Interview
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
Ken Lawrence with Darcus Howe
Summer 1981

Ken Lawrence interviewed Darcus Howe in London last October.

DH: We are having an 80th birthday series of lectures by Nello here in London in early January three lectures sponsored by Race Today and supported by the Black Parents Movement and the Black Youth Movement. The titles of the lectures are: Lecture 1 Socialism or Barbarism; Lecture 2 Britain and America: Two English-Speaking Democracies; Lecture 3 Immigrants to Britain: Formerly Colonial Peoples. Those are the three we are sponsoring and we are having a birthday party for him. He will be 80 on the 4th of January and we will pay his passage over from Trinidad, charging for the lectures so we can recoup our costs.

KL: By the time this interview gets into print, that will have already taken place. I think you should tell me what C. L. R. James means to you and to the movements that you have been part of.

DH: First of all, I think we have to identify the period in Nello's work that we are talking about. The theoretical work he did in the United States on his way out of the Trotskyist movement forms the basic pillar on which our political activity rests. I think the first one, the most important one that has influenced us, particularly myself, is that in political activity, revolutionary political activity, it is not what the working class ought to be doing, but what it is doing at any given point, and to keep one's eyes firmly fixed on what workers are thinking and doing. That is for us the primary consideration, the self-activity of the working class, and where it is at any given stage as the basis for what has to be done, as opposed to where it ought to be and the guess work that follows, the adventurism which flows from that.

Secondly, many of us have come from the Caribbean, a colonial situation. And in making the break with colonialism, one always looks for models as to what kind of society one ought to build. And Nello was I think pretty instrumental, even key, in debunking the myth that Russian society is the model through which we should develop. The Russian model has adherents in the Caribbean, particularly with the rise of Cuba as the revolutionary, or imagined revolutionary society. One finds in the Caribbean, among leftists, the tendency to fall under the hegemony of the Moscow/Cuban axis. The only alternative to that presented in the development of Caribbean politics at all is the work Nello has done in the United States, on his way out of Trotskyism. This illustrates the second position, on state capitalism, worked out by the Johnson/Forest tendency.

The third position arises from the first two: what kind of revolutionary political organization do you build in an advanced capitalist society? And the question of the vanguard party arises, which is the third plank in Nello's work which assists us. And let me give you an example as to how that is practiced insofar as we are concerned. We have organized ourselves at Race Today in a collective around a journal. We have influenced a lot of Black and white people throughout the United Kingdom. And the question would have arisen whether or not you build a vanguard party to lead Blacks to some emancipation. In rejecting this course, we have relied heavily on Nello's analysis. So those are the basic pillars of his theoretical work which we find of great value in facing the struggles in which we are involved here and inside of the Caribbean.

KL: The next thing I'd like to ask you is, it seems to me that the most revolutionary situations arising today in the English-speaking Caribbean would have to be listed as Guyana, Jamaica, and Grenada.

DH: And Trinidad and Tobago.

KL: . . . OK. And there are obviously very sharp differences in each of these places. And particularly along the lines of each of the things that you just itemized as his contribution. Would it be too much to ask you to say how you think his contribution has played a role, or will play a role, in each of those situations, and to what extent they've departed, organizationally or politically, from the direction in which he's pointed?

DH: I do not think that there could be a revolutionary movement in a Caribbean country without reference to Nello's work. You either have to reject it, accept it or modify it. But the one thing you cannot do is ignore it. Many of the present crop of revolutionaries would have to face his work at some time or another and come to terms with it. He has informed our tendency. There are several tendencies inside of the Caribbean. Maoism and Stalinism are predominant and the Trotskyists are the least important. They figure in the French colonies, Martinique and Guadeloupe. The Moscow tendency draws its strength from Cuba. Nello's position in regard to underdeveloped countries is stated in Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, in particular the chapter titled "Lenin and the Problem."

Among leftists and intellectuals there has been and will continue to be a lot of debates, a lot of polemics, a lot of discussions, a lot of hostility and so on, but that is not crucial. What is crucial is what workers think about him and how they express what they think. Here is an example. The major revolutionary force in the entire Caribbean is the Oilfield Workers Trade Union, because of its organization of the workers who are employed in the oil industry in Trinidad and because of the strategic position of oil production in the international economy. The productive capacity of these workers has placed Trinidad and Tobago in a powerful position in regard to her Caribbean neighbors. She lends them a lot of money and passes off all kinds of deficient goods on them. And the Oilfield Workers Trade Union is independent, self-organized, perhaps representing all Nello's confidence in working class self-activity and the ability of the working class to take power on its own. The Oilfield Workers Trade Union, under the revolutionary leadership of George Weekes, represents that. And truth to tell, Nello is presently living at their premises in Trinidad under their care and attention. Nello lives in one of their properties which is in walking distance from their headquarters and he walks pretty slowly there and they look after him. So I suspect he'll be spending his last years in the ambience of mass independent working class organization. So there is no better example of the acceptance of his work than the fact that workers themselves, having built their own organization, are now able to see him through the last years of his life. They provide people to look after him, they see to it that he gets to and from the airport when he is travelling. They see that he gets three meals a day and so on in order that he writes his autobiography free from the hassles of life.

Here in Race Today we are for workers' and peasants' power inside the Caribbean, and we are for the complete destruction, without trace, of the colonial state. We hold the view that the Caribbean working class is advanced enough for a selforganized workers' and peasants' state. I believe that was to some degree Walter Rodney's view. And if you are talking about the Caribbean now, in terms of the ideology of the left, one would always have to look at what Walter Rodney was saying, because he was the major exponent of Marxist and leftist political theory in the Caribbean. I suspect that was his view; we are not too sure about that. Or perhaps he might have been moving from one position to the other, that other position being Nello 's position.

KL: Back to the differences.

DH: My interpretation of the major difference translates the position of several left tendencies as follows: that the political struggle for working class emancipation would be led by a political party of intellectuals drawn from the middle classes with a handful of advanced workers in tow. Once in government the leadership would provide proper welfare, organize the workers to produce more in order to meet the costs, the workers to be motivated either by incentives, the moral whip or Siberia. The surplus goes towards projects sanctioned by the leadership and the massive bureaucracy which hangs over to corrupt the new. Surplus for guns, travelling expenses for bureaucrats to beg loans abroad. From time to time, with less regularity as the years go by, the working class would be called to large gatherings then sent home after being told of the latest in the development plan to which they must shout their assent. All this is spiced with revolutionary slogans. All independent attempts at working class and peasant organization are to be squashed with a ferocity which surpasses that meted out by previous colonial masters. Mind you, I do not believe this tendency will hold power for any length of time in Caribbean politics, vulnerable as they are to imperialism on the one hand and working class and peasant revolt on the other. As I understand Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, what is called for is the break up of the old colonial state and the institutionalizing of a workers' and peasants' state. This process involves the self-organized masses deciding on, implementing, and administering a national economic plan. Nello holds the view that because of the size of those islands and the advanced maturation of Caribbean peoples that this historical stage is on the order of the day.

KL: There are also other political tendencies that I perceive as more reactionary than those you described as the alternatives, like Seaga, for example, who seems to me to be just a surrogate of the United States.

DH: Do you mean you are more reactionary if you are a surrogate of the United States than if you are a surrogate of Moscow?

KL: In that it's certainly, if nothing else, a lot closer, and that makes it militarily more dangerous.

DH: I am not sure about that. In fact, I don't agree with that. Now on the question of Seaga and Manley in Jamaica, I have this to say. It is the complete state of insurrection that the Caribbean working class has been in since the late 1960's in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, Grenada, etc., which informs the politics of both leaders and their parties. That insurrection pushed Manley from a right-wing trade unionist to what he calls democratic socialism, which is neither democratic nor socialist. It has pushed Seaga from a liberal democrat to a rightist position. I believe both of them are preoccupied with how to contain this insurrection and how to use this energy and force for the full development of the middle classes. You see, it is not only the working classes who are in rebellion in the Caribbean. The middle classes, particularly the professional middle classes, are in rebellion as well. They feel pretty stunted in the colonial Caribbean. Most of them have been to America, have been to Britain, those who have not been are equally influenced by the fact that in those societies the way is open for the full development of the middle classes. You can become a barrister and blossom within a fairly well organized legal system. You can get your cars without the limitation of the shortage of>spare parts. You can get your houses built without a shortage of cement. You can get the artifacts of civilized culture without any problems. You can make fine films without having to face a shortage of celluloid. And so on. So that when all these difficulties appear inside the social crisis in Caribbean society, the middle classes rebel in their own interests. Large areas of the Jamaican economy, sugar in particular, has collapsed and therefore the crisis is acute. From the middle class standpoint the rebellion of the working classes provides the energy for the former's full -emancipation. They have behaved this way for more than sixty years. For them Manley was the perfect leader until he offered too many crumbs to the workers and peasants. Seaga is a much more complete representative of that class. Not much choice between both.

KL: Let me say this. I recall four or five years ago Nello had very warm words of praise for Manley. DH: I disagree with him and I have told him so. At one point Nello did say that his support rested among other things on the fact that Manley had reduced imports in relation to exports, or something like that.

KL: But you don't believe Manley is following his direction.

DH: Nello's direction? Absolutely not. I don't even think Nello believes that. I think Nello is sympathetic that he's trying to do something. But Nello has never come down anywhere that I have seen to say Manley's position is his position. He says Manley is looking for a new orientation and democratic socialism is more or less what he (Manley) sees as this new orientation. And to the extent that Manley is looking for a new orientation is to that extent that Nello is sympathetic. But I have neither sympathy nor support for Manley. I disagree with Nello on his sympathetic approach.

KL: What about Maurice Bishop?

DH: What took place in Grenada on March 13th, 1979 was a revolutionary seizure of power in that previous changes in power in the English-speaking Caribbean have been through electoral means. Since then the material condition of the Grenadian masses has improved to a great degree. They have won enormous welfare benefits. But our strict analysis on class divisions in Caribbean society must apply. Our position on the break up of the colonial state must apply. Is it the case that the old colonial state in Grenada has been destroyed without trace? The answer must be no. Is it the case that the middle class has been in rebellion against Gairy and in its own interest? The answer must be yes.

Any retreat from both positions is bound to cause enormous social and political problems sooner or later. Let me tell you what I have come across recently in the Free West Indian, the national Grenadian weekly. It was reported that the Grenadian government recently passed an antiterrorist law, a law which would have imprisoned them all had it been passed 18 months previously. Secondly, they quote as justification for passing that law the fact that the British government discovered that in dealing with the evil terrorists in Northern Ireland you have to do away with juries. The British created new courts, the Diplock courts. I don't know if you have heard about those. Therefore, the Free West Indian reported, the government of Grenada was instituting the identical law, the identical courts as the British state had done to repress the Irish liberation struggle. For me that is an astounding development, because the struggle in Northern Ireland is perhaps one of the most courageous anti-colonial struggles of our time. They have their problems as each revolutionary struggle experiences but, by and large, one supports the Catholic section of the Irish working class in their struggle to break up that Irish state and to establish a new society. When the Grenada government takes a page out of the repressive end of the Irish struggle, one has to begin to ask some questions. Now why is it that the Grenadian government finds itself in the position in which it believes it cannot rely on the democratic form of jury trial to secure the regime against counter-revolutionaries? Revolutionary development means more democracy, not less. And the reason in my view is that they have not destroyed the colonial state and instituted an extreme democracy on the overthrow of Gairy. Such a regime is the most powerful and potent force in the struggle against imperialism. Now if you don't do that, you do something else. You govern by proclamation. You believe that the leadership knows best and could justify what it is doing by pointing to the amount of welfare they provide. That does not alter, in my view, the basic colonial production relations in that society. In fact it makes it much worse. It sharpens the contradictions even further because on the overthrow of Gairy the working class would be that much further on the road to emancipation within a Caribbean context. The Gairy regime did two things in Grenada. The reactionary that he was, he stifled and strangled the working class and the peasantry. That is the first thing. Secondly, he created no room for middle class development inside Grenada. Once he was overthrown, both these classes would be contesting each other for supremacy. It is out of this struggle that the new society is born. The Grenadian government is hovering precariously above this conflict, which is bound to accelerate in the coming months.

KL: It's my recollection I am not absolutely certain of it, but it's my best recollection that back in the sixties Maurice Bishop was quite fond of Nello and his ideas.

DH: We published in the May 1974 issue of Race Today an interview by Maurice in which he outlined the basis of the workers' and peasants' state which would replace Gairy's colonial dictatorship. He talked about the organization of workers' and peasants' assemblies which would form the basis of a constituent assembly from where the country would be governed. We republished the interview in the February/March 1979 issue of Race Today shortly after they seized power. We agreed with that position. Things have not developed in that direction.

KL: Let me shift a little now and ask you what role Nello and his ideas have played within the West Indian community in England.DH: The 1948 resolution on the Black question which identified the Black struggle as having an independence, validity and vitality of its own, which resolution preceded Black Power, served to develop and strengthen the Black movement here in Britain. Much more than that, one must be able to grasp the importance of his political ideas in relation not only to Blacks in Britain but in the society as a whole. Presently, the British working class is feeling its way and will have to discover what to do about the Labor Party, what is socialism, and so on. And there is no one on the horizon who knows and understands British society, the British working class in particular, politically, socially and culturally, and who is revolutionary, to give them some sense of themselves in order that they be fortified to transcend the Labor Party. We are living in a society in which the whites are pretty lost, drifting hither and thither, preferring the haven of religious sects like the Moonies or some Asian sect led by a Maharishi. There is this bankruptcy of direction. Nello came here a few months ago and suddenly they discovered that here is a man who knows them. He knows them more than they know themselves. Again, here is this man with a wide range of intellectual and political pursuits. So that regularly in the newspapers, on radio and television, you read, hear, and see something about C. L. R. James. He asked me, "Why is there all this interest?" He was taken aback by this surge of interest. And I told him that it was because they need him, they needed some clarification of their past and direction for the future urgently. And he provides it. And one can remember those days when it could be quite difficult to get him on the screen. Now, lots of people want to speak to him, to hear what he has to say. And that's his influence here, right across the board, in both the Black and the white community.

KL: What is the political aim, or strategy, of the independent, autonomous Black movement here?

KL: I want to ask you a little bit more on this last question, because in the U.S. the aspect of the Black movement that makes it independent, autonomous, increasingly is taking the direction of sovereignty, separateness, territorial independence. And whereas, during the sixties there was a lot of argument about that and that position had not been fully developed by Malcolm X, who was the most advanced proponent of that strategy, today a wide range of nationalists hold these views, as well as a wide range of Black Marxists who are not building multi-national organizations, but who base themselves around a perspective of independence. Now I have not heard a similar perspective put forward here and it seems to me that

DH: You wouldn't hear it from me.

KL: Right, I know, and it seems to me that one of the differences is that whereas the Black Nationalists and Black Marxist nationalist movements in the U.S. identify Black people as a nation within the U.S., that the identity here seems to be a Caribbean identity. Is that basically correct?

DH: Not quite. The long and barbaric history of lynchings, of brutal murders by gun-toting southerners did not take place in this country. Also there is not, anywhere in Britain, a socialized separateness. No Harlem through which you could travel all night long and not see a white person except a policeman. So one is always socially and culturally in contact with whites every day, all day. In the process of this socialization, one has to some extent been able to undermine the divisions between Blacks and whites which modern capitalism tends to foster and encourage. And I would give two major examples of this. In 1970 the Black community in Netting Hill, West London, organized itself to carry out a struggle against police brutality and corruption. The issue centered around the Mangrove Restaurant, an all-night restaurant, which offered a legal advice service during the day. The resident lawyer was made available to the Black community by the proprietor of the Mangrove for anyone arrested at local police stations. The lawyer would nip down to the police station before the police had time to force the suspect to sign a statement of admission. He would be able to secure bail in circumstances in which suspects were not normally granted bail. The police, in turn, took the position that the presence of the lawyer disrupted their hegemony over the Black community. So they moved to close down the restaurant by objecting to its license, raiding the premises for drugs, etc. We called a demonstration which ended in street fighting between ourselves and the police. And nine weeks later, following a series of press reports about Black Power agitators, the police arrested nine of us, including myself, and charged us with inciting members of the public to riot and making an affray. The maximum sentence was life imprisonment. Their strategy was to deem a few of us leaders, incarcerate us for a long time, and dissipate the rest of the Black movement. We got to court and argued for a Black jury. We believed we could win the case with Black jurors. The judge turned down the application. We then asked for a list of jurors and chose those from the white working class. Anyone with any pretense to Marxism knows that the working class at some point in its development had to feel the sharpness of police oppression in order that they be molded into obedient producers for capitalism. The police keep them in order so that the working class had to have some experience of the police, that the police were not the saints that bourgeois propaganda made them out to be. So we said to the court authorities, well, give us a list of jurors and we chose them by occupation and appealed to them as working class folk as ourselves, sure in the belief some of us weren't so sure in the general belief that if there was any section of the population who could deliver us out of the mess in which we found ourselves, it would be white workers. And they did. Some of them began the trial as racists. At the end of it, when I was making my closing speech I defended myself one of the white women wept as I spoke, you know. So one knew it was possible to move white workers in support. And more than that, freed as we were from institutions like the Labor Party and the trade union bureaucracy and so on, we are able to move much faster in debunking a lot of myths inside British society, although we do not have the accompanying power to transform British society on our own.

Then recently some Asian women went on strike for unionization in a factory called Grunwicks and showed tremendous fortitude in keeping up that strike for week after week. One would have found that by and large, white workers would have got pissed off with it and moved on into other areas of the economy. So the Asian women held out and were able to mobilize, on their side, coach loads of miners, engineering workers, in their thousands on the picket line. And I am not talking about white leftist ideologues they were there too. Such was the rush of the white working class to defend these women. The trade union bureaucracy refused to carry out the directions from the white workers to cut off the gas and the electricity to that factory. Resolutions were passed in several trade union branches calling on the leadership to isolate the factory. Such was the mobilization that even right wing MPs were forced to join the picket line. The election was coming up so they had to be where the action was. Then there came the reaction in press and pulpit that the Labor Party was associating itself with this radical and revolutionary picketing of militant workers and thereby creating a lot of disorder in the society, making matter's difficult for the police and so on. So that leadership members of parliament and trade union bureaucrats which tentatively supported the strike was the very leadership which refused to sanction the cutting off of gas and electricity. They turned tail and ran.

So those are the two examples which indicate that white workers can be made to move in support of our struggles. Now, I could well see in a situation where that is not the case, where white workers not only don't move in support but do something else, that you're forced to work out theories about a separate state and all that. I could see that as a reaction to a political condition at a given moment in history. But I don't see how any Marxist, anyone who calls themselves a Marxist could advance that position. You have to believe that the white working class is irretrievably racist to hold such a position.

KL: Obviously if white workers were as advanced as they ought to be, there would be no need for the independent organization at all; that is, it's clear to you that there's something more dynamic and revolutionary and advanced about the oppressed community than about the white working class generally, and I assume, maybe wrongly.

DH: But one has to see that the development of the revolutionary dynamism that you identify has necessarily to incorporate the influences that white workers have had on the Black community. I will give you some examples. In 1974 Race Today took the decision to interview Asian workers who were at the time involved in several strikes. And who are these Asian workers in Britain? By and large they had come from the Punjab in India. They were small farmers farming a plot of 5 acres or so. And the acreage and what they produced on it were no longer capable of feeding, clothing and looking after the family. So they would migrate to Delhi or Bombay. That's how they started. Eventually, some of them migrated to the factories in different parts of Britain. In one of these interviews I mentioned earlier, I asked an Asian worker, "When you first arrived here in Britain, how did you understand this country?" He said when he first began working in a factory, he saw his boss as someone big who could do a lot of things to people. So he saw his boss in the factory in the same way as he saw his feudal lord for whom he worked for a portion of the day in the Punjab. I then asked him at what point did he cease thinking that way, and he replied that it was when he saw that white workers did not see the boss in that way. So when he came to Britain he was prepared to do just about everything his boss required, to break every single law of working class organization in that factory, and only through witnessing the militancy of white workers was he set in motion. And when I interviewed him he was on strike.

So it seems that one has to give some credence to the dialectic in the relationship between Black and white workers. And not just to say that there is something dynamic in the Black community without identifying the fact that we have been influenced by what whites have been doing and what they have achieved. Once set in motion, we perhaps move a little faster because we are not clogged at hand and feet by all sorts of cultural and historical disciplines and traditions. But one cannot under any circumstances overlook the contribution that the white working class has made to the development of the Black struggle. One can't do that. That would be totally erroneous in my view.

KL: Is there any sector of that working class or people who have been involved with it who have an outlook comparable to the one you've described based on Nello's thinking?

DH: We have come to that position in opposition to Black nationalism inside the Black movement in this country. What one does find inside nationalism is a class division between the working classes and the middle classes. And if you are from the Caribbean, in which nationalism held sway before and after the Second World War, you absolutely know that there is a class division inside nationalism. Now, have the Black workers discovered the contribution of white workers?. The answer is yes. I suspect in the United States today, on the one hand you talk about the racism of the white workers, but at the same time, as dialecticians we have to be able to see, and to be quite clear about it, as to what the contribution of the other side has been.

DH: I think the overthrow of the Russian state by the Russian working class will be the final seal on the contribution Nello has made. That event would prove without dispute the post-Trotskyist theoretical basis of society that Nello had worked out.

My grandmother and his mother were sisters so that he is a very close relative of mine. He is very close to my eldest daughter, who is doing quite well as a linguist at school. He advised her to study Russian because he forecasts that the next major revolutionary outburst in the modern world is the revolution in Russia, which would just about transform everything.

The personal impact that Nello has made on me is the fact that he spent virtually all his life in the political wilderness. If you are a Caribbean person, your success in political life is judged by whether you are a prime minister or minister in government. And Nello would have been able to secure that with the greatest amount of ease. And to resist that temptation as he has resisted it means that his eyes are permanently fixed on the working class and his confidence in their revolutionary capacity is absolute. That is what I admire most about him, that you have to spend a lot of time in the wilderness and not as someone who's all-powerful in government. There are a lot of us who have followed his work and have been influenced by him in the last 25 years.

Darcus Howe is a member of the editorial collective of Race Today.

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