The New World Group and the Critique of Capitalism

Scott Timcke
race and capital Timcke

This paper examines the critique of capitalism provided by the New World Group. Emerging from the West Indian Society for the Study of Social Issues at The University of The West Indies, Mona, the Group was formed in 1963 specifically to address the reformation of social and political forces in the wake of Caribbean territories gaining formal independence from European colonial powers. This reformation was broader than the political-economy, it included psychological and ideological reworkings, all items necessary to evaluate the kinds societies West Indians could strive for. Set within intra-Marxist debates on early capitalist development, this paper focuses on the collaboration and creative tensions between Norman Girvan, George Beckford, and Lloyd Best as they helped one another construct their respective political philosophy, social theory, and economic analysis of the logic of plantation societies, which while incomplete from our vantage, did mostly capture the historical dynamics found in the Caribbean.

This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the Race and Capital special issue of Historical Materialism. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months, we ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.

Issue 32(2&3): Race and Capital


The plantation was a total social and economic unit, supplemented with a system of routine surveillance to support nakedly unapologetic authoritarian governance that greatly shaped the very horizon of development in Caribbean societies, even long after political independence. Combining vertical relations of domination integral to extracting labour with some limited horizontal relations to aid the day-to-day functioning, the plantation fostered anticipatory obedience and instinctual habituation to unspoken imperatives. While eagerly catering towards aggressively extractive market relations this unit actively dismissed viewpoints that countered the supremacy of market forces. The interplay between domination and egalitarianism enabled processes of creolization leading to new cultural forms in speech, like picong and kas kas; new modes of kinship, like extending fictive kin and religious syncretism. But social and economic relations of production remained rooted in extraction. There may have been individual acts of resistance, but the unit’s overseers stymied democratic change the moment resistance became inconvenient.

Well aware of these conditions, West Indian intellectuals in the post-war era sought to explain the economic structures of Caribbean societies by reference to path determinacy set by European colonial formations and the associated sequestering of surpluses. Known as ‘a Theory of Plantation Economy and Society,’ this body of thought was developed by the New World Group comprising George Beckford, Lloyd Best, Norman Girvan, complimented by people like C. Y. Thomas, H. R. Brewster, Joan Robinson, Owen Jefferson, Gordon Lewis and Trevor Monroe among others, and then joined by Kari Polanyi Levitt and Archie Singham from abroad.[1] This interdisciplinary project had many intellectual tributaries and confluences, in addition to a wide delta of applications and interpretations.[2] In the spirit of independence, Girvan writes, the theory sought to “reflect the political aspect of decolonization on the intellectual, economic, social and cultural spheres.”[3] Put differently, one aim of the Group was to decolonize hereto accounts of the ‘general process’ to better comprehend the functional role of race and empire in capital accumulation.[4]

Emerging from the incubator of the West Indian Society for the Study of Social Issues at The University of The West Indies, Mona in Jamaica, the Group was formed in 1963 specifically to address the reformation of social and political forces in the wake of Caribbean territories gaining formal independence from European colonial powers. The year before Jamaica had become independent of British direct rule, with University College (as it was known then) severing its ties in the same year from the University of London to become The University of The West Indies. Led by students and young lecturers, this reformation was broader than the critique of political economy. It included psychological and ideological reworkings, all items necessary to evaluate the kinds of societies West Indians could strive for.

Across the West Indies, Independence also brought pragmatic matters to the fore—the need to produce constitutions, currencies, and passports being some basic examples. Well read and highly educated, members of the New World Group knew that independence would not automatically produce tidy democratic states. Formal decolonization and democratization were conjunctures of vicious contest; the stakes were setting an enduring social trajectory. Even to this day, the mythology of Independence in the West Indies sanitizes how in this decisive political moment there was a quick realignment of interests and deal-making as local factions sought to build constituencies to win power electorally, and otherwise occupy the commanding heights of their societies as British flags were lowered.[5] Along with trade unionists, urban radical social movements and the organized poor,[6] these intellectuals sought to better conceptualize the workings of power in their national, regional, and international contexts. They strove throughout to understand how rule by markets was constituted through historical and material forces.

In the case of members of the New World Group this activity was undertaken inside of key state institutions, like public universities, at least in the 1960s. However as the 1970s unfolded some members, like Best, had been driven from these same institutions. Best responded by forming Tapia in 1968, which ran in Trinidad and Tobago’s 1976 election as a political party.[7] It won 3.81% of the vote.[8] Other members like Girvan stayed in academia longer, but left to do development work, becoming the Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States. Although there are some exceptions in more radical spaces,[9] arguably it has only really been since the CLR James Centennial Conference in 2001 that the New World Group has received recognition for their theorizing by members of the local establishment. That said, this ‘bump of a revival’ to use Brian Meeks’ turn of phrase has been selective.[10] The Group’s critique of the US and UK ruling classes are permitted; critiques of the local ruling class remain less welcome.

Set within intra-Marxist debates on early accounts of capitalist development, this paper focuses on the collaboration and creative tensions between Girvan, Beckford, and Best as they helped one another construct their respective political philosophy, social theory, and economic analysis of the logic of plantation societies, which while incomplete from our vantage, did mostly capture the historical dynamics found in the Caribbean. As either founders, editors or key contributors, these three figures are notable for their early involvement in the transnational publication, New World, of which 14 issues were published between 1963 and 1972 between Georgetown, Guyana and Mona, Jamaica.[11] University work was a centralizing force keeping Girvan, Beckford, and Best in frequent contact. The by-product of this close collaboration was that all three had multiple ground-breaking academic monographs which draw upon the work of the others. I will elaborate upon these ties in the third part of the paper.

At the same time I also want to be cautious in this essay to not perpetuate the trope of extraordinary figures. Even while the West Indies is comprised of small societies where interpersonal relations are visible and traceable, it would still be an error to reify any person—they could not and did not have the singular influence of which they are credited. It is better to think more about a generational cluster of scholarship advancing lines of critique and the circumstances that enabled or constrained that critique.

Accordingly, in this paper I survey the arguments and analysis offered by the Group as their historical studies intervene in the debates on race, capitalism, and Marxism. Through doing so, I aim to contribute to a non-European and non-American centric approach to the historical study of racism and exploitation. There are several steps involved in making the argument that the Group has much to offer Political Marxism. The first portion of the paper covers the intramural debates in Marxian accounts for capitalist development. I then turn to revisionist inter-war economic historiography of the Black Atlantic, as this was an archive for the Group’s later synthesis of modernity and conceptualization of how the ‘general process’ involves the realization of civic ascriptions and their associated modes of articulation as they dynamically respond to the imposed demands of production and circuits of accumulation. Looking forward, for my claim that the Group can contribute much to Political Marxism to make sense, it is worthwhile revisiting some standard Marxist accounts of capitalist development.

Standard Marxist Accounts of Early Capitalist Development

The transition from feudalism to capitalism has generated a vast historical literature of which the Brenner–Wood exchange on the Low Countries is emblematic of how the role of race has occasionally been overlooked in the analysis of early capitalist development.[12] Robert Brenner attributed the development of capitalist property relations there to declining soil fertility and a resultant resource gradient leading to a division of labor within rural commodity production. Farmers subsequently turned to the market to purchase consumptive goods, which in turn created new instruments and urban development. Still, Ellen Meiksins Wood objected that there are “fundamental differences between commercial and capitalist societies.”[13] While granting that the Low Countries had active markets in land, labour, and capital, and some mechanized manufacturing (most notably in shipbuilding), for Wood this society lacked social reproduction predicated upon market dependence, meaning that it lacked other necessary characteristics of capitalism, like the accumulation imperative or the revolutionary need to overhaul forces of production. But in their back and forth, both Wood and Brenner fail to give attention to the role played by the transfer of surpluses from the East and West Indies, or how enslaved people provided the fiscal security for the commercial ventures undertaken by the VOC.

Lest one suspect that these errors belong to Political Marxism exclusively, similar kinds of oversights also exist in the classic debates on manorialism over where and when primacy between urban or rural sectors emerged during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. To briefly elaborate, Pierre-Philippe Rey argues that the process of converting feudal obligations into money rents was external to capitalism, like the already existing practice of expropriating peasant’s surpluses. Guy Bois notes how basic units of feudal production were agnostic to increasing productivity nor sought profit-orientated investment. Instead, small-scale peasant holdings preferred subsistence routines sufficient to meet levies and satisfy ideologies of self-sufficiency. Lords, on the other hand, were primarily concerned with preserving civic hierarchies. Still, as technology (and its organization) slowly improved over two centuries—like village plow teams becoming more efficient—so lords increasingly appropriated surpluses in the form of money. In time these reconfigurations of manorialism weakened feudal institutions and strengthened commercialism that by the 16th century rural areas had been commodified and many smallholders pauperized. These processes culminated in levies being exceeded by rents, and thus a preference given to the later.[14] But while Pierre-Philippe Rey and Guys Bois offer strong empirical evidence for their respective arguments, in general they discount the role of international trade with the Western Hemisphere in aiding urban development. Moreover, while it is not quite true that plantations were simply manors taken abroad, neither is it entirely false.

Even Perry Anderson’s more expansive conception of “the feudal dynamic” and its contradictions neglects the role of Atlantic imperialism.[15] He writes that the “private sovereignty” of the “parcelized” manor weakened the power of centralized authority due to overlapping jurisdictions. Medieval towns took advantage of the uneven capabilities of the state and intra-feudal rivalries to acquire relative autonomy, in turn making them conducive to nascent urbanization as peasants fled serfdom. These developments were not without revanche as the feudal system sought to seize this wealth generated by these sites of agrarian commerce. Against the backdrop of commodity production and exchange, absolutist states emerged. Justified by the traditions of Roman law which emphasised sovereignty and unconditional private property, absolutist states swept away parcelized sovereignty and feudal rights to land. Violence proliferated as national monarchies consolidated, culminating in an inversion of the feudal system; sovereignty became public and property became private.

As Anderson points out, absolutist states were contradictory war machines. They combined feudal era dispossession of rival economies through military force with modern directed economic investment. To direct war and wealth, a bureaucracy was built to collect taxes which weakened the levy system, while also diminishing peasants’ holdings. To offset their lost feudal standing, aristocrats oversaw this planned predation. Being placed in charge of the military and administrative apparatus well positioned them to engage in rent seeking activities. Nevertheless, warfare and dispossession undermined the development of markets, supply chains and the collection of taxes therefrom. And so, absolutist states sought loans from the commercial-financial complex. Over time, these loans represent the relative power shifts in European classes.

New claims, expropriations, and exploitations stemmed from this re-organization of power, but this power was nevertheless predicated upon a primordial conceptualization of trade as a zero-sum exercise. Provided the bourgeoisie produced weapon systems they were granted considerable autonomy which allowed for capitalist forces and relations of production to expand. The primary beneficiaries of early capitalist expansion were aristocrats and the bourgeoisie, who were integrated in the state; what Pierre-Philippe Rey terms a ‘double mix.’ In their respective ways, these classes used the absolutist state to construct a ‘national interest’ to pursue their prerogatives by managing the enclosure, commodification and conversion of existing goods into private property. The costs of this transition were borne by peasants who became cottagers and journeymen who became wage labourers. To the extent they could, these groups resisted and fought a long war against this transition. While Anderson’s account of the uneven and combined development of Europe well primes us to review the unseen, uneven and combined development occurring concurrently in the Western Hemisphere, the account also illustrates how issues of race, enslavement and imperialism are treated as somewhat peripheral concerns in early capitalist development, framed as effects rather than contributing factors.

Even contemporary analysis of capitalist development under-explores the role of race. For instance, reminiscent of Karl Polanyi’s ‘double movement,’ Wolfgang Streeck recounts the antinomies of European industrialisation. It brought “expulsion from the land, proletarianization, exploitation, repression and cruel discipline” as well as “emancipation from traditional ways of life, new solidarities, trade unions with the capacity to fight for higher wages and better conditions, and the possibility of industrial citizenship and social reform.” The development of co-ordinated, co-operative large-scale production presented new stakes and techniques over the “division of the proceeds” between capital and labour, which also appeared in the organization of factories.[16] With their power to strike, labour gained considerable bargaining power, at least relative to other preceding forms of organized production.

In response, between 1840 and 1920 capitalists seized upon new technologies like telegraphy, rotary power printing, the telephone, punch card processing and the like to improve their means of calculation and communication, while taking steps to safeguard this control through intellectual property regimes. Many of these technologies were enrolled to support Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, a project Caitlin Rosenthal characterizes as adapting and refining techniques practiced in the new world plantation system.[17] What was conceptualised as innovative business practices was simply the use of technology to re-establish control on the labour process. In the post war era, microprocessors simply continued this trajectory by consolidating power and control with capitalists.[18]

To help erode recent concessions and recapture lost dividends, capitalists sought to offset labour power by interpolating workers to their project while begrudgingly commissioning the state to provide welfare programs to quell grievances and unrest. For example, in the wake of the 1968 revolts, European manufacturers cooperated with unions to humanize industrial work to forestall anti-capitalist protests. “Some workers and their representatives gained the right, not just to be informed and consulted,” Streeck writes, “but also to contribute to decisions about work organisation, technology, working hours and training.”[19] Nevertheless these defensive concessionary tactics were coupled with more aggressive investments in transportation and communication technologies. Factories were relocated to towns without a labour tradition while vulnerable migrants were employed, all this in hopes of preventing worker self-organization. In Britain, the latter was accomplished by importing labour “obviously of a selective type.” West Indians migrants “largely [came] to [fill] vacancies created by the upward mobility of British labour and were acting as a replacement population.”[20]

Of interest, Streeck does not mention how “crumbs from the colonial table,” as Walter Rodney described it, were used as loyalty rents for the proletariat to create wedge issues. Neither does Streeck refer to how “capitalists misinformed and mis-educated workers in the metropoles to the point where they became allies in colonial exploitation.”[21] Where race implicitly emerges as a topic is when he discusses how production was outsourced to the Global South, a process that gained traction throughout the 1990s. “The hellish Manchester of early industrialisation still exists, but on the global periphery,” Streeck writes, “too far away for school trips.”[22] But as WEB Du Bois might add, there were never school trips to working plantations.

Given Brenner, Wood, Rey, Bois, Anderson and Streeck’s neglect of the role of race and imperialism in capitalist development it is perhaps more than understandable that scholars like Cedric Robinson have complicated relationships with Marxist historiography. Although hardly the first or last scholar to think about the role of race in capitalism, Robinson provided one quintessential account of the role of racial hierarchy by arguing that “the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions, so too did social ideology. As a material force, then, it could be expected that racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism.”[23] With brevity in mind, he suggests that the reason European and American Marxists make race-relations incidental and contingent whereas class relations are necessity is because Marxism is irrevocably locked to the West’s “racialist architectonic”. Herein “race was its epistemology, its ordering principle, its organizing structure, its moral authority, its economy of justice, commerce and power” because racism “runs deep in the bowels of western thought.”[24] As such, for Robinson there are explanatory limits to Marxian categories on matters of race.

While there is value in critiquing his details, Robinson’s remarks provide a useful prompt for a richer synthetic account of early capitalist development, one which can greatly benefit from the explanatory insight offered by the literature which analyzes the triangular trade in the Black Atlantic. Indeed, the Black Radical tradition is especially good at pressing home the deep connection between (and still reverberating effects of) enslavement in the Western Hemisphere and contemporary capitalism;[25] what Robinson calls the “dialectic of imperialism and liberation.”[26] This connection is racial capitalism, a market-system propped up by states that permits, nay relies upon racial and gendered violence as an ‘extra-economic’ means to force reproduction to occur through the market. From this vantage, the capitalism-slavery debate very much informs the race-class debate, the debate about modern state formation and racial formation are all roughly equivalent attempts to plot the realizations of domination and dominion that emerged during the expansion of markets during modernity.    

The Initial Caribbean Counter-Analysis

The reason I have spent a few pages overviewing the debates on early capitalist development is to show the terrain on which The New World Group struggled. Yet even while their analysis emerges from positions on the margins of this terrain, by no means are they marginal to these discussions. In this respect, the Group inherited much from Caribbeanists like CLR James, WEB Du Bois, and Eric Williams.[27] In providing a “counter-culture of modernity”—to poach a term of art from Paul Gilroy—James, Du Bois and Williams had an ambivalent relationship to the centers of analysis, “sometimes as defenders of the West, sometimes as its sharpest critics.”[28] As such it is instructive to review their interpretation of the histories of, and contradictions in, the global political economy. Doing so allows us to see the subsequent continuities of themes and iteration of topics in the New World Group’s analysis of the role of drainage in uneven and combined development during modernity.

To begin with Williams, he foregrounds the role of mercantile trade wars in the latter half of the 17th century between major European powers as setting in motion a series of nested contests, amongst which were control over the Western Hemisphere and India. Through private interests and royal chartered companies, Britain pivoted from purchasing goods from the Dutch and instead invested in domestic industry and colonial agriculture. Regarding the Caribbean colonies, anticipating development economists like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson,[29] Williams demonstrates how due to the interplay of the characteristics of specific crops, land markets and labour demands led to different institutional arrangements. For example, sugar production was particularly labour intensive. This meant that planters initially sought to enslave indigenous populations, but when this finite labour pool was depleted due to genocide, then planters drew upon the English poor and convicts through servitude and indentureship. While there are clear differences between white servitude and black enslavement, these contracts were treated as a property relation thereby providing the template for enslavement.[30] Moreover, “the capital accumulated from the one financed the other.”

While the Colonial Board unsuccessfully sought to curtail the abuses of servitude, these legal protections did not encompass West Africans. As the legal space was provided, planters turned to mass enslavement to leverage economies of scale for high rates of profit. This consolidated into triangular trade, wherein slavers from Liverpool purchased slaves in West Africa, sold the enslaved to Caribbean planters, then returned with agricultural goods to Britain. This new labour regime led to rapid social change. As an illustration, in 1645 Barbados had 11’200 small white farmers and 5’680 black slaves. By 1667, there were 745 large plantations and 82’023 slaves. A 500-acre plantation in 1640 cost £400, yet by 1648 the price had increased by 3500%. In 1650, its agriculture was worth £3 million, just under £670 million in contemporary terms, and so became a vital component of the wider British economy. To select but one of his examples, Williams relays how “in 1697 British imports from Barbados were five times the combined imports from the bread colonies; the exports to Barbados were slightly larger.” He adds that “little Barbados, with its 166 square miles, was worth more to British capitalism than New England, New York, and Pennsylvania combined.”[31]

Unable to survive in this market without land to expand into, many whites left the colonies despite incentives to remain, like restrictions of trades and qualified franchises for Colonial Assemblies. A diminishing tax base led Colonial Assemblies to impose high duties on imported slaves to raise revenue, and to which merchants predictably objected. While colonies were contested, in the end “the plantation economy had no room for poor whites,” Williams wrote. “The victims were the Negroes in Africa and the small white farmer.” Intense social inequality of this kind meant that only wealthy planters and the enslaved remained, thereby revealing the general tendency of capitalism. Between 1763 and 1778 London merchants avoided investment in the Liverpool slave trade because they thought it was running at a loss.

Douglas Hall’s assessment of the early 19th West Indian sugar industry was that irrespective of how “well-equipped and well managed” estates might have been (and many were not), planters “lacked the basic permissives of calculability of success or failure in their businesses. They seldom had any realistic idea of how the enterprise stood financially, or what its prospects were.” Hall relays how British Merchants were aware of how financial illiteracy caused debts and mortgages to accumulate interest.[32] Nevertheless “industrial expansion required finance.”[33] And for the bulk of the 18th Century those best positioned to invest capital were big planters and slave traders.[34] Concurrently, their wealth allowed them to exert considerable influence as well as the ability to purchase political office which in turns shaped the governance of triangular trade system. In summary, Williams argues that “the contribution of slavery to the development of British capitalism,” specifically the role of the “slave trade [provided] the capital which financed the Industrial Revolution in England.” The wealth generated by Atlantic trade provided demand for consumptive goods which stoked domestic economic activity. Effectively sugar cultivation in the West Indies provided solutions for the various economic crises in Europe, meaning that the so-called periphery was at the center of European capitalist development. In short, ‘slavery drove growth.’ For Williams, this system only ended when planters’ desires for monopoly threatened profits and expansion in other sectors.

Given that context creates conceptualization, Williams argued that depending on land and labour colonial economic formations divide into two models. The first was “the self-sufficient and diversified economy of small farmers, while the second “has the facilities for the production of staple articles on large scale for an export market,” and can be illustrated by the American and Caribbean colonies respectively.[35] Accordingly, while they write about 18th Century Caribbean agricultural production and 19th Century American industrialism respectively, there is comparative value in comparing and triangulating James’ and Du Bois’ insights into race and capitalism. In doing so they offer good templates to go beyond provincializing accounts by noting the global nature of capitalism.

James’ analysis of 18th century capitalism vividly demonstrates how systematic sexual violation, starvation, racialization and natal alienation were inseparable from the balance of payments in international trade. Against the backdrop of the shifting balance of power in Europe, the wars to capture these spaces generally testify to the value of colonial agricultural production and extraction: few states would bother if it was not ultimately profitable. Similarly, James notes how the possession and repression of the enslaved became central to the ruling ideology of San Domingo. This ideology included latent fear of insurrections by the 500’000 enslaved, or the enslaved being recruited by invading armies.[36] Within this context James provides a social history of mutable identities, one in which politics greatly shapes interests and affiliations. As an example of this refusal to flatten thought, he details the antagonisms between the Governor and the Intendant, given that “the source of its power [was] so many thousands of miles away.” On the eve of the Haitian revolution, the Governor had just over 500 personnel to act as “a counterweight to the power of the planters in the small whites of town and country,” who numbered “about 30’000.” Ideologically opposed to budding absolutism and independently minded, the bureaucracy “frequently encroached on the Intendant’s administration of justice and finance,” but themselves lacked capacity for the reach and enforcement of rule.[37] Building upon these cleavages, James’ language of “small whites” and “big whites” is analytically perceptive. For example, most of the big landowners and rentiers—big whites—lived in Europe and employed white labour—small whites—to safeguard their property.[38]

Neither did James shy away from discussions of how racial hierarchy intersected with differentiated class positions themselves shaped by alliance building, and aspirations of upward social mobility.[39] Small whites were reticent about Mulattos’ rising social status: while Mulattoes’ increasing wealth was resented, small whites courted them lest they “swell the ranks of their enemies.”[40] While big whites sought an alliance with Mulattos to suppress revolts, nevertheless the French Assembly worried that “to give rights to Mulattoes who outnumbered them would be to hand over the colony, military and civil, to these bastard upstarts and their allies of the counter-revolution.”[41] Similarly, the dividends from enslavement were a source of factional contests within European states. For example, James points out how in the wake of their revolution, the French Republic deemed the colonial surpluses vital to consolidate rule, both internally and externally, while creditors, not wanting to lose their investments, went to considerable lengths to protect their property which eventually culminated in the 1802 expedition to put down the revolution. In the end, supposedly the freedom of some required the enslavement of others.

Notwithstanding politics and positions—and he places considerable emphasis on these in his analysis—James’ indictment is systematic, as one of his most famous passages illustrates: “There were good and bad Governors, good and bad Intendants, as there were good and bad slave owners. But this was a matter of pure chance. It was the system that was bad.”[42] This system was not localized, confined to a specific place and specific time, but rather the realization of a dynamic tri-continental economy designed to perpetuate subordination which was maintained by routine acts of extreme violence. James’ analysis illustrated how enslavement was not residue of a by-gone era, some pre-capitalist endeavour that wage-labour surpassed, but rather was emblematic of a mature supra-national capitalist system that could only be escaped through savvy revolutionary action.

Turning to the United States Du Bois discusses how enslavement created a subject of capital and white supremacy which became an immutable category and an indicator in racial formation. “Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-wide scale,” Du Bois wrote.[43] The effects of this consolidating racial formation were not confined to the United States, rather “new cities were built on the results of black labor, and a new labor problem, involving all white labor, arose in both Europe and America.”[44] Du Bois’s analysis argues that racial formation was leveraged to extract surpluses that were then transferred across the Atlantic.

In the empire of cotton enslaved people were both labour and capital. As for the later, in the 19th century British merchants made advances to American cotton planters, who in turn used this credit to produce, hoping to use slavery to cover expenses and gain a profit. Likewise, “sugar cultivation” Williams wrote “was a lottery.”[45] The enslaved were the collateral upon which advances in this mode of production depended. In the early part of the Atlantic slave trade black women were disposable, but once colonies settled, as the slave trade was outlawed, so Black women became integral components to reproducing the whole. The system relied upon sexual violation to produce capital. As commodities and capital themselves, through reproduction Black women produced capital for planters. One consequence of this rich analysis of the social relations of production showed the historical interconnection of the global geographies of commodity chains, labour processes, and class and civic ascriptions, and the silences around the peculiar institutions that formed the bedrock of the accumulation of capital. Accordingly, the social history of the white European working class cannot be separated from the entitlements, privileges, wages, and spoils of whiteness, which was used to make demands for political rights and higher social standing.

In summary, the core features of capitalism are racialization and instrumentalization, commodification and securitization, financialization and violence, with cascading effects felt the world over. During the Black Atlantic sphere of circulation, new grammars of difference came to justify and legitimate enslavement, which in turn produced a myriad of class, status, and identity distinctions. This returns us to the work of Robinson. He argued that there were severe limitations to orthodox Marxism and black nationalism. He found in both a common dogma; fictitious essentialism that produced uncritical narratives about the proletariat or Black subjects leading credence to the belief that capturing the commanding heights was sufficient to change patterns of domination. But in assuming that identity gave rise to political consciousness these projects neither had an adequate understanding of domination nor the basis of its institutional implementation. Inter alia simply changing the names and faces of the people in charge would be little genuine democratic emancipation, points that harken back to James’ analysis of the Caribbean. Rather, what was required was a programmatic agenda that channelled the Black revolutionary thought that encountered the raw violence that sustained tri-angular trade.

In their respective ways Williams, James, and Du Bois identified an Atlantic political economy where the movement of people, goods, and surpluses in this sphere of circulation directed the rise of industrialism. This system was spatially differentiated, had a global division of labour as well as several modes of articulation, but nevertheless comprised a single system. Within the proletariat, metropolitan whites received loyalty rents for their affiliation with this system, which included status and other civic ascriptions that were initially plotted against the enslaved and then later colonial subjects. In addition to entitlements, small whites received a (narrow) share of the spoils from the imperial system, calculated to be just enough to divide the proletariat, quell moral dilemmas, and stall class struggles. The dialectic between whiteness and blackness takes place against the backdrop that is the dialectic between metropole and hinterland, between empire and slavery, all mutably co-defined. In short, the legacies of imperial class relations connect capitalist exploitation and racial distinctions. And so there is nothing to gain from giving analytical priority to Europe over Africa, factory over field, white proletarians over the black enslaved. For Williams, James and Du Bois there were no distinction between histories of modern slavery and histories of capitalism, the distinction between them only seeks to propagandize in capitalism’s favour. It was this analysis that brought incredulity from the European intellectuals. “For years,” James wrote, “we seemed, to the official and the learned world, to be at best, political illiterates.”[46]

The Theory of The New World Group

As I suggested in the previous section, pressing against ‘white ignorance’[47] the Caribbean critique of political economy produced a unique social imaginary that offers a credible counter-analysis of modernity. This counter-analysis is at the heart of a Caribbean lineage of imaginative acts of self-invention that seek to find new, and arguably more potential for, just social relations. Doing so was an inter- and multi-disciplinary venture. For example, Girvan noted that the New World Group deliberately courted the views and insights from “historians, poets, literary critics, economists, political scientists, sociologists and journalists,”[48] linking their views with the pursuit of a Caribbean critique of political economy. For Girvan, the Group was a “demonstration of the potential for the development of a unified Caribbean consciousness, and of the feasibility of collaborative efforts that transcend the sterile divisions of discipline, occupation and territory.”[49]

From the main three protagonists, Beckford’s contribution was perhaps the strongest, if also the least known, because his work was essentially the Caribbean counterpart to Marx’s detailing of the social transformations in England between 1750 and 1850 brought by capital. In greater detail than Williams, and with a wider lens than James or Du Bois, in Persistent Poverty Beckford describes a metropolitan economy centred on London and other European ports.[50] Merchants and emerging industrialists provided the working capital for New World planters. Planters worked with colonial land proprietors, where contracted to provide agriculture, and imported enslaved persons to work the field and serve the house. Some of the enslaved escaped to form Maroon communities. In compressed form, Beckford described the Atlantic economy with its various class, race, legal and occupational components as these work within and make institutional frameworks that govern the use and abuse of power. The ultimate end of this project was to externalize costs in the Caribbean and repatriate benefits out of it, stoke racial conflict to redirect local energies, then create a local elite that was both psychological dependent and ideologically affiliated with metropolitan interests.[51] Unable to be fully captured by equations, all these relations and structures factor into the long run determinants of import and export prices.

Although close friends, Best thought that while Beckford did generate a robust and dynamic “theory of income distribution” wherein metropolitan merchants exercised first claim, it was through “a quite gratuitous embrace of the cosmology of historical materialism.”[52] Still, it was this gratuitous embrace that Beckford used to demonstrate how capitalist-directed investments and the rationality of profitability explains the location of particular industries on the world scale, while the falling rate of profit is offset by ever more severe repression of the enslaved (and later apprenticed) workforce. Beckford’s agenda to redress these issues is standard—land and property regime reform, significant redistribution, economic integration—insofar that social scientists generally understand that these actions aid egalitarian goals. One difficulty, Beckford admitted, was the legitimation required for these domestic policy targets, especially when there was much psychological dependency. And so Beckford charted a James-like revolutionary course: “change must begin in the minds of people, relating to the concept they have of themselves.”[53]

For his part Best, along with Levitt, argued that colonial governors had designed domestic economies to ‘simply be’ hinterlands of exploitation revolving around a kernel of enclave mono-crop production. Although these plantations had weak formal linkages to other local industries they nevertheless constituted “a well-defined set of institutions” and “a distinct pattern of economic behaviour.” To wit: “our central hypothesis,” they write, “is that this legacy represents an endowment of mechanisms of economic adjustment that deprive the region of internal dynamic.”[54] At stake in this theorization was the viability of the Sir Arthur Lewis’s model of development, which to simplify for present purposes is a social democratic economic conjecture about the necessity and suitability of foreign capital in facilitating national development strategies. Sir Arthur Lewis proposed that because Caribbean countries had cheap labour, they were well positioned to discard the production of staple goods and instead industrialize if external capital was courted. Capital inflows would subsequently restructure the economy generating, in time, local capital that could be redeployed to produce social goods. Effectively within this ‘dual economy’, surpluses could be concentrated then redirected for national development goals.[55] Best recoiled at this suggestion: blacks were more than a source of cheap labour. “Our fundamental difference with Lewis was not that he saw imperialism and foreign capital as part of the solution while we saw it as the heart of the problem,” Best wrote.[56] Put differently, his work insisted that the Caribbean industrialization projects were a continuation of metropolitan interests restructuring and under-developing the region, with the one major change in the post-independence period being administrative. Colonial officials were replaced by local elites acting as compradors while erstwhile continuing the elite enrichment practices of their forebears.

There is another area where the Group had useful insights, and this was the critique of orthodox post-war development economics.[57] More than his companions, Best was the most willing to appreciate the limitations of the epistemic capabilities of development economics, but also preserve it. Rather than the kind of Leninism Beckford deployed, or the kind of dependency model Girvan gravitated towards, Best thought that advances in method would come when led by Caribbean imagination. The difficulty was that Best’s skills as a political philosopher lagged his skills as an economic historian. His views around ethnicity are a good example of this. Best maintained that Marxists treated race ‘simply as’ a class problem, not a distinct set of prejudices that constitute society in their own right. By contrast he foregrounded ethnicity to such an extent that it became akin to ethnic reductionism wherein “class is merely a special case of ethnicity”[58] To tease this out, Best believed that social bonds precede property relations, that class analysis properly conducted discounts meaningful cultural attachments. The chief difficulty with this conclusion is that it neglects that Marx’s critique of alienation tackles the same ground; that the commodification of labour upends the social bonds that humans wish to freely pursue.

Lastly, Girvan had a much greater interest in demonstrating how multinational extractive industries, whether sugar in Jamaica, bauxite in Guyana, or oil in Trinidad and Tobago did not serve the interests of Caribbean people.[59] Many of these were contemporary empirical studies of firms, sectors, and complexes in the 20th century. Girvan undertook them primarily to show how the development strategies adopted by West Indian governments were unlikely to generate self-sustaining growth with full employment because their economies were structured to be perpetually dependent on metropoles, consistent with the models created by Beckford and Best. Notwithstanding their respective differences, the common theme of the New World Group was economic dependence to metropolitan interests and the work of local collaborators and compradors to legally entrench that dependence. As an alternative Girvan proposed enhancing regional economic integration through a Caribbean Free Trade Association, a point which generated considerable technical debate, and which I will address in the next section.

Given pressing matters of governance, how these political economists conceptualised decolonization as involving both thought and action had a sizable impact in the postcolonial English-speaking Caribbean. Beckford provides a tidy statement of the New World Group’s agenda: “Our aim remains clear: to promote radical change in all aspects of Caribbean life and society so as to release the long-suppressed creative energies of the peoples of the region”.[60] Still the Group insisted that historical analysis had to be the starting point for a development programme capable of producing a synthesis which could temper the warring ethno-political blocs that traversed the region. In doing so the Group challenged the intellectual and disciplinary insularities of economics in the mid-20th century. “Self-consciously adopting the perceived interests of the people,” Michael Witter writes “these scholars waged a long and distinguished struggle against the ideas in economic theory that justified and rationalized the disenfranchisement and exploitation of the working people.”[61] Attentive to history but not beholden to it, altogether their analysis of the path dependency borne from early capitalism sought to better account for the role of race and class in modernity. Equally important, the plantation theory was purposefully antagonistic to modernization theory, which was prescriptive in international development agencies during the period when the Group was active. Contra modernization theory, the Group argued that development was not possible based on a set of ‘prudent’ policy choices because the legacies of colonial policies meant the local economy was built to cater to the imperatives of metropolitan capital above all else. In short, economic configurations had a material history, and in the Caribbean these configurations were resistant, if not wholly antagonistic, to democratic desires.

Although some participants like Lloyd Best were feverishly anti-Marxist, the New World Group’s theorization can best be understood as an intervention in intra-mural Marxian debates through front loading issues of racialization and the class characteristics of a global division of labour. At stake here was to what extent were Marxist explanations of social history capable of grasping the many dimensions of racial oppression.[62] These were not ill-informed critiques. For example, while at Oxford, Best was frequently Stuart Hall’s lunch companion when the later was editing Universities and Left Review.[63] Conversely for Girvan, what deficiencies existed in Marxism were of application, not foundational or methodological.[64]

In this regard the Group had several main contributions to post-war 20th century social thought. Building upon the observation that sugar plantations were different from tobacco plantations, tenant plantations were different from company plantations and so on, they sought to explain how these differences conditioned subsequent political structures. For example, in Appendix II of Persistent Poverty, Beckford outlines four primary types of plantations: company, tenant, family and state. While they all are characterised by a “high degree of central control and co-ordination” they are distinguished by forms of capital at disposal and the ratio of assets on the books between land, machinery, and the enslaved. For example, the bulk percentage of investment for tenet and family types was in land, while for companies it was in equipment, processing machinery, and enslaved persons. These differences are also expressed in management. Resident family plantations tended to combine ownership and management roles, while tenant farms had supervisors. Company plantations management tended to be on behalf of owners living abroad, and it tended to be more authoritarian and sought to undermine the community in which it was located.[65] These differences explain the specific nature of politics in and over Colonial Assemblies. To simplify for this paper, family and tenet planters sought representation, while state and company plantations undermined those initiatives.

Second, the Group sought to correct for economic and ideological dependence on the West; demonstrating how plantations and multinational corporations were the institutional means keeping Caribbean economies stagnant,[66] while framing any resistance to the retelling of capitalist development from the Caribbean point of view as intellectual institutional racism. In this spirit, the Group was aware of the historical contradiction between liberal universalism and the lived experience of enslavement and colonialism. For example, in the Caribbean, legal codes enforced racial segregation and subordination. It was not rule of law, but rule by law. In this vein, they had extensive discussion about neo-colonialism, that being fiscal rule without occupation in the post-independence era.[67] In short, the legacy of centuries in a colonial condition would not be wiped out merely by a legal instrument conferring constitutional sovereignty.

Accordingly, arguments around reparations are not confined to fiscal concerns. It involves decentering notions of justice that arise from the standpoint of the Northern metropolitan bourgeoises. Taking its place would be approaches that foreground the dialectical relationship between the South and North, seeking to account for native genocide - approaches that also acknowledge the ways in which gendered and racialized social reproduction occurred through stratification and subordination were pivotal.[68] When doing so, this line of analysis demonstrates that race and class are different realizations of generative logic which aims to subordinate people to the global operations of capital, that they are both expressions of relationships to the means of production. Altogether, the Group outlined a conception of justice predicated upon attention to extensive harms caused by long causal production chains that developed during the modernity.[69]

The great value of the Group was to conceptualize then demonstrate how multiple historically contingent modes of domination co-articulate in ways that can amplify or dampen one another. Through mutual reinforcement or occasional antagonism, these modes have their own effects. This granular approach allows scholars and researchers to identify the mechanisms by which capitalist rule occurs in a specific times and places, and how this rule is connected to other times and places. For example, if Robert Paxton is correct to note how fascism is the application of technologies of colonialism to subjects in the metropole[70]—like how factories and the task system were tested in the Caribbean before being imported to Europe—then the Group offers a prescient critique of how and why authoritarian tendencies are presently emerging in the North. The point is not about blowback (or even comeuppance) but about the geographic connections of contemporary governance. In doing so, the Group’s scholarship reaffirms how the subordinated have a history of responding to unfavorable conditions not solely with agony, but with political acumen. Acknowledging this reality can greatly improve the contemporary analysis of value struggles as well as accurately comprehend the authoritarianism consolidating the world over.

In the post-independence period the Group took stock of the various contradictions, competitions, and antagonisms that circulated in the social life in the West Indies and suggested that efforts to induce modernization were short-sighted. Rather as Best wrote, first it was necessary to “erode the intellectual and philosophical foundations of the old order so as to guard against the mere substitution of one political elite for another.”[71] This agenda put the group in conflict with the post-independence political class, whose budding radicalism was tempered and redirected into cultural nationalism.[72] For example, contra the views of notable Caribbean political economists like Sir Arthur Lewis who thought that Caribbean development was hampered by unemployment and a weak local capitalist class and so required ‘industrialization by invitation,’ James stressed how propensity could be achieved through labor taking a greater control of production. Effectively, moving Caribbean societies from an agricultural base to industrialism would likely prove difficult unless there was greater attention to the legacies of colonial governance created by racial capitalism. In summary, for James emancipation can best be achieved through a social reconstruction of the way people relate to one another. Sadly, James’ views did not prevail.

Legacies of The New World Group

So what of the impact of the Group? Given that he spent time in James’ London reading groups and wrote for the Group’s journal,[73] Walter Rodney’s work on the history of capital in Africa can provide an example of the operationalization of the Group’s conceptualization of capitalist development, a topic discussed in the beginning of this paper. Rodney’s thesis is that over centuries, the war machines Anderson describes were used by European imperialists to loot and otherwise reverse African social development. “The wealth that was created by African labor and from African resources was grabbed by the capitalist countries of Europe; and in the second place, restrictions were placed upon African capacity to make the maximum use of its economic potential,” he wrote.[74] Simple, but hardly simplistic. Echoing Williams’, James’ and the Group’s insight that so-called peripheral spaces were not marginal to global economic flows, Rodney argues that it is the prevailing ideology that marginalizes and diminished Africa’s central role in the expansion of European capitalist development. Indeed, the human and ecological damage was so intense and so enduring that only “an act of the most fraud” could “arrive at the conclusion that the good outweighed the bad.”[75] This looting—accumulation by dispossession in current parlance—reflected capitalist tendencies to forcefully exploit humans and nature to produce wealth for a few by immersing the many.

To wit, between 1445 and 1870, Portuguese, French and British mercantilism enslaved Africans for use in their Western Hemisphere colonies. With trade narrowed to the enslaved and a few other goods, as well as with depleted labour, and social shockwaves of internal conflicts for enslavement, this undermined the development of African productive capacities. Technical stagnation, even in regions not directly affected by enslavement, was the result. “A loss of development opportunity” that was “destructive…or at best extractive.”[76] From 1870s onwards European capitalist states occupied African territory to extract raw materials like metals and so on. The sad contradiction was “what was called ‘profits’ in one year came back as ‘capital’ the next”, Rodney wrote, “what was foreign about the capital in colonial Africa was its ownership and not its initial source.”[77]

As in the Caribbean and North America, racist ideologies sought to justify this naked power restructuring Africa from Cape to Cairo. And like enclosure before, policies were designed to make Africans build infrastructures for extraction and the means of their oppression. Peasants were turned into wage labourers and a reserve industrial army. Subsistence farming was replaced by cash crops. Political organizations were outlawed. Suitable local agents were cultivated that by independence, the African nationalists who came to power were “frankly capitalist, and shared fully the ideology of their bourgeois masters.”[78] Rodney’s analysis demonstrates the explanatory utility of the Group to understand the dynamics of post-colonial institutions, norms, and relationships, and how these same things undermined universal needs. In short, Rodney uses his initial situation in Caribbean social theory to argue for matters pertaining to (neo)colonial economic drainage, facilitated by compradors who themselves partake in practices of elite enrichment, often at the expense of workers. As Rodney’s work demonstrates, the Group had an influence in shaping the agenda in the critique of neo-colonialism.

The New World Group had other intra-Caribbean discussions that revolved around how independent Caribbean countries be part of the late 20th century world economy. In short, the terms were whether these countries would be vulnerable to metropolitan capital inducing competition between countries if they industrialised independently of one another, or whether it would be more prudent for the region to form a trading bloc. While generally against Sir Arthur Lewis’s industrialization agenda, the Group was split. Best and Beckford argued that the Caribbean consisted of distinct differently plantation economies with associated institutions, meaning that any regional agreements had to take account of these factors. This observation was related to the debate on pluralism: was the Caribbean composed of plural societies with persons who only shared functions to produce, as M.G. Smith argued, or were there other unifying factors, again like worldviews and social values, as R.T. Smith had argued. Ultimately this theorization amounted to little as the new ruling class endorsed and implemented the Lewis model because it allowed for more opportunities for elite enrichment.

It is beyond the purview of this paper to extensively discuss why the Group disbanded in 1973, “why...this rich flowering of creative, Pan-Caribbean intellectual effort [withered], and eventually died,” as Girvan wrote. For most members, the fracture was nominally over debates about the Caribbean Free Trade Association in Trinidad and the Rodney Riots in Jamaica that played out through unreconcilable personality clashes. Another common explanation is that a younger generation of scholar-activists like Walter Rodney and Trevor Munroe did not share Best’s hostility to Marxism, nor did they treat it as an ‘imported’ ideology. Conversely, Best argued that the younger generation were impatient to take political power while being ill-equipped to govern well. For his part, Best was wary of Caribbean Marxism, which he thought displayed neo-Stalinist tendencies and was prone to “simply fudge from Monthly Review.”[79] Instead, a prerequisite course of action was to “erode the intellectual and philosophical foundations of the old order so as to guard against the mere substitution of one political elite for another”, Best argued.[80] (Best’s assessment would only grow stronger from the mid-1980s following the Grenada Revolution, a moment where as Charles Mills wrote “the left spectacularly discredited itself.”)[81] Another immediate reason is that the Group’s scholarship did not have much purchase within the rising Black Power movement.[82] But these accounts are rather unsatisfying because while they may involve events in history, regrettably they are insufficiently historical. Rather the rollout of neoliberalism in the region did much to reorientate scholarship away from critical questions while positioning potential collaborators as present competitors, as I explain below.

With the passage of time, the failure to form the West Indian Federation ever more appears to be a key political error for the Anglo-Caribbean. As Girvan writes, regardless of the design at the time, the failure to pursue economic integration meant there was little material delivery to support the ideals of independence. “Insular statehood”, he writes brought about a situation where “Caricom economies are probably more dependent, with less autonomy in policy-making, than fifty years ago.”[83] The result is that their economies are more susceptible to global recessions, meaning many countries that would have been in the bloc have had to relinquish policy control in any case, but now it is the IMF whose austerity programme is even stringent by the standards of those that endorse that policy course. Structural adjustments have caused a cascade of other problems, like dependency on food imports, criminogenic environments that aid transnational crime networks, extremely high murder rates, and compromised political systems. Granted Caricom has commissioned innumerable technical reports on economic transformation, but as Girvan notes, regardless of the soundness of these policy suggestions, they lack sovereign legal enforcement. There is, he writes, “no real machinery to ensure implementation.”[84]

Another factor in the wain of the Group’s influence can be attributed to the rise of neoliberalism and its local impact on the production, circulation, and consumption of research and scholarship. For the most part Anglo-Caribbean social scientists were on hand to undertake commissioned research, consult on policy, or undertake technical reports for governments and international organizations. Undeniably government contracting re-directs the focus and efforts of research activities while also greatly narrowing the scope for radical analysis and critique. Writing in Jamaica, Brian Meeks testifies to how nascent neoliberal hegemony “contributed to a hermetic atmosphere in which many intellectuals abandoned the occupation of creative thinking for narrowly conceived consultancies”; lamentably, “little has changed” Meeks writes in “thirty years” hence.[85] One consequence was intellectual flight abroad, “to migrate to a place where the university professors and their projects where still valued.”[86]

Meanwhile as neoliberalism consolidated in the Caribbean in the 1980s, so social scientists found that they could supplement their incomes by conducting research for NGOs, development banks, and international organizations. There was also the prospect of earning dollars or pounds through overseeing research directed by foreign universities. For radicals facing entrenched administrators who frequently saw little value in critical projects, like Best did when Sir Arthur Lewis was principal of UWI, Mona, they left the academy to pursue private ventures.[87] Given the already small pool of academics, the shift from focusing on publishing critical peer-reviewed scholarship to unpublished internal consultancy reports curtailed the dissemination and preservation of critical ideas, but it also reflects how the international political economy more broadly shapes how and what gets studied in the Caribbean. Migration also shaped the scholarly agenda as many academics emigrated. With the main site of Caribbean Studies moving to North American and the UK academic spaces, so Meeks is very adamant that academics studying the Caribbean were “insulated from the worse corrosive effects” of local experiences of neoliberalism; with distance these scholars were more willing to forgive the local political class their sins. In these conditions, each successive generation of diasporic Caribbeanists overlooked the New World Group’s critique of capitalism.

In later years Girvan was despondent about the Group’s intellectual contributions. But this self-assessment is too harsh, I believe. The theory that they produced was a good precursor to 1990s analysis of globalization and 2010s analysis of enclave extractivism, thus validating the general tendency of capital to restructure societies in line with the imperatives of value in motion. While I endorse Girvan’s insights about the current provincialism in the Caribbean academy (it would be a mistake to provincialize Caribbean Studies because from the beginning it was always global[88]) I otherwise find his pessimistic assessment unwarranted. In broad strokes, perhaps even to first approximation, it is correct. Granted, the Group needed to broaden its scope to include due attention to the global dispossession and genocide of indigenous peoples. They also needed to acknowledge the role of gender in capitalism, with women as commodities and—through birthing—the main producers of capital. But I want to be clear: additions are not negations.

For the purposes of this essay, in addition to a rich archive of empirical social scientific studies on firms, industries, and the circulation of commodities in the Atlantic, the Group’s most important contribution was to provide a perspective on early capitalist development that differed from the accounts typically circulated in white metropolitan Marxist parties. It is for this reason that I fully endorse Brian Meek’s assessment that “New World still remains the most ambitious attempt to build a postcolonial, Pan Caribbean movement of radical intellectuals.”[89] Along these lines there is one related point worth making. As a broad tradition encumbered with a complex genealogy that shapes the structure of inquiry, Marxism nevertheless is perhaps the most perceptive critique of capitalist modernity. Within this tradition, the Group’s output stands as testament to help scholars better appreciate how the entrenched forces in metropoles and the lay assumptions that they generate can inadvertently creep into Marxist critique thereby sidelining work that is equally perceptive and comprehensive. This acknowledgement can perhaps make current critical practitioners less hubristic, recognising that the current fashion in the theorising might not represent the best theorising taking place today.

So to return to Girvan’s self-criticism, if he had cause to be critical of his compatriots in the Group, it would have been interesting to hear his critique of the historiographies in The New History of Capitalism. While this turn displays an array of new data, new methods, new techniques, and new concepts, it is still very much either mainstreaming or catching up to the insights that Black Radicals had in the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, much of this turn comes without reference to the enslaved ways of life. As Walter Johnson writes, “uncannily, the most ambitious and perceptive examples of the “new history of capitalism” turn out to have been written over seventy years ago.”[90] But inclusion of Black Radical insights means little if it amounts to simply inviting these insights into pre-existing and unchanged spaces. The proper barometer is whether those included have a say and resources to shape the structure of and relations in that space. And it is why the work of Group remains the benchmark that this turn still must meet. They accomplished far greater insight through a Black internationalist imagination fostered by movement and migration. So, while the scholars in this turn are being awarded tenure at Ivy League intuitions, it is important to remember that in his old age James languished in absolute poverty, starving in a room above the OWTU Building in South Trinidad.


Although members had different stances and intramural debates with Marxism more broadly, the New World Group—well known for offering interventions on what Stuart Hall called “the contradictory, stony ground of the present conjuncture”[91]—arguably sets the stage and agenda for much of the critical scholarship on capitalism, through for instance focusing attention to the role of Black labour in creating the value of billion-dollar digital corporations. Extending the range and utility of this line of critique is especially important when noticing how Black Radicals more broadly have been marginalized in the New History of Capitalism.[92] In my estimation the Group has had one of the most comprehensive critiques of modernity, but due to the coloniality of knowledge and ‘white ignorance’ much of this has been insufficiently recognised. So altogether the Group have earned a place to weigh in on the current debates on race and class, and more. Indeed, through their emphasis on totality as well as in their social commitments, the Group presents a model of scholarship that very much stands adjacent to the ones practiced in the late 20th early 21st century academy, models that reward increased narrow disciplinary specialization all but ensuring that holistic revolutionary activism is thoroughly excommunicated.

During its decade of operation, the Group produced a considered conceptualization of how the West Indian plantation was the instrumentalization of human beings in service of capitalist forms of exploitation and expropriation; technical mechanisms coded distinctions while operative civic hierarchies working hand-in-hand with fiscal instruments to support the extraction of surplus value, with all of the above policed by a combination of public and private interests. Involving the spheres of circulation, conflicts, and constraints, black bodies were sites of financial experimentation. Throughout, plantations feature and foster racial discrimination, white supremacy, and massive exploitation, features that are all too common in our contemporary social relations. And indeed, the degree to which the vulgar nationalism version of the plantation society thesis had adherence and purchase in the Caribbean Girvan believed it was indicative of an isolated regional intellectual politics more concerned with performative claims than empirical demonstration.

Although capitalism has undergone tremendous change since the early 19th century, there are also certain continuities that persist in the early 21st century. The path determinacy of the commodities associated with the plantation still haunts distributions of privilege and abjection the world over. With respect to research and practice, scholars need to appreciate how this legacy (mis)shapes contemporary politics across the globe. One response to these conditions is to develop a politics centered on expanding the autonomy to ultimately ensure that subordination becomes a relic of the past. This cannot simply be about redistribution, recognition, or reparation. It calls forth an alternative kind of polity with new social relations that do not feature value struggle. As a prerequisite step, this means addressing powerlessness and establishing egalitarian demos that can steer an economy orientated towards priority and sufficiency. In Walter Rodney’s spirit, this line of analysis seeks to reinforce the conclusion that development is possible “only on the basis of a radical break with the international capitalist system.”[93]


Acemoğlu, Daron and James Robinson 2005, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Acemoğlu, Daron and James Robinson 2012, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, New York: Crown Business.

Anderson, Kevin 2010, Marx at the Margins, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Anderson, Perry 1974, Lineages of the Absolutist State, London: Verso.

Anderson, Perry 2013, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, London: Verso.

Timcke, Scott 2022, ‘What Does the American Version of the Race-Class Question Mean for The Caribbean?’ Social and Economic Studies, 70(1&2): 171-201.

Beckford, George 1972, Persistent Poverty: Underdevelopment in plantation economies of the Third World, New York: Oxford University Press.

Beckford, George 1999, Persistent Poverty: Underdevelopment in Plantation Economies of the Third World (2nd Edition), Kingston: The University of The West Indies Press.

Beckles, Hilary 2013, Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, Kingston: University of West Indies Press.

Beniger, James 1986, The Control Revolution, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Best, Lloyd 1967, ‘Whither New World?’ New World Journal, V, 1,

Best, Lloyd 2002, Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom, The Institute of Social and Economic Studies.

Best, Lloyd and Levitt, Kari Polanyi 2009, Essays on the Theory of Plantation Economy: A Historical and Institutional Approach to Caribbean Economic Development, Kingston: The University of The West Indies Press.

Best, Lloyd, 1992, ‘The Contribution of George Beckford’, Social and Economic Studies, 41(3), pp. 5-23.

Bois, Guys 1984, The Crisis of Feudalism: Economy and society in eastern Normandy 1300-1550, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brenner, Robert, 2001, ‘The Low Countries in the Transition to Capitalism’, Journal of Agrarian Change, 1, 2: 169-241.

Charle, Edwin 1966, ‘The Concept of Neo-Colonialism and its Relation to Rival Economic Systems’, Social and Economic Studies,15,4: 329-337.

Cudjoe, Selwyn R. 2018, The Slave Master of Trinidad: William Hardin Burnley and the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Du Bois, WEB 2013, Black Reconstruction in America, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Farler, Calvin 1968, ‘Black Intellectuals Come to Power’, New World, V,4:…

Finley, Moses 2001, ‘Slavery’, Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, Malden: Blackwell.

Gilroy Paul 1993, The Black Atlantic, Verso: London.

Girvan, Norman 1971, ‘Making The Rules of The Game: Company-Country Agreements in the Bauxite Industry’, Social and Economic Studies 20(4), pp. 378-419.

Girvan, Norman 2006, ‘Caribbean Dependency Thought Revisited’, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 26,3: 328-352.

Girvan, Norman 2007, ‘Lloyd Best and the birth of the New World Group’, Trinidad and Tobago Review, April 2007

Girvan, Norman nd, ‘Introduction to The New World’,

Girvan, Norman, 1973, ‘The Development of Dependency Economics In The Caribbean And Latin America: Review And Comparison’, Social and Economic Studies 22(1) pp 1-33.

Girvan, Norman, 2011, ‘The Future of the Caribbean’, Counterpunch, May 20, 2011,

Gomes, Shelene and Timcke, Scott 2021, ‘The Decolonial Ends of Caribbean Ethnography: Notes of dialectics, imagination and the state of practice’, in Rhoda Reddock and Encarnacion Gutierrez-Rodriguez (eds) Decolonial Perspectives on Entangled Inequalities: On Europe and The Caribbean, Anthem Press. pp155-172.

Gray, Obika 1991, Radicalism and Social Change in Jamaica, 1960-1972, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Hall, Douglas 1961, ‘Incalculability as a Feature of Sugar Production during the Eighteenth Century’, Social and Economic Studies, 10,3:  340-352.

Hall, Douglas 1962, ‘Slaves and Slavery in the British West Indies’, Social and Economic Studies, 11,4: 305-318.

Hall, Stuart 1989, ‘Then and Now: A Re-evaulation of the New Left’, Out of Apathy, Voices of the New Left Thirty Years On, edited by Oxford University Socialist Group, London: Verso.

Henry, Paget, 2002, Ethnicity and Independent Thought, Lloyd Best and Indo-Caribbean Philosophy, The Institute of Social and Economic Studies.

Hudson, Peter James 2016, ‘The Racist Dawn of Capitalism: Unearthing the economy of bondage’, Boston Review, 16 Match 2016,, accessed 22 July 2019.

James, CLR. 1989, The Black Jacobins, Vintage, New York.

James, CLR. nd, ‘Tomorrow and Today: A Vision’, New World Journal,

Johnson, Walter 2018, ‘To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice’, Boston Review, February 20, 2018,

Kumar, Krishan 2005, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society, Malden: Blackwell.

Lewis, Arthur 1950, ‘The Industrialisation of the West Indies’, in Dennis Pantin (ed) The Caribbean Development: A Reader, Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 5-43.

Lewis, Arthur 1954, ‘Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour’, The Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies 22(2), 139-191.

Lindsay, Louis, 1975. ‘The Myth of Independence: Middle Class Politics and Non-Mobilization in Jamaica’. Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) Working Paper No. 6, Available at SSRN:

Maharaj-Best, Sunity, nd, ‘On Lloyd Best’,

Marx, Karl 1859, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’,

Meeks, Brian 2001, ‘On a Bump of a Revival’ in Brian Meeks and Folke Lindahl (eds) New Caribbean Thought: A Reader, Jamaica: The University of The West Indies Press.

Meeks, Brian 2014, Critical Interventions in Caribbean Politics and Theory, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Mills, Charles 2010, Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality, Kingston: The University of West Indies Press.

Mills, Charles W 1998, The Racial Contract, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Mintz, Sidney, 2010, Three Ancient Colonies, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Oxaal, Ivar 1968, Black Intellectuals Come to Power: The Rise of Creole Nationalism in Trinidad and Tobago, Cambridge: Schenkman Publishing.

Patterson, Orlando 1970, ‘Slavery and Slave Revolts: A Socio-Historical Analysis of The First Maroon War Jamaica, 1655 – 1740’, Social and Economic Studies, 19, 3: 289-325.

Patterson, Orlando 1982, Slavery and Social Death, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Paxton, Robert 2004, The Anatomy of Fascism, New York: Knopf.

Peach, G. C. K. 1967, ‘West Indians as a Replacement Population in England and Wales’, Social and Economic Studies, 16,3: 289-294.

Quinn, Kate (ed.) 2014, Black Power in the Caribbean, Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Ramphal, S. S. 1962, ‘Fundamental Rights — The Need For A New Jurisprudence’, Caribbean Quarterly, 8, 3: 139-144.

Rey, Pierre-Philippe 1982, ‘Class Alliances’ (translation), International Journal of Sociology, 12,2: 1-120.

Robinson, Cedric 2000, Black Marxism, Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press.

Rodney, Walter 1972. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Nairobi and Washington, D.C.: East African Educational Publishers and Howard University Press.

Rodney, Walter, 1966, ‘Masses in Action’, New World Quarterly 2:3 (1966), 30-37,

Rosenthal, Caitlin 2019, Accounting for Slavery, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ryan, Selwyn 2002, ‘Tapia and the Elections of 1976’, Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom, The Institute of Social and Economic Studies.

Streeck, Wolfgang 2019, ‘Through Unending Halls’, London Review of Books, 41,3:….

Tidrick, Gene 1966, ‘Some Aspects of Jamaican Emigration to the United Kingdom 1953-1962’, Social and Economic Studies, 15,1: 22-39.

Waldstreicher, David 2009, Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification, New York: Hill and Wang.

West, Cornel 1988, ‘Black Radicalism and the Marxist Tradition’, Monthly Review (September 1988).

Williams, Eric 1994, Capitalism and Slavery, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Witter, Michael, nd, ‘On George Beckford: Brief Notes’,

Wolf, Eric 1982, Europe and The People Without History, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins 2002, ‘The Question of Market Dependence’, Journal of Agrarian Change, 2,1: 50-87.


[1] Strictly, Thomas and Brewster would not include themselves in the Group, but their companionship, orbit and influence in heterodox Caribbean political economy warrants recognition.

[2] For Girvan, these tributaries included Marxist economists ranging from Paul Sweezy to Andre Gunder Frank, with supplementation by Caribbeanist anthropologists like Sidney Mintz’s ideas about a creolized oikouménē and American sociologists like Erving Goffman’s ideas about total institutions. Girvan 2006.

[3] As Girvan 2007 wrote, “The 1960s in the Anglophone Caribbean was a time of transition—psychological, no less than political. The old colonial order was in dying, but there was much debate over what would replace it.”

[4] On the general process see Marx 1859.

[5] Lindsay 1975.

[6] See Gray’s 1991 extraordinary study of radicalism and social change in Jamaica in the post-Independence era for an example of the kinds of national contests taking place in West Indian countries.

[7] Tapia’s main electoral planks were constitutional reform through devolution of power away from central government, the pursuit of full employment policies, and “a fully blown welfare state which would ensure cheap and adequate social services.” Ryan 2002, p. 47. The aim was to eliminate gross social inequalities.  

[8] Ryan, 2002, p. 55.

[9] Meeks 2001

[10] Meeks 2001

[11] Part of the journal’s archive can be found at

[12] See Brenner 2001, Wood 2002.

[13] Wood, 2002, p. 50.

[14] Rey 1982, Bois 1984.

[15] Anderson 2013, Anderson 1974.

[16] Streeck 2019.

[17] Rosenthal 2019.

[18] Also see Beniger 1986.

[19] Streeck 2019.

[20] Peach 1967. Also see Tidrick 1986

[21] Rodney, 1972, p. 199-200.

[22] Streeck 2019.

[23] Robinson 2000, p. 2.

[24] Robinson 2000 p. xxxi, p. 76. For more on Robinson’s critique of Marxism see Timcke 2022.

[25] Orlando Patterson defines enslavement as “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” with Moses Finley adding that “The slave was himself a privately owned commodity, denied in perpetuity ownership of the means of production, denied control over his labour or the products of his labour and over his own reproduction.” Herein, a person’s reproduction depends entirely on the will of those that own the enslaved. Rife with ‘social death’ the discretion over life and death makes the system conducive to atrocities. Patterson 1982 13; Finley 2001 496.

[26] Robinson 2000, p. 166.

[27] I follow Sidney Mintz in including Du Bois as a contributor to the Caribbean archive. In addition to Haitian paternal linages, trips to the Antilles, like to Jamaica in 1915, helped cultivate a sense of what society could be “beyond the color line” Mintz, 2010, p. 3.

[28] Gilroy 1993, p. 1, p. ix.

[29] Acemoğlu and Robinson 2005; Acemoğlu and Robinson 2012.

[30] Planters distorted the voluntary limited contacts of servitude into a property relation, while Williams claims was accomplished because it accentuated prevailing European norms where “subordination was considered essential.” Williams 1994, p. 9.

[31] Williams 1994, p. 54-55. Douglas Hall provides comparable figures for Jamaica in 1790. See Hall 1962.

[32] See Hall 1961.

[33] Williams 1994, p. 98.

[34] Williams 1994, p. 98.

[35] Williams 1994, p. 1.

[36] For more details on some of these points see Patterson 1970.

[37] James 1989, p. 35.

[38] An example of the transnational movements of Big Whites as well as the politics between governors and planters, see Cudjoe 2018.

[39] This complicated politics is crisply encapsulated by James when he writes that, “The higher bureaucrats, cultivated Frenchmen, arrived in the island without prejudice; and looking for mass support used to help the Mulattoes a little. And Mulattoes and big whites had a common bond-property. Once the revolution was well under way the big whites would have to choose between their allies of race and their allies of property. They would not hesitate long.” James 1989, p. 44.

[40] James provides some background for this jockeying. He writes that “the Negro Code in 1685 authorized marriage between the white and the slave who had children by him, the ceremony freeing herself and her children. The Code gave the free Mulattoes and the free Negroes equal rights with the whites.” In the decades following the Negro Code, Mulattoes “were beginning to fill the colony, and their growing numbers and riches were causing alarm to the whites.” So Mulattoes were begrudgingly accepted to the extent that they could provide numbers to repress slave insurrections. James 1989, p. 36-37.

[41] James 1989, p. 100.

[42] James 1989, p. 35.

[43] Du Bois 2013, p. 3.

[44] Du Bois 2013, p. 3.

[45] Williams 1994, p. 23.

[46] James nd.

[47] Mills, 1998.

[48] Girvan nd.

[49] Girvan nd.

[50] Beckford, 1972.

[51] Beckford, 1972, p. 155-156, p. 37.

[52] Best 1992, p12, p 6.

[53] Best 1992, p. 233.

[54] Best and Levitt, 2009, p. 19.

[55] See Lewis, 1950; Lewis 1954.

[56] Best 1992, 11.

[57] Girvan 1973.

[58] Best 1992, p. 15.

[59] Girvan 1971, Girvan 1973.

[60] Editor’s Introduction 1967.

[61] Witter, nd.

[62]  Writing in another context but to a similar debate, Cornel West asked, “to what extent are Marxist explanations of social history capable of grasping the many dimensions of racial oppression?” West 1988, p. 51.

[63] See Maharaj-Bell, nd.

[64] While the New World Group did not have access to the full archive of Marx’s work, they very much anticipate some of Kevin Anderson’s conclusions, these being that Marxism was not wedded to a singular view of history nor periodization. The Group also followed Marx’s internationalism to find the anti-colonial analysis in this tradition thereby coming to reject the claims that Marxism was Eurocentric and unable to adequately account for race. Anderson 2010.

[65] See Beckford 1999, p. 259.

[66] Beckford 1999, p. 259.

[67] E.g., Charle 1966.

[68] Beckles 2013.

[69] E.g., Ramphal 1962. Beckles 2013 following in this spirit.

[70] Paxton 2004.

[71] Best 1967.

[72] See Oxaal 1968. Farler 1968.

[73] Rodney, 1966.

[74] Rodney 1972, p. 25.

[75] Rodney 1972, p. 206.

[76] Rodney 1972, p. 105, p. 107.

[77] Rodney 1972, p. 212.

[78] Rodney 1972, p. 279.

[79] Best, 2002, p. 63.

[80] Best 1967.

[81] Mills, 2010, p. 146.

[82] See Quinn, 2014 for context.

[83] Girvan, 2011.

[84] Girvan, 2011

[85] Meeks, 2014, p. viii.

[86] Meeks, 2001, p. xiv.

[87] See Maharaj-Bell, nd; also Meeks 2001.

[88] Wolf 1982. Gomes and Timcke 2021.

[89] Meeks, nd.

[90] Johnson 2018.

[91] Hall 1989, p. 151.

[92] For a critique of how some of these scholars in this turn have overlooked Black Radicals see Hudson 2016.

[93] Rodney 1972, p. ix.