Dr Cheddi Jagan

Wednesday will be the death anniversary of Cheddi Jagan, who was born in 1918 and passed away in 1997. As such, his life spanned some of the epochal events of the 20th century. Starting with the “Great War” that ended in 1917, it ended with the Far Eastern Financial Crisis of 1997, as a consequence of capitalism’s latest phase – financialization.
Jagan would have appreciated those historical bookends as much as the intervening “pages”, which saw his native Guyana being roiled by global forces like so much flotsam and jetsam in the clash between the contending ideologies of capitalism and communism. In the year before his birth, 1917, two epochal events were witnessed, giving birth to Cheddi, as it were, since they shaped his life. The first was the end of Indian Indentureship, on March 12, by the British, who exploited labour as a bridge between slavery and the so-called “free labour” dispensation that still enmeshes our bodies. In slavery, human beings were property – “chattel” – with absolutely no rights. With indentureship, they had to provide labour for a fixed period under defined conditions, enforced by a penal clause that in effect “bound” them to the plantations.
The second event was the Bolshevik October Revolution, which saw the monarchy of Russia being violently overthrown and replaced by a Communist “dictatorship of the proletariat”. As the USSR, Communism presented itself as an alternative to the capitalist world system that had evolved from the mercantilist colonial Empires, of which Guyana, in the “West”, was a part.
Jagan’s parents were both indentured children brought by indentured single mothers to Guyana, and they experienced first-hand the exploitative system on plantations in Berbice. His father was a “driver” at Port Mourant, which would have placed him in the middle strata on the plantation, between ordinary workers and the overseers. But, as he recounted in his book “The West on Trial”, Jagan witnessed the wretched conditions of the former, as compared with the luxury of the latter. As Jock Campbell, later Chairman of Bookers and owner of the neighbouring Plantation Albion, noted, the stables of the estate mules were like palaces compared with the logies of the sugar workers.
Jagan’s parents were able to send him to a local private high school, and then, in 1935, to Queen’s College in Georgetown to complete his secondary schooling. There, he encountered the racial and economic prejudices that typified the urban middle class, whose children he interacted with. He left for college in the US in 1938, during the Great Depression which had driven down wages in the sugar belt and precipitated riots across the Caribbean.
In the US, while qualifying to become a dentist, and augmenting the hard-earned money sent by his parents in Guyana, Jagan was influenced by the racism against African Americans, and their lack of democratic freedoms. His political awareness was sharpened as he married a leftist student nurse, Janet Rosenberg, and then returned to Guiana in 1943.
Here, WWII had sharpened the contradictions of colonial rule, and the Moyne Commission’s Report of 1939 had already recommended opening up the political space.
The radical Jagan was elected to the Legislature in 1947 under an expanded but still restricted franchise -the same year India and Pakistan won independence and spurred efforts here to achieve that status. After the universal franchise was granted, and elections were held in 1953 under Jagan as Leader and Forbes Burnham as Chairman, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) won overwhelmingly. And the modern period of Guyana’s political history was launched.
Unfortunately, it was a history of betrayal by Forbes Burnham, as Britain and the US used the bogeyman of Jagan as a “fellow traveller” of communism and Moscow to oust the PPP from office, and install Burnham in 1964. The PNC then rigged elections until 1992.
Jagan, to his credit, maintained a democratic alternative, and the PPP was then returned to office after the communist threat had collapsed. His party is back in office, upholding his democratic tradition.