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The People’s Progressive Party of Guyana, 1950-1992: An Oral History by Frank Birbalsingh. Hansib. 2007, pp.206.

Reviewed by Gokarran David Sukhdeo
Guyana Journal, July 2007


The presentation of history has long been indicted and dogged by the question: from whose perspective?
Too often the masses, the working class, has been deprived of the privilege of writing history from its own perspective; too often the interpreting and recording of history are done by a different class mainly representative of the victors, the conquistadors, the empire builders, the conglomerates, and in some cases, of pseudo-heroes and even vagabonds and scalawags; too often the working class has been robbed of credit for roles played in cataclysmic changes in history.

Arguably, no other political organization in the English-speaking Caribbean can claim the closest identification with the working class as the PPP of Guyana; and no other has been more vilified, victimized and misrepresented as the PPP.

In cognizance of the above, Professor Frank Birbalsingh in his latest work, "The People’s Progressive Party of Guyana, 1950-1992: An Oral History," has clearly set out to avoid this serious indictment of history. In doing so, he uses a reconstruction model to present the facts about the PPP from an array of twenty-seven living resources. (Unfortunately, two have passed away since Professor Birbalsingh interviewed them.)

The underlying thesis arising from these interviews is that the history of Guyana from the mid-forties to present day is really a legacy or the evolutionary result of the clash of two indomitable titans – a legacy that has (unfortunately and perhaps permanently) permeated every socio-political structure in the country. Essentially, it is a tragedy – a story of how the unity of two major races achieved in 1953 under the socialist-inclined PPP, posed such a formidable threat to the bastions of colonialism and neo-colonialism, that it took the collaborative efforts of both the UK and USA, using diplomatic as well as nefarious tactics, to split this unity of Indo and Afro Guyanese people. And Forbes Burnham was their Queen piece in the great chess game of divide and rule that played out against this unity of the Guyanese people.

The first blow to this unity that terrified the British and Americans came when they suspended the Constitution in 1953 and ousted the PPP government after 133 days in power. Immediately after, the PPP was split along racial lines, and the destinies of the two races forever set apart.

But apart from the external manipulations by the British and Americans, the reader is able to understand from Birbalsingh’s first interview, with no other that the founding leader of the PPP, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, and also from most of the other interviews, that the fundamental problem that led to the disintegration could be summarized in Cheddi’s words, “Burnham came from the middle-class, whereas my background was working class.” Thus, from the very start, Burnham’s heart was never truly with the working people.

It is noted that through the book, the steadfastness and sincerity of Dr. Jagan, and the working class foundation of the PPP resound in every testimony given by the interviewees. These were the greatest strengths of the party. From the interviews the party’s history unfolds, showing that in the struggle to maintain these strengths a multiplicity of conflicts arose both from within and without the party. First there was the internal ideological conflict with ultra-leftist elements; then there was the on-going conflict to appease the hyper-egoistic Forbes Burnham. From the very inception, Burnham, whose roots and interests clearly lay in the middle class, and was driven by the League of Coloured People, made it clear that he was not going to play second fiddle to the lower class Cheddi, and manifested a greedy aspiration for the top post. He knew that all Guyana had been eagerly waiting his return from London to take up political activism; he knew that Cheddi badly wanted him in the PPP (paying his passage home, offering him the Chairmanship of the party, ignoring his tardiness in attending meetings, etc.) in order to keep the unity of both Afro and Indo Guyanese under the PPP. This knowledge was Burnham’s ace, the race card, and he used it to the maximum effect.

How forces inside and outside the party capitalized on these conflicts and succeeded in suspending the constitution, splitting the PPP, Stalinizing its leadership, fattening up the ego of Burnham and offering him all manner of glitters, unfold in the interviews.

Birbalsingh does not just set out to present the history of the PPP from a working class perspective. He is keenly aware that the most accurate depiction of a person or organization does not come from what that person or organization paints of itself, but must necessarily include the impressions of others outside the organization, even from its detractors and adversaries. Thus his interviewees are taken from a wide spectrum of highly ranking academics and university trained professionals of political, legal and journalistic expertise, writers of international renown, senior civil servants, leaders of other political parties in Guyana and the Caribbean, leaders of the clergy, and even people who were closely affiliated to Burnham, some serving faithfully in his administration. Of the twenty-seven interviewees, less than half were members of the PPP. The objectivity and authenticity of this book is therefore clearly established.

Thirdly, Birbalsingh has embarked on a methodology that is of recent, becoming popular – presenting micro-history from the “horses’ mouth”, so to speak, by interviewing live resources. What has been presented therefore is more or less, a living history of the PPP, since, of the twenty-seven interviewees, only two - Dr Jagan and Martin Carter have passed away. It makes history more alive, not the dry as dust, boring, bibliographic-loaded dissertations that are painful to read.

But more interestingly, there are lots of information that can be obtained from these resources that cannot be found elsewhere. For example, Father Morrison stated that the US had promised Cheddi the Linden Highway, but failed to deliver, and gave it to Burnham instead.

Again, Political Scientist, Professor George Bell, founder/leader of the Workers Party of Barbados, draws our attention to some remarkable similarities between the life and ideology of Cheddi Jagan and Nelson Mandela. They were both painted as communists and both “exiled” for twenty-eight years. In 1964 Jagan lost power; in 1964 Mandela went to prison. In 1992 Jagan re-gains power; in 1990 Mandela came out of prison. They were both allowed to resume power when the threat of communism had receded.

On the question of whether Dr. Jagan was an avowed communist, or was he just a socialist, Professor George Belle in his interview with Birbalsingh states, “I never had any perception of Cheddi Jagan as unapologetically communist… [he was] a Marxist in a liberal, democratic framework… The British who identified him as a communist did not believe that a communist could operate within a liberal, democratic political system.” This explains why he purged the party in its birthing stage of ultra leftists. Obviously, geo-political concerns made the British, under pressure from the Americans, to paint Cheddi Jagan and Fidel Castro with the same brush.

Or questions on Burnham’s bogus socialism: Did Burnham fool anyone with his socialism? The answer is unequivocally, no. Not the Americans who tolerated him as the lesser of two evils; not India, China, even Cuba that bestowed him the Jose Marti medal, nor the USSR that all supported him, because, according to Rahim Bacchus in his interview, “Socialism was the currency of the (rapidly growing) Third World Movement and it suited the diplomatic and foreign policy interests of these countries to accommodate him.”

Some of the great stalwarts at the time were socialists or turning socialists – Julius Nyerere, Srimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Michael Manley, to name a few, and Burnham, the great orator who mesmerized the Law Faculty at London University, ranked himself head and shoulder with these stalwarts as he jostled for a leadership role in the Third World movement. He prattled plenty socialist phraseology and (superficially) practiced just enough socialism in Guyana to barely squeeze in the socialist fraternity. He fooled no one, least of all the Guyanese people, nor Cheddi Jagan who goaded him towards socialism with his “critical support”. Burnham’s foreign policy made him a hero abroad; at home he was a villain.

Birbalsingh’s interviews reveal that not only the PPP was unfortunately stigmatized, so also were (and still are) its predominant supporters – the Indo-Guyanese generally for being racists who were/are adamantly opposed to unity with Afro-Guyanese.

According to Professor George Bell, it was Walter Rodney who showed that a genuine post-fifties Indo/Afro Guyanese unity was not only possible, but also that this unity was pragmatically accepted by hordes of Indians both at the grass root and academic levels who joined the WPA. This fact that the Indians were prepared to accept unity under Black leadership, (but the reverse has never been, and is still not true) glaringly confounds those power brokers who categorically cast Indians as racial voters.

The interviews throw light on many other issues, among which are the roles played by:

- The US-supported regime of Venezuela in the destabilizing of Guyana.
- The Indian and African middle-class in undermining the PPP, a role that has not been fully exposed.
- The Catholic Church for its anti-communism hysteria in the fifties and sixties, and its de facto support of the PNC, through the UF/PNC coalition; and in the seventies a subsequent change of heart to become a rabidly anti-PNC force.
- The trade unions.
- The US post-Cold War efforts to remove the PNC which they had installed and maintained in power for 28 years, and in seeking to create the conditions to facilitate a PPP return to power.
- Political violence that previously helped to remove the PPP in the fifties and sixties, once again resurging and threatening to destabilize the country.

This book comes at an opportune moment when certain publications have emerged accusing the PPP and Indians of racism, casteism, ethnic cleansing, drug dealing, etc., etc. Other publications coming out are trying to cast Burnham in a hero’s mold. These people should take note of what some of the interviewees said of him, including some who were very close to him. Even Cedric Joseph; a die-hard faithful of Burnham and Hoyte, reluctantly stated that Sir Ralph Grey, the last emissary of the British Government, referred to Burnham’s style of government as “inept”, but of their chief adversary, Dr Jagan, “his sincerity of purpose”.

There is no doubt these interviews present a serious challenge to all those individuals who seek to distort history.


Frank Birbalsingh, Emeritus Professor of English at York University, Toronto, Canada, taught post-colonial literature. He has done justice to the PPP and its supporters. The People’s Progressive Party of Guyana, 1950-1992: An Oral History is a worthwhile reading for all honest-minded students, politicians and historians.

Among Birbalsingh’s works are: Passion and Exile: Essays on Caribbean Writing (l988); Indenture and Exile: The Indo-Caribbean Experience (1989); Novels and the Nation: Essays in Canadian Literature (1995); Frontiers of Caribbean Literature (1996); The Rise of West Indian Cricket (1996); Guyana and the Caribbean: Reviews, Essays and Interviews (2004); Neil Bissoondath and the Indo_Caribbean-Canadian Diaspora (2005); From Colony to Nation; and From Pillar to Post: The Indo-Caribbean Diaspora (1997); Indo-West Indian Cricket (with Clem Shiwcharan); and anthologies: Jahaji Bhai (1998); Jahaji (2000).

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