Paul Buhle's Tim Hector

— Sara Abraham

Tim Hector:
A Caribbean Radical’s Story
by Paul Buhle
University Press of Mississippi, 2006, 216 pages, $32.

PAUL BUHLE’S ACCOUNT of Tim Hector, Caribbean radical of Antiguan origin who passed away in 2002, is provocative and welcome. Its span is broad and appropriate for a general rather than specialist readership.

The book covers a schematic history of Caribbean radical thought through the 20th century; it explores in some detail C.L.R. James’ powerful influence over a range of radical thinkers and activists including Hector, perhaps the most faithful of all; it ventures into the influence of popular culture in shaping radical expression in the Caribbean; it links currents in U.S. left thought and activist circles and their Caribbean counterparts; and it muses on current political possibilities for the Caribbean in our vicious and globalized reality.

All these themes and more are simultaneously windows onto Tim Hector’s life and his writings, in the column “Fan the Flame” in his paper Outlet. The integrity of Hector’s vision was equally recognized by the wide populace, who read him faithfully, as it was rejected by the regional political elite.

Buhle does well to reproduce in full the calypsonian Destroyer Sr’s lyrics on the figure of Hector which captures his ambivalent status — an ambivalence that has attached to many radicals in these small, conservative Anglophone countries. These are figures that are clearly intellectually and ethically head and shoulders above the political elite who, petrified of their influence, seek to minimize, control and impoverish them.

Tim Hector was born in 1942 in Antigua (the same year as Walter Rodney,(1) as remembered by Eusi Kwayana in the Afterword). This immediately meant a number of things. In his teens Hector witnessed the heyday of the discussions of Federation of the Caribbean and the independence battles of each island; he became educated in European, American as well as the newly emerging Caribbean literature; he moved to the metropole Canada, experienced its racism to the incoming flux of Caribbean migrants, but also the unique circle of radicals in Montreal including Bobby Hill, Rosie Douglas and Alfie Roberts, who tutored with CLR James(2); he moved back to a Caribbean exploring Black Power and Pan Africanism as vehicles for the region’s liberation.

The return to the Caribbean meant that Hector’s cohort of fellow travelers included Maurice Bishop, Eusi Kwayana, Bernard Coard, Walter Rodney, the Jamaicans, and a great many others; it meant that he continued to grapple with C.L.R. James’ perspectives, critiques, and scholarship as well as his personal friendship and guidance; it also meant that as a working journalist and activist he had to take positions on this party over that in Antigua before and with the decline of radical organizing from the mid 1980s.

His own role was as journalist, widely read political intellectual, and one of the founders of the Antigua Caribbean Liberation Movement (ACLM) current. Kwayana adds that Hector also worked as an unofficial ambassador of the region, writing penetrative portraits of past and present Caribbean figures and projecting them out as world-standard.

Advancing a Tradition

Buhle describes Hector as extremely principled through these shifts of location. One of those principles was to struggle for Caribbean unity captured in his profiling a wide range of figures; another was the historical depth rooted in slavery that Hector gave to questions as he analyzed them; a third, perhaps the most important, was “to understand the real meanings of a culture based on extermination and on slavery, denied its own language and religion but triumphant in survival.”

To understand these meanings meant living at home in the Caribbean, giving up the opportunities of metropolitan University life. Buhle does well to emphasize the importance of this choice, some would say sacrifice, for a Caribbean intellectual. He notes that Hector’s outlets were limited – largely to his paper — and reflective of the literally tiny size and limited opportunities of his home island.

Yet when there were regional political meetings, too few and far between, Hector would be there and present. He was there in Grenada as the region’s talent poured forth to contribute to the development of its struggles.

Buhle’s main argument was that in all these forums, Hector advanced more than any other person, “James’ traditions” (from acute cultural-political commentary to cricket commentary and beyond). It is thus in fact that Buhle himself got attracted to Hector, with whom he collaborated in bringing James to life to a new and old audience.

Now, Buhle brings Tim Hector to life. He acknowledges that it is not a definitive biography, based on archival material, but a reconstruction of Hector’s world view as taken from his columns and reflections from his collaborators.

The book includes a solicited reflection on Hector by Eusi Kwayana, who 26 years ago, wrote a masterful account of Rodney after his assassination. For a clear, quick snapshot of Hector’s regional standing and his uniqueness, the reader could, in fact, go straight to the elegant and subtle afterword.  Buhle’s account is more complex and multi-layered and it is easier broached after understanding Kwayana’s portrait.

Only one of Hector’s columns is also reproduced in the book. This perhaps is the greatest shortfall of this book: given how much importance is given to Hector’s reflections by Buhle, the inclusion of more of his columns or significant excerpts from them would have made sense. Nonetheless, Buhle offers himself as a guide into the region and the times, and offers a sound and vigorous description of the contours of the Caribbean Left through the 20th century.

This Left, argues Buhle, was compromised from its 20th century start in having to move in tandem to the fortunes and arguments of Labour, Fabian Socialism, and the much weaker role of British socialist currents. Yet the undercurrents were diverse; Buhle mentions Morris and utopianism, and in the Caribbean there was of course Garveyism, which threw ropes across islands presaging unity and armed working class militants with self-confidence.

In opposition, U.S.-sponsored labor bureaucrats began appearing all over the region. Yet the Caribbean was also significantly influencing the United States — via Black Nationalism and Black Communism (which Buhle calls Caribbean Transnationalism). Here Buhle discusses Richard Moore and others. He notes that the promise of the Caribbean Left within the United States was not to be fulfilled — for a complex of reasons.

All this comes as welcome reminder with one major blind spot. Buhle does not extend his canvas to Africa — and this is particularly telling when he advances into the region-wide “great strike wave” of the 1930s which had had counterparts on the mother continent, commonly raising fears at the Colonial Office to which the bureaucrats developed plans for a hyper-controlled de-colonization.

The omission is systematic. Hector is never clearly identified within currents of Pan- Africanism, and the narrative lacks details of African political struggles and the trans- Atlantic traffic of peoples and ideas. I was left wondering whether this was Buhle’s or Hector’s omission.

Hector’s Regional Struggle

This introduction leads to a lovely and sensitive chapter by Buhle on Antigua’s history with slavery, its strange race-class structure, Hector’s upbringing, the shady Lester Bird (first Prime Minister), and Antigua’s sorry fate in lurching from plantation society to a site for international gambling and corrupt transnational dealings.

Missing was the self-righteousness of the nationalist moment, hijacked as the reigns of power had been by Bird, and lacking as it did a strong middle or working class or an independent trade union movement. Hector’s nationalism was then learnt from afar — from the oratory of Eric Williams (in Trinidad and Tobago) — and later from literature, scholarship and study.

It is no surprise then that the result was a deeply regionalist figure. Buhle also notes that Hector’s own relatively humble background meant that he did not have family backing to take party politics by storm. Party politics itself had been eschewed by the radical Black power and liberation currents from the late 1960s.

Buhle speaks of the powerful effect of the Civil Rights Movement on these Caribbean radicals, even as their own revolt had begun to be organized through the Young Socialist League and the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica and independence-related struggles in Guyana.

Hector’s own generation found its struggles — with Black Power revolts in Trinidad, Manley’s socialist experiment in Jamaica, rising civil rebellion in Guyana, and the successful revolutionary coup in Grenada. Yet, and strangely here of all places, Buhle falls short: we do not learn the details of Hector’s regional involvement in this most hectic period. Rather we hear mostly of his views — on Cheddi Jagan, on Walter Rodney, on James — with some lengthy digressions into the political details of different countries.

An International Caribbean Service Bureau run by Hector and James faltered and disappeared. Hector and Rodney discussed a possible working relationship in developing a definitive defense against the fragmentation of the region. This too did not happen, Hector regretted, and we can regret with him, much later.

Pushed out of political elite maneuvering, his comrades and he formed the Afro-Caribbean (later Liberation) Movement with a manifesto described as, “a masterful synthesis of Marxism (James style) and black nationalism.”

Kwayana describes this grouping more as a fresh and bold “attitude” rather than a movement. We do not learn unfortunately of its gender or class composition or leadership and how the development of a regional women’s movement impacted Hector. Buhle addresses this question directly — but only by noting that Hector’s wife Arah was active in these fora. The (usually) problematic masculinity and heteronormativity of recognized Caribbean political figures is not touched by Buhle.

The Problem of Popular Power

Hector’s conclusions, however, were those considered most mature for then and now — the need to address the question of how to transfer power to the people to “supplant the power of the old State.” Two days before writing this review, I attended a discussion led by Canadian Auto Workers senior activist Sam Gindin on what was needed in Canada — and really, the discussion was no more or less sophisticated; it was, how to set up people’s assemblies (social forums) as was now being attempted in the United States.

This question of popular power has been the central one for over 30 years now in the Caribbean. Guyana and Grenada had the internal momentum to attempt to actually implement the answers. Buhle spends some time on this question. He notes that for James the smallness of society in the Caribbean “could make a modern recuperation of city-state democracy possible.” (175)

For Hector, this question increasingly meant what some would call accommodation — a turn from socialist commitments to a call for “national” cooperation. Either way, the ACLM party could not crack the electoral code. Kwayana reflects on this (more than does Buhle). Externally it requires coalition and alliances, and Buhle laments that Hector missed the Venezuelan moment. Outside of the political, Hector continued till the end to proclaim and nurture Caribbean talent by his pen — the talent of women, of Jamaica Kincaid (a fellow Antiguan), in sports, and in theater.

At the end of the book, and with great credit to it for this, we see Hector as one doing all he could do as a working and thinking male citizen of the region — in keeping alive certain questions and of pushing forward certain others, in adding some strength to the foundation for future generations of radicals, in nurturing the region with his words, releasing frustration through deep reflection.

We do not get the sense of somebody restless and searching, rather of somebody consolidating and conserving. The book could yet have been strengthened with more space given to Tim Hector’s actions and activities. This would have taken care of the related problem — too much now-quite-familiar explication of other major figures and events of the region.

Hector’s writings, I can say with pleasure, are indeed wonderfully wrought bracing and incisive commentary on politics and culture, rooted in deep concern for the Caribbean. Some can be found on an internet search, and in the collection “Tim Hector Anthology” edited by Paul Buhle, published as CLR James Journal 8 (Winter, 2000-2001) at the Africana Studies Department of Brown University.

Notes

  1. Buhle erroneously dates Rodney’s assassination at one point as in 1979. He was killed in 1980.
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  2. More details on this grouping can be found in Alfie Roberts Speaks, introduction by David Austin, aftterword by Robert Hill (Alfie Roberts Institute, Montreal 2005).
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ATC 125, November-December 2006