Cheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power… – Book review

Cheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power: British Guiana’s Struggle for Independence – Book Review

By Colin A Palmer – Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010

André Gide when asked who was the greatest French poet replied, “Victor Hugo, alas.” Is this the best book on the political disasters in British Guiana between 1953 and 1964? Yes, alas.

Colin Palmer’s book tells a familiar story: the rise of the People’s Progressive Party, its landslide victory in the first elections with universal adult suffrage, the virulent opposition to it in power, the mistakes of its ministers and the suspension of the constitution. Then came the split between Burnham and Jagan and the racialization of Guyanese politics. Local and US anti-communism stoked the flames and the two became antagonists. Palmer is especially good on the psychological effects of colonialism and the hypocrisy and racist disdain of the USA (as if its anti-communism was not enough); he lays to rest the belief (much cherished by Cheddi Jagan) that the Americans had been responsible for the 1953 suspension of the constitution – that was a British affair. By 1960 the Americans were taking the lead, financing local opposition to Jagan and his party. He fails to point out that in backing Burnham they had absolutely no idea of his politics.

Palmer has combed the British and American archives to tell this story. The focus, as the title suggests, is on Cheddi Jagan but it is not a biography. Its organization is chronological and thematic within chapters­—in many ways this makes the book slightly baffling for a reader not conversant with the politics of the period. Events fleetingly mentioned at their first appearance reappear and are explained more fully in a later chapter. Palmer writes clearly so in the end matters are explained. For those who would like to be reminded (or need to know) before reading this book what happened in a more straightforward fashion the second half of  Maurice St Pierre’s Anatomy of Resistance: Anti-Colonialism in Guyana 1823-1966 (London, Macmillan Caribbean, 1999) is recommended.

Attempts to explain the failings of the nationalist movement in Guyana (never, but almost, entirely coterminous with the original PPP) range from outside intervention to internal problems.

The external explanations tend to attribute blame to either the British or the Americans or both. In The West On Trial (London, Michael Joseph,1966) Cheddi Jagan saw the hand of the U.S.A. in the 1953 suspension of the Constitution as in the vehement and then violent opposition to his government in the early 1960s. Nearly every scholar since then has seen the British as being wholly responsible for the 1953 suspension, and the Americans as taking over the running in the 1960s. Palmer’s close reading of the official British and U.S. records enables him to prove conclusively that the British, who only informed the Americans twelve hours before the troops landed, were the sole authors of the 1953 suspension. The Canadians because of their commercial interests, i.e., Demba the bauxite company, were told twenty-four hours before; the Australians and New Zealanders twelve hours and India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) not informed beforehand. But Jagan might not be entirely wrong: unspoken assumptions (in this case British ones about US attitudes to their sphere of interest, the Americas) are seldom recorded. In little over five years the Americans were making the running. What had changed the U.S.A. from bystander to actor was the Cuban Revolution. Palmer adds little to what we already know about US formal and informal meddling in the internal politics of British Guiana.

Palmer’s explanation of the degradation of politics in British Guiana is that it resulted mainly from a failure of leadership and vision in politicians who resorted to racism and racist violence to achieve their ends. He does not like some scholars who go for an internal explanation believe that this was predetermined by the ethnic composition of the society.

In his previous book, Eric Williams & The Making of the Modern Caribbean (Kingston, Ian Randle, 2006) Palmer had devoted a long chapter, “Bleeding Guiana”, to Eric Williams’ attempt to mediate in 1963. This book is in some ways an expansion of that chapter and the model of wise national leadership against which Jagan and Burnham are measured and found wanting is Eric Williams.

Yet the roots of these failings remain unclear. The characters of Cheddi and Janet Jagan and Forbes Burnham remain elusive. The internal politics of the People’s Progressive Party remain obscure- after the Burnham split there was the challenge of Balram Singh Rai to the Jagans’ control of the party- all political parties, even those in totalitarian states, are coalitions. Leadership becomes difficult if the coalition contains very different political interests. In 1953 the PPP won just over half of the vote; by 1964 the PPP and the People’s National Congress together gained over four-fifths of the vote- this additional support and the much higher voter turn-out suggest that many of the interests opposed or indifferent  to the original PPP had, without accepting the programme of radical nationalism, voted for its heirs.

Heightening racial tensions meant race-based politics could and would trump both nationalism and material interests but exactly how both parties did this has never been properly explored. Records probably do not exist and the party organizers who did the hard work are either dead or unwilling to talk. Palmer uses Frank Birbalsingh’s The People’s Progressive Party of Guyana 1950-1992: An Oral History (London,Hansib,2007). Interesting and valuable though it is, that work does not give space to  that level of informant and needs in any case to be treated warily like all recollections decades after of contentious matters. Thus Palmer is  light on the local political situation so that the narrative often simply becomes an account of British or American opposition to a nationalist movement and the local reaction to those actions. Baytoram Ramharack’s Against the Grain: Balram Singh Rai and the Politics of Guyana (san Juan,Trinidad,Chakra,2005) which is not in the bibliography would have helped flesh out some of the national as well as party politics of the era.

Palmer also exaggerates the eclecticism of Jagan’s ideology: he was too orthodox a follower of the debased orthodoxy of Soviet Union Marxism, too little a pragmatist and definitely not the founder of anything that can be called, on the model of Maoism or Titoism, Jaganism. Marxism of this sort in the Guianese context had one overwhelming flaw: by linking racism to capitalism it promised a long-term solution to ethnic conflict- the revolution. In the meantime politicians played with the fires of racism to consolidate their support. Its centralizing tendency (note this shared with other BWI- a legacy of British centralism?) and the savagery of its doctrinal disputes exaggerated local conflicts. Women (except for Janet Jagan) are surprisingly absent. So too is the pre-Jagan history of nationalism and the significance of the 1928 suspension of the Constitution and the coming of Crown Clony government, marking a period of  political retrogression after the  People’s Party heyday

It is a book for specialists or the very knowledgeable. Palmer correctly points out how damaging the violence of 1962 to 1964 was. He ends by briefly discussing the consequences of this for Guyana in the years after independence in 1966. A book worth reading but any Guyanese will read it with a heavy heart.

Peter D Fraser London Metropolitan University February 2012

— Post #1100

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  • DMITRI ALLICOCK  On 02/10/2012 at 11:48 am

    Well done once again!

  • michael tannassee  On 02/15/2012 at 11:50 pm

    …. then came the split…. then came the ‘surreptitious split’ ,, by Burnham from Jagan ! with the creation of the race card ,, fueled by the segregation movement in the USA ,, giving rise to black power in the Caribbean ,, Burnham cunningly used the Cuban missile crisis in ’62 to play his hand against Jagan and know all the while the Brits nor Sam had nothing on him relative to his politics ,, so he was the ‘altar boy’ for both the latter ! he used them to the hilt to set him up ! and then he abused them to the other end of the spectrum ,, like calling President Reagan ,, RIP ! the cowboy president ! for ‘snitching” on Cuba ,, they took him out !!…

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