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International Socialism, Autumn 1966


Eric Huntley

Guyana: 26 May


From International Socialism, No.26, Autumn 1966, pp.24-27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The 1776 American war of Independence, the Haitian revolution, the 18th and 19th century struggles of the South American peoples against Spanish domination, along with innumerable insurrections and revolts by West Indian slaves, the emergence of the independent states of Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, culminating in the Cuban revolution: all are important landmarks in the struggle of the oppressed peoples of the ‘new world.’ The long overdue emergence of British Guiana as the independent State of Guyana means that yet another country has advanced one step further towards grappling with the legacies of years of foreign domination. Although voices have been raised in opposition, with slogans like ‘no independence under Jagan or Burnham,’ the goal of the Guyanese has never been in doubt. The nature and extent of the Berbice slave revolt of 1763 [1] ferociously quelled, leaves one in no doubt as to what the black masses had in store for themselves in history. The Act of Emancipation (1831) and the payment to the former slave owners of over £4½ millions as compensation for the loss of ‘their’ slaves (none went to the former slaves to assist resettlement) in so far as it brought about emancipation from above rather than from below by the slaves themselves prevented a more radical transformation of the society and saddled the country with an oligarchy of absentee sugar planters. A further consequence of the decision to make a ‘grant’ of freedom was the failure to resolve the explosive issue of the place and role of the ‘blackman’ in a society almost completely dominated by values which have undergone little change since the days of slavery. It is clear that only emancipation from below would have provided the necessary precondition for such a re-evaluation. With this basic issue unresolved, the question became further complicated by the introduction of other migrant groups, all of whom were the victims of policies rooted in the ideas of a white society; also each element came to regard the others in stereotyped images.

Quite early the society came to be divided between the parties representing absentee sugar-merchant interests and the colonial bureaucracy on the one hand, and the native interests on the other. The former – in the main white – sought to maintain the production of sugar on plantations and used its control of the legislature to regulate the supply of labour by the new form of ‘paper slavery’ know as indentureship (contract labour for a specified length of time, wages and conditions). Native interests were a rather diffused body of house-holders and shop-keepers, and, later, professionals. These elements came to share many interests with the masses and were united with them in the demand that occupied the centre of the stage for the rest of the century – that an end must be put to the planter-controlled indenture system. For the masses an end to the system meant they would be in a better position to deal with the merchants and plantation attorneys on the question of wages. The native interests were also in favour of policies which would not restrict development to the sugar belt along the coast but rather would lead to the exploration and opening up of the unlimited potentialities of the ‘interior.’

By the end of the century there were indications that what had begun as a conglomeration of migrant groups, thrown together to satisfy the needs of the sugar industry, had started to evolve forms of a more permanent and unique character. Although some Indo-Guyanese continued to vote against the plantation system by opting out and returning to India, many settled, having completed their indentureship, and become peasant small-holders. The fact that the society did offer a certain amount of mobility itself called for considerable re-adjustments in the subsistence-type farming which was permitted, but this was seldom far removed from the benign and at times hostile eyes of the plantation managers. What was lacking however was a mass organisation embracing both the rural and urban sectors under working-class leadership. From experience, particularly after the death of Patrick Dargan [2], the masses came to realise, first, that although their interests were advanced by supporting middle-class spokesmen, their interests could best be furthered by a platform of their own; second (and this became clear after the 1891 ‘coup’ of the Colonial Office when, as a result of constitutional changes, the colonial bureaucracy strengthened its position), that the struggle for better conditions at work was inevitably bound up with the struggle for political advancement. Certain factors however hindered the development of independent working-class organisations. The bulk of the labour force was employed by the sugar industry and associated enterprises, through whose control and later influence the State machinery was used not only as a means of regulating the supply of labour but also to penalise workers in very much the same way that the Masters’ and Servants’ Act in England had been used during the earlier half of the century. In many instances workers were able to use the system whereby piece-work rates were subject to considerable bargaining and negotiation on the site itself. This fact gave the workers advantages at the equivalent of the shop-floor level.

On the other hand the Afro-Guyanese, pioneers of the peasant smallholder movement, hemmed in by sea and sugar plantation, needed to consolidate what advances had been won (eg the establishment of rural peasant communities during the post-emancipation period), while at the same time continuing to resist creeping Central Government bureaucracy on terms dictated by the planter-influenced State machinery. The small size of peasant holdings, and their continued sub-division due to increases in the size of families, forced many of the sons and daughters of the peasant communities to pioneer the search for gold and diamonds as well as provide the labour force for the merchant houses and other enterprises in the cities and towns. These elements, although fast becoming urbanised, had nonetheless taken to the towns and cities the pent-up frustration nurtured upon land hunger, badly drained and irrigated lands, unemployment and underemployment, etc. Twice during the latter half of the 19th century (1856 and 1889) the anger of the recently-urbanised masses struck out at the merchants of Portuguese origin who were being assisted with credit to the disadvantage of other market stall holders, in an attempt to readjust the relationships and positions of each indigenous element in the society preparatory to dealing with the main enemy – Anglo-White plantation and merchant houses. The year 1917 marked a decisive turning point, equal in significance to the abolition of slavery in the history of the country and other West Indian territories. For in that year an end was put to the indenture system. The reasons for this are not perhaps as relevant as is the effect such a victory had on the society at large. Although many disabilities remained, no longer did the working masses consist of free and half-free citizens. So far, although the combined activities of the ‘native interests’ had been unsuccessful in their demand for a share in the government, as far as the economy was concerned, although sugar and its by-products still dominated, a share of the total was being taken by rice cultivated on peasant holdings and supplying the West Indian market, gold, diamonds, timber and sawmilling and many other enterprises. The mining of bauxite, stimulated by wartime demand, marks one of the decisive turning points in the struggle between the Colonial Office bureaucracy and the sugar interests. For if the sugar interests had had their way, no licence to develop additional resources would ever have been granted. Although sections of the people shared certain reservations with regard to the involvement of US-Canadian capital, it was generally felt that since Britain had no intention of investing outside the ‘safe’ fields of the sugar belt, it would be preferable, in the absence of native capital, to have other absentee industrialists exploit the resources; for at least this would in time lead to a weakening of the role of the plantocracy.

The year 1917 also witnessed the birth of the Labour Union led by Critchlow and Baksh. The union, Guyana’s oldest, combined industrial, political and social welfare (friendly society) activities, and was mainly urban-centred, with support from the agricultural proletariat on the sugar plantations. It is not certain if, given time, the Labour Union would have formed a distinct party, using the support of the union as its base. When it did not do so, the initiative was taken by the professionals and other enfranchised elements, now comprising a wide cross-section of the society. This coalition was known as the Popular Party. The unenfranchised masses supported the Popular Party, though with reservations, in the expectation that in advancing its own interests, it would benefit them. The Government showed in no uncertain terms how they regarded the radical swing of the electorate in 1927, when the Party swept the polls. Rather than share office with the native interests, the British Parliament, working in collaboration with the plantocracy and the colonial bureaucracy, imposed a Crown Colony type of constitution.

Flushed with victory, the colonial bureaucracy with their allies in big business proceeded to impose wage and salary cuts, revenue and tax increases. The depression of the 1920s and 30s fell on town and country alike, with the unemployed begging to be put in prison so that at least they would be given three square meals a day.

The years of the Second World War, stimulating the economy, brought some measure of improvement in the living standards of the masses. The peasantry was assisted by the need to supply more of the country’s food needs. For many, the opening up of bases by the US Air Force and Navy was an event of some significance. The presence of US troops in bases leased by Britain, while demonstrating US long-term plans to dominate the area, gave jobs to hundreds at wages much above the then current level. It was no secret that the US armed forces were prepared to pay higher rates still, but were prevented from so doing by the intervention of the sugar interests who pleaded that their own workers would leave and obtain jobs at the base. In passing it is interesting to note that the present day attitude of the urban masses towards US interests is partly linked to the favourable experiences associated with relative prosperity of the war years.

Taking advantage of the improved conditions, both urban and rural based workers founded trade unions. By the end of the war the working-class movement had sufficiently recovered from the blows dealt during the 1930s and organised trade unions, preparatory to the next stage. As pointed out earlier, although much had changed in many other directions, very few, if any, real concessions had been made to the demands of native interests. Whitehall and its local officials continued to control and dominate all major offices of State and Legislature. With the necessity for reform becoming more urgent, the trade-union movement, now established on a relatively well organised basis, prepared, together with professionals, merchants and other elements, for another period of agitation. One of the principal weapons used by the trade union movement was the strike. Although on the surface tie issues involved were mainly those of higher wages and better conditions, the raising of such demands as shorter hours, minimum wage rates and better housing gave an industrial and political significance to the postwar struggles. It wasr dear that even those issues which arose from straightforward industrial disputes could no longer be settled in the workers’ favour without a radical change of the political structure of the country. As a consequence the country was rent with stoppages and strikes, involving almost every major section of the working class. In some cases, as in that of sugar and bauxite, strikes lasted for over three months, accompanied by acts of sabotage. In the best traditions, our liberal and radical professionals, many of whom had links with the workers and peasants, lent valuable support to the mass struggles. Others however were in for a rude awakening. Once the trade-union movement, reacting to pressure from its rank and file as well as, in some cases, its leadership, decided that it was going to lend support and participate in the new movement for constitutional and social reform (rather than simply support it with reservations, as was the case during the 1920s and 1930s) the old middle-class elements lost the initiative and leadership which passed to the new radical elements. The result is now history. The People’s Progressive Party romped home with 18 out of 24 seats in the April 1953 elections. The rape of the Constitution, not the first, has been called by constitutional experts of the Colonial Office a period of ‘marking time.’ Far from standing still, however, the period was used by all to readjust relationships. During this period the PPP split with Burnham leading the splitting faction. The PPP then and to this day has shown a recurring weakness – an inability to resolve internal differences within the framework of party democracy. Differences are diagnosed as contradictions to be resolved by splits and/or expulsions. Once the right-wing moderate group had split from the PPP, the differences within the left became exposed and further aggravated. With the promise of election and Ministerial positions in the offing, both the Burnhamites and Jaganites sought to readjust their positions so as to reflect their mass support while at the same time gaining useful respectability in the process. For the Burnhamites there was never any threat or even the existence of a ‘left wing.’ hence the move to the right was a relatively easy shift. For the PPP on the other hand any movement to the ‘right’ had to be at the expense of the ‘left.’ Partly due to errors [3] committed by Communists and Marxists who were subjected to constant police harrassment, this element in the party became more and more isolated from the masses as a whole and the party membership in particular. Jagan, aware of this growing isolation, felt free to use the machinery of the party, always controlled by a tight bureaucracy and Jagan himself, to oust the Communists and Marxists from leading positions in the Executive and General Councils.

In the country at large, contrary to Jagan who found the news of the impending rape of the Constitution ‘too fantastic to be true’ [4], the people’s worse fears were justified. From time to time voices were raised asking whether we knew what we were doing. Many asked, ‘You think ‘dem white people go give up so easily;’ or in another vein, ‘If yo’ know yo’ got yo’ hand in de lion’s mouth, pat de head.’

As has been seen, the political spectrum of Guyanese politics has always been radical – that is, radical in that the demands attempted to alter the status quo. The period up to the victory of the PPP (1953) should therefore be seen in this light. At that particular juncture of our history, the urban and rural masses and their representatives were for measures of reform which would provide work for the unemployed, alleviate land hunger, offer houses at reasonable rents, Guyanise the Civil Service and Trade Unions, introduce social welfare legislation and liberalise trade. It is not without significance that nationalisation or social ownership of the sugar plantations was never proposed even at the zenith of the party’s strength. Rather, the struggle sought to weaken the ‘expatriate interests’ to the advantage of ‘native interests’ in keeping with the struggles of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The PPP, while initiating modern political organisation, has confirmed (unfortunately) all our fears. We have experience of the tactic of the Colonial Office in handpicking representatives of the people, and placing them in positions where they are not responsible but where they share the onus of unpopular decisions. Such a manoeuvre deflects the rage of the masses towards the local lackeys and away from the real enemy, who in turn rewards the scapegoat by mentioning him or her in the Honours List.

For Dr Jagan and the PPP, this meant deciding to accept office despite the well-known fact that they did not possess even the shadow, let alone the substance, of power. By doing so the PPP was merely accepting the peculiar logic of its own momentum which was pushing it to the ‘right.’ Once the PPP was in office (1957-64) the British and US governments were free to tighten financial control and use other forms of sabotage to force the Government to take unpopular steps and bear the consequences. Faced with such a situation, the reaction of the PPP was to make the necessary concessions to consolidate its own mass support (the rural sector, mainly people of Indian origin) for electoral purposes, while at the same time alienating itself from the urban masses and Afro-Guyanese in the countryside. Since the defeat of Jagan and the PPP in 1964, a Coalition Government of the People’s National Congress (Burnham) and United Force (D’Aguiar) has derived its support from the urban working class, with some support from rural areas, merchants, industrial capitalists, etc. In deciding to form such a coalition, the government, and more particularly the major party within it, will find itself more and more forced to put into effect policies which will almost inevitably bring it into collision with its own mass support – the urban masses. Since the formation of the Coalition Government there are indications that the trade-union movement is seeking to free itself from the close relationship it has with the two partners in the coalition. The trade-union movement historically has not tied itself to any political party, but in 1962-64 it worked very closely with the Coalition partners to obtain short-term gains, eg the overthrow of the Jagan government. Now that its main objective has been won, it is seeking to reestablish a much more independent line of action than previously. The past two years have been instructive, with an unparalleled strike wave of over 111 stoppages, amid threats from Government Ministers that legislation may be introduced to curb unofficial strikes. Not content with challenging many of the Government’s promises to foreign investors on stable labour costs, the TUC has recently demanded the release of detainees, forcing those who previously accused it of being a stooge of both the Coalition Government and US interests to examine seriously the role of the movement as a vehicle of social change. It is thus no surprise to find the mood prior to and after Independence to be one of mixed foreboding. Whether one takes the extreme view as expressed by many Indo-Guyanese, that the Government is likely to use the State machinery to keep down their own community, or that the Government is likely to maintain itself in power, upheld by the US, without recourse to the electorate, nevertheless at the basis of all this one still finds the disparity which exists between the hopes and aspirations of the masses for genuine social transformation and the reality of conditions as they are, hardly touched by Independence. Mass political involvement during the past five years has had a parallel in the ‘New World’ only in the US civil rights movement and perhaps at certain stages of the Cuban revolution. One consequence has been to re-emphasise the profound significance of the role destined for the masses once they decide to intervene by taking to the streets. The extent of the critical appraisal taking place in Guyana is indicative of a society which is taking nothing for granted but is prepared to examine each new experience. Despite the close relationship of the TUC and the Government with US interests, both have recently been at their most defensive when questioned about US involvement and what this means to the country. The main political parties have not been immune from the contagion. For the People’s National Congress this has led to increasing attempts to muzzle its youth wing which, among other things, criticised US intervention in the Dominican Republic. For the People’s Progressive Party, the crisis has had a much deeper impact on the organisation. Since the infamous letter of Jagan to Duncan Sandys, begging him to settle the remaining Constitutional questions, the differences within the party have led to the resignation and expulsion of many life-long activists. As earlier, differences have been resolved by the use of the bureaucratic axe. On this occasion, however, unlike the crisis of 1956, the differences have been posed quite openly. Both the youth and the women’s sections have been purged while the conservative and communal elements have been strengthened. Out of all this there are indications that a new left is emerging. As far back as 1963 the New World group emerged; it has now, both a fortnightly and a quarterly journal. Many of those who were forced out of the PPP, as well as others, have recently founded the Committee for National Reconstruction and publish the fortnightly bulletin Simara. The emergence of a new left will ensure that henceforth the platform of the left will be enriched by drawing on the experience of both those of the pre-PPP and also of the post-PPP era, a left unencumbered by much of the debris we encountered, some of which still remains.

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1. Although there were innumerable rebellions by the slaves in the Western Hemisphere, the uprising of 1763 in Berbice (one of the three colonies then comprising the Guianas) was the first fullblooded attempt to wrest State power from the white slave owners and to set up a sovereign independent State. Mr King, in a contribution to the Independence issue of New World Quarterly argues that the Berbice revolt was not only a forerunner of the American War of Independence, the Haitian revolution, and the Paris Commune, but also that ‘it contained in embryo features of all these revolutions.’

2. Patrick Dargan: Barrister-at-law, for 14 years a member of the Legislature. A great champion of the people’s interests. Died under suspicious circumstances, 22 February 1908.

3. For example, carrying portraits of Stalin at the 1953 May Day Rally.

4. See Forbidden Freedom, by Dr C. Jagan (1954), p.7.

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