Striving for intellectual independence Editorial
Stabroek News
October 24, 2002

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In a paper at the recent testimonial conference for the Trinidadian economist Lloyd Best sponsored by the Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus Dr Kirk Meighoo argued that the title of the session at which he spoke "Best and the Radical Caribbean Tradition: Challenges to Race, Episteme and the Vanguard" potentially misunderstood the man, his thought and his life's work. "We would more accurately speak" he said "of Best against `the Radical Caribbean Tradition' about which he is very sceptical at the minimum, and directly hostile toward, at the extreme". Further, he said, "if we are honest, we will acknowledge that over the years the feeling has been mutual: in Trinidad, Jamaica and elsewhere".

Best had been much criticised by a wide variety of radicals.

Dr Meighoo argued that Best did not share with the radical tradition, in the Caribbean or elsewhere, its apocalyptic and millenarian vision, whether Marxist, Garveyite or other, of working class, racial or nationalist triumph. "Indeed since the beginning of New World, Best has explicitly opposed these orientations and objectives. It seems to me that Best sees the crucial task in the West Indies to construct a society, not to destroy or to found it anew".

Dr Meighoo suggested that Best shared many of the assumptions, predispositions and arguments of classical conservatism. He included among these:

-An emphasis on human imperfection;

-An insistence on the limits of human knowledge and an attitude of "epistemological modesty";

-A critique of "theory";

-A mindfulness toward unanticipated consequences, latent functions, and the functional interdependence of social elements;

-A respect for the order of institutions;

-An appreciation of custom, habit, prejudice and "second nature";

-Sensitivity to historical and particular contexts, and scepticism towards universalism;

-An "anti-humanitarianism" that is conscious of the sometimes perverse outcomes of well-intentioned actions;

-An acceptance of the necessity of trade-offs, costs, and limits, not uncommonly expressed in

an ironic or tragic mode;

-Scepticism toward written constitutions, as opposed to the informal, sub-political, and inherited norms and mores of a society;

-The need for individual or socially imposed restraint and identity, and hence scepticism

regarding projects intended to liberate the individual from existing sources of social and cultural authority;

-The legitimacy of a level of inequality and the need for elites, cultural, political and economic;

and the occasional need for "veiling" as opposed to transparency.

Best never subscribed to any of the prevailing orthodoxies and insisted that we must try to analyse Caribbean society in the light of its own reality. He never took easy ethnic or political positions on issues of the day. As Dr James Millette noted in a letter to Dr Selwyn Ryan, the Chairman of the Conference, that was severely critical of Best's career, this put him at odds over the years with a number of groups including the political parties, the trade unions, NJAC and others. In his letter headed "From New World to nowhere-a critical view of a celebrated performance" Milette, who had started out with the New World Group, argued that Best had remained distant from the people and aloof from the radical movements. He continued: "Well then, you might say, surely Tapia (a movement started by Best in Trinidad) had its roots in the educated middle class. It might have had; but a dedicated jargonistic formalism, complemented by a penchant for always making the most of the incidental and marginalizing the fundamental, especially in the pages of the Trinidad and Tobago Review, has erected a Chinese wall between Tapia and its putative audience". To Millette and others Best was seen as a maverick, never beholden to any group or creed, except his own movement which never achieved much popular support.

Yet to his friends Best, to use a Joycean concept, had escaped the nets of ideology and ethnicity flung at him by the society that ensnared most of his contemporaries. Whatever the final value of his oeuvre (and Dr Meighoo is engaged in editing some of his work for publication) that was itself an achievement that demanded cultural and intellectual courage and is worthy of admiration. There were times when even his admirers wondered where he was going or what he was aiming at but they have never doubted the quality of his mind or his search for intellectual integrity and independence.

In his paper Dr Meighoo has opened up an interesting new perspective in the light of which Best's work can be viewed and the relevance of his message for our times.