The New World – Crucible of Ideas towards Independence

It was almost a natural progression that a group of young intellectuals – students and lecturers – at the then University College of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica would interrogate the present and future of the West Indies.

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There are key moments in a society when intellectual and artistic creativity occur concurrently with the economic, social and political ferment of that period. The invention of the steelpan came at the time when Trinidad was emerging from the anti-colonial general strike and revolt of 1937. In the period just before 1937 there was a flourishing of literary activity with The Beacon Group which included CLR James, Alfred Mendes, Ralph DeBoissiere and Albert Gomes; and just after 1937 there was the emergence of literary and debating groups while our rich heritage in dance (Beryl McBurnie) and music (Edric Connor) came to the fore.

The mass movement of the 30’s and 40’s also generated visionary ideas for the transformation of West Indian societies. These ideas – the agenda for decolonization – were articulated by the region’s labour leaders at the several Conferences of Labour Leaders (British Guiana 1926; Dominica 1932). The most comprehensive agenda was set out in the Resolutions of the November 1938 meeting of the British Guiana and West Indian Labour Congress held in Trinidad[i].

As Arthur Lewis observed at the time – “It is mainly on the development of this united labour movement that future progress in the West Indies depends… It has already behind it a history of great achievement in a short space of time. It will make of the West Indies of the future a country where the common man may lead a cultured life in freedom and prosperity” [ii]

One important component of the far reaching agenda of the labour movement was the demand for Federation. The 1938 Congress actually prepared and approved a Draft Bill “embodying a constitution for the creation and governance of a Federated West Indies”[iii]. The British, however, had their own agenda for Federation and so it was not until 1958 – fully 20 years after the Trinidad Congress –that Federation became a reality, albeit in a very different form from that envisaged by the labour movement of the 30’s.

It was almost a natural progression that a group of young intellectuals – students and lecturers – at the then University College of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica would interrogate the present and future of the West Indies. Norman Girvan puts it most succinctly. “The burning issues of debate were West Indian integration and identity, imperialism, decolonization, racism, socialism, democracy, mass party, and economic development. There was a widespread sense that the emerging postcolonial order was in crisis. The question was – what course should national independence take?”[iv]

With the establishment of the University (College) of the West Indies with its single campus the conditions were created for students from different parts of the West Indies and with varying academic interests to engage the issues at the precise moment of the rise and fall of the Federation and the move towards formal independence. It was a veritable crucible of ideas.

In 1938 there did not exist a critical mass of West Indian academics in history, economics, political science, sociology, literature to engage in the research and analysis of our colonial societies and to search for explanations of our condition from the standpoint of our own experiences.

The West Indian intellectuals and their colleagues from outside of the region, beginning with West Indian Society for the Study of Social Issues (WISSSI) and then in New World, established the policy framework for the agenda of the mass movement a generation before. In 1938 there did not exist a critical mass of West Indian academics in history, economics, political science, sociology, literature to engage in the research and analysis of our colonial societies and to search for explanations of our condition from the standpoint of our own experiences.

In the early 1960’s there was such a critical mass and that generation took up the challenge brilliantly. To make just one connection between the ideas of the mass movement of the 30’s and the academic work 25 years later, we cite for example, George Beckford’s focus on the role of the peasantry in breaking up the plantation system which is in line with the demand that legislation be passed to provide for “the purchase by government of large sugar estates for redistribution among peasants on easy terms of sale; the prohibition of the ownership by a single individual, firm or company, directly or indirectly of a sugar estate of more than 50 acres; the ownership by government alone of all sugar factories”. [v]

This idea of state ownership and the breaking up of large plantations (which were in the 1930’s largely foreign owned) is also in line with the work of New World members on bauxite and multinational companies; while the issue of constitution reform articulated in the 1938 Resolutions were also interrogated by New World.

The mass movements of the late 60’s and early 70’s however, rather than being a stimulus to New World triggered its eventual decline and demise. The differences in interpretation of our reality became greater than the common commitment to arriving at our own interpretation. To this must be added the natural progression for many of the New World members to move from interpretation to active participation in efforts to change our reality. The differences in interpretation were reflected in the different political organisations joined or started by New World members.

Even though individually New World members and or persons associated with the New World effort continued to do serious, progressive work, the critical mass was lost, the crucible in which and through which ideas could be expressed, debated and tested was no more.

With the ebb of the mass movement of the 70’s and the defeats of progressive attempts at changing our reality (the PNP and ‘democratic socialism’ in Jamaica; the assassination of Walter Rodney and the resulting loss of hope of a multi-ethnic working people’s agenda in Guyana; and the destruction from within of the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada) there came the period of structural adjustment and the Washington Consensus. Neo-liberal policies became the order of the day with a relatively few individual voices critiquing those policies and offering alternative ways of seeing and being.

At academic and other policy discussions on our predicament and the way forward, we were told “the literature” says that there is no other alternative. That literature of course was that of the “Chicago School” and did not include the work of New World. Indeed the analysis, conclusions and more importantly the epistemology of New World became to be regarded by the majority of social scientists and policy makers as something with which we had a romantic flirtation. Even the seminal course on “Caribbean Economic Problems” ceased to be taught at the UWI and book lists and required reading no longer included the work by New World and its associates.

In the absence of vibrant, powerful mass movements conscious of their interests and with clear visions, programmes and agendas and in the vacuum of a radical intellectual crucible, reaction has flourished. The effects of this are seen everywhere in the region and in every sphere of national life. The post-independence order has collapsed: our institutions of state are in disarray; we are all in economic difficulty the only difference being that of degree; our economic policies are determined by the International Financial Institutions; there is social breakdown; the regional integration project that is the Caribbean Single Market and Economy is like a sailboat with no wind on a calm sea – drifting with the tide; and, as I write, we are faced with the reality of Donald Trump being the President of the US and in Europe the rise of neo-fascism and Brexit.

The re-publication of the New World Quarterly is therefore vitally important at this time. Firstly, it will enable this generation of students and intellectuals to come to know, understand and thus build upon the body of work that was undertaken 50 years ago. Secondly and even more importantly is that it will contribute to the nurturing of a radical, revolutionary approach to intellectual work. The status quo is NOT working in the Caribbean, at least it is not working in the interest of the vast majority of our people.

The region needs a new crucible – the “New World” of this period. It also needs progressive, conscious mass movements seeking to bring about change. Is there hope? I believe so. There are young people organizing differently around new agendas such as the environment. Already, there is a flourishing of creative work – literature and literary festivals; films and film festivals; new directions in music and in the visual arts. This may be the presage of things to come – what The Beacon of 1931-33 in Trinidad and Tobago was to the workers movement of 1937. That cultural resurgence and renewal now needs to be complemented by the academic work. This time around, however, we need to move from “thought is the action for us” to “how we think is how we will act” if we are to develop the collective consciousness required to realise the independence envisioned by the labour movement of the 1930’s and articulated by the New World movement 30 years after.

David Abdullah

[i] Summary of Resolutions Passed by the British Guiana and West Indies Labour Congress, November, 1938 published as the Appendix in “Labour in the West Indies – the birth of a movement” Arthur Lewis, New Beacon Books London, 1977

[ii] Lewis, ibid pgs 43, 53

[iii] Summary of Resolutions in Lewis, ibid

[iv]“ New World and Its Critics” by Norman Girvan published in “The Thought of New World” edited by Brian Meeks and Norman Girvan, Ian Randle Publishers, 2010

[v] Summary of Resolutions in Lewis, ibid