In the wake of the Depression, a series of labour rebellions ripped through the British Caribbean archipelago like a powerful hurricane. Starting in St. Kitts in 1935, unrest and strikes rapidly moved southeasterly to St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Guyana. After a year of relative calm, the cycle of struggle recommenced as the virtually starving workers, peasants and unemployed rose up once again, in 1937, in St. Lucia, Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana. The final ‘disturbance’ was also the most violent and threatening to British colonialism: the Jamaican ‘Labour Rebellion’ of 1938. British authority was only fully restored after scores of people were killed, hundreds wounded (on both sides) and thousands arrested.

Although these movements of the downtrodden were militarily suppressed, they produced a profound political aftermath, especially in Jamaica. First of all, they were the founding moment of the modern labour movement in the English-speaking Caribbean: trade unions were brought into being in a serious way for the first time with legal rights for organization and action. Secondly, the unrest opened the road to universal adult suffrage and securely planted the seeds of future self-government and, eventually, independence. However, it is also clear—at least with the benefit of hindsight—that the exploited and oppressed in their historic resistance to colonialism also unwittingly served as the battering ram of the indigenous and relatively weak bourgeois and petty bourgeoise classes, who have subsequently become the neo-colonial ruling class.

This exploitation of working-class militancy by local elites is a central theme of Ken Post’s massive study of Jamaica from the 1938 Rebellion through the Second World War.footnote1 Arise Ye Starvelings and Strike the Iron are the fruits of the ambitious and longterm study of modern Jamaica which Post began in 1967. Painstakingly devoting over a thousand pages to just eight years of Jamaican history, with at least one more volume to follow, Post’s project must surely be ranked as one of the most remarkable Marxist analyses of a concrete social formation ever attempted. At the same time Post has filled, and most impressively, a gaping hole in Jamaican and West Indian historiography. Despite the fact that the uprisings of the late 1930s were a watershed in the history of the English-speaking Caribbean only second in importance to the abolition of slavery in 1834, no one, astonishingly, has hitherto analysed these events in any detail either on a pan-Caribbean or on a national level. The conspicuous paucity of any serious analysis of these events is epitomized by the fact that until Post began to publish his preliminary findings in 1969,footnote2 the most important study was the slim pamphlet ‘Labour in the West Indies: The Birth of a Workers’ Movement’, written by the young W. Arthur Lewis (now, not insignificantly, Sir Arthur Lewis) for the Fabian Society in 1939.footnote3

Although Post’s work is above all a tour de force of research in detail, with an exacting attention to the quotidian condition of the Jamaican labouring classes, its theoretical orientation is not without interest. First, there is an important general implication in his explicit decision to study the dynamics and consequences of a popular defeat. Since ‘socialist revolutions are rare phenomena’, Post enjoins that Marxism ‘must explain not only why there are revolutions, but why there are not, in situations where at first glance they might be expected.’footnote4 Although this imperative may seem obvious, it has seldom been followed—to the detriment of revolutionary strategy which has as much, if not more, to learn from failure as from victory. Thus the rich tradition of critical reflection on the Russian Revolution from Trotsky to Carr may be contrasted to the dearth of analyses of the defeats of the German and Hungarian Revolutions. Or, more to the immediate point, Cuba since 1959 has elicited enormous interest on the left, but who has studied the lessons of the failed attempts at radical transformation in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic? At present we know far more about the success of the Grenadian Revolution of 1979 than we do about the failure of the Trinidadian insurrection of 1970. It should be evident, therefore, to the committed reader that Post’s meticulous concern with the events of 1938–45 arises out of more than the ordinary professional interest to repair the gap in the historical record: these volumes are impassioned by a desire to grasp the most difficult problems of popular organization and ideology as expressed in the dialectics of defeat and cooptation.

Secondly, Post is unabashedly œcumenical in his search for useful paradigms that might illuminate one or another aspect of Jamaican society—the theoretical contributions of Lukacs, Gramsci, Mao, Coletti, Anderson, Thompson, Poulantzas and Rey all merit respectful citation. Indeed the two chapters on theory in the first volume can be read in their own right with some fascination. But what is particularly unusual, and certainly unorthodox, is Post’s audacious syncretism of Trotsky and Althusser. The History of the Russian Revolution is an evident inspiration, and in his best passages Post obtains tremendous effect from enlivening structuralist Marxism with a narrative style that evokes Trotsky’s. As Aidan Foster-Carter noted several years ago, ‘. . . for once, the dry and dusty Althusserian bones get up and dance in a veritable zombie jamboree. Amazingly, Post’s Jamaica contains people as well as modes of production. . . .’footnote5

And the people in Post’s history resist both oppression and anonymity with a particularly stubborn courage and humour. Thus during fierce conflict in St. Mary parish, one Edgar Daley, on being admonished by the police to give up his stick, refused in no uncertain terms: ‘No, not a rass. You have your gun. I have my stick.’footnote6 When Daley threw a policeman to the ground he was bayoneted and his back was broken by rifle butts. His fellow ‘sufferers’ retaliated by stoning the police, who opened fire, killing four people. Arise Ye Starvelings is dedicated to the memory of Daley and the twelve others—including four women—who died at the hands of the colonial state during the uprising of 1938.

Post unravels in a very diligent manner the way in which this movement, so defiantly protean, was eventually appropriated by Alexander Bustamante, and why the Peoples’ National Party (pnp), led by Bustamante’s Oxford-educated cousin, Norman Manley, did not succeed in leading the masses. Bustamante, in contrast to the aloof Manley, was an astute and demogogic orator who, by means of his fiery rhetoric appealed to the ‘racial consciousness’ (which in the Jamaica of 1938 was virtually synonymous with ‘class consciousness’ since race and class overlapped to such a great extent) of the exploited and oppressed. Although virtually white in ethnic origin and not above private racist remarks, ‘Busta’ was seen by many desperate workers and peasants as the downtrodden but cunning spider of Afro-Jamaican mythology: Anancy, who could out-manoeuvre the rich and mighty by his sheer superior intelligence. But Bustamante, a former moneylender of questionable integrity, used his cunning against the masses; as Post argues in a compelling portrait of the ‘Chief’, he was the consummate ‘trickster politician’.