Jagan's First Government, 1953
Cheddi Jagan (rhymes with Reagan) 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.
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.
After all is said and done, what history has taught was 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.
Once the new constitution was adopted, elections were set for 1953. The PPP's coalition of lower-class Afro-Guyanese and rural Indo-Guyanese workers, together with elements of both ethnic groups' middle sectors, made for a formidable constituency. Conservatives branded the PPP as communist, but the party campaigned on a center-left platform and appealed to a growing nationalism.
The other major party participating in the election, the National Democratic Party (NDP), was a spin-off of the League of Coloured People and was largely an Afro-Guyanese middle-class organization, sprinkled with middle-class Portuguese and Indo-Guyanese. The NDP, together with the poorly organized United Farmers and Workers Party and the United National Party, was soundly defeated by the PPP. Final results gave the PPP eighteen of twenty-four seats compared with the NDP's two seats and four seats for independents.
The PPP's first administration was brief. The legislature opened on May 30, 1953. Already suspicious of Jagan and the PPP's radicalism, conservative forces in the business community were further distressed by the new administration's program of expanding the role of the state in the economy and society. The PPP also sought to implement its reform program at a rapid pace, which brought the party into confrontation with the governor and with high-ranking civil servants who preferred more gradual change.
The issue of civil service appointments also threatened the PPP, in this case from within. Following the 1953 victory, these appointments became an issue between the predominantly Indo-Guyanese supporters ofJagan and the largely Afro-Guyanese backers of Burnham. Burnham threatened to split the party if he were not made sole leader of the PPP. A compromise was reached by which members of what had become Burnham's faction received ministerial appointments.
The PPP's introduction of the Labour Relations Act provoked a confrontation with the British. This law ostensibly was aimed at reducing intraunion rivalries, but would have favored the GIVVU, which was closely aligned with the ruling party. The opposition charged that the PPP was seeking to gain control over the colony's economic and social life and was moving to stifle the opposition. The day the act was introduced to the legislature, the GIWU went on strike in support of the proposed law. The British government interpreted this intermingling of party politics and labor unionism as a direct challenge to the constitution and the authority of the governor. The day after the act was passed, on October 9, 1953, London suspended the colony's constitution and, under pretext of quelling disturbances, sent in troops.
Following the suspension of the constitution, British Guiana was governed by an interim administration consisting of small group of conservative politicians, businessmen, and civil servants that lasted until 1957. Order in the colonial government masked a growing rift in the country's main political party as the personal conflict between the PPP's Jagan and Burnham widened into a bitter dispute.
In 1955 Jagan and Burnham formed rival wings of the PPP. Support for each leader was largely, but not totally, along ethnic lines. J. B. Lachmansingh, a leading Indo-Guyanese and head of the GIWU, supported Burnham, whereas Jagan retained the loyalty of a number of leading Afro-Guyanese radicals, such as Sydney King. Burnham's wing of the PPP moved to the right, leaving Jagan' s wing on the left, where he was regarded with considerable apprehension by Western governments and the colony's conservative business groups.
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