A revolutionary for today

By Leo Zeilig

The explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement around the world in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd has led thousands to explore Walter Rodney’s work and life.  Rodney was a revolutionary, who made a major contribution to history, Marxism, and political movements in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Rodney was a self-constructed Marxist who grew up in Guyana in the 1940s and 1950s, in a period of radicalising decolonisation in the Caribbean. He moved to Jamaica to study for a degree in history in 1960, and to 1963 to the UK to undertake a PhD. Through this period he was an activist debating radical change, unpicking, and celebrating the Cuba revolution, and learning, reading, discussing radical social theory. 

In London in the early 1960s, he encountered this country’s racism. On the small radical left, he was shocked by an arrogance that involved white socialists talking at him about Caribbean independence and African history and politics. Rodney encountered the habit of interrupting, belittling, and “talking over” with supposedly superior formulations and cleverer perspectives. Anti-racism, Rodney knew, had to do not simply with taking the correct position, but also with the directness with which one-to-one relationships were conducted.

Beneath the surface, Rodney detected hostility and even a latent racism on the radical left.  Instead he found a political home with the great Trinidadian Marxist and historian CLR James, learning, reading, and debating history and Marxism in a study group for Caribbean students in which James, and his wife Selma, were the leading intellectual lights. 

Completing his PhD in 1966, he took work teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and left with his wife and lifelong comrade, Patricia Rodney. During his stay in Tanzania, as the country was undergoing a period of intense post-colonial change led by Julius Nyerere, Rodney once more, immersed himself in debates in the country, and the exhilarating changes taking place.

Throughout this period, he was sceptical of what he saw as the fallacy of African socialism and cautioned against state-led projects of socialist change and what he described as ‘briefcase independence’. Yet he was enthusiastic about the possibilities of Tanzania’s radical and socialist transformation ushered in by the Arusha Declaration in 1967. He was supportive of Nyerere’s aims but acutely aware of their limitations. 

Rodney wrote prolifically, producing what many people regard as his masterwork in 1972, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which explained how European colonialism, and slavery had systematically underdeveloped Africa societies and cultures. Centuries of slavery, and then colonialism, dragged back and destroyed civilisations and societies, profoundly impacting those that survived. 

In a period of radical Black politics, Rodney also contributed to achieving what has been described as a synthesis of Marxism and Back Power in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Rodney riots – rebellion is a better word – in October 1968 in Kingston, Jamaica, after a short stint teaching at the university on the island, was testament to his immense influence on the island.

In 1974, the Rodney family – the couple now had three children – moved back to Guyana. In Guyana, Rodney entered the most extraordinary period of his life. He quickly became the leading organiser of the Working People’s Alliance, a revolutionary organisation committed to the socialist transformation of Guyana, and the Caribbean, and founded on the politics of African and Indian unity from below. 

Once more, Rodney developed and grew as a Marxist and organiser. In 1978, he returned to the experiences of Tanzanian socialism, and now saw the project of top-down reforms and nationalisation as a sham, which offered no real prospects of transformation. He now looked resolutely to the working class and the poor. 

As Rodney explained in a lecture in Hamburg that year: “Even though theoretically the Tanzanian revolution accepted a greater role for workers, when they made an important policy statement in 1973 called Mwongozo [a charter of workers’ rights, reviving the radical aspect of the government’s ujamaa or socialist policy]… the workers themselves tried to implement the rights that was supposedly safe-guarded by Mwongozo.” 

What happened after the charter was enacted were a series of wildcat strikes and factory occupations, with workers frequently kicking out management, and taking control of the business for themselves. This, Rodney now argued, had to be the model for socialist change – the self-emancipation of working people.

As Rodney explained, “If workers were running one factory, then maybe they will run another and another. And this doesn’t look too good for the economic wing of the bureaucracy… their whole rationale of production as a class would disappear if there was workers’ control… so they moved to crush those initiatives.”

This was not a Tanzanian phenomenon but applied, Rodney explained, to all socialist politics from above, in Africa, and elsewhere. TANU – the ruling party in Tanzania – was a nationalist party firmly under the thumb of the petit bourgeoisie and utterly incapable of providing the basis for consistent socialist transformation.

Rodney’s approach to politics and activism was equally remarkable. Despite his status as a leading militant and organiser in the WPA, he remained modest and approachable, eager, indeed enthusiastic, to hear criticism, to correct errors and organisational mistakes – and the WPA made many of them. His research, teaching and writing also continued – there was no division between his scholarly work, which was always collaborative, and his activism. 

Rodney’s final posthumous book (though there were many manuscripts lost, and books that have been released recently and others coming out), A History of the Guyanese Working People, was dedicated to correcting the historical record and revealing a history of working class unity in the country.

In all his research no stone was left unturned, and no book unread, whatever the political tradition – from Leon Trotsky to Tony Cliff and others. Rodney shunned a hand-me-down approach to Marxism: read, he declared to his students and members of the WPA, and work out the complexity of capitalism, imperialism and class struggle for yourself. 

In his creative and detailed historical work, his synthesis of Black Power and Marxism, the organisational and political activism in the WPA – as the ‘prophet of self-emancipation’ as he was called – and in his life as a whole human being, Rodney is a revolutionary for our time. 

Leo Zeilig is a writer and researcher. He has written extensively on African politics and history and is an editor of the Review of African Political Economy. His new book A Revolutionary for Our Time: The Walter Rodney Story is published by Haymarket. He is also a novelist. His latest novel is The Wolrd Turned upside Down.

Leo will be talking about the book at Bookmarks Bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London, WC1B 3QE, on Tuesday 24th May, 6:30 pm. Sign up on Eventbrite.

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