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The Elusive Search for Political Unity (1975-1982)


by Odeen Ishmael
Guyana Journal, March 2008

The failed PNC-PPP talks

In the immediate post 1975 period, little progress was achieved in attaining formal unity between the PPP and other political forces. The PNC had rejected the PPP’s call in 1976 for the formation of a National Patriotic Front government, but later that year it initiated discussions with the PPP to discuss the idea and other issues of political cooperation. During these talks the PNC gave tentative support to a type of “Fatherland Front” like that operating at the time in Bulgaria, but later dropped the idea.

While the talks were continuing, there were some hopes that a national government of the PNC and PPP would have been formed. However, the PNC-PPP talks collapsed in December 1976 after the PPP, through the Mirror, criticized the government’s removal of subsidies which placed added pressures on the standard of living of the people.

The PPP believed that two main factors influenced the PNC to discontinue discussions on the formation of a National Patriotic Front government: firstly, pressures from imperialist quarters forced the PNC administration to agree to increase the compensation payments to Bookers McConnell Company for the nationalization of the firm’s sugar estates instead of the $1 (one dollar) that was initially agreed; secondly, the PPP’s opposition to the PNC’s decision to put the burden of the economic crisis on the backs of the people, beginning with the removal of subsidies.

On the other hand, the PNC charged that the PPP was only interested in a share in the government to save itself.

The PNC subsequently postponed the elections in 1978, held a massively rigged referendum aimed at changing the constitution, and then crudely rigged the national and regional elections in 1980.

Efforts to unite opposition groups
In the struggle against the anti-democratic PNC regime, the PPP, as the main opposition Party, also made efforts to unite all the opposition groups to take a common position. In these efforts, many difficulties were encountered, most hinging on matters of ideology. The PPP was Marxist-Leninist while the other parties, all very small, ranged from the far right to the far left in ideological orientation.

The small opposition parties included the Working People’s Vanguard Party (WPVP) which was formed by Brindley Benn and a few individuals who resigned from the PPP in 1968. This party developed close links with the Indian Political Revolutionary Associates (IPRA), a group formed in 1972 by ex-PPP member Moses Bhagwan and some others who had also switched their support from the PPP. The WPVP, with a Maoist orientation, later linked with the Ratoon Group, (a leftist radical organization with many of its members at the University of Guyana, with a similar ideological outlook), IPRA and Eusi Kwayana’s African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA) to form the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) in 1974.

But in 1976, the WPVP turned full ideological circle, seceded from the WPA, and joined up with the rightist Liberator Party (LP), (led by Ganraj Kumar), and the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), (led by ex-PNC minister Llewellyn John), to form the Vanguard for Liberation and Democracy (VLD), which expressed strong support for a right-wing capitalist ideology.

Clearly, the differences in ideology led to differences in tactics and strategy and, as a result, the opposition parties could not develop a common platform for unity to combat the PNC.

In early 1978, the PPP attempted to bring together all democratic, progressive and revolutionary forces in a National Patriotic Front. The Party emphasized that this would not be a “left” front and that its program would be in line with the stage of historical socio-economic and political development in Guyana. With particular reference to the right of center parties, the PPP explained that there was a clear distinction between monopoly foreign capital and local capital, emphasized that there was a definite place for the private sector, and illustrated the historical role played by small businessmen and patriotic capitalists in the building of just democratic societies in the socialist countries.

However, the LP, WPVP and the PDM refused to participate in the discussions. But later in the year, they joined with the PPP and the other opposition parties – except the UF which refused to join – and civil society organizations, including religious bodies, to form the broad-based Committee in Defence of Democracy (CDD) to campaign against the referendum aimed at postponing general elections and changing the constitution.

Problems within the CDD
Despite this show of anti-PNC unity in opposing the referendum, the ideological differences caused some in-fighting within the CDD. For instance, the LP made use of this popular platform to spread anti-socialist and anti-communist ideas. It attacked land reform and “the land to the tiller” slogan of the PNC, and it also castigated socialism claiming that it had failed in Guyana. The PPP objected to this propagandizing but the LP retaliated by insisting that the PPP could not on the CDD platform speak in favor of land reform while saying that what had failed in Guyana was not socialism but Burnhamism.

In addition, the small rightist parties (LP, WPVP and PDM) took advantage of the popular CDD platform to express their individual political and ideological positions and even openly attacked the PPP, despite that party’s leading role in opposing the referendum.

In particular, the LP’s sharp expression of ideological differences within the CDD undermined the emphasis of opposition to the referendum. During subsequent public meetings held by the CDD, the LP distributed leaflets viciously attacking socialism and the socialist states and claimed that the communist and workers parties in Cuba, the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union were propping up the PNC.

On the other hand, the leftist parties (the PPP and WPA) and allied groupings, took a more principled position by highlighting their opposition to the PNC regime and the referendum rather than their ideological differences with their rightist partners in the CDD.

This attempt in 1978 at unity failed to stop the referendum. Nevertheless, the call by the CDD for citizens to boycott the referendum was successful. And even though the boycott was mainly passive, it succeeded in isolating the PNC regime and exposed its rigging techniques both locally and internationally.

Failure to reach PPP-WPA unity
Attempts to reach unity between the PPP and the WPA were also not successful. The PPP claimed that efforts failed because of misconceptions some WPA leaders had about the PPP which led to attacks on the latter; the WPA’s links with ex-PPP members who continuously slandered the party; and the tendency of the WPA to make accommodations with rightist groupings and its inconsistency in defending leftist positions.

Ironically, the leaders of the Indian-based IPRA and the African-based ASCRIA, two main affiliate groups within the WPA, also saw the PPP and the PNC as two racial blocs, and both groups in 1972 had stated that their objective was to destroy both of these major parties. This view of the PPP and the PNC was as late as November 1981 expressed by Eusi Kwayana , the head of ASCRIA and also co-leader of the WPA, in an article in the Caribbean Contact. Referring to the PPP split in 1955 and subsequent political events, Kwayana stated: “Since that date (1955) the behavior of the two main parties resulting from the split – the PPP, led by Cheddi Jagan, and the PNC led by Forbes Burnham – has been largely determined by racial defensiveness. This has largely remained the case, regardless of the slogans the parties inscribed on their banners.”

The Ratoon group and the WPVP, affiliates of the WPA, had also attacked the PPP for taking part in the 1968 and 1973 elections. They deemed the PPP’s participation in the elections as non-revolutionary, claiming that such action was aimed at propping up the PNC government.

Despite such attacks, the PPP took a conciliatory attitude towards the WPA. The two parties engaged in dialogue and the PPP rendered various forms of assistance to the WPA, which included the loan of public address systems for use at public meetings, particularly after Dr. Walter Rodney’s return to Guyana in 1974.

But relations cooled in the mid-1975-mid-1976 period after the WPA’s affiliate, the WPVP, openly accused the PPP of “sell-out” over its policy of “critical support” for the PNC regime. Nevertheless, the PPP invited the WPA to re-start discussions but these did not occur until August 1977, soon after which the WPVP seceded from the WPA.

During 1978, the PPP and WPA engaged in intensive discussions. The WPA expressed support for the PPP’s idea of “winner-does-not-take-all-politics” and for the formation of a National Patriotic Front and Government. But the WPA opposed the inclusion of the PNC, and felt that in addition to the inclusion of other political parties, social groups should also be members of the front for which the party advocated a rotating chairmanship.

Early in the talks, the PPP presented its draft program and later the WPA presented its own program “Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Guyana”, which stated that the party was “guided by the principles of Marxism-Leninism with a socialist goal”.

The WPA’s program proposed a National Assembly of 50 members, but it was weighted to the right by giving disproportionate representation to the small rightist parties, although in its program it had stated that “the struggle to overthrow the present regime must be situated within an anti-imperialist and socialist focus”. However, it was prepared to accede to the VLD program which was to the right of that of the PNC.

In spite of the WPA’s shaky ideological stance, the two parties continued their unity discussions and later held two meetings at grass roots level at Buxton-Annandale and Grove. But further meetings of these types were postponed at the request of the WPA. Meantime, both parties continued work on a draft statement, “Declaration of Principles for a National Patriotic Front Government”, to include ideas pertaining to democracy, anti-imperialism and socialism.

The Compass Group
The PPP-WPA had apparently made significant progress in their discussions when a new organization known as the “Compass Group” appeared on the scene. This group was launched in April 1979 when it issued a “Statement of Purpose” and a “Members’ List” which were sent to Prime Minister Burnham and Opposition Leader Dr. Cheddi Jagan. In its statement, the group declared that it did not see itself as a political party and would remain independent of any existing political organization.

The group felt that given the unsettled political and economic situation in the country, its members had “the constitutional right to meet, debate or publish views on the national concerns.” The statement added: “The group would consider any attempt to employ sanctions, restrictions or penalties of any kind to any of the group members, on account of their membership in the group or their contribution to its work, as being an infringement of that right.”

Significantly, it called for the formation of a broad-based Government of National Reconstruction, “neither left nor right” and with “no ideology”.

The publication of the statement in mid-April 1979 caused some panic in the PNC. This was most likely because the Compass Group included five senior public service executives, two leading trade unionists, the Bishop of the Anglican Church, journalists, lawyers and businessmen. All of them were prominent individuals, mainly drawn from the petit bourgeoise and other middle strata in the Guyanese society.

The senior public service executives included Pat Thompson, Chairman of the state-owned bauxite company, Bauxite Industrial Development Corporation (BIDCO), and Pat Carmichael, Chairman of the Guyana National Engineering Corporation. Both Thompson and Carmichael were heavily pressed by Burnham to withdraw from the group. After they faced continuing threats from Prime Minister Burnham and top leaders of the PNC, they eventually emigrated to Barbados.

The remaining members of Compass later invited the PNC, PPP, WPA, and LP to meet with them to discuss the political and economic situation in the country. The PNC refused, but the opposition parties met with them on separate occasions. The WPA and LP soon after expressed their willingness to embrace the political position laid out by Compass, but the PPP made it clear that that it could not form a joint opposition with any party or group that would not subscribe to democracy, socialist orientation and anti-imperialism.

Collapse of PPP-WPA talks
It was shortly after these meetings in mid-1979 that the WPA began to move closer to the Compass Group. When it seemed to the general public that cooperation in building PPP-WPA unity was progressing steadily, the WPA in mid-1979 abandoned the unity talks and suddenly decided to adopt the political program of the Compass Group. As a result of this change in the WPA’s position, the joint PPP-WPA statement remained uncompleted and was never issued.

The PPP immediately warned the WPA leaders about their tactics and strategy and the dangers of petit bourgeoisie impatience and of the dangers of capitulation to rightist forces. The PPP pointed out that the “neither left nor right” position of the Compass Group meant in fact a rightist government, that “no ideology” meant capitalist ideology. The party explained that while the rightist forces were frontally attacking socialism and claiming that it was irrelevant to Guyana, the WPA was tailing them. According to the PPP, the attitude of the WPA was that since one section of the people did not want to hear about socialism, then it was no longer an issue worth championing.

The Compass Group itself drew little support from the masses and even from the middle class from which its members were drawn, and it soon dropped out from the political scene.

Thus, PPP relations with the WPA became strained, and there was little contact between them for almost a year. It was during this time, too, that there were renewed contacts between the PNC aimed at reaching a political solution in Guyana, but the subsequent discussions did not proceed very far.

Actually, the PPP felt that the PNC was not interested in a unity government based on an agreed democratic, anti-imperialist and socialist-oriented program. In such a situation, the PPP felt that to enter into any arrangement with the PNC, which was still bent on continuing its anti-democratic policies, would amount to a betrayal of the people’s vital interests and was tantamount to political suicide.

Renewed efforts
Although strained relations continued between the PPP and WPA, there was some collaboration in mid-1979 during the strike of bauxite workers who defied the PNC-controlled union leadership. They bauxite workers were supported by the sugar workers and a section of the urban workers, and both the PPP and WPA organized solidarity, food supplies and other resources for those on strike.

After the assassination of Dr. Rodney, formal discussions resumed in mid-1980, with the VLD included, but on the eve of the December 1980 elections, relations worsened. At the last meeting with the WPA and VLD before the elections, the PPP suggested that in the interest of future cooperation, the three parties should issue a joint statement indicating that there were genuine differences in tactics regarding the participation in elections, but the common commitment remained – the removal of the PNC. The PPP also warned them about the danger of the alternative course for them to attack the PPP as was done in the past. Unfortunately, this advice was not heeded, and both parties launched stinging attacks on the PPP for its socialist policies and its decision to participate in the parliamentary struggle by contesting the elections.

During the election campaign, the PPP not only attacked the PNC but also explained the differences between itself and the other opposition parties in tactics and strategy. But despite the differences with the WPA, the PPP continued to work for unity. Nevertheless, the WPA and VLD maintained their attacks on the PPP for advocating the parliamentary struggle. In its defense, the PPP stated that its position about parliamentary struggles was consistent with Marxist-Leninist practice – that it must wage the struggle on all fronts without exception so long as there was no existing revolutionary situation in the country.

In its analysis of the difficulties in reaching a political agreement with the WPA, the PPP felt that this was due to the fact that the WPA grew out of a coalition of at first four – later three – groups with different ideological orientations – Black and Indian cultural nationalism, Maoism, New Leftism, and Marxism as distinct from Marxism-Leninism. Further, its international links were mainly with Maoist, neo-Trotskyite and Black cultural nationalist groups and parties. Consequently, according to the PPP, this led to divergences in the political line within the WPA.

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