C.L.R. James October 1965

On The Vanguard

Delivered: at a Conference of The Vanguard at the Palms Club, San Fernando, Trinidad, in October 1965;
First Published: by The Vanguard on October 11, 1969. It was first acquired in October 1966. The Vanguard is the publication of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) of Trinidad;
Transcribed: by Matthew Quest.

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I welcome this opportunity to speak to a Trinidad audience as if I were speaking in London or Detroit. A blight has seemed to descend on intellectual life in this country, that is since independence. It was not always so, and I am learning that the country is hungry for serious discussions. In intend therefore to speak on The Vanguard very plainly.

I shall divide my twenty five minutes as follows:

  1. 15 minutes on the social background of West Indian political life. I shall use in particular the Russians Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. As I hope you will see West Indian political life has a peculiar affinity with the Russian experience.
  2. 5 minutes on the Russian Revolution on which was (and is) the direct results of the forces I will describe.
  3. In light of the above what OWTU and The Vanguard ought to do. All analysis is mischievous unless you gather what you have to go and do.
The Russian and the West Indian Intellectual

First then Pushkin. He wrote a famous poem called “The Gypsies.” You can buy or order it in a Pushkin selection in any descent bookshop in Port of Spain. It tells the story of Aleko, a civil servant, in St. Petersburg. Aleko got very sick of life in the big capital of a backward country and went to live among the gypsies running wild on the vast steppes of Russia. Welcomed, he lived happily for two years. But this city intellectual could not enjoy happiness and freedom. He killed two gypsies and the people asked him to go away and leave them.

Fifty years after the poem was written, in one of the most famous literary lectures ever delivered, Dostoyevsky explained the social origin and significance of this poem, and as you listen to two extracts which I will now read I hope, in fact I am sure, you will be increasingly astonished (and even frightened) about what it reveals about the West Indian intellectual:

“In our day they no longer visit gypsy camps, seeking to discover their universal ideals and their consolation in that wild life, far from the confused and pointless activity of the Russian intellectuals; now with a new faith they adopt socialism which did not exist in Aleko’s day... It is the same essential man, appearing at a different time. This man was born at the second century after Czar Peter’s reforms, cast up from the people into a society of intellect. The greatest number of intellectuals served then, even as now, as civil servants in government positions, in railways, in banks, or other ways, or even engaged in science or lecturing, earning money in a regular peaceful, leisured fashion, even playing cards, without desire for escape, whether to the gypsies or refuges of more modern days. They only played at liberalism with a tinge of European socialism.”

There you have ourselves. After the abolition of slavery, the West Indian intellectual was projected out of the former slaves, to do the intellectual work of a backward society modernizing itself. But just as the Russian intellectual, out of the Russian masses, despite his education, could not penetrate Tsarism (Monarchy, Land Owning Aristocracy, Military, Orthodox Clergy), so the West Indian intellectual out of slavery, has not been able to penetrate the aristocracy of colonialism.

Hear now what happened to the Russian intellectual:

“Meanwhile a restless and fantastic creature searches for salvation in external things, as needs he must. Truth continues external to him, perhaps in some European country, with its more stable organization and settled mode of life. Nor can he understand that truth after all is within him. How could he understand this? For a century he has not been himself in his own country. He has no culture of his own. He has grown up within closed walls, as in a convent.”

So that is your West Indian intellectual. PNM this, Williams that, and Capildeo the other; they are historical products, blind swimmers in a dark sea, who have been able to find planks to float on and are striking madly at whatever threatens their precarious perch. They have to be removed, that’s all.

But there is a great danger here for the OWTU and that is why I shall now deal for five minutes with the Russian revolution.

The Russian Revolution and the OWTU

Lenin was very conscious of two things, a) how small organized labor of heavy industry was in proportion to the vast mass of the population (as in the OWTU), and b) the inherent spinelessness and shallowness of the Russian intellectuals. Lenin therefore from 1903 – 1917 said:

“All we can fight for is Parlaimentary Democracy, not Socialism. But the Russian proletarians have to lead it,... the Russian Intellectual is a rotten reed and he will fight for nothing not even Parliamentary Democracy by which he will profit.”

Lenin was only partially right. When the revolution came in 1917 the proletariat had to do all the fighting. The intellectuals and the progressives joined the foreign powers to crush the revolution. Lenin and the proletariat had to seize the power but they could not hold it. Under Stalin, the intellectuals, now bureaucrats and officials of the Soviet regime, succeeded to the power and to this day they are masters of Russia. The proletariat, organized labor, has been reenslaved. Now bearing this in mind what has OWTU and The Vanguard to do and not to do?

Role of OWTU and The Vanguard

If you accept the previous analysis of the West Indian intellectual, or for that matter, members of our middle classes, then one conclusion follows inevitably: The Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union has the responsibility to lead the struggle for parliamentary democracy and the defense of democratic rights. In fact it had better do so.

It is not a question of “ought to” or “a moral obligation.” The intellectuals as a class, the West Indian middle classes, never have, they never will. They will follow a strong lead. But they are constitutionally, organically, incapable of leading. 1956-1965 has proven that. In this sense OWTU has an immense political responsibility.

In my view the main burden of that has to be borne by The Vanguard. The Exceutive Committee and General Council have other things to do. The Vanguard can never forget that first and foremost it is a union organ. But it can, it must perform other social functions.

Our West Indian history, the principles of political thought, sociological analysis, biographies our important men, arts and letters, these are the intellectual foundations of a modern community, our pressing need. The Vanguard must do it. Who else will?

Once The Nation did it. Today We the People is doing all that it can. But The Vanguard is in a position today top undertake the responsibility on a widening scale. I have to emphasize that.

The Vanguard must see itself as filling a breach no one else in sight can fill. It is a union paper and must inform and educate the public on all union matters. But the objective situation being what it is, The Vanguard must take on the production and dissemination of criticism, art, history, whatever a modern society like ours must have. It must be done. Who is to do it?

There is a political advantage waiting here. Many of our intellectuals and civil servants are sympathetic to labor but have all the prejudices of British Colonial Society against any leading role by labor in society except in labor matters. But they, more than anybody else, know the terrible gap in our society. They are incapable of filling it. They are afraid. If you step into the breach and open the way you raise the status of labor in their eyes. Remember, labor has to win over large sections of the population, particularly in an underdeveloped country, ie. where organized labor is small. That is what underdevelopment means. This is a positive task. It does not mean necessary mean association with a specific political party. It means pushing out into wider and wider spheres. This can be done, whatever the political positions you take. I have done it. I know papers that are doing it today.

Now if you undertake this, it is first and foremost a political question-your own internal politics. This is not a matter of PNM, DLP, or WFP, you have to first convince your own members that the whole situation in the country demands that through The Vanguard, O.W.T.U. play this role. You must systematically bring before them this political problem and win their agreement. That may take some time, even a year. But I think it is wrong to face a large body of men with far reaching plans they have not discussed. This will demand hard systematic work by the leadership. But that is what leadership is for.


Certain technical considerations flow from this.

  1. The Vanguard must be a weekly paper. An interval of two weeks is too long. There is so much going on in the world today that the reader loses a sense of continuity in a fortnightly paper. I would prefer four pages every week then eight pages every two weeks. But if you handle yourselves well you can soon handle twelve pages a week.
  2. The Vanguard needs its own press.
  3. Certain editorial needs flow from this. You have in Mr. Bowrin an editor of high qualification; Economist and lawyer, practical political experience abroad and a man not only of advanced political views but of personal experiences of this oil industry.

You think this all to your advantage. I want to warn you of its dangers. Mr. Bowrin can not run The Vanguard. I have written in a local publication:

“The days of newspapers built by brilliant writing of one or two individuals are gone forever. The interests of the modern public are too wide, rival demands on its attention are too great. The modern newspaper is an organization. The work of a managing editor is to build and set in motion such an organization.”

Furthermore, our past of slavery and colonialism have imbedded deep in us the habit of leaving things up to one man, especially if he is a good man. By doing that you could wear down Mr. Bowrin and prevent the emergence of The Vanguard as comprehensive journalistic force.

What The Vanguard needs, what Mr. Bowrin must have, is an editorial board that is responsible for organizing this material in The Vanguard. It should meet regularly once a week, discuss past and plan future issues. It’s members need not all be members of the union. Bring in some Alekos. I need not know that you have appointed a board. Ten minutes with two issues will tell me. The public will not know exactly why. But if you do not do this, it will feel in time, that something is missing in the paper.

And almost the last point. If you convince your membership, then there must be allocated a certain sum per year so that your editor and his board can plan their projects a year or more ahead. If you leave them in a situation where every time they want to do something, they have to take it to the General Council, you make it impossible for them to do serious, consistent planning; you burden the General Council with a constant series of irritating decisions. That is no good. Convince them that the job is a big one and they must give you the responsibility and the means. You place your plans before them and submit an annual report. I am sure the intellectual desert that we live is so eager to bloom that before long you will show a substantial profit.