Paul Buhle, Tim Hector: A Caribbean Radical’s Story (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006)
This book offers both less and more than its title would suggest: less because the author presents what he has to say about the Antiguan radical Tim Hector in a somewhat scattered and fragmentary manner; but also more, because the book summarizes and comments on many of the personalities, events, and ideas that have marked Caribbean history since the end of World War II. While mainly interested in Hector’s contribution to Caribbean socialism, Buhle also reviews that of such figures as Walter Rodney of Guyana, Maurice Bishop of Grenada, and Michael Manley of Jamaica. What these thinker-activists had chiefly in common, as Buhle describes them, was their vision of socialism as springing not from the will of a vanguard party but from the struggles of the “self-empowering” popular masses.
Two themes run throughout Buhle’s book. One is the “tragic” failure of the Caribbean Left to resist the encroachments of American and British imperialism – a precondition for building a society of, by, and for the people. This failure resulted from the collusive relationship between the US State Department and bourgeois Caribbean politicians whom Hector, in a remarkable essay of December 14, 2001, in the Antiguan newspaper Outlet, characterized as “the new, formerly anti-colonial leaders [who] merely took over the positions in the State left by the Colonizers” and who “proceeded to plunder the wealth of their countries, in association with the financial and corporate interests of the industrialized world” (233).
The second of the book’s major themes reflects Buhle’s previous studies of the life and thought of the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James, to whom all three of the leftwing leaders mentioned above owed some of their basic political values and aims. Among radicals and socialists of his generation, Hector was probably the most profoundly affected by James’s teachings. Indeed, James’s influence on Hector is such a pervasive leitmotif of the book that one almost gets the impression that the best way to learn about Hector is to read James. James is amply cited throughout the book, while Hector is not allowed often enough to speak with his own voice. The only sustained passage from Hector’s writings appears in an Appendix, where Buhle allows us to appreciate the intellectual brilliance and breadth of vision that informs the above-mentioned 2001 essay, which Hector wrote less than a year before he died of a heart ailment at the age of sixty. James’s presence in the book sometimes overwhelms that of Hector, almost compelling the reader to view the younger man through the prism of his mentor’s ideas. Hector, like Manley, Bishop, and Rodney, was not one but two generations younger than James, and therefore came to political consciousness in very different circumstances from those that faced his mentor: James was born in 1901, Hector in 1942.
Buhle does, however, make clear in his Introduction, especially in an incisive opening epigraph taken from one of Hector’s essays, “The Black Condition, Here and Now,” that Hector was not simply a replica of James. James belonged to a generation of Caribbean leftists that spent most of their lives anticipating and struggling for the end of colonialism in the Caribbean, which coincided with revolutionary movements in Africa, Cuba, Europe, and the United States. Hector’s great strength lay, as Buhle points out, in his ability “to look unflinchingly in the face of [the] regional catastrophe” that followed hard upon the seeming victories of the 1950s and early ‘60s. Here is a key passage where Buhle focuses on Hector as a representative but highly original member of a generation forced to take the measure of defeat at the hands of a resurgent “neo-liberal” and “neocolonial” order:
Over thirty years, as the saga was played out, Hector offered up a vision to his readers and listeners as a gift. The passing of regional giants supplied a decisive moment for reflection and interpretation. He looked centuries backward at the slave past, fast forward to vapid consumerism and reacceptance of the status of third-rate citizens, no longer of Mother England, but of an extended American imperium. The hopes and bitter disappointments of Pan-Africanism and the Third World at large stood revealed in Hector’s columns as nowhere else. (5)
As this passage makes evident, Buhle has tremendous admiration for Hector, with whom he had a close personal friendship and a similar political perspective. He makes no attempt to assume the mantle of scholarly objectivity. Tim Hector: A Caribbean Radical’s Story is an intensely partisan book; Buhle identifies himself with his subject and, while celebrating his accomplishments, laments his passing from the scene as an irreparable loss to the interdependent causes of regional federation and socialism in the Caribbean.
The titles of the book’s five chapters reveal the general drift of Buhle’s argument. After setting “The Caribbean Context” in chapter 1, and explaining “What Makes Antigua Different” in chapter two, he moves on in chapters 3, 4, and 5 to consider “Independence and Neocolonialism,” “The Great Moment Passed By,” and the events that led “Beyond Tragedy.”
A strong feature of chapter 1 is Buhle’s account of labor history in the Caribbean, from the early years of the 20th century through the 1930s and on to the present moment. Much of this chapter is taken up with examples of labor militancy in the Caribbean. Along with this account, Buhle touches on the various political movements and organizations that were dedicated to “the mixture of Garveyism and Marxism that became Caribbean nationalist politics” up to World War II (48). Jamaica and Trinidad/Tobago were the most important sites of these struggles, which were led or inspired in the 1940s by some of the same political leaders who later collaborated with the American Institute for Free Labor Development in thwarting the radical agenda on the table in the first two decades after the war: Norman Manley of Jamaica, Grantley Adams of Barbados, Vere Bird of Antigua, and others. These men helped to organize the Caribbean Labour Congress (CLC), which Buhle credits for advancing an “aggressive program of socialistic reforms aimed at regional unity” (59). This claim is followed by an even larger one, when in arguing that the CLC “did not fall of its own weight,” Buhle asserts that “the CLC had for a moment represented, in and through the trades unions, the regional socialist dream.” Had the CLC been able to reject the Cold War liberalism of the State Department, which strengthened the hand of the region’s “paternalistic” and opportunistic native ruling classes, the “tragic failure” that ensued might have been averted.
It isn’t easy to determine exactly what meaning Buhle attributes to the phrases “socialistic reforms” and “socialist dream” to characterize the work of the CLC and other organizations within the Caribbean labor movement. If his premise is that Hector and other likeminded leftwing intellectuals were “socialists” who accepted the need for tactical “socialistic” compromises, then he is on safe ground, especially in light of the fact that, as Buhle indicates on several occasions, their common maître, C.L.R. James, a self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist, made the same type of compromise from the late 1950s practically to the end of the 1960s. For close to a decade, James advocated a social-democratic and “national-popular” program for the Trinidadian political parties of which he was an exponent in those years: the People’s National Movement founded in 1956 by Eric Williams, and the Workers and Farmers Party, which James founded together with George Weekes and Stephen Maharaj in 1965.
Another important feature of the book’s first chapter is its discussion of culture as central to Hector’s political work in Antigua, and more generally to the activities of the Left throughout the Caribbean region. The term culture, as Hector used it, embraces not only literary and artistic expressions of “high culture” but calypso and reggae, carnival and the steel bands, as well as religious movements such as Rastafarianism. Religious rituals and folk customs were of deep interest to Hector and his comrades.
Chapter 2, “What Makes Antigua Different?”, is a useful and depressing account of why, in Antigua as in other small Caribbean islands such as Grenada and Dominica, “the great regional rebellions of the 1930s did not occur” (69; emphasis in original). Nor did they occur in subsequent decades, at least not until the 1970s, when in Grenada the New Jewel movement, led by Maurice Bishop, Bernard Coard, and a small group of their co-militants, brought about a revolutionary change which, however, as Buhle explains, was foredoomed to failure by its inability to engage the masses in its program. Buhle agrees with other scholars on the Left who have argued that the Grenada revolutionaries succumbed to deadly internal discord, followed by an almost unopposed intervention by US marines, when they lost touch with the people on whose behalf they had carried out their seizure of power. Cuban volunteer airport workers were virtually the only ones to mount an armed resistance to the invasion.
But the main emphasis in this chapter is on the reasons why Tim Hector’s almost four decades of political work from the 1960s to the 1990s proved unequal to the task of overcoming the ills of a society “soaked in ignorance and parochialism”: Both were products of a centuries-old caste system that benefited the sugar-rich white colonial minority and a class of “free coloreds.” Antigua did not have the benefit of a dynamic and enterprising stratum of workers and middle-class merchants and professionals pushing aggressively towards modernization and a functioning infrastructure of social and health services.
Chapter 2 also deals with Hector’s formative experiences. Buhle takes pleasure in recounting young Tim’s love of music, the close relationship he had with his leftist grandfather, his interest in the teachings of Islam, which he later rejected, and his literary talents and precocious reading of American and Caribbean writers. These were steps along the way to a crucial period in Hector’s life story: his years of university studies as a scholarship student at McGill University in Montreal during the 1960s, when he belonged to a small circle of students that gathered around C.L.R. James, who was living intermittently in Canada at that time. These Canadian years marked Hector’s first and decisive encounter with Marxism, which influenced his decision in 1966 to return to Antigua instead of remaining in exile. Had he chosen the latter course, he would probably have had wider latitude for personal advancement, but much less direct involvement in the destiny of his country.
Chapter 3 traces the experiences and forces that impelled Hector to move in a more and more radical direction after his return home in 1966. The high points of Hector’s life from the late 1960s on were his intellectual contribution to the Antigua Workers Union, his editorship of the newspaper Trumpet, and his steady opposition to the electoral and administrative machine of Vere Bird. Hector credited Bird with some real accomplishments, but disagreed with the methods used by the longtime Antiguan prime minister, which he, Hector, judged to be self-serving, undemocratic, and frequently corrupt. Buhle makes it clear that what distinguished Hector’s political work from the late 1960s on was his internationalism. This found expression in the leadership he exercised in the Afro-Caribbean Movement (ACM), formed in 1968. The ACM renounced all forms of parochialism to embrace “the black revolution worldwide.” Buhle refers to an essay Hector wrote in 1969, “The Caribbean: Yesterday Today and Tomorrow,” as “the defining document of the ACM.” One wishes that he had included a few extracts from this essay, which Paget Henry describes as “a masterful synthesis of Marxism (James style) and black nationalism.” (149) Buhle returns to this essay in chapter 4, where he speaks of its indebtedness to C.L.R. James and Eric Williams. “Drawing upon James and Williams, among others,” Buhle tells us, “[Hector] recalled the slave uprisings and their contemporary counterpart in Black Power, defined in strictly socialistic terms, [as] the ‘cooperative and collective control of resources by the people’” (176). The words cooperative and collective may have been Hector’s way of combining, yet distinguishing between, the “socialistic” and the “socialist” components of the ACM’s political strategy. In this sense, cooperativism could be taken to mean socialistic, while collectivism connoted its socialist aims. But this distinction is not clarified, if that was indeed Hector’s (and Buhle’s) intent in juxtaposing the two terms. The problem is that cooperativism, after all, has been a cardinal element of democratic socialism and an aspect even of Soviet-style state socialism (which James called “state capitalism”). Buhle would have done well to clear up these ambiguities.
Was it a typo, or was it Buhle’s aim, in chapter 4, to characterize the American grip on Trinidad in 1970 as “vicelike” rather than “viselike”? In any event, his discussion in chapter 4 of the failed Trinidadian insurrection of 1970 serves as a disquieting prelude to his account of “the great moment passed by.” This was a period that saw the British and the US governments intervene heavy-handedly into Caribbean politics. In Guyana Cheddi Jagan and Walter Rodney both suffered defeat, which was punctuated in 1980 by Rodney’s assassination. Chapter 4 provides a good panoramic review of the events that gave the decades of the 1970s and ‘80s their “tragic” stamp. Buhle’s analysis of the Grenadian New Jewel movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s is sympathetic but unflinchingly critical. Although committed to a popular socialist democracy, Buhle avers, the New Jewel movement carried out its revolution “from above,” and failed to actively engage the ordinary people of the small island in its agenda for transformative socio-political change. It is painfully ironic that Hector himself suffered a personal tragedy during this period when his first wife, Arah Weekes, with whom he had a close political as well as intimate relationship, was murdered by a former prisoner whom the couple had hoped to rehabilitate through their personal sponsorship of his reintegration into civilian life.
In the book’s last chapter, “Beyond Tragedy,” we see Hector emerge as a fully developed socialist who, in a manner reminiscent of both C.L.R. James and the young Antonio Gramsci, described socialism as “the independent creative spirit of the mass of the population given the room and the opportunity to create new institutions at work, for the reorganization of production in the interests of the majority of the toilers and so creating popular democratic organs of self-management and therefore a new culture” (212f).
Through this comprehensive political biography of Tim Hector, Buhle has made an important contribution to the history of several fundamental currents of thought and action in the Caribbean Left during the past five decades. His book has few if any equals in recent historiography in its mixture of partisanship and thoroughness. Whatever its deficiencies, which include sentences that occasionally veer off into obscurity and shapelessness, it will certainly serve for a long time as a guide to the politics of a region of the world that has had more than its share of soaring hopes and bitter disappointments.
Reviewed by Frank Rosengarten
Professor Emeritus, Queens College and The Graduate School
City University of New York