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50 Years Ago: Caribbean Black Power Activists Weigh Prospects for Revolution

April 21, 2020

Part 3 of “The 1970 Black Power Upsurge in Trinidad: A Commemoration”

Geddes Granger (Makaandal Daaga)

Fifty years ago, in February-April 1970, a mass revolutionary upsurge shook the nation of Trinidad and Tobago. It was the coming of age of the Black Power Movement in the Caribbean.

The following article gives my assessment of these events at that time. It was written on the basis of interviews I conducted together with U.S.-based socialist Tony Thomas during our visit to Trinidad, Guyana, Barbados, and Jamaica.

Another version of this text is found in of a out-of-print pamphlet, Black Power in the Caribbean (Pathfinder, 1971). The text is posted here to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this historic event.—JR


By John Riddell (1970): What was the meaning of the mass popular uprising in Trinidad and Tobago of March and April 1970?

The mass movement mobilized behind the concept of “Black power.” But it was a “Black” government, that of Eric Williams, which was their target. Students, unemployed, unionists, rural workers, soldiers every layer of the dispossessed non-white population linked up with this movement, which came close to sweeping Williams from power.

In its “Statement on the Revolution” of April 18, the executive of the Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) summed up the “Black power” view of Williams and the other Caribbean regimes, calling them “pawns and playthings in the hands of the white, foreign imperialist robbers and local capitalist swindlers who drain the wealth of our country abroad and take the cream of what stays at home.”

Trinidadian Black Power advocates developed the concept further, redefining “Black” to encompass the East Indian population as well as those of African origin. They translated it into what was to be their central demand: “Power to the people!” that is, for a government of the non-white working masses.

Black power came to express class consciousness. As the OWTU statement explained, given the fundamental identity of racial and class alignments in the Caribbean – workers and farmers are Black; those who own and run the economy are white – “The call for black power in Trinago [Trinidad and Tobago] is the same as the call for proletarian power.”

While no defined program of demands emerged from the Trinidadian movement, it aimed at far more than just a few token reforms. Geddes Granger [Makaandal Daaga], leading spokesman of the NJAC, the main leadership of the upsurge, expressed this as follows: “We do not want crumbs taken from businessmen. The Black people of this country want the whole bread with butter, and it is we who will be taking it.”

The OWTU leadership, the most prominent pro-socialist current in the movement, was more explicit on the change in the system required. “Do not settle for the shadow of Black power,” it said. “Let us continue to contend for the real substance of Black power, namely people’s control by all of us, Black brothers and sisters, of the commanding heights of our national economy.”


The 1970 Black Power Upsurge in the Caribbean: Contents

  1. The Rise of Black Power in Canada: The 1969 Student Protest Against Campus Racism,” by John Riddell (first published, January 27, 2019).
  2. The 1970 Mass Upsurge in Trinidad,” by Tony Thomas.
  3. Canadian Imperialism in the West Indies,” by John Riddell.
  4. Lessons of the 1970 Upsurge: A Discussion among Caribbean Activists,” by John Riddell

Anti-imperialist militants across the Caribbean are confident that the mass movement launched in Trinidad will soon burst out again, there or in another of the territories. Yet they are discussing the paradox posed by the events of April 21 [1970].

Immediately after his declaration of a state of emergency on that day, Williams had mastered the opposition and re-established his control, without the need for foreign intervention and, apart from the isolated revolt in the army, without organized resistance.

How Could This Happen?

George Weekes

Trinidadian political theorist C. L. R. James attempted an explanation at a meeting to defend the arrested Trinidadian militants in Toronto, Canada, June 19. If only the Oilfields Workers executive had launched a general strike to defend its arrested leader George Weekes, James said, the government would have fallen.

Other explanations of this type have been proposed: the relative inaction of the rebel soldiers during the crucial period before Williams got his arms shipments from the U.S.; the failure of Black power militants to mobilize in Port of Spain at the key moment. Do not such explanations, however, all point to some more fundamental, underlying weaknesses?

Speaking in Toronto, James said, “This leadership knows what to do and I have absolute confidence in it.” He refused to project a program or a strategy for the next stage of the struggle, stating, “We must not write cookbooks for the future. The workers will do what they have to do.”

Yet this spontaneous movement, which did not succeed April 21, will surely be all the more insufficient in the next confrontation, when it will meet a far better prepared government resistance – unless the workers have a far better idea of what they have to do and a means of coordinating how they do it. Is this not the key problem that underlies all the “mistakes” of April 21?

The leadership centered in NJAC displayed an exemplary revolutionary intransigence and tactical skill in building the mass movement. Yet almost every participant commented on how the upsurge took all by surprise, including the NJAC leaders, who were then forced to improvise rapidly to keep pace with the mass movement they had sparked into life.

Trevor Munroe

Trevor Munroe, a leader of the Jamaican revolutionary group Abeng, pointed to NJAC’s lack of ties to the rank and file of the organized working class. NJAC was not a mass organization. It was a small group of leaders with a mass following, which encompassed certain leading trade unionists – but only in their individual capacity.

On April 21 the movement still lacked any real organizational base. With its leadership arrested, it was immobilized. There was no grass-roots structure linking and coordinating the “power” organizations across the country. There was no means to coordinate and direct key militants in the unions, on the campus, in the army, in the fields.

Had events taken even a slightly different course, the Williams government might have been forced to resign, to be replaced by a new constellation of establishment politicians with a more radical coloration. But never has such a spontaneous movement been able to destroy and replace the underlying machinery of bourgeois repression, the state – let alone defend its conquests against the imperialist counterattack that would inevitably follow.

A second topic of discussion among partisans of the Trinidad revolution is the failure of the Trinidadian movement to put forward any program of concrete demands going beyond such general concepts as “power to the people.”

Eric Williams

Surely the Trinidad movement would not have been defused so rapidly following April 21 if the working masses had assimilated a basic program of revolution, basic demands which concretized the perspective of victory and liberation. The alternative, a mass movement without program, has more than a trace of the elitist Eric Williams-style “doctor politics” condemned by Trinidadian militants.

A Program for Revolution

What kind of program was required? An East Indian Trinidadian pointed out to me, for example, that only the beginnings of Indian­-African unity were achieved in April. Racial mistrust ran deep, built up by years of chauvinist discrimination against the Indians by the Williams government. Having preserved much of their distinctive cultural heritage, Indians have not historically considered themselves “Blacks.”

Overcoming these barriers required the popularization of some specific demands, such as an end to discrimination against Indians in the public service or the right of Indians to own and control the land they work, demands which could explain clearly to Indians what Indian-African unity could mean to them.

C.L.R. James

Unemployment was a theme of the mass actions, but no means were proposed to end it. The elements of a program for unemployment were contained in a speech March 19 by George Weekes of the OWTU, who linked it to the problem of foreign ownership. Pointing out that “socialist states, whatever their shortcomings, are always capable of providing full employment,” he proposed such measures as forcing the foreign firms to invest their profits in Trinidad.

When they refuse to do this, as they surely will, Weekes said, “they, and their political puppets, will have to get the hell out, but without their capital!”

But such demands were not brought forward in the mass meetings and demonstrations. Indeed, of those who identify with Black power, only a small portion have raised the demand for nationalization and democratic control of the foreign corporations. Many militant leaders, like Lloyd Best, spoke to me only of a partial takeover of imperialist firms. Others hope a more equitable partnership can be achieved through 51% local ownership. The Cuban experience, however, showed the futility of any equal partnership with the foreign monopolies. Recognizing this, Trevor Munroe of Abeng points to the need to expropriate, without compensation, all the foreign-owned enterprises. “Surely after centuries of slavery they can’t expect any compensation.”

Nor is the revolutionary left content with nationalizations that transfer control into the hands of the local bourgeoisie. The Ratoon group of Guyana, discussing the future of the main local industries, calls for “control by the people who have poured their sweat and tears into bauxite and sugar, not by a bureaucratic elite in Georgetown [Guyana’s capital].”

When Port of Spain’s Woodford Square was renamed “The People’s Parliament,” it symbolized the revolutionary aims of the movement. But with Black power committees and groups springing up across the country, could they not have sent representatives, together with other working people’s organizations, to a genuine “people’s parliament”?

Such a body could have not only debated but also begun the implementation of the demands of the people and provided the embryo of the future revolutionary government.

Lloyd Best

Few radicals in the English-speaking Caribbean (outside Guyana) feel any identity with the theory of Marxism. Lloyd Best, for example, believes Marxism to be an alien ideology which does not apply to the Trinidadian situation. Many have rejected it because of its identification with the Stalinist tradition of the Guyanese People’s Progressive Party, whose Marxist rhetoric served as the left cover for a policy of disastrous opportunism.

But every Third World revolution which has achieved genuine independence from imperialism has done so under the banner of Marxism. Trinidadian C. L. R. James himself was long one of its leading exponents.

Revolutionists in every continent today are rediscovering in the authentic Marxism the necessary theory for their program and action. A key element of this has been the recognition of the need for a revolutionary socialist vanguard organization to lead the struggle.

In nearby Venezuela, for example, Douglas Bravo, leader of the guerrilla struggle for many years, in an interview published May 15, 1970, emphasized the building of a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary party as the most important factor in the liberation struggle.

The necessity for movements in the Third World to take the path of socialist revolution, of workers’ power, long maintained by the Trotskyist Fourth International, is now becoming widely accepted. A likely result of the Trinidad upsurge will be the renaissance of Marxism in the Caribbean left.

A third area of discussion has been the international character of the revolutionary process in the Caribbean. The territories are tiny, their populations small, their economies one-sided and weak – not a promising base for revolutionary power. The Trinidadian movement displayed the potential to unseat the local bourgeoisie – but what about imperialism?

On a strictly military level, a few thousand marines could have occupied these islands with a population of a million, with no great strain on the U. S. war machine. Yet at the very peak of the Trinidadian crisis, a titanic uprising of mass resistance to Washington’s invasion of Cambodia shook the U. S. and forced withdrawal of U. S. troops from that country.

Could Washington have sent troops to Trinidad, many of them Black conscripts who are already convinced supporters of Black power, without risking even move explosive manifestations of resistance by the American people?

The expropriation of foreign holdings might seem impractical if revolution were limited to one island. But as it swept across the Caribbean, it would remove the obstacles to effective economic cooperation against imperialism.

The individual islands may today seem helpless before the power of the sugar monopolies. United, together with Cuba, they would control a large block of world cane sugar production. Similarly, Jamaica and Guyana together can exert powerful control over world production of bauxite and they can stand up to the aluminum monopolies in determining its price. A united socialist Caribbean would be in a position to use its bauxite profits to develop an integrated aluminum manufacturing industry.

The West Indian revolution can find powerful allies among the Black and other oppressed nationalities of North America, where a radicalization is already proceeding at a rapid pace. The unfolding Caribbean revolution can grow like another Vietnam, speeding the day when a workers’ North America will begin to pay back the debt of the long centuries of enslavement and exploitation of the West Indies.

First printed in Labor Challenge. Copyright (c) John Riddell 1970.

Afterword (2019): The 1979 Revolutions in Grenada and Nicaragua

Maurice Bishop

My forecast in 1970 of a revolutionary process spreading across the Caribbean region became reality nine years later, when workers’ and farmers’ governments in Grenada and Nicaragua took power alongside their twenty-year-old counterpart in Cuba.

The Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, more than 2,000 km to the west of Trinidad, was battered by a counterrevolutionary war mouned by U.S. imperialism. Although the regime was overturned a decade later, the underlying revolutionary process has endured.

The island nation of Grenada has many historical and cultural similarities to Trinidad and Tobago, which lie only 120 km distant. The Grenadian revolution, led by the New Jewel Movement under Maurice Bishop, was shattered only four years after its victory by a counterrevolutionary coup from within the movement. The coup opened the door for a U.S.-led invasion and conquest of the island.

The experience in Grenada has much to teach us about the possibilities inherent in the February-April, 1970, uprising in Jamaica. The most revealing surviving document is the writings of Maurice Bishop himself, collected in Maurice Bishop Speaks: The Grenada Revolution 1979–83 (Pathfinder, 1983). A major address by Bishop is also available on Youtube. — John Riddell, 2020.

 

 

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