At the invitation of the Indian Action Committee, I attended a public symposium ‘Reflection on the life and works of Dr. Cheddi B. Jagan’ to celebrate his 100th birth anniversary. Such events are usually designed to lavish (often dubious) praise on the subject and this one was no exception. I would have been prepared to let it pass without comment had it not been for the intervention of Mr. Raymond Gaskin, who in his presentation claimed that, outside of political propaganda, our analysis of the contributions of our political leaders is usually too uncritical to be useful. I agreed with Mr. Gaskin for I believe that even when faults in such interpretation are unintended they obstruct the development and acceptance of an holistic picture of our past.
Among other criticisms, in his inimitable style Gaskin took aim at Cheddi Jagan’s creation of the Civic component in 1992. While some, including myself, viewed this as a necessary compromise for the PPP to broaden its ethnic base and win the acceptance of national and international capital, Gaskin appeared to view it as a betrayal of the PPP’s Marxist working class roots. By his account, it brought too many bourgeois, right wing persons into association with the party and this diluted its focus upon the working people. Gaskin is an avowed Marxist/Leninist, thus while his position is understandable, I remain uncertain as to whether he believes that the accommodation was necessary or whether he holds that, given its ethnic base, the PPP could have come to and remained productively in government without such a change. After all, even with the adjustments, the political environment of the time was still very unstable.
Perhaps because democracy appears to be again under threat and the University of Guyana (UG) is in the news, almost every speaker at the symposium addressed Cheddi Jagan’s legendary commitment to democracy and his farsightedness in conceptualising and establishing the University of Guyana. From where I stand, Jagan’s commitment to liberal democracy was opportunistic, and given the context in which UG was born, its establishment was all but forced upon him.
In one public discourse with Cheddi at the Kuru Kuru Co-operative College in about 1981, he tried to defend the single-party democratic process in Cuba as acceptable for the Cubans but not for Guyanese, but was never able to properly explain why this was so! I do not know if Jagan actually believed in liberal democracy and this is of little importance. What I do know is that he traversed the world supporting all manner of barbaric totalitarian communist systems at the same time as he espoused a belief in liberal multiparty democracy for Guyana where he had a secure ethnic majority! His enemies also knew this and believed that he was at heart a traditional communist and did all they possibly could to keep him from government until communism fell. It would, therefore, be naïve to speak of Cheddi Jagan as a democrat, meaning not proletarian but liberal democrat, without, at the very least recognising the possibility that he was being conveniently so.
Given the context in which the University of Guyana was born, the commonplace notion that its existence is due to extraordinary vision and foresight on the part of Cheddi Jagan cannot be sustained. The University College of the West Indies was founded in 1948 at Mona, Jamaica; St Augustine Campus in Trinidad was established in 1960; the Cave Hill Campus in Barbados in 1963, and university centres were opened in the smaller islands. In 1962, the College became the independent University of the West Indies (UWI), with Sir Arthur Lewis as its first vice-chancellor. As such, the University of the West Indies, like West Indian cricket, has been one of the longest and most successful instruments of functional cooperation in the Caribbean. The same year that UWI became independent, Cheddi Jagan, Premier of British Guiana, wrote to Harold Drayton and asked him to help in the formation of University of Guyana, and it opened a campus at Queen’s College in 1963 and moved to its present campus at Turkeyen in 1970.
In about 1961, the PPP rejected a motion by the PNC to join the West Indian Federation. As CLR James, whom the New York Times obituary cited as writing ‘The first important manifesto for national independence in the British West Indies’ stated, ‘We heard that the East Indians in British Guiana were opposed to Federation and these were the reasons given. They had a numerical majority over the other races, they hoped to establish an Indian domination of the colony; Federation would bring thousands of Africans (or people of African descent) from the smaller islands to British Guiana, … They would place the Indians in British Guiana in an inferior position. Therefore the Indians were against Federation. … We heard also that the African population … was now eager for Federation particularly for the reason that it would bring this reinforcement from the smaller islands, once more establish African numerical superiority, and so check the East Indians. Since I have come to the West Indies, and particularly since I have come to British Guiana, I have heard these arguments constantly repeated’ (Lecture on Federation, Queen’s College, Guyana, 1958).
Added to this, when the PPP had been thrown out of office in 1953 by the British, the West Indian leaders had not come to its aid. CLR James stated that this was one point on which ‘Dr. Jagan undoubtedly has a certain amount of right on his side. He says that the West Indian leaders have not supported British Guiana in its struggles with the British Government over the Constitution. So far he is absolutely correct. … They have not done it. They have got themselves entangled in and confused by Dr. Jagan’s political beliefs.’
The above narrative tells a story that must be factored into any discourse about the establishment of the University of Guyana. It suggests that UG was formed because the PPP did not want to be a part of UWI and become further entangled in the West Indian Federation. It did not want to do so because its Indian constituency did not support the Federation and, furthermore, not only could its ethnic advantage be subverted but so would its radical socialist ideology in this mainly capitalist federal sea. Also, socialism with its then utopian emphasis on creating ‘a new socialist man’ required its own educational institution. Guyana was in 1963 the poorest of the larger countries in the British Commonwealth, with a per capita income of US$282, while that of Jamaica was $485 and Trinidad and Tobago $760. There was no other proper reason why it should have preferred to leave a relationship with an institution which had been in existence for some two decades with an even longer tradition at its back.
I agree with CLR James ‘Dr. Jagan is no petty racialist, not at all. I am unalterably opposed to the political philosophy which he accepts. I am unalterably opposed to its methods. I have told him so in person.’ He was merely responding to his context and there is no earthly reason why the above contention must not be factored into any discourse about the establishment of the University of Guyana. Notwithstanding his original support for Guyana to join both the federation and UWI, the advantage of having an institution to train one’s own socialist cadres on the cheap was not lost on the wily Forbes Burnham, and so to this day there exists a university that has not yet properly found its feet!