Lloyd Best: A tribute
April 2, 2007
This is one of a series of fortnightly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora. Cary Fraser teaches race in American history and Caribbean history at the Pennsylvania State University. Before leaving Guyana, Dr Fraser had taught at St John's College, worked
Lloyd Best was one of the most important intellectuals produced by the Caribbean in the 20th century. He was trained as an economist at Cambridge University and became an important voice that spanned the worlds of the academy, politics, and policy in the Caribbean region. He was paradoxically an icon and an iconoclast - a source of both incisive wisdom and irreverent picong - delivered equally with absolute aplomb and grace. As a student in one of his classes at the Institute of International Relations at UWI, St Augustine, in 1977-78, I was captivated by Lloyd's off-hand remark that his work was dedicated to the proposition that all orthodoxies, including his own, existed to be challenged. That observation was a measure of his self-confidence and his willingness to learn from others throughout his life. He was a remarkable teacher, a demanding critic, and displayed enormous patience in elucidating issues for students who were in awe of his intellectual prowess. He showed remarkable dexterity in balancing the roles of both intellectual provocateur and insightful theorist - the hallmark of the most successful intellectuals.
One of Lloyd's most important formative influences was his work with the PPP government in British Guiana during the early sixties when the British West Indian colonies were grappling with the transition to political independence. He was acutely sensitive to the ways in which the problems that confronted BG in the early 1960s were replicated elsewhere in the region. He was also a witness to the self-destructive behaviour that drove the political leaders in British Guiana between 1961 and 1964, and the collapse of a regional vision that undermined the West Indian Federation within the wider region during the same period. Thereafter, his work within the University of the West Indies was framed by his search for an understanding of the historical and structural constraints that hindered the Caribbean from pursuing strategies that would facilitate regional transformation. His academic work was constantly influenced by his awareness that politics was about more than rhetoric and posture - and that sound policy would have to be devised in spite of the intellectual limitations and rhetorical stances of the regional political leaders. Long before the term was popularized, Lloyd understood that good governance required the institutionalization of "civil society" as a forum which could provide informed analysis that could help to shape public policy and the quality of political life. His work with the Tapia House Movement and the Trinidad and Tobago Review were dedicated to the proposition that engaged citizens could help to shape political debate and demand accountability from political leaders - a radical proposition even today.
Just as important, Lloyd understood the importance of debate and citizen engagement in politics as a strategy for institutionalizing a democratic sensibility and the search for consensus in Caribbean politics. British Guiana's descent into inter-communal violence between 1962 and 1964, and his recognition of the authoritarian tendencies that had emerged among Caribbean nationalist leaders, informed Lloyd's emphasis on the forging of a democratic culture in the region. His unwavering commitment to a politics of consensus, and his support for a process of ongoing debate that would inform policy and political life, arose out of his understanding of the ways in which the psychology of plantation life had to be expunged as a precondition for the development of "Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom." It was a measure of Lloyd's genius that he understood that the study of the plantation in Caribbean life meant more than the study of the region's political economy - it was also a vehicle for the exploration of Caribbean consciousness in order to formulate strategies of intellectual decolonization. According to Lloyd:
"I have argued that we need independent thought. One of the most blatant manifestations of the colonial condition in the Caribbean - of the plantation mind - is the refuge which our intellectual classes take in a sterile scientism on the one hand, or in a cheap populism on the other."
Lloyd's contribution to the forging of a Caribbean sensibility has been decades in the making. His incisive intelligence helped to light the way for others to follow and, in that accomplishment, he has played the role that Martin Carter so brilliantly described in his essay, Artist as Artist (May 1958):
"And may I say too that the job of the artist and intellectual in the West Indies is no different from the job of the artist and intellectual in every part of the world. We are concerned always with the human condition and the establishment of value. Everything is to be taken in the hand and transformed and given meaning."
Lloyd has left us a legacy of both meaning and value - Caribbean freedom is our right and our responsibility.