By Dr. Selwyn Cudjoe
December 11, 2016
However, his achievements surpassed his shortcomings and that is the salient point.
Fidel was to the 20th century Caribbean what Toussaint was to the 18th and 19th centuries. CLR James noted: “Castro’s revolution is of the 20th century as much as Toussaint’s was of the 18th…West Indians became aware of themselves as a people in the Haitian Revolution.”
While the Haitian Revolution set in process a motion that ended slavery in the Americas, Fidel’s revolution liberated West Indians from the grip of colonialism.
Fidel also assisted the liberation fighters in South Africa, Mozambique and Angola. Mandela embraced Fidel because he inspired him personally and assisted African liberation groups materially when Western leaders saw them as terrorists.
The leaders of the liberation struggle—people such as Mandela, Amilcar Cabral, Sam Nujoma, Marcelino dos Santos—knew where they wanted to take their societies even though many of them ultimately repudiated the values for which they stood initially. One only has to look at Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to understand the depths to which some of these leaders descended.
The colonial world was full of revolutionary leaders in the 1950s. Any leader worthy of his salt subscribed to a revolutionary doctrine even though these leaders, as was the case of Maurice Bishop and Walter Rodney years later, paid dearly for their ideals.
In 1953 Fidel led an attack on Moncada Barracks. The assault failed, Fidel was sentence to 15 years in prison. A general amnesty released him from prison. He sailed to Mexico. One year later he was back in Cuba storming the barricades. In 1959 he overthrew Fulgencio Batista and ruled Cuba until ill health forced him to retire.
While Trinidad and Tobago’s political trajectory was different, it was still caught in the rhetoric of the age. Even Dr Eric Williams recognised that theory—or the articulation of theory—was an important element of leadership. With the comradely association of James, he marked out his ideological territory.
Although Dr Williams was a nationalist in 1956, he embraced the anti-imperialist dimension of the colonial struggle. In “Perspective for Our Party” (1958) he offered one of his most theoretical/radical addresses to his party. He discussed the relationship between the leaders and the masses, offered a broad party philosophy for its second-level leaders, acknowledged the importance of theory in building the party, and emphasised the need for a political leader and a theoretical leader within the party.
The political leader, Dr Williams noted, must be “the main source of its ideals and of its political and social attitudes”. The theoretical leader “is the source of inspiration, ideas and facts and research for journalists, orators and [others]… who transmit their ideas of the party”.
However, the political leader and the theoretical leader “need not necessarily be one and the same person. They may be two or three persons”. Like James, he acknowledged that the people were always in the vanguard of the struggle. “It is certain,” he said, “no type of West Indian organisation so far has caught up with where the people have already reached.”
James returned to Trinidad in 1958. Between 1955 and 1960 he was instrumental in thinking through these theoretical problems with Williams and other progressive thinkers. Grace Lee, a member of James’s American party of the 1940s, writes that Williams visited while they were in London in 1957. When Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian president, went to London for the First Commonwealth conference of Third World Independence leaders, James, his wife Selma, George Padmore and Lee spent time with Williams at Dorchester Hotel.
The next year James returned to Trinidad after 26 years away from his home. On December 6, 1958, he became the editor of the PNM Weekly whose name he changed to The Nation. James and Williams remained as close as they had been in the 1930s through the 1950s. This relationship was too close for some PNM members. An influential PNM member remarked: “For a year, Nello [James] was number two in the party. In fact, there were times when we thought he might have been number 1.” James left the party in 1961.
On January 25, 1981, Williams presented his last address, “The Party’s Stewardship, 1956 to 1980.” He was emphatic: “The PNM has rejected both capitalism and socialism, opting for State-owned enterprises in which the shares are to be divested to the public ensuring equal opportunity for the small man.” Nine weeks later he was dead.
Although he was not an ideologue, Williams sought to outline an ideological path for the island, always calling on us to remember our uniqueness. In an age of instant everything, it might be wise for party leaders and party members to study the writings of Castro, Williams and James to gauge how far we have come as a society and what we need to do to move ahead.