Ashton Chase, OE, SC, passed away mere days before his 97th birthday, but he should be remembered for much more than the letters behind his name, or for his age: his life pretty much summed up the modern history of our country, in which he played an outsized role. His father Sam Chase was famous across Guyana as a vaudeville comedian, and was a standard feature at the Globe Cinema during the 1940s and 1950s. His grandmother was an official of the first trade union in Guyana and the Commonwealth – the BGLU, founded by HN Critchlow in 1919.
He joined the Juvenile Section even as he attended Alleyne High School. As such, his consciousness of the working class and its exploitation was shaped early on, especially since he had experienced first-hand the severe deprivations occasioned by the Great Depression of the 1930s. He came to the attention of labour leaders during the 25th anniversary celebrations of the BGLU in 1944, which coincided with the British Guiana and West Indian Labour Conference. Cheddi Jagan and his wife, Janet, had returned to BG by then; and, youthful as he was, Chase was one of the founders of the Political Action Committee (PAC) in 1947. Their radical approach to demand justice for workers irrevocably shook up the old reformist politics that toed the colonial line and had been dominant up to then.
Chase was awarded a TUC one-year scholarship, during 1948-49, to study trade union fundamentals at the pioneering Ruskin College at Oxford, which was founded to educate trade unionists. On his return, he picked up from where he had left off in political activism – now joined by his friend Forbes Burnham, who has just returned as a lawyer from London. He had been identified by the members of the PAC as the chairman of the Peoples Progressive Party that they were about to launch to contest the upcoming elections under universal franchise. However, in a patriotic act that earned him the respect of his peers, he deferred to Burnham, who was acknowledged as having a greater pull with African Guyanese because of his academic achievements.
In one of the early stunts by Burnham to seize leadership of the PPP after the party’s victory at the 1953 elections, it was Chase who intervened with Burnham to restore order. He was seen as a moderate by the British, who staged a coup after 133 days to remove the PPP from office. He proceeded to England in 1954, where he obtained his Bachelor of Law from London University with honours, and read law at Gray’s Inn in 1957, when he returned to Guyana. By then Burnham had split the nationalist movement, and Chase, who remained friends with Burnham, initially fell for the latter’s line, that he was merely using tactics to deal with the British. Upon discovering the true aim – which was to collaborate with the colonial powers – Chase made a break from Burnham.
As he wrote in 1989, he agreed with Burnham’s sister Jessie that “(Burnham’s) motto is the personal ends of power justify ANY means to achieve them. His bible is “The Prince” by Machiavelli. And we, the people, should he come to power, will only be pawns.” As far as Marxism was concerned, Chase opined that “it tickled his fancy to observe and comprehend the communist monolithic control in Eastern Europe at that time. But he was never absorbed into the communist movement, or trusted by its leaders.”
All leaders should harken to Chase’s advice on the race question: “The constructive approach to the racial question ought to have been an open consideration of its efficacy, or (instead of literally sweeping it under the carpet and pretending that it does not exist) its accommodation or its burial…One must therefore accept the thesis that racial understanding is a prerequisite to political progress here, but racism, as it will be seen, will be the bugbear of our society for a long time to come.”