Walter Rodney: Pan-Afrikanism, Marxism and the Next Generation
Celebrating the work and legacy of radical Guyanese historian and revolutionary Walter Rodney.
Kevin Ochieng Okoth on behalf of the Walter Rodney: Pan Afrikanism, Marxism and the Next Generation Organising Team
On Saturday 2nd March, students, activists, academics and members of the community gathered at the School of Oriental and African Studies to celebrate the work and legacy of radical Guyanese historian and revolutionary Walter Rodney. Perhaps best known for his historical analyses of the systematic underdevelopment of Africa through slavery and European colonialism (A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa), Rodney was a Pan-Afrikanist and Marxist whose thought and political praxis were shaped by the anti-colonial struggles of his day. Beginning in 2018, Verso (in collaboration with the Walter Rodney Foundation) began a series to publish some of Rodney’s hereto-unpublished work, and to re-issue the classics. The Walter Rodney: Pan Afrikanism, Marxism and the Next Generation conference was planned to coincide with this important effort to encourage a renewed engagement with Rodney’s ideas. Most of all, however, the conference sought to facilitate an intergenerational dialogue between those who have been struggling and organising on the ground for decades, and the next generation of young scholars and activists who will keep Walter Rodney’s legacy alive.
Rodney’s Life and Work
Walter Rodney was born in Georgetown, the capital of colonial British Guyana, on 23rd March 1942. From an early age, he was exposed to radical politics: his father was a member of the People’s Progressive Party, Guyana’s left-wing, cross-racial political party, and Walter often distributed PPP literature to households across Georgetown. A bright and academically gifted student, he quickly rose to the top of the highly competitive Guyanese school system and won a scholarship to the University College of the West Indies (now the University of the West Indies) in Jamaica, where he earned a first-class degree in History. At University, Walter stood out as a champion debater and was involved with both student politics and activist movements outside of the university. He went on to pursue doctoral studies at SOAS in London, where he would go on to write his important study of slavery in the Upper Guinea Coast, later published by Oxford University Press. Following his PhD, Rodney briefly taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, but soon returned to the Caribbean to take up a position in the History department at the University of the West Indies (UWI). While attending the Congress of Black Writers in Montréal in October 1968, however, Rodney was informed that Jamaica’s Labour Party government had banned him from returning to his position at the UWI. The ban incited riots across Kingston that eventually culminated in Walter’s expulsion from the country.
In 1969, he returned to Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania to teach History at the University of Dar es Salaam. At the time, the university was an important space for radical anti-colonial thought: Rodney and the TANU Youth League criticised the ‘petit-bourgeois regimes that had hijacked the revolution’ and argued that the ‘briefcase socialism’ they offered was nothing other than a betrayal of the aims of national liberation. Rodney’s uncompromising and outspoken commitment to revolutionary change often found him at odds with the leaders of Tanzania’s ruling party (including Nyerere himself). In Dar es Salaam, he also engaged in the discussions and study groups on Marxism, race and African history that inspired How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, his ground-breaking study of Africa’s systematic underdevelopment through European slavery and colonialism. Although Rodney was involved in the national liberation struggles on the continent, he was drawn back to his native Guyana, where he returned in 1974 only to find that the Prime Minister had blocked his appointment as Professor of History at the university. Not able to teach or lecture at the university, he decided to remain in the country and dedicate his time and energy to the revolutionary struggle of the Guyanese working people.
Rodney played a pivotal role in the founding of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) – an alliance of left-wing groups that sought to expose the hypocrisy inherent in the ruling party’s brand of ‘socialism’. He also continued ‘grounding’ with workers, farmers and everyone else sympathetic to the struggles of the Guyanese working class. However, it was precisely his activism and his proximity to the people that made him so dangerous to those in power. On June 13th, 1980 Walter Rodney’s life was dramatically cut short at the age of 38, when a bomb detonated in the car that he and his brother were in. Along with the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, his assassination at the height of revolutionary unrest against the US and UK-backed Burnham regime severely impacted the prospects for revolutionary change in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, the unceasing efforts of Rodney’s widow and children to safeguard his unpublished writings and to continue his work through the Walter Rodney Foundation in Atlanta, have ensured that his legacy is kept alive, and that scholars and activists can draw on Walter’s work to challenge the powers responsible for his death.
Introducing the Conference
The conference started on a solemn note with Nima Mudey of hosts Decolonising Our Minds (a dynamic student society at SOAS that has done invaluable work on decolonisation, both within and outside of the university space) drawing attention to the violent history of the very lecture theatre we were in. The Lucas Lecture Theatre, otherwise referred to as the DLT, was the site of a 2009 immigration raid staged by the UK Border Agency with the help of SOAS and Oasis. The raid resulted in the arrest and deportation of nine people, including Luzia, who was then pregnant with her son Lucas. To remember this attack on migrant workers, the SOAS student community ensures that – despite SOAS’ refusal to acknowledge the name change or apologise for its complicity in the violent deportations – the lecture theatre carries the name of Lucas.
Following a general introduction, Nima read out a statement from Donald Rodney regarding his own conviction for the unlawful possession of explosives in connection with his brother’s assassination on 13th June 1980. An initial government investigation into the explosion that killed Walter contended that he was responsible for his own death: he had supposedly intended on using the bomb (concealed in a walkie-talkie) to blow up the prison and free several activists that had been arrested on treason charges. According to this narrative, the bomb then accidentally detonated and exploded the car that Donald and Walter were in. Donald was subsequently convicted for being in possession of an explosive and was made to serve an 18-month prison sentence. Of course, the official investigation presented a bizarre distortion of the facts – an independent Commission of Inquiry later concluded that the Guyanese state was directly involved in the assassination. The Rodney family have vehemently denied the government’s claims concerning the circumstances of Walter’s death, and condemned this massive miscarriage of justice and obfuscation by the Guyanese state. Donald also informed us that there would be a new hearing on the case later this month. Despite the overwhelming evidence in support of Donald’s case, no one has yet been brought to justice for the murder of Walter Rodney. Thus, it is crucial that we show solidarity with Donald in his effort to hold the Guyanese state accountable for its abuse of power and its silencing of political dissent.
The first speaker of the day was writer and feminist activist Selma James. As co-author of The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (with Mariarosa Della Costa), co-founder of the International Wages for Housework Campaign, and coordinator of the recent Global Women’s Strike, Selma has dedicated her life and career to shedding light on how housework and other domestic tasks performed by women outside of the official labour market (and seemingly outside of the wage relation) reproduce the labour-power of the working class, and thus indirectly of the entire capitalist economic system. Selma has revolutionised the idea of what work is; who constitutes the working class; and what is required to successfully challenge the hegemony of capital in all sections of society, from the factory floor to the household. In her talk, Selma spoke at length on the now-legendary reading group with C.L.R. James and praised Walter’s ability to communicate even the most complex ideas in a way that anyone could understand. A large part of her talk, however, was dedicated to a discussion of Rodney’s time in Dar es Salaam, and the opportunities and challenges presented by Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa project at the time. The talk inspired several impassioned responses from the audience (among the respondents was Eric Huntley who, along with his late wife Jessica, was the first to publish Rodney’s Groundings with My Brothers in the UK on their own Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications imprint), and discussions on the revolutionary value of Ujamaa socialism followed.
After a short break, we moved on to the second panel of the day. In her keynote address, Alissa Trotz (Associate Professor in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto), spoke on ‘Caring Work, Groundings and Movements in the Caribbean Today’. Despite having to Skype in from Toronto, Alissa delivered a captivating lecture on Red Thread and the remarkable work that the organisation has done in Guyana in the last 30 years. Founded by members of the Working Peoples Alliance (WPA) and former comrades of Rodney’s, Red Thread is a feminist organisation that extends WPA praxis by countering violence against women in all its forms. Building on the Wages for Housework movement, Red Thread encourages initiatives such as time-use surveys that allow women to define and make visible their (often unpaid) work. By making women’s work and resistance visible, the organisation takes their lives and needs as the starting point to confront the unequal power relations that exist in the public and private domains. Red Thread also explicitly identifies multiracialism as integral to the struggle for freedom in Guyana, and as Alissa emphasised, does not replicate the narrow focus on coastal regions that often privileges African and Indian Guyanese communities. The organisation locates women’s struggles in the Caribbean within wider networks of transnational solidarity and mutual support, and its commitment to beginning with the lives and voices of grassroots women is a true reflection of Rodney’s approach.
Next up to the podium were Kingston lecturers and anti-imperialist campaigners Amanda Latimer and Andy Higginbottom. Amanda’s presentation on ‘Hit-and-Run Capitalism in Guyana’s Offshore Oil Sector’ gave the audience some background information on the recent energy deal between the Guyanese government and a multinational consortium led by ExxonMobil. Analysts estimate that the discovery of oil off the coastal waters of Guyana – one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse countries in the region – could lead to hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues. For a small nation like Guyana, this may seem like a lot of money but once we take a closer look at the deal, it is obvious that the Guyanese people won’t benefit. The neo-colonial inclination of the government in Georgetown and the historical experience of multinationals operating in economically and politically weak but resource rich countries, give us more than enough reason to be sceptical. The more likely result is that the ExxonMobil conglomerate will reap super-profits from the deal, and that sly accounting, profit write offs, and tax exemptions will ensure that Guyana receives miniscule royalty payments while covering most of the bill for the exploration and development costs. Amanda ended her presentation by urging us to look towards Walter Rodney’s arguments regarding capitalist development under neocolonialism: only through revolutionary anti-imperialist solidarity can we disrupt the hegemony of imperialist capital and with it the exploitation of labour and natural resources in the Global South.
Taking up Amanda’s call to re-visit Rodney’s work on neocolonialism, Andy offered an introduction to How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and its analysis of the historical foundations of neocolonialism, imperialism and economic dependency. In HEUA, Rodney studied the historical foundations of underdevelopment in Africa from the perspective of both Pan-Afrikanism and Marxist dependency theory – this unique perspective is precisely what makes the book so special. Rodney recognised that capitalism and imperialism are an integral system involving the transfer of surplus value from the colonies to the Global North, and that the source of this surplus value is African labour in different forms of exploitation, from peasant producers to migrant labour. In his presentation, Andy rightfully pointed out that these themes have all-too-often been neglected in European Marxist scholarship, and that there is a dire need for a more thorough engagement with neocolonialism and imperialism on the British left. Accepting Rodney’s analysis of neocolonialism and imperialism, however, would require that the European left accept their own complicity in the super-exploitation of labour in the Global South. This is only possible through relentless anti-imperialist campaigning on the left and the dissemination of Marxist ideas that emerged outside of the Global North.
HEUA and Youth Today
The most inspiring moment of the day came in the afternoon, with the panel on ‘HEUA and Youth Today’. The panel – made up entirely of students and recent graduates – was important for several reasons. Fidelity to Rodney’s critical pedagogy requires us to challenge the structural inequality that schools and universities are complicit in reproducing. To break down the division between students and educators, and to truly engage in ‘groundings’ (and not just instruction), it is important to make visible the power relations that exist in traditional educational structures. By having a panel of young people who are not seasoned academics or veteran activists, the conference sought to break down these barriers and amplify the voices of the next generation. We must also remember that the education of young people was an integral part of Rodney’s political and intellectual work. Late in his life he published two children’s books that were to be part of a series of five: Lakshmi, Out of India and Kofi Baadu, Out of Africa. Both books tell the story of the path from indentureship and slavery to emancipation, starting with each character’s involuntary transportation to Guyana. With these books, Rodney sought to teach children about history from an emancipatory perspective, and to help them better understand themselves and each other – a crucial aspect of building a social bond in a multi-ethnic nation like Guyana.
The second reason why the panel was so important, is that history is a political and intellectual battleground. Rodney believed that the role of historians is not limited to the objective study of facts, as many university professors believe. Instead, radical historians must adapt the histories of revolution and resistance to address the political conditions of today. It is up to the younger generation to seize a moment in history – the moment of anti-colonial movements and Tri-Continental solidarity – and continue the struggle to complete what the previous generations could not. Like too many revolutionaries of his time, Walter was assassinated in his prime and never got the opportunity to complete his work. The lectures on the Russian Revolution, for instance, do not offer a ‘perspective from the Third World’ but rather point readers in the direction of this perspective by posing new questions and offering new lines of inquiry. Similarly, HEUA lays the historical foundations for the study of neocolonialism in Africa without ever being that study. It is up to the youth to take on the monumental task of completing Rodney’s work and creating the knowledge and revolutionary strategy that movements require at this crucial historical moment.
The first speaker on the panel was recent Kingston University graduate Sidi Abale, who reflected on Neocolonialism in Nigeria, and linked the super-exploitation of workers in the country to the criminalisation of migrants in the UK. Drawing on Rodney’s work and her own personal experience, Sidi offered a scathing critique of the increasing militarisation of European borders and their function as bolsters for neocolonialism and imperialism. Hamza Hadji, a fellow student at Kingston University, addressed ‘The Unrecognised Collective Power of African People’ and called for Pan-Afrikan solidarity between those on the continent and in the diaspora. Kevon Jones, a Master’s student in Politics at King’s College London, spoke on ‘Walter and the Question of Power’. Drawing on George Padmore and C.L.R. James, Kevon argued that Rodney had failed to adequately resolve the question of political power, and that we must develop a theory of power to supplement Rodney’s historical and political work. Lavinya Stennett (founder of The Black Curriculum, an initiative that challenges the monolithic version of history taught in British schools and universities) gave a fitting talk on ‘Re-Imagining a Collective Education’. Drawing on Rodney’s pedagogical work, Lavinya stressed the importance of including Black British voices in university curricula, and called for a collective education that teaches black students the value of their history. The student panel initiated a lively debate touching on themes of Pan-Afrikanism, Tri-Continental solidarity, and children’s education in the household, that could only be interrupted by our running out of time.
Then and Now: Moving Forward Against the System
The final talk of the day came from David Austin (a teacher at John Abbots College in Montréal, whose most recent book Moving Against the System: The 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness is out now) who spoke on his discovery of Walter Rodney’s work in his youth, and the influence that Rodney had on his own thought and activism. Recalling a visit to SOAS when he was a student, David remarked how surprised he was to find that none of Rodney’s books were on any of the university’s History reading lists. Among historians of his generation, Walter’s work was not considered to be rigorous enough to merit its inclusion in reading lists, and even today texts like HEUA and A History of the Upper Guinea Coast are missing on SOAS courses. In his presentation, David also introduced his own edited collection on the Congress of Black Writers that took place in Montreal in 1968, when the city was a hotbed for black radical thought. The Congress (arguably one of the most important events Black political events of the post-war period) brought together leading figures in the Black radical tradition including C.L.R. James, Stokely Carmichael and, of course, Walter Rodney. Some of the speeches given by Rodney at the conference appear in the collection, Groundings with my Brothers, published in the UK and US by Verso this April. Anchored in his own organising experience, Groundings traces the global development of black emancipatory politics, from the black student movements in North America to the Rastafarians of Jamaica. The book went on to inspire a generation of black radicals with its revolutionary conviction and commitment to ‘grounding’ – the mutual exchange of ideas and experiences with people regardless of situation or social standing – as a method of teaching and study.
The day was a true celebration of Rodney’s work and ethos: the lively discussions and audience responses ensured that every session ran longer than scheduled and that, due to time constraints, the post-conference discussion had to be carried on outside the lecture theatre in the SOAS common room. The atmosphere throughout the day was not that of an academic conference but of a ‘grounding’ between people of all different ages, sharing a common belief in Pan-Afrikanism, Marxism and the political power of the next generation. Rodney’s life was lived in parts. This is the next one.
Walter Rodney lives!
We would like to thank New Beacon Books – one of the first black-owned independent publishing companies in the UK – for running the bookstall throughout the day. We would also like to thank Verso for providing copies of HEUA and The Russian Revolution; Pluto Press for providing copies of David Austin’s Moving Against the System; Anastasya Eliseeva for her brilliant artwork; and Decolonising Our Minds for their invaluable help in organising the conference. Most importantly, we would like to thank everyone who attended the conference, participated in the discussions and contributed to making it a memorable occasion.