How Long It Go Take?

Trinidad (not Tobago) has always struck me as an extremely conservative place. Almost as a matter of course people take the shortest possible view. Growing up, I discovered it early in simple things like card games. The ethos is play for what you see. I’ve never met a place where people so love money, celebrity, title, certificate, office, clothes, things; and where we want it immediately, if not before. The litmus test is ‘how long that go take?’ Oddly, I still did not expect huff and puff politics to take over the Campus – and much more – as it did at the turn from the 1960s. I do not offer any of this as either lament or indictment; nor is the purpose to cast aspersion. Here again the focus is not on individuals among whom, in any case, there is no reason to assume any but a normal distribution of wisdom, competence and industry.

What we are getting at are system properties, manifest through personal behaviour, of course, but so pervasive as to constitute a culture above and beyond persons. I am as intrigued now, as I was then, by radical politics in the Caribbean as a factor making as much for continuity as it does for change. I’ve come to regard Trinidad as special only in the sense that it is probably extreme, different in degree but in kind very representative.

After 50 years of self-determination, one feels fairly sure that we need radical politics of quite another brand. In the T&T Review we put out for Labour Day, our Editorial suggests we need to begin from a whole new interpretation. Once you have inherited the plant, all the mistakes are yours, even of the distant past.

This is not for me a new posture. I have never been persuaded by the proletarian ethos, so powerful it effectively became an ethnos, an instinctual and unexamined basis for sticking together and for seeing all others as somehow fundamentally different and in a completely different camp. Over and over friends would ask “on which side are you?”

One of the ways the old interpretation succeeds in protecting itself is through the sensitivities demanded of contemporary history. There are not just personal and political costs to dealing in lived experience but costs to the record, depending on how and where. Happily for me, there was no time when I was comfortable with the idea that, in what mattered here, workers and farmers amounted to a class apart; or that, in any case, class, as a basis for political solidarity, operated in any way different from religion, colour, race, tribe, or (island) homeland.

Nowhere in the Caribbean has the left been able to convince me. I am not re-interpreting now that the position has collapsed. Not even CLR James prevailed. He was more fertile than the later generations and came closest to seeing a unique society requiring its own theories of class and of action; but he remained locked into certain shibboleths drawn from the first European experience with industrial transformation. He did not see that class as much as race provided an ethnic basis of political mobilisation and that the outcome depended upon culture as in some ways an independent factor. But he did have intuitions.

In The Black Jacobins James wrote that the only mistake we could make bigger than thinking race was not decisive would be to think that class was not. In Party Politics, he defined the middle classes not in terms of a relation to property and power, but in respect to the distinction consistently achieved in the imperial school. In Beyond a Boundary, he makes the first serious attempt anywhere to fix the modalities by which this middle class failed to become instrumental in changing society in the way of the European bourgeois.

Perhaps in spite of himself, James has left us elements for constructing an appropriate theory of action. I think the evidence is that it might be because of himself. There is a risk of a tautology here; but James seems in important ways to have been a dropout from the imperial school. He did not completely escape the pathology, so evident in, say, Williams, Lewis, Wooding and so many others, generations younger, of being in two places at once and of employing, over and over, an architecture that simply does not fit the conditions. Nor was he any less transfixed than his juniors by our Afro-Saxon strategy of adopting modernity, of becoming better than the coloniser in his own idiom in order to outwit him.

What I think distinguishes James is his refusal ever to confound politics, private initiative taken below, with government, administration and management, practised on high. It is on this issue that he broke with Williams and wrote Party Politics. The premise of his posture was the sovereign individual, integral to the group. He would change his mind about the necessity of the mass party and its relevance in different situations, but basic to his scheme was the link between individual agency and collective intention. It is the ethnic condition that he never quite figured out how to treat. James was of course aware of the WI tradition of private response which ran from the early maroon runaways through slave revolts up to union militancy. Because it was neither explicit nor sustained, I have preferred to treat this category of agency as subversion, operating wherever it could by symbolism and through indirection.

Recognising new options with independence, Minshall and Rudder today are attempting to make instrument out of symbol by changing the roles of calypso and mas. It is exactly what James expected of the party of the national movement in the turn to the 1960s. He probably expected the almost unrelieved proletarian experience of our (doubly) transplanted peoples to educate us in the ways of effective organisation.

Instead ethnicity prevailed. Our primal solidarities admit neither politics nor coalition. Collaboration does not involve participants who would first have exercised a preference for the group. It chooses those who belong to the collective; they already enjoy pristine attributions. Either you are or you are not a Tobagonian, Hindu, a worker, or a black. No choice in the matter and no need to be your own agent. The Maximum Leader will.

If operations do dictate coalitions, they are acknowledged but as last resort only. The pendulum swings; coalition governments are explicit and formal; coalitions parties are implicit and informal. Since ethnos triumphs over ethos, the latter are not even noticed. Least of all where the educated stand in two places.

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