Walter Rodney and the Russian Revolution
In this excerpt from the foreword to The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World, Vijay Prashad looks back at the political development and extrordinary legacy of the Guyanese intellectual Walter Rodney.
Live Through a Revolution
In the first years of the 1960s, Walter Rodney went to the Soviet Union. He was in his early twenties, a young man from a work- ing-class Guyanese family who had read history at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. He arrived in the airport in Moscow and knew he had arrived somewhere different:
When I travelled to the Soviet Union, I was struck on arrival at the airport by the physical demeanour and the social aspect of the people in the airport. They were work- ers and peasants, as far as I could see, who were flying on those TU-104’s to Moscow, to Leningrad, etc., as though they were using a bus. And my understanding of an airport was that it was a very bourgeois institution. There were only certain of us who were supposed to be in an airport. But the Soviets seemed to have ascended beyond that. That was what one confronted going into the country. And then, having left the airport, one goes into the streets and one is amazed at the number of books they sell—in the streets, on the pavement, all over. In my society, you have to search for a bookstore and be directed and told that the bookstore is down that street, as if it’s an alien institution. And even in America, one can buy hot dogs and hamburgers on the sidewalks, a lot of nice things like that, but not books.1
Rodney had visited Cuba as a student, the year after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Things were not settled in Cuba, as they had become in the Soviet Union—nearly fifty years after the October Revolution of 1917. The familiarity to him of Cuba as a Caribbean society and the actuality of its revolution pleased Rodney. “The Cubans were up and about, talking and bustling and running and jumping and really living the revolution in a way that was completely outside of anything that one could read anywhere or listen to or conceptualize in an island such as Jamaica,” where Rodney was still a student. “One has to live with a revolution to get its full impact,” Rodney said in 1975, “but the next best thing is to go there and see a people actually attempting to grapple with real problems of development.” Rodney made this comment on April 30, the precise day that the Vietnamese people watched the US imperialists retreat from their country. Another revolution—in a different form—had triumphed.
Times of Transformation
Rodney taught at the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) in 1967 and then again from 1969 to 1974. This was the high point of the country’s experiment with self-reliance and non- alignment, with what was then called “African socialism” across the continent and “Ujamaa” in Tanzania. These were times of transformation.
In November 1967, not long after Rodney began to teach at the university, the radical students from across the region formed the University Students’ African Revolutionary Front, led by Yoweri Museveni (the president of Uganda since 1986).
The students had been inspired by the February 1967 Arusha Declaration, which urged Tanzanian society to move in the direction of “socialism and self-reliance.” “For a country to be socialist,” the Declaration—drafted by Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere—noted, “it is essential that its government is chosen and led by the peasants and workers themselves.” The centrality of the workers and peasants was a fact established not only by the Marxists at the university or the students, but also by the governing party in Tanzania. The energy toward serious transformation had become clear. As the Arusha Declaration pointed out,
We have been oppressed a great deal, we have been exploited a great deal and we have been disregarded a great deal. It is our weakness that has led to our being oppressed, exploited and disregarded. Now we want a revolution—a revolution which brings to an end our weakness, so that we are never again exploited, oppressed or humiliated.2
A revolution against weakness was at the heart of the national liberation project. It is what the students also under- stood in their desire to produce a front that would not only consolidate their concerns but also provide an avenue for them to stimulate debate about the way forward. Students at the University of Dar es Salaam who came from Sudan, Zambia, Ethiopia and Rhodesia brought with them the energy of their anti-colonial movements—many far more radical than Nyerere’s Tanganyika African National Union (TANU). Dar es Salaam was the headquarters of the Liberation Committee, a platform urged on by Nyerere within the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. One of the key players in the Liberation Committee was the anti-colonial Mozambican political move- ment FRELIMO (Mozambique Liberation Front), which was then based in Dar es Salaam. FRELIMO had begun to move from an inchoate national liberation ideology toward Marxism. The presence of FRELIMO revolutionaries such as Marcelino dos Santos and Samora Machel, alongside Marxist intellectuals such as A. M. Babu, John Saul, Issa Shivji and—for a brief period—Ruth First, provided an avenue for the students to read about and bend toward Marxism and Leninism.
Reflecting back on the formation of the students’ Revolutionary Front in 1970, its president, Museveni, wrote, “We waged such a resolute struggle against the interests of imperialism that the reactionaries thought we were mad.”3 This essay appeared in Cheche, the magazine started in 1969 by the Revolutionary Front and the TANU Youth League. This maga- zine, edited by student radicals Karim Hirji, Henry Mapolu and Zakia Meghji, took its name from the Soviet newspaper Iskra (Spark). This gives one a sense of the times, where Marxism was the governing creed of the national liberation movements and of the radical students. Rodney not only contributed to the sharpening of this mood, but he was—in turn—deeply marked by it.
Africa Is on the Move
During his time in Tanzania, Rodney paid attention to the state of the African workers. In the first issue of Cheche, he wrote an essay entitled “African Labour Under Capitalism and Imperialism,” which attempted to chart the current motion of the African working-class and revolutionary sections of the peasantry. Rodney was interested in the objective and subjec- tive situation of the African workers: How was capitalism across the continent organized, what kind of labor organiza- tion was possible as a consequence, what was the general sensi- bility of the African workers (both the proletariat and the peas- antry) and what was the relationship between African workers and the anti-imperialist national liberation movements and regimes that had taken hold across the continent? These were the kinds of questions raised by Rodney in this period—ques- tions stimulated by his turn fully into Marxism, which was deeply inflected by his awareness of the situation in the Third World and its particular ground for a Marxist analysis.
This is why Rodney moved into the archives in Dar es Salaam, looking carefully at the long-history of the working people in the region. He was interested in how colonialism had divested the working people of the area of their skills and of their bodies—impoverishing the workers and peasants to the point that their dependency was coterminous with their survival. These studies resulted in few publications, but one of them—an essay on migrant labor in Tanzania during the colo- nial period for the sisal industry—was published after his death.4 That volume included essays by Rodney’s graduate students, Kapepwa Tambila—who was later head of the Department of History at Dar—and Laurent Sago. They were interested in looking for signs of labor quiescence and for labor unrest—for the potential within current realities for revolutionary transformation.
In an important text, published posthumously, entitled “Marxism in Africa,” Rodney considered how Marxism had to be creatively applied by the major revolutions of the twentieth century. Lenin, he wrote, had to delve deeply into the situation of the Russian peasantry—the majority of the working people— to uncover the differentiation within it, so as to clarify who were the revolutionary classes. Much the same applied for Mao, who had to understand the “inner dynamics of Chinese society, relating to the question of the peasantry.”5 In his own time, Rodney looked at the work of Amílcar Cabral, who could not search for identifiable classes in colonial Guinea-Bissau but began his investigations with the production process, the people in that process, and the sharp edges of radicalism in that situa- tion. Marxism, for Rodney, was a “revolutionary ideology” that required close attention to the facts on the ground in order to search for the revolutionary energy that made itself manifest in various ways. Here Rodney echoed Lenin, who wrote that “the living soul of Marxism” is the “concrete analysis of concrete conditions.” These quiet studies of Tanzanian labor conditions and of the work of Cabral reveal an imagination gripped by the necessity of searching for motion in African societies.
It was this kind of attention to the working people that drew Rodney—like Frantz Fanon before him—to sharply criticize the limited positions of national liberation. In early December 1969, Rodney spoke at the Second Seminar of East and Central African Youth, a forum at the University of Dar es Salaam organized by the students.6 His talk, on the second day, was entitled “The Ideology of the African Revolution.” Rodney lit into the limitations of national liberation, pointing out that the African workers were not central to the project, which led these new states to compromise their integrity by making alliances with imperialism. Rodney had not included Tanzania in the list. But nonetheless, a few days later, the newspaper of the ruling party, the Nationalist, responded with a sharp editorial entitled “Revolutionary Hot Air.” It suggested that Rodney and others were unrealistic hotheads who misjudged the moment. Rodney’s move deeper into Marxism and into the imperative for worker- led communist politics resulted from having settled accounts with the limitations of national liberation and Pan-African politics. More was needed, as was reflected in Rodney’s lecture at the university on “Marxism, Ujamaa and the Stages of Social Development” as well as in his 1972 critique for African Review.7
Taking History to the Streets
Rodney turned to the October Revolution while in Dar es Salaam not merely to discover what happened there, but also to teach his students—who were on the move—about that major revolutionary experience. Certainly Rodney was aware that the context of the October Revolution mattered a great deal.8 But what mattered more was to teach a new generation of African revolutionaries about the importance of historical materialism and Marxism, of the necessity of studying the objective and subjective conditions of society toward revolutionary transfor- mation, and of then looking carefully at the “actuality of revo- lution” and its own contradictions. This is what his lectures show us: rather than acting as an erudite scholar, teaching about the events of 1917 and their aftermath for their own sake, Rodney used the October Revolution to instruct the revo- lutionary students about the experience of 1917.
Rodney obviously had read a great deal about the October Revolution, mastering both the bourgeois and socialist scholar- ship to produce his own vision of October. There are indica- tions everywhere of his training with C. L. R. James and Selma James, particularly in his insistence that the Russian workers and peasants led the way in the revolution. In Notes on Dialectics (1948), C. L. R. James wrote that the “workers did the theoretical work on the soviet. They thought over the soviet. They analysed it and remembered it.”9
Rodney’s perspective is alive, dazzling with the potential of the October Revolution for Africa, aware that a new genera- tion—including himself—must learn of the possibility of break- ing with the old hierarchies to produce a dynamic toward equality. It was not enough to be seized by anger and frustra- tion, resentment and humiliation. These are what the Arusha Declaration warned against. What was needed was a precise assessment of the potential for working-class and peasant struggle as well as the possibility—after the October Revolution and the revolutions in China, Vietnam and Cuba—for the repli- cation of the events of 1917 in Africa. Rodney took history to the streets to make sure that his students saw that the past had to guide them in their fights to build the future. It was not to happen in Tanzania nor in his native Guyana, where Rodney was assassinated in 1980 at the age of thirty-eight.
1. Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual, ed. Robert Hill (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990), 17, original emphasis.
2. ‘‘The Arusha Declaration: Socialism and Self-Reliance,” Julius Nyerere, Freedom and Socialism (Dar es Salaam: Oxford University Press, 1968), 234–5.
3. Yoweri Museveni, “Activism at the Hill,” Cheche 2, reprinted in Cheche: Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine, ed. Karim F. Hirji (Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2010), 14.
4. Walter Rodney, Kapepwa Tambila and Laurent Sago, Migrant Labour in Tanzania During the Colonial Period: Case Studies of Recruitment and Conditions of Labour in the Sisal Industry (Hamburg: Institut für Afrika-Kunde im Verbund der Stiftung Deutsche Übersee-Institut, 1983).
5. Walter Rodney, “Marxism in Africa,” Solidarity 7 (1981), 34–41.
6. Hirji, “Tribulations of an Independent Magazine,” Cheche: Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine, 38–9.
7. Walter Rodney, “Tanzanian Ujamaa and Scientific Socialism,”
African Review 1, no. 4 (1972), 61–72.
8. “One must understand the specific contextual nature of the discus- sions that were going on in Russia at that time. This comes to my mind because I feel that a lot of the debates that do go on about Marxism are definitely out of context.” Walter Rodney Speaks, 28.
9. C. L. R. James, Note on Dialectics. Hegel-Marx-Lenin (London: Allison and Busby, 1980), 138, original emphasis.