IDEOLOGY AND ETHNIC IDENTIFICATION-
CHALLENGES FOR A POLITICAL PARTY
- Mr. Ralph Ramkarran, S.C., PPP Executive Committee Member
The era of colonialism began with the capture by the Portuguese of the Moorish stronghold of Ceuta in North Africa in 1415 and their exploration of the coast of West Africa. Eric Williams described the Portuguese activity in Africa as a "decisive landmark" representing the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era. In fact, this period marked the end of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the beginning of the search by Europe for capital to invest in their economies.
The colonisation of the Caribbean was begun by Spain with the arrival of Columbus in the region in 1492 and later by England, France and Holland, encouraged by Raleigh's Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana and Cabaliau's Account of the ... Voyage to America written after their visits in 1595 and 1597 respectively. Raleigh came to Guiana attracted by the lure of gold, but in a sense he was a man who belonged to an: earlier age. Spain had been moving out of gold mining having discovered the potential of sugar which Columbus had brought on his second voyage in 1493. Spain had already begun to exploit this potential. Shortly after the Dutch explorer, Cabaliau, came to the region Dutch began to colonise Guiana.
The history of the enslavement and oppression of first, the indigenous peoples and then, Africans, by the Portuguese and then by Spain and later, other European countries, is well known to all. The history of the resistance of slaves is also well known in particular the revolts of 1763 and 1823 in Guiana which, along with its growing unprofitability, eventually led to the eventual abolition of slavery.
The abolition of slavery had far reaching consequences for the colonies. The most immediate for Guiana, as with the rest of the Caribbean, was the shortage of labour caused by slaves leaving the estates. The labour shortage was such that by 1843 the need for additional labour became obvious if cultivation at the same level was to be maintained.
As early as 1807, the year of the abolition of the slave trade, planters were beginning to look to India to replenish the labour on the estates which had been lost as a result of emancipation. On 5th May, 1838, the Whitby and the Hesperus landed with 396 indentured labourers from India. By 1917 British Guiana had imported 238,000 East Indians.
It is important at this point to pause and recognise the origin and purpose of slavery. It was a part of the heritage of Spain and was recognised as far back as the thirteenth century as part of its economy. In the year when Columbus came to the Caribbean, the Portuguese had already been engaged in the slave trade for fifty years. And when the occupation of Guiana began by the Dutch and English settlors from Barbados and other Caribbean Islands, slavery and the slave trade were long established in Europe and the Caribbean. The mining of gold and later the growing of sugar cane and the manufacture of sugar could not be accomplished without a larger supply of labour than was available from the indigenous population or from the colonial powers. By the time settlements began in Guiana, slavery was a well established fact in the Caribbean "and slaves came with or immediately after the settlors from the beginning of the seventeenth century. Hence, Africans were enslaved for economic reasons so that their labour power could be exploited. The same reason clearly applies to the system of indentureship and the importation of East Indians and other indentured labourers.
There was a consistent opposition to immigration and immigrants by Africans throughout the period of immigration in defence of their economic self-interests. They argued that state-aided immigration led to a reduction in employment;'1ower wages and increased cost of living through taxation to provide funds for the colonial state to subsidise the cost of immigration. The African struggle against immigration was a struggle in defence of their legitimate interests. They argued quite rightly that there was enough labour in Guiana for the sugar estates and the increased wages demanded by Africans could have been paid if the additional cost of importing immigrants and consequential expenses did not have to be met. Africans regarded Indians as in the nature of strikebreakers who provided cheap labour and who were favoured by the planter. This was the direct road to racial animosity and there are numerous reports of minor incidents between Africans and Indians for a variety of reasons though most of them were localised.
Just as the African
slave was categorised by the slave owner as "unjust, cruel, barbarous,
half-human, treacherous, deceitful, thieves ", categorisations of which no doubt the
planter was still imbued and sold to the immigrants, just so the planter categorised the Indian, who was called "Sammy" from the word "Swamy," as "violent, childlike in dependency, hardworking, thievish, admirably frugal, and miserly to the point ofse(f-neglect," categorisations which he likewise must have disseminated to Africans.
Despite the above, it is important to note the conclusion of Walter Rodney, who studied this period: "Although planters were willing to exploit racial differences, none of the AfricanIndian clashes of the nineteenth century came anywhere close to large-scale communal violence. This is a matter of note, when one considers that on several occasions communal violence embroiled African Creoles and Portuguese immigrants...
of present scholarship inclines towards portraying Guyana as a society in
which racial division and conflict has been in the ascendancy over consensus
and class action. Whether this is true or not, the question also arises as
to whether the society is best elucidated by those paradigms based on the
perception of cultural pluralism one would like to review
briefly the notion of Guyanese history as one that is ridden with racial conflict. As indicated earlier, my contention is that the case for the dominant role of racial division in the historical sphere has been overstated, and that scholarship on the subject has accepted without due scrutiny the proposition that Indians and Africans existed in mutually exclusive cultural compartments. The problems of interpretation lie not only in the marshalling of the evidence but, more fundamentally, in the historical methodology that is applied. In the present context, the complex relations between past and present have been treated in a deterministic fashion.
The occurrence of violent racial conflict in Guiana on the eve of independence has been used as a springboard for historical enquiry. This is legitimate ifit is nothing but a recognition of an important moment in history, requiring to have its antecedents traced. It is indefensihle when the assumption is made that all previous development was nothing but the unfolding of the theme of racial conflict. With the skimpiest evidential base, one Guyanese scholar (writing in 1970) affirms that 'events [moved] inexorably towards culture conflict as more and more immigrants poured into the country. ' In this instance, contemporary conflict serves both as starting point and as goal, so that the author reconstructs much of the substantive history under the rubric, 'The Precursors of Conflict. ' Such an approach is guaranteed to discover precursors of conflict and nothing but precursors of conflict. "When the determinism is not as obvious as in the foregoing example, there is still a tendentious' element introduced into discussion because of a particular assessment of the more recent racial competition. For instance, a recent dissertation on indentureship found no significant evidence of racial violence, but the author strained after the following conclusion: 'That no violence broke out between the two groups was due more to the fact that each group tended to go its own way, than to any feeling of cordiality between them. ' Why should cordiality become the antithesis of "violence"? A more straightforward conclusion (supportable by the evidence) would simply be that antipathy and racial separation were part of the conjuncture in the late nineteenth century, but did not give rise to violence under the conditions of the period.
The racial dimension to contradictions among the people established itself in the nineteenth century because of a variety of factors: notably, the sustained volume of state-aided Indian immigration, the residential separation of the two main racial groups, the mutual unintelligibility of some aspects of non-material culture, the slow rate of diversification of the colonial economy, and the conscious manipulation of the society by those who had state power. "
Despite the contradictions which gave rise to tension between the Africans and Indians, the evidence shows many instances of collective action by Africans and Indians and others demanding higher wages and better working conditions. In 1847-48 recently emancipated slaves, East Indian and Portuguese indentured labourers joined in united strike action for higher wages. The serious labour disturbances of 1905 brought about by a reduction of wages by twenty percent due to the sugar crisis, brought together African and Indian sugar workers in strike action at Plantation Riumveldt. Workers were shot and killed; some were injured. In 1924 under the leadership of Critchlow, Indian plantation labourers joined African workers in demonstrations and strikes against the employers and the colonial government. On 3rt March, 5000 plantation workers were marching to join urban workers on strike. Police opened fire on them at Ruimveldt, killing twelve and injured fifteen. Between 1936 and 1945 sugar and bauxite workers were organised by the Manpower Citizens Association (MPCA) and between 1946 and 1949 the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) linked the struggles of the Indian sugar workers with the predominantly African transport and bauxite workers. These incidents of united struggle were to be repeated in later years.
one reconcile the 'antipathy' and 'racial separation' referred to by Rodney
with this high level of united activity spanning the one hundred years identified
above and the following fifty years which I will deal with later? Antonio
Gramsci, the Italian Marxist scholar explained: "Class struggle is not
a puerile dream - it is an act that is freely determined upon and an inner
necessity of the social order. To obstruct its clear course
arbitrarily is a historical waste ofti11le." United working class struggle in this and every
other period in Guyanese history is a function of the relationship of the working class to the productive process and this is the reason for its continuing occurence despite the 'antipathy.'
These historical assessments by Walter Rodney and Cheddi Jagan demonstrate that in spite of the tensions in their relationship, African and Indian workers will, of historical necessity, work and struggle together when their vital economic interests are threatened and the successful defence of those interests require united action. In other words, historical differences resulting in suspicion and insecurity are not obstacles to the achievement of unity.
While the workers struggled, the growing African and Indian middle class gravitated to the League of Coloured People (LCP) and British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) which exerted important influence in the society but expressed little interest in progressive political ideas or activity. The Reform Association, active in the late nineteenth century, and the Popular Party, active in the 1920s, both agitated for constitutional advance and some of the latter's members were sympathetic to the development of trade unionism. It was in this atmosphere, energised by the 1943 constitutional reform which extended the elected members of the Legislative Council from two to four, that Cheddi Jagan contested the 1947 elections and won a seat. A year earlier, in 1946, along with three others, he formed the PAc.
The first steps at formal political organisation of the working class by the of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) which was formed in 1946 and later by its successor, the People's Progressive Party (PPP) which was established in 1950, both of which espoused scientific socialist principles, was accompanied by a recognition of ethnic identification and its importance for political organisation and struggle of the type advocated by the PPP. These bodies had obviously taken note of the successes and failures of the past as well as international experience.
The then ruling planter ideology in British Guiana, spawned by colonialism, was challenged for the first time in 1946, by the work of the PAC which began to organise all progressive sections of the society, particularly the African and Indian working class. The PPP, from its formation in 1950, intensified this work and expanded it to a national level. The PPP's electoral victory of 1953 confirmed for the first time in the history of Guiana the great potential for ethnic unity in political action. It confirmed the correctness of the PPP's approach to theoretical and organisational matters, particularly, coalition building. It is important to note that while the PAC was dedicated to the propagation of "scientific socialism," the PPP did not specifically elaborate an ideological position even though it was obvious that a large section of the leadership was oriented towards the left. Cheddi Jagan
described the PPP of that time as a "revolutionary national party dedicated to end foreign
domination, to transform the economy and to bring about social j ustice Although led by
Marxists, there were among its leaders many non-Marxist elements.
The PPP, by setting about to establish a national movement with a broad-based but patriotic ideological orientation, was trying to ensure that ideological rigidity and ethnic identification should not be allowed to become divisive factors in the immediate task of establishing national unity and winning independence.
The PAC and the PPP emerged out of deep historical roots b:l'sed on past struggles, but there was an immediacy to the need to overcome the potentially divisive impact of ethnic identification on political unity. The organisations of great political influence among the middle class at that time, even though they were not political parties, were the British Guiana East Indian Association, purportedly representing the interests of East Indians and the League of Coloured Peoples, purportedly representing the interests of Africans. Reference has been made to them earlier. Th_y did not represent the interests of the East Indian and African working people and had failed to defend their interests. Cheddi Jagan and the leaders of the PAC and later the PPP understood quite well the shortcomings of these organisations as well as the failure of the existing leadership of the working class. They realised the need for strengthened leadership with a political dimension to create a united working class with a sense of ethnic unity and class consciousness and seeking allies among farmers, professionals and business people. This was successfully achieved because by 1951 the PPP's working class and multi-ethnic orientation had been recognised even by its detractors.
The radical young
leaders of the PPP of 1950 were motivated by many ideas including those of
Marx taking into account the concrete realities of British Guiana. Foremost
among them must have been Marx's understanding of the need for liberation
from colonialism. Of British rule in India he said: "The profound hypocrisy
and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our
eyes, turning from its home, where
it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked Did they not, in India, to
borrow an expression of that great robber, Lord Clive himself, resort to atrocious extortion, when simple corruption could not keep pace with their rapacity? Marx understood that: "The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by
the British bourgeoisie , till the Hindoos themselves shall have grown strong enough to
throw off the English yoke altogether."
Apart from Marx's perceptive comments about India, which have since proved to be true, his recognition of the materialist conception of history took into account the divisions which the working class might have to overcome. He said: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. " He also recognised the difference between the private individual and the class individual and said with prescience as if he were talking today about Guyana: "The separate individuals form a class only in so far as they have to carryon a common battle against another class; in other respects they are 011 hostile terms with each other as competitors. "
It is by no means being suggested that only Marxists are capable of understanding or articulating the necessity for unity in the achievement of national or political goals. In Surinam in the early 1950's, inspired by the example of the PPP, the United Reform Party (UHP) led by Yagernath Lachmon and drawing its support from mainly East Indians, and the National Party Surinam (NPS), led by Adolf Pen gel and drawing its support from mainly Africans, formed a political alliance which lasted IJ.ntil the 1970s. The alliance did not facilitate the alleviation of poverty in any significant way and therefore, was unable to prevent political and industrial unrest between 1970 and 1973 which eventually led to the coup and continuing political instability for fifteen years. Ethnic rivalry and insecurity which were not eliminated by the alliance, but merely contained, continues to be, along with poverty, the major social problems in Surinam. The Surinam experience, and several others including the alliance government in Trinidad which broke up shortly after it succeeded in removing the People's National Movement (PNM) government and the unfolding events in Fiji where the new Constitution, based on a conscociational model which was specifically designed to eliminate ethnic insecurity, confirms our view that temporary stability can be attained by an alliance of political parties representing different ethnic interests but it would be difficult to sustain such an alliance without a fundamental commitment as a core principle -- the interests of the working class.
For an alliance of organisations representing ethnically diverse groups to succeed it must have as it basis an identity of interests based on the relationship of those interests to the productive forces. Nothing precludes such an alliance to then widen its base to include other sections of the population which can unite with it for the achievement of specific goals which can be for a long duration. It cannot be denied that some conscociational alliances have succeeded in maintaining a level of ethnic tolerance ion some countries, particularly European countries with a high level of economic development. This is because the level of economic development reduces the intensity of the competition for scarce resources. Developing countries with a combination of ethnic insecurity, severe poverty and weak instit_tional mechanisms for governance cannot easily sustain such alliances unless class identification takes precedence over ethnic identification and as Norman Girvan advises, "revolutionary ideology must provide an effective coullter not only to what the different racial groups have been made to believe about themselves but also to how they have been conditioned to regard other groups, especially groups which they have been taught to regard as their enemy but which are in structurally similar positions. " Once again, the events in Fiji are a salutary lesson.
express the view that the genesis of the expression of ethnic insecurity in
political terms in Guyana began with the overthrow of the suspension of the
constitution and the removal of the PPP government in 1953 and the split of
the PPP in 1955. Gordon Lewis, reflecting the view of these commentators said
that, "the split of 1953 was a clear cut racial division" because
"there had never been a real unity." This view is seriously flawed
and its simplistic propagation without an attempt to grapple with the complexity
of the interests and forces at play in the 1953 - 1955 period has led to untenable
conclusions as to the way forward for Guyana. The overwhelming evidence is
that the constitution was suspended not because Guiana was ethnically united
but because the PPP was allegedly communist. In order to remove the long term
"danger" to the people of Guiana, it was necessary to defeat the
"left" and promote the "moderate clements." A straight
ethnic split would not have seen prominent East Indian leaders like J. P.
Latchmansingh and .Jai Narine Singh going with Burnham and African working
class leaders like Fred Bowman and Eric Huntley not only stoically bearing
their imprisonment but remaining with the PPP. Burnham and the others who
went with him were seeQ. as th.e "moderates" and were encouraged
by the British to take over th_ PPP. Not being able to do so they left. The
ease with which the PNC later came to an accomodation with the United Democratic
Party (UDP), whose leaders, W.O.R. Kendall and John Carter, later played prominent
roles in PNC governments, and the United Force (UF) with which the PNC formed
a coalition government in 1964 certainly suggests that the PNC was a party
with a different ideological orientation to the PPP. In fact, the PNC said
so and for many years attacked the PPP for being communist. The fact that
the split of 1955 caused existing ethnic insecurities to assume political
dimensions ought not to mislead observers into missing or dismissing its more
fundamental class character. It is the international class struggle expressed
in the cleavages of the Cold War that essentially maintained the PNC in power.
Of course, it is the ethnic expressions of the split from 1957 and the manipulation
of ethnic sentiments and insecurities in the 1962 -- 1964 and 1968 -- 1992
periods which have heightened the intensity of ethnic tensions and debate
on ethnic insecurities at the present time. Had the PPP ever elevated the
ethnic oppression by the PNC as the most important element in its hold on
power, the eventual outcome of the struggle to restore democracy might have
been attended by unpredictable consequences. As it was, the PPP maintained
its characterisation of the PNC created state described by Cheddi Jagan as
"a petty-bourgeois controlled and directed state" which had "become
an instrument not only for accumulation
for the benefit of the petty-bourgeois and the bourgeoisie, but also for the suppression and oppression of the masses." In principle, Walter Rodney agreed with him. He said: "The most significant of the set of internal and external socioeconomic contradictions which shape neocolonial politics are those that derive from the consolidation of the petty bourgeoisie as a class around the state. "
Had the PPP entertained the conclusion that ethnic oppression was the most significant feature of PNC's authoritarianism, then the logic of such a conclusion would have determined an exclusively ethnic response and would have precluded consideration of potentially more productive and constructive strategies. The very nature of the PPP, verified by its history, imbues it with an irrepressible confidence in the vast potential of unity which can be created out of an alliance of forces with specific objectives related to the creation of social justice. Thus, as soon as the circumstances were propitious, the PPP sought to create unity with the PNC or with other opposition groups. It never lost sight of this task, however daunting it may have appeared at times, because it felt that unity based on the strategic alliance of class forces was the most effective means of countering the negative aspects of ethnic identification. Our history demonstrates that we have consistently advocated and struggled for such unity which in the end was responsible for the return of democracy.
period in the successful establishment of such unity after many years of struggle
when the PPP stood alone, occurred in the period between 1978 and 1980 in
the campaign against the referendum and the 1980 constitution. Cheddi Jagan
said of this period: "The balance has definitely shifted in favour of
the progressive and revolutionary
forces. The July 10,1978 referendum, with cooperation among four political parties, five unions and workers' organisations in key sectors of the economy, the principal bodies representing the three main religions in Guyana and practically.all the professional groups, amply demonstrated that the forces of progress were numerically stronger in ] 9 78 than in ]973, and even in 1953 when our national liberation was united."
This period of political struggle and the turnout for the referendum in 1978 proved beyond doubt that finally, ethnic manipulation and threats were no longer working in the PNC's favour. Even though it was to take another twelve years after the implementation of the 1980 constitution, it was the unity established in this period led the way and provided the example for the formation of the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy (PCD) in 1985 consisting of the opposition political parties except the UF after the gross rigging of the 1985 general and regiona; elections. This period also provided invaluable lessons and gave courage and impetus to the subsequent formation of the GUARD Movement which was the civic successor to the Citizens' Committee of 1978. Guard played an important role in mobilising civic forces for democracy. It was the PPP's focussed and unwavering commitment to the creation of alliances, derived from its understanding of the function of classes in society, that eventually led to these developments. The PPP, however, recognises the selfless and dedicated contribution of the then opposition parties, civil society and all others who contributed to this process. The PPP acknowledges that without the contribution of these groups and the people of Guyana together with Guyanese and friends outside of Guyana, democracy could not have been restored.
The current period is characterised by heightened ethnic tension arising out of the manipulation of ethnic insecurity for political purposes. The ease with which this can he accomplished is due to its practised application in the maintenance of political power and the suppression of debate in the past which allowed the festering of insecurities. More important, the persistence of poverty fuels the continuing competition by our ethnic communities for benefits 'and advantages from the scarce resources of the state which cannot conceivably satisfy all needs.
The impact of structural adjustment can have a severe negative impact on ethnic insecurities. No study has been made of the Guyana situation but Cheddi Jagan had frequently referred to this issue. He had pointed out that budget cuts, retrenchment, privatisation and restructuring of the public service in the Guyana context can only aggravate ethnic tensions. Successful structural adjustment is usually followed by development assistance for donor agencies. To the extent that such assistance is directed to the productive sector, to that extent, again in the Guyana context, tensions can increase.
Studies of this issue as it relates to Guyana have not been made or are not available, but any cursory examination will reveal that the consequences of structural adjustment and the perceptions about the distribution of development assistance must have played a significant role in the heightened ethnic tension which is perceived to exist today.
In an interesting
study of the issue, Ronald Herring and Milton Esman state: "Ethnic conflict
has increased markedly on a global scale over the last four decades; most
violent conflict in recent years has involved mobilised ethnic communities.
_ The causes are perplexing: clearly multiple and multi-dimensional, and situationally
:-.pecific, difJiclilt of generalisation. But certainly much ethnic conflict
is rooted in or fed by competition for resources. Though no purely materialistic
explanation of ethnic conflict can be sati.\fying, development policy intuitively
ranks among the first candidates for investigation. Rapid economic change
in either positive or negative direction involves redistribution of opportunity,
status and deprivation in ways that are often inconsistent with deeply held
notions of what is
fair, what is unacceptable. Reciprocally, ethnic politics intrudes on the apparent technical rationality of development policy; rules are bent, project locations skewed, privatisations perverted. Yet, curiously, the interactive effects of ethnicity and development assistance have attracted little systematic attention. " However, they concluded that: "Where the benefits of development assistance are systematically skewed in favour of a particular ethnic community or if such skewing is widely perceived to occur, resentment and grievances will certainly ensue among those who believe they have been cheated or left out. "
Guyana can be a case study on this issue.
The debate today revolves around the alleged irreconcilable differences in our ethnic communities and models of state or government by which they can be resolved. Among the proposals are federalism and consociationalism. The jury is still out on these models, particularly in relation to developing countries.
The PPP does not believe that the answer to Guyana's problems lies in the structure of the state, but in its nature and purpose. These will define its policies which in turn will determine whether the positive or the negative aspects of ethnic identification will emerge as the more dominant.
The PPP sees the way forward as the creation of a national consensus based on a social contract between all social forces with three main objectives - the promotion of good governance, the creative application of an alliance policy and the establishment of a national democracy.
requires the total elimination of the negative elements created by the bureaucratic/command
type of management of the nation's affairs which existed in the
past. This will result in an entrenched democratic culture, transparency and honesty in public administration, prudent financial husbandry, integrity in public life and justice and equity. An alliance policy will entail the intensification of the multi-ethnic character of the PPP through a struggle against all forms of ethnic discrimination and the pursuit of multiethnic forms of work through mass organisatjons of workers, farmers, women and youth; and work with other parties, mass organisations and individuals to build a multi-ethnic alliance. Good governance includes transparency in administration; democracy in all its aspects, including political, economic, industrial, social and cultural; economic growth with social justice; balanced agricultural and industrial and rural and urban development; an integrated programme of human resource development; and the promotion of multiculturalism.
"The PPP believes that a social contract can be achieved on such a basis with goodwill and commitment. The work which has informed the preparation of the National Development Strategy is an example which can be replicated in other areas.
Cheddi Jagan said
that "the PPP does not share the view that politics in Guyana is cast
in rigid racial/ethnic compartments and that allegiances would never change.
It is this false assumption that led to the prediction that we would not win
a majority at the 1992 elections, Had race/ethnicity been the only factor,
the PPP/Civic could not have polled 54 percent of the
votes [at the 1992 general elections] Nor would we have won an even greater percentage of
the votes at the near. mid-term neighbourhood and town council elections, when, generally, ruling incumbent parties lose support at mid-term elections. Those who see only race/ethnicity in politics in Guyana, as others who see tribalism and religion in other countries, are not viewing reality comprehensively, objectively and scientifically. "
The PPP remains committed
to the creation of an ethnically and culturally diverse nation living in peace
and harmony. We believe that ethnic identification is essential to inculcate
pride and dignity in Guyana's ethnic communities. We recognise that ethnic identification will playa role in political allegiances but we do not recognise its intensity as a permanent feature of our political system or that, even if it continues, it will necessarily be a destructive element. We commend our approach to this forum and to all the people of Guyana.
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c.L.R. lames, The Black Jacobins.
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