What’s 100 years of the Russian Revolution to the Caribbean Masses?

 

Socialists cannot achieve their great aim without fighting against all oppression of nations. – V.I. Lenin

 

One hundred years ago the working masses of Russia shocked the world when they carried out a successful revolution against their capitalist ruling class and established a workers state based on the councils (soviets) set up in the course of the struggle. The response of the ruling capitalist nations was as swift as it was vicious and reactionary forces in Russia were backed by the main imperialist powers resulting in a civil war between the revolutionary forces and those who wanted the restoration of capitalism.

The initial triumph of the workers revolution in Russia and defeat of the counterrevolutionary forces in the civil war acted as a beacon to the workers and oppressed around the world. The establishment of the Russian workers state showed clearly that not only was it possible for the working class to overthrow its exploitative rulers, but also that workers in the more backwards parts of the world need not await salvation from workers in the more economically advanced countries.

Importantly, in Czarist Russia where the capitalist mode of production had not wiped away vestiges of feudalism as effectively as in neighboring Germany, the Russian workers showed decisively that the stagist theory of revolution, where the workers first had to establish a bourgeois democratic republic as a stepping stone to socialism, was historically unnecessary. The October revolution took many some leading Bolsheviks by surprise, nonetheless Leon Trotsky, who would go on to lead the Red Army, had laid the theoretical foundation for such an advance with his theory of permanent revolution.

Revolutionary Internationalism

One of the most enduring legacies of the Russian Revolution is the spirit of internationalism fostered amongst the working people of the world. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin roundly denounced those socialists who would fight for a better world while discriminating against others for their national origin. For example, he called American socialists who would support immigration restrictions, “jingo socialists.”

Lenin also importantly understood that for the workers’ revolution to successfully spread around the world socialists needed to embrace the struggle for national liberation in the colonial world. Upholding oppresed nations’ right to self-determination, independence and, their right to secede at times became a critical weapon in the Marxist arsenal.

In the early 20th century the various Caribbean nations were still under colonial rule by the British, French and other imperialist powers. The anti-colonial movements in these countries were greatly boosted by the Russian revolution and contacts were made between trade unionists and nationalists and Russian revolutionaries. Caribbean radicals traveled to the United States and Europe and shared their radical tradition with the burgeoning world socialist movement born with the success of the Russian revolution.

While it is important to note the assistance provided to workers, anti-racist, women’s and national liberation struggles in the 3rd world by the Russian Revolution, it is equally important to note that the comrades from the Caribbean carried with them a distinct tradition of revolt and radicalism exemplified through events like the victorious Haitian Revolution. In fact one of the best histories of the struggle, The Black Jacobins, was authored by CLR James, the Trinidadian Marxist who would go on to write one of the most authoritative histories of the Communist International and collaborate with Leon Trotsky and the US Socialist Workers Party on the theory and program of Black liberation.

Claudia Jones while a member of the CP-USA

Besides James, other noteworthy West Indian radicals who contributed to and helped define the socialist tradition include Claudia Jones who left Trinidad and worked with Communist Party-U.S.A. on issues related to women and Black liberation. Pan-Africanist George Padmore, left Trinidad for America, became a communist and when he visited Russia was asked to stay on at the head of the Negro Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions. Labor activist Cyril Briggs and author Claude Mckay are also giants in this tradition.

Internationalism Betrayed

Holding such figures as inspiration for a new movement also requires a critical reexamination of the struggle for socialism in the Caribbean around the world. It is important to note that as worker’s revolutions were defeated in Germany and the surrounding states the leadership of the Russian revolution passed from the old Bolsheviks into the hands of a bureaucracy alienated from the masses headed by Josef Stalin. Stalin’s newly proclaimed policy of “Socialism in One Country” was eventually accompanied by policies on the international scene which betrayed the previous commitment to internationalism and alienated Black radicals like Padmore who ended up quitting the Communist movement as a result.

The second generation of socialist radicals in the Caribbean came to have more critical views of the Russian state given its Stalinist degeneration evident in the post-WWII years. Guyanese revolutionary Walter Rodney, for example, gave a series of lectures on the 1917 revolution which will soon be available in book form, but even before him C.L.R James, along with his political partner Raya Dunayeskaya, questioned the orthodox view of Russia as a socialist state with their theories of state capitalism.

Given the history of various regimes in the third world which have proclaimed themselves socialist, especially in Guyana and the Caribbean, it is very important to interrogate those claims. Living under the authoritarian rule of Forbes Burnham’s fraudulent “Cooperative Socialism,” Rodney and the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) were able to explain the role of nationalizations by neo-colonial governments under a socialist veneer:

“Continuing control of the state gives the new rulers the juridical base from which they seize the social surplus to divert it not only to personal consumption, but to private accumulation with the aim of building indigenous capitalism.” (Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Guyana pg. 6)

Now that private sectors of the Caribbean nation’s economies have been sufficiently developed the petty-bourgeois nationalist parties, such as the People’s National Party in Jamaica, Guyana’s People’s Progressive Party, and People’s National Congress have done away with the pretense of socialism and have moved to privatize previously nationalized property as was the case with bauxite and now the sugar industry in Guyana.

Parties that were previously anti-colonial in their rhetoric are now the staunchest allies of the imperialist powers. Even those who rhetorically oppose imperialism betray their real aims with their deeds such as repaying imperialist debt by imposing austerity measures which cut salaries, pensions,  and health benefits for the masses of the Caribbean.

Rebuilding an Internationalist Alternative

The current political parties leading the Caribbean governments reinforce the capitalist imperialist system as willing partners by ensuring the masses at home stay passive or when failing to ensure this passivity by deploying the armed fist of the state to smash protests and strikes. When the local ruling classes prove themselves unable to hold back struggle, the imperialist USA, which treats the Caribbean as its own backyard, deploys its political agents and military forces as was the case with the crushing of the Grenadian revolution in the 1980s.

The Caribbean masses’ lived experience makes it clear that the current system of capitalism, dominated by the imperialist states with the assistance of local ruling classes, has nothing to offer to them. The Caribbean’s working people have nothing to lose but their chains in a fight for a better world. To achieve this task we need to dedicate ourselves to building political organizations which can fight for a theory and program.

The Socialist Workers Alliance of Guyana hopes to network with other radicals in the Caribbean, Guyana and the diaspora towards this goal. We hope to take practical steps towards forming united fronts of action on issues such as debt repudiation by encouraging the working masses to use their power to withhold labor and shut down societies.

The Mighty Sparrow & Guyana’s Independence

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British occupying forces

May 26th, 2016, Guyana’s 50th independence anniversary, presented a perfect opportunity for the APNU-AFC coalition government to revel in Guyanese nationalism. The 50th independence anniversary also closely coincided with the APNU-AFC’s 1-year anniversary in governance. To take advantage of this confluence of occasions, the government held a grand flag raising ceremony and government was able to rally the country to celebrate a half-century of self-governance and independence from the former colonial masters in Britain. To this day many Guyanese have their homes decorated in the commemorative memorabilia from the 2016 independence celebrations.

On the occasion of the country’s 51st anniversary, partially due to it being less of a momentous milestone and partially due to the many scandals the government has found itself in since last year, the celebrations have been more muted. It is in this somewhat more sober atmosphere we must try to understand what independence means for a country like Guyana. To do so we must return to the tumultuous period of Guyanese history which led up to our independence on May 26, 1966.

The Socialist Worker’s Alliance recently republished Martin’s Carter’s article “No Separate Salvation” that was published on the eve of the racial split in the People’s Progressive Party in 1955. To understand independence we must then ask what happened in the period between 1955 and 1966 that led to Forbes Burnham and the People’s National Congress (PNC) instead of Cheddi Jagan and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) taking the country to independence?

It would appear very few Guyanese want to discuss this period, however, it suffices to say that under British military occupation, with collusion from the American Central Intelligence Agency, Burnham and the PNC allied with the United Force to beat the PPP at the polls under a new system of proportional representation. This form of “independence” helped to reinforce the partisan and racial divide in Guyanese politics, which remains with us to this day.

Interestingly, President David Granger, in his remarks on the 51st independence anniversary paints Guyana’s independence in much rosier language,

The ‘free state’ that we established on 26th May 1966 recognised our commitment to social cohesion through which we learn to accept and respect each other’s values and beliefs and to share the common space we call our homeland. The ‘free state’ is one that is free from discrimination; it is one that is built on the basis of respect for cultural diversity, political inclusivity and social equality.

 Maybe the president understands the extent to which a neo-colonial nation exists under the dominance of imperialist nations like America, Britain and Canada and this is why ‘free state’ is put into quotation marks. What is more important here, however, is the concept of social cohesion. This has been an oft-repeated theme from president Granger and his administration and under their rule a Ministry of Social Cohesion has even been created.

Why do we need social cohesion though? It must mean that something is adrift in the ‘free state’ where “cultural diversity, political inclusivity and social equality” are supposed to be respected. Incredibly, president Granger often cites former PNC president Forbes Burnham as the “father of social cohesion.” If independence is to have real meaning, it is about time we tackle this assertion.

It is hard, of course, to speak in an objective manner about the racial and political divide in Guyana. Criticism of the PNC is taken to mean implicit support of the PPP and vice versa. So before talking about Burnham’s role in social cohesion and independence, and to assuage the minds of the readers who see implicit support for the PPP, it is important to note that the country’s racial divide in politics cannot be placed on any one party.  It is well known that Cheddi Jagan did not do enough to combat the “Apan Jaat” ethnocentrism of Indo-Guyanese in the PPP. This of course led the basis for the more open ethno-centrism of the current leader of the PPP and former president Bharat Jagdeo who in his “Apan Jaat” as he alleges, without evidence, that Indo-Guyanese people and businesses are under attack since the rise of coalition government.

Returning to Burnham’s role in the independence movement, we must tackle the assertion that Burnham was the father of social cohesion. How can the man who engineered the split of the multi-racial PPP be thought of as the father of social cohesion? The answer, oddly, lies in a song by the Mighty Sparrow called B.G. War. Chronicling the rioting which erupted in the era preceding independence in 1966, Sparrow sings,

Well they drop a hydrogen bomb in B.G., Lord Have Mercy,

Riot in town mama, I hear the whole place on fire,

From Kitty to the waterfront, all that burn down flat flat

Sparrow pivots then pivots from describing the violence in leading up to independence to the military occupation by the British and Burnham’s role in ending the disturbances.

They send for soldiers quite up in England, with big confusion,

They bring down warship with cannon like peas, to shoot Guyanese,

But Burnham say alright now, I’m the only man to stop this row,

He give we the signal, and that was the case,

Now we have peace and quiet in the place.

 As Guyanese people celebrate our 51st anniversary of independence from British rule we need to ask what power Burnham had that he could just give a signal and end the disturbances. Moreover, why did the US and British ruling class see Burnham as a better option than Jagan and the PPP? Moreover, how can the man who had the ability to end riots with just a signal, but allowed them to continue until ending them was politically advantageous for him be called the father of social cohesion? Keep in mind this Guyanese saying: “Teacher don’t beat for the question, but the answer.”