A report by Amílcar Sanatan for TeleSur.
The Caribbean and the developing world were places of high intellectual and political excitement by the late 1950s. Political leadership in the Caribbean was occupied by the likes of Norman Manley, Eric Williams, Cheddi Jagan and others.
The debate of the British West Indies Federation initiated a popular conversation on “West Indian nationhood.” Intellectually, CLR James from Trinidad and Tobago emerged as a major Marxist theorist, while culturally a distinct “West Indian literature” and a sporting excellence via West Indies cricket helped bolster a “Caribbean consciousness.”
Internationally, Africa was on the rise, socialist Cuba was an inspiration and “the ghost of Marcus Garvey,” according to Norman Girvan, enriched the racial consciousness of the Black masses. While these events unfolded, the Faculty of Social Sciences was being established at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. It was against this backdrop that students at the UWI were articulating their political aspirations. By 1960-61, progressive faculty and students at the Mona Campus established the West Indian Society for the Study of Social Issues, the forerunner to the New World Group.
The New World group was formed in Georgetown, Guyana in 1962. In the same year, the first edition of the New World Quarterly was published. The group and its quarterly journal engaged in challenging imported and imposed conceptualizations of the economy, society, culture and politics and turn “epistemic dependency” on its head. The New World Group in many ways was the “gold standard of Caribbean intellectual development,” according to James Millette. The Pan-Caribbean approach of the membership and journal proposed regional solutions to regional problems. “Every Caribbean scholar should be a regionalist,” Gordon Lewis made clear in simple words. “Mental insularismo” undercuts the regional integration project and purpose. Pan-Caribbean approaches are inter-disciplinary, they cross linguistic boundaries, and grounds analyses in the context of hemisphere and not just the realities of a particular island or nation state.
The New World Quarterly and the intellectual developments that followed the journal left an indelible mark on Caribbean intellectual thought, especially in the field of economics. For example, the plantation thesis of society that examines the relationship between the mass of the population to land, the role of extractive industries and historical economic transitions fervently built on the potential of dependency thought. This interdisciplinary perspective draws on sociology, economics, history and anthropology to help explain the Caribbean economic dependence within the international capitalist system, the racial and class formations of the social structures within the region and the “Americas.” The intellectual movement also represented a challenge to the economic orthodoxy of the then ruling political class and the status quo of “foreign white academics” and European knowledge at the university.
Policy formation, the question of political activism and organizational weaknesses accelerated the decline of the New World group by the early 1970s.
New World proposals for land reform, nationalization and state-led development backfired on the group as the examples of Jamaica and Guyana in the 1970s exposed the severe limitations of these approaches when unmanaged. Caribbean paternalistic political culture and shortcomings in the technical capacity of the state at the time undermined the forecasted dividends of “radical” reform and greater state control of the economy. Girvan observed, “It is a moot point whether the policies followed by the Burnham and Manley administrations in the 1970s were those that were actually advocated, or intended, by the New World Group. What mattered is the perception that they were. The status of ideas became linked to the status of regimes that were perceived to be putting them into practice.”
Lloyd Best’s assertion that “Thought is the action for us,” has been popularly misinterpreted as an expression of disengagement with movements of the time. Rather, the statement affirms the role of ideas in the process of social change and transformation, and the labor to produce ideas relevant to the Caribbean context was both a political act and worthy of pursuing. However, this posture did not accommodate the rapid changes that the late 1960s and 1970s created, especially in Trinidad and Tobago’s Black Power Revolution.
The New World group was recognized for its stellar contribution to the intellectual development of the region. But the focus on the historical-structural formations of society did not take up issues of personal, collective and systemic empowerment as the feminist movement would have done in the decade to follow after. Empowering people through organizations are central to the sustenance of movement building.
Gita Sen and Caren Grown wrote, “Empowerment of organizations, individuals and movements has certain requisites. These include resources (finance, knowledge, technology), skills training, and leadership formation on the one side; and democratic processes, dialogue, participation in policy and decision-making, and techniques for conflict resolution on the other.”
Organizing skills, when taken up seriously, develop the long-term viability of movements and grows the potential for radical change beyond a moment, phase or historical opportunity.
Ultimately, there was a split in the group. These views helped solidify Trevor Munroe’s Marxist critique of the New World as a group of bourgeois idealists. Girvan identifies the split in the group as a conflict between the decision of members to be involved in direct political action or intellectualism. The question of political action was also tied to the question of “independent thought” in the Caribbean. Marxist responses to the New World poked at its rejection of “foreign ideologies” contending that social conditions are not exclusively unique to the region and cultural comparisons from “outside” provide frameworks of interpreting the society.
The political utility and intellectual credentials of the New World were ultimately in question. While neither the Marxists nor the New World proponents were completely right or wrong in their assertions, a major cost of this breakdown was the decline in the radical search for Caribbean solutions engineered for Caribbean problems. Dogmatism and ideological certitude on both sides were unproductive to each of their causes in the eyes of history.
The shortcomings of the New World group do not outweigh the valuable impact the movement made to Caribbean transformation. The volunteer effort of the young academics, transnational distribution of journals via suitcase and “friend-of-a-friend” marketing and the influencing of state policy and course curricula in the university for at least two decades are no small order. Many young people of my generation do not know a thing about the New World and many do not share their sense of purpose now. For these reasons, the effort of the Girvan family to launch an open-access web-based platform for the New World Journals on June 23, 2017, was promising. Lloyd Best, George Beckford, Kari Levitt, Norman Girvan, James Millette, Alister McIntyre, and the many others now have a better chance to be taken up by Caribbean youth today.
I felt disheartened that one of the most prolific intellectual movements in the Caribbean let itself go into obsolescence at the launch of the website. Apart from the external and sociological conditions that impair its abilities, personality conflicts and posturing served the final blows. The dissolution of the British West Indies Federation, the achievement of independence and the birth of a higher level of intellectual and popular consciousness should not have signaled the demise of groups such as the New World.
The failures of a generation before me are also our inheritance. We must learn, if not remember, that stepping forward in history includes looking back. The launch of the New World Journal is not a debt we are paying to those who came before, it is an investment in our future.