A New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement and Its TimesSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to use this work in a way not covered by the license. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
28 | “Thought Is Action for Us”: Lloyd Best, New World, and the West Indian Postcolonial Left
During the first half of the twentieth century, West Indian thinkers living under British colonial rule, including Marcus Garvey, C. L. R. James, George Padmore, and Eric Williams, theorized and militated against the effects of racism, capitalism, and imperialism on West Indians and the broader African world. In the 1960s, as West Indians gained independence and confronted their position in the neocolonial order, a new generation of activist intellectuals drew on the Caribbean’s rich intellectual history and on new currents in pan-African, anti-imperialist, and antiracist thought to develop New Left critiques rooted in both the realities facing the West Indian people and global currents of radical praxis.
An important part of this West Indian New Left tradition was the New World Group, a pioneering intellectual collective that, under the leadership of the Trinidadian economist Lloyd Best (1934–2007), had a profound impact on Caribbean scholarship and politics. In their publications, notably the New World Quarterly, a journal the group published from 1963 to 1972, New World’s members worked to understand the West Indian past and present in order to shape a democratic and egalitarian vision of the region’s future. Responding in part to development planning that they believed would serve only to perpetuate metropolitan control of the Caribbean people and their resources, New World analyzed the dynamics underpinning West Indian political marginalization, economic underdevelopment, and poverty and theorized alternatives to neocolonialism. In his contribution to a 2012 retrospective collection of essays on the New World Group, Norman Girvan, the prominent Jamaican economist and a member of the collective, called New World a “form of resistance . . . to Eurocentric thinking” that “waged a kind of intellectual guerrilla warfare” and became, along with Rastafari (a political, cultural, and spiritual movement that, in the words of historian Horace Campbell, “challenges . . . the entire Western world to come to terms with the history of slavery, the reality of white racism and the permanent thrust for dignity and respect by black people”) and the Caribbean Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s (most visibly manifest in the 1970 “Black Power Revolution” in Trinidad), an important component of West Indian attempts to address the effects of a history of imperial domination.
New World’s thinkers often evoked West Indian values as a necessary foundation for the region’s postcolonial social development. The value that New World thinkers did the most to elucidate, and the concept driving much of their work, was that of independence, defined as broadly as possible to encompass the political, economic, and cultural spheres. In that spirit, New World put the question of epistemic sovereignty—the freedom to think outside the structures imposed by metropolitan power—at the center of their analyses of the West Indian situation. For the intellectual spearhead Lloyd Best, the valorization of locally rooted epistemology meant rejecting many of the categories typically assumed in studies of the West Indies, including an emphasis on class analysis as well as concepts of the “Third World” or the global “South” that limited West Indian intellectual freedom by circumscribing attempts to understand the region on its own terms. This rejection of many of the categories central to Western progressive thought presents a challenge to talking about the thought of New World without reproducing the very concepts that much of the group’s work reacted against.
Taking to heart the Fanon quotation that provides the epigraph to this chapter, New World worked from the assumption that no political, economic, or social vision of the West Indian future was appropriate unless it was grounded in a detailed study of the region on its own terms, not through the conceptual lenses inherited from an imperial past. Without analysis rooted in West Indian epistemologies, political action to break away from the constraints imposed by imperial or neoimperial power was impossible.
In the early 1960s, as the colonial administration known as the West Indies Federation fell apart and the British Caribbean moved toward self-government, West Indian intellectuals and activists shifted their focus from pushing for formal independence to dismantling the political, economic, and intellectual structures inherited from the empire. This shift in orientation from pursuit of independence alone to the achievement of full decolonization coincided with the establishment of the Faculty of Social Science at the Mona (Jamaica) campus of the University of the West Indies (then called the University College of the West Indies), which provided an infrastructure for research into regional social and economic issues.
A 1959 lecture series at Mona on the future of the West Indies—including a talk by the Marxist and pan-Africanist Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James that “lit the place afire,” according to the economist Girvan—helped set the tone for West Indian thought in the decade to follow. Lloyd Best, a young economist at Mona, hosted meetings of students and lecturers to continue the conversations started by the lectures; they formalized their sessions as the West Indian Society for the Study of Social Issues (WISSSI). WISSSI united a number of prominent or soon-to-be prominent West Indian intellectuals, including Girvan; the economist Alister McIntyre; the political scientist Archie Singham; and historians Roy Augier, Orlando Patterson, and Walter Rodney.
WISSSI’s discussions focused on political independence and the question of how to decolonize the social, economic, and political spheres in order to promote the development of a democratic and egalitarian West Indies. Of particular importance was their desire to move popular visions of the region’s future development beyond the false dichotomy posed by the two Cold War power blocs—US capitalism versus Soviet communism—and thereby allow the West Indian people to chart their political and economic paths guided not by the demands of foreign power but by their desire to “build a society appropriate to our collective needs,” as an early Quarterly editorial put it.
In 1962 Best went to Georgetown, Guyana, as a UN economic advisor to Premier Cheddi Jagan’s Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP) government. There he continued the work started by WISSSI with like-minded intellectuals; in a 2005 interview with Girvan and the historians Brian Meeks and Anthony Bogues, Best called the Georgetown group “a tremendous intellectual mobiliser.”
Participants in the Georgetown meetings collaborated to produce the first edition of what would become the most important print forum for 1960s West Indian progressive thought. New World Quarterly debuted in 1963, and it published regularly until 1968 and then sporadically until 1972. A companion publication, New World Fortnightly, which focused on Guyanese issues, ran from 1964 to 1966. New World Quarterly drew on a broad spectrum of Caribbean thinkers—including economists such as Best and George Beckford, historians such as James Millette and Elsa Goveia, and literary figures such as George Lamming and Jan Carew—to present lively exchanges of ideas within a framework committed to a genuinely independent intellectual life.
The desire of an emerging generation of West Indian intellectuals to free themselves from the confines imposed by metropolitan structures of thought was a key element in the conception of the Quarterly. In a 1997 interview with the anthropologist David Scott, Best recalled his frustration with West Indian scholars who felt obligated to publish in “reputable” (meaning foreign) journals. “If we don’t put our statements into our own papers and journals,” he asked, “how will our papers and journals ever become reputable?” Besides the journals, New World produced studies and pamphlets addressing regional issues including currency devaluation, sugar production, unemployment, and Jamaica’s attempts to limit the free movement of academics.
Building on the dynamic established by the Mona and Georgetown groups and taking the name of the journal for an independent Caribbean intellectual collective, Best and his colleagues established chapters of the New World Group throughout the Anglophone Caribbean and in Montreal, Canada, where a cohort of West Indian students would play a prominent part in Caribbean and black Canadian political activism.
David Scott describes New World’s project as “the interrogation from within of the meaning of Caribbean sovereignty.” Interrogating sovereignty “from within” meant examining the history and the present conditions of the West Indian people on their own terms, free from conditions and constraints imposed by foreign political, economic, or cultural influences, in order to create an intellectual space from which the West Indian people could decide what to do with their independence, as opposed to allowing foreign interests to define the possibilities open to them.
New World embraced a loosely nationalist vision of a multicultural and multilingual Caribbean, unified in its desire to advance the interests of the Caribbean people. While there was an overwhelmingly large Commonwealth Caribbean contingent in the makeup of the membership and in the subjects they addressed, New World’s vision of a democratic West Indies encompassed the entire region, regardless of language or colonial past. The broadest definition of “the Caribbean” came from Best, who in 1966 argued that it was the historical experience of the plantation, and not geographic location, that determined if a place was part of the Caribbean. In this vision, the Caribbean included Caracas (Venezuela) and the Carolinas as much as it did Kingston and Puerto Rico—though, as we shall see later, Best was not always consistent with this framing.
New World’s intellectual approach drew extensively on the radical decentering of the region’s history pioneered by figures such as Eric Williams and C. L. R. James, who in landmark works such as Capitalism and Slavery (1944) and The Black Jacobins (1938) framed the West Indian people as a dynamic force in the development of modernity. The desire to develop a progressive mode of analysis that put West Indian people and their ideas at the center of any study of the region reflected Best’s conviction that radical intellectualism did not require allegiance to any conventional ideology but rather developed organically as the response to the particular challenges facing a people. Best saw New World’s work as something that grew out of “a sustained application of thought to the matters that concern [West Indians] deeply.”
Debates about the future economic development of the West Indies were an important part of New World’s work. Economists writing about the region in the 1960s proposed a number of means by which to address the region’s chronic poverty and unemployment, including developing the tourism trade, promoting emigration, and using foreign aid to create industries that would allow for import substitution. The most prominent West Indian development economist, the Nobel laureate W. Arthur Lewis, created the so-called Puerto Rican model as a way to address regional unemployment. The model called for using foreign capital and expertise to launch export-oriented industries that would absorb unemployed workers. A key factor in the plan was low wages to maximize profitability and encourage foreign investment.
Best and his colleagues strongly criticized development plans, like Lewis’s, that increased West Indian reliance on foreign markets, capital, and initiative. They saw such plans, which they dubbed “industrialization by invitation,” as a force that would undermine the ability of the West Indian people to chart their own destiny. Relying on foreign firms would place agency and initiative in the hands of donor countries and would not necessarily lead to increased local investment or the development of local skills. Furthermore, the metropolitan cultures, values, and living standards that came as by-products of foreign investment would potentially undermine West Indian economic and cultural independence.
With an eye to such issues as the role of the sugar industry in perpetuating dependence on overseas markets, the role of bauxite mining in the extraction of Caribbean wealth for the benefit of the industrialized nations, and the domination of the regional financial sector by foreign banks, New World’s theorists interrogated the postcolonial West Indian economy in terms of the historical legacies of centuries of colonial rule. New World theorists proposed a variety of initiatives to undo the dependence created by imperialism and to move the West Indian people toward a future in which they had the maximum control of their own resources. A study on Jamaican unemployment called for massive reforms in agriculture, mining, and education and industrial development based on processing domestic resources rather than assembling imported parts. Much of economist George Beckford’s work focused on the need to empower small-scale producers to stop producing cash crops for export and to start producing crops to satisfy local needs. Girvan wrote a brief that informed Guyana’s decision to nationalize its bauxite mines.
At the 1966 Conference on Caribbean Affairs, one of a series of annual meetings of writers and activists from the Caribbean and its diaspora held in Montreal, Best argued that a principal roadblock for people trying to enact social change was their failure to conduct analyses derived from the study of local phenomena. Given the extent to which the West Indies’ problems stemmed from policies built on metropolitan ideas, the destruction of “the intellectual, philosophical and psychological foundations of current politics” was a necessary precondition for meaningful independence. In the spirit of Marcus Garvey’s appeal to black people to “emancipate [themselves] from mental slavery,” New World’s concept of complete sovereignty extended to the realm of epistemology. New World pushed the study of Caribbean society past what Best called “tourist social science”—analyses based on cursory visits to a given country that failed to engage in a substantive manner with local conditions but merely confirmed preconceived notions—so as to address regional issues in their specific historical, economic, and cultural contexts.
In 1968, Best argued that since West Indians controlled their own political systems, the only thing preventing them from “creating an economy appropriate to their own needs” was “the state of their own consciousness.” The need for the West Indian people to craft epistemologies free from concepts inherited from their imperial past—in order to create a future society that was free and fair—was a constant theme in New World’s work. Economist Alister McIntyre, in a 1966 analysis of West Indian trade policy, tied the failure of the region’s leaders to come to an agreement on a customs union to their failure to embrace new ideas because of a persistent “belief . . . that Britain, Europe, and North America possess a monopoly over ideas.” In his 1973 essay, “On the Teaching of Economics,” Best attacked economics departments for reproducing the rationales behind regional economic exploitation. Beckford, in Persistent Poverty, argued that any potential improvement of West Indian living conditions required a shift in the consciousness of the West Indian people that would enable them to conceive of new possibilities. The “precondition of all preconditions for change and transformation,” Beckford wrote, “is a restructuring of the minds of the people to accommodate change.”
It is crucial to note, however, that New World’s desire to resist the imposition of alien epistemologies did not imply that a narrow nationalism guided their intellectual orientation. Reflecting the “bricolage” that defines much of West Indian culture, New World drew inspiration from intellectual traditions from Africa, its diaspora, the rest of the Third World, and other relevant intellectual traditions. The critical acceptance of the ideas of pan-Africanists such as Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, African American figures such as Malcolm X, Latin American dependency theorists like Raúl Prebisch and Celso Furtado, and the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal was as important to New World as the work of figures such as James, Garvey, Fanon, and Williams.
Best worked closely in the mid-1960s with Kari Levitt, a Canadian economist and founding member of the Montreal chapter of New World who had worked extensively in the West Indies. Together, they developed the “plantation model,” a longue-durée historical analysis of West Indian development. Essays on the Theory of Plantation Economy, which was completed in 1967 but only published in 2009, took the slave plantation as “the original and generic economic institution of Caribbean economy” and analyzed how the institutions, structures, and behaviors produced by sugar production set the stage for centuries of West Indian economic exploitation. Best and Levitt concluded that the plantation’s legacy included economic dependence, instability, rampant poverty, inequality, and a political economy in which the state’s limited ability to enact independent policy stymied the possibilities for transformation. The modern plantation economy perpetuated the legacies of colonialism insofar as the region was still in a one-way economic relationship with metropolitan power, meaning that “accumulation, technological change and taste formation” were driven by foreign priorities, not local ones.
In his 1972 book Persistent Poverty, Beckford expanded the concept of the plantation economy to address the “plantation society.” More than a regional economic study, this was a general theory of social, political, cultural, and economic underdevelopment. Beckford argued that modern iterations of the plantation system, notably the multinational corporations, which Beckford called “vertically integrated corporate plantation enterprises,” hindered the economic, political, and cultural development of the West Indies and the rest of the formerly colonized world by alienating people from their resources and hindering the establishment of locally oriented economic links that would encourage structural transformation.
In his interview with David Scott, Best maintained that he had consistently rejected any intellectual approach that did not allow for the study of the West Indies in terms of the region’s own specific histories, that relegated the West Indies to a peripheral position in any sort of global framework, or that advocated ideologies that developed in reaction to situations in distant nations. Best stated that he had “never accepted” overarching frameworks such as the “Third World,” “developing countries,” or “the South” and that he had always “repudiated all isms whether from left or right.” Best’s critique of imported epistemologies included a critique of Eurocentric conceptions of resistance to that exploitation, arguing that, like the development planning that perpetuated the domination of the region, Marxism and some schools of left-wing “dependency theory” were not based on dedicated studies of the West Indies and were thus of limited use in challenging foreign domination of the region.
Best rejected modes of analysis developed in resistance to European capitalism because they assumed that the social categories created by European capitalism were a universal analytic lens. Best argued that specific economic systems gave birth to specific formations of “group solidarity and group interest.” While the plantation economy shared the exploitative nature of capitalism, it lacked its specific historical and cultural dynamics. Specifically, it was entirely geared toward export and not local markets; it relied on imported labor; and the people who controlled the means of production typically lived overseas and were thus not embedded in the same social realities as the people they exploited. Thus the socioeconomic dynamics that led to the development of class and class consciousness in Europe were never at play in the Caribbean. Best’s experiences in Guyana, where political fragmentation occurred along ethnic lines, pitting Afro-Guyanese against Indo-Guyanese and black against white—with disastrous results for the nation—helped him to see racial identity as more salient than class conflict in the shaping of West Indian political identities. New World’s analyses of economic inequality focused on the racial divisions at the heart of plantation slavery and its successor regimes. Black dispossession and not class exploitation was the ultimate legacy of the plantation economy.
Best was strongly critical of Marxism, rejecting it as a doctrine that, contrary to its universalistic pretensions, was of limited use even within its own European context. At the 1966 Conference on Caribbean Affairs, he noted that Marxism left little space to develop critiques independent of the categories established by metropolitan thinkers, preventing activists from seeing a “wide and constantly changing range of possible social objectives and of feasible social action.” Three years later, Best wrote that, in trying to impose European categories and precepts on non-European situations, Marxist thought had “[ridden] rough-shod over local sentiment, [ignored] local possibilities and local limitations,” and worked to “inhibit rather than to promote radical reform.”
Best’s critique of Cuba’s Marxist regime reveals he saw how a failure to understand a Caribbean nation through a locally rooted epistemology led to a failure to secure meaningful independence. Best was sharply critical of Cuba’s decision to, as he wrote in 1966, “exchange imperial masters” by “entering into voluntary association with the Marxist-Leninist Church” and taking up close association with the USSR.
In his conversation with Girvan, Meeks, and Bogues, Best elaborated on his criticism of Cuba, arguing that Castro had not understood Cuba as a West Indian nation, one whose history had been, like the rest of the Caribbean, shaped by sugar. For Best, “the most important, single thing about Cuba was that it came to be dominated by Afros, and the sugar plantation.” Had Castro understood Cuba in terms of the legacies of the plantation, Best argued, he could have made a “vital connection” to other West Indian people who “understood the exploitation of sugar,” and thus he could “upset all the politics in the region.” Best criticized Castro for orienting Cuba toward Latin America, where, he argued, the lack of a shared history created by sugar kept his message from resonating. Best recalled how, while he was working briefly in Chile during Allende’s rule, people would tell him that Castro was “mas tropical,” which, Best said, really meant he was “too Caribbean,” and “thus nobody paid him any mind.” Castro’s failure to see what was obvious to his Chilean critics prevented him from seeking strong ties with West Indians, which ultimately meant aligning Cuba with Moscow and provoking an American siege that prevented the development of democratic politics.
Alongside critiques of Marxism, New World thinkers modified and expanded the dependency-school approaches like those of Raúl Prebisch, Celso Furtado, and Andre Gunder Frank that informed many critiques of the relationship between former colonies and their metropoles; unique elements of the West Indian situation, they believed, meant they should exercise caution in borrowing from any school of dependency thought that put the region on the periphery of world affairs. Much as he did with Marxism, Best criticized what he saw as a tendency on the part of many dependency-school thinkers to see capitalism as a force that worked the same way everywhere. While Best agreed that it “makes a lot of sense to treat the world as one entity,” he believed that approaches such as Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis needed to do much more to “disaggregate the world into different civilizations, and into different systems and sub-systems.” Without doing so, he reasoned, such frameworks risked becoming a “straitjacket” that prevented analyses of the Caribbean from discovering “how it works and how it fits into the world system.”
By dividing the world into hard categories of “core” and “periphery,” dependency thought risked erasing both the history and the potential of the West Indian people. There is an important tension between New World’s framing of the West Indies as a region that had developed, and continued to exist, in a dependent relationship with metropolitan political and economic power and their vision of the West Indian people as a dynamic force in world history and as the only force that could liberate the region from its dependent relationships. On the one hand, as Best wrote in 1973, the West Indies had “been dominated by total institutions” that sought to control every aspect of the region’s social, political, and economic life. On the other hand, New World thinkers embraced a strong optimism rooted in the creative potential of the West Indian people, who were the only ones who could undo the effects of centuries of imperial rule on the region’s development. As Alfie Roberts, a member of the Montreal chapter of New World, wrote in 1966, the West Indians were “a modern and international people” who needed “no lecturing on the virtues of any system or philosophy” but wanted “to be left alone to work out [their] own destinies in conjunction with all [their] people, and thinking and analyzing [their] problems from an independent premise.”
Although Best argued that colonialism had left the West Indies lacking a “cultural solidarity” found in other nations, he also saw West Indians as “a distinctive people with [their] own creative will and a determination to build a society appropriate to [their] collective needs.” His vision of West Indians as a dynamic force for social change, even as they had been, and continued to be, marginalized and oppressed, reflected C. L. R. James’s strong belief that while they had been “mis-educated” and had their “political consciousness . . . twisted and broken,” the West Indian people were “the most rebellious . . . in history” and could craft a new society from the intellectual, ideological, and cultural artifacts that their historical circumstances had left them. Like James, New World thinkers put the West Indian people at the center of their visions of the region’s future. Beckford once wrote that there could be “no escape from poverty without freeing the creative power of all the people.” In a 1996 tribute to Beckford, Best wrote, “We are deciding. We are not the Third World. We are the First. We are in charge, and if it is a mess . . . we have got to clean it up because we are in charge.”
New World’s focus on epistemic sovereignty, their decentering of Eurocentric analyses, and their desire to affirm the ability of the West Indian people to chart their own course all draw attention to the role of the intellectual in the decolonizing world. In 1960, Arthur Lewis, speaking as principal of the University College of the West Indies, called on the institution to work to improve “the ‘image’ of West Indians into one more acceptable to the rest of the world.” Walter Rodney, then an undergraduate at Mona and a regular at WISSSI sessions, heard in Lewis’s words a vision of the university as an institution committed to creating a class of intellectuals who would “go into the business of mystification” and contribute to the perpetuation of (neo)imperialist domination while paying lip service to an empty West Indian nationalism.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon argued that states emerging from colonial rule faced political turmoil in part because their intelligentsia was alienated from popular intellectual currents. He also argued that emerging national elites who inherited economies that had developed outside of their control did not understand how those economies worked. Independence thus did not bring about fundamental change, as the national bourgeoisie, out of touch with the masses, positioned itself as an intermediary for foreign capital and became nothing more than the local representatives of Western multinational firms. Newly independent nations thus remained focused on extracting primary resources for the benefit of the metropole.
Fanon contrasted the behavior of the colonized bourgeoisie with the stance taken by what he called “an authentic national bourgeoisie,” meaning those intellectuals who turn their backs on the roles that the colonizers had planned for them in order to be in close touch with the people so that they may learn from the masses while passing on “intellectual and technical capital.” Those intellectuals, Fanon wrote, had the potential to “[open] up the future,” “spurring [the people] into action and fostering hope.” Read through the lens of Fanon’s critiques of postcolonial intellectuals, New World’s work can be understood as a self-conscious attempt on the part of an educated class to create, from the ground up, a new intellectual tradition. This tradition, rooted in the work of previous generations of West Indian thinkers and based on a detailed study of West Indian history, economy, society, and culture, was to be a bulwark against the reproduction of imperial modes of analysis that supported an economy predicated on extraction and exploitation.
But while their orientation was deeply political, New World was not actively so. The historian Bert Thomas describes the group as more of a regional conscience than a political actor. As New World developed a body of theory addressing the struggles of the West Indian people, the question of what to do with that theory was a factor in the group’s dissolution.
The New World Group fell apart gradually between 1968 and 1972. While the history of its demise is, in the words of Brian Meeks, “controversial” and “hotly contested,” one factor driving its disintegration was a tension between Best’s wishes to keep New World exclusively focused on intellectual activity and a desire on the part of many members to engage in direct action. This tension, Meeks writes, “robbed New World of people and energy.” Of particular importance in pushing many members’ focus from analysis to action was Jamaica’s refusal to allow Walter Rodney, then a professor of African history at Mona, to reenter the country upon his return from the October 1968 Congress of Black Writers in Montreal. Rodney’s banning provoked a strong reaction from both students and marginalized urban populations, such as the Rastafari, whom Rodney had been teaching in informal settings known as “groundings” since arriving in Kingston in January 1968. One account of the protests that followed the ban describes students marching in downtown Kingston from the Mona campus in their academic robes, “led by the radical ‘New World’ group of lecturers.”
Even before Rodney’s ban, stress had begun to show between Best’s desire to keep New World a strictly intellectual venture and the desires of more activist-oriented members. The Montreal branch of New World was a site of debate about the group’s direction; Alfie Roberts and Tim Hector, two of the more activist-minded members, had been pressuring Best to, in his words, “[go] out to the people, what I call agitation”—a notion that Best rejected in part because he did not see a divide between “the people” and the work of intellectuals. This refusal to see the masses as something apart from the work of intellectuals reflected an approach to popular intellectualism outlined in Fanon’s depiction of the authentic bourgeoisie that was also put into practice in Rodney’s groundings. Perhaps more important, in terms of Best’s vision of a politics that was built on a sustained study of local history, society, and culture, he believed that much work needed to be done before concrete action could be taken on New World’s ideas. At the 1966 Conference on Caribbean Affairs, he urged his compatriots to understand the need to develop “the intellectual capital goods” that were a necessary precondition for meaningful action. Without a strong theoretical base rooted in local realities, activists would not be able to dismantle the “intellectual, philosophical, and psychological foundation of current politics” and would risk reproducing those politics. “Thought,” Best argued, “is the action for us.”
Alongside internal pressures arising from the question of political action, another factor in the dissolution of New World was, perhaps ironically, the formal independence of individual Caribbean states, which drew young politically minded individuals away from regional politics toward more narrowly focused nationalist frameworks. As New World fell apart, its members and its ideas contributed to the development of numerous left-wing Caribbean political projects. In Jamaica, New World members were involved in Abeng, an intellectual and activist collective that produced a newspaper of the same name, as well as in Michael Manley’s People’s National Party. The socialist Antigua Caribbean Movement was founded by Montreal chapter member Tim Hector in 1968. Guyana’s Working People’s Alliance, which started as a political pressure group in 1974 and became a political party in 1979, counted a number of people associated with New World, including Walter Rodney and economist Clive Thomas. Trinidad’s National Joint Action Committee, the student-based movement that was the catalyst of the 1970 Black Power uprising (very nearly overthrowing the government of Eric Williams), drew extensively on New World’s analyses. Best founded Trinidad’s Tapia House Movement, which began life as an intellectual project in 1968 but became a political party in 1976. Many of these intellectuals and the movements with which they worked explored analytic frameworks from outside of New World’s focus on specifically West Indian conceptions, including Marxism and Black Power from the United States. However, this greater openness toward foreign ideas did not imply the abandonment of a focus on the specific political, economic, and social dynamics of the West Indies; it was often tempered by the desire to make these modes of thinking relevant to the West Indian situation.
The role of New World’s concepts and people in so many progressive political projects speaks to its importance in the development of modern West Indian radicalism. Yet while New World was a key factor in the development of postcolonial intellectualism, helping to create a generation of progressive political activists, it is hard to dismiss those who see the group’s history in terms of a larger story about the inability of popular politics to overcome external pressures keeping the West Indies economically exploited. In the 1970s, many West Indian states, especially Jamaica under Michael Manley, directed their energies toward protecting national sovereignty, alleviating poverty, and eliminating racism, all values advocated by New World. In the 1980s these priorities were replaced by market liberalization, debt repayment, and the undoing of the social safety net. The popular radicalism that came into public consciousness with the banning of Rodney was ultimately short-lived, as his assassination in June 1980 and the electoral defeat of Michael Manley a few months later marked the start of a decline for West Indian radicalism that culminated with the collapse of the Grenada revolution in 1983.
Taking advantage of a relatively free intellectual climate, New World’s ideas became part of the mainstream of Caribbean thought in the 1960s. That intellectual freedom, however, was one of the many victims of the neoliberal turn that began in the 1980s; both Kari Levitt and James Millette, a historian and a founding member of New World, argue that the hegemony of neoclassical economics and World Bank and International Monetary Fund logic delegitimized New World’s brand of independent thought. But the neoliberalism and globalization that overwhelmed the West Indian New Left failed to improve the circumstances of many West Indians. As the false choice between Western capitalism and Soviet communism has been replaced by one between global neoimperialism and total marginalization, the concepts developed by Best and his comrades have taken on renewed relevance, offering tools to analyze the underpinnings of the industrialized world’s contemporary exploitation of the West Indies.
Speaking in Toronto in 2001, Lloyd Best argued that West Indians, as they had done forty years earlier, needed to address the issues that confronted them through the lens of “a whole new interpretation, derived organically from Caribbean history and set in Caribbean institutions and culture.” Best saw the New World Group’s legacy in a new generation of West Indians who reject “the idea that the Caribbean is not its own first world but somebody else’s third.” This generation, he noted, sees themselves as “the subject and makers of history, not the object and takers.”