Who was Walter Rodney?

by Aug 12, 2013Magazine

A brief introduction to his life and works

Walter Anthony Rodney, known to many as Walter or Brother Wally, was born on 23 March 1942 in Guiana, a British colony on the northern coast of South America. His father Edward was a tailor and his mother, Pauline, a seamstress and homemaker, and they had six children. The Rodneys were decent, hardworking people who wanted to ensure that their children had a good education. For working people, education was the avenue towards a middle-class status and a better life.

While he is often defined as an intellectual, revolutionary, scholar, Marxist or activist, Rodney was a multi-dimensional person. He was extremely simple, kind and unassuming. Rodney always demanded high standards and principles of himself and expected them from others. He was neither arrogant nor dogmatic and was always cognizant of the sacrifices made by his parents and the Guyanese working class. He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things in his short life.

Growing up in British Guiana in the 1950s influenced Rodney’s early political consciousness as it was the first socialist government in the Western hemisphere. In 1953, British Guiana celebrated its first independent government under the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), led by Dr Cheddie Jagan. In 1966, following independence, the country changed its name to the indigenous Amerindian ‘Guyana’ (land of many waters), eventually becoming a republic in 1970. Rodney was thus part of a generation that experienced the fervour of independence.

Rodney’s activism and scholarship began simultaneously; as early as 11 years old he was listening to political discussions between his father and other artisans. Always a gifted student, Rodney won a scholarship to one of Guiana’s most prestigious male secondary schools, Queen’s College. From very early, he developed the reputation of being a great debater and athlete, both of which were highly respected skills in Guyanese society. In 1958, he passed the A-Levels examination in History, Spanish and English with honours.

Rodney won the Open Guyana scholarship at 17 and left the country in 1959 to do his undergraduate studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Mona, Jamaica. As an undergraduate, he was highly active in student politics. He represented UWI in the Soviet Union, visited Cuba and authored articles in academic journals and newspapers. Spanish was among the courses he studied at UWI and 1963 he graduated with First Class Honours. He later learned French and Portuguese, mainly to facilitate his research and to ensure the integrity of translations of original historical documents.

In July 1963, Rodney travelled to London to continue his graduate studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Every Friday, he went to the home of the great Trinidadian revolutionary and intellectual, CLR James, where a group of Caribbean students engaged in informal political discussions. Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park was where Rodney spent Sunday afternoons, speaking to large crowds on topical issues impacting on West Indians, other immigrants and the poor living in London. Rodney soon came under the surveillance of the British MI5, the United States CIA and the Guyanese government, who all began compiling dossiers on him. In 1964, he travelled to Portugal, Spain and Italy to conduct research for his thesis, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast. While in Portugal, Rodney was also under constant surveillance by Portuguese state security.

From 1966-1967 Rodney taught at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Tanzania was entering a new phase in its political development, transforming from a colonial state into a society committed to building Ujamaa, or familyhood, an African model of development that is based on the person through the people/community. Tanzania provided financial and social support to a number of liberation movements and freedom fighters, provided refugee status to other Africans, granted political asylum to several African-Americans and supported the struggle of the Vietnamese people. This environment was conducive to Rodney’s writing of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA), in which Rodney posits that a combination of power politics and economic exploitation by Europeans led to the poor state of African political and economic development in the late 20th Century. In concluding that Africa was deliberately exploited and underdeveloped by European colonial regimes, HEUA challenged dominant assumptions about African history and presented new ideas and models for analysing the history of oppressed peoples through the lens of underdevelopment.

In January 1968, Rodney accepted a teaching appointment at UWI and returned to Jamaica, where he was eager to introduce African history to Caribbean students. While there he took a stand against the political direction of the Jamaican government. In October 1968 he attended the Black Writers Congress in Montreal, Canada, but was refused re-entry into Jamaica when the government declared him ‘persona non grata’. The students organised a demonstration when they learned of this and to disperse them, police used excessive force in the form of clubs and tear gas. The uprising spread from the campus to the streets, becoming known as the ‘Rodney riots’. Notably, the ban placed on Rodney by the government was never lifted. Rodney’s experiences in Jamaica resulted in the publication of Groundings with My Brothers.

In November 1968, Rodney went to Cuba to review his options. There he wrote Black Struggles, based on his experiences in Jamaica. He later returned to Tanzania from 1969-1974, often traveling to speak and lecture at international institutions, including Howard University, the Institute of the Black World, Cornell University and the State University of New York at Binghamton. Two of Rodney’s legacies during his time in Tanzania included his assistance to several liberation movements and the education of a generation of students from East Africa and the Caribbean. Liberation movements that he assisted included the African National Congress (ANC), Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), The Peoples Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), South West African Peoples’ Organisation (SWAPO) and Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Several of Rodney’s former students became professors, senior government officials and heads of states, including in East Africa and the Caribbean. They include current heads of states such as the President of Tanzania, Jakaye Kbwete; the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni; and the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves. Also among his students was, Zakia Meghi, current Member of Parliament and former Minister of Finance in Tanzania. Rodney was also instrumental in what became known as the Dar-es-Salaam ‘school’ of social theory and praxis directed towards Tanzanian ‘socialism’.

In 1974, Rodney accepted the position of Professor in the Department of History at the University of Guyana. His reasons for returning home were both professional and personal; he wanted to repay the Guyanese working people who contributed to his education and to spend time with his family. The Peoples National Congress (PNC) government, under the leadership of Forbes Burnham, rescinded the appointment, ostensibly to force Rodney to leave the country. Rodney was unfazed and immersed himself in his research and writings.

In 1974, Rodney joined a newly formed political group, the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). Between 1974 and 1979, he emerged as the leading figure in the resistance movement against the increasingly authoritarian PNC government. He gave public talks, spoke to community groups and at ‘bottom-house meetings’ that served to engender a new political consciousness in the country. He continued to travel and lecture internationally and in 1978, delivered a series of lectures at the University of Hamburg. During this period, Rodney further developed his ideas on self-emancipation, the rights of working people, people’s power and multiracial democracy. As the WPA gained popularity and momentum, the PNC began a campaign of harassment against Rodney, the WPA and its followers. On July 11, 1979, Rodney was arrested following the burning down of two government offices. Rodney and four others (known as the ‘Referendum Five’) faced false charges of arson but without proof and due to international scrutiny, the government was forced to drop the charges.

For several months in 1980, Rodney and his family were forced to leave their home as threats of violence escalated, including the threat to bomb their house. Rodney and his wife Patricia stayed at a different safe house each night, while the children stayed with relatives and friends. Though Rodney lived with constant police harassment and frequent threats against his life, he nonetheless managed to complete four books in the last year of his life. A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905 was published posthumously in 1981. The others were a political call to action, People’s Power, No Dictator, and two children’s books, Kofi Baadu Out of Africa, and Lakshmi Out of India. He also completed several journal articles and other political writings.

A series of beatings, arrests, raids, tortures and killings by the Burnham-led PNC

preceded the final attempt on Rodney’s life. On Black Friday, 13 June 1980, Rodney was assassinated. He was 38 years old. His brother, Donald Rodney, who was with him in the vehicle that was bombed, barely escaped with his life. The leader of the PNC at the time is the same Forbes Burnham on whom the prestigious Oliver Tambo Award was meant to be conferred. The award was deferred indefinitely in April 2013 after calls by the Rodney family and people all over the world, based on the conduct and character of Forbes Burnham, and taking into account the contributions of Guyanese people who made personal sacrifices to contribute to and stand in solidarity with the South African people in their struggle against apartheid.

In summary, Rodney combined scholarship with activism and became a voice for the oppressed. His interest in the struggles of the working class began at a young age with an introduction to politics by his father, and continued with his involvement in debating and study groups throughout his student years. Influenced by the Black Power movement in the US, by Third World revolutionaries and Marxist theory, Rodney actively challenged the status quo. His voice was not confined to Africa and the Caribbean, but was also heard in the US, Canada and Europe. His reputation as a historian is indisputable. He was a rare combination of academic scholar, Pan Africanist, Marxist, activist and a voice for working peoples globally.

Among others, Rodney’s death was commemorated by Martin Carter in his poem, For Walter Rodney, by dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in Reggae fi Radni, and by Kamau Braithwaite in Poem for Walter Rodney. A bibliography of works by and about Walter Rodney and additional information about him and the Walter Rodney Foundation is available at www.walterrodneyfoundation.org.

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