Eric Williams

Art: Marcelo Guimarães Lima
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By GUSTAVO VELLOSO*

Entry from the “Dictionary of Marxism in America”

Life and political praxis

Eric Williams (1911-1981) was born in the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, when the country was still a British colony specializing in the production of cocoa, sugar, coconut and oil to supply the British empire. At that time, the slave-owning past was still very much alive, and had left as a legacy to that colonial society different forms of labor exploitation and a mass of workers, mostly black, poor and illiterate, paid with low wages. The colonial administration operated according to the “crown colony” system (“crown colony system”), which prevented natives from electing their own representatives to the British parliament; much of the political power was concentrated in the hands of a single man – George Ruthven le Hunt –, representative of the English monarch and local ruler.

From a poor family background, Eric Williams was the son of a low-ranking civil servant, a postal worker in the city. On his mother's side, the future historian inherited mixed-race ancestry with African and French roots. His childhood was marked by many material difficulties for the family, although with periods of relief. As a student, he excelled in primary school and, in 1922, won a scholarship to enter the prestigious Queen's Royal College [Queen's Royal College].

He remained in Port of Spain until 1931, the year in which he won one of the few vacancies reserved for Caribbean students who wished to transfer to Oxford or Cambridge, England. During those student years, he met historian, journalist and socialist activist Cyril Lionel Robert James, whose political ideas would influence him. In 1932, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean with James to study history at University of Oxford, In London. There, he established contact with a radical circle of black anti-colonial intellectuals, which included, among others, the revolutionaries Kwame Nkrumah and George Padmore, as well as James himself.

After excelling in modern history classes, Eric Williams entered the field of historical research, obtaining a doctor's degree in 1938. A year later, he began teaching at Howard University, in Washington (United States), where he lived until 1948. During this period, he actively participated in debates about the horizons that lay ahead for the Caribbean countries – whose independence processes were approaching. Between 1943 and 1955, he was a member of Anglo-American Caribbean Commission [Anglo-American Commission for the Caribbean], designed to advance the economic and political development of the Caribbean islands. Around this time, Eric Williams returned to Trinidad and Tobago (1948) and began to lead a non-violent movement for the country's political independence.

In 1956, after negotiations with Great Britain, Trinidad and Tobago obtained the right to self-government in internal affairs. In the same year, Williams helped found the People's National Movement [Movimento Nacional Popular], a political party imbued with the objective of leading the independence project. Appointed to the post of premier of the Federation of the West Indies (1959-1962) – which, in addition to Trinidad and Tobago, included the then colonies Jamaica, Barbados and Leeward Islands –, Eric Williams led the negotiations with the British that resulted in the proclamation of his country's independence in 1962.

A dominant figure on the political scene in Trinidad and Tobago, he held the post of Prime Minister of the independent state between 1962 and 1981, the year of his death. His efforts at the head of the Trinidad-Tobanese State were particularly strong in the educational field and in promoting the modernization of the national productive structure – through agricultural and industrial diversification. However, he led this transformation through opening the country to foreign capital; this earned Eric Williams a reputation as a moderate leader, which at times earned him criticism from the left field (in addition to the outright ousting of CLR James).

One of the most representative episodes of the seriousness of the tensions between Eric Williams and a radical wing of the socialist sectors of Trinidad and Tobago occurred from 1970 onwards, when a wave of protests against the high unemployment rates and the presence of foreign companies in the country, led by the movement Black Power [Black Power], resulted in a drastic escalation of violence. Although the country's leader initially spoke favorably of the militants, his signal of support was unable to contain the protests. After a general strike was proclaimed – and a wing of the Army joined the movement, starting to defend the prime minister’s resignation – Eric Williams declared a state of emergency (which he himself suspended in 1972), and promoted repression against demonstrators. , even requesting US intervention to calm the situation (which did not come to fruition).

Due to his leadership in the process of political emancipation in his native country, his production as an intellectual and his role as a statesman, Eric Williams is considered one of the most influential individuals in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, being regarded as a “father of the nation”. He obtained many national and international honors, both for his bilateral rapprochement efforts with several countries on the periphery of the capitalist system, and for the pragmatism of his government – ​​expressed in cooperation with countries of the capitalist bloc during the Cold War.

He died at home, in his sleep, aged 69, in March 1981.

 

Contributions to Marxism

Eric Williams did not have a, so to speak, “doctrinaire” commitment to Marxism. He never bothered to link himself to this or that Marxist current, to submit his ideas to the test of some specific concept or category of historical materialism, or even to base his written production on the basis of what can or cannot be found in classical texts. of Marxism. Here, he resembles CLR James, his former tutor, who did not superimpose theoretical formulations produced in different contexts on the real historical processes – observed by him – (neither those of Trotsky, who influenced him, nor of any other thinker).

Eric Williams' thought was formed above all through his refined vocation to – to paraphrase Lenin – promote concrete analyzes of historical realities that are also concrete. The primary object of the author's concerns – visible from the beginning to the end of his career – was the real world, in its necessary and immanent complexity (that is, the real historical dynamics in themselves). In his historiographic production, themes such as the processes of social transformation, the contradictions operating in the world of real men and women, economic inequalities and conflicting relations between social classes were constant topics.

Averse to the mere application of external models to interpret the peculiar reality of the Caribbean, the Marxist preferred to study the history of the region according to its own operating logic, a method that allowed him to offer a close look at the historical specificities of both the Anglo-Caribbean universe, as a whole, as of the single society of Trinidad and Tobago. To this radical realism in terms of ideas was related a certain pragmatism in terms of political praxis – since its positions and decisions used to derive from detailed assessments by the concrete conditions of choice placed at each moment.

This all leads to another point that expresses the place of historical materialism in the life and work of Eric Williams: his vision of wholeness. In all his historiographic works, one sees economic, political, social and cultural phenomena being interconnected and mutually explained by the author, without any particular sphere of human life mechanically determining the others; In other words, in his thought there is no determinism of any kind. On the other hand, its totalizing perspective is equally reflected in the tendency to look at historical processes through the magnified lens of global structures and the long term.

His method of analysis is characterized by a careful observation of the centuries-old genesis of present-day social structures, paying special attention to the dialectic of continuities and ruptures that shape the historical process. In this way, he was able to advance in understanding what capitalism itself is, taking forward some of Marx's assertions about the global nature of this mode of production, the indissociability between free and salaried work, and other compulsive forms of labor exploitation (especially slavery). Such reflections are some of his main contributions to the field of historical materialist thought.

It is also worth mentioning that Eric Williams was a firm critic of racialist and ethnicist interpretations of social conflicts, whether they were on the right or left on the political spectrum. Sensitive to problems such as racism and inequality between blacks and whites, the author tended to be quite incisive in his conviction about the deeply social, historical and classist nature of such issues.

In the context of the political emancipation of the Caribbean countries, his position had the merit of serving as an instrument of struggle against the supremacist ideas that underpinned British colonialism; and after 1968, it was also an important counterpoint to the perspectives supported exclusively or mainly by ethnic criteria (now called identity), which already at that time began to emerge within the progressive forces. The notions of freedom, emancipation and justice defended by Eric Williams were flags that applied to Caribbean national societies as a whole – not restricted to just a part of historically exploited social groups.

Although the work of Eric Williams initially had little impact on the professional historiography of the Anglo-Saxon world, in Latin America and the Caribbean the luck of his thinking was different. Moreover, from the 1960s onwards, his ideas had a particular resonance in the context of independence struggles in Africa, Asia and America, and civil rights movements in the United States.

As for Brazil, in particular, the written production of Eric Williams had great repercussions. His influence can be seen in works by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC); in the so-called São Paulo sociology (by Florestan Fernandes, Roger Bastide and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, among others); and in the heterodox Marxist historiography developed by researchers from the University of São Paulo (represented, above all, by Emília Viotti da Costa and Fernando Novais). The author's main contributions to these and other schools of thought can be summarized, on the one hand, in his systemic and structural perspective on the problem of slavery in modernity; and, on the other hand, in his demonstration that “capitalism” and “slavery” do not historically express contrary terms, but two inseparable realities.

 

Comment on the work

The thesis with which Eric Williams obtained his doctorate in 1938, at University of Oxford, is entitled The economic aspects of the abolition of the West Indian slave trade and slavery (1938) [The economic aspect of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the West Indies]. In it, the author challenged the hegemonic interpretations of his time, especially those that circulated in England, about the legal end of the slave trade and slavery in the British Caribbean. His approach moves away from readings that were restricted to observing the political and moral aspects of the subject to emphasize, above all, the economic problems associated with the phenomenon. In general terms, his argument consists of pointing out that the weakening of slave-owning socioeconomic relations in the West Indies was related to changes in the role played by the region in the British colonial system, the overseas competition between the English and French metropolises, fluctuations in the dynamics of production , trade and slave trade in the other Caribbean colonies, the impact of the slave uprisings of the period, and the progressive contradictions of interests between the monopolist metropolis and increasingly powerful sectors of the colonial elites.

Four years later, after taking a long trip through different Caribbean countries, Williams published his first book: The Negro in the Caribbean (Washington/USA: The Associates in Negro Fole Education, 1942) [The Black in the Caribbean]. In this writing, the author carried out a kind of description or social prosopography of the Caribbean world, examining in particular detail the harmful legacies that the slave-owning past had left for the black populations of each place.

while publishing The Black in the Caribbean, Williams was already deeply involved in the production of what would be the most important work of his intellectual trajectory: Capitalism and slavery (North Carolina/USA: University of North Carolina Press, 1944) – which in the Brazilian edition has the title capitalism and slavery (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2012). It is a second product of the same broader historical research project that had guided him in the production of his doctoral thesis. A text that carries essayistic characteristics, being less supported by references to primary historical documents, but, on the other hand, better finished in terms of theoretical framework and interpretative deepening.

The first conclusion of the Marxist author is that the origin of African slavery in America was mainly related to the high availability of land in some regions of the continent, such as the Caribbean, whose land extensions available for production would tend to make wages unfeasible, too costly under the said circumstances, thus generating an intense social polarization between masters and slaves. However, for slavery to become viable as an institution, it was necessary for a regular flow of captive workers to reach the New World through a stable network of slave trade.

The businesses related to this traffic gave rise to a powerful class of merchants in some areas of England (especially in Liverpool) with ideological hegemony and the capacity for political organization to defend their interests within the main British institutional spaces, such as parliament, making it difficult for any moral opponents gained strength. This class of British merchants had, in general, the support of wealthy families of farmers and merchants from the West Indies with interests in maintaining the colonial and slaveholding order.

A triangular trade that connected Africa (supplier of enslaved labor), West Indies (sugar producer) and England (exporter of manufactured products) developed from the second half of the XNUMXth century and was consolidated in the middle of the XNUMXth century. Trafficking was based on the principle of commercial monopoly, that is, on the idea that colonial products could only be sold to the metropolis or to regions subject to its control. This mechanism gave great impetus to the English industrialization process, since the Caribbean slave plantations and the British slave trade were the main financiers of the Industrial Revolution and, consequently, of the development of English capitalism.

The food supply process of the West Indies depended on the small or medium production of subsistence goods that, at that time, was carried out in the thirteen North American colonies (current territory of the USA), but the process of independence of the second region, in 1776, interrupted the link between the two areas, precisely during the period of greatest expansion of English industrialism. This caused the pressure to end the monopoly of colonial products, the slave trade and slavery itself to begin to gain strength in England, projects that did not take long to also count on relevant popular support.

When the French colony of Santo Domingo grew to become the main sugar producing area in America (a process that added to the competition from Brazilian sugar and US cotton), the importance of the English Caribbean for the European market diminished. At the same time, in the colony, free and enslaved blacks and white farmers intensified their agitations against the slave system, thus accelerating the process of conquering the formal freedom of the workforce.

after published Capitalism and slavery, the deep critical involvement of Eric Williams in the internal affairs of his macro-region of origin – through the Anglo-American Commission for the Caribbean (when he was still teaching in Washington) – had as one of its results the writing and launching of the book Education in the British West Indies (New York: A & B Books Publisher, 1946) [Education in the British West Indies], in which he debates the organizational structure of primary, secondary and higher education in the English-speaking Caribbean, always seeking to recover the historical roots of the problems he saw in the present.

Between 1964 and 1970, Williams published a triad of works that quickly acquired national and, later, international recognition, although none of them reached the same level of originality, relevance and repercussion of Capitalism and slavery🇧🇷 The first one, History of the people of Trinidad and Tobago (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publisher, 1964) [History of the people of Trinidad and Tobago], launched in the immediate post-political emancipation context, had the basic objective of pulling the general history of Trinidad and Tobago out of the silencing control that until then had been imposed on it by the ideological hegemony of British academics – whose attention only sporadically turned to that former colony . In addition, it intended to contribute to the strengthening of a national identity of the Trinidadian people anchored in a shared national past. In the historical interpretation offered by the Marxist, the main subject that we see actively moving in its pages are not just a few illustrious personalities or supposedly genius, but rather, as the title of the book announces, the “people” as a whole, involved in a complex way in the structures of domination and exploitation that historically marked their past.

The second work of this period, British Historians and the West Indies (London: Andre Deutsche, 1966) [British and West Indies Historians], consists of an effort by the author to deepen his criticism of the way British intellectuals (in particular historians) treated and represented historiographically the western side of their Empire, that is, the history of the former English colonies in the Caribbean. Radically criticizing the imperial and colonialist ideology of approaches – hegemonic in British academia – regarding the West Indies, Williams seeks to demonstrate that a renewed historical narrative of the region still had to be made, in line with the context opened by the then recent independence movements.

Such a project pointed out by Williams would be, six years later, materialized by himself in the third and last of the aforementioned works, From Columbus to Castro: the History of the Caribbean (New York: Vintage, 1970) [From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean]. It is a comprehensive work that offers readers a rigorous balance of the main lines that crossed the history of the Caribbean area in five centuries. In the book, he partially resumes the perspective that characterized, years before, Capitalism and slavery, especially with regard to the connections between colonization, capital, commodities and slavery in the historical formation of the Caribbean.

while preparing From Columbus to Castro, Williams also dedicated himself to working on writing his autobiography, released a year earlier with the title inside hunger: the education of a prime minister (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969) [Inner Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister].

In the year he died, a collection of his speeches was edited by Paul K. Sutton – Forged from the love of liberty: selected speeches of dr. Eric Williams (Trinidad: Longman Caribbean, 1981) [Forged in the Love of Freedom: Selected Speeches by Dr. Eric Williams] –, a work that brings together transcribed versions of political pronouncements and other texts publicly read by the author throughout his career as a statesman.

About a decade later, Selwyn R. Cudjoe released the volume Eric E. Williams Speaks: Essays on Colonialism and Independence (Massachussets: Calaloux Publications, 1993) [Eric E. Williams Speaks: Essays on Colonialism and Independence], which supplements the previous publication with new texts. In addition to Williams' speeches, the two collections contain introductory studies that considerably deepen knowledge of various aspects of the thinker's life and work.

For a complete list of Eric Williams' work – including his printed and manuscript productions, published and unpublished –, the reader can consult the digital repository of the Alma Jordan library – from the Caribbean University of the West Indies (disp: archivespace.sta.uwi.edu) –, where a rich documentary collection of photographs, books, research notes, correspondence and other papers originally belonging to or authored by Williams is currently preserved.

* Gustavo Velloso, historian, is a professor at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). Author, among other books, of Idle and seditionary: indigenous populations and the times of work in the fields of Piratininga (intermediate).

Originally published on the Praxis Nucleus-USP

References


ALONSO, RA de M. "Williams, Eric". Encyclopedia Latinoamericana. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2015. Available: https://latinoamericana.wiki.br.

MARQUESE, R. de B. "capitalism and slavery and the historiography of black slavery in the Americas”. In: WILLIAMS, Eric. capitalism and slavery🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2012.

PALMER, CA Eric Williams & the making of the modern Caribbean. Chapel Hill (USA): University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

SELWYN, R. Eric Williams: the myth and the man. Kingston (Jamaica): University of the West Indies, 2009.

SOLOW, BL; ENGERMAN, SL (eds.). British Capitalism & Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress, 1988.

ST. PIERRE, Maurice. Eric Williams and the anticolonial tradition: the making of a diasporan intellectual. Charlottesville (USA): University of Virginia Press, 2015.


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