On Federation (West Indies and British Guiana)

(Reprinted by permission of the estate of C.L.R. James – copyright protected)

Part 1

This lecture was delivered in June 1958 at Queen’s College, Demerara, in then British Guiana. It was issued as a pamphlet the following year with a foreword by L.F.S. Burnham, leader of the People’s National Congress, who said of James: “A special invitee to the opening of the first Federal Parliament in Trinidad last April, he took the opportunity of visiting British Guiana, and his public lectures on ‘Federation’, ‘Literature and the Common Man’, ‘Political Institutions in the advanced and underdeveloped countries and the relations between them’ were a source of controversy and education for many Guianese. Many of the latter for the first time recognised the possibilities and scope of our national movement and its intimate relation to that in the Caribbean in particular and the colonial world in general.”

Mr Chairman and friends
I must begin by noting one or two criticisms that have been made not only about Federation but about my presence in British Guiana. It has been said that I, a stranger, have no right to come here to discuss with the people of British Guiana the question of Federation. I am not in the least offended by the remark. My welcome in many quarters has been very warm, even enthusiastic, and I think I detect in the critic’s remarks not so much an objection to my presence here, as a means of indicating in a disguised manner his opposition to federation.

It shows the strength of the case for federation that those who are opposed to it distract themselves to find ways and means by which they can indicate their opposition without coming out openly and saying so. After all, federation proposed unity, a unity between the British West Indies, which have federated themselves, and British Guiana. What conception does anyone have of federation or of discussions about federation when he objects to one member of the proposed unity discussing with other members? Where does he expect us to meet? On neutral ground? In the sea midway between British Guiana and Trinidad? Such criticism is absurd. I have noticed that Mr Gajraj, who acted as observer for British Guiana on some of the discussions which took place between representatives of the various islands, has stated in the Legislative Council that although he was only an observer at these discussions he was given every opportunity to express his views and to register his opinions. I believe that is the only way in which the matter can be safely settled. I believe that Messrs Burnham and Carter in inviting me here, and Mr Gajraj in taking the chair at the last meeting, acted in the true spirit of federation itself, no matter what may be the legislative position at the present time. I do not think we should worry very much about that kind of criticism. That sort of attitude has never been present where I have lived in recent years, in London.

As you know I was invited to attend the celebrations surrounding the inauguration of the Federal Parliament in Trinidad. This invitation came from the Governor-General of the West Indies. I cannot consider that the invitation was due to any personal merit of my own. I think it rather due to the fact that the Federal government and the Governor General recognised the pioneer work that has been done by West Indians in London at a time when to advocate self-government was almost equivalent to treason. But what is treason in one period is often respectable twenty years afterwards. I want here to associate with that work the name of an illustrious West Indian, George Padmore. I refer to this among other reasons because it has a bearing on what I have to say this evening. At that time most of us West Indians lived in London, which was for long one of the great centres of imperialism.

But being one of the great centres of imperialism, it follows that now it is one of the great centres of the passing of colonialism. To London came and have come through the years a steady stream of colonials, newly emancipated, half-emancipated, demanding emancipation, about to be emancipated, all types. We the West Indians in London meet them, discuss with them, take part in their political meetings and demonstrations. They take part in ours. We thus get a total view of the whole movement which it is difficult to get elsewhere. We are also in the political centre of Britain. We are able to follow closely the actions (and reaction) of imperialism in its parliament and other state institutions, in its political parties, in its great organs of the Press and other means of communication. After a time we begin to understand better the attitudes of the British people themselves to imperialism and colonialism.

We are not very far from Paris, another great centre of imperialism.

We have more or less constant communication with colonials of the French empire.

Thus we are in a position to see the general trends of development, to mark the stages, to see each problem as part of a whole. This is the point of view that I shall be placing before you this evening. Doubtless you on the spot experience and see much that escapes us who live abroad. There will be a time for questions, when you will be able to raise some of these points and I shall deal with them to the extent that I am able. But I believe that what I shall have to say is for the reasons that I have given, valid and valuable.

Now in Europe and the United States we discussed federation for years before World War II and I cannot remember a single occasion in which it ever crossed our minds or the issue was raised that British Guiana would not join the Federation. We always took that for granted. The Trade Commission in London includes British Guiana and British Honduras. The West Indian Students’ Union includes British Guiana and British Honduras. The West Indies cricket teams always include British Guiana. You were always one of us. But after the war, and especially during recent years, there began to be sounded a note which has grown in intensity. We heard that the East Indians in British Guiana were opposed to federation and these were the reasons given. They had a numerical majority over the other races, they hoped to establish an Indian domination of the colony; federation would bring thousands of Africans (or people of African descent) from the smaller islands to British Guiana. These knew how to work land and how to build up from small beginnings. They would place the Indians in British Guiana in an inferior position. Therefore the Indians were against federation.

We heard also that the African population of British Guiana was now eager for federation particularly for the reason that it would bring this reinforcement from the smaller islands, once more establish African numerical superiority, and so check the East Indians. Since I have come to the West Indies, and particularly since I have come to British Guiana, I have heard these arguments constantly repeated. That is to reduce the great issue of federation to a very low level.

Worse still, in British Guiana racial rivalry and even racial tension have thrust themselves into the federation discussion. There is undoubtedly racial tension, racial rivalry in British Guiana (also in Trinidad). To what degree it has reached, what are the likely consequences, whether it will increase and go to extremes of one kind or another, that I do not know. I do not know British Guiana sufficiently to express an opinion which would be of value or carry any weight. But I believe I have something to say which would assist all parties to view the situation in a balanced perspective.

It has been observed that when a colonial country is approaching national independence, there are two distinct phases. First, all the progressive elements in the country begin by supporting the national independence movement. Then, when this is well under way, you have the second stage. Each section of the nationalist movement begins to interpret the coming freedom in terms of its own interests, its own perspectives, its own desires. Thus the accentuation of racial rivalry at this time is not peculiar to British Guiana or to Trinidad. It takes place everywhere during the period of intense political excitement due to the national awakening. This political excitement, however, carries with it certain dangers. It is those I wish to warn you against, and we have an example, of world-wide historical significance, in what has happened to the former British colony of India.

It is an established fact that before Indian independence in 1947, tens of millions of Hindu and Moslem workers and peasants lived side by side in peace without conflict. It is an equally established fact that since the independence great numbers of these continue to do so. Yet in the days before World War II there sprang up the movement for a Moslem state which finally succeeded and resulted in the formation of Pakistan.
I do not wish to say that there were not honest and sincere elements in the movement. But in it there were three types against whom I want to warn you here in British Guiana – fanatical racialists, scheming and ambitious politicians, and businessmen anxious to corner for themselves a section of industrial and commercial possibilities. The movement succeeded. Pakistan was formed.

What is the result today after less than twelve years? The party which led the struggle for the national independence has never been able to get more than a few seats in the legislative assemblies. The people have no use for it. More important. In East Bengal, Hindus and Moslems have decided that they do not any longer want communal elections, that is to say separate Hindu lists and Moslem lists. They now vote as one people. Finally, I am reliably informed that there are now elements in East Bengal who want to form a third state, East Bengal to join with West Bengal to form a Bengal state. But West Bengal is a part of India.
In other words they are ready to throw aside the Hindu-Moslem differences which in a moment of exceptional political excitement prompted them to support the formation of a Moslem state. Many, however, believe that this talk of a third state is only a shamefaced way of admitting that they wish once more to be part of India and regret that they allowed themselves to be rushed into the formation of a new state. And this before twelve years have passed.

We have seen a similar move in Ghana by the Ashantis.

Prime Minister Nkrumah was able to keep it in check. I suggest then that you see the undoubted racial tension in British Guiana as a part of the inevitable political upheavals always associated with a national struggle. It has to be watched, it may run to extremes, but all should be on guard against that trio I mentioned earlier: fanatical racialists, scheming and ambitious politicians and greedy businessmen. They can help to lead the people into courses which, a few years later, when the excitement has died down, the people can bitterly regret.

Under this pressure, many pro-federationists have been driven into a defensive position. They feel, for example, compelled to advocate federation on the ground that it will provide a market for the surplus rice of British Guiana. Now this question of the sale of rice, and the price that the West Indies will pay for British Guiana rice, is undoubtedly a very important one and may indeed play a great role between British Guiana and the Federation. But in my view it is wrong and very misleading to base the whole great issue of federation on a market for rice. British Guiana has been selling rice to the West Indies for years without being federated. Again under pressure from the antifederationists, some federationists proceed to argue that if the British Guiana plan of economic development is to succeed it will need a market larger than the half-million local population. Federation offers a way out. They tie themselves into knots over freedom of movement of people from island to island. And finally, the greatest obstacle of all, the Great Barrier Reef – the fact that British Guiana had been offered only six seats in the Federal Parliament.

Now we absolutely have to get these problems in their proper perspective. All of them are matters of bargaining and negotiation. It is so in the West Indies and it is so in every country including the most advanced countries in the world today. Do not pay too much attention to the speeches of politicians before a conference or to their speeches when the conference is over. They utter beautiful sentiments (often with an eye to what the Opposition at home will say) and as soon as that is over and the doors are closed, they take off their jackets, roll up their sleeves and get down to business.

Take Customs Union. One politician representing Jamaica (let us say) will declare that Jamaica is for complete Customs Union but owing to special circumstances Jamaica must exclude 35 per cent of its production from such a union. Another politician (say from Barbados) will say that this is absolutely impermissible, but he is ready to allow Jamaica 25 per cent. They argue for days. Then I can imagine Sir Grantley Adams in the chair (having kept quiet most of the time) proposing a compromise: “You say 35 per cent; you say 25 per cent; I propose 30 per cent.” The Jamaica representative says, “No, 32 per cent.” Finally, they agree on 31 per cent for five years only – after that they will see.

That is the way it goes. Always. I want to emphasise that, because otherwise these problems are elevated into insuperable obstacles. In Europe they have been working for years on creating a common market (I shall refer to this later). The other day I was much amused to read that the agreements were in danger, over the question of what? The nature of ham. Some claimed that ham was dairy produce, others claimed that it was manufactured goods – ham was something you had to make. Obviously, if ham was dairy produce, it came under one set of customs duties, taxes, etc.; if ham, on the other hand, was classified as manufactured goods it would come under another set of customs dues, etc. They argued, they quarrelled, they threatened, but they came to an agreement in the end.

It is the same among us. Take the question of freedom of movement of populations. To listen to some of the anti-federationists you would believe that half the people of the West Indies are sitting by the seashore with their bags packed, just waiting for the news that British Guiana has joined the Federation, to descend on it like a swarm of locusts. It is not so. (Some people in Trinidad have the same fears.) It is not so, it cannot be so. What has actually happened is this. Two years ago, representatives of the islands met to discuss this very question of freedom of movement between the islands. Trinidad allowed entry to some fifty types of persons who had formerly been excluded. But the important decision was that for five years each territory could make its own laws as to how many it would admit and under what conditions.

After the five years were up, each territory would still have the right to make its own laws about admission of immigrants, only now these laws would have to be ratified by the Federal Parliament. That is the way all these problems can and will be settled.

No such problem can be a serious obstacle to federation. The idea that all the islands would gang up together to force unreasonable and oppressive conditions on British Guiana is out of the question – for one thing it would be political stupidity.

I have dealt with these problems in order that they should be kept in perspective and not allowed to obscure the fundamental issues.

What are these fundamental issues? Every generation has its own ideas of federation, usually an idea that is related to the particular ideas of that particular day.

I was reading recently in a lecture on federation by Dr Eric Williams that in 1876 a colonial official advocated federation, among other grounds, because it would facilitate freedom of movement for lunatics, for lepers, for criminals and for policemen. What particular ideas of the day this particular kind of federation was related to I do not know. It is interesting but not important.

Then there was Dr Meikle. When I was a small boy living in Arima in Trinidad, before World War I, I knew Dr Meikle, a tall, quiet man.

He had very advanced ideas for his time, his book on Federation is a good book and holds a place in our history. But his conception of federation cannot be ours.

My own conception of federation before World War II is not the same that I have today. Today, 1958, in the second half of the twentieth century, this is how I see federation. Federation is the means and the only means whereby the West Indies and British Guiana can accomplish the transition from colonialism to national independence, can create the basis of a new nation; and by reorganising the economic system and the national life give us our place in the modern community of nations.

The only conception of federation which I think worthy of consideration, the only conception which I believe can make federation a success in the age in which we live, is the conception that sees federation as the West Indian method of taking part in that general reorganisation of industrial production, commercial relations and political systems which is the outstanding feature of our world.

Federation for the West Indies is the means by which it will claim independence, modernise itself and, although small in numbers, be able to take its place as one of the modern communities living a modern civilised existence. Without federation, I do not think this can be done.

It has to be done or the consequences for these islands would be dreadful. I see federation therefore (and I am not alone) as the process by which the West Indies, in common with the rest of the world, seeks to leave one stage of its existence which has lasted for some 300 years, and move into a new sphere, with all the privileges, the responsibilities, the difficulties and the opportunities which the transitional stage of existence offers to all who are able to take part in it.

That is what federation means and it will mean that or it will mean nothing. This is my conception of West Indian Federation at this stage of history, and everything that I say will revolve around this. The times we live in are a time of transition, the world we live in, the world in which we have lived for three centuries as colonial possessions of imperialist powers, is falling apart. The chief imperialist powers, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Holland and Belgium, are all states of Western Europe. The important thing, the thing that is new about them, the thing that concerns us is that they are no longer world powers. The world in which they ruled and shaped our destinies according to their will, imposed upon us their ideas of the economics and the politics that they thought suitable for us, that world is gone.

We shall enter as a free people into a world that we never knew and which our masters never knew until recently. If they were merely losing their colonies and continuing as before that would be one thing not only for them but for us. What is happening is something entirely different, and, as I believe that most of the shortcomings in our thinking of our future spring from an inadequate grasp of this central fact, I shall spend some time on it.

The period in which our masters ruled as imperialist states has a definite beginning and, historically speaking, is not very long. It is only 300 years. It begins at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries. It began to come to an end with World War I. I shall deal briefly with four aspects – their economic foundations, their political institutions, their foreign relations and their social thought.

These more or less constitute the whole and I shall use that classification again when we come to the West Indies Federation.

The beginning of their history as imperialist states is marked by a new economic system – the system of wage-labour. Before that time workers were attached to the land or worked as artisans in the guilds.
Wage-labour, workers divorced from the means of production and working only for wages, marked the beginning of an economic development such as the world had never seen before. This was capitalism. It nourished and was nourished by imperialism. What is the situation today?

The wage-labourers of the imperialist powers have organised themselves into massive trade unions, Labour Parties, Communist Parties. They have declared openly that they intend to transform the capitalist economy into a socialist economy. One result you can see in England. The Labour Party nationalises the steel industry. The Tory Party denationalises the steel industry. The Labour Party declares that when it comes into power it will renationalise the steel industry. That is not any form of economy – it is chaos. Today the economies of these imperialist powers are not classic wage-labour; they are not socialism. They are bastard systems, neither one thing nor the other, in continuous crisis and disorder, not knowing which way they are going. The economic power which sustained the imperialist domination is gone.

Politically it is the same. These powers came into existence and were able to thrive on imperialist exploitation because they established the national, independent state. Previously they were ruled by royal families, dynasties with real power, who were tied up with one another in marriages, alliances, petty wars, etc. The famous Hundred Years War between England and France was little more than a series of raids by the British across the Channel seeking loot. For long periods the Pope exercised not only religious but political domination over large areas of Europe. The national state put an end to that. Whoever might rule, the state was now independent, devoted exclusively to the national interest, independent of all other states.

Today that independence is gone. China and India which, fifteen years ago, were a semi-colonial and a colonial state, today have more independence than Britain, France or any other of the imperialist states of Western Europe. You remember no doubt the brutality with which the Moscow regime under Mr Khrushchev crushed the uprising of the Hungarian workers in the Hungarian Revolution. But we should remember too that at about much the same time Sir Anthony Eden and the French Prime Minister thought that they could indulge in some old fashioned imperialism by staging a raid on Egypt. This did not suit the foreign policy of the United States. President Eisenhower told them to get out and to get out at once. And they got out fast enough. The European imperialist states, which formerly conducted their own affairs and the affairs of their vast empires, today as far as foreign policy is concerned, are not more than satellites of the United States.

Closely connected with the independence of the state is the question of foreign relations. Some of your students will have read, and may still be reading in your history books, all sorts of fanciful reasons as to why this or that European war was fought. In nearly every case the reasons given are a lot of nonsense. I think it safe to say that ever since the religious wars of the middle of the seventeenth century, nearly every
great war between the European powers has been fought over the colonial question. Either they were fighting to get colonial territory, or to prevent a rival getting colonial territory, or they were seeking to occupy strategic positions on the road to colonial territories. This is their history right up to the war of 1914, covering some 250 years.

Their armies, their navies, their strategic conceptions, even their conceptions of themselves, were governed and shaped by these necessities of empire. Today that is finished. The only war, the only serious war that we face is the war for world domination, not for colonial territory; and the powers of Western Europe are pawns of the United States in its conflict with Russia for world domination. These two are going to fight for domination of all the land, and all the seas, and of the air above, and now for outer space. They are trying to reach the moon and if they do get there they will fight as bitterly over moon domination as they are fighting over world domination. We can do very little about that. But wars for colonial territories are finished, and with that is finished the particular relation that existed between imperialist powers and colonies on a world scale.

And that I may say is the reason why the colonial countries (ourselves included) are gaining our freedom with such comparative ease. If these powers had the economic basis, the political independence and the world-wide domination which they exercised for so many centuries, you can be sure that they would not have tolerated these demands for independence and the attitude of the colonial peoples today.

There is another reason for the decline and decay of these powers of imperialist powers. The national unity is broken and they no longer have confidence in themselves. There are many millions of people in these European states who are hostile to imperialism and wish nothing better than to be rid of the burdens and the strains of colonialism. And finally social thought. In the days of their power these European states undoubtedly laid the basis for and helped to develop democratic political institutions. By the end of the nineteenth century, democracy was at least an ideal, and on a world scale nations were judged by the extent to which they had achieved it or were in process of doing so. Not only in social thought but in art, literature and other important phases of civilisation, the imperialist powers undoubtedly made some splendid achievements. But all that today is gone. Over the last forty years we have seen the rise of a new system, the system of totalitarianism. Today almost a billion people are living under this new system. It is the sworn enemy of democracy. It has its adherents in the very heart of the democratic regime itself, as in France where there are 140 Communist Deputies in the French Parliament. For some time it seemed as if the Russian system did offer a way out of the present world crisis.

But over the last years there has been evidence that Russia is as much a prey to economic disorder, rebellion among its subjects and permanent political crisis as is the Western world. So that democracy is not only challenged, but is challenged by a new system which more and more shows that it too offers no way out.

The result is a complete moral and political crisis in the imperialist powers. There is no perspective by which the individual can orient himself either to the state or to other individuals.

That is the condition of the imperialist powers today. The connection between them and their former colonies is being broken. But the connection is not one between states which have their former power and colonies which are newly independent. No. We are becoming free in a world of chaos and disorder. That imposes enormous difficulties upon us, and in order to understand ourselves and our relations with what are still the advanced countries of Western Europe, we have to get the new relation clear and bear it constantly in mind.

The first point is that these powers recognise what has happened to them. They know that they are in a different world. We too must recognise that we are in a new world. And the first thing that we must do is to see the method by which they are attempting to meet the challenge of the changed conditions. I can sum up their method in one word – Federation.

First, there was Benelux. This was the recognition by Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg that, small countries as they were, it was necessary for them to unite in order to meet the changed conditions.

Benelux is the name given to their organisation for customs union and special arrangements in regard to market, movement of populations, etc. Secondly, there is the arrangement among the iron and steel producers of Western Europe to unify their production on a continental scale. These iron and steel producers of Europe have fought each other bitterly for centuries. They are divided by all sorts of national prejudices and national peculiarities of production. But they have systematically struggled for unity until they have arrived at some common ground. What is the word for that? The only word is Federation. Still more important. The European countries as a whole have worked for years and now have established the basis of a European Common Market. They hope that it will be complete in twelve years. By that time they hope that production and distribution will be as free among the countries of Europe as it is among the different states of the United States of America. What is the only word for this?


I have been asked by certain anti-federationists: if those people can unite economically without actually federating, why can’t British Guiana do the same with the West Indies? The answer will give them more than they bargained for. It is this: those countries cannot federate because of language differences, methods of production, of social organisation, and of government which have separated them from each other for centuries, including many bitter wars. It is a tragedy for them that their past history and their social and political organisations prevent them from uniting in a more complete federation. Substantial numbers of them bitterly regret that these barriers exist. It is to our advantage, it is our good fortune that we have no such difficulties.

There are many people in Europe who profoundly wish that it was as easy for Western Europe to federate as for example it is for the West Indies to federate with British Guiana.

The changed conditions of the modern world have produced the most fantastic idea of a federation that I have ever read or heard of anywhere. France has as you know many millions of colonial subjects in Africa. These people, like the rest of the colonial world, have already reached the stage where they are no longer prepared to accept colonial status. Yet some of them are not anxious to break what they consider the valuable connection with metropolitan France. France, on the other hand, has been thrown out of Indo-China, has been thrown out of Tunis, has been thrown out of Morocco, and will most certainly be thrown out of Algeria. Without African colonies, France faces the prospect of being an insignificant territory on the coast of Europe. Yet it is clear that freedom for the African colonies cannot be long delayed.

Out of this situation has arisen the proposal for a Franco-African Confederation in which Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Senegal, all the French African colonies will participate in a federation with France on the basis of complete equality. Now African civilisation, despite the fact that it has been so brutally maltreated by imperialism, still preserves great virtues of its own. But nevertheless the African civilisation is profoundly different from the highly sophisticated civilisation of metropolitan France. Yet the fact remains that there is this movement on each side to attempt to work out what would undoubtedly be the strangest federation that history has ever known.

The second method they are using is a desperate attempt to reorganise their economies. These formerly proud and powerful states are now continuously dependent upon all sorts of aid, economic, financial, military, from the United States. We want aid, yes. But without the United States they would have collapsed long ago. And also they seek to reconstruct the economy. Take Great Britain. The British realised that they were falling behind, had fallen behind. They therefore took a jump ahead. They saw atomic energy as the key to the industrial future, and they planned and have succeeded in being foremost in the use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.

I want to make one thing clear. European Common Market, Franco African Federation, use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes as the salvation of the British economy, these conceptions ana plans are challenged. I do not want to go into that at all except to say that those who challenge them do not challenge the principles of federation and reorganisation of the economy: they say that these imperialist states cannot carry them out successfully. To discuss that would take us too far. It is enough that the principles themselves are challenged by nobody, are agreed upon by everybody. Does anybody seriously propose that British Guiana can reorganise its economy on its own, by going it alone? Isn’t it a commonplace that loans, plans and technical assistance are far easier to get and far easier to handle by larger, integrated territories than by small isolated ones? Who denies it?

Nobody. To do so would make him a laughing stock. It is expansion and development that raise the level and perspective of the whole society, not counting how many Africans and how many Indians. That way, all will be struggling at the same low level in a world that at every step would be leaving us further and further behind.


About these comments

The comments section is intended to provide a forum for reasoned and reasonable debate on the newspaper's content and is an extension of the newspaper and what it has become well known for over its history: accuracy, balance and fairness. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments which contain attacks on other users, slander, coarse language and profanity, and gratuitous and incendiary references to race and ethnicity.

Get the day's headlines from SN in your inbox every morning:

Most Read This Week

  1. Passenger dies aboard CAL flight en route to New York

  2. Guyanese woman killed after car hit by NY drunk driving cop

  3. Guyanese remitting $$ from US may have to help pay for Trump wall

  4. Former AG Nandlall arrested over law reports

  5. Essequibo mother of five charged with trying to kill husband

  6. Pastor sentenced to 18 years for rape of six-year-old

  7. Two years jail for Ed Ahmad

  8. No reason for apology to judge, AG tells president

  9. Witness tells cops he was offered money to corroborate alleged assassination plot

Recommended For You