SOMETHING TO DISCUSS: C.L.R. JAMES, PARTY POLITICS IN THE WEST INDIES
Published by the Author, Port of Spain, 1962
The title of this book may lead one to expect a survey of Party Politics in the West Indies from perhaps the end of the second World War to 1962. A quick glance at the table of contents docs not confirm this expectation; yet it leaves one with no clear picture of the substance of the book. What the titles of the chapters suggest is that one is being offered a job-lot for $150. Since the offer is made by Mr. C. L. R. James, think the package cheap at the price and eagerly accept, Read the book and you will not regret the bargain.
The faults of the book are those which perhaps come from combining the professions of pundit and political activist. Some passages are opinionated; there is some boasting and some repetition. Some matters are discussed in excessive detail. Not every reader will care to pause and mull over whether or not the print shop should be separated from the paper and run independently on strictly commercial lines. But these are not such faults as will stop anyone from reading to the end.
There are two books within the covers of Party Politics in the West Indies, and numerous notes for other books. There is a promise that two further chapters already written will be added to one of the books. The book deserves a second edition and perhaps Mr. James will find the time to include these chapters, and also to write for us his reflections on his current activities.
The first book P.N.M. Go Forward is a set of documents with a running commentary. The documents were addressed to the Political Leader of the P.N.M. or to the Board which had charge of the party newspaper, The Nation, between June 1958 and July 1980. The commentary itself, although scattered throughout the texts and stitching the reports into a whole, is all the more valuable to a generation of West Indians younger than Mr. James. For in time aspects of the controversy which Mr. James discusses will seem to the young West Indian as mysterious as affairs at the Byzantine court on the eve of its disintegration.
The second book. West Indies 1962: The State of the Nation is a tract for the times Written with vigour and containing an abundance of good sense, it also has a fair sprinkling of those large claims on behalf of West Indians and himself which Mr James seems to make so spontaneously when he is in full spate.
In P.N.M. Go Forward, Mr. James gives us his account of the events which led to his resignation of the editorship of The Nation. So far it is the only systematic account that we have or these events. This writer has no inside knowledge or the events described, and so can pass no judgment on the version given by Mr. James, as true or not true. However, merely in publishing a version of his own, Mr. James has made a signal contribution to contemporary West Indian history. Men in high positions in other West Indian parties have left them or have been expelled. In Jamaica and in British Guiana these separations have had consequences at least as important for the political life of these communities, as the separation of Mr. James from P.N.M. has had for politics in Trinidad. We are still without accounts of the other affairs as extensive and personal as the one Mr. James has given us.
Mr. James has written with restraint and with reticence. There are parts or the book in which he departs from this general tone. He comes close to anguish in describing the utter exhaustion of his wife night after night. When he discusses the speech in which Dr. Williams announced that Trinidad would soon have a daily newspaper owned by foreigners, his tone is strident. On all matters not connected with issues as he sees them, his reticence is complete. He has exposed no one; be has revealed nothing. We learn nothing of Mr. MacLeod’s visit. Perhaps Mr. James knows nothing. But we learn no more about the Premier’s policies on Chaguaramas or on Federation. On these matters, surely Mr. James knows something, and that of a kind not wholly irrelevant to theme discussed in his book. Of course he takes for granted that those policies, with which he was associated, were sound. At least he writes this way in the text of P.N.M. Go Forward. But in footnotes written in 1962 (p. 37 and p. 41) and in his essay on Democracy his comments seem at variance with his earlier opinions. What are we to make of the phrase “P.N.M’s. blunders and betrayals of Federation, Chaguaraamas and Independence ” (p. 37) if we seek to reconcile it with, “Ultimately Trinidad and Tobago may become a state like Singapore ” (p. 50). Those of his readers who may not yet be persuaded of the soundness of this vision of Trinidad’s future, who may even have been startled by this incarnation in P.N.M of the thoughts of Don Antonio de Berrio and Picton, and those others doubtful of the policies summarised on page fifty, would have appreciated less reticence on these matters. Mr. James could have discussed them without breaking faith or breeching confidences.
Yet something has been gained. By focusing our attention mostly on the larger issues at stake in his conflict with the P.N.M leadership, by denying us gossip, Mr. James has also made an invaluable contribution to the way in which political controversy can most profitably be conducted.
But Mr. James did not write merely to make a contribution to contemporary West Indian history. At intervals throughout the book he states his various purposes.
Here they are in his own words “This document aims first at giving some idea of what the internal life of a modern political party should be.” (p. 5).
“In this section they [members or the P.N.M.] will learn the reasons and circumstances of my action. I am content to let them be the judge.” (p. 5).
“What I have written here aims to correct it, [ the divorce between the party as government and the party as people] first of all by making the facts known in terms of the life of the Party as I have known it. (p. 6).
“This document will contribute to the indictment [of] betrayers of the great movement for nationhood and democracy which began in 1956.” (p. 8).
“This document is the only one and the first I know in the West Indies which deals with the essentials of party life”. (p. 37).
“The main text of this book is history, detail and proposals as to how this [making up for the centuries of democratic experience which West Indians have not bad] can be done.” (p. 126).
Mr. James’ book is then both an essay in justification and an essay in defence of a democratic political party organised in a way which will allow the mass of the population to be the principal creators or a new life. The controversy at the heart of the book we now turn.
The controversy as Mr. James tells it, was about the way to make The Nation into an effective party paper and next into a national newspaper whose success would not be measured by commercial standards alone, but principally by the degree to which it was a solvent of the popular attitudes endemic in a colonial society. To do these things Mr. James thought The Nation needed the support of the party. In the main the party was indifferent. The Board responsible for the paper was incapable of making the party feel responsible for the paper. In order to transmute indifference into enthusiasm, the party had to be re-organised. Or perhaps more accurately it had to be organised for the first time.
Who was to undertake this work? The party leadership? Mr. James saw them as either indi1ferent or hostile to that task. The leadership was itself in need of education. And so to the court of last resort, to the Political Leader who, till then, was the sole defender of both The Nation and its Editor.
Will he agree to the party being organized? If so whom will he select? Who has the capacity to organize the party? There is the Political Leader himself, or the then General Secretary. And there is Mr. James. The Political Leader asks Mr. James for suggestions on how to organize the party. He gets them, but instead of performing a root and branch operation, he mounts a masquerade. Faced with this immobility Mr. James resigns. He hopes only for a political break with the leader and the party and he prepares some plaster for the crack. He will decide with the Political Leader how best to apply it. But the leader tells him on the telephone, there is nothing to discuss. It is the end of a long friendship.
There is no other written version available to us for comparison, so there is yet no occasion to cross-examine Mr. James on the basis of information supplied by other reporters. But as Mr. James rightly remarks on page one hundred and seven, “there is never documentation for all happenings”. Certainly what is here documented raises questions about things which can never be documented, and these we can pursue solely on the information provided by Mr. James. One such question concerns Mr. James’ motives. Was he after power for himself? Was he no longer content to be merely “an extremely close consultant of the Premier?” (p. 47). The question is valid, but the answers must be speculative; and of the making of such speculations there need be no end.