The struggle against poverty in Guyana: Time to reset the ‘socialist’ passion and vision?

By Nigel Westmaas


Nigel Westmaas teaches at Hamilton College


A few months ago Gerald Pereira, the leader of the Organisation for the Victory of the People asked a bold, pointed question in a letter to Stabroek News: “Where are all the socialists and anti-imperialists in our midst?” Pereira’s point is offered in the context of the collapse of the socialist experiment locally and globally. It could also be read as a concern with the current political and social climate in Guyana and the region amid the political and social conservatism of the last two decades. The decline of Caribbean Marxism and the trade union movement in general have seen a vacuum in strategic, theoretical and political action on behalf of the working people throughout the region, not only in Guyana.

The fear of the very notions of “class struggle”, “socialism” and “anti-imperialism’ in contemporary Guyanese politics is understandable insofar as they are a response to the unfavourable and anti-democratic experience with the socialist experimentation in the Eastern bloc and the sometimes negative socio-economic experience of people  who lived under socialist regimes in different sections of the “third world”.

In like vein I disagree with Pereira’s uncritical exaltation of Burnhamist socialism. But his remonstrations against the inaction on the part of successive Guyana governments to the fundamental question of social justice and equality are relevant and timely.

We are in essence in an age of passivism, of acceptance of the ravages of global capitalism, and its “now hidden, now open” struggle against trade unions, concealed under the haze and glare of new technology and social media and the “normalization” and acceptance of the power of big corporations like Exxon Mobil.

Criticism of the global class system has dimmed, almost completely disappeared. Small countries face the power of international corporations without any effective strategic response or principled ideological riposte.  There are timorous reactions to the characteristic power of multinationals to befuddle and control governments that do not possess the ability to supervise the technological and financial operations on such a vast scale like Exxon Mobil’s foray in Guyana’s Liza Fields.

All this fails to explain the lack of energy in fighting for the poor and powerless in Guyana.

But the debate is slowly opening up. More and more Guyanese are calling for more direct action to stem the economic and social collapse. Not all agree on “socialism” in concept and practice, but they tend to assemble around the theme of the structural, social, political and even psychological changes needed in the body politic and offer a fresh focus on the plight of the poor.

In in his daily column, Freddie Kissoon unfailingly laments the condition of the poor though without directly calling for an alternative social and political system. He deems Guyana a “cruel, uncaring, indifferent society”, one consistently “failing poor people.”

Scientist and Pan Africanist Ras Dalgetty has critiqued the unfortunate symbolism in President David Granger’s and Raphael Trotman’s visit to the Exxon oil rig in 2015, shortly after taking office, asserting that “the struggle for political independence is also the struggle to end the colonial mentality of Guyanese.”

For his part, independent commentator Ramon Gaskin frequently criticises the lack of decisive approaches to the status quo in Guyana and has even endeavoured to establish a socialist party.

Red Thread has often raised the issue of the effect of the economic approaches taken by successive governments on working class women and families.

None of the recent Guyana Presidents has demonstrated any vision against poverty. Instead, the language and actions continue to favour neo-colonial models.

Every economic or policy concept is framed in a way that appears to evade a need to support all Guyanese and bends over backwards toward the ABC countries and their “technical” support. This has now been the pattern for the last twenty plus years. There is palpable evasion on the strategic and tactical need for a local, regional and international fight against poverty. There is no energy to engage. The trade unions that once generally represented their members with vibrancy are frozen, their leaders inactive, except for a few lone voices like Lincoln Lewis.

Likewise there is no collective outrage that hits the streets in protest at social conditions and everyday acts of inhumanity that keep mounting. The stale statements made by leaders of all the parties these days is in stark contrast to the past appetite, in voice and action,  of socialists, trade unionists and radicals to battle consistently for the working people.

Guyana has had a long history of radical thought (for those still terrified by the word socialist), in impulse and action on behalf of the poor.

As Walter Rodney noted, the London Times belatedly called the pioneers of the African village movement “a “band of socialists” in 1839.

The Reverend H.J Shirley, who had arrived from England in 1900 to serve in the New Amsterdam mission church was heavily criticised for stating, among other things, that it was the intention of the British colonial authorities in 1900 to keep “the black and coolie people in ignorance”. He was dubbed a “socialist demagogue” and placed under special Branch surveillance.

Bechu, prolific letter writer brought to light by Guyanese historian Clem Seecharan along with The Ruhoman brothers, were also activists in their own right, defending the rights of indentured and other workers from the pages of the local colonial press.

There were warnings about Bolshevism in Guyanese newspapers and the “Americanized negroes who preach racial hatred and class warfare…”  in the 1920s.

Later, Hubert Critchlow (British Guiana Labour Union), AA Thorne (British Guiana Workers League) and other Guyanese labour leaders would be labelled “socialist” for their work among the working people. In 1931, the Guyanese woman activist Gertie Wood was prolific in her calls for women  to “throw off the shackles of slavery, prepare yourselves to fight your own battles and read every book and paper you can get hold of, ask questions about all sorts of things..”

Jocelyn Hubbard, Cheddi and Janet Jagan,  Sydney King (Kwayana) and the Carters followed in the 1940s and 1950s with the rise of the PAC (Political Affairs Committee) and the early united PPP.

In the 1950s Jessie Burnham called for a “socialist colony” in British Guiana and Nicholson, a teacher at Queen’s who worked under the pen name Vigilance was an active Marxist.

Canonical Marxists, New World group thinkers, socialists of all stripes including Marxist Leninists followed with varying degrees of success (or failure) in offering alternative models of struggle and development in post-colonial Guyana.

In 1961 Forbes Burnham wrote, “for the Peoples National Congress, socialism in Guiana is not a bible of unending dogma. Rather it is a human system which seeks to transform our hitherto colonial society and economy.” After a post-independence, neo-colonial interlude of chumminess with the West, Burnham’s socialist experiment took off in the 1970s (with external foreign policy parallels). It would ultimately fail. But without negating any of the wrong that he did, in relation to the issue at hand at least Burnham attempted to activate a formal plan (e.g. Feed, Clothe and House the Nation) for the working people.

In the 1980s IMF policies and “conditionalities” destroyed the economy and led to the massive loss of jobs in the public sector and the phenomenon of women traders. The legacy of the Desmond Hoyte devaluation of the Guyana currency is still with us.

The PPP’s Marxism Leninism, while encrusted in uncritical Sovietism that was non organic and foreign,  was at least an ideology organised around  working class interests. This philosophical superstructure of the PPP (with an ideological trail dating from the 1950s), evaporated shortly after they assumed office in 1992, with only a deepening of rather than a turning away from the neoliberal policies begun under the Hoyte administration. With President Jagdeo’s’ reign from 1999 the corruption that followed is fodder for both novels and prosecution.

Copy of Walter Rodney’s bottom house course outline, Georgetown, 1977

In the late 1970s and later, Walter Rodney and the WPA for their part were in the forefront of the struggle for a decent wage and for the expansion of “bread and justice”, a phrase notably coined by Dr Clive Thomas. Walter Rodney famously held free classes on Marxism and Guyanese history under his home in South Ruimveldt.

Rodney, an avowed Marxist, was more associated with the “new left” trend in Marxism.

Even given its limited resources, it is a surprise to many that a party like the WPA, long associated with being in the forefront with causes of the working people even well after Rodney’s killing, today hardly lends its voice in bringing public voice and action to the plight of the poor throughout Guyana.

For its part imperialism (and it is still imperialism in spite of the seemingly headlong retreat  from using the word) is no longer the overt attack dog reminiscent of the Cold War period. Its presence is now identified with stealth.  It is a public relations driven, horse whispering type of imperialism, closely monitoring the economies of developing countries while openly applauding and gently prodding them along the neo colonial path of development where the West is always the saviour. This deception is nowhere more present than the Exxon Mobil deal first conceived under the Janet Jagan/Jagdeo regime(s) and now being concretized under the APNU+AFC government with secrecy and multinational sophistry in tow. Nothing is more representative of this multinational entrapment than the embarrassing visit of four ministers to Texas, apparently courtesy of Exxon’s finance.

There is no doubt that foreign and local capital requires a place at the table but once the poor are forgotten then what is left for the construction of a just and humane country?

Today, in spite of prison riots, and sporadic outbursts in the press by columnists and trade unionists, there is no overall state strategy for the empowerment and satisfaction of the needs of the Guyanese working people of all races, rural, urban and interior. A commitment to genuine social change means resetting the conservative direction. It has to take two forms, ideological in the sense of a working goal which includes not only anti-corruption but active measures to fight complacency about poverty. It also requires “psychological” motivation that provides hope – the strategic vision of which was once linked to socialism.  Of course there will be the usual platitudes about the impracticality of socialism. The point is not necessarily the reintroduction of socialist rhetoric but the adoption of values and commitment that emerge in the fight to change the world away from a predatory capitalism that bankrupts nations and destroys the eco system.


Pereira ended his letter by stating “we were once among the region’s leaders on almost every issue of social and political significance. What has happened to us?”

It is really time for Guyanese to step up not only to challenge traditional paradigms in terms of race and race relations and issues of governance but to summon the will and desire to do more than talk – to commit to wiping out poverty and the daily travails and horrors faced by the working people.

Perhaps it is not the absence of socialists that is the problem, but the absence of the passion against poverty, social injustice and neo colonialism that defined the socialists of the Guyana past.

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