Williams Was No Genius... the Oil Saved Him
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Harry Partap
Summer 1981

The late Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams was not a man of talent neither was he a genius, but he was a man of great ability.

This was the sharp verdict of Dr. Williams' one-time mentor, teacher and fellow nationalist C. L. R. James, who insisted that the late prime minister's leadership was a disaster for the people of the country.

Following the death of Dr. Williams, I thought it would be interesting to hear what 80-year-old James had to say. I found him tucked away in an Oilfields Workers Trade Union bungalow overlooking the Mon Repos Housing Scheme, in San Fernando.

Death did not heal the political bruises and James unleashed some strong sentiments against the political leadership of the late prime minister while the rest of the country sang praises and showered open emotions of grief and loss.

This is why, argued James, the new prime minister, George Chambers, does not have any views on which people could assess his capacity to lead the nation.

James, popularly described as the political mentor of the late prime minister, expressed doubts about the future of the ruling People's National Movement, claiming that "Dr. Williams himself did not know what was going to happen to the party." And he insisted that Dr. Williams "left nothing with anybody."

James contended that there was "no visible sense of direction of the party because Dr. Williams had depoliticized and miseducated every aspect of the country."

He, however, noted that the country would not go into an election without a sense of direction. Said James: "It is not the nature of people to drift. They will decide and decide decisively."

This is how James, who was once put under house arrest by Dr. Williams during the social unrest of the mid-1960's, responded to questions on his early association with the departed political leader and prime minister:

QUESTION: You have been described as the late prime minister's mentor during the formative years of the People's National Movement (PNM) in 1956. What was your reaction to the death of Dr. Williams and what was your association with him like?

JAMES: This long association with Dr. Williams came to a sharp end in 1963, so that from 1963 to the present day, I have had no claim of relation with him at all. But I must make it quite clear to everybody that I believed that his leadership of the people of Trinidad and Tobago was a disaster for the people.

QUESTION: Do you still hold that view now?

JAMES: I have always held that view, so that this long association with Dr. Williams is a complete fiction. I have already stated elsewhere why I left him. The road he was going I could see was the road to disaster. I keep saying this country was going to explode the way he was going and everybody thought so too. You read the two daily newspapers and you would see what I mean.

QUESTION: But surely, before 1963, there was something in Dr. Williams' character which attracted you to him?

JAMES: But why do you want to know about events before 1963? It is more important to look at the period 1963 to 1981. I have sympathy and respect for his family and political friends and the mass of people who saw the changes taking place as the work of Dr. Williams and would look upon his death as something of a catastrophe for the country. But there are a lot of people today who say how they love Dr. Williams. I do not believe that at all, because the proof of that is in the newspapers circulated in the country carrying the people's views over the last 25 years.

QUESTION: But then, what accounts for the spontaneous flow of tribute to Dr. Williams from his countrymen since he died?

JAMES: I will answer you. You tell me what accounts for the fact that both daily papers were attacking him as a person who was a danger to the country. Why were they doing this? The fact is he was not leading the country anywhere. Nobody knew exactly where he was leading the people. Williams himself did not know. The country had come to a crisis; he had nothing to say. That is the plain truth of the matter. But people felt strongly about the fact that he was there as the first prime minister who led the country for 25 years. People seem to forget every other thing, but that will not make me change my opinion.

QUESTION: But despite what you say, there is still a lot of sympathy for the man. How is that?

JAMES: Let me say I understand that sections of the population must view his death with concern and feel that an era has come to an end. But I cannot have any sympathy for all those who jump up today saying Dr. Williams, Dr. Williams, we loved you so much. Everybody said they loved him so much, but I do not believe it. I believe they are trying to exploit a situation and hope that this will allow the continuity of the past into the present.

QUESTION: You still have not told me what attracted you to Dr. Williams.

JAMES: Williams, in my opinion, was a very bright man with certain limitations. He was not a man of genius. There are two men of genius in the Caribbean, Toussaint L'Ouverture, who led the Haitian Revolution, and Fidel Castro, who still leads the Cuban Revolution. And then, there are men of talent like Andrew Cipriani, Grantley Adams and Michael Manley. Williams was not a man of talent, neither was he a genius. But he was a man of great ability. He could get information and gather it up with tremendous speed and great concentration. But anything creative that he did not have.

QUESTION: How do you justify this assessment?

JAMES: The proof is, what has he left the country? Take unemployment. Has he even had anything creative to say about this problem? And people seem to forget the events of 1970. Let me tell you the prosperity in oil now experienced by this country had nothing to do with any policy of the Williams regime. It was a result of the decision by OPEC countries. And when they asked him to join, he refused. And when he wanted to join they refused, because OPEC did not want an agent of the British Government in their fold. In 1970, the whole country moved against him and in 1974, he was all ready to go because the country was bankrupt. The oil saved him. It saved everybody.

QUESTION: It had been said that Dr. Williams was the PNM. Now that he is dead, what, in your view, would be the future of the party?

JAMES: I don't know what is going to happen to the party. I want to tell you, and I say this with a lot of confidence, that Dr. Williams himself did not know what was going to happen to the party. He left nothing with anybody.

QUESTION: So you are saying that Dr. Williams did not offer any sense of direction to the party which he founded?

JAMES: There was no sense of direction at all and I was saying this since 1969. Where was the Williams who stood up and spoke in Woodford Square, the university? Why did he disappear? That Williams nobody had seen him for years. Because he wanted the power then, and that was the only way he could get it, but having got it, that Williams disappeared.

QUESTION: But, then, what kept the man in power for so long?

JAMES: For one reason. Williams came in 1955 and started a political campaign. He came here with ideas he got from George Padmore and C. L. R. James. We had been carrying on a great agitation in London against continued colonial rule and Dr. Williams was there. He used to come from Oxford and stayed at my house. He read my books and papers. He would even send his papers to me for comments. He was fully educated as to what was the current thinking on freedom and colonialism. When he came here, it was these ideas he was putting forward. But the minute the British Government told him it was o.k., that was it. He was their man. He had to stay.

QUESTION: Are you saying he was acceptable to the British Government and they preferred to deal with him?

JAMES: Precisely.

QUESTION: Was that the reason he stayed in power for so long?

JAMES: You tell me.

QUESTION: What is the future position of the country? Do you see any changes?

JAMES: The country did not know what was happening. The PNM do not know where to go. Karl Hudson-Phillips came forward but he has also said nothing so far. There is no clear cut political statement from Hudson-Phillips. So here we are within a few months of an election and nobody is saying anything new.

Let me emphasize that the same thing is happening throughout the Caribbean. So far, the only Caribbean politician who attempted to get out of this decay was Michael Manley. But you saw what happened.

QUESTION: But do you think the country would go into an election with the lack of direction you spoke about?

JAMES: I don't think so. People will not continue to drift. It is not in the nature of people to drift.

QUESTION: Do you believe that the violence you spoke about elsewhere last year is still an option now that Dr. Williams is out of the way?

JAMES: Yes, unless something takes place politically. If the country continues to drift as it had been doing under Williams, then I am afraid that violence would come. What will happen now, I do not know, but surely something has to happen.

QUESTION: Do you think the Organization for National Reconstruction, led by Mr. Hudson-Phillips, can stop this drift you spoke about?

JAMES: Do you see any new direction in the ONR? Why is Hudson-Phillips saying he is available? He is available for what? He has not come out yet with any precise statement. As for the (three-party) Alliance, Lloyd Best has been saying the same things he said 10 years ago, but no one is listening to him.

QUESTION: What then is the alternative to the PNM? ONR or the Alliance?

JAMES: A whole new political attitude is necessary and this has to come from the people. Cipriani started something, then Butler started something new. Williams came and people thought he had something new, so now we will have to wait and see.

QUESTION: Do you see anyone with the capacity and political support to fit the role of leader for this new era?

JAMES: I do not see any. But there are people of a high caliber who could do the job a lot better than those we have at present. One is George Weekes. He is a first class union man and a good politician. Also there is Raffique Shah, who I know does not have any racial prejudices.

QUESTION: But these two men you have named do not enjoy mass political support and it certainly contradicts your view that they could be national leaders.

JAMES: Because the Press, the PNM and all of them have made it their business to keep on saying Weekes is a good man in union business but not a politico.

QUESTION: Finally, do you see any changes in the direction of the PNM coming from the new prime minister, George Chambers?

JAMES: I do not know what are his views. Dr. Williams never allowed anybody to have views. You had to have none. Your business was to do what he wanted done. Williams' main concern was to hold on to power and to destroy anybody who looked as if he would be any kind of rival. This is why nobody knows what Mr. Chambers' views are.

Harry Partap covers the San Fernando desk of the Trinidad and Tobago Express, from the April 7, 1981 issue of which this article is reprinted.

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