Obituary: Richard (Dick) Hart, 1917-2013

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Richard Hart (right) receiving a gift from Audrey Smith of the PNP Women's Movement, while Everton Pryce looks on during the celebration of his 75th birthday in 1992. (Credits: The Gleaner)

Richard Hart (right) receiving a gift from Audrey Smith of the PNP Women’s Movement, while Everton Pryce looks on during the celebration of his 75th birthday in 1992. (Credits: The Gleaner)

We mourn Richard Hart who joined the Ancestors after a long life of struggle for workers’ and peasants’ rights and against colonialism and neo-colonialism. Dick as he was popularly known, was a founder member and Honorary President of Caribbean Labour Solidarity. An avowed Marxist and socialist lawyer, Dick Hart acted as legal consultant to Maurice Bishop’s People’s Revolutionary Government in Grenada, becoming its Attorney General in 1982 until the demise of the Revolution and the subsequent US invasion of that island in October 1983.

Dick Hart’s life-long work started when he was not yet into his twenties. His political activism which both drew upon and informed his theorizing, his praxis in other words, and especially his writings on slavery, capitalism and colonialism places him in the same league as CLR James, Eric Williams and Walter Rodney (to name but a few).

What is common to the work of all those giants is the position of enslaved Africans on a spectrum that runs from the Middle Passage itself, to the plantations, to the reconfigured plantations under neo-colonialism, to the betrayal of workers’ and peasants’ struggles by successive neo-colonial governments that have been wagged by the tail and the nose simultaneously by former colonialists and imperialists whose shoes too many have been massively eager to fill. All those ‘giants’, irrespective of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, forged their politics against the backcloth of the work of the Rt Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey and the movement in the Caribbean towards Pan-Africanism to which it gave rise.

Dick Hart’s death comes at a time when the debate about reparations for the enslavement of Africans and their use as chattels to create the wealth upon which most of Western Europe was built is gaining pace.

WATCH: Gus John, Richard Hart & the campaign for the release of the Grenada 17

A report in the Jamaica Observer 12 December 2013 notes that the Caribbean Community (Caricom) Reparations Commission, chaired by historian Professor Sir Hillary Beckles, said that ‘its first report that speaks to reparatory justice for the region will be ready for submission to next February’s Heads of Government meeting. Sir Hillary Beckles said following consultations with British attorneys from Leigh Day, which he described as an internationally respected law firm that specialises in cases of this nature, the commission agreed that Caricom member states should request reparatory dialogue with past slave-owning European states — Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark in a move to formulate a new development agenda for the Caribbean’.

Dick Hart was intrigued by the establishment of this commission and the question of the role of the organised labour movement and civil society organisations across the Caribbean region in determining what the reparations claim should be and the modalities (economic, financial, legal, political) for constructing such a claim. He would have been even more bemused by the notion of ‘reparatory dialogue’ with former colonial powers ‘in a move to formulate a new development agenda for the Caribbean’.

Below, we publish with his personal endorsement, the veteran journalist Ken Jones’ tribute to Dick Hart which he wrote for the Jamaica Gleaner:

The passing of the venerable Richard ‘Dick’ Hart marks the ultimate milestone on the road travelled by the leading political pioneers of the 1930s.

He is indeed the last of the liberators who played significant roles in the people’s uprising against the oppressive conditions imposed by slavery and colonialism.

He was among those who conceived, organised and launched Jamaica’s modern trade union and political movement; and he, mindless of personal sacrifices, devoted his long life to shaping and then writing the highlights of its history.

I shall remember him as the unrepentant Marxist, the gentle revolutionary whose thoughts and actions were forever committed to the well-being of the working class.

The popular outburst for political change came in mid-1938, with Alexander Bustamante at the helm.

Bustamante had endeared himself to the masses by protestations on their behalf, using varied and voluminous letters to the newspapers, street-corner meetings, and personal appearances wherever and whenever there were labour troubles and discontent.

But even before ‘Busta’ was recognised as the labour leader, Hart, as a teenage law student, had been active and vocal in the struggle.

Already, he had studied and accepted the philosophy of Karl Marx and had been deeply impressed by reading accounts of the Russian Revolution that had taken place in 1917, a few months after he was born.

From the earliest days of his political awareness, Hart was concretely committed to being the unrepentant Marxist that he was until his dying day.

At a time when Soviet communism was widely identified with the bloody overthrow of the classes and dictatorial rule in the name of the masses, he openly joined forces with its proponents, not because he himself was a violent man – far from it. His admiration of the theory was founded on the fact that it was primarily a movement proclaiming freedom and progress for the working class.

He frowned on violence, but readily empathised with those who thought it necessary to use physical force where moral suasion seemed of no avail.

NATIONAL PRIDE ADVOCATE

Young Richard Hart was already a Marxist thinker when he became attracted to Hugh ‘Buck’ Buchanan, one of his mentors.

Buchanan was a Jamaican bricklayer who had returned from Cuba in the 1920s, influenced by the national pride and self-respect of the Cuban people, a spirit he felt should be transmitted to the then-docile Jamaican working class.

They both joined Ken Hill’s National Reform Association and became close friends and political associates.

Buchanan went on to join forces with Alan ‘Father’ Coombs in founding the pioneering Jamaica Workers and Tradesmen Union (JWTU).

When Coombs, for want of financing, invited Bustamante to take a leadership role in the JWTU, Buchanan, the leftist, was against the move as he regarded Busta as anti-communist and a capitalist sympathiser.

On the other hand, Hart, although a doctrinaire Marxist, was prepared to support any movement acting in the interest of the workers.

During Bustamante’s internment, Hart was among those working for the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and he was arrested and jailed when he attempted a march on behalf of that union.

His father, attorney and historian Ansell Hart, later recalled how he had to “… get permission from the inspector of police for the introduction into the cell of a mattress. The necessary medical certificate, which I secured, was to the effect that sleeping on the bare concrete floor would be likely to affect his health“.

Before that episode, Richard Hart had come out early in support of the 1938 uprising, and in May of that year, when Norman Manley, not yet convinced of the need for organised political action, volunteered to set up a Conciliation Board to help formalise trade union activity, Hart was among the first to join.

At age 21 when the Board evolved into the Trades Union Advisory Council, he was appointed its first general secretary before being succeeded by Florizel Glasspole.

Later in the year, at the formation of the People’s National Party (PNP), Richard Hart was unreservedly among the founders.

His enthusiasm was not dampened by his knowledge that in the leadership were influential voices that were pro-capitalism and others who openly advocated the exclusion of Marxists.

It was his understanding that the party was a national movement embracing all ideological positions, but with the common aim of ensuring freedom and progress for the workers and liberation from the shackles of colonialism.

Before the party was a year old, Hart and other Marxists were pleased that the official policy included elements of socialism, including “(a) public ownership of all industries which enjoy a complete monopoly; (b) public ownership or effective state control of all industries which enjoy or require subsidies from public funds; (c) state ownership of all public utilities“.

Nevertheless, within months of the party’s first annual conference, Hart found it necessary to defend his Marxist beliefs.

COMMUNISTS PUSHED OUT

The PNP was supporting N.N. Nethersole‘s election campaign for the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation and Manley, perhaps under pressure, sent out a call to both Hart and Frank Hill that, ” … those openly acknowledging themselves as Communists should withdraw from participation on the platform in the Nethersole by-election”.

In his answer to Manley, Richard Hart wrote expressing fears that the move might be “ … the thin edge of the wedge in an effort which will inevitably be made by a certain element to deny Communists the right to participate in our national movement. This move will come, no matter how much you personally disapprove of it“.

The suggestion was prophetic. A dozen years later, he, Ken Hill, Frank Hill, Arthur Henry, and other executives were expelled from the PNP, accused of being involved in an alleged communist plot.

On being expelled from the PNP, Hart, the unrepentant Marxist, denied being involved in any plot to overthrow, but admitted adherence to the ideology.

He had never at any time denied that fact, except perhaps in 1948 when Norman Manley had called on communists in the party to identify themselves.

Reluctantly, he had signed, but following the expulsion, explained: “I had thought that I was a communist … but Norman Manley had said that unless we were members of a communist party or organisation we were not entitled to call ourselves communists … by his new definition, a Marxist and a Communist were the same thing. As I had never ceased to be a Marxist, I was happy to accept the fact that he had now reinstated me as a communist.

STAUNCH MARXISM SUPPORTER

After the PNP split, Hart again stood up for Marxism by rejecting Ken Hill’s call for his denial of communist leanings.

He then formed the People’s Educational Organisation (PEO), which had the support of the militant Hugh Buchanan and other avowed communists such as Ferdinand Smith. For this, he was made to part company with Hill’s newly formed National Labour Party (NLP).

Both the PEO and the NLP had short lives, while the PNP, purged of its leftists, went on to become the government in 1955.

Hart continued to pay the price for his beliefs when the PNP administration took away his passport and prevented him from leaving the island.

According to Ansell Hart, it was not until the Jamaica Labour Party’s return to power in 1962 that Bustamante, remembering the days when Hart supported him, ordered the return of the passport.

Soon afterwards Dick was off to Guyana in answer to Cheddi Jagan‘s request for assistance.

However, when Jagan lost power in 1965, Hart migrated to the United Kingdom where he practised law and became engaged in the British trade union movement by way of Caribbean Labour Solidarity.

This was reminiscent of his pioneering days as an executive of the Caribbean Labour Congress.

Dick’s next move was in 1982 when he went to Grenada and was appointed attorney general in the People’s Revolutionary Government.

With the fall of that administration and the United States-led invasion of the island, he went back to England where he reunited with the labour movement and remained so until his recent death.

Meanwhile, here at home in Jamaica, his friendship with Norman Manley was restored; and in 1998 on the 60th anniversary of the party he was recalled to PNP membership.

In accepting the invitation Richard Hart finally felt vindicated, and with satisfaction declared: “The offer to renew my membership of the PNP was not accompanied by any suggestion that I should repudiate my ideals or theoretical concepts.

His receipt of the Gold Musgrave Medal in 2005 for his contribution to history in Jamaica was a fitting and most appropriate award for his many historical publications.

However, as far as his monumental work in the interest of Jamaica’s trade union and political development is concerned, further respect may still be due.

Ken Jones is a reporter, photographer, editor, columnist, publisher and television producer. He was spokesman for Jamaica House and director of communications in the Office of the Prime Minister. He also served as executive director of the Jamaica Information Service and at one time served as head of Information at the Jamaican Embassy in Washington.

WATCH: Gus John, Richard Hart & the campaign for the release of the Grenada 17

Picture (home): “Flower” by Andrew Gibson (Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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[…] Richard Hart (recently deceased) was Attorney General in Grenada from 1982 till the Revo imploded. He was an avowed Communist and belonged to the radical wing of Jamaican politics. He and Trevor Munroe, among others, were trusted supporters of the Party and PRG. What were they advising Coard and all those who were responsible for placing and keeping Bishop under house arrest, knowing as they surely must have done what a kamikaze act of political suicide that potentially was? […]

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