AT HOME WITH CHEDDI


In 1991 Vidya Naipaul, the Trinidad born Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, visited Guyana for the second time. He had first come in 1961 and had met Cde Cheddi and Cde Janet. On this second occasion he visited them both again and spoke at length with Cde Cheddi here at his home. This is how he described the scene:


It was of his early days, and especially of his time in America, that I wanted to hear when I next met Cheddi Jagan. He came for me at the hotel one Sunday afternoon, and we drove to his house. It was the house he had built after he had left the premiership in 1964. It was a plain, new-style, two-story Georgetown house, well-fenced, with a watchdog.
We sat upstairs. The afternoon breeze blew through the open doors on both sides. Beyond the wrought-iron rails of the balcony the garden was all green, with mango trees and coconut trees and banana trees.
It was in this peaceful atmosphere that Cde Cheddi worked and relaxed for the last forty years of his life. The life he created here, while the afternoon breeze blew, where all was green, with mango trees and coconut trees and banana trees provided exercise, ensured tranquility, facilitated meetings, the entertainment of visitors and allowed for his creative impulses to soar. It was in this atmosphere that he read, researched and wrote.

I well remember 1964 when this house was built. The land had been acquired by purchase by my father from Bookers a few years earlier. Our family had lived on this plot of land from about 1920, shortly after my father was born, and on this plantation since 1875, when my great great grandfather came here as an indentured labourer.

The construction of this house was undertaken by Cde Cheddi in the manner that he did most things – hands on. He designed the house. He obtained the materials. He brought the carpenters from Berbice. He supervised them. And when they ran out of groceries, they pestered my mother next door. I spent many hours here befriending the carpenters and looking on as they worked. Only a couple of years ago I was in Berbice for an event and a comrade came up to me and challenged my memory, asking if I knew him. He turned out to be one of the carpenters who had worked on this house as a young man. Our conversation took me back to 1964, more than forty years ago.

It was a landmark year in the history of Guyana. Inasmuch as the colonial power was in the final stages of the destruction of democracy in then British Guiana, Cde Cheddi was in the beginning stages of the construction of a home which was to provide the comforts to enable him to produce his celebrated study, The West on Trial, published in 1966, and to sustain patient effort for near three decades always confident of the justice of his case.

I must stress, however, that Cde Cheddi, as far as I know, was always comfortable, wherever he was, with basic amenities to enable him to do his work. All he ever needed were the bare comforts so that he could read and write and sleep.

Cde Cheddi spent a great deal of time in his garden which provided both relaxation and exercise. All the trees here, and many more which no longer exist, were planted by him. Breezy, green afternoons under a blue sky followed by cool, starlit evenings provided the quiet and serene backdrop for him to survey the world and Guyana and interpret their history and current developments. It is here that he researched and wrote his masterpiece, The West on Trial, that I mentioned earlier, a political biography of unfinished business, which not only set out his credo but argues his case for Guyana and his struggle against world poverty and, as he argued, an economic system which ensures it. The West on Trial is the best known of what he wrote here. But he also wrote endlessly and voluminously. In this brief exposition it would be impossible for me to do justice to the range and quality of Cde Cheddi’s writings which are already well known. One series that I remember well because I was particularly attached to it, anxiously awaiting my Sunday Mirror to read what he had to say was Straight Talk, a weekly column on a subject of topical interest. One particular piece was headlined Trade not Aid. I have unsuccessfully searched for it ever since to prove that he was a man before his time, speaking about these matters before anyone else.

In this, the only home that Cde Cheddi’s owned, there was always a hive of activity and ferment of ideas generated by endless formal and informal meetings, discussions, consultations and conversations with and among the Party Executive, Party colleagues, comrades and other visitors. From what I have learnt, the same atmosphere existed at all of the places where Cde Cheddi’s lived and worked. It was at his homes, and particularly this modest one which I know about, that many momentous political decisions were either discussed or taken. Many of us met here regularly to discuss all kinds of issues, particularly at weekends. For me this went on from the early 1970s up to 1992. I am sure that the same situation existed in the earlier period. My father told me that as far back as 1947, already a member of the Political Affairs Committee, he led a delegation to persuade Cde Cheddi to contest the elections of that year and they had met him in his dental surgery.

Thus from his earliest days in politics Cde Cheddi had no personal space which he protected from intrusion, as is such a great fashion nowadays. For Cde Cheddi the cause on which he had embarked was more important than his personal comforts. It was a single cause, pursued single mindedly for his entire life. Vidya Naipaul was puzzled about his persistence and sought to explore it in 1991. He explained the reason why he went to meet Cde Cheddi: I wanted to know how he had endured since 1964, what internal resources he had drawn on, why he hadn’t given up, like many of his followers. Naipaul did not discover the motive force behind his dedication. It probably had the simplest of explanations – just that he was simply a good man. That we know and that is probably the key to understanding what drove him on. It is no surprise that Naipaul could not fathom the source of his commitment and persistence. Cde Cheddi himself did not seem to know. After asking him Naipaul concluded: He appeared not to understand the question. Like most selfless people he was clearly not a man given to personal introspection and this explains the reason why he appeared not to have understood the question.

Many people would fail to understand the full implications of my description of Cde Cheddi as a “good” man because it is an overused word that has lost much of its power. I really mean that he was a good man in the true sense and in every respect of the word, in the same way Rosa Luxemburg meant when she said, writing from a prison cell during the First World War, that the goal she set for herself in life was simply and plainly to be good. (Marx. Lenin and the Revolutionary Experience Paul Le Blanc, Routledge, 2006) For example, Cde Cheddi was kind. He would stop his car in the mornings at the bus stops and fill it with people waiting for transportation to take them to town. He was friendly, polite and respectful to everyone he met, even when they were hostile. In meetings he listened to everyone; he often called on comrades to speak to hear what they were thinking. He discussed everything, sometimes more than once when he was uncertain of his own position. He was honest, famed for his integrity and respected for his frankness. He never took offence and rarely showed anger.

These qualities enabled Cde Cheddi to be deeply reflective and completely cerebral, with no time for gossip or small talk. Divorced from the personal, he was able to focus on the larger picture outside of himself in the quietude of his home here in Bel Air. These reflections produced The New Global Human Order, his now famous treatise, adopted by the United Nations, on measures which can eliminate or substantially reduce world poverty. The ideas in the NGHO are more relevant now than ever before with the world in crisis and a financial shortfall of $700 billion in developing countries, according to the World Bank. It estimates that 200 million people will enter the ranks of those afflicted by poverty as a result of the crisis.

I had the privilege of making a presentation on The New Global Human Order in 2006 at Red House. It is uncanny how throughout his life Cde Cheddi was in the forefront of new ideas on development issues. I mentioned his call for free trade in the 1960s. He championed the environment and equality for women as far back as the 1960s and 1970s, long before these issues became popular. It was his advanced knowledge of the causes of poverty and exploitation in Latin America that enabled him to predict the failure of President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress in the 1960s, which was a programme to eliminate poverty in Latin America.

He was one of the leading pioneers against payment of the debt by developing countries, advocating that it be forgiven, starting before most in the 1970s when the issue had not yet gained momentum. In the NGHO, bringing together in one document a number of already existing but disparate proposals, which he himself had been advocating for many years, he formally joined the struggle, then in its infancy, for the reform of the international financial institutions. Among his wide ranging proposals were that: the United Nations system should play a more central role in global economic management and should have access to large financial resources; the IMF and World Bank to concentrate on human development as distinct from the means of development and return to their original roles; providing for equitable international trade both in goods and services to accelerate global growth and allow a more equitable distribution of its benefits. These are all accepted as worthy and desirable goals today but at the time when they were proposed they were frowned upon. Proposals for reform of the international financial institutions to treat with the type of crisis now being experienced have now gone far beyond what Cde Cheddi had suggested. This is the originality of the intellect of the founder of our Party as we reflect on these ideas at his home where many of them emanated.

Many of us wonder at what leadership Cde Cheddi would have given in relation to the crisis which now threatens to grow into a depression unless the appropriate measures are taken by the developed countries, particularly by the United States. To arrive at an analysis he would have advocated, we need to utilize the intellectual resources he would have used.

Even though it is now not fashionable to talk about Marx, who along with Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, contributed the most to our understanding of how capitalism works, Cde Cheddi in his lifetime frequently referred to them. As regards the current crisis he would have pointed to Marx’s analysis of the cyclical patterns of economic growth, which are now afflicting the developed world and would have urged the adoption of Keynes’s prescriptions for solutions. These theories are accepted by many mainstream, non-Marxist economists today. Many serious economists were influenced by Marx, and this is attested to by John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the most famous of American economics professors, in his work, The Affluent Society.

Cde Cheddi would have relied on Marx’s analysis of the cyclical pattern of economic growth of capitalism as contained in Volume 1 of Capital in the chapter entitled The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation in which he makes an extensive analysis of the issue. He concludes his analysis as follows: The course characteristic of modern industry, viz., a decennial cycle (interrupted by smaller oscillations), of periods of average activity, production at high pressure, crisis and stagnation, depends on the constant formation, the greater or less absorption, and the reformation of the industrial reserve army or surplus population. A prominent non-Marxist economist, Meghnad Desai, a Professor at the London School of Economics, describes the theory in more simple terms in his work, Marx’s Revenge, as follows: Capitalists employ workers to make profits, but as they employ more workers, unemployment goes down. This puts pressure on real wages. As real wages, as well as employment, go up, the share of profit goes down, and there is a squeeze on the rate of profits. At this boom stage of the cycle, capitalists retaliate by investing in labour-saving technology, thus slowing down the growth of – even reducing – employment. As unemployment increases, the pressure on real wages eases, and they may even go down. This is the slump. Profitability improves; this encourages capitalists to expand their business now, with the new technology, and the cycle continues its upward course.

In relying on this and similar analyses, Cde Cheddi advocated in the past, and would have done so now, that the periodic crises of capitalism are inherent in the system, crises which experts like Alan Greenspan, the former US Federal Reserve Chairman, Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ben Bernanke, the current US Federal Reserve Chairman, and himself an expert on the Great Depression of 1929, all in recent times, announced were at an end; and these statements were made while we have been in the midst of the asset bubble of unprecedented proportions, which Greenspan, in evidence to the Congress, while he was Chairman of the Federal Reserve, described as irrational exuberance.

Much has been made of the credit squeeze in the United States arising from the puncturing of the housing bubble as one of, or even the main direct factor, creating the recession. Cde Cheddi lectured again and again on the inherent contradictions in the social relations of production within the capitalist system that makes these crises inevitable and to Marx’s explanation that the expansion of credit accompanies capitalist development. Marx said in his usual caustic manner: The superficiality of Political Economy shows itself in the fact that it looks upon expansion and contraction of credit, which is the mere symptom of the periodic changes of the industrial cycle, as their cause. Marx predicted that the system of credit will grow into “an enormous social mechanism for the centralization of capitals.” (Marx, Capital, Volume 1 pp. 777-8)

The complexity of developed market economies today means that the manifestations of the crisis are more complex. For example, the technological developments during the Clinton Administration of computer technology, ushering in the information age, temporarily obscured from public view the loss of manufacturing jobs and growing contradictions marked by speculation, financialization, securitization, the enlarging asset bubble, all facilitated by low interest rates and a wild expansion of credit, natural outcomes of capitalist growth which itself created a significant number of new jobs. The housing bubble was a mere product of this speculation. It encouraged millions of good people, who could not afford it, to take credit to purchase homes on floating mortgage rates which could only go upwards because of the low rates during the Greenspan era. It was this upward movement which increased monthly payments, which could not be afforded, that devastated mortgage holders and triggered the crisis.

The development of financialization and securitization of the US economy, where it was producing credit rather than goods and services, in a constant and inexorable drive to produce, an integral feature of capitalism, noted by Marx and supported by Galbraith, took place in the face of declining industrial competitiveness. The growth of the share of profits generated by financial investments against a weak regulatory background which allowed untrammeled speculation, gambling and greed, presaged the inevitable collapse we are witnessing. While Marx predicted the growth of credit, Lenin was in a better position by 1916, because of the growth by then of large monopolies and banks, to note the power of finance capital and its capacity to influence developments. This was built on from Marx who had said, as I mentioned earlier, that credit was an enormous social mechanism for the centralization of capital.

Cde Cheddi was very familiar with all of this and would have relied on this tract by Lenin written in 1916, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and in particular the chapter, Finance Capital and the Financial Oligarchy. Cde Cheddi’s consistent advocacy of a full, and not an intellectually truncated, understanding of market economies, taking into account Marx’s analysis of capitalism, which Wall Street and US academia pay closer attention to than they reveal, or most people believe, has enabled us to get a more rounded picture of developments and of some of the market factors underlying the financialization and securitization of the US economy.

The first economist after Marx who made an impact by his study of the cyclical pattern of capitalist economies was John Maynard Keynes. Though not an enemy of capitalism, he was also a critic, who discovered and advocated solutions to recessions in his main work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. A simplified explanation of Keynes’s theory is that where the private sector is not investing enough, and the economy goes into recession, full employment can only be maintained and eventual recovery return by government spending. He had challenged Say’s Law (Jean-Baptiste Say 1767-1832) which divined that supply creates its own demand (John Bellamy Foster, A Failed System – The World Crisis of Capitalist Globalisation and its Impact on China).
Keynes himself said: I find the explanation of the current business losses, of the reduction in output, and of the unemployment which necessarily ensues on this not in the high level of investment which was proceeding up to the spring of 1929, but in the subsequent cessation of this investment. I see no hope of a recovery except in a revival of the high level of investment. (John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory and After: Part I, Preparation; Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, vol. 13, pt. 1, Donald Moggridge, ed., (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press)).
President Obama of the United States, against great and continuing resistance, shrugging off the post–Keynesian neo-classisists, such as Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman, the latter of whose ideas drove economic policy since at least the 1970s, including the Reagan/Thatcher Revolution and the Washington Consensus, now discredited, has overturned decades of supply side policies and has returned to the application of partial Keynesian policies in order to stop the bleeding in the United States. The question is whether he will be able to sustain his course because economists such as Paul Krugman, a recent Nobel Prize Winner, who have embraced some elements of Keynesianism, have argued that Obama is not doing enough and have suggested that another stimulus package will soon be necessary (Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008). Already Krugman is complaining about the dilatoriness in moving to resolve the credit crisis because of fear of grappling with the politics of having to nationalize some banks.
The lessons of the past are important. President Herbert Hoover did nothing when the Great Depression hit in 1929. The US economy deteriorated. President Franklyn Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and adopted Keynesian methods. He stimulated the US economy by large scale government spending which alleviated the crisis and restored some buoyancy to the economy. However, the crisis was not completely resolved until the vast spending generated by the Second World War. This has led some experts to conclude that the stimulus packages implemented by President Roosevelt were inadequate as there were great pressures against him by conservatives and the wealthy just as there are against Obama today. John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney in an article entitled A New Deal under Obama? in Monthly Review of February 2009, demonstrated by analysis the inadequacy of public spending in the Roosevelt era which the necessary spending in the Second World War had to resolve, and the danger of the same thing happening in the Obama era.
Cde Cheddi accepted Keynes as a great scholar and believed that he had arrived at the appropriate conclusions to deal with recessions. He was therefore very much impressed by the policies undertaken by Roosevelt in The New Deal and repeatedly referred to them approvingly during his lifetime. He also regarded Roosevelt as a very progressive leader. He praised the social policies he adopted including social security and pro trade union policies adopted for the first time in the US.
Having accepted IMF conditionalities for Guyana, Cde Cheddi called for structural adjustment with a human face, in line with an approach that Roosevelt’s would have pursued of a social safety net for the poor. Cde Cheddi’s call was eventually realized in the Millenium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations and incorporated in US aid policies under the Millenium Challenge Account. Unfortunately Cde Cheddi’s lifelong admiration for much in the US, its revolution, its democracy, its vibrant Congress, its libertarian traditions and their responsiveness at critical times to the call of the working people, was obscured by the cold war and the early attack on progressive leaders in the 1950s such as Cde Cheddi himself in 1953, Arbenz of Guatemala and Mossadeq of Iran.
The World Bank has estimated that for the first time since the Second World War the world economy will contract. It also estimates that developing countries will face a financial shortfall of US$700 billion, as I mentioned earlier. These predictions, coming one on top of the other, are getting more and more dire.
Caricom countries cannot sit by and allow what is in effect an economic tsumani to create destruction in our economies. Their challenge is to take measures to protect their economies with a united approach to save Clico, the establishment of an early warning mechanism, identification of industries or businesses at risk and measures to alleviate such risk, ensuring that financial flows to the Region continue, fighting against protectionism by developed countries, encouraging measures of public spending by developed countries to deal with their recession, for the longer term to reform the international financial institutions and to coordinate their own policies in dealing with issues arising within the region. The track record so far in relation to Clico, an authentic regional conglomerate, which has been willing to support development projects in Guyana and the Region, has not inspired confidence. Mr. DeLisle Worrell, in a paper, Saving Clico, (February 2009) for the Caribbean Centre for Money and Finance advances the arguments in favour of Clico and suggests the measures which ought to be taken, though perhaps many of these might be too late. Hopefully, the situation will be corrected in relation to the entire gamut of economic and financial policies in order to reduce the impact of the recession in the developed world. The decision of Caricom Heads at the 20th Inter-Sessional Meeting in Belize on March 12 establishing a Committee of Central Bank Governors to provide Heads of Government with proposals on how the Community could collaborate to tackle the current international crisis is a start in the right direction and the appointment of a College of Regulators to trace the assets of Clico are some steps are being taken.
In Guyana, the performance of the economy was the focus of attention during last month when the Minister of Finance, Dr. Ashni Singh, presented his budget. He demonstrated that the economy grew by 3.1 percent last year, a respectable figure by any standard, having regard to the difficulties of an exogenous nature being experienced. And had it not been for the difficulties in sugar resulting in reduced production, the growth rate would have been 5.9 percent. The Minister actually said that without the anticipated increase in the production in sugar, the expected growth rate would be 1.8 percent. The Minister’s projection might be optimistic in view of the world situation. But it is wholly reasonable having regard to the Guyana situation at the time when the Minister spoke. But we must understand that the world situation is changing all the time for the worst. For example, the projections of the US budget are based on an unemployment figure of 8.1 percent during this year. A mere few weeks after the budget was presented to Congress, the unemployment figure was already there and predictions are that it would reach double digits. For Guyana, bauxite price fell by 50 percent during last year. Rice price is going down. Commodity prices generally are going down. So no one can accurately predict what the position will be at the end of this year in a rapidly deteriorating international environment. But the Minister’s job is to make these assessments and he can only do so on the basis of the facts available at that time. In my view he has done the best he could with the information which was available to him at that time.
The Government’s commitment, as announced by the President was reiterated by the Minister of Finance, and again in Parliament last week, to ensure that pensioners and policyholders will not lose as a result of the difficulties of Clico (Guyana). This commitment demonstrates the nature of our approach, which is one that devotes 30 percent of its budget to social spending and is determined that Guyanese people, particularly the poor and vulnerable, are not disadvantaged by the situation at Clico (Guyana).
I believe that these are the conclusions Cde Cheddi would have made as he contemplated these issues here at his home and these are the positions that he would have wholeheartedly supported, mindful of the fact that these can only be temporary until a social system emerges which can resolve or is more responsive to the contradictions which give rise to the difficulties we face.
The question always arises as to whether Cde Cheddi was a successful person or not. There are many ways of judging success. Different criteria are used by different people. Utilising some criteria, particularly those defined by critics, he was a resounding failure because, as they argue, socialism has failed. Many of the proposals made by Cde Cheddi since his early days in politics, have more to do with independent economic development and measures to eliminate poverty within the context of market economies which he analysed with great precision and perspicacity, even though he believed that the developed economies had and could easily set aside the resources to eliminate poverty in our lifetime, as in clear in his proposals for a New Global Human Order. By my standards and on my assessment, Cde Cheddi was a great success. Many of the ideas which he advocated have been adopted or accepted. Many of the programmes he criticized have failed. Again and again his vision has been vindicated. But then I may be accused of bias.
I started with Naipaul and I should let Naipaul have the last word. He cannot be accused of bias. One of the reasons for his visit to Guyana was to assess Cde Cheddi. Having regard to his own expertise, work and achievements, he is supremely qualified to make a judgment. This is his conclusion, after being at home with Cheddi: The house, with its books and family pictures, felt calm. Thinking of that, thinking of the Jagan children settled abroad, and thinking of the journey that had begun in 1936, I wondered whether it couldn’t be said that Cheddi Jagan, in an essential personal way, had been a success.
Today, March 22, Cde Cheddi would have been 91. Let’s join together and wish him a Happy Birthday!
Ralph Ramkarran
At the Home of Cde Janet Jagan
65 Plantation Bel Air
East Coast Demerara
Greater Georgetown
March 18, 2009

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