Columns

In tribute to Richard Hart

EVERTON PRYCE

Sunday, January 12, 2014    

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"Our life is a story"

— Don Miguel Ruiz

The Voice of Knowledge

THE textured expressions of sorrow and encomiums offered by friends, colleagues, well-wishers and the media since the passing on December 21 last year of Richard Hart speak volumes of his character, sense of decency, refined sensibility and unrelenting defence and advancement of the interests of those Jamaicans referred to by the late Rex Nettleford as "the people from below", who happen to be predominantly black and Afro-centric.

Brown man or not, Hart is credited with magnificent work in the interest of the working people of the Caribbean throughout his long and dynamic life via the People's National Party (PNP), the People's Freedom Movement (PFM), Caribbean Labour Congress and the Caribbean Labour Solidarity (CLS/UK).

He was also involved in the trade union movement, did serious political work in Guyana, Grenada, and Britain, and authored numerous books, articles, speeches and lectures which distinguished him from many other leaders in the region, whose fear of ideas was aimed not only against so-called progressives and radical positions, but also against much of the thinking that would put the Caribbean on its own side for a change.

He was, without doubt, a great teacher, who was 'on' and 'of' the Left. What he proved to me in our relationship and others of my generation whom he mentored, was that social analysis could be probing, tough-minded, critical, relevant and scholarly.

By experience and temperament, and perhaps because he was a trained lawyer, he taught that ideas should be handled with both care and passion; and that one can be committed without being dogmatic. For him, being radical was no substitute for hard thinking.

One of his great attributes was his ability to demonstrate great generosity of spirit in the magnanimous way he chose to settle old scores with certain of those in the nationalist PNP who made no bones about expelling him -- along with Frank Hill, Ken Hill and Arthur Henry -- from the movement he loved and to which he dedicated a great deal of energy and time.

Those expulsions were carried out on the flimsy excuse that they were Marxist subversives.

But in the years that followed this episode of public humiliation, Richard Hart was to quietly provide lessons aplenty in the art and capacity of personal growth, given the opportunity and respect. He persisted on the confidence many placed in him and successfully challenged not only his party but the entire Caribbean to rethink its position on the profiles of power relations in their respective hard-won democracies.

He drew on all his powers of intellect and oratory to challenge the region to finding solutions to what are chronic indulgences of inequities. His powerful oratory, especially during the height of the struggle in defence of the black working-class movement in Britain against the onslaught of institutional racism and oppression in the 1970s and 80s, impressed roots-conscious audiences on mainland England and elsewhere. They gradually came to understand that they were the valid products of an irreversible process of cross-fertilisation stretching over half a millennium.

In a very real sense, his migration to Britain in 1965 can be viewed as a political act. For it was there that he found his 'second wind' for the expression of his political beliefs in the West Indian Independence Movement, the movement against colonialism and the post-slavery plantation economy in the English-speaking Caribbean, and the British trade union movement.

His political involvement in the 'Mother Country' deepened as a result of his admiration for the work of Walter Rodney among the workers, peasants and lumpen proletariat of urban Kingston, Jamaica, which subsequently led to Prime Minister Hugh Shearer banning the young radical intellectual from returning to the island to teach at the UWI, Mona, after his attendance at an academic conference in Dar-es-Salaam in 1967.

In light of this, Hart's path crossed with stalwart Caribbean political activists John La Rose (founder of New Beacon Books/ publisher); Eric and Jessica Huntley (founders of Bogle-L-'Ouverture Bookshop/publishers, later renamed the Walter Rodney Bookshop after the death of Rodney in 1980); CLR James; Cleston Taylor; Darcus Howe; Ricky Cambridge; Gus John; Margaret Busby and Clive Allison (of Allison and Busby publishers); and a host of other politically active Caribbean migrants, members of the English liberal establishment, and British trade unionists.

Hart and his comrades-in-arms provided sterling leadership to the umbrella organisation, CLS, which was formed in 1974 to unite support for equality, democracy, justice and social progress in the Caribbean from which there was never any detachment or loss of contact on the part of the exiled radical.

As the name suggests, CLS comprised political activists from the Caribbean community in Britain and the wider labour and trade union movement, and for decades functioned in a self-supporting capacity -- which included publication of The Cutlass newspaper -- from the family dining room in the loving home of former Jamaican trade unionist, the late Cleston Taylor and his wife Feli, in the north of London.

Although Marxism was never a realistic option for serious political management and organisation in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean for that matter, this should not jaundice our appreciation of Hart's legacy.

For he was first and foremost the genuine product of that awesome creolising process which he shared with every Jamaican of whatever race, class, or national origin in the western hemisphere; and he contributed to the region much thought and reflection, determination and commitment to Caribbean ideals of self-determination, social justice, cultural certitude, and economic self-reliance.

While he lived, he spoke for all those who would wish to have their respective societies operate or function in the interest of the vast majority of their inhabitants rather than of a few; and we in Jamaica and those of us in the diaspora should know that this is a fundamental problem of development facing not only us but others in the Caribbean.

In the final analysis, Richard Hart's life story betrayed a level of sophistication and civilised engagement with his society and the diaspora that set him apart from most of his peers in the region. Despite his privileged upbringing and pedigree, furthermore, it is safe to say that he earned all that came to him through hard work, determination, industry and belief in self.

His indefatigable spirit has left us at a time when the region needs a voice of its own. In his lifetime, Hart gave us the feeling that this was possible. We can rest assured that he had great faith in the regenerative powers of the people of the Caribbean who struggled over three centuries through sugar, the plantations and colonialism yet managed to survive.

Richard Hart's life and deeds contributed greatly to that survival.

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