Sunday, April 22, 2007

Review: Obika Gray, Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2004).

Obika Gray, Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2004).

Obika Gray has made the political role of the urban lower-class in Jamaica his central subject. His earlier monograph, Radicalism and Social Change in Jamaica, 1960-1972, dealt with urban working class politics in the early years of independence. This book, by contrast deals with a vaguer category, “the urban poor”, in Marxist terms, the poorer urban working class and the lumpenproletariat.

Gray’s central thesis involves a dialectical relationship between what he calls the “predatory state” and a lower class that resists the norms that state seeks to impose by erecting its own values of “badness-honour”, a rival standard to the middle-class nationalist values promoted by the state.

Gray begins with an analysis of the “paternal and authoritarian qualities” of the Jamaican state, citing Carl Stone’s studies of clientelism, and emphasizing that he seeks to reassess and revise Stone’s work. Gray defines the Jamaican state as simultaneously “predatory and populist; violent and paternal, as well as democratic and viciously abusive of human rights.” The state is seen as parasitic, rather than destructive, in its relationship with the urban poor.

The state’s relationship to the poor is described as mediated by the needs of the political parties – the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) – which at different times have exercised control over the state apparatus. This relationship is predatory and parasitic. Yet, dialectically, the state’s predation on the poor has become the source of the challenges from the poor.

Gray’s narrative moves us from the development of partisan rivalries in the slum areas of Kingston, starting with the conflicts between the PNP and JLP in the 1940s, through the establishment of garrison communities in the 1960s and the links forged between politicians and slum-dwellers. This was never a one-way relationship. While political patrons certainly had an influence on the urban poor, Gray notes that the poor also had “sentiments of self-ownership and cultural pride” which provided “relative protection” from the reach of the state.

The poor live in conditions of marginality and presumed dishonour but construct their own Afrocentric conception of an exilic social space from within which Western and Creole conceptions of identity have been challenged through assertion of a fundamental African identity, key elements of which are provided by Rastafarianism.

In the 1970s, the conditions of urban life changed as lower-class “badness-honour”, which Gray describes as “the oral-kinetic practice in Jamaica that enables claimants, usually from disadvantaged groups, to secure a modicum of power and respect by intimidation” became a significant cultural force as the parties intensified their conflict on the streets of Kingston and found the militancy of the poor useful. The social power of the urban poor increased as it penetrated the PNP.

While the PNP in the 1970s sought to change the society, its conception of social transformation became grist for communal conflicts, and this transformation of ideological and political challenge into partisan warfare has become the defining characteristic of Jamaican politics. At the same time popular music and popular culture more widely popularized an attitude of defiance towards the authorities. The state’s combination of populism and predation was exemplified by party support for loyal poor supporters and hostility to those supporting the rival party.

Yet, even as the dependency on political party patronage seemed to indicate that the poor were captives of the predatory state, they developed tactics which could not be easily suppressed by the authorities which led them to achieve greater control over the funds disbursed to them and resulted in predation from below as well as from above. As Gray put it “In the consciousness of the Jamaican poor, politics is about predation and how to minimize its impact on their lives.” The predatory actions of the poor are seen by Gray as an “understandable self-defensive manoeuvre” against the predation of the state. Social bandits such as Dennis “Copper” Barth and Wayne “Sandokhan” Smith appear to slumdwellers as heroes who challenge the predations of the state, even as they see them as personalized by specific state officials

In the 1980s, the effects of the system of patronage that was firmly established in the previous decade continued, and the culture of the urban poor came to be centred on “martial values of a street culture that drew on competitive individualism and on the agonism of heroic outlawry”. This was the result of the growing influence of what Gray speaks of, following Carl Stone, as the lumpenproletariat. Increasingly, over the course of the 1980s, following the immense outburst of violence during the 1980 election campaign, criminal gangs acted with greater impunity and developed into independent, self-organized bodies.

This involved both what Gray calls the militarization of left-wing politics, among supporters of the communist Workers’ Party of Jamaica (WPJ), and the deepening criminalization of the state in part through the growth in importance of criminal gangs which earned their revenue from the trade in illicit drugs. Criminal leaders evolved into the “Drug Dons” who controlled the export of cannabis and the transshipment of cocaine, and built networks that connected Jamaica to criminals in the United States. Gang culture in Jamaica, Gray contends “was less a peculiarity of Jamaican experience than it was a disruptive, radiating force in global culture”. The gun became a source both of social mobility and social power, not to mention independence from the political √©lite.

Gray sees the Jamaican state as having developed a predatory relationship to the urban poor, and inflicted considerable terror on them, creating the paradox that “A key objective of Jamaica’s democratic order… was an everyday form of rule that terrorized the ghettos.” Simultaneously, the state “evinced protean, solicitous attributes” which incorporated the poor into the political system through the rivalry of the major parties.

In more recent times, Gray notes, there is more talk among politicians and other public officials about reform, and both the middle class and poor have been driven to become more activist in response to the continuing crisis which Jamaican society faces as crime and violence escalate and state repression fails to rein them in.

What Gray has given us is a complex, thoughtful work that sets Jamaica’s social and political agony in the context of a changing capitalist world-system and of conflicts between demands for a more inclusive democracy and a state that simultaneously exalts democratic values and punishes the poor and marginalized for being poor and marginalized. There are flaws – political parties aren’t arms of the state and their use of the urban poor as footsoldiers in their rivalries is less about state predation on the poor and more about jockeying for power and access to resources within the state. That is to say, analysis of the relationship between political parties and the urban poor might point us equally to the conclusion that the former mobilized the latter in order to promote elite predation on the state, and the rewards doled out for support were partial results of that predation. Even the use of public force against the poor supporters of rival parties is less about predation on the poor and more about keeping a particular party elite in a position to cream off public resources.

A key paradox that Gray brings out is that while seeking to use the urban poor for their ends, JLP and PNP leaders ended up promoting the values of that segment of society and making them appear to be normative lower-class values. Other scholars, Deborah Thomas for example in Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica, have pointed out that the middle-class values which dominated in decolonizing and early independent Jamaica have ceased to be normative for poorer Jamaicans (and not only the urban poor), as their need for middle-class patronage has declined. The rise of the dons is not simply a case of the tail wagging the dog; it is the tail becoming the dog.

Gray is, I think, correct to see the process he describes and analyzes as a response to modernity and a critique of it. He is equally correct when he contends that theoretical as well as social renewal is needed. It is less clear that the “alternative ways of living” that he sees as coming from the “lived experience of Afro-Jamaicans” are either likely to be more democratic or that they can constitute a successful response to the ways in which the world is being reshaped in the aftermath of the Cold War and the absence of a credible alternative to unfettered and unbounded capitalism.

-- F S J Ledgister, Clark Atlanta University

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Reconsidering The Case for West-Indian Self-Government

C.L.R. James as a Creole Nationalist:

F.S.J. Ledgister

Department of Political Science

Clark Atlanta University


The usual description of C.L.R. James’s political theory locates him at the intersection of Marxism and pan-Africanism, generally more towards the former than the latter. The bulk of James’s work bears this out. For example, in The Black Jacobins he defines the rebels of Saint Domingue as proletarian without forgetting their blackness. James unambiguously defined himself as in the tradition of Marx and Lenin.[1]

Nonetheless, James’s earliest political monograph aligns him more with Creole nationalists such as J.J. Thomas, Eric Williams, or Norman Manley, than with Walter Rodney or the New World Group. In this paper I analyze that work and delineate the ways that the ideas he expressed at that time connect to a West Indian Creole nationalism that stressed the need for an end to colonial trusteeship and that saw West Indians as peoples (or a people) shaped by the colonial experience and ready and able to govern themselves.

The Case for West-Indian Self-Government, originally part of the Life of Captain Cipriani, published in 1933 not long after James moved to England, provides at first glance no indication of James’s later radicalism. It critiques British rule very much in the tradition of Thomas’s Froudacity, with a Millian, not a Marxist, assertion that the West Indian people (projecting from James’s own experience and knowledge of Trinidad but with references to other colonies) had been sufficiently prepared by British rule to take control of their own destinies.[2]

James argues for West Indian autonomy, as we shall see, in terms little different from those of the Creole nationalists who were to dominate the politics of the region from the 1940s until the 1970s; but he is not normally considered among their number. His thoughts on the subject of political autonomy nevertheless make him a forerunner of the Creole nationalism that became normative at the end of the colonial period; they contain both seeds of a more radical political future, and signs of James’s own limitations in seeing the colonial Caribbean as a Creole region.

The Case for West-Indian Self-Government is, not altogether surprisingly, a work often mentioned but rarely cited; largely, one suspects, because it does not fit well into the categories in which James is normally placed.

The Setting

The Case for West-Indian Self-Government emerged from James’s support for Trinidad’s first serious political movement, the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (TWA), initially established in 1897, and revived after World War I under the leadership of a white planter, Alfred Cipriani, who as a captain in the West India Regiment during the war had protested the racism that caused the regiment to mutiny shortly after the war.[3]

Cipriani became a member of the Legislative Council, the colonial legislature, when seven elective seats were added in 1925.[4] Hitherto, the Council had been a purely appointive body. The 1925 reform effectively enfranchised only six percent of the population, and only five of the seven constituencies were contested. Although, Cipriani was nominally the leader of a bloc of four members, the other TWA members of the Legislative Council only sporadically supported Cipriani, leaving him to carry out the task of opposition to the colonial regime alone.[5] Although not very effective, Cipriani was the first voice to speak for the Trinidadian worker, both black and East Indian, in the legislature. That was his political role when James departed Trinidad for England in 1932.

James had not been deeply involved in the labour movement or in the conventional politics of the island after 1925. Rather, he entered public life as a writer. He contributed fiction and criticism to the literary journal, The Beacon, established by Albert Gomes and Alfred Mendes.[6] Before leaving for London in 1932, he completed the novel Minty Alley, which contains a fresh and lively description of working class life in the barrack-yards of Port of Spain of James’s youth, which he was decades later to describe as about ‘the fundamental antagonism… between the educated black and the mass of plebeians’.[7]

James, as a Trinidadian intellectual of the 1920s, was in a line dating to the mid-nineteenth century of black Trinidadians who, with the tools of Western culture, asserted an identity that colonial rule would have denied them. James was aware of this, as Selwyn Cudjoe notes, given his praise of Maxwell Philip (1829-1888), the first black Solicitor-General, and the first black writer of creative prose, in Trinidad’s history.[8]

James was also influenced by J.J. Thomas, the schoolteacher whose rebuttal to J.A. Froude’s The English in the West Indies was the first assertion that West Indian people had a legitimate claim to govern themselves, and by A.R.F Webber, a novelist and pioneer socialist, who Cudjoe sees as ‘anticipating’ James in some respects.[9]

Like Phillips, Thomas, and Webber before him, James was largely self-educated and determined to promote the development of his own people. His early intellectual development was very much oriented towards Western civilisation and its cultural products, for all that he instinctively rebelled against them.[10] Cudjoe makes the point that James’s real political awakening only began when, in discussions with the cricketer Learie Constantine in England shortly after arriving there in 1932, he developed the idea of working for self-government of the West Indies.[11] Even so, James had considered the issue and begun to take a position on it earlier.[12]

Nonetheless, his primary intellectual activity in the Trinidad of the 1920s was self-education. Asked by Paul Buhle what he did between the ages of twenty and thirty, James replied:

Reading books, that’s what I was doing. Literature and history. And I not only read as the ordinary West Indian read, but I went to the library and found all sorts of books on history and classical studies.[13]

In his regular job, as a teacher at Queen’s Royal College, James pioneered the teaching of West Indian history, a political act of great importance, and mentored the young Eric Williams.[14] He also, as he told Buhle, had a relationship with Cipriani, though limited by the fact that as a teacher at a government school he was a public employee. He wrote on sports for Cipriani’s paper, The Labour Leader, and spoke occasionally on behalf of the TWA; nevertheless, speaking of himself in the third person, he said to Buhle:

James was part of the movement, he didn’t put himself forward, but he was part. Cipriani would come to me and ask me what about this and so on. I would speak on behalf of the movement.[15]

Nor was James’s youthful political activity limited to support of the TWA and Cipriani. He also engaged in debate over the question of black intelligence in the Beacon, rebutting the arguments of Dr Sidney Harland a lecturer at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, adjacent to James’s home town of Tunapuna, about the inherent abilities of black people.[16]

The thirty-one year-old who arrived in England in 1932 with the manuscripts of The Life of Captain Cipriani and Minty Alley in his trunk was about to start a new life, a life that would carry him from Britain to the United States, and back to Britain and the West Indies.[17] It is interesting, and perhaps instructive, that he began his long sojourn outside the West Indies by looking back to his homeland and speaking of its needs. As Grimshaw notes, the essay is rooted in his early life.[18]

‘A People like ours should be free’

In The Case for West-Indian Self-Government – a 32-page pamphlet, of which 27 are devoted to the main text – James lays out his first sustained political argument. Before doing that, however, he dedicates the work to Arthur Cipriani, T. A. Marryshow, J. Elmore Edwards, and C.D. Rawle, all activists in Trinidad, Grenada and Dominica, whom he salutes as ‘leaders of the democratic movement of the West Indies.’[19] The pamphlet was one of a series on political issues published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press that included pieces by C.E.M. Joad, J.M. Keynes, and Harold Laski; James began his career as a political theorist in some very distinguished company.[20]

His first move is to provide a context for the pamphlet: a Colonial Office Commission’s investigating the possibility of federating some or all of Britain’s Eastern Caribbean colonies. James asserts that, while the Commission was taking evidence ‘on the constitutional question’ such a question required an understanding of the social context of government.[21]

That context, James contends, is obvious. Over eighty percent of the population of the islands being investigated ‘consists of Negroes or persons of Negroid origin’ who, albeit of African origin, had become a distinct people:

Cut off from all contact with Africa for a century and a quarter, they present to-day the extraordinary spectacle of a people who, in language and social customs, religion, education and outlook, are essentially Western and, indeed, far more advanced in Western culture than many a European community.[22]

The nature of the argument that James is to make in the remainder of the pamphlet is thus clearly laid out: West Indians, as a westernised people, are in a position to govern themselves and should be allowed the opportunity.

James immediately contrasts this picture of the westernised West Indian with the view of ‘the advocates of Colonial Office trusteeship’ who dismiss the black West Indian as a ‘savage’ who ‘beneath the veneer of civilisation’ is still a vicious creature who will long need white tutelage before being allowed to begin moving toward self-government.[23] James marshals quotations from Sydney, Lord Olivier, a former colonial administrator and Secretary of State for the Colonies, and Sir Charles Bruce, a former colonial governor, that speak highly of the qualities of black West Indians, and black people in general, to rebut the argument for black inferiority.[24] ‘Men of colour’ are ready and able to take high office in the West Indies.

The ‘West Indian Negro is ungracious enough to be far from perfect’, sharing the vices of all those who live in the tropics ‘not excluding people of European blood’, but has a ‘magnificent vitality’ that ‘overcomes the enervating influences of the climate’.[25] They lack ‘the thrift, the care, and the almost equine docility’ of Europeans whose harsher climate and industrial economy have imposed a discipline on them. But they also, as a young people, lack the cramping traditions which inhibit the European.[26]

James then looks at the divisions of caste within the ‘Negroid’ population, noting that it is composed of a majority ‘of actually black people’ and a minority of fifteen to twenty percent of people of mixed black and white ancestry.[27] This minority had from the days of slavery on asserted a claim of superiority to the ‘ordinary black’. Between the brown and black people a distrust exists which has been ‘skillfully played on’ by the whites and which ‘poisons the life’ of a community made up of a variety of racial mixtures and in which relations within families can be made tense by differences in shade between close kindred.[28]

Possession of wealth, however, matters:

It is not too much to say that in a West Indian colony the surest sign of a man’s having arrived is the fact that he keeps company with people lighter in complexion than himself.[29]

Status concerns on the part of the middle class make it hard for them to unite, and this is ‘the gravest drawback of the coloured population’ as it should, naturally, take leadership but is, instead, divided by distinctions of colour.[30]

The most important of other groups, writes James, ‘are the white creoles’. However, he footnotes this assertion with a statement that bears quoting in full:

Many of the West Indian Islands are cosmopolitan, and East Indians form about twelve per cent of the total population, though concentrated in Trinidad. But there is no need to give them special treatment, for economically and educationally they are superior to the corresponding class in India; and get on admirably with the Negroes.[31]

We will return to this point later, as it is crucial for any analysis of James’s understanding of his own society in the early 1930s.

Whites, James asserts, face two disadvantages: they cannot stand the climate for more than three generations, and being white automatically makes them people of consequence. Yet this is power without more than personal responsibility, since the white people who govern are not West Indian but English.[32]

James then proceeds to give us a portrait of the English colonial administrator who arrives in the West Indies with experience ‘in dealing with primitive peoples’ in Africa and who in the West Indies is confronted by ‘a thoroughly civilized community’ whose members are his intellectual equals. In response, the Englishman has to fall back on claims of inherent Anglo-Saxon ability, and on a claim that the crown colony system needs to be maintained.[33]

In reaction to the claims of West Indians, the colonial bureaucrat takes up a hyperpatriotic celebration of Englishness and reinforces his inherent snobbishness with an unearned aristocracy which is ever vigilant for insults.[34] English liberalism – the celebration of a history that includes the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights – disappears in the colonies, as the colonial administrator defines anyone who exhibits a local patriotism as

a dangerous person, a wild revolutionary, a man with no respect for law and order, a self-seeker actuated by the lowest motives, a reptile to be crushed at the first opportunity. What at home is the greatest virtue becomes in the colonies the greatest crime.[35]

Turning from the psychology of the coloniser to the administration of the colonies, James gives us a description of the ‘Governor-in-Executive-Council’.[36] While the governor was advised by an executive council, which included senior government officials and prominent locals, the latter ‘selected by himself’, he did not need to follow that advice.[37] James lays out, as an example of the arbitrary behaviour of colonial administrations the relationship among the colonial government, the Trinidad Electric Company (which both supplied electricity to the island and operated Port of Spain’s municipal trams), and the Port of Spain city council in which the government acted to promote the profits of the company and its officials and to ‘defeat the legitimate aspirations of the citizens of Port-of-Spain’.[38]

While the Executive Council met in secret, the Legislative Council attracted public interest. The Council was divided into three parts: the first consisted of twelve government officials chosen by the governor, the second consisted of thirteen unofficial members, six appointed by the governor and seven elected ‘by the people’, and the third was the governor himself as presiding officer.[39]

James notes that some official members serve in the Council for years without saying a word, and that

There is a further unreality, because whenever the Governor wishes he can instruct the officials all to vote in the same way. And the Council becomes farcical when two members of a committee appointed by the Governor receive instructions to vote against their own recommendations.[40]

The officials, who are ‘a solid block of Englishmen with a few white creoles, generally from some other colony’ work in solidarity with wealthy white creoles ‘against the political advancement of the coloured people’. The government and the Chamber of Commerce constitute a single political bloc.[41] It had become government policy, however, to appoint ‘a few Negroes’ to unofficial positions on the Legislative Council. These persons were ‘Negroes of fair and not of dark skin’ notes James, who goes on to say that such people are frequently more hostile to ‘the masses of the people than the Europeans themselves.’[42] This hostility James attributes to a lack of self-respect. When ‘light-skinned Negroes’ recognize that they will receive respect only when they respect themselves, then the racial power of whites will be ended.[43]

The Europeans who exercise power are intellectually shallow and provincial, but they have power and can thus maintain a degree of exclusivity. This, ‘for the fair-skinned Negro who does not seek much’ is a paradise.[44] At the same time, any white talent will be clustered around the governor. Non-whites with ‘powers above the average’ will seek to penetrate such groups even though they are dominated by Englishmen who are ‘constitutionally incapable of admitting into their society on equal terms persons of colour.’[45]

The ‘man of colour’ could only hope for a position at the fringe of polite society. Those who were unwilling to accept ‘place-at-any-price’ remained in splendid isolation distrusting each other and united only in jealousy at each other’s ability to stand well with the government.[46] That government, while pointing to the number of coloured men appointed to the Council as a sign of its non-racialism, ‘rarely appoints black men’.[47]

The result is that while the Colonial Office is congratulating itself on ensuring that ‘the coloured people’ are represented in government, the colonial administration and the local white population know that these ‘representatives’ are in fact ‘more royalist than the King’ and far from being in solidarity with the black majority ‘are at one with [the English] in their common antipathy to the black’.[48]

The third part of the Legislative Council is the governor himself. James wittily states that:

The Governor of a Crown Colony is three things. He is the representative of His Majesty the King, and as such must have all the homage and respect customary to that position… In Trinidad the Governor is Governor General and Prime Minister in one. But that makes only two. When the Governor sits in the Legislative Council he is Chairman of that body. The unfortunate result is that when a member of the Council rises to speak he is addressing at one and the same time an incomprehensible personage, three in one and one in three.[49]

James’s allusion to the Athanasian Creed serves to introduce the point that in this way the governors avoid taking responsibility for their actions while members of the Legislative Council are always eager to jump to the defense of the Crown’s representative and the president of the Council while being ‘quite neglectful of the responsibility of the head of the administration’.[50] The governor’s power gives him disproportionate influence on the legislative process and his presence in the Council inhibits freedom of speech.[51]

The result is that the government faces no ‘effective criticism or check’ and since it is administered by bureaucrats rather than politicians with vision becomes ‘slack and regardless’. The members of the Legislative Council, far from being vigilant on behalf of the public, are no more than sycophants, and the function of government appears to be no more than a favour granted to the people rather than a responsibility for the common good and general welfare.[52] James illustrates this by considering a debate on racial discrimination at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in which biracial members of the council had insisted that there was no discrimination against Trinidadians of colour attending the College even though one of them knew that there was. Attempts by Cipriani, a white Creole, to deal with the matter were stymied by the Colonial Office being able to point to these statements in response to Cipriani’s complaints.[53]

For all that English officials would want to underplay or deny racial discrimination, James reserves his greatest contempt for the ‘so-called representatives of the people’ who are caught between fear that speaking up about racial discrimination would deny them the opportunity for advancement and fear that they would have to confront publicly ‘the perfectly obvious but nevertheless dreadful fact that they are not white men’.[54]

James notes that in smaller, more racially homogeneous, colonies such as Grenada and Dominica the colonial government had managed to unite nominated and elected members in opposition to itself.[55] In this way, the British were preparing unwittingly for the destruction of their empire.

For James, the only way forward is a democratic constitution, perhaps modelled on Malta or on Ceylon.[56] High income qualifications to hold office or to vote would have to be abolished and the legislature should be made up exclusively of elected representatives.[57]

James does not see democratisation as a panacea. He sees it as necessary in order that the concerns and needs of the people are regularly and consistently taken into account by the government:

No one expects that these Islands will, on assuming responsibility for themselves, immediately shed racial prejudice and economic depression. No one expects that by a change of constitutions the constitution of politicians will be changed. But though they will, when the occasions arise, disappoint the people, and deceive the people and even, in so-called crises, betray the people, yet there is one thing they will never be able to do – and that is, neglect the people. As long as society is constituted as it is at present that is the best that modern wage-slaves can ever hope to achieve.[58]

Crown colony government has run its course. It is based on the fraudulent assumption of superior ability by the English, and is wicked because it permits a small number of privileged Englishmen to control ‘hundreds of thousands of defenceless people’. In using ‘England’s overflow’ to prevent the people from achieving their natural aspirations to personal advancement and self-government it is, in fact, actually criminal.[59] The colonial administrators are ‘itinerant demi-gods’ ever eager to hear of opportunities for advancement elsewhere in the empire ‘while men often better than they stand outside rejected and despised.’[60]

Britain can control the West Indies as long as it desires. It has the naval and air power to do so. Nevertheless, James asserts ‘a people like ours should be free to make its own failures and successes’. Without that freedom, West Indians

remain without credit abroad and without self-respect at home, a bastard, feckless conglomeration of individuals, inspired by no common purpose, moving to no common end.[61]

Britain has promised its colonial subjects ‘self-government when fit for it’. It would lose little by keeping its word.[62]

Evaluating the argument

In a very small compass, James has presented a liberal nationalist argument for self-government. By that, James does not necessarily mean independence. At the time he wrote, no colony run by non-white subjects had achieved independence. Only in 1931 had the full autonomy of Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa been recognized by the Statute of Westminster, and all of these, save South Africa, were territories with white settler majorities. South Africa’s white settler minority was large enough to dominate the non-white majority and deny it political power.

The British West Indies was not a collection of colonies of exploitation, as were most colonies in Africa and Asia, nor were they colonies of settlement in the sense of having a large segment of the population deriving from the ‘mother country’. It was a region of colonies somewhere in between containing a population that was Westernised rather than Western, and imported for the purposes of exploitation rather than exploited in their aboriginal homeland. The Caribbean Sea is a lot further distant from Europe than the west coast of Africa, but it was under European rule (as opposed to a marginal presence) for much longer.

It is for this reason that James begins his essay by asserting that the population of the British West Indies is both black and Western, and why he makes a point of the historic distance between the people of the West Indies and their African roots. West Indians are blacks, but they are not Africans as James states both explicitly and implicitly.[63] Rather, as Bogues notes, they are a distinct people.[64] James is asserting that the people of the Caribbean, certainly of the British West Indies, constitute a nation formed by a shared history. That history, it must be noted, is one that involves British colonial rule, and the imposition of British political ideas as normative. The lens through which James sees the British West Indies has been shaped by the thought of people like J.S. Mill, for whom black West Indians, as the descendants of slaves, had to be taught freedom; freedom, that is to say in a British mode. James, thus, declares that West Indians no longer need British tutelage and are ready to govern themselves.

This declaration requires that he confront the question of the East Indian segment of the population, which was clearly not Afro-Western. He thus has to state that many islands are ‘cosmopolitan’ because they have East Indian residents. But he then dismisses them in two curt phrases: they are better off than in India, and they ‘get on admirably with the Negroes’. These apodeictic claims sweep a significant issue – that of ethnic difference – under the carpet. The politics of Trinidad and Tobago and of Guyana since World War II has been dominated by the ethnic division between Creoles and East Indians in a way that indicates that neither group gets on admirably with the other. Or, in other words, that the latter does not find the culture of the former normative.

Since James’s argument rests on asserting that West Indians have developed enough to be able to govern themselves according to Western norms, he has to assume that the East Indian section of the populace is aligned with those norms, but can present no evidence for this. Even worse, he ignores the middleman minorities – the Chinese, Portuguese, and Levantine Arabs – who were and are highly visible even though their numbers are small. The story of the West Indies, from James’s perspective, is entirely black and white.

Race relations, relations among white, black, and biracial West Indians, are central to James’s account of the condition of the West Indian colonies and to his argument for self-government. The ‘brown-skinned middle class’ which ought to provide leadership to the black mass of the population is so divided by squabbles over fine distinctions of colour that it cannot take up that role. The whites, meantime, are enervated by the climate and by the automatic deference accorded to their race. Clearly, it is the job of black West Indians to govern themselves. Glen Richards sees this, correctly, as the means by which James believed that they would be able to overcome the burden of racism.[65]

It is racism that makes the English assume that West Indians cannot govern themselves without the supervision of their betters. Racism makes the English blind to the difference between Westernised Caribbean people and ‘primitive Africans’.[66] The latter, in James’s eyes, require the trusteeship which the former no longer need. Where a black nationalist like Marcus Garvey would have emphasised racial solidarity and rejected divisions between blacks in Africa and in the Diaspora, James embraces that distinction.

That same racism is what leads to the bickering over differences in colour and the arbitrary inclusion or exclusion of talented people. Yet, racial prejudice in the West Indies is not accompanied by racial antagonism, and, free of crown colony rule, West Indians will be able to live in peace under the rule of their elected representatives. James has come to a conclusion which would have surprised Edward Wilmot Blyden or Marcus Garvey. Indeed, while Garvey would probably have nodded at James’s description between brown and black West Indians as support for his contention that the former were inimical to the latter, James has no such intention. Rather, he wants us to see that continued British domination through the crown colony system divorces status from ability, makes lightness of colour the sign of the former and ignores possession of the latter by those who lack the fortune to have begun life with some European ancestry.

Democracy would make wealth and ability, rather than race, the markers of status and would remove the barriers confronted by talented West Indians of wholly or partly African descent. It would not remove racial prejudice, but in the absence of racial antagonism that does not for him seem an insuperable difficulty. The problem is, of course, that ‘race antagonism’ was hardly absent in the colonial Caribbean. The reactive racial philosophies of Blyden and Garvey could not have come into existence had they not believed in a racial hostility directed at persons like them from the white authorities and believed that it was necessary to reciprocate. James’s own depiction of the racial prejudice of brown to black indicates more than mere prejudice; James recognizes that mixed-race West Indians were possessed of a racial fear.

Equally, James the Marxist a few years later would not have assumed that bourgeois democracy was the best alternative available, even if it was corruptible. Yet that is what James the liberal does. Little wonder that Trinidadian political scientist John LaGuerre could dismiss the early James as ‘a nationalist without a political theory.’[67] While Bogues rejects this as too superficial an approach, he also disagrees with LaGuerre’s saying that James when he arrived in England was ‘at best a liberal’.[68]

But this is what James was at the time. Although Bogues turns to James’s fiction for evidence of a deeper understanding of the situation of black working-class Trinidadians of the 1920s, and contends that James did not yet understand the implications of his thinking for that class, the reality is that James, in The Case for West-Indian Self-Government is arguing entirely within the framework of the liberal imperialist idea of trusteeship. His argument is that this trusteeship has achieved its end and is no longer necessary. A few years later, in The Black Jacobins, he was to articulate a very different kind of argument, but in 1932 and 1933 he was not yet either a Marxist or a pan-Africanist. For James in 1933, West Indians constituted a nation whose aspirations were being frustrated by the continuation of crown colony government. He does not see them as part of an international proletariat created by and antagonistic to capitalism. Nor does he see them as part of a larger African community.

James’s argument with respect to the crown colony system echoes the Canadian political scientist Hume Wrong writing a decade earlier:

Crown Colony government is a political blind alley. It is, and must be, paternal, and it gives no chance for education in political responsibility. To regard it as a permanent institution is to give up all hope for the political development of the inhabitants of the colonies in which it prevails. All these colonies are far from being ready to control their own affairs, but some of them may be sufficiently advanced to make a start on the long road which may ultimately lead to responsible government.[69]

While James would obviously have disagreed that the West Indies was not yet ready to govern itself, he would have considered Wrong’s assertion that the crown colony system was a blind alley to be correct. James would have agreed with Wrong’s statement that ‘the negro in the West Indies is a very different person from his racial kin in Africa’.[70] Indeed, this is the very claim that James makes in asserting that the West Indian is ready for self-government. Wrong, like James places the link with Africa securely in the past and sees the West Indian black as Westernised.[71] And, like James, Wrong sees the absence of ‘open racial hostility’ as a hopeful sign for the political development of the West Indies.[72]

While there are many points of disagreement between James and Wrong, not the least of which is Wrong’s assessment that the West Indies was still far from ready for self-government, what should concern us here is the similarity of their approach. Both see the West Indies as a backward part of the West, and crown colony government as contributing to that backwardness. They occupy different points on the spectrum of liberalism, James being far more radical than Wrong, but they share the basic assumptions of Western liberalism.

Creole Nationalism

While James was writing The Case for West-Indian Self-Government time was not standing still in the West Indies. The Great Depression was biting the poorest West Indians and they were not accepting it stoically. Starting in the early 1930s, workers in the colonial Caribbean began to protest their continuing immiseration, and their demands for justice, work, and bread were gradually joined by middle-class West Indians who awakened to their racial and/or cultural solidarity with the poor.[73]

Labour uprisings in 1937 in Trinidad and in 1938 in Jamaica were especially important in this regard because they reinforced and expanded existing political movements (as was the case in Trinidad) or generated new movements with middle-class leadership (as was the case in Jamaica).

That leadership took the language of British imperial liberalism and the imperialist attitude to the colonial Caribbean and gave it a new twist:

There are those who love our thatched huts and the picturesqueness of Back-O-Wall, and those who look at smiles on people’s faces and believe that all is well because people will smile, nature is bountiful and one season follows another. I have lived in that feeling myself, I have felt those sentiments. If you live in a place long enough you become complacent. What you see every day you regard after a time as belonging to the order of things.[74]

Thus spoke Norman Manley in September 1938, announcing that self-government had become a central political demand for middle-class West Indians such as himself. In another text that year, Manley was to echo James even more directly:

The dead hand of imperialism is made manifest in the dearth of our culture, in the paucity and poverty of our arts, in the drying up of the sources of charity, in the decay of faith and the licentiousness of morals, in the dishonesty of our escapism, in the malice of our leaders, in the cowardice of government, in the narrow mean circumscription of all our horizons. One touch of creative intensity and a veritable desert would quicken into life with rank weeds jostling the flower shoots striving for living room. There would be life and trouble, blossom and fruit, but the dead hand, quietly with blind efficiency, closes on it all.[75]

This is a vision of political freedom from which racial and class differences are absent. It rests on the assumption that expanded political liberty will unleash the creative potential that the crown colony system has suppressed. Manley, speaking as the leader of a political party dedicated to the achievement of self-government and eventual independence for the West Indies, shares with James the desire to see his people have the freedom to achieve their own successes and experience their own failures.

That people is not cast in terms of black and white, but as a West Indian people who have emerged from the particular historical experience of the Caribbean, that is to say as a creolised people. Creolisation involves the ‘inescapable mixing of peoples and cultures as an undeniable facet of the modern world.’[76]

Hence James’s odd treatment of the East Indians: He defines them as creolised, and therefore part of a political community which also contains brown people, black people and white people. West Indians are a creolised people, and the nation that James and Manley envision is a Creole nation. White, black, brown, East Indian, all are brought together in a single Creole pepperpot in which the flavours of Africa, Asia, and Europe achieve a new, fierce harmony. This is, a generation later, to be echoed by James’s pupil Eric Williams.[77] Williams, however, was to go a step further by proclaiming the end of imperial rule, not simply calling for it: ‘You are nobody’s boss, and nobody is your boss.’[78] It was the end of what Williams called ‘Massa day’, the rule of a backward, obscurantist class, but not every white was a massa, and ‘not all Massas were white.’[79]

Creole nationalism, so defined, is a Caribbean form of European liberal nationalism. Trusteeship is seen as having played its role as midwife of the new nation, which henceforth must achieve its successes and failures on its own. Thus far, Burke and Mill. Equally, continued crown colony rule, with its sidelining of ability and creativity, was a noisome nuisance to be condemned by all. Thus far, Machiavelli.


If we can see James as in a tradition that has its roots in 16th century European republicanism and 19th century European liberalism, then The Case for West-Indian Self-Government represents a direction that he was not to take in his own intellectual and political development. It is not a precursor to a Marxist or Marxist-Leninist analysis of the impact of imperialism, nor is it part of a pan-African resistance to that imperialism.

Yet, at the same time, it is focused on James’s own people, their history, and their political plight. It is therefore very much in tune with his later concerns – socialism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism.

How, then, should we see this pamphlet? I would venture to suggest that we see it in two ways. One is as a precursor of the Creole nationalism that was shortly to emerge full-blown in the colonial Caribbean. It is no large step from James in 1933 to Manley in 1938, nor to Williams in 1961. This is James as he might have become had he never left the West Indies and had not become involved in the international Marxist movement. And this is the approach that has motivated this study.

The other is as a first, untutored effort at developing a coherent political vision of the Anglophone Caribbean in the modern world, a true work of theory informed by the normative values which James accepted at the time. It contains themes, such as imperialism and racism, which he was to explore in great depth throughout his career, and regarding which he was to acquire and to develop new analytic tools.

The Case for West-Indian Self-Government then can be seen as a liminal work. It sits at the boundary between James’s youth and his adult life, between his experience of Trinidad and his experience of the wider world, between his early liberalism and his later Marxism, between Creole nationalism and pan-Africanism. That James was to go beyond those boundaries does not mean that it is not a work of significance both for an understanding of who James was and the nature of the world in which he came to his first maturity.

It is, finally, a work of tremendous importance for Caribbean political thought. Like J.J. Thomas before him, James was not content to accept subordination or the disvaluing of his abilities and the abilities of those around him. He felt himself part of a nation, and spoke on its behalf. As a people, West Indians were entitled to take their chances in the world, and in doing so to develop their own self-respect, their own common identity, and their own common purpose. That is a message that still needs to be heard.

[1] Anthony Bogues, Caliban’s Freedom: The Early Political Thought of C.L.R. James; London: Pluto Press, 1997, 1.

[2] Glen Richards, “C.L.R. James on Black Self-Determination in the United States and the Caribbean” in Selwyn R. Cudjoe and William E. Cain (eds.) C.L.R. James: His Intellectual Legacies; Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, 318.

[3] F.S.J. Ledgister, Class Alliances and the Liberal-Authoritarian State: The Roots of Post-Colonial Democracy in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Surinam; Trenton: Africa World Press, 1998, 98. Cedric J. Robinson, “C.L.R. James and the World-System”, Cudjoe & Cain, 245.

[4] Ledgister, 98. Prior to that date, Trinidad and Tobago had been an example of what Hume Wrong called a ‘pure’ crown colony. The addition of an elective element, albeit elected on a limited suffrage turned Trinidad into a ‘semi-representative’ crown colony. Hume Wrong, Government of the West Indies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 113 & 136.

[5] Ledgister, 99.

[6] Bogues, 19.

[7] Bogues, 24-25.

[8] Selwyn Cudjoe, “The Audacity of It All: C.L.R. James’s Trinidadian Background”, Paget Henry and Paul Buhle (eds.), C.L.R. James’s Caribbean; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991, 43-46.

[9] Cudjoe (1991), 46-50.

[10] Anna Grimshaw, “C.L.R. James: A Revolutionary Vision” in The C.L.R. James Reader, ed. Anna Grimshaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 3.

[11] Cudjoe (1991), 52. James attributed his late political development in part to the decision to join the Maple Cricket Club, with a predominantly biracial and middle-class membership, rather than the working-class predominantly black Shannon Cricket Club. ‘Faced with the fundamental divisions in the island, I had gone to the right and, by cutting myself off from the popular side, delayed my political development for years.’ C.LR. James, Beyond a Boundary (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993 [1963]), 53.

[12] Aldon Lynn Nielsen, C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction; Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997, xiv.

[13] Paul Buhle, “The Making of a Literary Life: C.L.R. James interviewed by Paul Buhle”, Henry & Buhle, 58.

[14] Buhle, 58. The references to Williams’s relationship with James are legion, including Williams’s own in Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969).

[15] Buhle, 60.

[16] Nielsen, 8-12.

[17] James went to Britain with the encouragement of Learie Constantine who promised to see him through if he had financial difficulties. James (1993), 110.

[18] Grimshaw, 5.

[19] C.L.R. James, The Case for West-Indian Self-Government; London: Leonard & Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1933, 4. The pamphlet was excerpted from The Life of Captain Cipriani while James was living in Lancashire in 1932. Nicole King, C.L.R. James and Creolization: Circles of Influence (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001) 75.

[20] James (1933), 2.

[21] The ‘constitutional question’ was the question of whether some form of representative government should be introduced in a reformed constitution.

[22] James (1933), 5-6.

[23] James (1933), 6.

[24] James (1933), 6-7.

[25] James (1933), 7.

[26] James (1933), 7.

[27] James (1933), 8.

[28] James (1933), 8.

[29] James (1933), 9.

[30] James (1933), 9.

[31] James (1933), 9 fn. Emphasis mine.

[32] James (1933), 9-10. One presumes that James subsumed Welsh, Scottish, and Irish officials under that category.

[33] James (1933), 10-11.

[34] James (1933), 11.

[35] James (1933), 12.

[36] James (1933), 13. The phrase alludes to the constitutional term ‘the King-in-Parliament’ which refers to the Crown in its legislative role operating in conjunction with the House of Commons and House of Lords.

[37] James (1933), 13.

[38] James (1933), 17.

[39] James (1933), 18-19.

[40] James (1933), 18-19.

[41] James (1933), 18-19.

[42] James (1933), 19. In a later work, James describes the disgraceful official treatment of the great cricketer Learie Constantine who was unable to get any regular employment other than acting positions in government because of his race. James (1993), 106-107. It is one of the ironies of history that the British, who discriminated against Constantine because of his race in the 1920s, would in 1969 admit him to the House of Lords.

[43] James (1933), 23.

[44] James (1933), 20.

[45] James (1933), 21.

[46] James (1933), 21-22.

[47] James (1933), 22.

[48] James (1933), 22.

[49] James (1933), 23-24.

[50] James (1933), 24.

[51] James (1933), 25-26.

[52] James (1933), 26.

[53] James (1933), 27-29.

[54] James (1933), 29.

[55] James (1933), 30.

[56] James (1933), 30.

[57] James (1933), 31. Malta at the time had a bicameral legislature. Universal suffrage was introduced in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1931.

[58] James (1933), 31.

[59] James (1933), 31.

[60] James (1933), 32.

[61] James (1933), 32.

[62] James (1933), 32.

[63] James makes the point that the oil companies operating in Trinidad would as soon appoint a Zulu chief as ‘a local man of colour’ to a position of responsibility. The implication being that there is a real difference between the Zulu and the Trinidadian Creole that the oil company is not recognizing.

[64] Bogues, 23.

[65] Glen Richards, “C.L.R. James on Black Self-Determination in the United States and the Caribbean,” in Cudjoe and Cain (1995), 318.

[66] James (1933), 10.

[67] Quoted in Bogues, 25.

[68] Bogues, 25.

[69] Wrong, 144.

[70] Wrong, 171.

[71] Wrong, 171.

[72] Wrong, 179.

[73] The ‘and/or’ is necessary because some of the middle class activists who emerged in the 1930s, such as Albert Gomes in Trinidad or Richard Hart in Jamaica, were unambiguously white.

[74] Norman W. Manley, “Launching of the People’s National Party”, in Rex Nettleford, ed. Norman Washington Manley and the New Jamaica: Selected Speeches and Writings, 1938-1968 (London: Longman Caribbean, 1971), 15.

[75] Norman W. Manley “Of freedom”; Nettleford, 385. Emphasis in the original.

[76] King, 143.

[77] Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (Port of Spain: PNM Publishing, 1962), vii.

[78] Eric Williams, “Independence Day Address” in Selwyn R. Cudjoe, ed., Eric E. Williams Speaks: Essays on Colonialism and Independence (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1982) 266.

[79] Eric Williams, “Massa Day Done” in Cudjoe (1982), 238-246.