Burnham’s dangerous legacy

David Granger, leader of the People’s National Congress (PNC), has vowed to continue the legacy of Forbes Burnham, his party’s “Founder Leader”, whose birth centenary they are planning to commemorate. What was that legacy? After 1968, the PNC jettisoned its junior coalition partner, the United Force (UF), and began to rig elections to remain in office. To retain power in a minority regime, Burnham introduced a form of governance (post-1968) that sought to establish and maintain absolute control over the State and society. The model of a “totalitarian state” introduced by Carl Friedrich, to analyse the nature of the Soviet State of the early fifties, can serve as a useful heuristic to do the same for the PNC regime.
First: A single mass party, led by a dictator. While Burnham allowed other parties to exist during the electoral-rigging era, those parties never threatened the PNC’s rule, and Guyana in actuality became a one-party State. That is, while other parties might have been permitted to exist, they were never allowed to compete effectively with the PNC. If they ever posed a real threat to the regime, as the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) did briefly by 1979, the totalitarian “sharper steel” (Burnham’s words”), was bared. The following year (not coincidentally), a new Constitution confirmed Burnham’s absolute control over Guyana.
Second: A system of terroristic control. The House of Israel — loyal to the PNC – “Kick down the door” bandits, arbitrary search and seizures by the Police, Police informers in every locality, assassinations, ostentatious marches by the army through Opposition strongholds, etc, kept the Opposition parties under control, and their supporters in terror. Indian-Guyanese responded to the pressure by mass migration: joining the earlier wave of migrants – primarily Portuguese. Soon half the country was abroad. For those who remained, corruption was institutionalised, as it became the avenue of relating to, and dealing with, the system. Corruption was power, and absolute corruption became absolute power.
Third: A near-monopoly control over mass communication and education. The Government’s nationalisation of, and PNC control over, the media (radio and newspapers – television was not permitted), and establishment of the GPSA in tandem with a programme of harassment of the opposition newspapers through libel suits and bans on newsprint, consummated this imperative. Schools were all nationalised, and mass games introduced.
Fourth: A near-monopoly control over the “coercive” apparatus of the State.
The Guyana Disciplined Forces — Army, Police Force, Fire Service, National Service, People’s Militia and National Guard Service — were expanded exponentially and staffed with a 90 per cent African-Guyanese membership. All officers swore personal loyalty to Forbes Burnham, to provide — along with the similarly-constituted Police Force — the coercive basis for the PNC’s rule. David Granger was in charge of their ideological training.
Fifth: The central control and direction of the economy. By the PNC’s boast, they nationalised 80 per cent of the economy by 1976. Party membership and support for the party’s position became prerequisites for maintaining a job. In Burnham’s words, those who were fired stayed fired. The co-operative, which was to be the cornerstone of the economy, was to be the vehicle for rewarding the poorer African-Guyanese supporter, but by the late 1970s, most had collapsed. African-Guyanese now joined the exodus to “foreign”.
Sixth: A near monopoly over all civil organisations. Trade Unions, religious organisations, schools, cultural organisations, and social bodies were all either subverted or controlled by the PNC intimidation: by buying off compliant leadership, or by the creation of paper organisations which were given governmental recognition and a place at the Government’s trough. Indian-Guyanese leaders were placed in highly-visible but essentially powerless positions to create a façade of a “non-racial” Government.
Seventh: an official ideology. The PNC announced in 1974 it was a Marxist-Leninist party, and was reorganised as the “vanguard of the masses”. While there have been interminable discussions as to the “sincerity” of the PNC in its avowal; at a minimum, Marxism-Leninism gave the PNC an appropriate vocabulary and methodical postulate for its innovations and excesses.
Forewarned is forearmed.