The Growth of Modern West Indies

By Gordon Lewis (McGibbon & Kee, 1968) 70 

In a field where studies are invariably parochial in scope, uniform in ideological conservatism and either journalistic or abstruse in methodology, Gordon Lewis’ The Growth of the Modern West Indies must rank as an outstanding contribution. It is panoramic, radical and penetrating, a combination all the more distinctive appearing as it does immediately after Mordecai’s exhaustive study of the Federal Negotiations, at the same time as Singham’s provocative theorising on the Colonial Polity and before the self-justification promised by Manley’s memoirs. A work which “clears the decks” is most timely and certainly welcome.

Lewis’ book, the first of a projected two volumes, is wide in scope and measured in depth. The Antillean archipelago, the continental countries of British Honduras and Guyana as well as the Atlantic islands of the Bahamas and Bermuda all fall within its purview. Of this wide expanse, the author provides a “descriptive and interpretive analysis” of modern development after about 1918. With such an objective, however, Lewis is careful not to be over-ambition and points out that the book is intended to be neither historically nor sociologically exhaustive but rather to clarify “the main currents of West Indian Life”.

This intention is certainly very largely achieved. The first four Chapters lay out the setting which has determined much of the character of modern West Indian Society. Discovery, Emancipation and, lastly, Independence are seen to have inaugurated the seminal phase of a Caribbean society, created, continued and constrained by the economic needs of sugar production.

Both the social and political legacies of colonialism receive particularly apt treatment. In the former case, the violent and continuing deprivation of the ‘blacks’, the uncreative Anglophilism of the ‘coloureds’ and the philistinism of the ‘whites’, all receive due emphasis. On the political side, the contradictions of colonialism are elaborated – the authoritarianism yet the ineffectualness of government, the irresponsibility of both the crown colony legislature and executive, the obsession with constitutionalism yet the historical subordination of the constitutional order to highly antagonistic class relations. Finally, the interaction of the social and political legacies is indicated and their implications for the causes and content of postwar change made clear.

The two sections on the “incubus of Crown Colony” in the Leeward and Windward Islands which follow lead logically to the main chapter of the work dealing with “the emergence of national society” the main island territories a well as in the Continental countries. Finally, a necessary digression on the thoroughly elitist character of the Federal Venture in the West Indies provides the backdrop for the last Chapter which brings together the main proposition and constellates them as “the challenge of independence”. Throughout the narrative Lewis: main virtues are apparent- a socialistic humanism and -a wide-ranging scholarship.

His remarkable familiarity with the writings of West Indians about themselves is one index of a considerable breadth of reading. More importantly, the recognition of the significance of the West Indian’s self-view for socio-political analysis suggests an understanding of the dependence of a society’s subjective consciousness or its material conditions (an understanding shared perhaps only by C.L.R. James, among the major contemporary commentators). Quite correctly, the novels of the past and present appear in the text not only as indices, but also as essential aspects, of social reality.

But this virtue also carries with it its own vice-an Irritating tendency to encapsulate West Indian Development in North Atlantic imagery. Hence, Barbados represents “Trollopian institutional conservatism”, it’s Workers Union “Luddite opposition to change”; in Jamaica, the Garveyite Rastafarians play the role of “the Levellers of the Jamaicsn Revolution”, its politics is dominated by a “Dickensian meek-encounter between Tweedledum and Tweedledee”, Cipriani is a West Indian Cobbet”, Williams subscribes to a “Burkian view” of political party, and so on. To the extent that Lewis is writing as an Old World political historian to a North Atlantic audience, this kind of categorisation is understandable, if not justifiable. But the New World intellectual must break with the specially intense compulsion of plantation society to see itself in exclusively European terms. Of course, Lewis would hardly accept that the Caribbean experience only re-enacts, or is best made intelligible through North Atlantic analogues, but culture-bound categorisitions can too easily disguise the distinctive features of West Indian reality thereby distorting rather than illuminating their significance. Worst, this prediction could with some reason be construed as the academic manifestation of the very Anglophilism of the West Indian elites, past and present, which Lewis so rightly deplores.

The main drawback of the work however, is directly related to its unique achievement. Like no other “respectable” analyst, with the possible exception of James, Lewis, the genuine “socialist observer”, explodes the establishment ideology, purveyed implicitly by most scholars of West Indian society and accepted explicitly by most sections of the articulate public. Few pages pass without direct assault on some canon of the sacred dogmas of orthodox political religion. Hence, Independence is not Freedom as one Jamaican political slogan would have it but “simply a change of masters only … a change in some ways for the worse, for since the bourgeois groups understand them better psychologically than did the English officialdom their exploitation by those groups may be made much the easier”. Similarly, political parties are not in any meaningful sense ‘mass’ but the effective instruments of ruling elites who compete according to rules which they themselves make and break when faced with sufficient threat. Trade Unions have conservatized, not radicalised the working class. Nor is this exposure directed only at the ‘right’ for Lewis recognise that, historically, the West Indian Marxist has done little more than run import agencies for foreign ideology and ignored almost completely the creative application to their own society of mechanisms for social revolution. Perhaps most insightful of all however, is the author’s recognition that “much of what passes for political stability in the self-congratulatory literature is in reality only a reflection of the traditional apathy of the West Indian masses”.

In all this the main theme is apparent – constitutional, political and cultural developments have undoubtedly reflected and advanced changes in the balance of social forces but until the masses take hold of the economic order, these transformations will amount to little more than societal plastic surgery. The removal of the more ugly scars is one result but the social personality and political profile remain basically the same.