New Books | Beyond Coloniality

CLR James was one of the leading forces in the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s and was critical to the birth of the political Left in the Anglophone Caribbean.

This is an excerpt from Beyond Coloniality: Citizenship and Freedom in the Caribbean Intellectual Tradition by Aaron Kamugisha (Wits University Press, 2019).

CLR James and postindependence Caribbean politics 

In August 1960, CLR James delivered a series of six lectures on modern politics at the Trinidad Public Library. By then, James was barely two years back in the Caribbean, and rumours of the split between him and the premier, Eric Williams, were rife, which probably partly accounted for the large crowds that came to hear him speak. The drama some of the crowd may have come to hear did not take place until after the lectures. James’ lectures, originally published by the People’s National Movement (PNM) Publishing Company the same year, under the title Modern Politics, were suppressed by Williams, their distribution banned in Trinidad and Tobago with the books placed in a warehouse under guard. Aldon Lynn Nielsen captures well the ironies of this episode in James’s life: “When Williams eventually relented and allowed the books a reprieve, it was so that the whole lot could be taken out of Trinidad by a New York book dealer. Thus CLR James, who had been deported from the United States largely on the evidence of his published books, saw his books deported for political reasons from Trinidad and circulated by a sort of literary commodities futures trader in the United States.”

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What remains more remarkable about this episode is how Williams’s determination to suppress James’s thought squares with what James actually said in these lectures. Modern Politics is styled as a series of lectures on the history of political thought, and James presents a compelling reading of the Western tradition from the ancient Greeks to modern times. From the preface to its powerful conclusion, James is concerned with the political choices faced by Caribbean people at the moment of independence and the consequences of a decision that might “ruin our lives for at least a generation.” The choice that James wishes his audience to make is a deliberate decision to engage with Marxism as the route to true self-determination and freedom for not only their society but humankind, and it is James’s characteristic charismatic appeal in making his case that likely heightened Williams’s concerns. However, even in his last lecture, where Western popular art figures prominently, and the last section of that lecture titled “The Ascent of Man to Complete Humanity”, Caribbean politics and the Caribbean popular are noticeably absent in the lectures. The one brief gesture to events in contemporary Trinidad and Tobago comes in his fifth lecture and appears to be an unscripted comment apart from the genealogy of political ideas he was trying to map. Cautioning against any sense of nationalist euphoria over battles for selfgovernment or the returning of the US base at Chaguaramas, James said: “When the British go and the Americans go and the British flag comes down and the West Indian flag goes up and all face one another – it is then you are going to see real politics. That is not to say that what has happened up to now is not real. It is very real, but it is preliminary. When all that is achieved, then the fundamental forces inside this country, as in every country, will begin to show themselves.” 

The present work takes as part of its thesis that James’ multiple writings on the Caribbean in the late 1950s and 1960s constitute landmark texts in the development of political thought in the Anglophone Caribbean and anticipate many of the themes that would later be more fully developed by numerous social and political theorists in the region. James’ writings from those decades came at a critical time in Caribbean history, during the ill-fated federal experiment that was followed by the advent of full self-government in some of the territories within the region. In his text Party Politics in the West Indies, his longest exposition on politics in the Caribbean of that time, his chief concern is arguably with the politics of citizenship in the postcolonial Anglophone Caribbean. This interest, I would contend, resulted in a strategic shift from a Marxist or Pan-Africanist perspective as his guiding principal theoretical agenda toward one whose primary concern was with the coloniality of citizenship and the peculiar racialised class formations of Caribbean society. James’ achievements here were also shadowed by a failure to introduce a more radical narrative about the possibilities of the Caribbean than his (at times vaguely defined) democratic-socialist, anti-imperialist platform. This dilemma – the political form of a sovereign state in the Caribbean – is not limited to James’ struggle in the 1960s Caribbean but is one that still bedevils radical Caribbean social and political thought and is exacerbated in contemporary times by the crisis presented by neoliberalism and the disillusionment of the political Left. 

In contrast to the many posts he held at US universities from the late 1960s through the 1970s, James never held a teaching appointment at the University of the West Indies, but his lectures at the university in 1960-1961 attracted younger scholars like Norman Girvan and Lloyd Best to his work and became a crucial event in the formation of the transnational community he would forge over the next two decades. This community included a study group on Marxism run by James for West Indian students in London, whose participants included Walton Look-Lai, Orlando Patterson, Richard Small, Joan French, Raymond Watts, Stanley French and Walter Rodney. According to David Austin, Norman Girvan introduced Robert Hill to CLR James in London, a significant introduction as Robert Hill would become a founding member of the CLR James Study Circle and the Caribbean Conference Committee, both based in Montreal. The Caribbean Conference Committee in Montreal was arguably the “most active site of exile Anglophone Caribbean political activity” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the leading personalities within it played key roles in the intraregional radicalism of this period. James’ lectures throughout the region itself in the early 1960s also coincided with an event that would become critical to the gestation of the political Left in the Anglophone Caribbean – the establishment of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of the West Indies-Mona campus in 1962. The full extent of his influence on the first generation of postindependence Anglophone Caribbean social and political theorists has, however, perhaps not been adequately understood. The work of Lloyd Best and Archie Singham, two of the most important theorists of the nature of the Caribbean political in the first decade of Anglophone Caribbean independence, was considerably influenced by James. This is a fact of no little note, as Lloyd Best is widely recognised as one of the most important public intellectuals in the Caribbean of the last 40 years, cofounder of the New World Group, and a leading theorist of the plantation society model of development. Archie Singham was one of the founding members of the Department of Government at the University of the West Indies-Mona; he provided much of the stability to be found there in its first decade and made a decisive contribution to its intellectual direction. His book The Hero and the Crowd in a Colonial Polity, published almost simultaneously with Best’s essay “Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom”, was the first study of its kind written by a professionally trained political scientist in the Anglophone Caribbean context, and the theory of the Caribbean political system Singham develops from his study of Grenada merits further examination.

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The Hero and the Crowd in a Colonial Polity emerged out of the 1962 constitutional crisis in Grenada, a crisis that Singham believed was not attributable to “isolated phenomena but is inherent in the colonial situation”. Singham’s speculations about the nature of the colonial condition in the Caribbean turn on considerations about dependency and subordination in the Caribbean polity and the size of Caribbean territories. Dependency is evidenced in “the economy, the polity, and the value system” and in “scale and demographic features”, while the colony as a “subordinate system” is kept in its place by force but, over time, does not need metropolitan power to “maintain system integration”. The reasons for this seemingly overly structuralist account of colonial power become clear when Singham turns to a discussion of the charismatic leader in the British West Indies and what he terms personal government. A decisive feature of charismatic leaders is their “ability to politicise and mobilise the mass, not merely to propagandise them”. However, for Singham, the illiteracy of the masses in the post-1930s period made the seductions of “demagoguery and propagandising the mass” difficult for leaders to resist, leading to a hero-crowd relationship between leader and masses, soon to be institutionalised as ruler and ruled. Singham, in this formulation, places the burden on the lack of education of the masses rather than the authoritarianism of the trade union movement, but he also points to the understandings of legitimacy and realities of exploitation that were a crucial part of colonialism, which the mainly middle-class elite leadership that emerged after the 1930s rebellions had a limited interest in countering. The persistence of personal government is, however, seen as a direct relic of colonialism and the small size of the British West Indian territories. A shift from personal government to “party and institutional government” may seem salutary, but this presents its own array of problems in the form of “cuckoo politics”, or mimicry, in which the obsession is with the “forms of parliamentary government, not the content”, leading to a bureaucratic routinisation of the Westminster model of government. A Caribbean federal arrangement could “lessen the reliance on personal government” but faces two powerful challenges. The construction of elite-mass relationships in the different territories has been predicated on intimate relationships peculiarly local, idiosyncratic, and likely highly resistant to being subsumed into a federal model. The economic and bureaucratic elites’ newfound control of the state opens too many opportunities for self-aggrandisement for them to sacrifice their political power in the name of regional integration. At the “mass level”, there is a substantial, genuine commonality that exists (though not devoid of differences) but without the leadership or social movement that might move federation from the status of an idea to that of an immediate necessity. 

Singham’s work, in its attempt to theorise the Caribbean polity within the framework of its own rationalities, has been highly influential not just for scholars interested in the comparative study of Caribbean politics but as a landmark work in Caribbean political culture. Here, the influence of James’ ideas in developing a study of Caribbean politics can be seen further. Not only did James sound an important dissenting voice to the existing liberal optimism at the birth of independence but in his essays on the calypsonian the Mighty Sparrow, the cricketer Garfield Sobers, and his semiautobiographical classic Beyond a Boundary, he would speak about the relationship between the politics of culture and the culture of politics in a manner not previously heralded in Anglophone Caribbean letters. This relationship between culture and politics has always influenced Caribbean theorists of the political, but only within the last two decades in the collections Caribbean Charisma (2001) and Modern Political Culture in the Caribbean (2003) has a more detailed series of attempts been made to theorise this relationship. A consideration of the work of James and Singham shows, however, that a twinning of ideas about the cultural and the political was present in postcolonial Caribbean political thought from its inception and that no theory of the Caribbean polity worthy of its name can fail to address the conundrums this presents.

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