An Interview with Kari Polanyi Levitt
An Interview with Kari Polanyi Levitt
Kari Polanyi Levitt is Emerita Professor of Economics at McGill University, Montreal. She is the author of several books, including Reclaiming Development: Independent Thought and Caribbean Community (2005) and, with Lloyd Best, Essays on the Theory of Plantation Economy: A Historical and Institutional Approach to Caribbean Economic Development (2009). In this interview, conducted in Montreal on 2 October 2021, Levitt revisits and reflects on her early life and how she came into community with the scholars and intellectuals who were part of the New World Group, and she talks about some of the legacies that they made possible.
Published between 1963 and 1972, in the decade following the end of the West Indies Federation, New World Quarterly reflects both the failures of federation and the optimism of the postindependence 1960s still marked by dreams for regional futures. Two special editions of the journal—the Guyana independence issue (1966) and the Barbados independence issue (1967), both edited by George Lamming—are archives in which we might note this relational visioning of Caribbean cultural, political, social, and economic possibility. The Guyana issue features a range of Guyanese writers and thinkers but also contributors from the wider region. This visioning of solidarities beyond the nation is also true of the Barbados issue; alongside works that narrate and celebrate Barbadian figures and institutions are works such as Barbara Jones’s poem “West India,” Richard B. Moore’s “On Barbadians and Minding Other People’s Business,” and John Mordecai’s “Federation and After,” which situate the question of national independence in relation to possibilities for regionalism and in relation to concerns of the Black diaspora. Revisiting these pages allows us to think about a regional orientation and sensibility.1 New World offers us a meaningful site to think about the intellectual and creative life of regional possibility. Levitt’s insights into these tensions proves useful. In discussing the Guyana independence issue, she notes that it “contained the outline of an alternative development plan for Guyana, based on Caribbean experience and institutions.”2
While historians and cultural critics have often reflected on the institutions that the regionalist sentiment of the mid-twentieth century made possible (these include, for instance, the West Indian cricket team and the University of the West Indies), in this interview Levitt moves beyond what Carolyn Cooper terms “grandiose regional integration projects” to think about the deep inter-regional collaborations and solidarities that emerged from and shaped the period.3 “The West Indian Federation was a plan by the British,” Levitt reminds us in this interview. She thus moves beyond this to narrate practices of Caribbean cultural and political regionalism through an attention to the intellectual and social lives of friendships. This centering of friendship can also be seen in some of Levitt’s previous accounts of New World. In “Revisiting the Heritage of New World,” for example, she describes the meeting of Lloyd Best and George Beckford, two of the towering intellectual figures of New World, in the following way: “In a visit to St. Augustine in 1964, Lloyd discovered a soul mate in George Beckford.”4 This attention to love and friendship as rich sources for intellectual flourishing offers another register for accounting for the synergies (and, indeed, differences) of the New World Group than that offered by Robert Hill in his focus on intellectual influence in his accounting of the work and relationship between Beckford and Best.5 We might also note how Levitt’s discussion in “Revisiting” begins and ends with accounts of friendships. She opens with the discussion of the passing of her friend, Norman Girvan, recalling her promise to him “that the New World Quarterly (NWQ) would be made available to a younger generation of Caribbean intellectuals and activists.”6 This was achieved in 2016 with the digitization of New World Quarterly.7 She also closes by naming a circle of friends: “I am joined in passing the heritage of the New World movement from our older generation to the youth of the Caribbean region by a few old friends and colleagues whose names conclude this brief note. . . . Mervyn Alleyne, Noel Anthony Boissiere, Havelock Brewster, Edwin Carrington, Steve de Castro, Ainsworth Harewood, Owen Jefferson, George Lamming, Ivan Laughlin, Vaughn Lewis, Alister McIntyre, Orlando Patterson, and Eric St-Cyr.”8
In framing our discussion with Levitt through the concept of “the afterlives of Caribbean regionalism,” we invite you to think with us about the multiple lives, ends, and possibilities of regional solidarities that Levitt brings into view. Here she recounts meetings, encounters, intimacies, and friendships formed on the campuses of the University of the West Indies (UWI) and in the diaspora.9 She also offers a glimpse into how these friendships have continued to shape the intellectual work of a generation of scholars and thinkers. But Levitt’s reflections also allow us to think about afterlives in relation to commitments that extend beyond the lifetimes of those she narrates as part of her community and with whom she was in conversation. At age ninety-nine, Levitt is now one of the few remaining members of the New World Group. Her discussion of her commitment to digitizing the New World archives is moving for its recollection of her friendship with the late Norman Girvan and others. This interview asks, What legacies have we inherited as a younger generation of scholars thinking and writing about the cultural, economic, and political sovereignty of the region? What are our responsibilities to these legacies of a previous generation? What are the things, acknowledged or not, that we have been bequeathed? In foregrounding the concept of afterlives we ask you to think about the spirit of the times not through a notion of haunting but instead through concepts and practices of reinvesting the past.
NM/RC: Most interviewers ask you about the mid-twentieth century and your professional life as a researcher. Could we ask how you were shaped by the historical moments that preceded that time—growing up in Austria, going to Cambridge, WWII, and so on?
KL: I was born in 1923 and I grew up in socialist red Vienna. It was a formative influence. The Vienna experience made me a lifelong socialist. And what really is a socialist? It’s not really clear. I have a lot of childhood memories in red Vienna that shaped me because I belonged to the children’s organization of the socialist party. The main event of those years was the civil war of 1934, when the government of the day attempted to destroy the trade union movement and the socialist party. My mother was very active in the militant arm of the Austrian socialist party, and those years made a big impression on me. I knew which side I was on: I was on the side of the workers and their movement. Following those years, my mother sent me to England; because she was so busy, she could not really look after me. My father had already left, and he was in England. So, from the age of eleven I grew up in England. Those years also made a big impression on me. I saw the raw side of capitalism in England. Very high rates of unemployment, and a lot of very poor, mostly young, women who came from Ireland to look for domestic work or any work in England. World War II in England was the best years of my life. If you were young and living in England during the war, you would know what I mean. There was such a sense of togetherness in the society. We were all under attack from firebombing, the bombing from the Germans, and the threat of invasion. Everybody had a role, and there was a sense of solidarity in the society that I have never experienced before or since. Very different from the people who experienced the war in Europe, where they were occupied by the Germans. Not like that at all. Eventually I went to the London School of Economics, and I thought I would learn about how to avoid poverty and unemployment. I wanted to put my knowledge to the service of a trade union. And during the war, when it came for my year to be called for national service, I wanted to join one of the women’s branches of the army, navy, or air force. They were all closed, so they just told me, “You find yourself a job, and that will be your national service.” So I found myself a job in the research department of the amalgamated engineering union, a very large union in the UK. It included all the war workers. That motivated me for many years; that’s really how I became active.
NM/RC: You first visited the Caribbean in 1961, during the period of the short-lived West Indies Federation. Although the federation of the West Indies was a proposal from the colonial office, it held the promise of a regional vision. In what ways did the West Indies Federation influence the New World Group?
KL: The regional vision of New World Group was largely thanks to Lloyd Best. There was a hope that political independence was going to lead to a general liberation for everybody. The West Indian Federation was a plan by the British. They wanted to be rid of the colonies as an expense that was no longer necessary for them.
Initially there was a great hope in the federation, but that was [dashed] because basically Jamaica did not want to be a part of it. They felt they were more advanced than other countries in the region and they would be paying for the more backward small islands. So they pulled out. And then Eric Williams famously said, one from ten leaves naught. So that was the end of the federation.
NM/RC: The 1960s were a time of freedom dreams imbued with anticolonial aspirations. A sense of Caribbeanness also developed among those who moved outside of the region. The newspapers in Montreal in 1969 wrote about the Sir George University occupation as the arrival of Black Power in Canada—but you urge us to think about this history as a Caribbean history. Could you clarify what the distinction is you’re asking us to think about, and why it’s important to position the story that way?
KL: There was a Caribbean presence in Montreal. I formed a friendship with Lloyd Best, and when I came back from the West Indies, we formed a study group in Montreal. Have you ever heard of a guy named Alvin Johnson? He passed away a long time ago. Alvin got a fellowship at McGill in developing area studies. We formed this little group. He was very engaged in Jamaican politics. You’ve heard of D. K. Duncan? Duncan was the head of the PNP [People’s National Party] youth movement, and he married Beverly Anderson. Beverly had married Michael Manley, and they separated and eventually she married Duncan. He was in Montreal studying dentistry. It was Alvin that got him interested in Jamaican politics. This was the 1960s, the time of the Black activism in the US, and Alvin had made it clear that he was going to go back home and become involved in PNP politics. He was a journalist for the Montreal Star, which doesn’t exist anymore.10 When he came back [to Montreal], he suggested we should convert our study group to make it part of Lloyd Best’s New World movement. So that is how I had experienced myself in Jamaica and Trinidad, and it continued here [in Montreal]—a relationship with Caribbean students around the New World movement, which met in my house.
NM/RC: Lloyd Best was an original thinker. What was it like to work with someone who had such a unique outlook on the world?
KL: My first contact with the West Indies was in 1960. My Canadian professor [Burton Keirstead] was spending a sabbatical year in Jamaica, on the Mona campus [of UWI].11 The first West Indian principal of UWI was Arthur Lewis, and Arthur Lewis had been a lecturer at the London School of Economics. I knew him, and he knew me. When I first stepped onto the campus in 1960, I thought I was back in the days of Jane Austen. It was so backward, and so class-ridden. It was really terrible. All the big positions in teaching were occupied by English men and they had some of these English habits like tea breaks. They would eat little sandwiches with the edges cut off, and I hadn’t seen that since I left England. That is a kind of pretentious thing.
Lloyd was leading a little discussion group that met at his house. He was on staff at the Institute of Social and Economic Research. My professor had met a number of the young West Indians—Lloyd Best, Mr. [Alister] McIntyre, at that time, and Roy Augier. My professor was very impressed with these young local West Indians, so he introduced me to them. And I recognized people whose backgrounds I was familiar with from England. There was a lot of English heritage that I was very happy to encounter, like an interest in cricket. After many years in Canada, I missed those things as I knew them in England. And that made a bond with those people. And some had been educated at the same London School of Economics, as I had. It was stimulating, hopeful. I had a lot more in common with them than I had with more conventional pundits at McGill University.
NM/RC: As you have written, Lloyd Best came from racially and religiously diverse town of Tunapuna, while George Beckford came from rural Jamaica. How did these different geographical vantage points influence the conversations within New World?
KL: My relation to that, I basically come from continental Europe. I tend to see the world in terms of conflict between different nations and different classes playing [out] on a world scale. I felt very comfortable with these people that we were talking about the same world, even though I did not grow up in that world. Of the three—Guyana, Trinidad, and Jamaica—I felt most at ease in Trinidad and least so in Jamaica, because Jamaica is so class structured. The problem in Jamaica is one of class and color. In Guyana, it is one of race. And in Trinidad, there is a problem of Indian-African, but not as severe as in Guyana. It’s easy to be comfortable in Trinidad; people have a good sense of humor. Jamaicans don’t have any. You have to be careful what you say. They get offended very easily.
NM/RC: What was Norman Girvan’s role in relation to other members of the New World Group? How did he embody the vision a New World future?
KL: He was a very close relation to Lloyd and myself. He saw a regional identity, going also beyond only the English, but including Haiti, and Surinam, and Cuba. I would say Norman had a very close relationship with Cuba, and that is where he spent the end of his life.12 Norman changed quite a bit when he moved to Trinidad. He became less conservative and open to new ideas.
NM/RC: As a member of the New World Group, what do you say was its most impactful intervention? How did the New World Group influence CARICOM [Caribbean Community]?
KL: It’s hard to say. It had an indirect influence because it joined a sentiment of regionalism. That sentiment came out of the [UWI] Mona campus in Jamaica, where a lot of the economists volunteered to make studies for the federal government. And after the federal government disappeared, they continued and finished them, and they were published by the Institute of Social and Economic Research. The first study you must be familiar with was by Clive Thomas, together with Havelock Brewster; it came out of Lloyd’s regional thing in Jamaica.13 A number of the important people were not Jamaicans, like Clive Thomas, who was from Guyana. Or David Abdulah from Trinidad, who was associated with the Oil Workers union. His father was an Anglican bishop, and [David] was a good friend of mine. He made a speech once where he described Jamaica as the place where regionalism was developed among the students from so many different countries. Basically, a regionalism produced by students on the campus. David became the education secretary of the Oilfield Workers in Trinidad.
New World had a general influence toward regionalism, and CARICOM was part of that. In some ways, I might say CARICOM was a creation of William Demas.14 He was Eric Williams’s choice of economist for independent Trinidad.
NM/RC: We note that George Lamming edited the Guyana and Barbados independence issues of New World Quarterly. How was economics as a discipline in conversation with other fields of knowledge at the time of independence?
KL: There are two separate questions that I am hearing. The first is how did George Lamming get involved with New World. And the other is about economics in relation to other approaches.
I had a lot to do with getting Lamming involved, because he came to Montreal at the invitation of another group of Caribbean people here; that was organized around the guidance of C. L. R. James. C. L. R. James was at that time in the US. There was a group of people who believed in James, and they were instrumental in organizing a West Indian conference that took place at the University of Montreal, and the key invited speaker was George Lamming, who came from London.15 And that’s where I met Lamming. I told Lamming about Lloyd Best; he [had] never heard of him. And I introduced them to each other. And Lloyd proposed to Lamming that he should edit the special issues for both Guyana and Barbados independence.
If you look at the individuals who were the intellectual leaders at that time—Lloyd Best, Clive Thomas, William Demas—all of them were economists. I think that the fundamental idea of the anticolonial thrust of political independence was to change the relationship of these countries from being a colony of Britain or France or whoever to being an independent social or political entity charting its own course, including economic policy that had made the country subservient to the metropole as a colony. That is the connection between economic and political independence.
NM/RC: You have a history of recuperative work—the George Beckford Papers, digitization of New World Quarterly. What does it mean to reinvest in the past?
KL: You’re quite right. I considered it important to put on the record the legacies of important people in the progressive movement in the Caribbean like Beckford or Manley. I do that for the future, for your generation. The insights of those people should not [be] lost. Small Garden, Bitter Weed is an example of insights on opposition to Manley and on the political context of the time.16 My exchange of letters with Manley began with a lecture at Mona, which is available in print.17 I observed that Jamaica regressed from the 1970s to the ’80s.
NM/RC: How did leaders like Cheddi Jagan and Eric Williams embrace or resist the assessments of the New World Group?
KL: I think they found the New World Group annoying because Lloyd was very super-critical of these leaders, and they respected him enough to be affected by the criticism. They had all hoped they could capture him to be some asset for them, but that was not possible. Lloyd was fiercely independent.
NM/RC: You were back in Jamaica for the “Confrontations” conference that reflected on the Rodney Riots at UWI.18 What does it mean to think about the 1960s from the vantage point of today?
KL: I think of the ’60s very positively. There was a lot of idealism of all kinds. It was in the music and also in the New World movement. Look at Bob Dylan, the folk singer. There was a culture of love and the opposite of materialism. If anything, people looked down on consumerism. The idealism was that everything was possible, providing you could get together and build a movement of solidarity. Now there is a more cynical attitude.
NM/RC: You are on the advisory board of Small Axe. Is the work of Small Axe a continuation of the New World project?
KL: Not really. Small Axe is more precious, more exclusive, the kind of journal that American scholars would respect. I see Small Axe more as a journal for American-based Caribbean students or American students interested in the Caribbean rather than genuinely coming out of the Caribbean. I see New World as very different. If you publish in Small Axe, you would expect to get a reception of like-minded people. The same applies to New World, but the like-minded people are more open-minded.
David Austin and Beverly Mullings would like to revive New World. My last words with Norman Girvan, who was dying after the accident, was that I would do my best to get New World republished because I knew that is what he wanted. He wanted the New World to be a forum for contemporary discussion, and that is why we put the effort into digitizing the issues of New World. Beverly Mullings had a lot to do with the digitizing. A lot of thanks go to Norman’s wife, Jasmine Thomas Girvan, the artist. And also her daughter, who did a lot of the work, and Judith Wedderburn, who used to be known for her advocacy of women’s rights. New World would offer a forum for current issues, and it has a tradition of total independence.
Ronald Cummings is associate professor of Black studies and African diaspora literature at McMaster University. Nalini Mohabir is assistant professor of postcolonial geographies at Concordia University. Nalini and Ronald are working together on a book project that examines the long interview as a critical and narrative mode in Caribbean studies.
 For the contents of “Guyana Independence,” special issue, New World Quarterly 2, no. 3 (1966), see newworldjournal.org/category/volumes/guyana-independence-issue/; for “Barbados Independence,” special issue, New World Quarterly 3, nos. 1–2 (1967), see newworldjournal.org/category/volumes/barbados-independence-issue/.
 Kari Levitt, “Revisiting the Heritage of New World,” NewWorldJournal.org, December 2016 (revised January 2017), newworldjournal.org/independence/revisiting-the-heritage-of-new-world/.
 Carolyn Cooper, abstract for “‘West Indies Plight’: Louise Bennett and the Cultural Politics of Federation,” Social and Economic Studies 48, no. 4 (1999): 211; www.jstor.org/stable/27865172.
 Levitt, “Revisiting.”
 See Robert A. Hill, “From New World to Abeng: George Beckford and the Horn of Black Power in Jamaica, 1968–1970,” Small Axe, no. 24 (October 2007): 1–15; doi.org/10.1215/-11-3-1.
 Levitt, “Revisiting.”
 For the digital archive of New World, see newworldjournal.org/.
 Levitt, “Revisiting.”
 Levitt reminds us of thriving Caribbean life in Montreal in the 1960s. Indeed, Kaie Kellough has argued for an understanding of Montreal as diasporic island geography. See Kellough’s foreword to our edited volume, The Fire that Time: Transnational Black Radicalism and the Sir George Williams Occupation (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2021), 7–8.
 The Montreal Star was an English-language newspaper in Montreal that closed in 1979.
 For a brief discussion of Burton Keirstead, see David Scott, “The Vocation of a Caribbean intellectual: An Interview with Lloyd Best,” Small Axe, no. 1 (March 1997): 124.
 Girvan died in Cuba, three months after he was seriously injured in a hiking accident in Dominica.
 Clive Thomas, with Havelock Brewster, The Dynamics of West Indian Economic Integration (Kingston: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies, 1967).
 William Demas was the first secretary-general of CARICOM.
 For one account of Lamming’s invitation to Montreal, see David Scott, “The Archaeology of Black Memory: An Interview with Robert A. Hill,” Small Axe, no. 5 (March 1999): 81–151.
 George Beckford and Michael Witter, Small Garden, Bitter Weed: Struggle and Change in Jamaica (London: Zed, 1982).
 See Rex Nettleford, “The Michael Manley–Kari Levitt Letters,” Small Axe, no. 1 (March 1997): 81–118.
 “Confrontations: UWI Student Protests and the Rodney Disturbance of 1968” was held at the University of the West Indies, 18–20 October 2018; see www.mona.uwi.edu/marcom/ecalendar/events/7139.