The Caribbean Left’s Legacy

— Sara Abraham interviews Eusi Kwayana

THE WORKING PEOPLE’S Alliance (WPA) in Guyana is most commonly associated with one of its early members, Walter Rodney. A renowned Pan Africanist and historian, he was assassinated in 1980, at the height of the party’s involvement in building a civil rebellion to the Forbes Burnham regime. The WPA continued to organize and build its ranks through a democratic socialist multi racial agenda, but has continuously been marginalized by the two party system, wining only one or two seats in each election.

The dominant two parties are the PNC, which has an Afro Guyanese base, and the PPP which has an Indo Guyanese base. Activists from the WPA as well as affiliate women’s groups, human rights groups and other progressive organizations continue to struggle to create the conditions for a multi racial working people’s agenda to come to the political forefront. Towards this, the WPA has fielded Amerindian and women candidates who have represented the party in parliament. WPA members worked closely with the New Jewel Movement in Grenada amongst other regional left movements.

Eusi Kwayana is a Guyanese elder from the historic village of Buxton, which was a base of anti colonial opposition and later provided African support for the radical nationalist movement. He has helped organize rate payers, farmers, sugarworkers, the landless and bauxite workers, in the course of a 50 year political life.

Kwayana was an original member of the early PPP and he briefly worked with the PNC before his group ASCRIA, the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa, became a founding group of the WPA in 1974. He has written numerous commentaries on art in revolution including on the poet Martin Carter, plays, political pamphlets including a tribute to Walter Rodney, and a few booklets, two of the most notable being The Bauxite Workers Strike and the Old Politics (1974) and one on Creole proverbs.

Sara Abraham: WPA is the last remaining left radical party born of the 1970s ferment in the English Caribbean. Can you tell us about the wider movement at that time? How has the WPA come to last? Was it a fundamentally different party than the others?

Eusi Kwayana: In the seventies many movements of the left developed in the English-speaking Caribbean. These movements all had a standing in their own countries and a kind of collective personality in the whole region.

It was not confined to English speaking countries. There were movements in Surinam and in Cayenne. The Cayenne movement was indeed unique as it stood for the independence of Cayenne and published a creole organ Fou we libre. Raymond Charlotte, its moving spirit was in touch mainly with the WPA. Its rondo paper was the most popular literature in Cayenne.

The left movements in the region had a place in the society, though not the place many thought they deserved. They were all post-independence movements, so that they came on the scene, except for certain individuals, when the political framework had already been projected.

How then did these movements have a place in the society? Speaking in general terms, the people instinctively knew the classes and categories and temper of leadership which was closest to authority and the departing foreign powers. In most cases these leaders had already succeeded the foreign powers before the time of independence.

Revolutions become natural and acceptable when the existing state of things discredits itself so massively that the whole society feels in its bones the need for casting aside the established, or establishment parties, both government and opposition.

This was not a need that people generally felt. So where possible, they would change one for the other. This would satisfy the need for a change of government rather than a need for change. So the people connected the establishment parties with the established economies and would tolerate them so long as the economy delivered livelihoods and did not threaten collapse of living arrangements on a massive scale.

But the left movements still had a place because they connected the ordinary people and radical elites as well with a wider world, new information, and new standards for measuring the good life, new social goals and often dealt with neglected injustices in the society.

Their struggle against corruption was welcome but was not expected to be taken too far against these “fathers of the nation”—there were hardly any recognized mothers of the nation—who had given so much of their time and education for their country. One radical anti colonial headmaster, while commending a movement for moving against the corruption of some ministers, also argued that “(Cheddi) Jagan and (Forbes) Burnham, they have the right to steal.”

He said this although he was a supporter mainly on ethnic grounds of one of these two leaders, who were long separated with one leading the PPP and the other the PNC. It showed a kind of acceptance of a successor establishment to the colonial establishment.

This perceived popular sentiment in favor of establishment parties may not, will not, always hold true. But recent news reported that in Panama during the month of May 2004 the son of a notorious military dictator won the Presidency in something like a landslide!

The radical parties filled their allotted or achieved political space rather well. The New Jewel Movement (Grenada) seemed at one time to be invading the territory of an establishment party. Then it went beyond that space after failing to win at elections, and deeming the regime a rogue government not removable by elections, and a threat to safety, in 1979 overthrew the government by force of arms endorsed by popular demonstration, especially of the youth.

Though the NJM made exciting progress, it imploded after four years. It turned on itself, plunging the country into a crisis a hundred times worse that the deviation which the challengers had feared. [This crisis gave the Reagan administration for the 1983 U.S. invasion—ed.]

The Left in Politics

In Guyana the case was that the WPA deemed it necessary to challenge the PNC on its own wicket, elections, mainly to save the election campaign from being another anti developmental ethnic conflict. Perhaps only in Guyana did the left party, all on its own come out of a highly rigged election with a parliamentary seat, suggesting to some that its actual results must have been too good to ignore absolutely.

After years of recognition out of parliament, years of public activity regarded as necessary for the health of the society, often with much public recognition; with almost the whole nation expecting them to defend their collective sovereignty and expose abuses and indiscretions, while the rulers play games, pass on the economic squeeze, pile on indirect consumer taxes and make deals, raise themselves above the law, because “this is politics,” and focus on maintaining electoral support even at the expense of inter racial understanding—after all of this, the left parties came to the point of entry into electoral politics.

This is also partly because these parties buy in to the popular belief that politics is parliament. Most of them wish no big business support and none of them get any, as it is distributed between the two establishment parties, the government and the alternative government, on strictly business lines.

Here, too, business is business. There is no money for good causes. The new parties find the electoral costs prohibitive. Having entered election politics after years of service, they receive a grudging vote from the electorate. At the polls they are invisible, treated like intruders.

These parties sometimes came to the conclusion, sometimes privately expressed, that the country was not in total crisis and therefore was looking for change within the established order; that the country was not “ready” for them. Even in a total crisis the people would first seek a solution within the established order to begin with.

The truth is that the left radical parties, rightly, did not want to be ready for the country by becoming establishment parties, or by joining the establishment. More, they could only become establishment parties by merging into one such party.

Another option would be to overthrow the establishment, as the NJM did in Grenada in 1979. The experience shows another option, which St Vincent bestowed. It was the creation of a new establishment party, as done by the group headed by Ralph Gonsalves. This was possible because the leader embodied some establishment attributes of standing and of scholarship, so as to create the confidence that the system was not being overthrown.

The people had the chance to sweep aside the old political class and essentially appoint new personnel with a clean record, a new face to steer the old ship with new purpose. In fact in St Vincent a gap had occurred in the area of image, as the old guard was in the course of tired retirement. In a sense the old party disappears, but in another sense it alters the terms of its existence.

Left parties in Antigua and in Trinidad and Tobago did better at the polls than the WPA, but did not have the advantage of assembling all its votes in a proportional representation (PR) system as the WPA had in Guyana. The decline of the left parties that people talk about in the seventies and the eighties did not occur then, even when it did occur.

With a more rational electoral system, with a PR system and without ethnic polarization, many of them would have reached parliament, played an empowerment role and from that public stage might have realized growth and more authority in the society.

The WPA’s weakness was also its strength. It could not win a constituency because these have an Indian, an African or an Amerindian majority. WPA was a majority only in one Amerindian regional election, but could not prevail in ethnically solid constituencies of Indian or of African Guyanese relying on the PPP and the PNC respectively for defence against the main rival.

WPA under the reformed electoral system, in 1992 and again in 1997 won one seat with a mere two per cent of the electorate, because the remainder principle of the PR system allowed it. And always the WPA has had a standing beyond its numbers in the Assembly.

In 2001 the WPA accepted an offer from Guyana Action Party to form an electoral Alliance. GAP WPA won two seats in the parliamentary elections. Two women, one urban and the other indigenous, now represent the GAP WPA in the National Assembly.

Walter Rodney’s Example

The essential difference between the WPA and other left radical parties was that the WPA has never had a maximum leader. This implies that it anticipates other approaches in this supremely human project of the overthrow of oppression, especially of the working people, oppression of women and oppression of subject nations.

A strong stream among us also tries to be alert to new forms of bondage or domination which could arise in the course of class formation, or simply the course of structural adjustment. This is a Rodneyite vision, really. Not only is it the case that classes as popularized on the Marxian model do not fit into the Caribbean and many other situations—Africa, India, the Pacific islands, which is why Marx went on his unfinished quest for the “Asiatic mode of production”—to reduce Marx to priorities one, two, three and not to see the essence of the enquiry, is a disaster which had cost peoples dearly.

That is what I think has been the main difference between the WPA and a number of left parties. It may not even apply to all of them. The essential difference between the WPA and other left radical parties was that the WPA was not tired of “politics out of power.” So the WPA survives even at those times when it is mainly a moral force which the political complex cannot totally ignore.

SA: But this is why radical parties are so important—they ask for a sacrifice of the short term solution of a government change for something quite different, which in fact the Black Power radicals and the ULF in Trinidad in the mid-1970s were attempting. There was also the experience of the Cuban revolution. And you had the more immediate revolution in Grenada which was widely popular. There is also, in rhetoric at least, lots of recognition of the importance of the Haitian revolution for Caribbean history.

Were the crowds who gathered to hear Walter Rodney and other WPA activists in the late 1970s excited by such new possibilities, or were they thinking about a change in government, a demand which in itself was radical at the time? Did the WPA consider an armed insurrection?

E.K.: This is a most welcome question. The gatherings and the agitation and re education by means of words and common actions were building, perhaps too quickly, a kind of alternative establishment we can call the people’s establishment. It may be out of this sense that Walter Rodney created his inspired rallying cry “People’s Power, No Dictator.”

The crowds who gathered to hear Walter Rodney were excited by the experience of a new politics. They were hearing once again, in the case of the younger people for first time in their lives, an affirmation of multi racial politics. They were seeing it, living it, taking part in the act of relaxing the polarization of the society, by then taken for granted as destiny.

They had not lived through the upbeat fifties, when the crowds were similar but the focus not the same. Those in the ranks of the party had established a form of political socializing especially in Buxton Annandale with the conky roti parties and joint conferences and classes. There was widespread resentment of the government.

Repression and Assassination

Then things changed. WPA leaders Rodney, Rupert Roopnaraine, Omawale were arrested and charged with arson. Bonita Harris and Karen De Souza, Maurice Odle and Kwame Apata were not charged with arson though arrested. On their release on bail by a disobedient magistrate, uniformed units of the House of Israel started a riot. There was no racial issue except that the House of Israel had been armed to protect the Black Leader in power (Forbes Burnham—ed.). The priest Bernard Darke was stabbed and died later.

Before that arrest, Walter Rodney who had returned with a good reputation was popular, not very well known and a favorite speaker to moderate crowds. His arrest electrified the country. He became a mass figure.

At the next public rally on July 20, 1979 there were thousands, five, six, seven thousand large multiracial crowd of all ages and classes. When I chaired rallies, I introduced Rodney and Roopnaraine as symbols of the new politics. Rodney made his watershed declaration, “The PNC must go and by any means necessary!”

It is possible that this moment both elevated the temper of the struggle, enlarged the WPA following by awaking many previously non-political persons, and at the same time sharpened conflicts within the African section of the population. By the time the WPA launched itself as a party on July 27, it was a party with national standing.

WPA’s rise in profile brought signs of unease from the older opposition party the PPP (historically the party of Cheddi Jagan, Burnham’s political rival—ed.). Rodney’s assassination in 1980, just less than a year after, was the tragic and shattering climax of this new wave.

Rodney’s hope in a time of despair went so deep that the WPA did not disappear. It had lost Ohene Koama and Dublin by assassination. It maintained between 30 and 40 groups; it staged the Walter Rodney Long Walk conceived by Moses Bhagwan in 1985 and organized the masses for a struggle against hunger caused by sudden food bans.

It made a reality of C.Y. Thomas’s Bread and Justice in the spirit of Rodney’s “People’s Power, No Dictator” and it remained a main force in the campaign for fair and free elections. It acquired numerous political prisoners, boycotted the election as the PPP had considered an all party campaign against the rigging “premature.”

With its single seat in the parliament after the 1985 “selections” it gave leadership to the country by winning unanimous support for its motion for a National Dialogue.

For Genuine Democracy

Our favorite formulation: “a multiracial power of the working people,” which after the Grenada experience was amended to “the multiracial and democratic power of the working people.”

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) in 1984 convened a large forum on socialism in Guyana. The PPP, the PNC which was then ruling, and the WPA were invited.

By this time the organized workers were sick of the whole state structure (“paramountcy”). The PPP was calling for more nationalization beyond the 80 percent which had been achieved and bungled.

WPA put forward the thesis, in the light of the state ownership and the paramountcy and reality of dictatorship, “Towards a democratic Republic.” Our position by far was the most popular. Dr. Jagan asked whether we meant a bourgeois republic. We answered that 80 percent of the economy was out of the hands of the bourgeoisie. WPA published this as a pamphlet.

The coming of fair and free elections in 1992 excited the PPP which went into its majoritarian mode. The WPA remained a mass force, but was regarded as having intruding in traditional PNC areas and now in traditional PPP areas. The scramble for the ethnic vote was resumed in earnest, each camp eyeing the other and preaching a version of “Don’t split the vote.”

Of course the WPA or some of us considered, not prepared, a forcible removal of the government, if necessary and if possible. However, Walter Rodney had put his best efforts into the preparation for a government of National Unity and Reconstruction since 1979, with endless discussions with representative organizations of various sectors and classes.

Both Grenada and Surinam taught we where we really were. I think our own losses and theirs brought home to us that force in politics was also violence.

SA: Women activists were unusually prominent in the WPA in the 1970s and 1980s, compared with other radical parties. Did they also work autonomously of the party? Have they been able to influence any long term improvement in the country?

E.K.: I’ll have to take your word for it. I did not know the population of the other Caribbean parties to that extent, if women were not also prominent and active in them.

There are the three well known members Andaiye, Bonita Harris and Karen De Souza. I have written in Guyana that I consider the first two among my mentors. Mark you, in a society of early parenthood either could be my offspring, in terms of age.

The amazing thing is that they did at headquarters a lot of the housekeeping falling to women, arriving with me early and often sweeping the floors, and in addition to that took part fully in typing, editing and in the ideological, education and organizational work of the party.

All those named have been arrested and detained, along with dozens of Indian and African sisters from town and country, even beaten in the course of activity. In our food marches numerous women whose names nobody knows, from the rural areas, joined in illegal marches in defence of households and children.

Tchaiko Kwayana (EK’s companion) fell into that area of work and was never in the executive, like the others named. Karen De Souza was the most frequently arrested party activist.

In 1987, years after Grenada, the WPA considered a policy paper and as a result of long consultations declared itself a Rodneyite party. This move was intended to express both its egalitarian quality and its indigenous quality as a branch of an international tendency engaged in decolonization and social reconstruction.

During these same discussions, the women members declared their intention of establishing WPA Women, an independent organization of women members and requested the cooperation of all groups (nuclei) in assembling their active women membership. I attach more importance to that meeting than Andaiye does.

Women Organizing

WPA was the third political party I belonged to. It is also the one in which I lasted longest. It is the first party in which the women refused to be and declared their independence. I did not think this had happened or could happen in any other Caribbean political party and they deserve to be honored for it.

I am glad that Andaiye has recalled the name of Sister Yvonne Benn. (A much longer discussion of women’s organizing in contemporary Guyana can be found in Small Axe, Issue 15, UWI Mona Press, Jamaica in a 96 page interview with Andaiye). Benn had left the country by that time. I once said to her modestly that I “helped out” at home. She strongly objected to my phrase “help out” as though it was not equally my work.

I took the point. I had learned very early in the late forties from Lenin; most Marxist-Leninists would be surprised to hear that he wrote, in relation to the family, “There is no woman’s work”.

The WPA Women ran into some resistance which was overcome and they established Red Thread (RT) which has done some remarkable things. I have always regarded RT as an independent women’s organization which WPA women and I believe non-WPA women founded.

RT organized women with skills they already had as leisure or spare time skills, and helped them to turn these “women’s skills” into income! Apart from the financing of embroidery and marketing among women of the two major races, they produced handmade greeting cards of a fresh quality.

This was so remarkable that it silenced husbands who did not want their spouse to get into women’s organizations. It did not silence the party bosses of the major parties who thought their women were being led astray, not from the family but from the Flock.

Culturally, they did another remarkable thing. They established a Women’s Press which has published some remarkable titles and they also did job printing. I don’t know their internal affairs, but it is my understanding that they own a property in the city, more than the WPA can boast at present.

Red Thread raised large and small donations to obtain and fix their Centre. They said that their working class members, more than any other, understood this ownership to be central to their independence as an organization. If they were they would have been raising that fund for a building controlled by whatever ever party trunk they were attached to.

SA: What is a Rodneyite party and what was Rodney’s thought? What has it influenced outside of Guyana?

E.K.: It will burden it to call it Rodneyism, as isms have a way of appearing closed. The Rodneyite thought could not be a closed book, because it was developed in transitional times.

It is really a political method and body of social action that grows up in that kind of changing situation. It is in a way political guidance in the revolution in neocolonial times, which are really new times and times of new kinds of conflict.

There is the conflict between national unity and national justice, which includes everyone. There is often as in Guyana the conflict between diasporas from the east meeting in the west (i.e. Africans and ethnic Indians—ed.), not because of their own choice. They have been made to meet by economic and political forces and they have not been introduced to one another.

There is the conflict of classes forming on the shoulders of the poor, out of the poor and getting confused about where they belong. This conflict is a very important social and economic and political element in all that we are facing, in neocolonialism and globalization, and Rodney’s head was right there. Right now before our eyes, globalization is taking over the role of neocolonialism.

Rodney taught a lot of men that women were in the workplace as indirect producers, as he called it. Andaiye in Small Axe stressed this point, and I do remember classes at Linden in the bauxite belt where he was preaching in a manner well suited to the intense maleness of the industrial work force there.

Politics of Self-Emancipation

Based on practice in Guyana, Rodney’s thought firmly emancipated workers, women’s and youth groups and other self organized groups from party control. On general questions Rodney held that people who had not made revolution had no moral ground for criticizing a revolution made by others. He took no part in the conflict between the USSR and China.

Rodneyite doctrine is grounded in self-emancipation of each oppressed group acting together or apart. It did not ideologically dismiss classes, but sought to democratize them, assigning them responsibility for their own spheres for the benefit of the whole society, depriving the predatory classes of power and creating a climate of genuine respect, justice and new rights to the working people, giving them the possibility of pursuing its own emancipation.

At the same time he was re-educating the academic and new professionals that their destiny lay with the working people.

Please excuse my failing to mention the Rodneyite movement outside of Guyana. I am not sufficiently aware of such movements and should not want to misrepresent them.

In Washington, DC a WPA activist from Guyana who studied at Howard published a small paper, The Rodneyite. There is a whole generation of younger people, men and women in Guyana who regard themselves as “Rodneyites” and they belong to all race groups.

Rodney’s mission as a new member of the professional classes was to face his class position and at the same time reject the illusion of distance from the working people, and from this conviction appeal to all who had graduated from the ranks of the poor into professions. His appeal was for a realization that the new classes had no future but in the service of the working people.

Walter Rodney’s thought (Rodneyite thought) was formalized by the WPA in Guyana after Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in November 1983, three years after his ruthless assassination. The new political thought and practice had to:

In summary, the Rodney way was an answer to the disenchantment of the neocolonial regime, in which indigenous leaders have replaced foreign authority and resort to every means and measure to repress or divide so as to maintain usually undemocratic power—rather than seeking a respectful dialogue with real social forces in the face of real pressures to conform by world capital in various guises.

Sara Abraham is an editor of Against the Current. She lives in Toronto.

ATC 112, September–October 2004