OPINION: Forbes Burnham: The Life and Times of the Comrade Leader – A Review

Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 May 2024, 23:13 by Writer

By Dr Randy Persaud, Professor Emeritus, American University, Washington DC

Linden Lewis has authored a commendable scholarly book on the ‘life and times’ of L.F.S. Burnham. This is no easy task for two reasons, both deeply embedded in the psyche of the Guyanese population both here in the homeland, and in the diaspora. Firstly, any book that is critical, and even minimally so, is likely to be dismissed by those still disposed to seeing Burnham as the great Cde. Leader of the PNC. On the other hand, any praise for Burnham, no matter how modest, is likely to be scoffed at by the critics of the man’s record. Why? Well because most readers have not found a way to move beyond the imbrication of party politics and the dynamics of racialization. Professor Lewis offers a way forward.

The strength of the book lies exactly in Professor Lewis’ courage in carefully mapping out the positive elements of Burnham’s personal and public life, as well as pulling no punches in describing and analyzing the authoritarianism for which Forbes Burnham and the PNC under his command and control became known. I want to state forthwith, therefore, that both friends and foes of Burnham will find many moments of elation, as well as numerous instances where they feel that Lewis gerrymandered the historical record.

Rather than an ad seriatim rendition of all the arguments, I will focus on those that have either shed new light on Burnham and Guyana’s politics, or on areas that need further elaboration.

Lewis is full of praise for Forbes Burnham’s academic achievements, his oratory skills, and perhaps most of all his early consciousness of a world divided between a White and powerful West, and a poor, marginalized, and struggling Third World.

Lewis takes Burnham’s consciousness of the colonial world order throughout the work, even during those times when Forbes Burnham used this same Manichaean structure of civilizational power to pursue political power for himself and the PNC, which he formed in 1957 after splitting off from the PPP. Though the British and Americans are routinely blamed for causing the split in the PPP in 1955, one gets from Lewis’ historiography that Burnham’s had an internal leitmotiv for political power. Burnham’s quick rise to the Chairmanship of the PPP ahead of even the PNC founders, and his bid to become leader of the PPP, lend credibility to the argument. In more straightforward language, one gets from Lewis’ account that Burnham found a great deal of jouissance in political power.

One peculiar aspect of the book is that most of the positive things about Burnham are either personal, for instance, the keen interest he took in the lives of his children, or about the international. Note that the title of chapter three in part reads “…Burnham’s design (emphasis added) on political leadership.” What is conspicuously missing is praise for domestic economic policies, or for good governance.

Accordingly, while Burnham gets high marks for his attitude and policies on apartheid, the Non-Aligned Movement, the NIEO, and his critique of “imperialism,” there is extraordinarily little on domestic economic accomplishments, or on democratic practice in Guyana.

On the contrary, Lewis pummels Forbes Burnham for rigging elections, the constitutionalizing of PNC dictatorship through party paramountcy, the institutionalization of political violence, weaponized vindictiveness against those who did not follow the dictates of the Cde. Leader, the caressing of recalcitrant figures such as Jim Jones and Rabbi Washington, the assassination of Walter Rodney, and perhaps most bizarrely, Burnham’s fascination with North Korea’s Kim Jong-il. Lewis’ analysis of Burnham’s importation of North Korea’s mass games into Guyana provides a unique pathway into Forbes Burnham’s obsession with grandeur, pomp, and ceremony.

I have two critical observations of The Life and Times of the Comrade Leader. Firstly, the book reads like a love letter to the WPA. While it is true that the WPA did play a significant role in rattling the PNC in the 1980s, the book has only the most minimal engagement with the political practices and personalities from the PPP. It was the PPP that withstood the brunt of PNC machinations during the twenty-eight years of political domination. But worse yet, the book wittingly replicates many WPA positions. For instance, the WPA’s ridiculous claim that “…the PPP has used the memory of Walter Rodney to encourage the further divide of Guyana politically and ethno-racially” is uncritically rehashed by Lewis (Lewis, 2024:197).

Professor Lewis says not a single word about the WPA’s collusion with the PNCR-led APNU-AFC’s massive and fully documented efforts at transparently rigging the 2020 elections. One senior WPA member openly called for the election results to be thrown out, and for Granger to be sworn in despite losing at the ballot box. No mention of this side of the WPA and the latter’s penchant to racialize everything existing.

Finally, while Lewis demonstrates a good deal of intellectual courage, the book forces me to conclude that we are far away from a straightforward account of the Burnham era. I do not mean to nit-pick, but the following construction serves as ample evidence for my claim. Lewis writes the following – “The PPP remained in opposition …. before their return to office in 1992, after what some believe (emphasis added) was the first relatively free and fair election in post-independence period in Guyana” (Lewis, 2024:77). Some believe?

Linden Lewis’ Forbes Burnham: The Life and Times of the Comrade Leader (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2024) is a valuable contribution to the scholarly literature on Guyana’s modern political history. The criticisms above, notwithstanding, this book should be widely read and discussed.

Dr Randy Persaud, Office of the President (