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Walter Rodney tribute. Photo: Walter Rodney Foundation

Walter Rodney tribute. Photo: Walter Rodney Foundation

Sean Ledwith recounts the socialist revolutionary Walter Rodney's many accomplishments and intellectual prowess

Forty years ago, in June 1980 a remote controlled bomb detonated in the lap of Walter Rodney as he sat in a car in Georgetown, Guyana. Rodney was killed instantly, aged just 38 but with an impressive record of left-wing agitation and analysis already to his credit. The assassination was most likely organised by state security forces operating in the name of the country’s Prime Minister at the time, Forbes Burnham. The ruling People’s National Congress was typical of the pseudo-leftist forces Rodney spent his adult life fighting against in the name of an authentic version of socialism. The PNC would use revolutionary rhetoric when it suited them to mobilise Guyanese voters during elections but, in reality, were hard-wired into the global neoliberal agenda that was starting to unfold at the start of the 1980s.  

Revolution from below

Rodney was targeted because he was attracting popular support for his alternative organisation, the Working  People’s Alliance which campaigned vigorously on a platform of grassroots democracy and opposition to the financial straitjacket being imposed on debt-ridden states such as Guyana by the IMF, the World Bank and the other behemoths of the international capitalist order. Forbes was also terrified Rodney’s reputation as a radical scholar of global renown would put the spotlight on a rising mood of rebellion in the country. Rodney was the author of a number of path-breaking studies of slavery and under-development in the global south which are still regarded as classics, premised on the necessity for the left to synthesise a comprehension of how racism is rooted in the capitalist modes of production but can only be eradicated by the fight for a communist mode of production. In his best-known work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Rodney contrasted his own vision of a socialism rooted in proletarian self-emancipation with the fake brand offered by Forbes and similar leaders who espoused a socialism from above:

'If economic power is centered outside national African boundaries, then political and military power in any real sense is also centered outside until, and unless, the masses of peasants and workers are mobilized to offer an alternative to the system of sham political independence.'

Organic intellectual

Walter Rodney was born in 1942 in the same town where he would meet his death. His parents were both working class trade unionists who had played active roles in Guyana’s struggle against British colonialism that climaxed with independence in 1930. Although Edward and Pauline Rodney had limited educational opportunities, they encouraged their son to read widely, particularly in Marxist political economy, and in 1960 he graduated top of his high school class and won a place at the University of the West Indies. From there he moved to London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 1963, attaining a PhD in African History with a research project later published as History of the Upper Guinea Coast seven years later.

Rodney would continue to prove his brilliance as a scholar for the remainder of his life but research for him was always primarily a tool for exposing mass inequality rather than merely a means of personal advancement. He was a brilliant example of what Gramsci described as an organic intellectual - a thinker who retained the highest academic standards and yet one that was equally committed to overthrowing a system that condemns most of humanity to ignorance and poverty.

CLR James

In London, Rodney encountered another great Caribbean revolutionary, albeit one from an earlier generation, CLR James. The legendary Trotskyist from Trinidad introduced Rodney to his own distinctive brand of Marxism which included elements of Pan-Africanism and an appreciation of how culture can play a decisive role in movements for liberation. The former was a political movement that had risen to prominence around the world in the postwar era as the European colonial powers retreated in the face of insurgent national liberation forces in Africa such as those led by Nkrumah in Ghana and Nyerere in Tanzania. Rodney would initially welcome these movements as progressive and anti-imperialist forces that provided a new model for the oppressed of the world. Later in his career, however, he would come to see the limitations of the regimes headed by these two men and similar ones across the global south.

CLR James’ influence can also be detected in Grounding with My Brothers, a collection of Rodney’s early writings which included a pioneering analysis of Rastafarianism as a political expression of the revolutionary aspirations of the Jamaican working class. Rodney’s commitment to facilitating resistance on that island was spectacularly illustrated in 1968 when the government refused to grant him admission. The subsequent protests by his many supporters in Kingston were dubbed the Rodney Riots - a fitting tribute to a figurehead of rebellion.

Myth of the dark continent

Following his expulsion from the Caribbean, Rodney took up an academic post at the University of Dar as Salaam in Tanzania. There he worked on his best known publication, How Europe Undeveloped Africa, published in 1972. In this classic text, Rodney emphatically rejected the dominant view of Western historiography that Africa had no significant civilisations before the arrival of the Europeans from the 1500s onwards. He drew attention to the considerable cultural achievements of medieval African civilisations such as those of Benin, Timbuktu and Great Zimbabwe which rivalled the contemporary societies of the European Renaissance. He quotes a Dutch visitor to the first of these who was astounded by what he saw:

'The town seems to be very great…The king’s palace is a collection of buildings which occupy as much space as the town of Harlem and which is enclosed with walls. There are numerous apartments for the Prince’s ministers and fine galleries, most of which are as big as those on the Exchange at Amsterdam.'

Rodney does not romanticise these civilisations, however, or present them as idyllic models that modern Africa should aspire to recreate. As a Marxist historian, Rodney is alert to the class differences within these societies that made them no less exploitative than those in the northern hemisphere that would come to dominate the world.

Scramble for Africa

Of course, the historical trajectory of Africa was brutally altered by the impact of the slave trade at the beginning of the modern era, and the glories of the pre-European societies were delibately obscured by Western slavers and politicians and replaced with the racist myth of the dark continent’. Rodney powerfully argues that the European subjugation of Africa did not represent the triumph of a superior civilisation but simply the consequence of a narrow technical advantage by the former in certain aspects of production, especially guns and blue water navigation. The rapaciousness of the European powers in their scramble for Africa should be no source of pride for their descendants. Rodney describes how they devised a network of exploitation that spanned the globe:

'They engaged in buying cotton cloth in India to exchange for slaves in Africa to mine gold in Central and South America. Part of the gold in the Americas would then be used to purchase spices and silks from the Far East. The concept of metropole and dependency automatically came into existence when parts of Africa were caught up in the web of international commerce.'

The figure of 10 million is frequently quoted for the number of African victims of the Atlantic slave triangle but Rodney suggests that even that horrific statistic is probably a gross underestimate. Millions more would have perished on the forced marches from the African interior to the slave ports on the coast, and in the conflicts between the European powers for control of the trade. The long-term impact on Africa was utterly devastating and overshadows the continent to this day, Rodney suggests. The total population increased only by 20 million from 1650 to 1900; in the same period, the population of Asia rose from 257 million to 857 million. The vibrancy and economic dynamism of the pre-European civilisations was wiped out and replaced with a dependency on agricultural monocultures that turned Africa into a debilitated victim of the West’s insatiable appetite for raw materials.

Bitter legacy

The furore over the toppling of the Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol last summer indicates that the British establishment has still not come to terms with the stark reality of the empire built in their name. Rodney cites the shameful example in Kenya of 100,000 acres of prime land being handed over to Lord Delamere for a penny per acre. In response to the suggestion that the European empires somehow proved beneficial to Africa, Rodney notes that in 500 years of colonial rule, the Portuguese failed to train a single African doctor! He also notes that the railways that criss-cross the continent were not built for the convenience of the local population but for the rapid transit of high value commodities, especially gold and diamonds, in and out of the continent. This retardation of African economic and social development has not improved since Rodney’s death forty years ago. A recent investigation in one of the mineral-rich regions of Zambia found that 60% of the children who dig copper out of the ground cannot read.

African socialism?

While in Tanzania, Rodney began to develop a critique of the nationalist regime that had taken power there in 1963 under the leadership of Julius Nyerere. The ruling TANU party governed the country under the slogan of African Socialism but his experiences there from 1969 to 1974 made Rodney increasingly sceptical of the authenticity of this claim. He moved towards a view that was remarkably close to that associated with Tony Cliff, the British Trotskyist leader, that middle class forces such as TANU had risen to power in the global south with radical-sounding rhetoric that mobilised mass resistance to colonialism, but which belied the reality of a commitment to constructing a form of state capitalism that fell well short of the socialist ideal. Tony Cliff called this process deflected permanent revolution and Rodney’s comments about the superficial nature of Nyerere’s claims to be implementing African socialism illustrate a similar view of the so-called Third World revolutions of the 1950s and 60s:

'My feeling is that in spite of all the rhetoric, TANU has not been transformed ,that it remains a nationalist party under the control of the petit bourgeoisie…incapable of providing the basis for sustained socialist transformation…It is important to recognise that it fits within the general pattern which we have been discussing so far by which the colonisation process ended through an alliance of classes..but within this alliance the workers and the peasants never really had hegemony.

Nyerere, like other contemporary leaders in Africa such as Kenyatta and Kaunda, were happy to pay lip service to the principles of Pan-Africanism as it gave their regimes a radical veneer, but beneath the surface they pursued an economic agenda that only served to re-integrate their respective countries into the structures of globalised capitalism. Rodney rightly perceived that the authentic emancipation of Africa’s growing proletariat would only come when the oppressed themselves seized control of production.

Rodney on Russia

Two years ago, a posthumous collection of Rodney’s writings on the Russian Revolution was published, underlining that he regarded the revolutionary legacy of 1917 as still hugely relevant to the prospects of real change in the global south in his lifetime. Russia in that epochal year resembled many African states today in so far as there was a numerically small working class, surrounded by a larger body of peasants and small farmers, but one which carried huge political weight. Describing the pivotal role of the proletariat in 1917, Rodney observes:

'The peasants rose up against the status quo, but they had no control over the central organs of power. The workers, however, were strategically situated in the cities and had control of the transportation and communications as well arms.'

Like many on the left in the 70s and 80s, Rodney was too uncritical of how Stalin and his successors had distorted the original revolutionary agenda of 1917 but there are signs in this work that his principled faith in workers’ self-emancipation was taking him towards a more consistent position on the USSR:

'It is behaving so much like a capitalist state that it is demanding from China land areas once held by the former Tsarist state and it is invading other countries.'

There is every reason to think that if Rodney had not been assassinated in 1980, his intellectual trajectory would have taken him even further away from allegiance to the Stalinist state.

Ready to die

One of his colleagues in Tanzania commented on Rodney’s lifelong commitment to using his fierce intelligence to help overthrow the iniquities of class rule wherever he went:

'He was on some kind of a mission..that he was ready to die for. Grounding with his people, living their life, eating their food, speaking their language, taking their concerns.his commitment was distinct for the cause of the poor.'

The African proletariat has grown exponentially since Rodney’s death, and revolutionary upsurges such as those witnessed in recent years in Burkina Faso, Sudan, Egypt and other states fully vindicate his perspective that Marxism alone offers the continent a route out of centuries of colonial and necolonial exploitation.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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