FIFTY years ago, on February 23, 1970, independent Guyana was transformed into a republican nation. Guyana did not merely become a republic, but instead became the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, propagated by a vision for the collective development of all its people.

The vision of a Cooperative Republic was piloted by Guyana’s First Prime Minister and former President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, who is also hailed as one of the founding fathers of Guyana. But, what exactly does it mean to be a Cooperative Republic? And what was this shift expected to bring for Guyana?

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During August 1969, the ‘Republic Motion’ was debated in Guyana’s Parliament. As stated by former President Burnham, in one of his public speeches, “The Co-operative Republic is an expression of the historical and psychological makeup of the new nation of Guyana.”

According to him, the shift is not a mere change on paper, but rather, it is the continuation of the “struggle” which began in the 17th and 18th centuries and best illustrated by ‘Cuffy’ and the formerly enslaved persons on the Berbice plantation in 1763. This struggle was the drive to move away from dependence on the metropole and to become independent.

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Guyana’s First Prime Minister Forbes Burnham (right), reads signs created to show support for Guyana’s shift to a Cooperative Republic

Beginning in the 19th century, the formerly enslaved Africans engaged in what would later be termed the ‘village movement.’ Through this, they saved and later pooled their wages together to purchase plantations which were developed into villages. In reference to this, and other efforts made by the people to Guyana to forge ahead with their development through collective work, Burnham explained that the ‘Cooperative Republic’ concretises this trend of working together in the socio-economic organisation of Guyanese people.

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“The Co-operative has come from our past and is a native instrument to be used for future development,” he said. Furthermore, a third sector of the economy- the cooperative sector, would be established to add to the pre-existing public and private sectors.

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Simply put, the transition to a Cooperative Republic was envisioned to be the harbinger of development in Guyana. But according to the former President, this development was one that emphasised the need for a more egalitarian society; a society where the “small man” would be the “real man.”

The change to arRepublic would only be replete if the psychological changes resulting from independence from the metropole were accompanied by an adequate change in strategy and content that facilitated local development.

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What did this change in strategy and content entail, however? At the time, socialism seemed to be the prevailing strategy that could free developing nations from the reins of the capitalist expansionist nations eager to extend their influence and, perhaps, even their control.

It was proposed that the idea of “co-operative socialism” should be wedded to political independence. In so doing, it was believed that the masses would be able to share and contribute equitably to the nation’s economic development.

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It is important to note that while Guyana gained independence from British colonial rule four years prior, in 1966, the former President argued that the constitutional changes that allowed Guyana to exercise control over its political, decision-making system did not truly make Guyanese independent. This was due to economic power being concentrated in the hands of a few persons.

“We must put economic power where it belongs. Be you a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, an agnostic, or what have you, the moral justification for having economic power correspond [sic] to political power does not have to be argued except by those who want some practice in sophistry,” the former President said, while addressing the opening of the new Parliament on February 23, 1970, when Guyana became a Cooperative Republic.

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This was in keeping with the prevailing socialist ethos of the day. In one of his speeches titled, “A Vision of the Cooperative Republic,” Burnham clarified that in the specific Guyanese context, the Co-operative Republic of Guyana was not socialist by the more eurocentric definitions. Instead, he posited that the socialist characteristics of the nation meant that there was cognisance of the “social needs and wants in creating a just society for the people of Guyana.”

“A just society cannot be achieved unless the majority of the people, the masses, the little men, have a full share in the ownership and control of the economy, a share which corresponds realistically with their political power,” he said.

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He further highlighted that the government aimed to use the cooperative as an instrument for organising the little man in economic ventures and undertakings, exploiting the country’s resources, that would hopefully change the “economic base and basis of Guyana.”

MENTAL EMANCIPATION
Another guiding reason that prompted this shift towards becoming a Cooperative Republic was that it signalled “mental emancipation” for Guyanese.

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Explaining why Guyanese should welcome the change, in August 1969, Burnham said, “It is not merely a matter of constitutional (reform), but a very important matter of psychological attitude and a question of mental and intellectual emancipation.”

According to him, there was still an inherent psychological link between the thinking and attitude of Guyanese and the monarch under which they were governed. In the speech through which he articulated his vision of the Cooperative Republic, he posited that Guyanese were affected by cultural superiority facilitated by the colonial society.

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“We have now to learn again, to be trained again, to be brainwashed again or more accurately, de-brainwashed, to understand the emotional, economic and social advantages that can accrue from uniting our labour skills and resources in cooperation together; and that through such cooperation, the possibilities exist for little people, the dispossessed, the poor, the underprivileged, achieving real economic power and a just place in our society,” Burnham stressed.

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