IN the first part of my review of Colin Palmer’s Cheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power – British Guiana’s Struggle for Independence, which was recently published, I dealt with his analysis of the period of 1953, the suspension of the constitution and the effort of the British Government to destroy the PPP as a political party and Cheddi Jagan as a political leader.
These efforts were not successful. The Robertson Commission recommended a period of “marking time…..to create a healthy political environment.” “It was guided by the obsession to contain or destroy the PPP,” argues Palmer. During its hearings it displayed a dismissive and patronizing attitude to Guianese, which was deeply embedded in the consciousness of the entire colonial apparatus, including the Governors, whose private comments on Government Ministers, including Jagan, were unfailingly paternalistic. The interim government installed as a result of the recommendations of the Robertson Commission, represented the interests of the colonial elite and lacked credibility.
“However, notwithstanding these and other negative assessments, his overall conclusion about Jagan was positive. “……he could be also ideologically elastic, simultaneously embracing and articulating political positions that had a variety of roots. These existed in dynamic tension and constituted what can be properly called ‘Jaganism’……but beneath all the rhetorical fulminations, vacillations, and incoherence, Cheddi Jagan’s consuming commitment to the welfare of British Guiana was never in doubt and shone through with admirable consistency and passion.” Palmer praised the depth and quality of Jagan’s writing, particularly its analysis of Guiana’s problems. He dubbed him “the most outstanding leader his country produced in the twentieth century.”
It soon became apparent that the period of “marking time” was unsustainable and having engineered the split in the PPP, the British Government restored elections in 1957 at the urging of Sir Patrick Renison, the newly installed Governor. The PPP won the 1957 elections, as it did the 1961 elections, the latter under an advanced self-governing constitution with a promise of independence under the party which won those elections.
While Palmer recognizes the deep and passionate commitment of Cheddi Jagan to the poor and exploited, he fell prey to some of the propaganda which was unleashed by the same opponents of the PPP that he scornfully exposes, leading to contradictory conclusions. He judged that the PPP pandered to racial sentiments citing Jagan’s attitude to the West Indies Federation as evidence. Referring to the fears of Indians mentioned by Jagan in his 1954 speech to the PPP congress when dealing with the W.I. Federation, Palmer does not refer to the more fundamental position articulated many times by Jagan and mentioned in his “West On Trial” that the W. I. Federation was a colonial imposition, the object of which was to maintain and extend political domination and economic exploitation and predicted that it would fail. And it did. Like all other federations established by the British, the W.I. Federation failed, the immediate reason being a structural imbalance – a weak centre and strong units. The same problem faces CARICOM. Nevertheless Palmer sympathetically quotes George Lamming’s view that on the Federation issue Jagan was forced to tread delicately and never wanted a party that was not ethnically all embracing.
He uncritically repeats the colonial view that Jagan was a poor administrator but ignores Jagan’s establishment of the Ruimveldt industrial Site, the beginning of the MMA/ADA scheme, Tapacuma, Black Bush Polder, the expansion of electricity, education, health services, housing in the city and sugar estates virtually abolishing the logies, rice and sugar production. These defined Jagan not only as a visionary in economic planning but also administratively capable of delivering on some of these plans as well.
However, notwithstanding these and other negative assessments, his overall conclusion about Jagan was positive. “……he could be also ideologically elastic, simultaneously embracing and articulating political positions that had a variety of roots. These existed in dynamic tension and constituted what can be properly called ‘Jaganism’……but beneath all the rhetorical fulminations, vacillations, and incoherence, Cheddi Jagan’s consuming commitment to the welfare of British Guiana was never in doubt and shone through with admirable consistency and passion.” Palmer praised the depth and quality of Jagan’s writing, particularly its analysis of Guiana’s problems. He dubbed him “the most outstanding leader his country produced in the twentieth century.”
Palmer’s conclusion and Rabe’s analysis do not accord with a recent assessment on Jagan which, in fact, exposes the still lingering influence of colonial and Cold War ideology prevailing in some academic circles. The eventual historical judgment on Jagan is already pointing to a conclusion closer to Palmer’s than that of the British Colonial Office, ‘local enablers’ of 1953 and the modern purveyors of that outmoded analysis driven by an ideological outlook which sees Jagan as having contracted the ‘Marxist virus.’
Palmer was not as charitable to Burnham whom he described as “arrogant, self-assured, calculating, self-centred and overly ambitious.” He judged that Burnham’s “leadership or nothing” demand in 1953, and more particularly, his “neatly executed double cross” at the special congress called by him in 1955, “…. transformed the political culture of the country with devastating and enduring consequences for the body politic and social order.” Referring to Burnham’s and John Carter’s campaign to withhold funding to the two PPP governments, Palmer concluded that “both Burnham and Carter were willing to sacrifice their country’s economic development on the altar of political expediency…..His victory [in 1964] represented the triumph of Anglo-American machinations, tarnishing his claim to office and depriving him of moral legitimacy. ”
To demonstrate Peter D’Aguiar’s character Palmer related the claim D’Aguiar made while in the United States that the PPP had received money from communist organizations and his displaying two cheques which turned out to be forgeries with the bank on which they were drawn denying knowledge of them. He ridiculed his claim that thousands of Cubans were in Guyana.
The picture emerges of Janet Jagan as a one dimensional figure rather than the complex, multi-dimensional product of a conservative American Jewish home, a liberal and progressive activist in a racist, Cold War atmosphere, who gave up college to study nursing to help in the war effort and who translated that background into helping to initiate the struggle for independence in a small, deeply backward colony. Mrs. Jagan was clearly an equally committed partner of her husband, particularly in the Party which they founded.
Palmer quoted the British to the effect that Mrs. Jagan was a “brilliant organizer” but a “communist.” He avoids the trap of highlighting the racist and sexist accusation that Mrs. Jagan was the evil genius behind Cheddi Jagan, who introduced him to ‘communism’ and encouraged and guided him along that path, giving the impression that a ‘white’ woman was leading by the nose a ‘non-white’ colonial despite the latter’s undoubted intellectual capacity. He does not analyse her ideological posture, which, though supportive of her husband’s, did not have the same intellectual depth or consuming passion.
Mrs. Jagan’s ideological underpinnings were highlighted in her work on social and economic issues of women and organising them from the late 1940s, her role as Editor of Thunder, the Party Organ in the critical early and middle years and in her abiding interest in culture. These do not receive Palmer’s attention.