers in World War I, thirty-five million in World War II, Hiroshima, the gulag archipelagoes in Stalin's Russia. The crimes of the latter forced James to re-examine the Soviet model. He rejected the precepts of the vanguard party and said of Leninism:

It was a particular theory designed to suit a specific stage of working class development. That stage of society is now past. The theory, and the practice that went with it, are now an anachronism, and, if persisted in, lead to one form or another of the counter-revolution. The first thing we must do is to purge ourselves of it.10

There is always the danger in the Vanguard Party that it sees itself as the repository of all wisdom and reserves the right to pontificate. The mass of the population should follow like sheep or stand accused as counter-revolutionaries. That kind of politics, that so many Caribbean Marxists with middle class backgrounds subscribe to, was totally unacceptable to James. Jamesian Marxism is aware of the oppressive nature of official bureaucracy. What would replace the vanguard party? The working class would emancipate itself. James was heartened when he saw this possibility come to fruition in Hungary in 1956. The Workers' Councils in Hungary were the true expression of proletarian democracy. Only Soviet tanks ended that noble social experiment.

Martin Luther King once said, "Truth crushed to the ground will rise again." We have witnessed the rise of yet another demand on the part of workers for revolutionary democracy, this time in Poland. Again, the working class has been exemplary. Its members are not concerned with vengeance or economism. They wish to humanize Soviet state capitalism and abolish the privileges accruing to members of the Stalinist vanguard party. What we have seen unfold in Poland is not just faith, but the verification of Marxist thought. What we observe is mass movement in all its quintessence.

Marxist-Leninists in the Caribbean must also strip themselves of the atavisms of that creed. They must understand the meaning of the gulags, the Workers' Councils in Hungary in 1956, the proletarian uprising in Poland in 1980. They must understand the nature of the mass movement in the Caribbean, where it is, where it is going. If they continue to function outside of history, they will succumb to the politics of histrionics, rather than understand the dialectics of history. It is their historical duty to prod the mass movement and take it to the advanced stage we see unfolding in Poland. James is always fond of saying that the choice before man is a simple choice, "It is socialism or barbarism," The Caribbean has already had too much of the latter.

Dr. Basil Wilson, a native West Indian, is now an Assistant Professor and Chairman of the African-American Studies Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.


1. C. L. R. James, Party Politics in the West Indies (Vedic Enterprises, San Juan, Trinidad, 1962), page 5.[return to text]

2. Ibid., page 109.[return to text]

3. C. L. R. James, "The Middle Classes," published in David Lowenthal and Lambros Comitas, Consequences of Class and Color: West Indian Perspectives (Doubleday, New York, 1973), page 81.[return to text]

4. Ibid., page 83.[return to text]

5. Ibid., page 84.[return to text]

6. Ibid., page 91.[return to text]

7. Ibid., page 92.[return to text]

8. C. L. R. James, Party Politics in the West Indies, page 87.[return to text]

9. Ibid., page 111.[return to text]

10. C. L. R. James, Facing Reality (Correspondence, Detroit, 1958), page 87.[return to text]

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