By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Jan. 13, 2023)
Leo Zeilig has penned a comprehensive biography entitled “A Revolutionary of Our Time: The Walter Rodney Story”. The book is recommended reading for anyone interested in not only the life of Dr. Rodney but the period in which he lived and his contribution to the theory and practice of what it means to stand firmly on the side of the poor, vulnerable and especially the African people.
Walter Rodney was a scholar, working-class militant, and revolutionary from Guyana. Strongly influenced by Marxist ideas, he remains central to radical Pan-Africanist thought for many activists today.
His short life (38 years) was cut by an assassin in the pay of the brutal Forbes Burnham regime in Georgetown, Guyana, on June 13 1980. Dr.Rodney’s death came as a significant shock to progressive thinkers. It was particularly hard felt by revolutionaries in the Caribbean who were encouraged by the triumph of the Grenada Revolution on March 1979, the overthrow of the murderous Samoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in July 1979 by the Sandanistas and the fall of the Shah of Iran on February 11, 1979.
Dr. Rodney’s death continued a sad and mournful reality where thinkers and revolutionaries were cut down in the prime of their lives, many in their 30s. Steve Biko (30), Franz Fanon (36), Thomas Sankara (36), Malcolm X (39), Che Guevara (39), Dr. Martin Luther King (39), and Maurice Bishop (39), to name some of the most prominent. Dr.Rodney lived through the failed –though immensely hopeful -socialist experiments in the 1960s and 1970s, in Tanzania and elsewhere.
The book critically considers Rodney’s contribution to Marxist theory and history, his relationship to dependency theory and the contemporary significance of his work in the context of movements and politics today. The first full-length study of Rodney’s life, this book is an essential introduction to Rodney’s work.
Zeilig tells us that Walter Rodney clearly knows who he was and how he got where he had arrived. He was a gifted student and was educated through scholarship. However, he never considered himself special. Rodney knew that ‘it was the people’s tax money’ that sent him to school. He committed himself to serving them.
He had some mighty battles with some lecturers when he joined the UWI campus as a lecturer. They warned that one could either be an intellectual or a revolutionary. You can’t combine the two.’ Dr.Rodney disagreed: ‘I felt that somehow being a revolutionary intellectual might be a goal to which one might aspire. Surely, there was no real reason why one should remain in the academic world and at the same time not be a revolutionary.’
His wife Patricia Rodney said what attracted her to Walter was ‘his simplicity and sincerity. He was an attractive man and a very intelligent person. But he did not behave the way that most people with higher education behaved. He was not arrogant; he was a very simple person who could talk about anything and associate with everybody.’
As we would see, these character traits made Dr.Rodney a marked and dangerous man. Dr.Rodney developed a habit of thoroughness. He said the ‘rigour was necessary to better take on the gatekeepers of the academic establishment by challenging their hegemony over scholarship and learning.’
When he became a lecturer in Jamaica, Dr.Rodney did not remain in the university’s ivory tower. He spent time with ordinary people. He talked about African people’s contribution to the world. These talks were later compiled into what became his first book: Grounding with My Brothers (1969).
Other work Dr. Rodney are:
* West Africa and the Atlantic Slave Trade (1970)
* A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545–1800 (1970)
* How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972)
* World War II and the Tanzanian Economy (1976)
* The Russian Revolution (2018)
* Decolonial Marxism (2022)
The Jamaican secret police followed Dr. Rodney’s every move. Rodney was preaching Black Power in a country where the African masses were still steep in colonial bondage. He left for Montreal, Canada, for a Black Writers conference in 1968, and the Hugh Shearer Government issued a ban against him, preventing him from returning to his teaching post.
Dr. Rodney returned to Tanzania for a second stint as a lecturer. There he lent ‘critical’ support to Julius Nyerere Ujama Socialist project. He was a top-rated lecturer, and in keeping with the revolutionary upsurge in Africa and other parts of the world, Dr. Rodney was in high demand for talks and lectures. Tanzania attracted a lot of progressives from around the world. There was a big showdown where Dr.Rodney sided with the African professors against the white academics. He was accused of being an opportunist. Dr.Rodney replied that white people were so accustomed to being on top that they could not conceive of black intellectuals firmly asserting their position.
He eventually soured on Nyerere’s ‘socialist experiment. He criticised it for being ‘petty bourgeois in nature’ and not sufficiently empowering of the Tanzanian working class and peasantry.
In Tanzania, he published the widely popular text, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’. His popularity soured. He was offered tenureship at many universities, but the itch was to return to his homeland, Guyana. He returned in 1974.
At the height of his academic fame, he applied to the University of Guyana for a job as a lecturer and was denied. Dr.Rodney had to depend on short contracts, research and stints abroad as a visiting lecturer to care for his wife and three children, Shaka, Kinini and Asha.
But he remained undaunted. Eusi Kwayana, the pan-African activist, said, “From the time he was banned from Jamaica and came to the notice of the public as a son abroad, he was a popular figure in the imagination and hearts of the Guyanese people.”
Dr. Rodney joined the Working Peoples Alliance (WPA). Along with Kwayana, Rupert Rooperine and sister Andaiye, he threw himself into uniting and organising the Guyanese working people. They were achieving much success. Ever since 1953, politics in Guyana has been along racial lines, with Burnham leading the People’s National Congress (PNC) and Cheddi Jagan the People’s Political Party (PPP).
The struggle intensified. In late 1979, the WPA issued a warning: it ‘wished to alert the Caribbean and world opinion to the fact that there is a real possibility of assassination attempts.’
Six months later, Burnham’s regime struck. An undercover agent posing as an activist gave Walter Rodney a walkie-talkie rigged with an explosive device. He tested it, and it blew, killing him and injuring his brother, Donald.
Walter Rodney: to know him is to love him.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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