- Cheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power: British Guiana’s Struggle for Independence
Colin Palmer has produced a study of the tragedy that overtook the colony of British Guiana during the period 1953–1964. An embryonic left-wing multiracial nationalist movement, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), disintegrated under pressure from the United Kingdom and later the United States, leading to social fragmentation and violence that remains at the core of contemporary life in the former colony, now renamed Guyana. The episode has been previously explored by observers and scholars who used the fragmentary records and recollections that have become available over the years from the British, American, Guyanese, and other sources. Palmer’s study follows the path laid out in previous studies of focusing on the ideological, racial, and personal antagonisms that shaped the nationalist struggle.
Palmer uses archival collections with considerable diligence to produce a largely sympathetic portrayal of Cheddi Jagan, one of the founders of the PPP and a major figure in the development of the colony’s nationalist movement. In the process, his portrayal of many of the other protagonists in the complex interplay of events, issues, and personalities that defined this era in Guyanese history becomes somewhat blurred by the focus on Jagan. However, his assessment of Jagan’s ideological eclecticism—“Jaganism had many roots, defying any traditional ideological categorization” (p. 183)—is a very astute and accurate reading of the problem that Jagan posed for many of his interlocutors. He was an unconventional radical whose theoretical grounding could not be easily understood or analyzed in conventional political terms, thus creating the impression that he was either confused or impractical. His opponents were often able to use that ideological eclecticism against him, with damaging effect. His use of Marxist rhetoric [End Page 142] to explain the problems of a quintessential plantation society was terrifying to the colonial elites, colonial officialdom, and especially to the United States. Plantations and slavery had been central to the construction of European and American capitalism and the use of Marxist rhetoric in the very heart of a plantation society was explosive. In the Cold War era, Jagan was anathema.
Like Gandhi, Jagan was an enigma to both friend and foe. His willingness to challenge the orthodoxies of British colonialism was profoundly unsettling. Further, his charismatic appeal to the Indo-Guyanese community in the colony withstood the continuous efforts to supplant him with alternative leadership; it held sway until after British and American covert activities starting in 1961 and the outbreak of inter-communal violence in 1962 paved the way for an unstable coalition of opposition parties to win the 1964 general election.
Palmer’s study provides a wealth of detail about the period 1953–1964 and creates a vivid portrait of the shifts in perspectives and attitudes that informed the tragedy that overtook the colony. It also provides a view of the confusion that surrounded the end of the British empire, the aggressive anti-Communism of the Kennedy administration, and the traumas that were inflicted upon a society and its leaders caught in a maelstrom driven by external interest groups with the resources to exploit social and ethnic tensions within British Guiana. However, Palmer’s analysis of the factional politics in the colony does little to illuminate the depth of personal and political passions that were aroused during the nationalist struggle.
From the founding of the PPP to its ouster in 1964, the party was beset by the tendency of Jagan and his wife Janet, who was its general secretary, to treat it as their personal fiefdom. The struggle for control of the party that emerged in the wake of the 1953 elections pitted the Jagans against Forbes Burnham, the equally charismatic Afro-Guyanese leader who would eventually prevail against the PPP in 1964 with Anglo-American support. It was a schism in the PPP that resulted in the party’s division into ideological camps in 1955. In 1956, Jagan made...