Lessons from CLR


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Category: Reflections 24 Aug 14


“The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased.”

—CLR James in The Black Jacobins.

In that uncomfortable cabin space, hard for smaller people like me, impossible for a tall large man, life is made easier by small courtesies from fellow travellers. The man notices me unsuccessfully haul my dense hand luggage in the overhead locker and swiftly does it for me.

When we settle down for the long flight from Gatwick to Piarco I notice a book on his seat. It is one by CLR James, the Tunapuna- born historian, journalist, social theorist, political activist and essayist, a Caribbean writer I love and admire, a writer whose ideas from his books and essays continue to shape the condition of ordinary working people worldwide.

Lovers of cricket know CLR James for his autobiographical 1963 book, Beyond a Boundary, which he himself described as "neither cricket reminiscences nor autobiography.” It is considered the finest book on cricket (or even the best book on any sport) ever written.

I witnessed CLR’s religious state funeral in ’89. A rookie journalist, I came face to face for the first time with the idea of the State as a predator. I wished I’d known him. I wondered then what this exiled atheist, giant intellect, shunned in his lifetime, would have thought of his famous corpse being claimed as a PR exercise.

I read James’ The Black Jacobins when I was a student in Canada. It pushed me to develop a sense of social justice, and see the power of the ordinary man and woman. It was through James I learned of the brutal conditions of slavery, the psyche of slave owners, of poor or “small” whites and “free” blacks and mulattoes. It was through James I joined student marches against injustice and felt the power of ordinary people. James influenced my final paper about slavery, and how this heinous practice based on greed dislodged an entire people, left them wounded.

All this must have run through my head somewhere throughout the ten-hour flight. I learned his name. Ozzi Warrick, the education chief research officer of the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU). Amidst the bottled wine, the tremors, miniature cutlery, plastic aircraft food, we talked.

Ozzi Warrick told me he had just been to a conference. CLR James made such a profound impact on the trade union movement that intellectuals and unionists worldwide discuss and revere his major work.

Ozzi said something startling. “Politicians and Cepep workers are the same. Both are parasites of the State. Our politicians are now multimillionaires. The difference is: politicians don’t share kickbacks with people in their own constituencies, and Cepep workers are deliberately kept down.”

I turned to the question of the public service: the perception that public servants had jobs for life and no motivation to serve.

Again, he made perfect sense. “Firstly, public servants are not highly paid. Secondly, they lack mentorship. When a pubic servant joins the service in the UK he or she is mentored and filled with pride at serving Queen and country. Can any of us feel pride at serving our politicians? Public servants see the corruption close up. If service is slow, a photocopier is faulty; it’s a management issue. If the corruption is rife at the top, what kind of service do you expect at the bottom of the heap?”

What can we do? Ozzi reminded me that in 1938 James visited Leon Trotsky (whose intellect and leadership made him a pivotal figure during the Russian Revolution) to discuss the “Negro Question.” James and Trotsky didn’t agree on one point. Trotsky felt a party would lead people, but James, with extraordinary prescience, believed that change could only come from the people.

What’s it got to do with us, some ask: this long dead Marxist? “Everything,” Ozzie and I agreed. Look at us now. Clear away the fog. See that mirror? Look down. Three or four generations of government-funded gang and make-work related murders. Look up. We are rapidly tumbling down the transparency index which means that “special service” contracts in government agencies are feeding corruption at the top.

Ozzi and I agreed that it was tragic that our schoolchildren and adults base their national identity on chutney and kaiso, rather than giants such as CLR James, Eric Williams, ANR Robinson and Ellis Clarke in building a fledgling country in a new world. I told Ozzi that in India, the Nehru and Gandhi museums are packed, not with tourists, but with schoolchildren.

The ten-hour journey was up. I was home to a constitutional quarrel. The  conversation about health (the cockroaches, rats in our hospitals, underpaid and overworked staff), education (400,000 functionally illiterate), crime (lack of social workers, and a failed police service), infrastructure (a tool for corruption rather than development), and lack of accountability hasn’t even begun.

The people have lost their voice.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur