The tributes to Ashton Chase continue to pour in unabatedly – and well they should at this latest inflection point in our history, when we finally have the wherewithal to improve the lives of the working people, to whom he was always committed. His life exemplifies the qualities of a patriot who invariably placed the interest of his country ahead of his own ambitions at critical junctures. It also offers an insight into the formative institutions of Guyana’s modern history.
Chase was born in Georgetown in 1926, and after completing his studies at Alleyne High School, he reportedly joined the Juvenile Section of Critchlow’s pioneering BGLU, and worked in its office. He was exposed to the efforts of the BGLU leaders to deal with the hardships precipitated during the WWII years when shipping was restricted. He was involved in the critical BG&WI Labour Conference of 1944, where he encountered the doyens of the local and regional labour movement.
In 1947, at the age of twenty-one, he, along with Cheddi and Janet Jagan and Joycelyn Hubbard, founded the Political Action Committee (PAC) that radicalized political discourse in the colony. He kept on educating himself, and completed a one-year course sponsored by the TUC at the union-specialized Ruskin College in Oxford between 1948-49. The 1942 Guyana Scholar Forbes Burnham had returned from England as a newly-minted lawyer in 1949, and when the PAC was to be transmuted, in 1950, into a formal political party – the PPP – to contest the promised elections under universal franchise, Ashton Chase, who had been identified as Chairman, voluntarily stepped aside for Burnham. He felt Burnham was more qualified and popular, and many wondered “what might have been”. He was a Minister in the short-lived PPP Government of 1953, and after its ouster, proceeded to England in 1954 to qualify for the bar. He returned in 1957, by which time Burnham has split the PPP and was about to launch the PNC. He was then still friendly with Burnham.
While Chase had penned the seminal book on trade unionism in Guyana, “A History of Trade Unionism in Guyana: 1900-1961”, he also wrote a more personal book, “Guyana: A Nation in Transit, Burnham’s Role”, that is of relevance today, if nothing more than because the PNC leaders are still measuring themselves by Burnham’s “legacy”. Chase knew Burnham very well, as described in the latter book, written in 1989: “We were at one time pals. We shared the same emotions as youngsters, worked, lived, played, and fraternized together as young men. Political ideas, objectives and thoughts were shared between us.”
As one so close to Burnham, he offered an insight into the latter’s worldview, as influenced by his ambitions, Machiavelli, Marxism, and his relationship with Cheddi Jagan. But also, by the then dominant group being groomed by the British to take over the reins of power, which he craved – “Coloured People”.
It is worth quoting the last influence at length, because it is playing an outsize role in the present contretemps to replace Aubrey Norton as PNC leader.
“But there was another side of his personality that was shown by the 1953 events. And with his elephant’s memory, he never forgot the detractors of this era and harboured a grudge to get even with them. For a Guyana Scholar, and a Lawyer, to have mixed so closely and familiarly with workers was at that time unprecedented in our country and ran counter to the prevailing socio-cultural prejudices. The middle class, the red people, the high brown, the fair-skinned, and the social elites of that day – terms familiar in that era – did not support him at that time, and where practicable, they actually opposed him. “The second group of antagonists was the League of Coloured Peoples’ leadership. To them, his associating with the Indo-Guyanese, crudely referred to as ‘coolies’ and ‘Indians’, was like a death blow, a betrayal of his own. They never conceptualised an amalgam between the two major racial groups at the political level. They did everything to destroy this amalgam, and when the opportunity occurred, they did their damned to fuel separation. Somehow, they saw the Afro-Guyanese (then termed the coloured man) hanging together and advancing politically on their own. They were even then already envious of the economic strides the Indo-Guyanese had made, and considered them a threat. The notion of working-class unity, regardless of race or ethnic origin, never entered into their contemplation.”