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.

No Separate Salvation by Martin Carter

martin carter
Martin Carter, Guyanese Poet & Politician 1927-1997
Note from the Socialist Workers Alliance: We republish below an editorial by renowned Guyanese poet Martin Carter which was written on the eve of the split in the People’s Progressive Party in 1955 between Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham. Carter skillfully investigates the role of race and racism under British colonialism and provides insight to overcoming the racial and political divide in modern day Guyana which has only grown wider since the document was written.

Source: Editorial from Thunder, Vol. 6 – No. 48, Organ of the People’s Progressive Party, March 5, 1955, p.  1 Georgetown, British Guiana.

Everybody living in this colony ought to know that people of African, Indian, Portuguese and Chinese descent dwell here only because in the past the sugar lords found it necessary to bring their ancestors to this part of the world to work in the cane fields. While Indians, Chinese and Portuguese came as indentured immigrants, the Africans came as slaves. All of this is well known, but some people behave nowadays as if they simply do not know these facts, or that even if they do know them, they still do not realize what these facts signify.

There are some people who are using the split in the P.P.P. as an opportunity to foster racial feelings among the mass of people. Some of these people claim that the Party has broken into two sections – an Indian and an African. And some on the one hand call upon the African element to support that wing led by Mr. Burnham while others call upon the Indian element to support that wing led by Dr. Jagan. Presumably both of the groups of racial minded people believe they are acting in the best interests of the particular racial group in which they belong. But far from acting so, these people are only acting in the interests of those who brought them here and who have kept them down ever since. All of this without being understood, in the same way as people may know a man is dying without understanding what he is dying from.

Before going further let us see the racial composition of the leadership in the two Wings. On the one wing we have Mr. Burnham, Dr. Latchmansingh and Mr. Jai Narine Singh and on the other Dr. Jagan and Sydney King. Looking at it we can observe that on both sides are Indians and Africans working together, unless of course, Sydney King has mounted overnight like some grass bird, or Dr. Latchmansingh has suddenly been transformed into another man.

1953 PPP cabinet
Before the Split: Burnham (third from left) seated next to the Jagans and other PPP Cabinet members in 1953

When we come to the broad masses of the people the situation is somewhat different. For example, among the people of African descent there has been a history of a feeling of superiority over the Indians because it was felt that the Indians came to Guiana to do the work the slaves refused to do after Emancipation. On the other hand there has also been a history of feelings on the part of the Indians that the people of African descent were inferior because at one time these people happened to be slaves. Further, the cultural position of the two groups is important in this matter. Indians proudly retain certain ties with India in religion custom etc. while the people of African descent, torn form Africa as they were with bleeding roots had to build right up from the ground. These positions give confidence to the Indians while to the Africans they lead to a certain self pitying attitude and consequently an emphasis on rather to a resolution of the problem.

Further to all this is the social and economic grudges which exist. It is claimed for instance that Indians occupy all the big positions in commerce and the professions. So therefore, the argument goes, Indians are getting on while those of African descent are stagnant. This argument seems to ignore the fact that Indians are the majority in this country and that although some seem to be doing well, thousands are seeing hell. Nevertheless because Indians happen to be in the majority there is a tendency for some of them to believe that of necessity they must assume the dominant role in everything. While little argument can be brought against the fact of numerical strength, Indians must realise that under colonial rule only the British Government dominates. Indians on the other hand complain that the Africans dominate the Civil Service, the police force and the teaching profession and that appointments are limited where Indians are concerned. Witness the appointment of all Negro interim ministers and realize the trick in the thing.

20150726burnham-and-jagan-385x217
Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan

But repeating these facts is one thing. We can see quite easily as shown above that historical circumstances and social accident have more or less laid a foundation out of which serious racial antagonisms could emerge. Instead of contemplating this reality we must master it. And the achievement of the PPP in the past gives us hope for the future.

The PPP succeeded in uniting the people of Guiana because it showed that only unity among themselves would make them strong enough to fight the imperial government effectively. This was demonstrated at the General Election when the P.P.P candidates of African descent won seats in decidedly Indian constituencies against Indian candidates. That means that if the people would only understand the major issue of the people’s struggle against imperialism some good will be done. Thus it would be better for a person of Indian descent to support Mr. Burnham for ideological reason for the same person, while agreeing with Mr. Burnham to support Dr. Jagan only because he happens to be an Indian. The same holds good for a person of African descent. For this would mean that the action was dictated by reason and not by racialism. In the long run reason would lead to truth while racialism would lead to disaster.

There is no separate salvation for Indians in Guiana, no separate salvation for Africans. There is only salvation for a united Guianese people fighting as a people against imperialism for National Independence. Let those who advocate racialism in any form among the people confute this. (M.C.)