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It is the month of June—the month when the media are inundated with commentaries about the life, activism and legacy of Dr. Walter Rodney. At one level, this is a healthy development because long after Rodney was assassinated only the WPA and Rodney’s staunch admirers had the courage to write and speak about him in the public space. One could have lost employment, suffer harassment and worst, face elimination. Many who today sing his praises, were not prepared to risk their privilege and liberty for Rodney when he was leading the struggle for their freedom or during the decade after he was killed. Even when the government changed in 1992, the custodians of the power that Rodney died fighting for steered clear of his name and legacy, because to them he was a good scholar but a poor politician whose sacrifice did not measure up to the winners of the 1992 elections. It is only in recent years that non-WPA people have begun to publicly show Walter Rodney some love.
Mrs. Jagan told his son, Shaka, to go home when he picketed the PPP government in 1993 pleading for a Commission of Inquiry into his father’s death. The PPP promptly declined Shaka’s request. Dr, Jagan wondered aloud—what would a COI do? It was the WPA that stood with Shaka. It was the WPA, through Eusi Kwayana, that brought a private murder charge against the alleged assassin, Gregory Smith. When the French government requested of the Jagan government an undertaking that Gregory Smith would not be given the death penalty if found guilty of Rodney’s murder, the government dithered until the matter was forgotten. I don’t quite remember at that time any chorus about anyone betraying Walter Rodney. I cite the above not to deny anyone the right to celebrate Rodney today, but to set the record straight for younger generations and for older strangers to the history of and truth about Rodney.
What is unhealthy about much of the commentaries in recent years is that they reflect an intentional and malicious attempt to drive a wedge between the Rodney legacy and the party to which he belonged, the WPA. This is part of a larger attempt to misappropriate Rodney’s activism and legacy as part of one of the ethno-political poles in our ongoing divisive politics. In so doing, these advocates are wittingly and unwittingly isolating Rodney in one section of our ethnic divide and in the process setting him in conflict with the other major section.
It is a development that runs against one of the important elements of Rodney’s broad and varied political praxis—a multiracial or “ jointness” solution to Guyana’s ethnic problematic. But it is a development that is inevitable given the inflexibility of the top post-Corbin PNC leadership on the “Rodney question” and the concomitant readiness of the PPP to take full political advantage of that inflexibility. The PPP’s attitude is driven by two objectives–partly to erase its own earlier reluctance to engage the Rodney question and partly to embarrass its opponents–the PNC and the WPA.
This is not to say that there are not individuals in the PPP’s leadership who genuinely admire Rodney and want to help cement his rightful place in Guyana’s national consciousness. But political parties generally do not commit to big change on controversial issues if there are not benefits for the organization. It is against the above background that one should analyze the PPP’s decision to hold the 2014-15 Rodney Commission of Inquiry and to agree with Rodney’s to pursue the more recent initiatives announced by the Attorney General in the National Assembly. It should be noted that in both instances the PPP did not take the initiatives on their own—they were prompted by the Rodney family.
For those of us who strongly feel that Rodney and the Rodney Legacy should be held above our toxic political fray, it is difficult to watch this scenario play itself out. But we may have been too naïve to believe that Rodney could be extricated from our political mess. After all, he opposed a party that in many regards is central to the partisan struggle of one of our ethnic groups and he did so in alliance with, among others, the party that is central to the struggle of the opposite ethnic group. Having said that, one cannot help feeling a sense of rage against the ruthlessness that accompanies the current misappropriation of Rodney in the service of validating a one-sided ethno-political narrative.
As one reads the outpourings these past weeks, the silencing of huge chunks of the Rodney praxis is evident. It has been so difficult to come to grips with. His activism in Guyana has been pigeonholed to “fighting for free and fair elections” and “fighting Burnham and the PNC.” This was not the sum-total of Rodney’s activism in Guyana. This was the PPP’s agenda—free and fair elections was the sum-total of that party’ s agenda because it was their route to power given the demographics of that time. Rodney and the WPA’s agenda and struggle were much broader. They struggled to dismantle post-colonial authoritarianism in Guyana, for bread and Justice for the poor and the powerless, for a genuine multiracial democracy, for a democracy that went beyond elections and for a power-sharing government that was broader than a PPP-PNC Front.
It was no accident that Rodney’s battle cry was People’s Power-No Dictator and not People’s Power-No Election Rigging. For Rodney, election rigging was a symptom and not the cause of the problem. It is for that reason that whereas Rodney and the WPA characterized the PNC government as a dictatorship period, the PPP characterized it as a “creeping dictatorship.” While Rodney and the WPA placed a condition on alliance with the PNC, the PPP placed no condition. While Rodney and the WPA opposed the 1980 constitution as a recipe for dictatorship, the PPP opposed Burnham governing under the constitution rather than the constitution itself. While the WPA boycotted the 1980 election on the grounds that it would be massively rigged, the PPP participated in those elections.
What now? For me, the struggle to disentangle Rodney and his legacy from political intrigue must be joined in earnest. I intend to play my full part in that struggle. I will not be intimidated by the charges of betrayal of Rodney coming from those who did not have the courage to stand with him in life and after he was assassinated or who conveniently characterise the WPA’s attempt at reconciliation as “joining with Rodney’s killers.” As a teenager, I sacrificed my education, a career and my liberty, put my life at risk and caused my family untold misery to, along with others, fight with Rodney and for the Rodney. That must count for much and should be respected by those who now revere Rodney but did not revere his struggle enough to join it. As a mature adult, I supported a conditional alliance aimed at healing our nation. It failed and I supported a withdrawal. I feel no sense of guilt for those decisions, nor do I feel I have betrayed Rodney. And I am not prepared to let anyone use Rodney’s name to make me feel guilty. In politics one must make judgements based on concrete reality and not based on “parked history.” They Rodney I knew and have studied was a concretist who was never a victim of parked history.
Dr David Hinds