(West Indies and British Guiana)
(Reprinted by permission of the estate of C.L.R. James – copyright protected)
Part 2 (Conclusion)
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.”
It is not only the countries in Western Europe that are doing it. Mr Nehru is establishing a steel industry in India at tremendous cost. The Germans are building a steel mill for India. The Russians are building another. The English are building one and I think the Americans one.
Some people I Know with knowledge and experience of steel have challenged the value of this enormous expenditure and the general dislocation of the economy which it will cost. And India undoubtedly has been in great trouble with its foreign exchange over the steel mills and similar expenditures. I have no doubt that the economists and the engineers have calculated the costs and advantages, that is, as far as they are able. But today there are no purely economic questions.
Freedom from colonialism is not merely a legal independence, the right to run up a national flag and to compose and sing a national anthem.
It is necessary also to break down the economic colonial systems under which the colonial areas have been compelled to live for centuries as hinterlands, sources of raw material, back yards to the industries of the advanced countries. Independence is independence, but when you continue to live in territories which still bear the shape of the old colonial territories, it is extremely difficult to free yourself from the colonial mentality. And most of the best colonial statesmen are determined to put an end to that. Despite the fact that they cannot hope in a decade or two to reach anywhere near to the level of the advanced countries, they are taking the necessary steps which will enable not only foreigners but their own populations to see that they have laid the basis of a balanced economy, and of an economy which is not a hinterland, a mere periphery, to the great centres of civilisation. That is what the colonial areas are doing. That is what the West Indies will have to do.
And I suggest that it can be done only by federation, and it is certain that British Guiana will be able to gain very, very few inches indeed if it attempts to do it by itself.
It is not only Mr Nehru who is doing that. There is Colonel Nasser.
The whole Middle East situation has been turned upside-down because of Colonel Nasser’s determination to put a dam in Egypt and to lay some visible, obvious symbol of the modernisation of Egypt. These men have no illusions that they will modernise their country in one step. But they know they have to make some dramatic step in order for it to be understood that colonialism is left behind, not only in form, but in the economic and social conditions in which the people live.
The same motive animates Nkrumah who has stated that his greatest aim at the present time is to establish the Volta Dam. It is a huge project which will cause the transference of thousands of people, the destruction of ancient villages, the reorganisation of hundreds of square miles, in order to bring the modern world right into Ghana so that everyone will be able to see that the transition from colonialism, not only to freedom, but to modernisation has been made.
I say that this is the task, that is what federation means in the middle of the twentieth century, whatever it meant in 1912. That is why we believe that British Guiana should come in with the other islands for their own benefit and also for the benefit of British Guiana. I have heard a few arguments which seem to believe that there was an attempt to lure British Guiana into the Federation for some purposes unknown.
It is nothing of the kind. Now it is true that the West Indian Federation is not a very exciting federation, nor did it come into the world with vigorous screams as a healthy baby should. But nevertheless it has got one advantage. It is the only federation I know which has come into existence with the specific charge (at the head of all its tasks) to unify, diversify and develop the economy. That is what the Federation is for.
In that it bears the stamp of the age in which we live. I cannot conceive of these tasks which are being carried out in the other colonial territories, to whatever degree their economic resources allow, I cannot conceive of these tasks being carried out except by means of a federation. They will be difficult enough under any circumstances I want you to understand that this is not a question of an ideal. This is not a question of something we ought to have. It is not something which we can choose to have, or take up according to the way we feel at any particular moment. In my opinion (and in the opinion of others who think the same but do not speak openly about it as I do), these countries, unless the develop themselves along the lines that other new colonial countries are doing, are bound to experience tremendous difficulties, not only economic but social and political.
Democracy is not a tree that seems to thrive very easily in the tropical soils of Latin-America. When you look at Latin-America over the last 130 years of its freedom, the picture is one of almost continual political instability. When you look at the curve of the West Indian islands, the picture is not too different. Look at Cuba. Look at Haiti. Look at Santo Domingo. There you have one of the cruellest dictatorships in these parts. When I was a small boy in Trinidad and Castro and Gomez were fighting it out in Venezuela, it used to be said that this instability was due to the poverty of the people of Venezuela. Today, there is no longer poverty. Four hundred million dollars a year, I think, is the sum that Venezuela gets from oil royalties. The political disorders have increased in scope with the increase of wealth.
There are many reasons for this. One of them is the absence of a stable middle class which has got solid economic roots in the country, touching on the one hand the upper ranks of the working class and, on the other hand, the ruling classes. None of these countries have such a class and it makes democracy a problem.
It is a problem in these Latin-American countries as a whole and it is my opinion that it is doubly a problem in the British and French West Indies where the populations are in some respects the most peculiar in all the colonial territories. I do not know of any population that has the specific historical qualities of the populations of the British West Indies. In Indo-China, in India, in Ceylon, in Ghana, in Africa, the native populations have got a background and a basis of civilisation which are their own. They have a native language, they have a native religion, they have a native culture. These exist to a substantial degree and from this culture they make the transition or they are making the transition to the modern world. Anthropologists today are discovering more and more the values of these civilisations. They were ridiculed simply by the ignorance and arrogance of the imperialist powers. These people have got this basis and they move from this to something else. The populations in the British West Indies have no native civilisation at all…. These populations are essentially Westernised and they have been Westernised for centuries. The percentage of literacy is extremely high. In little islands like Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica and even in your own British Guiana, the population is so concentrated that with the development of motor transport, nobody is very far from the centre of things. There is an immense concentration of knowledge, learning and information. People live modern lives. They read modern cheap newspapers, they listen to the radio, they go to the movies. The modern world is pressing upon them from every side, giving rise to modern desires and aspirations. There is no national background to mitigate or even to influence the impact of these ideas upon the social personality of these islands. The result is that you have what I call a £500-a-year mentality among the masses of the West Indian countries. The difficulty is that the territories in which they live have a cash per capita income of only about £50 a year. The difference between the mentality, the desires, the needs, which are the result of the kind of life the people live, and the limited resources of the economy is a very serious one. It is not only an economic question. It is developing and in a few years can become the source of the gravest political disorders. It is no use blinding our eyes to that. At inaugural elebrations we make hopeful speeches and everybody applauds. We hope for the best. But when that is over you must look at things with a certain realism. When the British flag goes down and the national flag goes up and there will be no more cruisers and soldiers to come, and all authority depends upon what is native and rests upon the attitude of the people, then these islands are going to test for themselves how far it is possible for them to achieve the democracy which has evaded so many other territories in these parts.
Now I am not an economic commission and I don’t want to pretend for a second to tackle its problems. It is sufficient for me to emphasise that the organisers and the planners of the economy of the Federation must have a clear conception of what they are organising and planning, and why. They must know and the people must know and constantly bear in mind the world in which we live.
This evening, however, I wish to draw your attention to two points only in connection with economic reconstruction. The first is the matter of technical and scientific institutions. The second is the matter of technical personnel from Britain and other countries abroad. First, technical and scientific institutions. We have to get rid of the colonial mentality. Scientific discoveries and processes are making industry less and less tied to specific sources of raw material and climate. That tendency will doubtlessly increase. We have to develop our own institutions. To a limited degree, for we are not and for a long time will not be one of the industrially advanced areas of the world. But we have to develop our own institutions outside of the conception that we are merely West Indian. The Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture is in Trinidad. It is not a West Indian institution. It is an institution that serves the needs of people concerned with tropical agriculture the world over. I hope, I look forward to seeing the West Indian University in Jamaica become a centre not only of general studies but of specialised learning which will serve to advance and add to the accumulation of knowledge which is taking place all over the civilised world.
I believe that, to the extent of our limited resources, some of the institutions that we are planning and will plan must be conceived in terms of our playing a role in the general scientific advance of modern society and not be confined to the limited interests of a purely West Indian perspective. The West Indian people need to see such institutions. The people outside need to know that such institutions are being developed in the former colonial territories of the West Indies.
Can British Guiana do this by going it alone? It will be difficult enough under any circumstances. But it is not only an economic but a social and a political necessity.
The question of personnel from abroad to give us technical assistance is more immediate. We are sending our boys and girls away to learn and they are doing very well. But we must make up our minds to the fact that for a long time we shall need technical assistance from abroad in our efforts to modernise ourselves. We are breaking the old connections between us and the advanced countries. We have to finish away with the old type of colonial official and the old type of technical assistant who came here to rule and to command people whom he considered his inferiors. But if we are breaking the old connections we have to establish new ones. Today in England and in Europe there are many young men and women who have a very different attitude towards us than their parents had. Much of the arrogance and sense of superiority have been stripped away from them by the troubles and trials through which Europe has passed over the last years. Many of them have been through the war and have learnt to judge men as men.
Numbers of them have a sense of guilt and of shame now that the realities of imperialism and colonialism have been exposed. They are anxious to do what they can to help restore some historical balance in the accounts of imperialism and the colonial peoples. Finally, they want to do a good job. They want to be paid but they want to feel that their work is helping people who need it and that in any case it will not be destroyed by some atomic or hydrogen bomb. (With the advent of Sputnik, I don’t know that anywhere today is safe. But that is by the way.) I know many of these people. We are breaking the old connections, we have to establish new ones. These people come to work but they are looking at us. We have to show them that though limited in our material resources, we are in thought at any rate and in aspiration citizens of the modern world. Some of them I am sure will be ready to identify themselves with us completely. We should be on the lookout to welcome them. I have met one or two in Trinidad and in British Guiana since I have come here. They have ideas that are far more advanced than the ideas of many West Indians in high places who still suffer from the colonial mentality to an astonishing degree. Above all, let us not repel them by showing them when they come that we are governed by the same narrow nationalist and particularist conceptions which have caused so much mischief in Europe and elsewhere, and which some of them are running away from. We need all the help that we can get and help of this particular kind is precious and is far from being a purely economic question. This also is a social and political necessity. Industrial expansion is not merely a question of material forces but of human relations. There are other issues of infinitely greater scope, but this evening I confine myself to these two.
I want now to pass from economic relations to the political sphere.
I can assure you that I will not, in dealing with these, spend so long as I did on the economic question. Otherwise we shall not be able to get away from here at all. However, in regard to the political issues I have to come a little closer to home. I have to deal with Dr Jagan. Now I have to treat Dr Jagan’s views with a certain respect. First of all, he is the head of the majority party of this country.
It is very important at this time in particular that the authorities of the country based upon local elections should be treated with a certain respect. The old authority is going. The new authority is not yet firmly established. It is necessary as I say to treat its representatives always with respect. (If you do not like them, then remove them.) The second thing is that Dr Jagan is no petty racialist, not at all. I am unalterably opposed to the political philosophy which he accepts. I am unalterably opposed to its methods. I have told him so in person. And therefore there is no reason why I should not say so in public. He has not hidden his views, there is no reason for me to hide mine. But in regard to his aims for British Guiana, and for the West Indies as a whole, they are those of an enlightened modern person. He is not counting up how many Indians, and how many Africans and how many acres of land, and basing the future of British Guiana on that. Some of his supporters might be doing that, but his general view is not that at all. However there are one or two aspects of Dr Jagan’s attitude which demand serious examination.
The first of them is this question of the plebiscite. Now I read a day or two ago in the accounts of the debate in the Legislature (you will help me, Mr Chairman, if I am wrong) that Mr Stephen Campbell said he had been here sixty years, he said he was against self-government and he said that if there was a plebiscite, he was sure that the majority of the people in British Guiana would vote against it. Now that would be an excellent type of plebiscite. He begins by saying, “I am against and I ask you to vote and show that you are against too.” Maybe he is totally wrong but that is not what is at issue here. I am thinking of a certain type of political activity, the method of the plebiscite or referendum.
Now if Dr Jagan says that there must be a plebiscite to decide Federation here, all I have to say is this: Trinidad didn’t need a plebiscite, Barbados didn’t need one, Jamaica didn’t need one, none of the other islands needed one. Yet Dr Jagan says that for certain special internal reasons British Guiana needs one. That is a matter for Messrs Carter and Burnham and the others to discuss. Mr Burnham says it is a lot of nonsense, but I cannot say that. If I did I would be told: you are a stranger, you do not know the country, and I am not going to put myself in any position where that attack can be made against me. But there is one thing which I know of all plebiscites in whatever country they are. And that is this: the political leader must say precisely where he stands and ask the people to decide on clear political positions. A plebiscite must not say: “On this issue I have no opinion exactly. I don’t know whether it is good or bad and therefore we must have a plebiscite and I leave you to decide.” That would be absolutely intolerable and a complete abdication of the responsibilities of political leadership in a critical situation. That I hope is clear. I do not know how Dr Jagan is going to develop his ideas on the plebiscite. I want to insist that you haven’t to know British Guiana to know what is a proper plebiscite and what is a plebiscite that is most improper. I want to add this: the question of the plebiscite or the question of Federation is not an abstract question or a political question which can be left hanging in the air too long. Racial rivalry is involved. To what extent I ao not know, and I have given reasons for not coming to extreme conclusions about it. But it undoubtedly exists. It also exists in Trinidad. The only way to meet such a difficulty is to present arguments and distinctive political positions so that the rivalry, the emotionalism, are met with reason and ideas. You counter one thing with the other and you place reasonable clear-cut decisions before the people to decide. But if you do not do that, if you say that on this issue the people must decide, then what you are doing is to give the racial rivalries free play. And then they can run to extremes which they could not possibly have run to if they had been met in the first place by the proper political actions of responsible political parties and leading individuals. The question of a plebiscite is not a theoretical question. It is not a question of “letting the people decide”. In the last analysis, the people have to decide everything in a democracy. But no one ever holds an election in which everybody walks around and tells the people: “Well, choose some people.” No, people come forward in political parties and they say, “This is our programme, this is what we wish to do and I am the person to be chosen. I and my colleagues are able to carry out this policy.” They offer the people definite choices. But what is now taking place is that Dr Jagan and his political associates say in effect, “We came forward to you to ask you to elect us to the leadership of the country.
We are ready to tell you how to fight the British government on the question of the Constitution. We are able to tell you how much money is needed to develop the country and how much we should borrow in order to develop an economic plan. We are able to tell you how much should go for education and what should be the type of education. We not only know these things, but we are able to denounce and expose in argument those who dare to oppose us. We are able to undertake the government of the country on a national and international scale.
We are ready to become independent and have Dominion Status. But on the all-important question of Federation, here we confess we have no definite opinion. We leave it to you to decide.” No, it wouldn’t do. Plebiscite or no plebiscite is an internal affair.
But the kind of plebiscite is a strictly political matter on which anybody can take a position without having put a foot in British Guiana. I have given you my view and I hope you bear it in mind to deal with persons who hide behind the idea of a plebiscite to avoid taking a definite decision. You know, it is a very hard thing for an honest, intelligent man at this stage to say, “I am against federation.” And that’s why they say, “James has no right to come here as a stranger to talk about federation.” What he’s saying is that he is against but he doesn’t want to say it so openly. That’s why he says, “It is necessary to have a plebiscite for the people to decide.” What he is really saying is: “I am against, but I haven’t the nerve to say so.” I am not saying Dr Jagan is that way at all. I’m speaking of the ideas that he puts forward. His ideas have to be examined. A leader is responsible not only for what he says but for what interpretation his followers give to what he says.
All sorts of reasons are given by people who, in face of the massive arguments that have existed over so many years and which have been so intensified in recent years, have not got the nerve and the courage to come forward and say plainly, “We are against.” They seek all sorts of ways and means by which they give the impression without committing themselves. Don’t let them get away with that.
The second political question is one on which Dr Jagan undoubtedly has a certain amount of right on his side. He says that the West Indian leaders have not supported British Guiana in its struggles with the British government over the Constitution. So far he is absolutely correct. If West Indian political leaders claim that British Guiana is a part of the Federation and all that is needed is the legal step, if they feel as they undoubtedly feel that we are all one people, then any attack upon the liberties of the people of British Guiana, the taking away of the Constitution, should have been met by the united forces of the West Indian people. The Federation should have begun there and then. They have not done it. They have got themselves entangled in and confused by Dr Jagan’s political beliefs. I believe that Dr Jagan has a serious responsibility to express and clarify his political ideas to the people of the West Indies. When he says he is not going to make any confessions to the Colonial Office, in my opinion he is absolutely right. I don’t see why he should make any explanations to them. I certainly wouldn’t and I wouldn’t ask anybody to do anything which I wouldn’t do. But he owes it to the West Indian people to make all his political ideas clear.
Not to do that is to make a mockery of democracy.
The West Indian leaders have kept away. They have left British Guiana more or less to itself. Dr Jagan says that is what they have done.
He has a sense of grievance which is justified. I have told the West Indian leaders my opinion on this matter. I have repeated it to them in private. I shall continue to repeat it in public. But you can’t continue to do only that. It is necessary to take some steps forward. I believe that if Dr lagan were to declare (and his declaration would just clinch it) that he is ready to enter the Federation, the attitude of the West Indian leaders, whatever reasons they may have had for it in the past, will have to undergo a change. Dr Jagan will come with outstretched hands.
“Well, here I am, boys, I have joined you, I am one of you now. We are all one except on the matter of the Constitution. All of you have internal self-government. Here I am. Are you willing to join with me in order to request internal self-government for British Guiana?” I believe his position would be unassailable, and whatever weakness and feebleness there was, the West Indian leadership would have to begin the struggle for a West Indian attitude to the problem of British Guiana there and then. But if on the other hand he says, “No Federation without Dominion Status,” Federation then becomes something which you are bargaining about. “To get Dominion Status we are prepared to give you Federation.” Those may not be the ideas that Dr Jagan has. But a political leader is not only responsible for what he says, but for the interpretations which intelligent people can read into his words.
And “No Federation without Dominion Status” places federation in a light which I think is harmful to the very idea of federation.
The final point in regard to the political ideas is this. Dr lagan in my opinion has the opportunity not only of assisting the people of British Guiana but of assisting the whole of the West Indies by going into the Federation and demanding, not in two years or one year, but immediately, on behalf of the people of the West Indies, a Constituent Assembly, by which the Dominion Status will be made concrete. The best way is by means of a Constituent Assembly. This is the only proposal I have made in West Indian politics. It is the only one I intend to make and I am ready to give all the services I am able to give in order to get this idea accepted from end to end of the West Indies and British Guiana. A Constituent Assembly means (allow me to go into it in some detail) an election, most probably according to proportional representation. That is to say, no party is going to be allowed to win all five seats in Georgetown. You elect on all national scale. All the votes are going to be added up nationally and the seats are going to be divided according to the number of votes each party has. In this way you are certain to have representation of every type of political thought in the country because that is needed when a constitution is being discussed.
The Constituent Assembly then discusses various constitutions. After two or three months it comes to some conclusions and then the constitution which gains the majority of votes is taken back to the people for ratification. They say whether they approve of it or not, not voting by parties but by each individual giving his opinion. It is possible that they may reject it and say to the Constituent Assembly: “You go and make another one.” That is their right because this is something in which the whole nation has to express itself. It is the beginning of its national existence. After the constitution has been decided upon, then an election takes place in the ordinary way according to parties, the legislative chamber is constituted and politics continues under the new conditions.
I state that a Constituent Assembly is the only possible means now by which the masses of the people in the West Indies may be brought to participate and take their role in the establishment of a federal constitution not only for a federation but for an independent West Indies. The last Constitution came like a thief in the night. Some people went abroad and some experts wrote and then suddenly the people were told. “This is the Federal Constitution.” It is no wonder that they were not particularly interested and have not been enthusiastic to this day although they are generally in favour of the Federation.
I propose a Constituent Assembly as a means whereby all parties in the West Indies, including British Guiana, will be able to take part in the formation of the Constitution and the establishment of die new state. I take the liberty of saying to Dr Jagan and to his supporters: does this not meet both the demand for Federation and for Dominion Status at the same time? I put the idea forward. It has met with some approval in various places.
I know there are politicians in the West Indies who are very sympathetic to it. I hope that you will discuss it among yourselves and perhaps a movement in favour of it will start among you. That, however, is for you and your political leaders.
There are only two points remaining and I will be brief on each of them. There is the question of the foreign relations of the state. You know, I have a sympathy for those people who think of British Guiana as having a continental destiny. I have a sympathy for them. But I believe they are lacking in political sense. At any rate they do not commit the abysmal folly of thinking in terms of British Guiana going it alone. There is no reason why British Guiana, placed as it is on the South American continent, should not be able to form associations of one kind or another with the other two Guianas. I understand some people there already have made overtures.
There is absolutely no reason why something of that kind should not take place. No question of loyalty to any metropolitan country is involved. Today Great Britain is a member of the Commonwealth. It is also a prominent leader in the Sterling area. Canada, which is a member of the Commonwealth, is not a member of the Sterling area. It is a member of the Dollar area.
Holland, which is not a member of the Commonwealth, is I believe a member of the Sterling area. Great Britain, which is a member of the Commonwealth, and a member of the Sterling area, is now seeking to join the European Common Market. All these permutations and combinations are perfectly feasible in the modern world. There is absolutely no reason at all why British Guiana should not be able to form some sort of association with the other two Guianas and go even further. Methods of communication are developing so rapidly that Brazil and Venezuela, moving in one direction, British Guiana, moving in another, in a few years might even be able to form associations which at the present time are not within the compass of our ideas. There is no reason why British Guiana should not take advantage of its situation to be able in time to pioneer in these directions. There is every reason why it should. There is only one thing to be noted. If it attempts to do this by itself, it is going like a babe in the woods and the Latin American woods are very big and very dark. It can attempt these connections only if it is firmly associated with the West Indian islands, with people who speak the same language, who have more or less the same type of historical experience, who have had the same European association. That is the natural unity. Upon that basis, while on the one hand Jamaica and these others can make their experiments for association with Cuba and Haiti, at that end of the curve, British Guiana can pioneer into these areas at this end. But always upon the basis at both ends of a solid unity which is the result of a natural historical evolution. That is what I think the foreign relations of a country like British Guiana should be.
My last word is in regard to social thought which as I have said includes artistic as well as political ideas. I have said economic conditions, political conditions, foreign relations and social thought. In reality they are one.
They are not to be separated. But you cannot speak about everything at the same time, so for the sake of convenience I divided them. In regard to this I want as a final word to draw one or two things to your attention, one or two points relating to literature in the West Indies. I shall take two writers now before the public in the West Indies and in England. One is [Samuel] Selvon. The other is V.S.
Naipaul. They are Indians and that is why I choose them. Selvon first.
I was lunching in London a year ago with Dr Williams and Mr John Lehmann, the editor of the London Magazine. Dr Williams was discussing with Mr Lehmann ways and means of developing