1960s >> 1962 >> no-691-march-1962

Book Review: The West Indies: What Next?

The West Indies and their Future by Daniel Guérin (Dennis Dobson.)

This book is a serious attempt to consider the West Indies history and their future from a left wing viewpoint coloured very strongly by Negro nationalism. Now this is a change from the usual run of travel books and “histories” produced by well-meaning English writers who pass rapidly through the Caribbean on a no doubt pleasant working holiday. But the book’s “left wing” angle (the words masses, plutocracy, and reactionary occur frequently) cannot excuse some basic defects.

Guérin states that he visited some of the islands in 1955, but the book was not published until 1961. There have been many constitutional and social changes in the West Indies since 1955: for instance, Guérin makes much of racial prejudice and singles out especially, the French islands and an oilfield in Trinidad. The behaviour of the white inhabitants of the French islands (known as Békés) is no doubt, even now, good for a sound beating from anyone whose ideas are not completely dominated by the doctrines of, say, the Navy League, circa 1910. Martinique and Guadeloupe are still very much French colonial possessions, and the outlook of their békés is probably no different from that of their counterparts in Algeria—small wonder that M. Guérin can enjoy himself at their expense. But to describe the behaviour of the békés as typical of social behaviour generally in the West Indies is like describing the behaviour and outlook of retired generals in Bournemouth and Cheltenham as being typical of the average British citizen. Rather, in the British islands at any rate, racial prejudice nowadays takes the form of Negro versus East Indian, or manifests itself in vague anti-white sentiments.

M. Guérin’s description of the segregation of workers in the Trinidad oilfields into whites (“with enormous material advantages”) and coloured (“who must do with a minimal wage”) both begs the question and is many years out of date. In the first place, the oil industry is highly technical and, until recently, the West Indies just could not provide men to fill certain skilled positions: hence the expatriates who had to be offered considerable inducements to live and work in the tropics. Secondly, oil companies, wishing to keep in with the Trinidad Government to ensure the continuation of the present, favourable, oil tax, have trained local men for senior posts with the companies. It is now common for coloured workers to occupy bungalows in the senior staff compounds and to rub shoulders with their white colleagues in the senior oilfield clubs on terms of social equality.

M. Guérin discusses some major problems of the West Indian (capitalist) economy—monoculture, the high cost of living, overpopulation, etc.—problems which have been described in greater detail if not with such “progressive” zeal by Parry and Sherlock in A Short History of the West Indies (incidentally, Parry and Sherlock’s book, although written from the “establishment” angle, is an entertaining and comprehensive source of knowledge for workers interested in the West Indies).

Of course, these problems are mainly problems for the Capitalist class. The really pressing problem facing the West Indian worker (and his fellow-workers in other parts of the world) is not overpopulation, monoculture, high cost of living, etc., but the fact that he is a member of the working class. Needless to say, solving the West Indies’ worker’s problem by ending his wage-slavery has never featured in the programmes of the Capitalist economists and politicians who have propounded various “solutions” to the peculiar predicament the West Indian section of the Capitalist class is in.

M. Guérin correctly pours scorn on those reformers who attempt to curb the birth-rates in the West Indian territories by programmes of birth-control. Then there is the safety-valve for the pressure of unemployment in the West Indies—emigration. West Indian governments, especially those with high levels of unemployment, have encouraged emigration to the United Kingdom: all other countries virtually prohibit West Indian immigration.

Now that the steady stream of West Indian immigrants is being curbed by United Kingdom legislation, politicians in the West Indies fulminate against the British Government for barring the door to commonwealth citizens on the grounds of their colour. These same politicians conveniently forget that coloured commonwealth citizens from, say, Grenada and St. Vincent are forbidden to enter Trinidad to live and work (so for that matter are citizens of the United Kingdom) as, for example, labourers or typists. The larger West Indian islands have strict immigration laws preventing the smaller islands shipping their unemployed to them

M. Guérin was apparently unable to study ‘the emancipation movements” in British Guiana and Cuba, a pity because an up-to-date “ left-wing” account of recent Caribbean history can hardly be considered complete without reference to Castro’s regime. But recent developments in British Guiana are a good example of the wide difference between what a “left-wing” politician often says and what he does. Dr. Cheddi Jagan, the Chief Minister of British Guiana, has been long known as the leftist of left wing, and his frank admiration of Soviet Russia and Castro has been repudiated by other West Indian politicians, such as Trinidad’s Dr. Eric Williams. Dr. Jagan hinted at nationalising industries in British Guiana, which alarmed business organisations with capital invested in British Guiana and potential investors. To prevent withdrawal of capital, and subsequent unemployment. Dr. Jagan was recently obliged to state that he had no intention of nationalising any industries. During 1961 Dr. Jagan went on a begging tour of the United States and Canada in search of substantial loans to bolster his country’s economy and prevent the present level of unemployment getting any worse.

And what of the future? Here. M. Guérin becomes very pessimistic; one of the reasons for his pessimism is, without doubt, that most of the diverse peoples living in the West Indies have no real sense of “belonging,” from a class and a purely patriotic point of view.

Go to any village in the Yorkshire dales: the people living in that village are ordinary working folk, but what is bound to strike the visitor most forcibly is the atmosphere of “belonging.” The visitor will be a “foreigner” even if he has only come from Bradford, a few miles away, and the bearing, conversation, and relationships of the villagers will make it abundantly clear that they and their forebears have lived in the district for centuries; that they belong.


Not so in the West Indies. First, there is the barrier to common communication and understanding erected by the different languages spoken. Then there is the formidable barrier of the Caribbean Sea which separates and insulates the scattered islands. The Negroes, plucked from tribal life in Africa in the not-so-distant past, strive to acquire the manners, religion, and political and social institutions of their former European masters. The East Indians cling to religious and social customs based on centuries of village life in India. The Chinese, on the whole, remain aloof. British expatriates tend to look upon their West Indian existence as a period of purgatory before their return to a wealthy retirement in the mother country.


Social Classes
Colonial education programmes have ignored teaching any ideas of a “unified” West Indies to past generations; as M. Guérin says: “. . . . in school the West Indian child is given a detailed account of the institutions and history of the faraway mother country, but his teachers refrain from talking to him about the Antilles and avoid stimulating any untoward notions of regional solidarity. It is no wonder that the feeling of Caribbean unity (similar, for example, to that which binds together Jews or Arabs, no matter where they live in the world) has been so slow to take root in the popular consciousness.” It must be added that, again, M. Guérin is rather out of date as far as the British islands are concerned at any rate. Popularly elected governments have introduced history curricula in schools with a pronounced nationalist rather than colonialist bias.


Following “emancipation,” three distinct social classes emerged in West Indian society: the white aristocracy, the free person of colour, and the black ex-slave (the hewer of wood and drawer of water). Since then, although a Socialist could differentiate between workers and Capitalists (whatever their complexion), a non-Socialist West Indian has used, and continues to use, different criteria: colour of skin, shape of nose, colour of eyes, and even degree of kinkiness of hair. A Socialist would dismiss these apparent trivia as hangovers from colonial rule, but they have been part of the West Indian social consciousness since the times of slavery and are alive today. For instance in Trinidad it is considered a social advantage to marry a person with lighter skin than your own. For a person with light skin to marry someone with black skin, a negroid nose, and kinky (“bad”) hair is considered a social degradation. M. Guérin quotes an English writer who accuses the Jamaican of knowing “less about the people than the English bourgeosie about its proletariat . . .  No one in the West Indies talks so glibly of the ‘lazy’ black as his coloured brother.”


Small wonder that sects have arisen in the West Indies, comprising people (usually of African origin and of the poorest section of the working class) whose creed is a semi-religious determination to leave the West Indies and return to some never-never land in Africa; such a sect are the bearded Rastafarians in Jamaica, who demand nothing of the island of their birth but the right to return to Africa, to the “King of Kings”—Haile Selassie.


This feeling of “non-belonging” either causes West Indian workers to opt out (as the Rastafarians do) or to form tight little racialist/nationalist groups. In neither case are they encouraging material for politicians advocating a Federation of the West Indies, or even national unity in territories like Trinidad and British Guiana, where Negro-versus-East Indian racial tensions seem to be as strong as ever. Nor, for that matter, are they likely to be sympathetic to Socialists endeavouring to inculcate ideas of the identity of interests of workers in the various territories of the West Indies with those of their fellow-workers in the rest of the world.


M. Guérin hopes for one large confederation of all the Caribbean islands and their population of 15 million people, including a Caribbean customs union. This, he claims, would relieve some islands from the dangers inherent in their monoculture, it would allow rationalisation of production and marketing of commodities, it would lend weight to the confederation’s bargaining power, it would permit the confederation to finance and plan economic development, and it would reduce the present heavy cost of administrative, customs, fiscal, police, and technical organisations. It is hardly necessary to observe that these “benefits” of confederation are of interest only to the rising West Indian Capitalist class.


Closer Identity
With the formation of the European Common Market and the regionalisation of trade in other parts of the world in mind, it is tempting to forecast the formation of a similar Caribbean common market, with trade and currency probably tied to the Americas rather than to Europe. This might mean closer identity of the different groups of workers with one another, easier means of communication, and more effective trade-union organisation.


M. Guérin ends his book on, for him, a pessimistic note: “The West Indian Confederation has slight chance of being born within the framework of the present capitalist and colonialist society.”


The truth is that M. Guérin is no Socialist and therefore mistakes Negro nationalist movements for Socialist parties, advocates “freedom” from colonial powers and, like so many “progressives” is almost paranoiac about “Yankee imperialism.”


Guérin appears to support the affirmation of the Caribbean Labour Congress in 1945 which was that “there is no hope for the West Indies unless they become a Socialist Commonwealth.” Unfortunately, the Socialist commonwealth envisaged by Guérin is no doubt a nationalist grouping of the West Indian islands under a “progressive” government on the lines of the British Labour Government.


If that is the kind of future M. Guérin has in mind for West Indian workers, there are ample grounds for pessimism. Even if confederation is achieved, even if a customs union is established, even if the whole of the West Indies becomes one large politico-economic bloc, the West Indian worker will still have to face the problems of working-class life under Capitalism; problems intensified by the uncertainty of the world market’s fickle demands for the staple commodities of the West Indies. At the time of writing, workers in Trinidad’s oilfields (considered to be reasonably safe places of employment) are being laid off because the world demand for oil is rapidly being satisfied.


“Native,” popularly elected, politicians are powerless to influence the trends of the world’s markets and the policies of the dominant Capitalist powers, however much they may pretend to their followers that they can. During the Second World War, the Jamaican banana industry was almost ruined, with severe unemployment among the banana-plantation workers, because the export of bananas to the United Kingdom was stopped. Similarly, there is today much hardship among the sugar workers in Cuba because, as a form of retaliation against the Castro regime, the Kennedy administration has cancelled the Cuban import quota of sugar to the United States.


As the crises of Capitalism intensify, it is a sure thing that the West Indian workers will as in the past, be well in the vanguard for receiving any blows that are being handed out in the form of unemployment, reduced wages, and so on.


After so much pessimism it would be fitting, in these closing passages, to report that there was support for the world Socialist parties among West Indian workers. Unfortunately, such is not the case: most politically-minded workers support nationalist parties with programmes which even the Conservative Party of twenty years ago might consider rather reactionary.


We have tried to show how the rapacious growth of Capitalism in the West Indies has drawn Negro slaves from Africa, indentured labourers from India, Madeira, and England, free labourers from Europe, and has left them in an alien, uncertain land, without roots, without strong ties, and with no sense of ” belonging.”


Rebellion against European exploiters produced native leaders who eventually assumed political control, but, as with other “ex-colonial” territories, the workers remain a subject class, at the mercy of their employers and changes in the world’s markets’ demands for such commodities as sugar, and bananas, whether they live as citizens of a single island, citizens of a federation of British islands, or citizens of a Confederation of all the West Indian islands.


But Capitalism has forced into existence well-organised trade unions, it has made communication including air travel between the territories of the West Indies simple and reasonably cheap, and it has made West Indian workers think in terms of politics for their future. Therefore, although there is apparently little evidence. at present, of any growth of Socialist knowledge among West Indian workers, the ground into which Socialist ideas may be sown is being well prepared.


Michael La Touche