LINCOLN Lewis has taken me to task for saying that Burnham’s ideas are a thing of the past. He accused me of divisiveness and of being disrespectful to the former President. I must admit that I was surprised by Lincoln’s conclusions; he clearly took my statement out of context.
I said Burnham’s ideas are a thing of the past and followed up with a qualifying statement—that African-Guyanese have no relationship to those ideas and don’t care for them. In other words, I was making the larger point that the ideas on governance and development by the political leaders of the immediate post-colonial period have no resonance in any Caribbean country today. That was all I was saying.
Perhaps Lincoln instinctively believes the myth that once one opposes a leader, as I did in Burnham’s case, one would always say negative things about that leader. So, he proceeded to read hate and venom in my statement rather that reading the statement in the context in which it was made. For the record, at the time of Burnham’s rule, many of us opposed his authoritarianism and some of the anti-people policies that invariably flowed from such rule. That did not take away from the correctness of some of his policies which were part of an ideological thrust that was shared by most political leaders and parties in the Caribbean and the so-called Third World.
Burnham’s ideas were developed as he governed—one cannot honestly discuss his ideas outside of his governance. In that sense, it is more useful to talk about his praxis. Sometimes people confuse ideas with policies that flow from those ideas. I have heard a lot of Burnham’s admirers talk about his policy initiatives as if they were ideas in and of themselves. Whether it was National Service, the Harbour Bridge, free education or housing reform, these were policy initiatives which flowed from ideas.
Burnham’s political ideas were part of a larger body of post-colonial ideas about development in the newly independent countries. He believed that it was the State that should be the engine of development; that the State had a major role to play in the redistribution of resources—an imperative in countries such as Guyana. He, therefore, subscribed to the idea of a socialist political economy.
At the level of politics and governance, he believed that the political party should be paramount to the State and that the leader should be paramount to the party. In other words, he subscribed to the notion of the personalisation of political power. On the matter of foreign policy, he believed that size should not deter a country from playing a major role in hemispheric and global affairs. It was from this idea that his activist, progressive foreign policy flowed, including his Caribbean regional integration initiatives and his stance on African Liberation. Although he did not use the term, Burnham believed in a Caribbean Civilisation that arose out of our unique historical experiences.
Perhaps Burnham’s lasting contribution to political praxis in Guyana was his ability to be deeply ideological while being pragmatic in governing. In a sense, that approach was forced on the leaders of his time who had to contend with local and global forces beyond their control. But Burnham was more adept at it than others. He knew when to be anti-communist and when to be Marxist-Leninist. He knew how to be Black Powerist without being Black Nationalist. He knew when to be anti-imperialist and when to be pro-west. Some have called it political opportunism, but that is a very harsh dismissal of a mode of operation that was very common in Burnham’s time.
The point I was making in the statement that offended Lincoln is that those ideas which drove Burnham and guided his praxis are no longer in play.
Even if Lincoln and other idealists of yester-year think those ideas are relevant, the fact is they do not have any resonance in our contemporary situation. Fortunately, or unfortunately, our country and Region have moved on in that regard. The State is no longer seen as the engine of development. Anti-imperialist, Third Wordlist foreign policy no longer holds sway. Paramountcy of the party is frowned upon. The notion of the maximum leader is not as seductive as it used to be.
Were some of Burnham’s ideas on socio-economic reform and how government could be used in that regard on target? Absolutely! Are some of them still useful today? Absolutely. Do Burnham’s people and his party use them? Absolutely not. Why? They don’t, and they can’t, because the society has moved into a neo-liberal era that has no tolerance for or knowledge of socialist ideas and the use of government to effect social reform.
For example, President Granger, who I believe deeply admires Burnham, has declared that it is not the role of government to provide jobs. He has said that there is no need for a State media. He has advocated the privatisation of sugar.
There can be nothing more anti-Burnham than those policy preferences–the whole premise of Burnham’s ideas was the role of the State as facilitator of empowerment of the poor and as the engine of development. Does that mean that Granger is not Burnhamist? Absolutely not. He just feels that Burnham’s ideas in that regard are no longer applicable to our society. In fact, from the time of Hoyte to the present, no PNC leader or elections manifesto has articulated Burnhamist ideas.
They would make references to some of his policies and projects, but never privilege the ideas from which those policies arose. That is all I was saying. As calypsonian, Chalkdust would ask—Am I lying?
I will submit that Burnham remains a towering figure in Guyanese politics, not so much for his ideas—I don’t think he was first and foremost an “ideas man,” even though he was driven by some fundamental ideas. He remains a towering figure largely because for half of our ethnic community, he is the hero-leader who measured up to the leader of the other side. He wielded power in a manner that at one level gave a sense of security to African-Guyanese, even if in the process of doing so he offended their democratic instincts.
As I said in a previous column on Burnham, unfortunately, our society is not hospitable to critical analysis. We function in a state of binaries—good vs evil. And our highly charged zero-sum ethno-politics encourages such a tendency. Burnham, like the Jagans, Rodney, Hoyte, Kwayana and the other major political leaders deserve more critical treatment.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to email@example.com