When he was murdered by agents of the Burnham regime in Georgetown, Guyana, on June 13, 1980, he was involved not only in the writing of history but more so in the making of history. For a couple of days before Gregory Smith’s bomb took his life, he had sent the final version of his a manuscript on the Guyanese working class that was published posthumously as “A History of the Guyanese Working People”.
Walter Anthony Rodney is arguably the most important theoretician cum activist-scholar — in the mould of C.L.R. James and W.E.B. Dubois — who lived and worked in Africa, and approached the troubling question of African identity and liberation from the vantage point of Pan-Africanism. Born of working class parentage in Guyana in 1942, Walter grew up in his native Guyana, travelled and lived elsewhere in the Caribbean and the U.S. before proceeding to London, England to do his Ph.D. By the time he graduated in 1966, and took up his first academic job in Tanzania, he had visited all the regions that were to occupy a central place in his scholarship and political practice. To understand Rodney’s ideas as they evolved during the short period when he was active — he was murdered at the young age of thirty-eight — it is necessary to establish a dialogue, a kind of conversation, between his ideas in the making and the important issues/questions which confronted Africans and peoples of African descent, in the Caribbean, the United States, as well as elsewhere in the world.
Brother Wally, as the working peoples in the Caribbean fondly referred to Walter Rodney, grew up in a part of the world where he was forced to learn and appreciate, at a tender age, how to distinguish between class forces in political matters and how to handle the question of race. These two issues were central to his politics, his ideas, and his teachings. Coming from a working class background — both parents belonged to the tailoring trade — he had to confront the meaning and significance of the social and political differences constructed around race and class at an early age. As he himself put it, “I grew up in a divided society, in which the majority of one’s day–to-day contacts were with one’s own ethnic group”.
This division between peoples of African descent and those of Indian ancestry embedded in the politics of Guyana resonates with the politics of race and class familiar to students of African-American history. And it was the most important political obstacles that the Marxist oriented People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had to confront in the period of decolonisation. The radical outlook of the PPP in Guyana helped to mold the young Walter to appreciate race and class in everyday life. Thus he quickly learnt how to distinguish between those Guyanese who were likely to support the party’s programme from those opposed to the party, by simply looking at where they lived, how the residence was constructed, and whether it was easily accessible.
This realisation came as a result of his participation in party activities — distributing leaflets, selling party memorabilia — where he had his first real introduction to the class question. The radical political context in Guyana, not only exposed Rodney and others, notably Clive Thomas, to socialism but also made them more receptive to the idea of Marxism as an alternative framework for understanding our world. This preliminary political exposure, which was partly due to his working class background and partly the political situation in Guyana, was strengthened when Walter won a scholarship to study at the University of the West Indies, at Mona, Jamaica.
In Jamaica and later in Tanzania, where he held teaching positions, he was known for his involvement with the popular masses — radical intellectuals, working peoples and Rastafarians. This eventually led to his deportation from Jamaica in 1968. Rodney’s practice and belief in the role of the people as the central motive force for historical change was pivotal to the evolution of his political thought and his practice as a peoples’ historian.
Rodney’s account of his stay in Jamaica, as a student, and later as a faculty member, lends itself to an essentialist reading of the Jamaican people. Emphasising what he called the dynamism of the Jamaican situation, Rodney concluded that the Jamaican people… “are a breed apart,…of any people.” This dynamism and energy of the Jamaican situation was not only observable in the Island itself, but also in the Diaspora, particularly in England, where Rodney, who moved in and out of the West Indian immigrant community in London, did not fail to observe that Jamaican militancy was crucial in combating British racism. It was the Jamaicans, he wrote, “who were out there in the street defending the whole race.” This experience, which was reflected in the role West Indians played in key sectors of British society – the transportation system, the hospital, the schools and so on – confirmed Rodney’s beliefs in the capacity of ordinary people for change and their pivotal role in the historical process. In Jamaica and later in Tanzania, where he held teaching positions, he was known for his involvement with the popular masses — radical intellectuals, working peoples and Rastafarians. This eventually led to his deportation from Jamaica in 1968. Rodney’s practice and belief in the role of the people as the central motive force for historical change was pivotal to the evolution of his political thought and his practice as a peoples’ historian.
By the time he won a scholarship to do graduate work in England — he had graduated summa cum laudae in Jamaica — his ideas where decidedly of a leftist persuasion. Yet, it was in England that he was able to unravel the maze of theoretical positions, which then dominated political discussions about the so-called Third World situation and the struggle for political and economic emancipation. And it was also in London that Rodney met the legendary Trinidadian revolutionary and Pan-Africanist idol, C.L.R. James, joined their study group, while doing research for his Ph.D at the School of Oriental African Studies (SOAS). His experience at this imperial institution was as suffocating as it was liberating. “The moment you go there you’re under that load, that you’re not just you, but you are a representative of a whole people, who have been victimised but who are also regarded as the agents of their own victimisation and that something is somehow wrong with them”, he was to write about this experience. By the time he graduated with a dissertation on slavery in the Upper Guinea Coast, he was only twenty-four years old. He had mastered the ropes of Africanist imperial discourse on African history that he was to spend much of his academic life subverting.
His dissertation, published four years later, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800, challenged the dominant conventional interpretation about slavery in Africanist historical scholarship. Rodney’s grounding in the study of slavery/Atlantic slave trade and how it shaped the then evolving Black Atlantic world — defined as coastal West Africa and Euro-America — laid the groundwork for his two popular publications Groundings With My Brothers, written in Jamaica and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, written and published in Tanzania.
By historicising the problem of under-development, he was able to establish the historical linkages between the present backwardness of the African continent and its history of exploitation. Similarly, he was able to demonstrate the intricate connections between slave trade, racism and capitalism, thus linking the experience of Africans in the continent and those in the Diaspora.
As the first individual of African descent in the new world to conduct a scientific study of slavery and the slave trade in Africa, Rodney struggled to emphasise the complex linkages between Africa and the Americas. Whereas Eric Williams’ magisterial Capitalism and Slavery, an Oxford dissertation penned in the forties, had established the connections between slavery and the rise of capitalism in England by focusing on the West Indies, Rodney expanded the field of enquiry by looking at the direct linkages between Africa and Europe, the African presence in the Americas, and the consequent development of a tri-continental interaction, which subsequently laid the foundation for capitalism in the Euro-America. His analysis was more than a synthesis of existing works, it laid bare the processes through which the continent of Africa was incorporated into the then expanding capitalist system and the consequent underdevelopment and exploitation of its resources. By historicising the problem of under-development, he was able to establish the historical linkages between the present backwardness of the African continent and its history of exploitation. Similarly, he was able to demonstrate the intricate connections between slave trade, racism and capitalism, thus linking the experience of Africans in the continent and those in the Diaspora. He would be the first historian of the African past in his generation to publish original path-breaking essays on four countries (Angola, Ghana, Guinea and Mozambique) outside his so-called area of research.
By the time he returned to his native Guyana in 1974, Walter Rodney was an accomplished scholar and a leading theoretician of the African experience. Denied a professorial chair by the Burnham regime, after the university authorities had already made him an offer, Walter settled down to an active life of teaching, research, and politics, from 1974 to 1980, when he was brutally assassinated. Rodney was a full time organiser and founding member of the Working Peoples Alliance (WPA). He travelled extensively in the Caribbean, North America, and Europe, giving lectures on the political situation in the Caribbean, and the role of the WPA in Guyana. Rodney combined theory and practice, scholarship and activism.
When he was murdered by agents of the Burnham regime in Georgetown, Guyana, on June 13, 1980, he was involved not only in the writing of history but more so in the making of history. For a couple of days before Gregory Smith’s bomb took his life, he had sent the final version of his a manuscript on the Guyanese working class that was published posthumously as A History of the Guyanese Working People. His notes and unfinished manuscript on the impact of Bolshevism in Africa, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World, was published two years ago. His path-breaking intervention in West African historiography continues to shape current research questions almost half a century after they were originally formulated/published. The Rodnian problematic is clearly visible in Toby Greens’ The Rise of the Trans-Saharan Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589(2013) and his A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the rise of the slave Trade to the Age of Revolution(2018).
Ibrahim Abdullah is a social historian who has taught in universities in Nigeria, Canada, US, and South Africa. He has been a professor of history at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.