The Caribbean Radical Tradition and the Postcolonial Condition: A review of Aaron Kamugisha’s Beyond Coloniality

With a two-volume anthology on Caribbean political thought, two separate anthologies on Caribbean cultural thought and popular culture (co-edited with Yanique Hume), a co-edited Paget Henry reader, and several special journal issues under his belt, Aaron Kamugisha must have felt the weight of steadily growing expectations for some time: having taken stock of the Caribbean’s intellectual production like few others ever have, what does he ultimately make of it all?

His long-awaited and recently published book finally offers some answers. Beyond Coloniality is, unsurprisingly, a superbly well-informed and complex book. Forthright in tone and urgent in message, it is also remarkably engaging, and Kamugisha does his scholarly job of identifying important lacunae and unpaid debts in the existing literature on Caribbean thought. The book’s greater ambition, however, lies in its attempt to imagine a way forward for the region’s deadlocked radical tradition. In drawing and building primarily on Caribbean thought and scholarship to do so, moreover, Kamugisha answers his own question of what a Caribbean method might look like.

Beyond Coloniality’s argument is first and foremost anchored in a pan-Caribbean vision and an unapologetic notion of agency, which is uncommon in recent scholarship. Indeed the book’s materialist premise and humanist spirit not only reverberate in its most upbeat proclamations–“The condition of the condemned of the earth is not theirs alone to endure, as the future of humanity will depend on what answers their creative self-activity gives to the world” (62)–but in its departure from the very terms of much current debate. The author’s worldview is not informed by Foucault and Deleuze, but by Fanon, Césaire, James, Wynter, and ultimately Marx.

Kamugisha’s principal argument is based on an important distinction between the Caribbean envisaged by a cadre of anti-colonial activists and radical intellectuals, and the Creole nationalism fashioned by (and serving the interests of) middle-class bureaucrats; between the Caribbean that was meant to be and the Caribbean that now is. Underpinning the book are therefore questions of how one became the other; why the region, as Brian Meeks puts it, fell into a state of ‘hegemonic dissolution’; and what the alternatives might be to the (often treacherous) political and academic leads the region has followed so far.

Signaling his dissent from the flock early on, Kamugisha refuses to pin the blame for the loss of radical momentum on the failed Grenada revolution of 1979, or to see it as the singularly cataclysmic event it has become in the radical consciousness: regrettable though its fallout was, he argues, the region’s critical energies soon found new targets (especially as Caribbean feminisms got off the ground) and led to a much needed revision of the values that inform Caribbean citizenship and radical thought. Kamugisha’s deliberately positive spin on that moment reflects a dialectical disposition, but also anticipates his later argument against David Scott’s consignment of the Caribbean’s postcolonial trajectory to the category of tragedy.

The first section of the book nevertheless reads as somewhat of an indictment, identifying (while patiently contextualizing) the failings of the Caribbean nation-state and the complicity of certain strands of cultural thought. The second section looks forward by reaching back to two anti-colonial thinkers who might yet have something to say to us: C. L. R. James and Sylvia Wynter.

With nods to several Caribbean thinkers along the way, section one thus presents a searing critique of the postcolonial state’s “predatory rule” and black, patriarchal, heteronormative, middle-class biases. (These concerns were first voiced in Kamugisha’s essay “The Coloniality of Citizenship in the Contemporary Anglophone Caribbean” in Race and Class Volume 49.) This is followed by an evaluation of the uncritical academic embrace of creolization theory as the default descriptive and analytical lens through which the region’s social and cultural dynamics are explored. Seconding Percy Hintzen, Kamugisha argues that this conceptual apparatus not only obscures questions of class and gender—its elevation of hybridity to norm represents yet another flight from blackness. Indeed, creolization theory offers no tools to understand (and is partly to blame for) the region’s most pressing problems of persistent racism, middle-class domination, rampant gender inequality, denial of full citizenship due to sexual orientation or ethnic difference, uncritical consumption of western culture, and limited political and economic sovereignty. Kamugisha thus paints a many-facetted picture of the region’s current challenges (not neo-liberalism alone, he argues, but that in perilous combination with neo-colonialism and post-colonial elite domination), and the first section of the book thus suggests that the last two decades of defections from the anti-colonial Marxist camp are more plausibly explained by its deficits of vision and failures of application than by the disaster of Grenada.

Section two follows up on all of this with in-depth discussions of C. L. R. James and Sylvia Wynter, taking note of their many differences and occasional overlaps. Kamugisha points to James’s profound understanding of the tradition/modernity dynamic in relation to the colonies: without contradiction, James could thus portray the Caribbean as at once “completely modern” and “completely colonial.” Paradox did, on the other hand, suffuse James’s personal life, and one of Kamugisha’s scoops is a fascinating discussion of C. L. R. James’s thoughts on women—from his forward-looking ideas on gender equality to his self-confessed difficulty in practicing what he preached! Though Kamugisha’s affection for his subject is evident, his portrayal of James as a complicated and sometimes imperfect human being is commendable for being so Jamesian: always sympathetic, yet painstakingly honest. If the example of James nonetheless serves to remind us that there were exceptions to the patriarchal bias in the anti-colonial movement, Kamugisha also draws on him to explore the mutual contingency of the “politics of culture” and the “culture of politics” and indeed the potentially unifying role of popular culture. As Kamugisha saliently observes, “Caribbean popular culture is the most powerful force that socializes contemporary Caribbean citizens into an understanding of their identities, the limits of their citizenship, and the meaning of their worlds” (187).

Wynter, too, was attentive to the centrality of the tradition/modernity dichotomy for the colonial order, especially as argued around the opposing value-systems of “plot and plantation,” but also in the transfer of a high/low cultural binary and the subjugation of the “little” (or local) tradition. Kamugisha’s discussion of Wynter is, however, predominantly centered on her (nine-hundred-page-long) unpublished manuscript “Black Metamorphosis: New Natives in a New World,” which, among much else, documents her (apparently quite sudden) apperception that Marx’s emancipatory project was incommensurate with the evil of racism. While Kamugisha loyally accounts for Wynter’s concepts of abduction and indigenization (largely as alternatives to epistemic violence and creolization), the emphasis is on her charge against the false universal of Western humanism. Though Wynter’s effort to roll back the ethnocentric conception of “Western man” owes something to Foucault, her project is, however, not anti– but ultra-humanist: “we have to recognize the dimensions of the breakthroughs that these first humanisms made possible at the level of human cognition, and therefore of the possibility of our eventual emancipation, of our eventual full autonomy, as humans” (186).

Both thinkers were thus invested in leveling the social and cultural hierarchies colonialism left behind, and acknowledging the “little tradition.” For me, however, one of the book’s most palpable tensions derives from the differences between the two, especially given James commitment to Marxism and his relative tolerance for European thought and cultural expression, and Wynter’s ultimate repudiation of both. So much, in fact, that I raced through the chapter on Wynter to find out how Kamugisha would reconcile James’s emphasis on the entanglement of race and class (regarded as one of the colonial system’s particular sediments) with her insistence on race as the far more intractable and pervasive problem, anchored not in material conditions alone, but in the imperialism of western epistemology itself.

As it turns out, Kamugisha (of course) does not attempt to resolve their differences, but rather to show us that James and Wynter present us with analytical frames other than those offered through the entire spectrum of creolization theory—frames which (irrespective of their varying allegiance to Marxism) maintain a focus on the “castaway culture of the Caribbean” and the enduring Matthew Bondsman figures of this world. As a reference to the creative propensity of the masses, the Bondsman-figure does, however, unify James and Wynter through their common faith in the liberating potential of popular culture. Indeed, Kamugisha identifies Bondsman as “the price of Western bourgeois man and the key to unlocking the fictions that govern our present mode of being” (188).

It is nevertheless around this central node that my only doubts about Kamugisha’s strategy–though never about his overarching vision or motivation–arise. While a revolutionary vision self-evidently must be centered on some expectation of mass mobilization, it seems to me that his optimism about the Caribbean masses as a latently revolutionary force denies the enormity of the problem he has taken such care to present. Kamugisha’s assurance that “beyond coloniality does not exist in a future theory or in a future heaven…[but in] the creative self-activity of the African diasporic masses“ (187) resonates with the near deification of an abstract popular in so much Caribbean theory. But where, one might justifiably wonder, is this mythical entity (every bit as trained on fast consumption and electronic media as its counterparts across the globe) to find its unified political momentum? Does its “self-creative activity” even have a collective scope, or is it just individualistic self-fashioning? In its newly ordained role as remedy for ailing economies, can Caribbean popular culture–this most “powerful socializing force”–also be that critical tool of “aesthetic decolonization” and “education of [revolutionary] feeling” (209) that Lamming and his peers meant it to be? And, if it is not to become mere populism or cynical state-patronage, what form should a support for the popular take?

It is not that Kamugisha doesn’t see these challenges–he identifies several of them. It is only that he still somehow vests his hopes in the quantum ability of popular culture to becomes both the means and end of social redemption. On a related note, it remains unclear how the (also readily acknowledged) conservatism of the Caribbean populace, especially on matters of sexuality and punishment, square with his (and Mimi Sheller’s) advocacy for “erotic agency” as a liberating channel for creative energy.

While one can get a little weary of undifferentiated references to “Western thought,” Kamugisha’s tone is remarkably sensitive and generous. Though the differences of vision and perspective, which necessarily motivate Beyond Coloniality and situate it in the current intellectual landscape, needless to say, are many, the author never loses sight of the shared experience and history that precede such differences, nor does he descend into petty arguments with specific interlocutors. I would have welcomed some reflections on the dissolution of the public sphere, which is so central to the consensus-seeking politics the book implicitly advocates. While the question of such a politics may be the subtext for Beyond Coloniality (putting it at odds with the pluralist visions of other influential thinkers) it is never directly taken up, but addressed only in deed.

Not least among the book’s merits is its refreshingly forthright offer of several immediate pointers for long- and short-term action. In addition to broader political projects like environmental responsibility, gender equality, reparatory justice, and transnational working-class solidarity, Kamugisha encourages us, perhaps above all, to combat the everyday racism that continues to suffuse Caribbean life. He also urges that we put “the issue of Caribbean political integration back on the agenda” (201), not only (as Norman Girvan argued) as “the only means of realizing the ‘national project’” (203), but to circumvent ethnic chauvinism and what Archie Singham so compellingly referred to as “personal government.” As Kamugisha reminds us in one of the book’s most memorable phrases, “the struggle here is not merely the difficulty of coordinating the social, economic and political arrangements of a number of territories, but the problem of vision. It suggests, further, the necessity of understanding its antithesis” (203, my emphasis).

At a moment when the academic common sense veers towards post-humanism, a moment when concerns with class struggle and governance are displaced by bio-politics and agonistics, or yield to archipelagic or ecological perspectives, Kamugisha’s return to James and Wynter–and the supposedly old questions of race, sovereignty, and freedom they wrestled with–is both audacious and provocative. While conceding that “it is a dream of the past to suggest that past radicalism can be so easily resuscitated,” it is an invitation to recalibrate a stalled Caribbean radicalism somewhere between James’s anti-colonial Marxism and Wynter’s radical humanism. Though his hopefulness is perhaps a Gramscian optimism of the will, Kamugisha’s renewed and unabashed commitment to a Caribbean radicalism in the Marxist humanist tradition, which has come under such pressure in recent decades, is indeed a both welcome and timely intervention. Beyond Coloniality’s greatest gift however, is not its offer of hope, but its clear sense of direction.

Therese Kaspersen Hadchity

Therese Kaspersen Hadchity is an art historian, teacher, curator, and visual arts commentator based in Barbados. Her forthcoming book The Making of a Caribbean Avant-garde: Postmodernism as Post-Nationalism (Purdue University Press) examines the particular inflection of the "postmodern" in the visual arts of the Anglophone Caribbean.