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On being Progressive

Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Previously I touched on the history of how the Progressive Labour Party got its name. In this piece, I aim to explore what being “Progressive”’ meant to the founders of the party, and what it can — or should — mean today and going forward.

I have argued that the PLP adopted the “Progressive” part of its name in respect to the legacy of the Progressive Group, whose successful 1959 Theatre Boycott began the domino effect of official desegregation in Bermuda. This origin, to me, provides insight into what the founders of the PLP understood by “Progressive” in the context of the time, from which we can draw an understanding of what it should mean today and in the future.

I don’t know why the Progressive Group chose the name it did. I suspect it was inspired by the political school of progressivism, most famously represented by Theodore Roosevelt’s short-lived Progressive Party. As an idea, progressivism essentially argues that it is possible to realise improvements in society through political reforms/government intervention. In the United States, it found fertile ground in a society with high levels of socioeconomic inequality — something that found a ready echo in Bermuda. In that it has a somewhat different meaning than how it is used today — as being Left of liberal — just as the original meaning of the word “gay” has evolved over time.

The Progressive Group itself was largely drawn from what might be described as the then Black bourgeoisie — from the most affluent sections of an otherwise racially oppressed group. While it is most famous today for the Theatre Boycott, it had a wider scope, and had organised actions prior.

The Progressive Group was composed mostly of Black students who had recently returned from universities in the US and Britain. They also took on the form of a shadow government, with members assuming ministerial portfolios to identify progressive reforms.

There is much history written about the Progressive Group already, so I won’t dwell on it here, other than to summarise that it essentially advocated for the political reform of Bermudian society over time with the goal of realising not a “colour-blind” Bermuda but, rather, a Bermuda where, yes, bourgeois society was open to all bourgeoisie, White or Black, and that Bermudian capitalism should be demographically representative of Bermuda itself.

Essentially, if Bermuda was majority Black, then the class system should reflect that — which even today it does not. Our class system is very much racialised as a legacy of both slavery and segregation, even if the Black bourgeoisie has become more prominent and, as there has always been, there is a minority of the working class that is White.

This is how I interpret “Progressive” with a capital “P”: a moderate reformist movement of the Black bourgeoisie looking to realise a Bermudian capitalism representative of our racial demographics through moderate reforms over time.

There is, however, another way to interpret “progressive”, this time with a lower-case “p”. This other “progressive” is based on challenging all structures of power, such isms as sexism, racism and capitalism. It is a movement that is inherently antiracist, antisexist and anticapitalist. And such structures of power include sexuality. While “Progressive” may be a movement of moderate reform, “progressive” is a militant movement for radical change. Progressive or progressive is a question of reform or revolution.

Both have equal claim to the word today. While the Progressive Group may have been a moderate reformist group, it succeeded only through the marriage of its boycott call with the militant working-class currents of the time. Had its call not been taken up by proponents of the then progressive militants, in the form of Kingsley Tweed and Richard Lynch, it is likely the 1959 Theatre Boycott would have failed just as the attempted theatre boycott of a decade earlier — led also by a group of mostly Black bourgeoisie called the Association for Bermudian Affairs. Tweed and Lynch were not connected to the Progressive Group; however, they were already well-known, working-class militants.

It was this, the joining of Black bourgeoisie and militant working-class currents that proved effective in forcing real concessions from the oligarchy of the time — and set out a recipe that would later be manifested in the PLP. And owing to the involvement of both currents in the success of 1959, both moderate reformism in the guise of “Progressive” and militant radicalism in the guise of “progressive” can make legitimate claims to the word today.

In some ways, this joint claim to the legacy of the word has been a key dynamic in the subsequent history of the PLP, which, as it often says, sees itself as a big-tent party with different factions and currents rather than a monolithic entity.

Which version of Progressive/progressive has been hegemonic in the PLP, however? I would say the moderate reformist version has had effective control almost since its inception. This does not mean the radical version is dead and buried; just that, besides the occasional rhetorical concession or victory, it is moderate bourgeois reformism that has dominated — and continues to dominate. However, the tension of Progressive/progressive helps to explain the phenomenon of various actors claiming that this or that leader has betrayed the principles of the movement — it simply depends on which Progressive/progressive one sees as the “correct” version — or even cynically chose to claim the mantle of for political reasons.

If both have valid claims to this legacy, the question then becomes which version should be the one we fight for today? And, if the radical “progressive” version, can that even be realised in the PLP? If not, then what?

Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University

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Published February 21, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated February 21, 2024 at 7:22 am)

On being Progressive

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