BOOK REVIEWS: GORDON LEWIS’S MODERN WEST INDIES

It is the correctness and yet the inadequacy of this central theme which dissatisfies. The detection of the old relations of chattel slavery and plantation peonage barely concealed beneath the surface of “inducement planning” and parliamentary democracy occasions little more than the declaration that the masses must “one way or the other … overthrow the regime of middle-class private property”. In fact, co appreciate the practicability of the socialist way, the author, with astonishing naivete, invites the West Indian political class to look to Cuba, as if the Sierra Maestra were the Mt. Carmel of the Caribbean, and as if all that the disciples of the bourgeois state need to do to transfigure themselves and their socio-political orders is to appreciate the divine presence. Lewis’ weakness on the mechanism for the revolutionary transformation seems fundamental rather than accidental, inherent in a socialism which appears more ‘utopian’ than ‘scientific’.

Both the wooliness of this notion of making revolution and its basis in analytic shortcomings are evident from the treatment of “the emergence of national society”. For example, the author appears to anticipate the black revolt in Jamaica as growing out of increased economic distress and the appearance of a Jamaican Malcolm X. Both the validity and the limitation of this kind of perspective is demonstrable from an extraordinary conjuncture. At the very time that Lewis’ book was in press, the Jamaican Government proscribed the writings of Malcolm X from local distribution and the Williams regime in Trinidad banned Stokely Carmichael from entering that island. The point is chat the author does not locate repression as inherent in the working of the bourgeois-democratic Caribbean state and the American imperial presence in the area. He therefore fails to sec that in the late 1960’s the populist leadership and working class militancy are not enough to end the old order. In addition, revolutionary change cannot come without revolutionary organisation directed explicitly against sham democracy and American imperialism and, therefore, necessarily committed to work outside the constitutional order.

The other more basic reason for weak prognosis is Lewis’ apparent failure to appreciate the significance of the principal contradiction within the West Indian working class. He certainly detects that the Jamaican agroproletariat, for example, “displays inborn resignation” and “class militancy” that it shows “the habit of class deference” while being an “independent assertive force”. But he seems unaware that apparent inconsistencies in description reflect, in this case as well as others, important contradictions in reality. It is true that the West Indian lower class is both inert and aggressive, resigned and rebellious. More important the portrayal suggests, but does not follow through, it is precisely in constitutionalist politics that this class has been historically apathetic, and precisely outside the constitutional arena that it has exerted all its creative energies.

A proper understanding of this would have led Lewis to offer more adequate explanations many or the problems he himself raises. For example, might not the failure of Jamaican third parties of the left, unexplained except circularly in terms of PNP-JLP hegemony, lie exactly in the observation that they “have tried their luck within the framework of the constitutional system”. Might it not be that leftists, both academic and activist, by insisting on constitutionalist perspectives attempt to misappropriate working class militancy and impose bourgeois schemes on the class awareness of the masses If this is even partially the case, then both analysis and action must pay the price of being elitist and utopian.

But perhaps it is somewhat unfair to criticise Lewis too harshly for failing to do more than he intended, which is to provide a correct, if slightly superficial, non-conformist interpretation of modern West Indian development.

Or perhaps there is something inconsistent about a socialist observer confining himself merely to “interpretative and descriptive analysis”. What is certain, however, is that precisely because the indictment of West Indian bourgeois society is so damning and the appreciation of the potential of the submerged society so perceptive that it cannot be enough to conclude that the masses “must, one way or another break out of that shell”.

That this is admittedly only a transitional conclusion must mean that Lewis’ second volume is eagerly awaited and until then praise of the first must be qualified. If the later work corrects the main analytic deficiency then the total achievement will be very largely unsurpassable, which is another way of saying that then, perhaps, theoretical understanding will have advanced as far as it can without practical engagement.