Greetings and Salutations
LET me first of all thank the members of the George Odlum collective for inviting me to deliver this talk. I was honestly surprised by the invitation. I did not think myself worthy of it since I am the least of the apostles. There are far more qualified and more worthy speakers owing to their longer and deeper association with Brother George Odlum at a political level.
Indeed, your two previous guest speakers, comrades Earl Huntley and Mac Donald Dixon, provide clear proof of the quality and the depth of St. Lucians who are far more eminently qualified to speak on aspects of the life and contribution of Bro. George Odlum to St. Lucia, and I am humbled by your invitation and by your confidence in my ability to follow in their footsteps.
Given my confessed limited direct political association with George, I can only conclude that it is some qualification, other than my political association with him, which has prompted this invitation. So I thank you for your maturity in selecting me on the basis of objective technocratic meritocracy as distinct from political favouritism. I could only wish that our elected officials would apply your wisdom in their State and governmental appointments.
Let me also sincerely thank the organisers for their maturity in organising this lecture series and not only for organising it but for sustaining it over the past three years. The real significance of your achievement is enlarged when one reflects on the failure of the older and better resourced groupings to undertake similar acts of remembering of their own heroes and founders.
Here you are sustaining the George Odlum Memorial Lecture while the St. Lucia Labour Party and the United Workers Party with their wider resources have not been able to launch their George Charles Memorial Lecture and their John Compton Memorial Lecture. So I am pleased to be associated with your effort and at the same time to say that I eagerly look forward to the invitations by the SLP and the UWP to speak at the George Charles and John Compton Memorial Lectures.
I must say though, that if any such invitations are extended to me in the future, I will accept them only if they are offered similar terms as those of the George Odlum Memorial Committee: that is with the absolute freedom to determine subject and content of my talk.
I also congratulate you on your foresight in contributing to the cultural and intellectual development of S. Lucia. St. Lucia is facing a peculiar condition of having produced two Nobel Laureates, of having the brightest students in universities all over the world, and of having one of the better qualified public services in the region. Yet, our country stands out as being an intensely anti-intellectual space.
I say this from recent and personal experience, but to fully appreciate the problem, I invite you to reflect on the absence of a serious bookshop in St. Lucia for the last several years since the closing down of Sunshine Bookshop. Reflect on the quality of public discourse in St. Lucia.
And even more appallingly, I invite you to examine the intellectual quality of your Cabinet and its leadership: take a look at its public pronouncements, examine its attitude to the university and its academics, examine its love-hate relationship with learning, its intolerance to ideas, free thinking and independent thought, and you will understand why I am so effusive in congratulating you for sustaining this lecture series and why I am so genuinely pleased to accept your invitation.
And just think that the intellectual climate that I have described is what exits in George Odlum’s country today.
It is the puzzle of this wide gap between the work and life of George Odlum, the ideals that he pursued on one hand, and the current underdeveloped condition of St. Lucian political life today, which has prompted this talk.
Explaining the Title
The persons who invited me to speak here today wanted me to speak on the topic of George Odlum’s contribution to the development of trade unionism in St. Lucia. Specifically, I was invited to “examine Mr. Odlum’s style of political engagement through trade unionism and explore the relevance of this style to our present political environment in St. Lucia”.
I felt, however, that our Caribbean and St. Lucian societies are in the present going through a particularly troubling moment of political retrogression as part of what I have called the crisis of the post-colonial order, and I thought it would be far more useful to engage in a broader critical analysis of the political praxis of George Odlum, and to assess its meaning and implications for the present. I have, therefore, entitled my talk: “Electorally Compromised Class Suicide: An Appraisal of the Political Praxis of Bro. George Odlum and its Lessons for the Present”. In my talk, therefore, I wish to do the following:
Firstly, I will endeavour to explain what I mean by class suicide and show why it is a useful lens for understanding Bro. George’s political engagement in St Lucia. I will locate this discussion within a broader context of the role of the educated class in the creation of post-colonial states, and I will show why this was the appropriate path, given the debates about independence and post-colonial development which were dominant around the time of Bro George’s early engagement in St. Lucia. I will endeavour to demonstrate why Brother George Odlum’s praxis in St. Lucia can be understood partly within the context of his own class suicide in St. Lucia.
I emphasise the word “partly” as a prelude to explaining my second task. That is to discuss why Bro. George’s class suicide can be described as having been electorally compromised and how this electorally compromised class suicide helps explain his politics in his later years and how it has continued to impact the politics of St. Lucia in the present.
Then I will come to my third and final task, which will be to link the discussion to the present politics of St. Lucia. You would notice that in discussing the aims of the paper, I have been deliberately parsimonious in my explanations since I wish the arguments to unfold as I build them. What I will do in the third section is to show why I feel that much of the retrograde aspects of St. Lucia’s politics today may be a consequence of the electorally compromised nature of George’s political intervention.
I will explain why I am describing St. Lucia’s politics as retrograde, inclusive of the political split in Bro. George’s left-wing followership into mainstream petty-bourgeois partisan camps, the general anti-intellectual political culture against which we are all struggling, and the general absence of any progressive movement or grouping which can be traced to the remnants of Bro. George’s followers.
I will describe all of these tendencies and the general political condition of St. Lucia in some detail and I will offer as an explanation the electorally compromised nature of George’s class suicide. I will also show why this kind of electoral compromise is a common feature impacting on revolutionaries given the location of the post-colonial state in global economy and I will end with some suggestions on how some of the current weaknesses can be overcome.
Class Suicide as a Political Necessity for the Educated Class in the Making of Genuine Independence and Socialist Revolution
There is much in the political praxis in Brother George Odlum which suggests that his early involvement in the politics of St. Lucia was guided by the perspectives of anti-colonial thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral who had seized upon the necessity of class suicide of the educated classes as a necessary tool for national liberation.
My thesis is that Odlum, given the time of his studies and the timing of his return to St. Lucia, in the middle of the Third World decolonisation moment, had consciously arrived at the conclusion that his own class suicide was necessary if he were to participate meaningfully in the process of building independence in St. Lucia.
Around the time of George’s return to St. Lucia, a central feature of the discourse around independence had revolved around the role of the educated classes in the context of the anti-colonial struggle and the decolonisation movement. Much intellectual energy was expended in that discourse around the question of which classes were genuinely revolutionary, which groups should place themselves at the vanguard of the struggle for independence and which groups were least able to lead a struggle for genuine independence given their specific social locations and, more precisely, given their subordinate relation to the retreating colonial power. Much of this debate was couched in terms of “true decolonisation” versus “false decolonisation”.
More specifically, given the specific social location of Western-educated groups as the natural technocratic class whose responsibility it was to construct the newly-independent states, and given their indoctrination into Western ideas and ideals, a tremendous amount of attention was placed on the suitability or unsuitability of the Western-educated class in leading the independence revolutions. Relatedly, a tremendous amount of energy was spent in identifying what was required of these classes in order to become the genuine leaders of the Third World anti-colonial project.
It is in this context that Bro. George, an Oxford-educated black St. Lucian from lower middle class origins, the brightest of his generation and his class suicide, must be understood.
Particularly important in clarifying the responsibility of the educated sections of the national petit bourgeoisie was the work of the Martiniquan psychiatrist and revolutionary intellectual Frantz Fanon. In his famous work, “The Wretched of the Earth”, Fanon offered a critique of the failure of the educated sections of the national petit bourgeois middle class who, on the basis of their compromise with the external colonial powers, were unable to fulfil the promise of true independence and to truly become revolutionary and anti-colonial. According to Fanon:
“The unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and let it be said their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle, will give rise to tragic mishaps. At the hands of the National Bourgeoisie national consciousness is only an “empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been.”
This rejection of the Western-educated middle class and petit bourgeoisie as a revolutionary force is also echoed by Caribbean scholar, C.L.R. James, who saw the economic powerlessness of the middle class as frustrating its capacity to be truly revolutionary.
James had noted that this “middle class with political power minus economic power are still politically paralysed before their former masters, who are still masters”, and he suggested that the only way of changing the structure of the economy and setting it on new paths is by mobilizing the mass against all who stand in their way.”
Given their built-in weaknesses in relation to the former colonial power, Fanon and James placed little hope in the national petit bourgeoisie to bring about true decolonisation unless, of course, they committed class suicide.
As Fanon put it:
“In an under-developed country, an authentic middle-class ought to consider as its bounden duty to betray the calling fate has marked out for it, and to put itself to school with the people: in other words to put at the people’s disposal the intellectual and technical capital that it has snatched when going through the colonial universities.”
This combined perspective of C.L.R. James and Frantz Fanon provide the classic definition of class suicide and I am arguing tonight that this is intellectual framework against which Bro. George sought to model himself when he engaged in St. Lucia’s political life. Indeed, I think this is what the organisers meant when they suggested to me that I should speak on the “political style” of Brother George in his engagement in politics and trade unionism.
Whatever the differences which existed amongst the various anti-colonial theorists, they all agreed on this necessity for class suicide on the part of the petit bourgeoisie leadership of the national movements since the objective class position of the petit bourgeoisie made them susceptible to betrayal and compromise.
Thus, in contrast to Frantz Fanon, who had rejected the national petit bourgeoisie and who had insisted that “in colonial countries the peasants alone are revolutionary”, Amilcar Cabral, the revolutionary from Guinea Bissau, argued in favour of incorporating the Western-educated petit bourgeoisie into the anti-colonial formation given their technical abilities, and given the historical humiliations that they had suffered by the colonial authorities. Cabral, in my view, quite correctly insisted that only technically-trained and educated persons could administer the State.
However, whilst Cabral insisted that only with an alliance between the working class, the peasantry and the national petit bourgeoisie could true independence come about, he insisted on the class suicide of the Western-educated petit bourgeoisie as a necessary feature of the anti-colonial revolution. Whilst Cabral felt that the national petit bourgeoisie should be the vanguard of this alliance, he insisted that in order to fulfil its historical role, the Western-educated national petit bourgeoisie had to “commit class suicide in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers”.
I should add that this insistence on class suicide on the part of the Western-educated elites had much to do with the guilt for having escaped from the conditions in which the vast majority of workers and peasants remained trapped. This dilemma is expressed most clearly by the Barbadian author and intellectual, George Lamming, who described the dilemma of the educated class in the following way:
“And here we encounter one of the sharpest contradictions of our inheritance. You are a minority: and you are a minority because education is scarce and was intended to be a scarcity so that it might serve as an instrument of continuing social stratification, an index of privilege and status, a deformed habit of material self-improvement. This has created acute problems for all forms of leadership. The political leader is the educated one. He leads from above. It has also complicated the role of the intellectuals in their relation to the mass of the population. These are men and women who live and work in an orbit of privilege, and share in those material interests which bind them to the dominant ruling group. Their relation to the mass of the population is a dubious relation; it is a fragile relation; and in some circumstances, it is an utterly fraudulent relation. This scarcity of education amidst the mass of our people has given the minority an easy access to comfort; it confers a superficial and sometimes tyrannical authority. It breeds a dangerous self-importance.”
It is this dilemma which the Guyanese revolutionary, Walter Rodney, confronted head-on in his “Groundings With My Brothers”, where he presented for us his own formula for class suicide in the context of the Caribbean.
“Now what is my position? What is the position of all of us because we fall in the category of the black West Indian Intellectual, a privilege in our society? What do we do with that privilege? The traditional pattern is that we join the establishment. The black educated man in the West Indies is as much part of the system of oppression as the bank managers and the plantation overseers.”
Once again, Rodney, like the others, after presenting the objective condition of the educated colonial, presents class suicide as the necessary response.
Finally, in our discussion of class suicide, we must focus on the intervention of the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin’s recommendations in “What Is To Be Done”. Lenin insisted that for genuine revolution to occur there must emerge a class of persons who become professional revolutionaries. Lenin was particularly concerned with overcoming what he called opportunism. This opportunism, he noted, was particularly evident in trade union movements which he accused of falling prone to “narrow economism”.
By narrow economism, he meant that the trade union would focus on bread and butter issues but would be unable or unwilling to overthrow the economic system which was the ultimate cause of the exploitation of the working class in the first place. When economism overtakes the trade union movement, the conditions become ripe for opportunistic trade unionists, who are happy to preserve the economic system, while seeking small economic gains for labour which, in the final analysis, help capitalism to perpetuate itself. In class terms, these trade union leaders are indistinguishable from the bourgeoisie which they are supposedly struggling against. You are free to apply this to any trade unionists with whom you are familiar.
In such conditions, and in order to overcome this opportunism, Lenin recommended the emergence of “professional revolutionaries” — ones who make revolution their profession. Like the others before him, Lenin felt that this role was the specific responsibility for the intelligentsia because only they had the clarity to separate narrow trade union economism from genuine revolutionary struggle. Only they had the ability to transform the trade union struggle into a political struggle. So becoming a professional revolutionary, following Lenin, was another requirement of the educated personality and another aspect of this class suicide which we are discussing.
George Odlum’s Class Suicide
So, I hope that I have made the point that at the moment when the young George Odlum was completing his studies at Oxford University in the UK and around the period of his general engagement in St. Lucian public life, there was a wide body of intellectual opinion which suggested that those educated colonials who wished to place themselves at the vanguard of the anti-colonial struggle would have to commit class suicide to “be reborn as revolutionary workers”.
For those who may be thinking that class suicide is an analytical concept that bears no relation to reality, I invite to consider the following:
Nelson Mandela who, along with Oliver Tambo, could have had the largest black legal practice in Johannesburg, opting instead to plunge himself into anti-apartheid struggle, risking execution and spending 27 years in prison, at tremendous personal cost to his family and personal life.
Consider Fidel and Raul Castro, sons of a wealthy land-owner, with Fidel a lawyer, engaging in revolutionary struggle, facing imprisonment and death, and once the revolution was successful, nationalised his family’s estate as one of the first acts of the revolution.
Consider his compatriot, Che Guevara, born in Argentina and a trained medical doctor, devoting his life to exporting revolution, engaging in revolutionary struggle in the Congo, and even after successfully founding a revolution in Cuba, moving on to Bolivia where he died a horrible death in a rural schoolroom. Again, consider the sacrifice, the young family that he left behind. Consider the class suicide: a medical profession never pursued.
Consider the scores and scores of middle- and upper-class Caribbean boys who returned from university to their shocked families wearing dreadlocks and identifying with Rastafari.
Consider, even, Karl Marx dying in abject poverty or his compatriot, Friedrich Engels, who was the son of an English industrialist and who, had he been alive today would, in comparative terms, have been as wealthy as Donald Trump, but who devoted his life to supporting Marx in the International Workingmen’s Association and in theorising the Communist revolution. Engel’s study of the English working class in the factories of the kind owned by his father is a clear example of class suicide.
And, tonight, I am inviting all of us to consider the early political engagement of Bro. George Odlum as part of that tradition of class suicide.
Odlum himself describes his own class suicide in a published interview with an American research student in the following way:
“I have a fear of authority and power. I know that power corrupts and that it corrupts absolutely and I always try to keep a kind of humility, a kind of way of seeing things from the point of view of the ordinary man: a way of identifying with the lowest common denominator in society in my thinking, so that you do not get carried away because there is the crazy graft of power which brings arrogance and can make a man unbearable just because he is in a positon of authority. So always I have a kind of touchstone that I use to prevent me from getting carried away in any of these things: to see what are just the trappings, what are just trinkets, and what are the fundamental principles.”
Those who think that my reference to class suicide may be romanticising Odlum’s contribution too much, just have to think of the employment possibilities of an Oxford graduate in the context of the limited educational opportunities for persons in the 1950s and 60s Caribbean, and it will be realised that his decision to return to St. Lucia was itself an act of class suicide.
Moreso, think of his decision to abandon his job as the Executive Secretary to the Council of Ministers of the West Indies Associated States Secretary (WISA) (a job that would have been the equivalent to the post of Director General of the OECS) to plunge himself into the work of the Forum, SLAM, the Farmers and Farm Workers’ Union and the Saint Lucia Labour Party.
I want to suggest tonight, too, that much of the reactionary critique of George and much of the official resistance to his engagement in St. Lucia’s politics was aimed at destroying his example of the radical Western-educated scholar identifying with popular political aspirations. For example, very early into the life of the Forum’s engagement in the task of public education, a deliberate counter-revolution was started by the defenders of the establishment, at the centre of which was an attack on civil servants who were “engaging in politics”.
A perusal of the newspapers shows that George came under heavy attack for being public intellectual and firebrand revolutionary at night and regional civil servant during the day. Firing George, or forcing him to choose the quiet public servant life was a principal tactic of his political enemies, particularly those associated with the Voice Newspaper editorials, who hoped that by forcing unemployment upon him his politics would be somehow blunted and his spirit would be broken.
Many of the seeds of the anti-intellectualism which now pervades present-day St. Lucia were planted during this period and, as is usually the case in St. Lucian public life, the attacks on George were tinged with heavy doses of personal envy, with suggestions that he was “squandering his education” and that he was a bad example to the youth. Thankfully, for St. Lucia, Odlum was strong enough to ignore these lesser voices and took the heroic path of class suicide, which allows us now the opportunity to examine his actual ideas and his politics.
The Political Ideas and Praxis of George Odlum
Once Odlum abandoned the job with WISA, everything about his ideas and practice suggests a political life lived in conformity to the ideals of the class suicide of an educated nationalist at the vanguard of the anti-colonial struggle. It was a significant contribution. For the purposes of this lecture, since we cannot cover everything, I will be presenting Odlum’s political work and contribution under three headings.
First, there was his work and involvement in the Forum. The Forum itself was modelled on the groundings of Walter Rodney, in which the educated groups brought their technical skills directly to the public in a series of groundings and public education sessions, thus influencing the direction of the new nation.
In this effort, he was joined by several others, including HilfordDeterville, Peter Josie, Michael “Kiak” Mondesir, Johnson Jn. Baptiste, Servillus Jeffrey, Tom Walcott, Julian Hunte, and others. It is my view that the Forum achieved the goal of closing the distance between the educated groups and the mass of the population.
For the first time, St. Lucia was presented with the model of the public intellectual, selflessly sharing his knowledge with the people, identifying with the interests of the common folk, and applying technical skills to local issue and questions. Whilst the example of the St. Lucia Arts Guild predated Odlum and the Forum, it is true to say that the Guild was largely a cultural movement while the Forum widened its work to cover the economy, politics, society, political economy and national development as a whole. A similar argument can also be presented in the case of the Folk Research Centre and Paba’s Social Action Group in later periods.
One of the important documents of the Forum, which should be read and studied by all serious researchers of the period, is a document called “The Challenge of the 70s”. The document is virtually a manifesto and an antithesis of the dominant path of development being pursued by the Compton administration and presents an alternative reading on the possibilities of development which continue to be relevant in present-day St. Lucia. It should be read by all, but in order to capture the essence of the thinking of Odlum and the Forumites, I will let the document speak for itself:
“The body of ideas which constitute “Forum thinking” is not original. They are ideas well-rooted in the struggle to overcome oppression, but such ideas are of necessity unpalatable in a tight society where vested interests are eager to protect their privileges and advantages. To tell the business interests who are accustomed to a free-for-all commercial system that Government should now impose checks on their profit-making is a sure way of getting their backs up…To tell the privileged whites that the magic of their whiteness will now disappear with the inculcation of black pride and dignity is to strike at the heart of a tradition which some people felt was almost God-given. To tell the wealthy that there must be a redistribution of wealth in order to upgrade the living conditions of the poor and the under-privileged is to court the disfavour of those who own the wealth at present. It is no consolation to these fortunate people to tell them that all these ideas are contained in various papal encyclicals and are not trumped-up by hot-headed radicals.”
The second important political contribution of Odlum is his public education work via the Crusader. I remember hearing Odlum on a platform at the (Castries) Market Steps after he had walked away from the job of the Ambassador to the UN, and responding to claims that he could not hold down a job. In response to this claim, Odlum responded that he was the editor of a newspaper and he never left that job. He never left his job with the Crusader and he wrote his editorials every week. Once again, in this claim, Odlum was demonstrating the features of the professional revolutionary, the man who makes revolution his profession.
The Crusader was a vehicle which extended the platform of political education. As a political tool, its existence stood in conformity to C.L.R. James’ directive in “Party Politics in the West Indies” that every revolutionary party or movement should have a newspaper as an independent organ, not only to build political consciousness among party cadres but as a democratic mechanism to allow ordinary members a voice and to help to influence the direction of the country.
It is fair to say that since the death of Bro. George, there has been no newspaper engaging in the kind of work undertaken by the Crusader. Further, none of the other political parties in St. Lucia were able to sustain their party organs as Odlum did with the Crusader. Neither the UWP’s Vanguard nor the SLP’s Labour nor the National Workers’ Union’s Combat had the impact on political consciousness as did the Crusader. Similarly, whilst other left-wing groups in the region had their small newspapers, it was perhaps only Tim Hector’s Outlet newspaper which had the kind of wide intellectual and political impact on its society as George Odlum’s Crusader had on St. Lucia.
In addition to its work in advancing culture and literature, the Crusader was anti-imperialist, anti-corruption and anti-authoritarian and supported the left-wing socialist and national liberation projects in the region and globally. It provided an important voice for the left and was an important source of news on the progress of anti-systemic movements, thus playing an important role in connecting St. Lucia’s radical politics to a wider global agenda.
The Crusader played a very important journalistic role of checking the excesses of the Compton administration and, as such, contributed to the democratic development of St. Lucia. For most St. Lucians, the Crusader was the newspaper which pioneered investigative journalism and, in a context of political dominance of Compton’s UWP and an underdeveloped civil society, was the only place where the corruption of government officials could be resisted and the intricate details of policy decisions which were normally hidden from the public exposed and challenged.
It was in the pages of the Crusader that the exploitation of Geest Industries and the emisseration of banana workers was fought. It was in the pages of the Crusader that the Compton-led independence was fought. Relatedly, it was in the pages of the Crusader that campaign of “No Independence Before Elections” was fought. It was in the Crusader that the Lopsided Agreement with Hess Oil was exposed and fought, and it was in the Crusader that cases of police brutality and extra-judicial killings were exposed and fought, the most famous one being the Yamaha execution. So George’s work in the Crusader, this political journalism and this political education via a newspaper represents, in my view, his second critical contribution to the political life of St. Lucia in his role of a professional revolutionary who has committed class suicide.
And, finally, the third significant contribution which can be attributed to George Odlum is his leadership of the St. Lucian left and facilitating the participation of St. Lucia in the global socialist movement. If the decade of the 1950s was the decade of decolonisation, then the decades of the 1960s and 1970s were the decades of Pan-Africanist and socialist revolution. And between the 1960s and the mid-1980s, it is without doubt that George Odlum was the leading figure of the St. Lucian left.
It is also significant that his role as chief left-wing ideologue was taking place at the very moment of independence in St. Lucia. The relevance of this resides in the fact that an important part of the discourse of the left was that our countries did not have to enter independence as dependent satellites of the traditional Western powers – the USA and Britain. Instead, the St. Lucian left led by George were firm in their conviction that what they called the balance of “world forces” was shifting in favour of socialist and national liberation movements and, as a result, this provided space for countries like St. Lucia to widen their linkages with a wider range of countries which could provide more development options minus the colonial exploitative strings of the more familiar traditional partners.
In a Crusader article of September 22, 1978, George was full of praise for an intervention on SLTV by a young Kenny Anthony who, as part of a panel discussion on the expected foreign policy of a prospective independent St. Lucia, had argued firmly in favour of our participation in the non-aligned movement since that would have provided us with greater leverage in the global arena.
Under George’s leadership, the left forces in St. Lucia were able to develop significant linkages with the global social movements. His relations with Maurice Bishop, the New Jewel Movement and the Grenada Revolution as well as with Gadhafi’s Libya are too well-known to detain us here today.
It is, of course, equally well-known that the path taken by Compton was to reject this option of widening his foreign policy. Compton instead was to declare that both our geography and our history place us in the West and that he would fly neither in the face of geography and history. He was unapologetic in insisting that he was content to remain in the orbit of the USA and Britain.
Given our current attempts to diversity our foreign policies, it is well worth reflecting how much further ahead we would have been had we from a much earlier point in our independence understood, like George did, that our newly-won sovereignty gave us the capacity to find new friends and to establish new political relations with a wider group of countries in this modern world.
Understanding the Present: What of the Legacy of Bro. George
So what went wrong, you may well ask? How did we get to where we are today? If we take the three points which I chose to highlight as George’s enduring contribution — his class suicide and his groundings as seen in the Forum, his public education as seen in the Crusader, and his commitments to left-of-centre politics – if we are to take these three and ask how is it reflected in St. Lucian political life today, what would the answer be?
If Brother George did all of these things, why is it that his legacy of public education is not seen in the quality of the public discourse in St. Lucia? Why is it that one of his closest disciples in the 1987 election must now in 2017 have become so un-George-like that he would have appended his name to a silly letter calling for the firing of regional academic for engaging in his academic work? Where is the legacy of the Crusader? Who is carrying on the tradition of public intellectual engaging in critical analysis of the society and offering radical solutions?
Where are the present-day left wing movements identifying with global socialism and Pan-Africanism? Where are the remnants of George’s party to defend the Venezuelan revolution of Hugo Chavez – the most exciting socialist revolution in our hemisphere in the twenty-first century? Where are the individuals to whom we can point and of whom we can say this is George’s beloved disciple in whom he would have been well pleased? Where is the worthy disciple of George continuing the tradition of anti-systemic politics in St. Lucia? Where is George’s party? Where are his party cadres? Where are the people who followed him from Forum to SLAM to the SLP and then to the PLP and beyond?
These are not empirically difficult questions to answer. The apostles are still alive today and any good research student can provide fairly adequate answers to these questions in short order. However, whilst they are not empirically difficult questions, they are philosophically difficult questions. These questions are not being asked or researched, I suspect, because the stakeholders might find the answers too embarrassing. But, tonight I will attempt an answer.
A cursory answer to these questions is that it is difficult to find in any of those who claim followership of George, a reflection of the George Odlum I described above. You will not find the class suicide by which George lived and you will not find the professional revolutionaries. You will find a good few accommodating petit bourgeois politicians and quite a few petit bourgeoisie trade unionists engaging in the narrow economism which Lenin denounced. You will find opportunism and personal greed as being the motivation to enter politics today.
Take a look at the current Cabinet of St. Lucia, take a look at its leadership, listen to its discourse, examine its policy direction, search out its ideological world-view and show me where George Odlum and his ideas are reflected in any of it. Imagine if George were around, how he would respond to the claim coming out the Cabinet of St. Lucia and its apologists that politics is a business and that running a government is like managing a private firm.
And this takes us to my final question: how did we get here and what are the lessons in the politics of George Odlum for the present?
Electorally Compromised Class Suicide
In response to the question, what happened to the left and its politics, which is essentially what I have been asking above, the answer is normally sought in the changing global dynamic since the 1980s. Typically, we are told that the Grenada Revolution collapsed and the Soviet Union imploded and, as a consequence, the global framework which sustained the politics of George Odlum and others like him no longer obtains. Such an answer carries with it the ideological consequence of facilitating all kinds of betrayals and abandonments of progressive politics.
Whilst I accept the impact of the global framework as a broad overarching structural context, it does not explain the minutia of the St. Lucian experience. Tonight, I want to posit that a deeper explanation for the retrogression of St. Lucian politics and for the break in continuity between George’s revolutionary politics and the politics of the present resides in the fact that Bro. George, by embarking upon electoral politics, compromised his role as a genuine revolutionary and this opened the door for the emergence of electoral considerations and partisan politics to become the dominant feature of his practice.
In saying this, I want to add quickly that this is not a personal failing of George but it is a reality that has confronted all radical movements in a capitalist world-economy in which State power provides one of the surest mechanisms by which such movements can affect decision-making at home.
The question of the attitude of radical movements to State power is an extremely difficult question and I am positing here that it posed a difficulty for Bro. George as well. One of the clearest places in which this difficulty has been described and discussed is in the work of Immanuel Wallerstien, who has spent a lot of time researching the limits of the political power of states in the capitalist world-economy and who has spent much time describing the dilemma of left-wing social movements in their attitude to state power.
One of the main concerns for Wallerstein is the huge contradiction which exists in the fact that while “socialist movements wanted to destroy the state in the long-run (withering away of the state), in the short-term they saw the necessity of a strong state in order to make it possible to eventually destroy the world-capitalist system”.
Wallerstien was also bemused by the fact that “the bourgeoisie has always organized itself in relation to the world-economy…whilst the Proletarian forces – despite their internationalist rhetoric – have been far more nationalist than their ideologies permitted”. In other words, revolutionaries should be very careful in their quest for State power, in the context where those states continue to be constrained in their possibilities by the reality of the world-economy in which they find themselves.
CLR James put the dilemma most clearly when he declared that:
“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to taking over the productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit.”
And that was Bro. George’s dilemma. Once he agreed to take the plunge into electoral politics, his class suicide came to an end. He shifted from professional revolutionary to politician seeking parliamentary office. The singular feature of this quest for office becomes political compromise, and it assumes a life of its own.
Most significantly, George’s decision split the progressive movement – a split from which it has not recovered. Indeed, every stage of George’s electoral political career resulted in newer and further splitting of the St. Lucian progressive and radical social movement because he was such a compelling political force pulling satellites around him.
We saw the first signs of this splitting of the left in his decision to form SLAM. You should read the response in the Voice Newspaper which carried the headline on September 30, 1972, “SLAM is Born”, and a later edition of June 15, 1973, which carried the headline, “An Inside View of Slam: The meeting that almost ended in bloodshed”, to get a sense of the kinds of tensions which existed over the fissures which occurred over the question of electoral politics. A small snippet of the June 15, 1973 article gives a sense of these tensions. The article reads as follows:
“It is not without special significance the fact that Walcott, Josie and Odlum are all former hierarchs of the now-defunct St. Lucia Forum unlike Julian Hunte, Hilary Modeste, Carlisle Jn. Baptise, and Servillus Jeffrey whose resignations from SLAM were announced last week. Neither is it a secret that the traditional politicians of SLAM experienced tremendous difficulty communicating with their Forum-oriented colleagues. Indeed, while both Odlum and Josie have often declared that “we do not consider ourselves politicians in the conventional sense”, Hunte, Cenac and other non-Forum members of SLAM openly admit being “involved in conventional politics and that means campaigning in the conventional manner”.
I should tell you that the resignations occurred, according to the article, over a decision by the Odlum-Josie-Walcott group to call a banana strike which offended the more conventional politicians. Whatever the explanation, the point, however, is that the St. Lucian progressive forces were being split by party politics.
The first split occurred when Forum became SLAM. Many Forumites stayed away over the shift to conventional party politics. The SLAM group later split into the UWP and SLP. There was a further fissure of the SLP into the PLP, again revolving around the electoral question of the political leadership of the SLP in which Bro. George was centrally involved. The 1987 election was particularly revelatory of the consequences of the split of the left when George’s candidate in Castries North, “Ossie Boy” Augustin, did enough to ensure that Julian Hunte’s SLP, twice in one month, was kept out of office.
George, by the early 1990s, again found himself electorally compromised when he accepted the offer of the UN Ambassador under John Compton’s UWP. His resignation followed the decision by Compton to select Professor Vaughan Lewis as his successor which, again, plunged him in electoral politics under the National Front Banner, again further splitting the working class. That condition of stasis remained until the mid-1990s when the left-of-centre forces, including George, combined around Kenny Anthony to retake the government and, this of course, ended with George’s critique of Kenny and his eventual dismissal from the government and George’s participation in the Alliance which, again, as expected, resulted in further fracturing of the left up to the point of George’s death. The St. Lucian left has not survived these decades of splintering.
And so we are where we are today and we know who are the political beneficiaries of that permanent split of the left. George’s group is now scattered, some dead, some withdrawn from politics, some exist as petit bourgeois reformist trade unionists, a progressive remnant exists within the SLP, and a conservative remnant at home in the UWP or, more correctly, if not pro-UWP, certainly against the SLP where George left them. And that explains our condition today.
Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum and when the brightest and most progressive forces have been rent asunder, the door is open for anything to enter. I leave you to judge whether what we have now as our political leadership is not the true and literal definition of anything. It is only a repair of the left, the healing of the split, which can restore the situation. But that is a political task of the future and it is a very difficult task given all that has passed under the bridge. But it is a task that must be undertaken. It is my hope that my reflections tonight can be the spark that moves us in that direction.
I want to conclude, however, with a word of advice in relation to the preservation of George’s memory. It is often the case that when the memories of our revolutionary heroes are captured by future generations, they are often done so stripped of their revolutionary personas. The Jamaican scholar, Anthony Bogues, has identified this process in the case of Bob Marley and Martin Luther King Jr. in the following way:
“The figure of Robert Nesta Marley is iconic. T-shirts, videos, the entire paraphernalia of international commodification and communication, including the Walt Disney theme park of freedom, seem to work overtime to make the “rastaman who chanted down Babylon” into a fangless musician…This process… can also be seen in the dominant representation of Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s life, thought and practice fold into the “I Have A Dream” speech, and he becomes the dreamer who adorns a US postage stamp. “One Love”, a Rastafarian phrase meaning unity and respect, becomes the theme song of the former British Empire to greet the new millennium”.
In both these processes, radicalism is expunged.
I wish to add that a similar process has occurred in the case of Nelson Mandela, who is now remembered as a sweet old grandfather, but whose role as the leader of an armed revolutionary group is now deliberately forgotten.
It is my firm wish that those who have so organized themselves to preserve the memory of George Odlum will do all in their power to avoid this process of “de-radicalising” his memory. You must do all in your power to ensure that the people who had no association with him during his period of class suicide do not try to freeze him into the compromised politician who was a friend to all parties. You must do all in your power to ensure that those who wrote bitter weekly editorials against him and who tried to discredit his radicalism do not now emerge to claim his electorally compromised years as the only True George. You must ensure that he is not frozen for future generations as the Oxford literary man.
George Odlum was a socialist, a black power advocate and a Marxist revolutionary. He was an ally of Maurice Bishop and a friend of Muammar Gadhafi. He was an anti-colonial freedom fighter who committed class suicide to put his training at the service of the people.
I hope, for my part, that I have done enough to preserve his legacy as a black socialist radical, and that I have avoided the trap of not deradicalising his memory.