I know of only two classical Burnhamists in Guyana – President Granger and Vincent Alexander. I would not put my longstanding family member, friend, Ras Tom Dalgety in that category, although Tom is very much an excessive admirer of Burnham. Tom’s essential approach to Burnham is within the theory of African achievements. Tom’s perspective has large elements of emotionalism, whereas Granger and Alexander use political theory to elevate Burnham as an outstanding leader.
Hamilton Green I will not consider, because Green’s attitude is a very simple one – Burnham was his cousin, he and Burnham were closely knitted together in building the PNC and the PNC government. Green makes no intellectual pretence in the admiration of Burnham. Burnham was his mentor; end of story. If there are other classical Burnhamites in Guyana, then they have not becomes as visible as Granger and Alexander.
Granger has four projects in Burnham’s name that are housed in his private home. In his address to the North American chapter of the PNC last week in the US, Granger was effusive in his panegyrics of Burnham which will be dealt with below. Alexander is the head of the Burnham Institute. Of the two men, only Alexander had made a public response that I know of when asked to discuss the dark side of Burnham’s use of power.
The occasion was a Cuffy 250 television programme on channel 9 where we were the two panelists and the topic was Burnham. When asked about Burnham’s authoritarian dimensions (which Aubrey Norton and Carl Greenidge are not uncomfortable in discussing), Alexander did not concede that Burnham was dictatorial. He polemicized on the difficulty Burnham faced in building a new political economy by having to stave off imperialism, and at home, the relentless PPP, the inexorably energetic WPA (my words) and a middle class that didn’t accept Burnham’s socialist directions.
Alexander is not a historian. Granger is. When you are a historian, there is more pressure on your scholarly credibility to include the totality of facts. A classical Burnhamite cannot have his cake and eat it too. You cannot isolate the vision and transformative brilliance of Burnham and interpret those dimensions as the essential Burnham. If you are a genius surgeon, but you beat your wife, then you are what you are – a medical genius and a wife beater. That is your being.
Forbes Burnham was way ahead of all post-colonial leaders and that is a stunning record. Post-colonial rejection of traditional economic development was contemptuously and rightfully discarded by Burnham, and replaced with a blueprint that was exemplary. It is outside of this column to enumerate Burnham’s phenomenal alternatives in economic independence, but they were par excellence. That was one side of him. The other side was his philosophical approach to power. The one collided with the other. Economic brilliance was defeated by power obsession. Power obsession led to dark pathways where the light and sun never shone.
In his address to his party colleagues in the US last week, Granger came across as a deeply political human. He was boundless in his praise for Burnham, telling his audience that it was from Burnham he takes his ideas and ideals, and asserted that, “I intend to protect and preserve and promote those ideas.” This is where his classical Burnhamism comes in. But this is where his credibility as a historian is open to question.
The protégés of Burnham and Jagan no doubt have an undying love for their guiding masters. It is perfectly alright to love your benefactor and pay permanent homage to him/her. The historian does not have the luxury of sentiments when recording the past. Someone like Clement Rohee in the PPP corresponds to Hamilton Green in the PNC. Rohee is on record as saying that he owes his political career to Mrs. Jagan. You cannot instill scholarly objectivity in the beneficiaries of rulers, because sentiments are a huge barricade preventing the flow of iconoclastic thinking. The historian operates on a totally different level.
Classical Burnhamism sees Forbes Burnham as a unique, transformational leader who broke with traditional post-colonial methodologies of nation-building. But that was not all Burnham was. As visionary and radical as he was, he also had a certain ideological approach to state power which I think was informed by certain philosophical schools like Machiavelli, Lenin and others.
Vincent Alexander in my presence has excused the excesses of Burnham by pointing to the priceless value that occupies centre stage in life – context. In the context of building an alternative pathway to an independent economy, Burnham had to do some unpleasant things. To gloss over serious and naked abuse of power is something I deeply resent.