Absence of a political enquiry into the Rastafari of the Caribbean has
always been an uncomfortable gap in the record of the Caribbean revolution. Now
Horace Campbell has made a big step towards the filling of that gap. This is not to
suggest that Caribbean writers and thinkers (we should not confuse the two groups) have
not done much investigation of the Rastafari way of life with all the clarity and depth
which their areas of investigation permitted them; some have also ventured into the
Campbell has many of the qualifications for the task he has undertaken. He has been struggling for some years to apply the scientific theory of society to the reality of African and Caribbean politics, and in the process has avoided the creation of false gods. When I first met him in Trinago in 1976, he said that he was a Marxist and that his mentors were Rodney, Fanon and Cabral. Readers of this work should welcome this attitude, because it is a clear indication of hostility to all forms of political and cultural dependence.
The formal emancipation of the African slaves in the Caribbean took place late in the first half of the 18th century. From that time there began a totalitarian assault on the African psyche, with similar aims to those of the various bondages imposed during the period of slavery. Some of the education was necessary to fit the African-Caribbean masses into the peculiar level of technology and the mode of production then ruling in the region.
The ignorance of the ruling classes, and their need for social control, produced a culture that filled the masses with self-contempt (Martin Carter). The splitting up of the free populations into classes more sharply divided than those of the slave period, and the introduction of immigrant labour from Asia, Africa and Europe robbed the masses in general of that self-confidence which is necessary before a people takes its destiny into its own hands. This is why the Caribbean has never resounded with anything similar to "Asia for the Asians" and "Africa for the Africans", regardless of the short-term nature of that nationalism.
Partly because of processes of this nature, and partly because of the uneven development of the integration process, the African presence has always had to find periodically a new mode of self-expression and self-proclamation from slavery until now. Experts in this area of study should review this claim. The need was not at all confined to African descendants. The Indian independence movement of the 1940s had a remarkable effect on the mass of the Indian population of the Caribbean. Movements with religious emphasis, or of religious reform, in India have also moved up the waters of the Caribbean.
What is it then that determines whether the dominant mode of expression argued above takes one form or another: bush negro villages, Maroons, liberated areas, Jordanites, Rastafari, Pocomania, Cumina, Spiritual Baptist, Islam? This is determined by the existing production relations and also by the place of the actors within those relations.
Campbell's book is thrice welcome because it deals with the historical, the political and the subjective levels of Rastafari. An individual crank here or there in any society can be ignored; a mass movement must be accounted for, as far as we are able to account for it.
The practising Rasta is a man of astonishing presence. In this country, Guyana, where the movement is perhaps weakest and most misrepresented, or in Trinago, the Rasta is typically male. He is a public figure, a picture of self-confidence and self-assurance. He is quick-witted and philosophical, flaunting his striking simplicity and peculiarity of dress in the face of cosmopolitan pretensions of Babylonian fashion. He exudes love. His conversation is lively verse. His replies are razor-sharp repartee. His world outlook is a duality of the material and the spiritual, the positive and the negative. His religious aspiration is total absorption into the being of Jah, to be achieved by contemplation and meditation.
The Rastafari faith, or even early liberation theology, has not escaped the dilemma which each of the great religions, especially Hinduism and Christianity, has set itself - the conflict between faith and works, contemplation and action. The fact that this very conflict now grips the soul of the Rastafari, in relation to politics, is not a sign of collapse but of maturity. So it is that there are differences of opinion among the Rasta, whether it is their work to storm the earthly kingdom and take it in order to change it; or to explain it, to enquire more deeply into the Maker and his mysteries; or to engage in both warfares.
The statement that the renaissance movements are determined in form by the production relations is not a mere phrase. Nor is the social need for rebirth an idle invention. Those who most consistently see it as an idle invention are precisely those whose education affords them the chance to learn the most about the slave experience.
Because the trampling of the sense of Africa was conducted with so much brutality during the course of slavery, and with so much ignorance, dishonesty and insensitivity after it, and because the institutions of propaganda which were raised up were so thorough and unrepresentative, every now and then Africans in the Diaspora have been gripped with the need to hold the old banner aloft. This need has been expressed in various forms and under the inspiration of various ideas.
At one period it is the "bush negro" movement or the Maroon version of the strategy of liberated areas, in which ideas of traditional religion and culture are mingled with ideas of state formation. Production relations at other times have taken the form of full-scale rebellion or revolution. At other times only pockets of conscious persons, with more interest in the spiritual than the physical, have been ready for the break with oppressive society. At later stages the main movement for self-expression has become more or less merged with the general movement of the whole population and no longer has race-worthiness as a major quest. As for the ideology of these movements, they have in various places, without comment on their quality, been inspired by traditional African religion, by Judaism and Christianity, by Islam, and they have produced the Jordanites, the Shakers, the Pocomania, the Cumina and the Rastafari.
The production relations determine the general form of the movement, because it is the social relations of production that will determine at any given moment the extent to which seizeable land is available, the extent to which it is possible to opt out of the market, set up a counter-market, and the extent to which formal schooling is an everyday need of the rebels.
Rastafari who wish to withdraw from the market and set up their own communities on the land are finding more and more that the modern state regards land not as a free gift of nature, but as an unfree grant of the state. This is what is meant by the statement that the forms of expression of the African presence are determined, at least in part, by the production relations of the day.
Campbell's concern is that many students of Rastafari see the movement as merely looking forward to a golden age. This is also the view of many in the ranks of the movement. In most of the great religions the majority of the faithful are content with the religious tenets of the faith, while an active group (often an influential minority) sees the social relations as an obstacle in the way of their dreams about a reformed humanity. Thus, while praying for all the necessary help, they work directly in the area of social relations. The two outlooks merge happily in the declaration of an early Christian saint, "I pray with my hands".
There are two problems facing the Rastafari community to which the public relations services of the movement and its allies need to give urgent attention. The first is the stubborn belief among sections of the public that the Rastaman is a criminal, and a violent one at that. Often this is a problem of the environment rather than of the Rasta themselves. Because Rasta is a dynamic lifestyle, and perhaps the only prestige-giving one within reach of the very poor, many of those already recruited into crime are attracted to it, just as daily in the courts of law we find accused offenders swearing on the holy books of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, without casting the least slander on these religions. From the Rasta lifestyle, the poor wretches get attention and some esteem. They can use it as a weapon against any disparaging attack on a tainted past. Many offenders in prison may sincerely be converted: the brethren there may show others the light.
One case which slipped through the censors of the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation on a feature programme showed a clear link between crime and social policy. The programme featured a young offender who talked fluent Rasta language throughout the interview. He said that he had deserted his life of crime and hustle, and turned trader. However, the young woman Mayor of Georgetown began to clear the pavements of traders in the interest of good order and a better Guyana. The offender said that because of this policy he was forced to stop trading and start hustling again.
Part of the problem is the other prospect offered to the Rasta by members of the establishment in various countries. These members are willing to let the Rastaman be; but only as a sort of agent and appendage to them as principals. The marijuana traffic, from the information at our disposal, is based on this kind of accommodation. The agent in the sub-culture is offered the prospect of earning money for his vital share in the traffic, but he must be prepared, at moments of public outcry, to "take a rap" and spend short periods in jail. At worst he comes out as a self-confessed recidivist, with ideas of earning money while he is out. At best he is able to step out of the ranks and join the ranks of a new petty bourgeoisie of the outcast in the slums.
The big question raised in this book is the role of the Rastafari in the Caribbean revolution. It is not an easy question. Yet it is a quest which is central to the movement against oppression in the Caribbean. It is so mainly because the Rastafari culture is perhaps the most influential cultural movement in the Caribbean today, in spite of the fact that many claiming to be Rastas in several places do all they can to discredit the movement. Wide cross-sections of the youth of various races are captivated by the style of the Rasta and in many cases by the bold thoughts and aspirations of the Rasta religion, by its thorough-going reclassification and redefinition of a life which wide sections of the society find unbearable and full of hyprocrisy.
The placing of the stamp of Babylon on the whole of official society and the wide acceptance of this description is one of the landmark achievements of the Caribbean revolution. The more it is seriously accepted, the more the culture divides into two poles of authority: a necessary forerunner to any long-term revolutionary objectives. Those members of the society who do not accept or embrace the dress, or need the religious ideas, accept the language; those who do not accept the language with the movement's redefinition of the order of things, accept the music. In fact, such is the power of art that Bob Marley's music has done more to popularise the real issues of the African liberation movement than several decades of backbreaking work of Pan-Africanists and international revolutionaries.
It is also relevant, as said before, that the mass of the practising Rastafari - as it was also with early Christianity - comes from among the most oppressed sections of the working population. The unemployed, the social outcasts from official society, and school drop-outs are all adrift. They see in Rasta life a way of being, a system or order, all giving dignity to the individual, not conformist dignity but an exciting anti-customary dignity.
It is no wonder that the style in whole or in part is assumed, sometimes internally, but often only externally, by wide sections of the oppressed and their allies in the Caribbean. Among these converts are included those who live by the hustle. They too yearn for dignity and they find it in Rasta. So it is that in many communities the people see Rasta as a criminal sect. It is this wide appeal, with due respect to the anti-Rastas in our midst, which makes the movement the formidable political force that it is, organised at the level of the sub-culture.
My own impression is that the Rastafari disdain to organise in the formal ways of a political party for political ends; that those Rastafari who become political activists are as effective as any other; that the Rastafari are not a party, that basically they shrink from the exercise of power over others, although many of them talk about a single power in the world. Yet it is the Rastafari who are most fitted to endure the trials and tribulations of a revolutionary process.
Perhaps the greatest single contribution of the Rastafari is at the level of consciousness, if I may use this term in the most common sense. By succeeding in branding the existing regimes and existing orders as illegitimate, and by winning mass support for this view even among persons who outwardly conform to the establishment culture, the Rastafari have made and are making an outstanding contribution to the Caribbean revolution.
Eusi Kwayana, Georgetown, Guyana - 1982
Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney, by Horace Campbell (African World Press 1987), pp. IX-XIII.