A United Caribbean

C.L.R. James

Grenada has been in the news and the facts about it are more or less known. It is a Caribbean island of 120 square miles with a population of 110,000. Unlike some of the larger West Indian islands, Grenada has no heavy industry (no oil or bauxite); its production is agricultural – nutmegs chiefly. Grenadians sell their fruit and vegetables in Trinidad and then return home in their boats. Their island came into the news when there was a revolt some years ago against a half-savage local tyrant (who had been knighted by the Queen). A new regime was established under Maurice Bishop, who had received a good education abroad and who was (in words, at any rate) socialistically-inclined. Later there was a revolt in Bishop’s party, the New Jewel Movement, and Bishop was killed by some unsavoury members of that party: it had long been common gossip that in the New Jewel organisation there were people in close – in fact, very close – contact with Moscow and Cuba. The United States, it was confidently reported, had been watching the situation, and had stationed military material in preparation for an invasion which might be needed to prevent a Cuban or Moscow-oriented seizure of power. Thus when the moderate nationalist leader, Bishop, was killed and his Moscow-oriented killers seized power, the United States invaded Grenada. It got rid of the usurpers and established a new government which, in duty bound, promised to hold elections soon. Peace has been restored. The other West Indian governments, as is their habit, are very vocal – some hostile to the invasion but with the majority welcoming the restoration of order. This, I presume, is the attitude of the educated public in Britain to the sudden explosion of armed violence in a former British colony – the attitude of those who like to refer to the Westminster model of political development. This attitude is mistaken.

The great body of the inhabitants of the West Indian islands, with the possible exception of Cuba, constitutes a black community. From their local situation, their past of slavery and white domination, and from the information they hear on the radio and television concerning the social and political activity of the mass of the population in advanced countries, this body of people has derived political ideas and aspirations which their rulers are powerless to prevent. In the British islands in particular, which dominate the Caribbean, the political system is based on the Westminster model. There are elections and rival parties, but the people who represent the big foreign industries in the various islands would find it hard to win one single seat in their own name, far less a majority. Thus the banks and the big firms are reduced to backing local political parties which can be described as more or less right and more or less left. The politicians on the whole are aware of how explosive the situation is, and know that there is nothing to prevent a seizure of power by representatives of the mass of the population. The local police and the Gilbert and Sullivan armies are drawn from the same mass population composed of workers and peasantry. The peasants are peasants in name only: most of them live no more than five miles from where the workers are concentrated.

Periodically, the population explodes. And the local government has no means whatever to suppress or discipline those who explode. The government is changed, there are adjustments, and the people quieten down because there is nothing they can do except to repeat the social structure. The regime has been in danger, but there is no other regime to take its place. After some adjustments and concessions to the population – very often no more than a rise in wages – the situation settles down and everyone awaits the next upheaval.

There was an upheaval in Trinidad in 1937 and 1938 and it ran up from Trinidad to Jamaica. The British Government had to send a commission, but its recommendations had to wait until the war was over. The pre-war constitution had allowed only 5 per cent of the population to vote – a population highly literate and living in a small island where everybody spoke the same language and read the same newspapers every morning. The postwar history of the islands is that of a rapid development towards universal suffrage, male and female, and the lowering of the voting age to 18. This has not altered the inherent insurrectionary situation. In such small islands the divisions in the population are predominantly financial: and everybody lives next to everybody else and knows what everybody else is doing. There have been upheavals in Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica and Surinam. These have all involved a large proportion of the population and have revealed the incapacity of any party to re-organise and discipline society.

The first upheaval in Grenada took place in 1979, when the population seized and divided the land. The local government was abolished and the local people established a government of their own under the leadership of Maurice Bishop and his circle, who had for years been preaching a highly progressive doctrine. But, as was inevitable, Bishop and his circle could not make any serious changes in the social structure of the island. That required as a prerequisite that these minuscule islands federate themselves into a modern state. Thus inside Bishop’s ruling party there developed a core of extreme revolutionaries who automatically came under the influence of the Moscow brand of Marxism propagated through Cuba. This Moscow Marxism is essentially the doctrine of a party which consists of the most advanced, the best educated, the most devoted members of the community. They hold the power, and politics is a matter of mobilising the mass to listen to their leadership. Bishop, however, was educated according to the ideas of Western democratic socialism. He and his type understand that politics is not merely parliamentary democracy. But what exactly to substitute for it – that they do not know. It is therefore, if not unavoidable, at any rate to be expected, that the movement to change an outdated system of social relations in the concentrated populations of the Caribbean produces problems, both practical and theoretical. The leaders to whom the population turn for action are constrained by the limitations of their theory. In time they have to face and deal with those who are impatient with the lack of dynamic movement, and who listen sympathetically to the Stalinist doctrines.

All the elements of a situation familiar to every soul in the Caribbean are discussed in Hugh O’Shaughnessy’s book. As with the populists and the political leaders, however, the necessary conclusions are not drawn. Grenada: Revolution and Invasion is the work of three English academics who have got hold of the material, make a reasonably competent analysis, but nevertheless come to a particularly old-fashioned conclusion. They report a ‘failure to participate in public activities’ – ‘village meetings have disappeared’ – and they recognise that the traditional aping of Western parliamentary democracy will not do. Unfortunately, they then plunge headlong into another popular miasma. They say that what is wanted is a ‘Marxist Leninist Vanguard Party’. It is curious that those who put forward this battered recipe never give a single example of a society in which that type of party has been successful. They do not give it because they cannot give it. But these writers do at least acknowledge ‘the extent of the credibility gap that had opened up between the party’s aspirations and the consciousness of the masses’. The first step towards filling such a gap is to know that it exists.