The history of the PPP: a complex, delicate and difficult undertaking
[The People's Progressive Party of Guyana 1950-1992 : An Oral History, London: Hansib, 2007; 204 p.]
April 22, 2007
There are several sources and a wide range of material available to researchers with an interest in the recent history of Guyana. When the task is to assemble and interrogate those sources in order to piece together the history of the People's Progressive Party, which was founded in 1950 and now forms the government, there are factors that make it both easier and infinitely more difficult.
This is very recent history; almost indistinguishable from contemporary affairs. It should mean there is no shortage of accessible source material including archival records both inside and outside Guyana, public records, recently de-classified documents from the USA and the UK, personal files, the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre and several publications, many of which set out to document this very history. These include those very close to the PPP such as Thunder and The West On Trial, as well as many others external to both party and country.
Because it is recent, it also means it is possible to find sources of oral history. There are persons who were there at the beginning, who are still involved, or who have been close to all the developments, or who have been witnesses to them through the years since 1950. However, the very political nature of the subject, and the fact that the history of this party is indivisible from the recent history and contemporary affairs of the nation itself make the task of constructing the account a most complex, delicate and difficult undertaking.
Previous attempts have yielded varying degrees of success, including examples of decidedly subjective, contentious accounts and striking failure. Future researchers will therefore be indebted to Frank Birbalsingh for his publication of this most recent attempt. The People's Progressive Party of Guyana 1950-1992: An Oral History. Professor Birbalsingh, a Guyanese working in Canada, is a member of York University and has been responsible for many other published works in literature (which is his first profession), history and sport. In this book he has assembled a collection of interviews/ conversations with several persons including Cheddi and Janet Jagan and other very key players in the PPP recorded over a long period between 1984 and 2003. Birbalsingh also writes an introduction, provides many interesting photographs, and includes a foreword by political scientist Carey Fraser.
Birbalsingh took advantage of available and valuable resources in his attempt to reconstruct this history entirely from oral sources, hence the series of interviews. But oral history is neither easy nor simple and demands careful handling. The stories are there to be recorded, but well beyond the collection of data is the construction of the objective history. Oral testimony can be a resource to complement and or test other sources including written material, or the account may be reconstructed entirely from the oral evidence. But the interviews will then have to be used as providers of data, not as the history itself. This has to be written after the data is analysed and all the inaccuracies, personal opinions, subjectivity, bias, mischief and misinformation taken into account. Anecdotes are not to be mistaken for history.
Birbalsingh is faithful to his sources. He presents the interviews without editorial intervention, although the dialogues themselves are not without his own inputs and influence through the questions he frames. He is not always invisible in the discourses because he uses questions and comments as stimuli and creates conversations. The book, therefore, offers these conversations with all the conflicting opinions of the interviewees, many of them agreeing on how the events went, some poles apart. It is a collection of views and interpretations out of which the history may be written. But it does not write the history.
The publication thus provides very valuable material for primary research. Largely because of the highly charged and often sensitive political content and partisan interests, it is a courageous work. Attempting to analyse and interpret the material to reach a consensus out of the varied accounts is the historian's task. Carey Fraser undertakes this in his foreword in this collection. He is extremely analytic and incisive, but tendentious, holding a strong position, which he argues. What he achieves is not history, but the interpretation of the events by this particular political scientist.
Many other interpretations, versions and opinions arise out of the 27 dialogues with 26 persons. Birbalsingh's collection includes conversations with PPP members, present and past, friends of the party, associates, critics, opponents and hostile witnesses. There are also commentators from other countries with relevant political histories, such as Jamaican Richard Hart and Barbadian novelist George Lamming who had marginal involvement in Guyanese public affairs. Collectively, they present a range of informants who, despite their different positions, may have something to contribute to the subject. Birbalsingh lays this out in his introduction. He offers justification for choices of interviewees, but reasons for inclusion in some cases are not convincing.
Yet, despite the strong political focus and even the sometimes bitter political motivation of a very few critics of the Jagans or the PPP, the collection is an academic document and is to be accepted as such. It is not a political party publication. Some of the positions and opinions are disparate and some subjective. They could not all be reliable, but the book as a whole is invaluable source material. The volume performs a priceless service in collecting these accounts all in one place.
Not surprisingly, it often reads more like a history of Cheddi Jagan than of the PPP, given his importance and the perceptions of his dominance among those interviewed. There is wide agreement about his central and influential role and a strong consensus about his positive qualities. These recur in the assessments with a favourable image painted by well-respected critical commentators such as Eusi Kwayana and Martin Carter, as well as in some of the most impressive and objective political analyses from outside observers like Barbadian political scientist George Bell.
Surprisingly, there are no more than three cases of predictable hostility, bitterness and subjectivity among the interviewees, and fair impressions of Jagan even from some of his severest critics. Scarce few cast him as the villain of the piece, most acknowledging Forbes Burnham in that role. What emerges in the discussions is that many, including his closest allies, hold Jagan's greatest error to have been "the carte blanche" he gave Duncan Sandys in a letter he signed opening the way for the introduction of Proportional Representation in the 1964 elections without also naming a date for Guyana's independence. Janet Jagan provides an explanation for what happened there. There are several inconclusive debates about the parts played by race, class and Marxism.
The People's Progressive Party of Guyana 1950-1992: An Oral History is a noted academic document and the most valuable collection of interviews on the subject known to date.