Cheddi Jagan: The First Democratically Elected Marxist

Unlike most of the leaders of the Caribbean Left, Jagan long described himself as a Marxist and his ideologies grew with time.

Cheddi Jangan surrounded by police in 1954.

“This court is not interested in justice but in law but what I want to say is that justice has been dead in this country since the troops arrived here in October last, and the whole country is now a vast prison. Whether I am in jail or not it makes no difference to me. I have enjoyed the slums of poverty and the pleasures of luxury. I came out of poverty and my going back to jail is nothing at all.” – Cheddi Jagan (Defence in Court, April 22, 1954)

By Amílcar Sanatan

Cheddi Jagan was the son of indentured plantation workers in Guyana. He later attended Queen’s College in Georgetown for an education that would push him to overseas training in the USA in the sciences and dentistry. After his return to Guyana, by 1946 he organised the Political Affairs Committee and was elected a member of the Legislative Council. In 1950 he founded the People’s Progressive Party. Trevor Munroe reminds us, “Cheddi Jagan had won a massive election victory in 1953, the first Marxist to really win a majority in democratic elections – (Allende was not the first in the hemisphere)…”

Early on in Jagan’s political career, he subscribed to and publicly spoke of a Marxist politics that was sometimes at odds with the reality of the Guyanese race-class situation. While Marxism proved to be philosophically valuable to Caribbean decolonization and nationalist struggles, a number of Caribbean leaders failed to politically and practically apply the theorizing to their contexts.

Over time, Jagan’s pragmatism and administrative skills would mature into a more cohesive and praxis-based analysis. His book “The West on Trial: My Fight for Guyana’s Freedom” is a fine example. Yet, for years, colonial overlords of Guyana and Western journalists were bent on portraying Cheddi Jagan as a communist. Jagan’s popular support was owed much less to his Marxist pronouncements than his personal leadership on behalf of working and poor people, especially, sugar workers. Jagan’s naivety and also his deep loyalty to the principle of political freedom made him reluctant to disavow his sympathies with communism and communist organizers globally. Eventually, he had grown tired of the countless attacks in the media, splits in the party and imperial hostility by the West. He began focusing more on a cross-class nationalist message. Critics of Jagan either saw him as a dogmatic Marxist or one who rejected the label for political opportunity. Unlike most of the leaders of the Caribbean Left, Jagan long described himself as a Marxist and his ideologies grew with time:

“As a passionate anticolonialist, I am interested in the independence of my country – political independence; as an anti-imperialist, I am interested in the end to the domination and subjection of the economy of my country; as a Democrat, I am interested in preserving liberties and freedom of all the people – not only in preserving but in enlarging them; as a Socialist, I am interested in the creation of a new society which will lay the basis for the end of exploitation.”

To this day, the legacy of Cheddi Jagan is in the air since large sections of the Afro-Guyanese population see him as responsible for many of the racial problems of contemporary Guyana. Neither Cheddi Jagan nor Forbes Burnham created the racial order in Guyana. The process of colonization included the invitation of competing labor groups and as a consequence, Afro and Indo Guyanese people were integrated into the economy and society very differently. The seeds for conflict in the colony of exploitation were always there. One of the reasons for the Jagan-Burnham unity of the PPP in the 1950s was to build a coalition of racial unity in the struggle for independence. The split in the party in 1955 due to ideological and personality differences pronounced the racial antagonisms of the society within the broader imperial strategy of racial division. The racial riots and attacks on communities made the situation ugly for Guyana and everyday people. Jagan, an Indo-Guyanese and Janet Jagan, a white American would have a hard time moving around in the capital city. Indeed, there was much more Cheddi Jagan should have done to confront the issue of racism in the party and population but the day-to-day of politics exposed him to some of the advantages that came with partisanship.

Among the older heads in the Caribbean Left and even in the memories of my father, I have heard the consistent rejection of the idea that Cheddi Jagan was himself a racist. After all is said and done, what history has taught us is that the PPP split played into the hand of the colonizer and undermined the prospect of a “new society” and a “new Guyana” based on racial understanding and national unity. The trauma and problems of racism in Guyana continue to this day. Walter Rodney represented the voice of a younger generation frustrated with the racial bitterness. He said:

“…more than one political party has been responsible for the crisis of race relations on this country. I think our leadership has failed us on that score. I think external intervention was important in bringing the races against each other from the 50’s and particularly in the early 1960’s. But I am concerned with the present. If we made that mistake once, we cannot afford to be misled on that score today. No ordinary Afro-Guyanese no ordinary Indo Guyanese can today afford to be misled by the myth of race. Time and time again it has been our undoing.”

Jagan’s political life, which began in 1946, reached its peak in 1992 when he was elected President of Guyana. Cheddi Jagan should occupy a special place in Caribbean politics – students of political science should study his achievements and weaknesses; Caribbean daughters and sons should respect his commitment and humility in public life. His political story is one of a dentist trained in the United States of America and developing an aggressive approach to social change compared to the gradualist Fabian Socialist and UK trained regional counterparts of the time. He was always committed to the working people of Guyana and the poor; his vision for a “New Human Order” was one of those big ideas to give him policy space for a people-centred path to development. He was a thinking man; a man in love with long notes, statistics and the peace of mind he had at his desk. He endured nearly three decades in the shadows of government in opposition and never developed authoritarian tendencies and revenge when he returned to the top at 74 years old. George Lamming remembers him best:

“There is no Caribbean leader who has been so frequently cheated of office; none who has been so grossly misrepresented; and no one who, in spite of such adversity, was his equal in certainty of purpose and the capacity to go on and on until his time had come to take leave of us…”

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