In Memory of Lewis and Webber
By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 21, 2008
On February 20, the University of the West Indies inaugurated
its Year of Sir Arthur Lewis as part of its celebration
of the three Nobel Laureates from the English-speaking Caribbean.
During the year much will be said about Lewis's achievements.
Little would be said about his contribution to the formation
of Caribbean intellectual thought and the pioneering work
that ARF Webber did in theorising about Caribbean economics.
It is a position I outline in Caribbean Visionary: ARF Webber
and the Making of the Guyanese Nation that is being published
by the University Press.
There can be no doubt that Lewis was as an outstanding theorist
of Caribbean economic thought. Together with Webber and
CLR James, he was part of a magnificent triumvirate whose
works sowed the seeds for an indigenous intellectual tradition
and helped to advance a vision of what a liberated Caribbean
person ought to be.
Although these societies took a long time before they gained
their independence, the work of these three freedom fighters
played an important part in setting the intellectual terrain
in which subsequent generations planted their academic seeds.
Webber was a Tobagonian who made his name in Guyana's
politics. He was one of the most important Caribbean intellectuals
of the 20th century although he fell out of our nation's
I am an Economic Heretic," an article that Webber wrote
in 1930, anticipated the central argument that Lord Maynard
Keynes made in this seminal work, The General Theory of
Employment, Interest and Money in 1936. Chip Case, an economist
at Wellesley College, argues that Webber "either anticipated
Keynes or he was one of the first practitioners."
Webber was a legislator in the Guyanese Legislative Council
from 1921 to 1932. As a result, he was deliberating on economic
issues when Lewis had not given a thought to economic theorising.
Lewis says that when he went to London School of Economics
(LSC) in 1933 he had "no idea what economics was."
In 1936 Lewis wrote "The Evolution of the Peasantry
in the West Indies," in which he argued that "the
sugar depression has called in question the foundation of
West Indian society."
He believed that the salvation of the West Indies lay in
the transformation of the economy from plantation to peasant
When Lewis wrote this essay there existed no formal economic
theorising in the Caribbean. Eric St Cyr, a local economist,
says there were two strands of economic thinking at the
time: "a mixture of mercantilist thought and 19th century
liberalism, with a smattering of Keynesianism later in the
He notes that "Lewis's unlimited supplies model
is clearly the first attempt at theory construction for
a specific West Indian economic problem."
Webber, like Lewis, was a member of the "transitional"
generation who was concerned about the devastating effect
the 1929 economic depression had on Caribbean society.
Webber could only see dimly what Keynes, a professional
economist, saw more clearly and which took Lewis a longer
time to see. Thirty years into his work, Lewis was more
explicit about the activist role of government in economic
In 1983, in his presidential address to the American Economic
Association, he argued for "a theory of government"
that changed from "viewing government as autonomous
and an exogenous factor in any development analysis to making
Webber and Lewis agreed on two things. Webber saw Guyana's
problems as being a subset of a larger international problem
whereas Lewis "never considered the LDCs in isolation
but always in the context of a world economy as a single
interdependent system." That was his major strength
as an economist.
Lewis also saw the strengthening of peasant production and
the transformation of the political system as two ways to
solve the chronic economic situation that faced the working
people of the Caribbean.
He suggested that "if the state ceases to be dominated
by the plantocracy, if, for instance, a change in the franchise
brings political power within the range of labourers and
peasants, the prospects of the peasantry will become brighter.
Whether or not such a change is probable within the near
future, we cannot say."
Lewis and Webber were close to the Fabian society in London.
The Fabian Society was responsible for Lewis's publication
of Labour in the West Indies that was subtitled "The
Birth of a Workers' Movement." As early as 1938,
Lewis realised that the political salvation of the Caribbean
lay in the hands of those who controlled the state.
Both Webber and Lewis believed that the adaptation of socialism
offered one way out of Caribbean dependency although each
man strove to achieve this end through a form or parliamentarianism.
Each man believed that the working people should control
their labour power and emphasised the important role that
economics played in the formation and subsequent transformation
of Caribbean society.
Although Webber died before Lewis commenced his economic
studies, the former was an important intellectual link to
The country ought to know more about Webber even as we celebrate
Lewis's contribution to Caribbean and international
economic thought. We need to treasure our geniuses and honour
Professor Cudjoe email address is email@example.com
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