A Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney
A kick-off talk from Chinedu Chukwudinma
I wrote A Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney because I think the Afro Guyanese guy on the cover—-historian Walter Rodney—is one of the most brilliant revolutionaries of the last century. But he’s also one of the most underrated and understudied, especially if you compare him to the likes of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, or Franz Fanon.
In terms of Rodney’s political identity, many labels have been given to him at various times. Some people have called him a Pan-Africanist. Some people called him an anti-imperialist intellectual. Some of his closest friends and supporters called themselves Rodneyites.
And of course there’s some truth in all of these definitions. But what I wanted to emphasize in my book is that Walter Rodney was, above all else, a Marxist, somebody who fought for the self-emancipation of ordinary working people and for the liberation of the oppressed, somebody who saw Marxism not just as a tool, but as a revolutionary theory and a guide to action. So my book is, in many crucial ways, the story about how Rodney engaged with Marxism through his various journeys in Africa, Europe, and the Americas.
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in Rodney’s ideas and his story. I think this is partly due to the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement and countless movements to decolonize education in recent years. Because what we’ve seen here is hundreds of thousands of young Black and white people challenging state racism, challenging police brutality. But in that process, they’re also questioning its history, pulling down the statues of racist slave owners, like those in Bristol.
And during these times, especially in 2020, there was a real desire to uncover the voices of marginalized people who spoke against imperialism and the legacy of empire. Rodney is increasingly becoming one of those go-to people again, especially through his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
The other aim of my book was to get young, especially Black people, acquainted with Rodney’s life and work, to put these in context, because they might seem quite distant to us here in 2022.
The first thing to say about Rodney’s early years is that there was an actuality of the anti-colonial struggle and a real march to independence going on across the globe.
Rodney was born in 1942 and grew up in British Guyana in the 1950s. Guyana was a British colony in Latin America, but culturally it was closer to the Caribbean. Rodney’s parents were supporters of an anti-colonial party, which was really the only game in town, called the People’s Progressive Party. It called itself Marxist, but it was in between reformism and Stalinism. Nevertheless, the party had a long lasting influence on how he approached Marxism. Rodney would say that he never had any animosity towards Marxism, because that party called itself Marxist and was leading the struggle against the British.
During Rodney’s childhood, the year 1953 was a rare moment in Guyanese politics, because you have the two major groups, the Africans, who come from slavery, and the Indo-Guyanese, who come from indentureship, uniting in the anti-colonial struggle. And this was a rare moment, because usually the two groups were kept apart by the planters and the colonial authorities.
Rodney had brilliant grades. He was a scholar and earned a scholarship to go to university in Jamaica, where he studied at the University of the West Indies.
This was in the runup to Jamaican independence. So here Rodney was rediscovering African history, a part of history that has been wiped out due to colonialism. Rodney was also becoming fascinated with the Cuban revolution and traveling to Cuba.
Rodney eventually went to London, where he got his PhD in African history. He also joined a Marxist study group taught by CLR James and his wife Selma, where he read the classics of Marxist literature, including passages of Capital and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
Rodney was also fascinated by the various guerrilla wars that are going on in the Portuguese colonies in Africa. He was very much a fan of Che Guevara, and he read Franz Fanon as well.
So you have, in a nutshell, the formation of an African historian, who is very much interested in Marxism. But it’s from 1968 to 1980 that Rodney’s life got really interesting, that he emerged as a key theoretician and activist, becoming an increasingly more convinced, determined Marxist.
I want to mention some of the major themes in Rodney’s life. The first is that Rodney’s life says a lot about the role of radical intellectuals, especially radical intellectuals operating in the global south.
It raises the question of what does it mean to be a radical intellectual? Is it simply to write a spicy article against capitalism in a language that nobody understands, and to go home, eat dinner and forget about the class struggle? Or is there more to it than that?
In Rodney’s life, there was always a real attempt to link his radical ideas against imperialism, to the practical activity of the masses, to the ordinary men and women who are making history.
One powerful example of that was Rodney’s activism in Jamaica during 1968. The year 1968 was a year of global revolt. Rodney was 26, and he was teaching at the university of Kingston. He showed very quickly that he was very different from most middle-class academics. He decided not to stay in his ivory tower. He lived off campus, and you could find him in the ghettos of Kingston, talking to the Rastafarians, giving a speech to unemployed youth, really relating to the people around him, and doing a lot of listening as well.
And it’s through his speeches on Jamaican politics and African history, and through his overall interactions with the masses in Jamaica, that he developed his version of Black Power, which is adapted to the Jamaican and Caribbean context.
Black Power is a U.S.-born phenomenon first. But in America Black Power is very much the slogan of the Black minority, the Black minority that faces housing and job discrimination and violence at the hands of white police officers. For example, Stokely Carmichael, the key architect of Black Power, was mainly asking Blacks to fight for the control of the economies and the politics of their community, not the nation, but their community.
When you’re talking about the Caribbean context, however, you’re talking about a whole different ball game, because the majority of the people are Black. The president in many countries is Black, or at least non-white. And the problem here is that the local Caribbean elite, after independence, continued to collude with the Western companies.
In Jamaica, the mines were controlled by the Canadians and Americans and the Sugar Estates by the British. This elite, in collusion with the Western companies, also continued to keep the masses in terrible conditions, even after independence. And so Rodney’s formulation of Black Power takes a more radical, ambitious tone, one that pays attention to the classes in Jamaican and Caribbean societies.
He was really calling for the Black oppressed to break with imperialism and its local allies, for the Black masses to control the economies and the politics of the whole island, and to remake the islands of the Caribbean in their own image. A really powerful message.
In Rodney’s speeches and writing on Black Power, what comes out is a very political definition of Blackness, where you’re not Black simply because you’re of African descent or have some mystical tie to Africa. You’re Black if you’re a victim of racism and imperialism.
What Rodney was trying to do in his speeches is to tie the destiny of the Black masses in Jamaica to the destinies of all the people in the third world who were fighting against imperialism and racism and for independence.
Eventually, the Jamaican government seizes upon Rodney’s activity and bans him. When word spreads that Rodney has been banned, you have a protest by students, which is joined by Rastafarians and unemployed youth. And it turns into a rebellion, which becomes known as the Rodney riots. But, unfortunately, these riots mark the end of Rodney’s activities in Jamaica, because they don’t manage to bring him back.
Socialism from above and from below
Another important lesson in Rodney’s life was when he came to recognize the difference between socialism from above and socialism from below. This transformation is very evident when Rodney is a history professor in Tanzania from 1969 to 1974.
Tanzania at the time was the absolute Mecca of African liberation. It’s the kind of place where you can wine and dine with freedom fighters from Mozambique and listen to a conference by CLR James or Cheddi Jagan in the same evening. And this was because of Julius Nyerere, the president of Tanzania. Nyerere opposed imperialism more than most African leaders at the time, and hosted a series of national liberation movements from across southern Africa.
When I was writing about Rodney’s time in Tanzania, I had in mind the hangover from Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat in Britain. Corbyn was a radical leader of the Labour Party who popularized the word socialism in Britain. But when you come to think of it, Jeremy Corbyn’s plan for delivering socialism was basically, elect me to parliament, and I will give socialism to you, the passive masses.
When Rodney was in Tanzania, he had to deal with a different kind of socialism from above. One that was very different from Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism, one that I would call state capitalist. But in one sense, Nyerere’s socialism resembled Corbyn’s socialism in its refusal to see the workers, the ordinary working people, as capable of carrying out their own liberation.
When we talk about Tanzanian socialism, what Nyerere was trying to do with the state was to make the peasants work harder by putting them into collective farms. This was to achieve self-reliance in food, which in many respects never worked, but also to increase production, mainly so that Tanzania could become a competitor in the international market.
The Tanzanian regime also nationalized a lot of the factories and banks. But it was really the socialism of the petty-bourgeoisie, the small minority that was educated under colonialism, and that gained state power from their colonial masters. This small minority, instead of sharing power with the masses, put the whole nation to work harder, put the workers and the peasants to work harder, to make up for centuries of underdevelopment.
Rodney at first supported this Tanzanian socialism, called Ujamaa, and saw it as a radical attempt to eradicate poverty in the countryside. But he realized at some point that the whole process of collectivization generated terrible results.
The peasants were forced against their will into collective farms. When they’re in these collective farms, they had no control whatsoever over the process of production. And Rodney started to document the resistance of the peasants. He paid attention to the revolts in the nationalized factories against the Tanzanian bureaucracy.
Rodney ended up supporting the spontaneous wildcat strikes and occupations that went against the administration in Tanzania. And he realized that these strikes, led by the Tanzanian workers, were going beyond simple bread-and-butter issues. They were raising the wider question of who is the boss in a so-called socialist society and who should control production in a so-called socialist society.
Rodney was really coming back to the core of Marx’s teaching here, that the self-emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. He was really acknowledging that the workers can run the factories better than the management and that they hold the keys to running a new democratic society from below.
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
His time in Tanzania was also when Rodney wrote his most famous book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, arguably Rodney’s masterpiece. Rodney, writing from Tanzania in the decade after independence, asked why haven’t most African countries broken ties with the former colonial powers? Why do they still remain poor and underdeveloped?
He was asking questions, like why is Africa underdeveloped? Is it simply the fault of Africans because of corruption? Or are much larger historical forces at play? How Europe Underdeveloped Africa tells the story of how the European bourgeoisie, through the slave trade and colonialism, robbed Africa of its natural resources and labor. While that robbery impoverished Africa, it contributed to the development of capitalism in Europe, through the industrial revolution and so on.
I want to tell an anecdote here on the significance of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. When I was 19 or 20, I attended a Pan-African study group. The people who were teaching that study group were haunted by a sentence from a speech that French president Nicolas Sarkozy had made in 2007. He defended France’s colonial history, saying that the problem with Africa was that it has not yet entered history. Africa has no history.
The opening chapters of Rodney’s book were a real antidote to that statement, because he used historical materialism to reconstruct African pre-colonial society in all its dynamism and complexity. He showed that Africa in the sixteenth century, before colonialism, had some communal societies, with equal access to land, quite egalitarian societies. But it also had a handful of feudal societies, like Ethiopia or the Congo, which achieved great things. He kept telling about the lives of ordinary African people and their contributions, which was absolutely fantastic.
What I also like about Rodney’s book is that, in the final chapter, he spent a lot of time destroying the racist idea that colonialism did some good things for Africans. When I was growing up at school, my teachers used to tell me that colonialism did some good for Africans, because the colonizers built railroads and healthcare. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa really gave me the arguments I needed.
Rodney said, the railways weren’t built so Africans could visit their friends. All the major train lines went from the interior to the ports in order to ship raw materials to Europe. And on the question of healthcare, Rodney used the example of the Portuguese empire, where the Portuguese spent 500 years in Africa, but in those 500 years, they weren’t able to train one single doctor in Mozambique. And that is the true reality of what colonialism was.
What Rodney was trying to do in his book was to tell Africans, in the decade after colonialism, that if you want real development, a society that can eradicate poverty, where everybody is free to use their abilities, to live the life that they want to live, you need to break with capitalism, because capitalism is the principal agent of centuries of African underdevelopment.
Now, let me say a word on Rodney’s understanding of racism and how to fight it. In 1974 Rodney left Tanzania and returned to Guyana to fight the dictatorship of Forbes Burnham.
That dictatorship called itself socialist, a bit like Nyerere’s in Tanzania. But it really wasn’t, it was a state capitalist, and in more cynical ways than Nyerere. The state in Guyana controlled 80 percent of the economy and really ran quite a regime of terror, where it could fire people if they spoke out against the dictatorship.
When Rodney went back to Guyana, he found a country that was very different from the Guyana of the anti-colonial struggle that he knew in the 1950s. He found a working class that was again divided along racial lines, because the dictatorship was playing one group against the other. Rodney’s writings and speeches at the time tried to understand the history of the racial divide within the working class in Guyana, and also to explain how these racial divisions could be overcome.
What Rodney did in his writings and speeches at the time was to offer a materialist explanation for the existence of racism in Guyanese society, but also for the existence of racism under capitalism.
And how does he understand racism? He says that the racism we know today is not a matter of prejudice. It is a product of the system that we call capitalism. It was first the ideology of the European bourgeoisie of planters and merchants, used to justify the enslavement of Blacks. Racism survived slavery because capitalist exploitation creates the conditions for the maintenance of racism. The ruling classes in the Caribbean, the planter class, realized early on that it could use racism to manipulate and divide the working class.
In Rodney’s key writing, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, he explained that Black people won their freedom in 1838, and after emancipation they became wage laborers on the plantations. As wage laborers they fought for higher wages, and they often won those higher wages. The ruling class, the planter class, realized pretty early on that they could use a cheaper source of labor from India, indentured workers, in order to undercut wages and break the back of this growing Black militancy on the plantations.
Racism was used to intensify the competition between Black and Indian workers for jobs in the colony, and to keep wages as low as possible. This racist manipulation continues throughout Guyana’s history, even when the ruling classes in Guyana are nonwhite after independence.
After independence, the ruling classes were Black, and they still had an interest in playing this divide and rule between Blacks and Indians. They got the dictatorship to use Afro-Guyanese as scabs when the Indians went on strike, or to scapegoat Indians when it came to recruiting for jobs. And you got this animosity between the two communities, because it fundamentally serves the class interests of those who are in power. It’s what enables the dictatorship to maintain itself.
In terms of how to fight racism, what’s really important in Rodney’s writings is that he underlined the centrality of the class struggle. He said that fighting the ruling class in the streets and in the workplaces opens the possibility for the two groups of workers to come together, to realize their common interests in fighting against the dictatorship, and in that process to overcome their racial prejudice.
Rodney alluded to several moments in Guyanese history, like a strike in 1905 or the recent anti-colonial struggle in the 1950s, where Black and Indian workers managed to unite in the struggle, to overcome their divisions, and to strengthen the unity against capital.
Building the party
Rodney went on to say something else quite interesting. And here we come to the final lesson of his life, which was building the party. Rodney said that those tiny moments of unity between the Guyanese workers throughout history are great, but they broke down quite easily as soon as the repression actually set in.
Rodney said that what you need is an organization that can help transform the sporadic unity into a permanent and durable link between the working classes. In Rodney’s practice in Guyana during the mid-1970s, that translated into building a mass revolutionary organization, called the Working People’s Alliance (WPA).
The WPA started out as a pressure group but increasingly, as the struggle picked up, became a political party. Rodney emphasized building a mass organization that can carry out an antiracist argument among the working classes, but also put forward a case against the dictatorship in Guyana and for a genuine socialism from below.
Rodney’s organization, the Working People’s Alliance, did great things. They ended up leading quite a sizable rebellion in 1969, where there was a series of protests and a strike by the dock workers, who were mainly Afro-Guyanese, and who were the support base of the dictatorship.
And Rodney’s organization really thrived in this environment. They became the organization that people listened to. They managed to get Indian workers to donate to support African workers on strike. The monster rallies that they held often turned into spontaneous protests. Their foundation rally, when they became a political party, had 8,000 people at it.
This was a tremendous time, but they were very much aware that the government was out to get them. And, unfortunately, the government won. By September 1979 there were fewer strikes and mass protests in Guyana, and the rebellion was eventually beaten back by the government.
Once the mass movement was gone, Rodney and his comrades, and especially the leadership of his party, could no longer be protected by the masses. They knew that the government was out to kill them. They were trying to organize their self-defense in various ways, such as getting weapons and equipment.
Now we come to Rodney’s steps on June 13, 1980. Rodney and his brother went to buy a walkie-talkie from an ex-soldier, who was secretly working for the dictatorship. When he bought the walkie-talkie and activated it in his car, the device blew up in his face and killed him instantly. Luckily, his brother survived to tell the tale.
Walter Rodney’s funeral really testified to his tremendous legacy in Guyana because there you had Guyanese people from all races, all genders, all ages, all walks of life, coming out to support the lost leader. His funeral was the biggest ever in Guyana.
It was also one of the biggest protests ever. About 35,000 people attended the funeral. Working people recognized that they had lost one of their greatest and brightest leaders. I think it’s our duty as revolutionaries, as socialist revolutionaries, to make sure that Walter Rodney’s legacy lives on.
[A Rebel’s Guide To Walter Rodney can be purchased here. – Eds. ]
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Nicholas Laughlin; modified by Tempest.
We want to hear what you think. Contact us at email@example.com. And if you've enjoyed what you've read, please consider donating to support our work:Donate
Chinedu Chukwudinma View All
Chinedu Chukwudinma is a PhD student at Oxford University in Human Geography, where he researches Walter Rodney’s life and legacy. He’s an active member of the Socialist Worker’s Party UK and a member of the editorial board of ROAPE, the Review of African Political Economy. He writes on African politics, popular struggles and the history of working-class resistance in African countries. He is generally speaking a very awesome dude and he likes Kendrick Lamar’s music.