A Revolutionary for Our Time
The Walter Rodney Story
by Leo Zeilig
While I was reading A Revolutionary for Our Time: The Walter Rodney Story by Leo Zeilig, my four-year-old was really into a book called Where’s Rodney? The story is about a young African-American boy who cannot sit still in class and is always being a goofball. Rodney just wants to be outside, but as a result of his urban environment, he has a limited experience of what the outdoors is like. However, he feels he knows what is outside. Then, his class goes on a field trip to a real park. He absolutely loves it, and this becomes a great way for Rodney to learn rather than just being in a classroom. As a parent of a kid who loves being outside and has a hard time staying still, this book was perfect.
At the time, my kid started looking at the cover of Zeilg’s book, saying it was Rodney as an adult. It made me laugh and I loved the connections my kid was making. Through the book, I found out that Walter Rodney, the late Guyanese Marxist and activist, was also the author of two children’s books: Kofi Baadu Out of Africa and Lakshmi Out of India. He wrote these books to help children in Guyana to see themselves in stories and provide some history to the youngsters.
I tell this story not only because I found my kid’s observations humorous, but also because it speaks to the wide-ranging, versatile, broad perspective that Walter Rodney had toward the world. He was not just consumed with his academic work or his activist work, he saw the struggle to liberate oppressed people as something that mattered from your first day out of the womb.
On a personal note, Rodney has been extremely important to my own political development. I was radicalized around Indigenous liberation issues, but my Marxist education was almost exclusively European. Rodney’s book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa transformed my thought process around Marxism, and led me to read more and more non-European Marxists for a more inclusive and wide-ranging analysis of the world.
Rodney on the Rise Again
With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, we have seen a revival and rediscovery of Black anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist theorists in an attempt to explain the racist system under which we live, including renewed interest in the writings of Walter Rodney. This can be seen with Verso Books republishing a series of Rodney’s work, including The Groundings With My Brothers, Decolonial Marxism: Essays from the Pan-African Revolution, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World, and his most famous book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Zeilig’s book A Revolutionary for Our Time does an excellent job of examining not only Rodney’s life, but also the world that he was relating to. This makes the book a little different than a straightforward biography. Yes, Zeilig goes through Rodney’s personal life, but every major part of his life is paired with the history and context for his actions and decisions, which shows how he balanced his theory and practice. You could know very little about the anti-colonial struggles in Tanzania, Guyana, and Jamaica-all places where Rodney lived, taught, and organized-and still come away from the book with so much knowledge about each place. Without hesitation, I would recommend anyone to read this book and then dig vigorously into Rodney’s work. A Revolutionary for Our Time provides the context for his writing and influence.
Rodney was born in 1942 in what was called British Guiana at the time. His political education started early. His parents were active in the Socialist People’s Progressive Party and frequently hosted meetings and get-togethers at their house. It was not long after that the young Rodney started to leaflet for the group. Not until 1966 did Guyana gain independence from Britain and subsequently become a republic in 1970. This is important to remember because for most of Rodney’s young life, the British were occupiers, and this undoubtedly influenced his political work on anti-colonial struggle.
Unlike some other academics, Rodney came out of the working class, and this lived experience would influence his time in the academy, which would earn him many critics. He received a scholarship to attend the School of Oriental and African History at the University of London. There, he had his first taste of out-of-touch, armchair, European Marxists. He went around to various political organizations to build connections while in London. At this time, the Left was split between the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and smaller anti-Stalinist groups. Both were inhospitable to Rodney and, as Zeilig said, “would have seemed overwhelmingly white, Eurocentric, and focused almost exclusively on questions that did not directly address his concerns, or those of the developing world and specifically the Caribbean and African world” (p. 30).
This disillusionment led him into the arms of C.L.R. James, the famous Trinidadian Marxist, who was in London at the same time. Rodney quickly joined a Marxist study group with James and became close to him. Before this, Rodney, though familiar with Marxism, did not identify as a Marxist. Having a fellow Caribbean without a doubt helped Rodney view Marxism as more favorable and flexible than some of his white counterparts, who were rigid in their thinking. Rodney reflected on his time with James and James’ influence on him, saying,
James has become a model of the possibilities of retaining one’s intellectual and ideological integrity over a protracted period of time. In other words, I’ve always said to myself that I hoped that at his age, if I’m around, I will still have some credibility as a progressive, that people wouldn’t look around and say, “this used to be a revolutionary.” (p. 36)
Unfortunately, Rodney would never get to that elder state.
The Academic and The Activist
There was no doubt that Rodney was talented academically, but his real gift was being able to weave between two worlds, using his skills as a scholar and activist to help change the world. This was exemplified by his most famous work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA). HEUA was a huge undertaking, and Zeilig dedicates an entire chapter just to discussing this book. As Zeilig says,
Rodney’s intellectual and activist mission was to correct the lies of official history and to give back to the continent and its people a proper account of how Africa had become “underdeveloped,” poor, and dependent. (p.128)
HEUA put Rodney in an interesting position. In the academy, he was criticized, especially by white colleagues, because HEUA did not have footnotes. However, for Rodney, his academic work was never simply about advancing himself. The book was aimed at rewriting African history from the Africans’ perspective, not the colonizers’. HEUA did not romanticize the African experience pre-colonization, but was clear on how the colonization of Africa funded the economic development of Europe. As Karl Marx says in Capital, “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”
This work led Rodney down the path of academic/activist life, including his work at Dar es Salaam University in Tanzania in 1966. This was a transformative time for Rodney. After gaining independence, Tanzania became a place to experiment with what was called African Socialism. The leader of Tanzania, Nyerere, attempted to create a new type of socialism that incorporated traditional Indigenous ways that were different from Soviet socialism. Though we might know how the story ends today, the possibilities seemed endless at the time, and Rodney was there to teach and take part in this development. Throughout his time at Dar es Salaam, he saw how the nominally “socialist” government became at odds with the working class. Rodney always walked a fine line with his criticism, especially not being from Tanzania, but he also encouraged his students to speak out. Throughout his time there, he saw other liberation movements go from hope to a form of socialism from above, where leaders claiming to represent the interests of workers and formerly colonized people attempted to stomp out any criticism of their governments.
This came to a head in 1974, when the sixth Pan-African Congress was hosted by Tanzania. Though Tanzania and other southern African countries had gained independence, it was still the white settlers who had most of the wealth and higher status. Those who were invited to the conference were leaders of these newly independent countries, some of whom declared themselves socialists. Rodney and C.L.R. James attempted to encourage the Congress to include opposition groups and other radical groups that were sometimes at odds with these governments. A widely distributed paper was passed around condemning neo-colonialism and calling for struggle from below. This was rejected by the Tanzanian government. For Rodney, this solidified his belief in socialism from below, the limitations of socialism in one country, and of what was called African Socialism. Essentially, unless anti-colonial struggles fully untangled themselves from those who formerly ruled their countries, it would be difficult if not impossible to make progress.
Although his time in Tanzania was formative, Rodney, his wife Patricia, and their kids always knew they wanted to come back to Guyana to be near family and to do the work needed to transform Guyanese society, which was in a similar position to Tanzania. As a known revolutionary and critic of the Guyanese government, it was difficult for Rodney to find work at the University of Guyana. Therefore, in order to support his family, he traveled throughout the world giving lectures, including in the United States and Canada. He developed a following, which no doubt put a larger target on his back in Guyana.
When he was home, he was involved in a grassroots revolutionary organization called the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). This organization challenged the government, which was socialist in name only. The WPA was involved in political activity, such as wildcat strikes of bauxite workers and sugar workers and struggles against police brutality. Rodney was always willing to do the “dirty work” and not just be a speaker. An important push by the WPA was to develop a multiracial analysis of Guyana. Guyana’s population was divided into two major racial groups, those of African descent and those of Indian descent. Because Rodney had a belief in socialism from below, he saw having an understanding of this analysis on race as the only way to achieve the goal of liberation for African and Indian Guyanese alike. The Guyanese government saw this work as so threatening that it set in motion an assassination plot against Rodney. In 1980, an undercover government agent sold him a walkie-talkie that exploded in his hand and killed him at the age of 38. Rodney’s willingness to do the “dirty work” was part of who he was, always willing to back up his words with action. However, this drew criticism even after his death. In C.L.R. James’ 1981 speech marking the loss of Rodney, he said,
He should never have been there. No political leader had any right to be there. Not only should he have never been there, the people around him should have seen to it that he was not in any position. That was the fundamental mistake and it was a political mistake. It was not a mistake in personal judgment. (p.320-321)
Although this might have been good advice, Zeilig argues that to have taken Rodney out of the car that night and put him aside and not allowed him to do the manual work would not have allowed Rodney to be himself. Simply put, Zeilig said, “Rodney would not have been Rodney” (p. 321).
Following his murder, Patricia Rodney and their kids fled to Barbados in fear for their own safety. Patricia continues to do political and health work, and helped found the Walter Rodney Foundation based in Atlanta today.
Rodney’s life is more important today than ever, and Zeilig does a great job of capturing the important moments in Rodney’s life and the context in which he lived it. In his last chapter, Zeilig captures the spirit of Rodney’s political work and writing, saying they
were constantly in a process of dialectical development. His understanding of the world was not written on biblical tablets but evolved on the basis of research and informed by political action. When evidence demanded it, his conclusions could and had to be revised. Indeed, dogmatism or sectarianism was antithetical to Rodney’s approach to Marxism. (p. 336)
This approach to Marxism and life should be followed and admired. Our movements today need this flexibility. In an age of dogmatism and sectarianism on the Left, we need to make sure that we are open to changes in our own thinking based on our realities. Personally, the approach that Rodney took has inspired me to go beyond what I knew of Marxism, and is what Marxism can and should be. If we don’t take the context and the changing world around us into account, our movements will be put in the dustbin of history.
Rodney lived an extraordinary life that was cut short at age 38. He was a magnificent writer who could write in the academy, but usually intended for his words to be accessible to the masses. As someone who was living through the Cold War, he was able to break through the binary of capitalism versus socialism from above. He was principled but tactful and understood some of the progress made under state-directed socialism, while also being very clear that this was not enough. More importantly, he was not an armchair theorist. He was an activist who wanted to put his words into action, which ultimately led to his assassination by the Guyanese government in 1980.
I will end with a final quote from the book that encapsulates the world Rodney strived for–and that we should, too:
Rodney was murdered when he was thirty-eight years old. However, a life cannot be measured by the number of years we live, and his contribution to activism, history, antiracism, and socialism is equal, in any proper system of accounting, to many lifetimes. Rodney’s work was a constant effort to sharpen the arrowhead of our popular struggles with learning, history, and organization. His was a clarion call to end the loop that our lives and struggles seem doomed to repeat in an ever-deepening crisis of destruction, unless, as Rodney wrote in 1972, we can finally unite our intersecting struggles to destroy capitalism. (p. 338-39)
Featured image credit: Nicholas Laughlin; modified by Tempest.
We want to hear what you think. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Ward is an educator, socialist and activist who lives in Teejop (Madison, Wisconsin, occupied Ho-Chunk Land), and has lived and worked on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He contributed to the book 101 Changemakers: Rebels and Radicals Who Changed U.S. History, and his writing has appeared in The Nation, Truthout, New Politics, Science for the People, Red Madison, Socialist Worker, International Socialist Review, Against the Current, and more.