Rodney was above all else a Marxist who fought for the self-emancipation of the working class and for the liberation of the oppressed. My book tells the story of how Rodney became a Marxist through his journeys in Africa, Europe and the Caribbean.
When he grew up in Guyana in the 1950s, his parents were supporters of the People’s Progressive Party, which for a time managed to unite Afro‑Guyanese people who came from slavery, and Indo-Guyanese. He was a student in Jamaica at the time of Jamaican independence. People were discovering their Caribbean and African heritage.
He reads books such CLR James’s The Black Jacobins as well as a lot of African history. He travels to Cuba and the Soviet Union and comes back with literature about Che Guevara and Lenin. It’s like in his life he decides he wants emulate Lenin—be a doer and a thinker at the same time. He wants to be a kind of revolutionary intellectual.
Then he goes to London and joins a Marxist study group led by CLR James who made him read the classics of Marxism such as Capital. CLR James had this position of supporting workers’ revolution in Europe, but also looked to guerrilla struggle and events such as the Cuban Revolution. Rodney is very fascinated by that. So there is a tension in Rodney’s life between Third World nationalism, which is very popular across the Global South, and the classical Marxist education.
You describe in your book how this Marxism is the basis for his most famous book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
Rodney wrote that book in 1972 while living in Tanzania. He wanted to explain how, ten years after most African countries become independent, they hadn’t broken ties with their former colonial powers. He’s also trying to go against what middle class intellectuals say about African underdevelopment—that it’s the responsibility of Africans themselves.
He uses Marxism to tell how the European bourgeoisie, through the slave trade and colonialism, underdeveloped the African continent. That in turn contributed to the strengthening of the development of capitalism in Europe. It’s a fantastic piece of history that doesn’t see Africa in isolation from the world economy, but studies its integration into it.
Despite this, you criticise parts of his Marxism—particularly in his early years when he looks to forces other than the working class to be agents for change.
Rodney was an activist and theorist in the Global South where the working class was very small. So he found it difficult to find the working class if I may put it that way. In Jamaica he becomes this theoretician of Black Power, and attacks the collusion of the Jamaican elites with foreign companies. But he only sees the working class as one player among many. He thinks that in Jamaica the people who would play a key role in a revolution would be the unemployed youth.
When he goes to Tanzania he encounters what you might call Tanzanian socialism, which is very top down, state-led socialism. It amounted to nationalisation and collectivisation of land where peasants are put into collective farms. It was really the socialism of the intellectual middle class—the small minority that inherited state power after the colonialists left—to put the nation to work much harder.
Rodney is enthusiastic about elements of this at first. But one of the major themes of his life is he moves away from this support for state socialism from above to socialism from below. He realises that the regime in Tanzania denied any capacity of the masses to fight for their own liberation.
He looks at workers’ strikes for better conditions and wages in the nationalised factories. In some instances there are occupations where the workers are really raising the question of who should control production in the socialist society. Is it us the workers or is it the state bureaucrats? Rodney comes back to the core of Marxism—that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class. He rejoices at these strikes and occupations.
And this is the attitude he takes with him when he returns to Guyana and joins the Working People’s Alliance (WPA)?
In Guyana he’s dealing with a regime that calls itself socialist, but that really isn’t. The dictatorship had nationalised 80 percent of the economy and ran a regime of terror. Rodney leads the fight against that and puts a strong emphasis on building a political party.
The regime played divide and rule between the Afro‑Guyanese the Indo-Guyanese in terms of who got access to jobs and welfare. Rodney came to the conclusion that the racial divide in the 1970s was a legacy from the colonial plantation slave economy. In the period after slavery black plantation workers fought for higher wages. To undercut their struggles the ruling class brought in indentured, Indian labour. The planter class in Guyana used racism to divide both groups. That continued even after independence when most of the ruling class was non-white.
Rodney says that in key moments, the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese working people have shown moments of solidarity through high points of struggle. He emphasises the centrality of class struggle in order to fight racism. When people fight in the streets and the workplace, they realise their common interests and their common enemy. The class struggle is fundamental for helping these two groups of workers overcome their racial prejudices to one another.
But Rodney also says these moments of racial unity were sporadic. When repression set in the two groups became divided once again. So he said they needed to build an organisation that can build a permanent bond between the working classes. His answer is to build the WPA as an organisation that can argue for working class unity, wage struggle and propose socialism from below.
So he tried build the WPA as a mass party. Can you say a bit about what was happening in Guyana at the time?
The WPA first starts out as a pressure group. They have a small newspaper and their goal is to agitate. Then during the summer of 1979 there was a mass wave of strikes led by bauxite miners against the regime. The miners were a very important part of the Guyanese working class, but they were also people who usually supported the dictatorship. At the same time there were signs that the sugar workers, who were mostly Indian, were about to join that strike.
On top of that, there were protests against the dictatorship in many towns. Rodney’s pressure group became a political party in that environment and did incredible things. It got the Guyanese people to support the people on strike, donate to the relief fund. It organised rallies that turned into spontaneous protests. It increasingly became the main opposition to the dictatorship in Guyana.
The problem was that the movement didn’t survive the repression. When the mass protests diminished the leadership of the WPA was exposed to the repression and Rodney was killed.
So what lessons should people take from Rodney’s life and your book?
First is that Rodney was above all a Marxist and a revolutionary. At every stage of his life Rodney thought about how to link his radical ideas to the working class. Another thing is how Rodney comes to realise the fundamental difference between socialism from above and socialism from below. Socialism from below relies on the self-activity of the working class. The third thing is the question of how to understand racism and how to fight it. Racism is a product of the capitalist system, and a tool in the hands of the ruling class.
In the fight against racism you need to understand the centrality of working class struggle in overcoming their prejudices. And you need an organisation that’s able to carry out that anti-racist unity. If you want to defeat the capitalist class you need a revolutionary party, and I think Rodney’s life shows that very well.
A Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney by Chinedu Chukwudinma. Published by Bookmarks, £4
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney. Published by Verso, £19.99
Groundings With My Brothers by Walter Rodney. Published by Verso, £9.99
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarks
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