Cheddi Jagan was born on 22 March 1918. As we approach his hundredth birthday, I reflect on his contribution to Caribbean social and political thought based on his sugar plantation experience and his formulations of Marxist political strategy. Indo-Caribbean contributions to political and social thought in the region have not been given the attention and scholarly recognition it deserves. Conceptions of the Caribbean require an intellectual genealogy that situates and identifies with the indentureship experience and its implications for the shaping of Caribbean society.
Jagan’s childhood was shaped by the plantation experience, and his grandparents were among the indentured laborers recruited from India. He attended Queen’s College in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, but he was unable to procure a job after his secondary school education. Colour, class and racial discrimination were barriers to Indian participation in the civil service and urban professional opportunity. This was a commonplace experience of a “coolie” going to school and looking for work in town.
Jagan was the eldest of eleven children and later trained as a dentist during 1936 and 1943 in the US. He, therefore, was able to draw on the experiences of the working class under British colonial capitalism and American capitalist exploitation. Upon his return to Guyana, he founded the Marxist-oriented Political Action Committee (PAC). In the form of other Caribbean independence liberation parties, he established a mass political organization, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). In 1953, he achieved the distinction of engineering the first electoral victory for a Marxist leader in the West. However the British cut his multi-racial socialist project short after 133 days.
To date, Guyana endures under a bipolar political structure. Political power was the ultimate prize of the “small pie of colonial resources.” Thus, an Afro and Indo rivalry ensued for political power and emboldened the already existing communal mistrust and fear of ‘the other.’ The African and Indian divide ran parallel to the urban and rural divide. For this reason, the rise of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was necessary in order to make a case for more integrative social and political institutions in Guyana. The multi-racial party employed a Marxian analysis of class and labor struggle to propel the independence movement.
In 1955, colonial divide and rule strategies and the persistence of clashing leadership personalities and personal acclaim of Jagan and Burnham eventually led to the demise of the political project. Since then, racial politics run deep as the rivers on the continent. The two major political parties made appeals for cross-race and class alliances, but the racial motivation for voting and political support sustained. Mass politics remained, but racial unity becomes more and more of an elusive goal. Imperial political machinations and the state authoritarian approach of the ruling party in government meant that Jagan remained out of political power between 1964 and 1992.
Among the many achievements of the Jagan-led PPP, his analysis of the conditions of sugar workers was intellectually profound and insightful. Yet, whether sugar imperialism or sugar capitalism, Jagan’s analysis of Guyana’s economic position superimposed a class analysis over a race one. As he gained deeper insight into the material basis for class conflict and the economic exploitation of workers by multinational corporations, he minimized, (not ignored), the significance of racial and cultural differences and security issues. Thus, the idealism of his Marxism was mixed with weak political strategy in practice.
According to Seecharan (2015, 229), in 1946, Indians comprised 90% of the population on plantations. The campaign against multinational control and ‘bitter sugar’ was a revolt against foreign capital domination as much as it was an Indo-Guyanese liberation issue. Whether he saw it that way or not.
In a potent political voice, he wrote: “Booker is the symbol of British imperialism in British Guiana… It is represented in all phases of the economic life, so much so that British Guiana is sometimes colloquially referred to as Booker’s Guiana. It controls a greater part of the sugar estates, and has a dominant position in commerce… The workers are sweated, and millions of dollars produced by them find their way into the pockets of sugar ‘gods’ in England…As a socialist party [Jagan’s PPP], nationalization of the sugar industry, and indeed all major industries, is our objective. In the interim, while we are still tied to British imperialism with limited constitutional power certain reforms have to be undertaken to break the back of imperialism…Join the fight against sugar imperialism.” (Cheddi Jagan 1953 cited in Seecharan 2015, 228)
Even as Jagan had a longer career in opposition politics than in power and the majority of the population did not embrace his rhetorical Marxism-Leninism, he secured the Indo-Guyanese vote throughout. The USSR fell before his eyes; elections were rigged against him, a roller coaster relationship with other CARICOM heads of government and his personal challenges with the emotional and economic costs of building a political institution from scratch never broke him.
Hard work and struggle were features of his family’s past experiences and memories of working and living on sugar plantations. As President of Guyana, he urged other heads of government in the Caribbean Community to develop a firm position against state corruption. He cautioned, “We cannot have a Cadillac-style living with donkey cart economies” (Cheddi Jagan 1992, cited in Humphrey 2007, 10). This statement was also rooted in his political philosophy that decried materialism and conspicuous consumption.
Cheddi Jagan was a fighter for the underdog. Yet for many years, he was seen as the champion for the Indian underdog because of the cultural pride of some Indo-Guyanese, fears of some of the Afro-Guyanese and his commitment to scientific Marxism that did not meaningfully integrate a race-class and cultural analysis. And if someone asked, then, ‘who would fight for the underdog on the cane fields and plantations?’ Jagan answered.
Sometimes Jagan was, like his voting base, confined by a narrow vision, albeit for different reasons. But none of this is surprising for a people who have been oppressed by the monstrosity of sugar capitalism in the Caribbean. Today, the political class, on both sides, who are making decisions about the struggling Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) could take a page out of the history of Jagan and his canefield class consciousness.