Forbes Burnham: Thought and Times
When the post-colonial predicaments of countries such as Congo, Cyprus, Pakistan, Sierra Leone Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe are considered, it becomes obvious that the task of transforming a colony into a nation has not been easy.
British Guiana, like other colonies, was faced with daunting challenges at the time of its independence. Its survival and success as a state depended, in large measure, on the quality of political leadership and the integrity of its institutions and public service.
Dispassionate analysis, rather than attempts to commend or to condemn, is needed to learn the lessons of the past. The intention is to examine the sources of Forbes Burnham’s ideas in the context of the times in which he lived, bearing in mind that he was born 87 years ago.
The National Assembly on 7th August 2008 unanimously passed a motion giving recognition to Guyana’s first Executive President Forbes Burnham 55 years after he entered the National Assembly. The importance of the National Assembly’s Motion is that it reopens research on what the man himself said, not what was said or written about him by others. The present generation should be allowed to learn the lessons of the past for itself.
The truth is that Forbes Burnham’s ideas are still alive and relevant. The words of present-day politicians reverberate with the phraseology of the past. It was Minister of Agriculture Robert Persaud who said on 7th June 2009, “Guyana is the only country within CARICOM that has the capacity to feed itself and is also the net exporter of food.”
It was President Bharrat Jagdeo who said on 26th May 2009 “…our housing policy will further demonstrate my administration’s thrust to heighten the dignity of Guyanese by transforming them into homeowners.”
It was Minister of Education Shaik Baksh who said on 3rd March 2007 “Guyana has advanced in terms of providing access to nursery education, and …….Government has recognised the need for education to commence at the nursery level and the administration has been making significant investments in this area.”
These were the very ideas that Forbes Burnham promulgated four decades ago.
The written record of Forbes Burnham’s work is incomplete and, for various reasons, there has been much misunderstanding of his ideas and his thought. One such misunderstanding was about his role in the original People’s Progressive Party. He was, for example, the first Chairman of that Party; Clinton Wong and Cheddi Jagan were Vice-Chairmen. Cheddi Jagan was also ‘leader of the legislative group’, not party leader.
Forbes Burnham, during ‘crisis week’ after the 1953 election victory for example, has been accused of demanding to be appointed “leader or nothing.” In fact, he was agitating to balance the proposed membership of the Executive Council to prevent the domination of the Jaganite faction which already existed in the party.
Forbes Burnham has been blamed also for instigating the 1962 riots. This has been contradicted flatly by David de Caires who said “I understand 1962 [riots] purely in ideological terms. D’Aguiar got involved with the CIA too. There is no doubt in my mind that he was instrumental in planning to overthrow Jagan. Certainly, in 1962, he played a more active role than Burnham in this respect. D’Aguiar and his followers were the real activists.”
These are just two examples of how Guyana’s political history has been written to distort reality. These are the reasons why there should be more careful study of the past before rushing to judgment.
Forbes Burnham’s thought
Forbes Burnham’s thought is the key to understanding his ideas and actions. Ideas mould the character and character determines destiny. In the case of Forbes Burnham, his idea was to transform society. His political thought rested on three principles:
· Nationalism: (especially his resistance to colonialism);
· Regionalism: (especially his commitment to West Indian unity); and
· Socialism: (especially his support for giving the working classes and peasants a share of the economy through cooperatives and through indigenous control of the country’s resources). ………
Within the framework of analysis, various aspects of Forbes Burnham’s policies should also be examined. Some examples of the topics are:
· Amerindian integration: Establishment of the Amerindian Lands Commission, the extension of scholarships and the construction of hinterland secondary schools.
· Caribbean integration: Pursuit of the vision of Caribbean integration by pioneering the creation of the Caribbean Free Trade Association, the forerunner of the Caribbean Community, one year after his election as Premier on 15th December 1965. He was one of the original signatories to the 1973 Treaty of Chaguaramas, establishing the Caribbean Community.
· Cultural decolonisation: Establishment of the Institute of Decolonisation; reordering of national holidays; hosting of the Caribbean Festival of the Arts; inaugurating the Guyana Festival of the Arts; construction of the National Cultural Centre.
· Economic agenda: Concept of the economy not as masters and workers but as a system of interacting components – Public (state); Private; and Cooperative sectors. This approach was intended to prevent the domination of one group by another and avoid the total exclusion of any single part which was the cause of social conflict.
· Education agenda: Concept of free education as a ‘right’ of all Guyanese; construction of self-help schools to reduce overcrowding; the establishment of the Training College for Teachers, and Multilateral Schools, New Amsterdam Technical Institute and the occupation and development of the University of Guyana Campus.
· International agenda: Securing support for Guyana’s territorial integrity by building a strong Caribbean Community; advancing, in 1970, the work of the Non-Aligned Movement; leadership in opposing apartheid in South Africa, alliance with the liberation movements and support for the Commonwealth’s Gleneagles Agreement; rejecting the artificial Cold War division of the world and advancing the liberalization of trade with communist states.
· Security agenda: Enhancing diplomatic resistance to territorial claims; quelling the Rupununi Rebellion in 1969 and countering persistent internal terrorism and sabotage by opposition unions and parties.
Forbes Burnham’s times
Forbes Burnham proceeded to study law in London, which, in the post-war years, was a hive of anti-colonial agitation and anti-capitalist activity – a very fertile breeding ground for resentment and revolution. His grounding with the anti-colonial and Caribbean student community inculcated a strong sense of nationalism and Caribbean regionalism on the one hand and for socialism, on the other.
He served as President of the West Indian Students’ Union for the academic year, 1947-1948 and was its delegate to the meeting of the International Union of Students in Paris in 1947 and in Prague in 1948. …. He was elected Vice-President of the London Branch of the Caribbean Labour Congress. These were some of the sources of his socialist outlook.
It was while he was in Britain that the 5th Pan African Congress was held in Manchester in October, 1945. That Congress was the turning point for African and Caribbean activists, since it directed attention towards activities focused on their own countries and grounded in the masses of their peoples. These were some of the influences on his anti-colonial and international outlook.
The local situation in British Guiana and the international situation and intellectual currents in the British Empire in the post-war days convinced him of the injustice of colonialism, the common destiny of West Indians and the inherent right of self-determination of all peoples.
He was also impressed by the post-war Labour Party government in Britain itself. This was the administration that granted independence to India, inaugurated the National Health Service and created the ‘welfare society; nationalized coal in January 1947, the railways in January 1948, electricity in April 1948 and, in May 1949, gas. In short, ‘nationalization’ was seen as not only normal, but the best way to ensure equity in the modern state.
With a head full of ideas like these, Forbes Burnham ended his British sojourn in 1949. His political activism started with his return journey home when he went directly to Jamaica as a guest of the People’s National Party there. On returning home, therefore, he became one of the main architects of the constitution and one of the major activists in the original People’s Progressive Party.
He cultivated a social and political constituency on the waterfront from scratch. He had met Hubert Critchlow, who was attending a conference of the World Federation of Trade Unions in 1945 while in London. On his return home, he joined the British Guiana Labour Union in April 1949, served as its attorney and was elected President. He served s President General until his death in 1985. According to Ashton Chase, “Burnham was genuinely interested in the affairs of the [British Guiana Labour] Union and of the working class. He was a good man.”
He first met Dr Cheddi Jagan in his father’s house in Kitty, where the launching of the People’s Progressive Party was planned.
From the start, however, the original PPP was divided between two opposing factions, which could be described as the militants and the moderates. Forbes Burnham’s political beliefs could best be described as socialist and placed him at the head of the moderate faction.
When the first elections were held under universal adult suffrage in April 1953, only 51 per cent voted for the PPP, a far cry from the so-called ‘landslide’ about which some are fond of writing. A state of emergency was declared, the constitution was suspended, the British Army landed and the six PPP Ministers who had been appointed to the Executive Council were expelled on 9th October 1953.
It was felt that whoever controlled the PPP at that critical time would control the country for years to come. As a result, some elements determined to prevent Forbes Burnham from occupying a position of power. The militants regarded him as a ‘deviationist’ who was not Leninist enough. The decision was taken to force Forbes Burnham out of the party if he was unwilling to embrace the militant agenda.
Forbes Burnham decided to move before he was removed. At a controversial conference at the Metropole Cinema on 12-13 February 1955, the PPP divided into a Jaganite ‘J’ faction (i.e., those who supported Cheddi Jagan) and a Burnhamite ‘B’ faction (i.e., those who supported Forbes Burnham).
The PPP (J) won the majority of seats in the Legislative Council in the 1957 General Elections and formed the administration. At that stage, the so-called Burnhamites conceded the name ‘PPP’ to the Jaganites and established a new party, the PNC, on 5th October 1957. At that first congress, Forbes Burnham was elected leader; Joseph Pryag Lachhmansingh, Chairman and Jai Narine Singh, General Secretary.
The PNC started negotiations with the United Democratic Party in late 1958 – a year after its establishment – and did not conclude until March 1959 with a joint congress, but there were sharp ideological differences between the two sides. Soon after it had absorbed the UDP, the PNCR entered negotiations with Peter d’Aguiar from 1959 to 1960. Peter d’Aguiar, at that time, had lots of money but no party. These talks broke down and d’Aguiar launched the United Force. By 1964, however, the two parties considered it in Guyana’s interest to form a coalition Government.
Challenges of leadership
Forbes Burnham faced many challenges within his party and in the country. He built the PNC the old-fashioned way, by hard work, suffering lots of hard knocks. During the 1961 General Election, he was pelted with rotten eggs on the Corentyne Coast and, at Sheet Anchor, struck with a broken bottle. Even at Mackenzie, mineworkers were not his ‘natural’ allies. They were distrustful of him because they considered him as a communist, owing to his relation with Jagan and the PPP. It took a long time to unite the party and to prepare it to hold office.
The very grave security problems that were caused by the PPP’s Hurricane of Protest and GAWU’s strike in the sugar industry, which led to the ‘Disturbances’, did not come to an end with the elections of December 1964. Terrorists bombed the US Consulate in Georgetown in June 1965. Weapons were stolen from the Guyana Defence Force at Atkinson Field. PPP delegates to the Havana ‘Tricontinental Conference’ endorsed the Havana Declaration of the Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America, which called for “Armed struggle [as] the fundamental path of attaining revolutionary power.” In the sugar industry, arson and strikes organised by the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union were a constant threat to productivity and a menace to security.
Forbes Burnham, despite a difficult domestic situation, continued to pursue the ideal of Caribbean unity. He tabled a motion in the Legislative Council in August 1958 to take steps for British Guiana to enter the West Indies Federation but the PPP had no intention of passing such a motion. As Shridath Ramphal said, “For the whole process of decolonization, for the principles of non-alignment, in the struggle against apartheid and, nearer home, to the cause of West Indian Unity – for all of these – his commitment was so unreserved that it often led him into positions that seemed to border on excessive zeal. But this was in the nature of the man and the cause that won from him such commitment was a cause served well indeed.”
These columns were not intended to be a political biography of Forbes Burnham, but merely a sketch some of the factors that contributed the man’s thought in the context of the times in which he lived.
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