Janet Jagan: politics, party and the pursuit of power
Janet Jagan was a household name in this country for over six decades. She helped to establish several political organisations and wielded power and influence through public offices including those of Ambassador to the United Nations and President. But, now that she is gone, what has been her legacy?
When the original People’s Progressive Party emerged with a majority in the April 1953 general elections, an ecstatic Janet Jagan sent a Western Union telegram to her parents Charles and Katherine Rosenberg stating, “Cheddi, myself and party won overwhelming victory.” This was an instinctive but interesting prioritisation. Janet Jagan, throughout her long political life, saw no difference between Cheddi Jagan, herself and the party.
Janet Jagan was inspired by a clear vision and driven by a strong sense of mission to change the country. This, she was convinced, could be achieved through political power and she was sure that such power had to be attained and retained by a strong political party. She discovered that her husband’s powerful charismatic appeal, especially among the voting rural masses who cared little for socialist ideology, was a precious political asset. To her, Cheddi Jagan was both a husband and a political partner and she toiled tirelessly to transform him into a cult figure.
Born Janet Rosenberg in Chicago, Illinois in 1920, her world-view was moulded by the deprivation and discrimination she encountered in post-Depression conditions among the lower classes. A Jew descended from Czechoslovak immigrants, she lived not in a Jewish, but in a predominately Irish, Roman Catholic neighbourhood. Her parents were conservative Republicans but, contrarily, like many other adolescents in post-Depression Illinois, Janet Rosenberg outraged her parents by embracing communism and becoming an active member of the Young Communist League. Her perceptions of society affected her education and, despite attending several colleges, she never completed even her first degree.
While still a student nurse, she met Cheddi Jagan, a dentistry student at Northwestern University Dental School in Illinois in December 1942. Both were interested in the politics of change and the couple married in August 1943. Owing to her father’s hatred of her husband, her adherence to communism which was at variance to her parents’ conservatism, and her own Jewish origins which she thought meant permanent discrimination in Chicago, she chose to leave her country and go into self-imposed exile in a strange land. From the time that she came to British Guiana in December 1943, it was clear that there would be no going back.
Janet Jagan conceded once that her Jewish background had sparked her “interest in the underdog and in helping out the impoverished of the world.” Her political outlook was influenced by her membership of the Young Communist League, ideological adherence to Leninism, innate insecurity, uncompleted academic record and her unorthodox marriage against the wishes of her father. These factors compounded her feelings of victimhood and might have contributed to the obstinacy and tenacity she displayed for the rest of her political life.
Cheddi and Janet Jagan had common political ambitions and quickly sought to create a concrete base on which to construct their organisation. Outsiders – she from Chicago and he from the Corentyne – they knew no one of consequence in Georgetown. The couple actively sought to meet influential labour leaders and to join existing trade unions and social organisations. Jocelyn Hubbard, who would become general secretary of the British Guiana Trades Union Congress, was one of the first and most influential persons to befriend and introduce the Jagans to other liberal persons and trade unionists in Georgetown. They met Ashton Chase and Hubert Critchlow of the British Guiana Labour Union and Dr Joseph Lachhmansingh of the Guiana Industrial Workers’ Union.
The Jagans’ quest for political power began when they joined a pre-existing, middle-class discussion group which met at the Public Free Library in Georgetown. He became a member of the British Guiana East Indian Association and the Manpower Citizens Association – the major union in the Indian-based sugar industry. She became field secretary of the British Guiana Clerks’ Association and worked with the British Guiana Labour Union – the major African-based union – to organise and improve the conditions of work for domestics.
These ideas, individuals and institutions contributed to the consolidation of the Political Affairs Committee which was launched in 1946. The Committee was committed “to assist the growth and development of the labour and progressive movements of British Guiana to the end of establishing a strong, disciplined and enlightened party, equipped with the theory of Scientific Socialism.” Led by the Jagans, Jocelyn Hubbard and Ashton Chase, was an important political catalyst. The committee disseminated a newsletter – the PAC Bulletin – edited by Janet Jagan, encouraged public discussion of topical issues, and promoted socialism as an ideology for tackling the country’s problems. By the end of 1949, there were Worker Discussion Circles at Kitty Village and at Buxton Village and the Jagans had become well known in the towns and rural districts.
Janet Jagan joined with Winifred Gaskin, Vesta Lowe, Frances Stafford and several other women to bring the Women’s Political and Economic Organisation into being on 12th July 1946. The organisation’s mission was to ensure the political and economic mobilisation of women in order to promote their economic welfare and their political and social emancipation and betterment. Mrs Jagan was elected its general secretary and began encouraging women to register to vote in the forthcoming 1947 general elections.
She had already built a reputation for social activism and felt confident enough to compete in the elections for the mainly African working class Wortmanville/Werk-en-Rust district in Georgetown. She was unsuccessful but the organisation nevertheless played an important historical role in awakening women’s consciousness and alerting them to their rights. After that organisation was dissolved, Janet Jagan, along with Jane Philips-Gay, Jessica Huntley, and others, transformed the idea into the Women’s Progressive Organisation which was founded on 27th May 1953. She left four days later to attend the Women’s International Democratic Federation’s World Congress of Women in Copenhagen, Denmark.
It is difficult to define Janet Jagan’s real beliefs. Although members of the Political Affairs Committee described their ideology as ‘scientific socialism,’ their practical agenda was liberal, calling merely for the extension of the franchise, internal self-government and opposing the exploitive foreign control of the economy. It was clear, from the start, that Janet Jagan’s work with women, domestics, strikers and other poor people in the 1940s was commendable but not communistic. Her efforts were based on a demonstrable commitment to improving the quality of life of ordinary people. As she herself explained, “Cheddi and I always have believed in socialism…To us that meant getting rid of oppression, so the poor man can get out of this poverty… get the fruits of the country.”
The Jagans were persuaded by William ‘Billy’ Strachan, a Jamaican World War RAF veteran, who was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, to transform the committee into a political party. He also urged them to accept Forbes Burnham, then a law student in London, as one of the party’s leaders. On his return trip to British Guiana, Burnham travelled to Jamaica to study the constitution and structure of the People’s National Party. This enabled him to contribute to the establishment of the People’s Progressive Party in 1950.
The Party’s main objective was to stimulate political consciousness along socialist lines in the quest for “national self-determination and independence [and] the eventual political union of British Guiana with other Caribbean territories.” Significantly, Forbes Burnham was elected Chairman, Clinton Wong, Senior Vice-Chairman, and Cheddi Jagan, second Vice-Chairman and Leader of the Legislative Group, a technical fact that proved problematic later. Janet Jagan was elected the party’s General Secretary, a post she retained for two decades. She maintained her membership of the Party’s Central and Executive Committees until her death.
The pursuit of power and public office were natural concomitants of political organisation. Having failed to win a legislative seat in the 1947 elections, Janet Jagan kept on trying and broke a record by becoming the first woman to be elected to the Georgetown Town Council. Typically, her tenure as a councillor from December 1950 to December 1952 was characterised by an energetic struggle to increase the wages of municipal workers, including Town Council watchmen, even proposing the introduction of lotteries to raise money for that purpose.
Together with Jessie Burnham − Forbes’s sister − and Jane Phillips-Gay, she would be among the first elected women to enter the House of Assembly (i.e., now the National Assembly) in 1953. She was also slated to become this country’s first female minister as her husband, the leader of the PPP’s legislative group, hoped that she would be one of the six ministers selected to the Executive Council. Forbes Burnham, the party’s chairman, however, thought it risky to have two Jagans in the Executive Council and opposed her nomination, preferring to have his more moderate colleagues appointed. As a compromise, Mrs Jagan was elected as Deputy Speaker of the House instead. In any event, the constitution was suspended and the ministers were all expelled by the UK Government four and a half months later.
The crisis in the country unleashed the forces of fission in the party. The PPP, from the start, was nothing more than a collection of factions, often with competing interests. In the main, there was always a Bolshevik or ‘Jaganite’ left-wing faction made up of the likes of Cheddi and Janet Jagan, Brindley Benn, Keith and Martin Carter, Lionel Jeffrey, Sydney King and Richard ‘Rory’ Westmaas, among others. The right-wing or ‘Burnhamite’ faction comprised Forbes Burnham, his wife Sheila and sister Jessie, Joseph Lachhmansingh, Jai Narine Singh, Clinton Wong and others.
There was ideological tension between the two factions. The right-wingers were convinced that it was just a matter of time before the left-wingers employed the democratic device of demoting them by outvoting them at a forthcoming party congress and removing them from executive positions. The party’s arms – the Women’s Progressive Organisation, Demerara Youth Rally and the Pioneer Youth League (the forerunners of the Progressive Youth Organisation) – moreover, were also initially under left-wing control.
The nationalist movement which was embodied in the original PPP in 1950 was torn asunder in the two ‘Great Purges’ in 1955-1956 which determined the complexion and composition of the PPP up to the present. As the PPP’s first general secretary, it was Janet Jagan’s intention to transform the party from the loose, mass-based, fractious, argumentative assemblage into an efficient, monolithic electoral machine. This was achieved eventually in 1969 when the PPP would declare that it recognised “that a Marxist-Leninist party was essential to the attainment and retention of revolutionary, anti-imperialist political power and the building of a socialist society [and] decided to transform itself from a loose, mass party into a disciplined Leninist-type party.”
As a guide to Janet Jagan’s political philosophy, however, Marxism-Leninism was merely a shibboleth. It was Leninism that mattered, not Marxism. The essence of Janet Jagan’s praxis was the Leninist precept of democratic centralism as a means of exercising control of the party. This meant, mainly, a high degree of centralisation of power and the imposition of discipline within the party hierarchy. That was the purpose of the two great purges.
The opportunity for the first purge, which targetted what Cheddi Jagan called the “right deviationist” faction, was provided by the campaign of civil disobedience in 1954 – a belated protest against the suspension of the constitution and the imposition of a state of emergency in October 1953. Militant elements in the party, some of whom deliberately broke the emergency regulations, were detained, charged, tried and in some cases, imprisoned.
Janet Jagan herself was charged for committing offences related to the emergency regulations; she was convicted and, refusing to pay a fine, served six months in prison. She said later, “We had our choice – a fine or jail. We decided no fines; go to jail, civil disobedience. Cheddi’s father tried to pay my fine. I had to stop him. We were resisting the colonialists.” Imprisonment validated her notion of victimhood and became a badge of honour. Militancy led to violence and, in May 1954, terrorists believed to be linked to the party planted an explosive device that damaged Queen Victoria’s statue in the forecourt of the High Court. This was too much for some moderates and the polarisation of the two factions within the party worsened.
The Burnhamite faction tried to forestall the expected eviction with a putsch to displace the militants from the party’s executive in February 1955. This turned out to be unsuccessful. A few weeks later, the Jaganite faction held a party congress in Buxton that was chaired by Sydney King who was still regarded as a militant. A resolution was passed declaring the elections held at the Georgetown conference null and void, and members of the Burnhamite faction – including Forbes Burnham, Clinton Wong, Joseph Lachhmansingh and Jai Narine Singh – were formally expelled from the Party.
That done, the stage was set for the second purge which targetted what Cheddi Jagan called the “ultra-left” elements and among whom were Keith and Martin Carter, Lionel Jeffrey, Sydney King and Rory Westmaas. As both Jagans’ movements restricted under the Emergency Regulations, the party took the unusual step of cyclostyling Cheddi Jagan’s address to the 1956 PPP Congress to be read to delegates. A copy was sold to the Chronicle newspaper which made it public knowledge by printing it in full.
The document clearly explained and exposed the Jagans’ mindset, warning that the PPP “must guard against right and left opportunism.” Dr. Jagan attempted to attribute the errors which resulted in the suspension of the Constitution in 1953 to the “ultra-left” who had become “bombastic” and were “attacking everybody at the same time.” He also referred to certain members’ support for British Guiana’s joining the forthcoming Federation of the West Indies as “adventurist.” Darkly, he observed that “feeling as they do a sense of oppression, the Indians are 100 per cent against Federation.” This announcement signalled that the PPP had switched to an anti-Federation position.
Since the gang of four – Keith and Martin Carter, Sydney King and Richard Westmaas –were regarded as the most “bombastic” Marxists in the Party and they also supported entry to the Federation which was one of the original PPP’s founding principles, they understood that Dr. Jagan’s announcement attacked them personally. Their resignation from the party was expected. After these two purges, Janet Jagan’s stature as the party’s most powerful political tactician was uncontestable.
Janet Jagan had both the operational skill and political will to establish her personal supremacy as undisputed manager of the party’s affairs on a day-to-day basis. Her enormous capacity for work was enhanced by her talent for well-timed articles and pamphlets. She had a knack for exerting influence directly in the executive committee and the central committee. The monolithic party that emerged after 1956 was moulded into an efficient electoral engine designed to canvass the party’s constituents and amass votes.
When democratic elections were restored in 1957, Janet Jagan was returned to the Legislative Council by the Essequibo-Pomeroon constituency and appointed Minister of Labour, Health and Housing. Her performance as minister evinced serious attempts to improve living conditions of ordinary folk.
In Labour, for instance, a Shops’ Ordinance was passed in 1958, restricting shop assistants’ working week to 40¾ hours instead of 47 and providing for annual holidays with pay. The Workmen’s Compen-sation Act was also amended to extend protection to domestics and other marginalised workers for the first time. In Health, several cottage hospitals, health centres and maternity and child welfare clinics were constructed in certain rural and riverine districts. In more remote areas, teams of dentists, doctors and dispensers were dispatched to deliver medical care. In Housing, the Rent Restriction Ordinance was extended beyond urban areas and the construction of low-cost, working-class housing was continued. There is little doubt about Janet Jagan’s commitment to improving the quality of life for the most vulnerable.
Her next stint in the cabinet, however, was quite the opposite. After the 1961 general elections, she was nominated to the Senate and replaced the Minister of Home Affairs Claude Christian who had died suddenly in 1963. The next year, in February, the Guiana Agricultural Workers’ Union – a PPP affiliate – started a strike ostensibly to gain recognition in the sugar industry. This soon degenerated into murderous, inter-ethnic violence accompanied by widespread arson and sabotage on the sugar estates. The first murders occurred when terrorists threw a bomb in a lorry taking strikebreakers to work at Tain Village on the Corentyne. Arson, murders and sabotage continued for several months without the Minister of Home Affairs taking decisive action to restore public order and safety. This was her darkest hour. According to Clem Seecharan:
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that much of the racial violence originated from deliberate provocation designed to substantiate the PPP arguments…[V]iolence on the sugar estates continued, directed by strikers at non-strikers and at substitute labour brought in by management – largely African…Intimidation became increasingly terrorist and racial in character until, in mid-May, race rather than union membership or willingness to strike became the issue; this caused the extension of disturbances outside the sugar producing areas.
After the outbreak of violence at Wismar when four persons died, however, Mrs Jagan resigned as Minister of Home Affairs on 1st June to protest the alleged slow response of the police to the incident.
The PPP lost office in the December 1964 general elections and a People’s National Congress-United Force coalition formed the administration. For the next 28 years, Janet Jagan toiled to transform the party into a fully-fledged Marxist-Leninist party. She had to struggle to maintain the production of the Mirror and Thunder periodicals in the face of extreme restrictions on newsprint and other essentials. Eventually, after the restoration of democratic elections, the party returned to office in October 1992 and Cheddi Jagan was sworn in as the fourth president of the Republic.
Janet Jagan returned to prominence as the wife of the head of state. She was appointed Ambassador-at-Large and served briefly as Permanent Representative to the United Nations during the 48th Session of General Assembly from October to December 1993. She was back in the cabinet in March 1997 when her husband died. Under Samuel Hinds’s nine-month administration, she served as First Vice-President and Prime Minister but without a portfolio. Elections fell due in December of that year and, she decided to run for the presidency, a decision that might have been motivated by the need to avoid infighting in the party to succeed Cheddi Jagan.
Her short, troubled tenure as the sixth president was marred by political unrest over the election results and plagued by the paralyzing strike by the Guyana Public Service Union. Although the elections commission declared victory for the PPP, in a supreme anti-climax to her political career, High Court Judge Claudette Singh subsequently declared the results of the 1997 elections vitiated. After only twenty months in office, Janet Jagan decided to resign in August 1999 citing illness.
The Jagans have always been at the heart of the PPP. Even after his death in March 1997, Janet Jagan ensured that Cheddi Jagan’s memory was perpetuated by the publication and reprinting of numerous books and his legacy preserved in the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Cheddi Jagan Research Institute and Cheddi Jagan Dental School.
A great believer in the importance of communication, Janet Jagan contributed countless articles and letters to the press from the earliest days. Most important, in political terms, when the PAC was founded, it was she who became editor of the PAC Bulletin. Similarly, when the PPP was founded, it was she who became editor of the party’s newspaper – Thunder. Later, when the Thunder was converted to a quarterly journal and the Mirror was launched as a commercial newspaper, it was she, again, who became editor and who mobilised reporters at the Mirror newspaper into the Union of Guyanese Journalists, to counter the Guyana Press Association, with herself as its first president.
In the final analysis, Janet Jagan’s life was essentially about building a political party to achieve political power in order to change society. In her 1963 booklet History of the PPP, she wrote “The establishment of a stable, permanent political party was, itself, one of the greatest contributions which the PPP made to this country.” She will be remembered for her pragmatism in sustaining this country’s most formidable political juggernaut. As the party’s General Secretary Donald Ramotar reaffirmed in paying tribute to Janet Jagan, “Her greatest achievement is the PPP which stands as a living monument to her life and work.”