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Revolutionary historian and activist

Published Feb 17, 2005 9:58 PM

"We must understand that we are still locked in struggle. And we are reaffirming our commitment to struggle, and we are saying we are ready to proceed. We are moving forward, we are not intimidated, we recognize the pressures, but we are far from bending under those pressures." -- Walter Rodney, June 6, 1980, Georgetown, Guyana

Walter Rodney speaking in Guyana.

This June will mark the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Walter Rodney--an African-Caribbean Marxist revolutionary activist, theoretician and internationalist.

Born in multiracial Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana) to working-class parents in 1942, Rodney was involved early on in political activity as a result of his father's participation in the anti-colonial movement with the People's Pro gressive Party (PPP), led by the Indo-Guyanese leader Cheddi Jagan. Rodney's mother was a domestic worker and a seamstress. His grandparents were farmers.

As a result of this upbringing Rodney was introduced to class relations in Guyana and to an intimate understanding of Britain's (and later the United States') artificially created divisions between different nationalities, including South Asians, Africans, Portuguese, Indigenous people and Chinese.

Under the British colonial system, working-class and peasant students had to win scholarships to attend school beyond a few initial grades, if they attended school at all.

Rodney attended the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica, majoring in history. He received his undergraduate degree in 1963. He then received a scholarship to study African history at the University of London. He earned his Ph.D. in 1966 at age 24.

To research his dissertation, "A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545 to 1800," Rodney learned to read Spanish, Portu guese and some Italian to decipher the slav ery records of these former colonial powers.

Globalizing the struggle

During his short life, Walter Rodney lived and worked on four continents and in several areas of the Caribbean.

He became a Marxist in London, learning the science of dialectical and historical materialism in study groups with leading West Indian Marxists, often led by C.L.R. James.

The London group's work was grounded in works by Amilcar Cabral, Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Marcus Garvey, V.I. Lenin, Marx and Engels, George Padmore and W.E.B. DuBois. Rodney also traveled to the USSR and China.

Rodney first taught history at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, from 1966-1967. He returned to Tanzania in 1969 after a year in Mona, Jamaica, teaching courses in African history.

He applied his Marxist teachings and activities on- and off-campus in Jamaica. He worked with Rastafarians and the super-exploited in the shantytowns and elsewhere. This resulted in the government banning him from the country upon his attempted return from a Congress of Black Writers in Montreal, Canada, in Oct ober 1968, which sparked massive demonstrations and a parliamentary crisis for the ruling Jamaica Labor Party.

Living in Tanzania from 1969-1974, Rodney taught courses on the African Dias pora and was a key figure in the social ist movement in Tanzania, where he collaborated with President Julius Nyerere.

In 1972 Rodney's best-known book, "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa," was published. This work was an earth-shaking analysis of the economic and social underdevelopment of Africa by European powers, mainly through the slave trade.

Rodney's work refuted the racist bourgeois argument that slavery existed on a large scale in Africa before the Europeans invaded. This fallacy was an attempt to deflect responsibility for the development of the African slave trade from the Europeans to Africans.

Expounding on Eric William's "Capital ism and Slavery", Rodney introduced a Marxist analysis "and the concept of the penetration of Africa by, and its subordination to, the world capitalist system of production," wrote Edward A. Alpers in "Weapon of History in African Liberation."

Rodney left Tanzania in 1974 to assume the chair of the History Department at the University of Georgetown, Guyana. He formed the Working People's Alliance with the goal of developing a new independent revolutionary party to help build a true Guyanese socialist republic.

Throughout the 1970s Rodney traveled periodically to the U.S., lecturing at many colleges and universities.

He connected the Black liberation movement and other oppressed people's struggles to the struggle against imperialism. He also worked closely with progressive and revolutionary leaders in the Caribbean, such as the assassinated president of Grenada, Maurice Bishop.

And in his homeland, Guyana, Rodney always worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the working class, be it in the sugar cane fields or bauxite mines or other work and cultural spaces.

Rodney was assassinated on June 13, 1980, in Georgetown by a bomb explosion. Some say the political forces involved in the bombing were linked to the CIA. There was never an inquest into Rodney's death and to this day no one has been held accountable.

Rodney's funeral cortège was attended by thousands of mourners from inside Guyana and internationally who felt the deep loss of one of the most potent Marxist revolutionaries to have lived.

Marxism--a weapon for the oppressed

Rodney was an internationalist. He understood working-class and oppressed people's need for their own party for self-emancipation, one that has flexibility in tactics and strategy and that is attempting to build socialism.

And as his "Marxism and Liberation" talk at Queens College in 1975 attests, Rod ney rejected racist and bourgeois assertions that Marxism couldn't be applied outside of a European context, which was one of his greatest contributions.

"They seem not to take into account that already that methodology and that ideology have been utilized, internalized, and domesticated in large parts of the world that are not European.

"That it is already the ideology of 800 million Chinese people; that it is already the ideology which guided the Vietnamese people to successful struggle and to the defeat of imperialism. That it is already the ideology which allows North Korea to transform itself from a backward, quasi-feudal, quasi-colonial terrain into an independent industrial power. That it is already the ideology which has been adopted on the Latin American continent and that serves as the basis for development in the Republic of Cuba.

"That it is already the ideology which was used by Cabral, which was used by Samora Machel, which is in use on the African continent itself to underline and underscore struggle and the construction of a new society.

"It cannot therefore be termed a European phenomenon; and the onus will certainly be on those who argue that this phenomenon, which was already universalized itself, is somehow not applicable to some Black people..." ("Yes to Marxism" pamphlet, February 1986, People's Progressive Party of Guyana)

As Alpers wrote, "...What stands out is that to the very end of his life Walter Rodney recognized and used history as a weapon in the revolutionary struggle for liberation."

Sources for this article include: Rupert Charles Lewis, "Walter Rodney's Intellectual and Political Thought"; Walter Rodney, "Groundings with my Brothers; History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905," "History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800," "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa," and "Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual"; Edward A. Alper and Pierre-Michel Fontaine, "Walter Rodney, Revolutionary and Scholar: A Tribute" (includes appendix of Rodney's writings and lectures); Kwayana Eusi, "Walter Rodney."