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Had Walter Rodney lived, he would have been 80 years old on March 23. As is customary his many admirers, academic and political colleagues and comrades across the world remembered and eulogized him as a remarkable human being who was a product of a defining historical moment and who in turn helped in no small way to define that moment. In a mere two decades of adulthood, Rodney contributed more than his fair share to the advancement of the historical cause of human equality and justice. He was an educator by profession, but his lasting contribution was his activism which brought together scholarship and advocacy in the service of the quest for social and political justice for the least among us.
Rodney was Guyanese by birth, but his activism cut across geographical and cultural borders. His impact on socio-political thought and perspectives in Africa, Guyana, the wider Caribbean, the so-called Third World, and the Black World places him in the front row of activists whose imprint on 20th century global motion cannot be denied. In that regard, Walter Rodney was one of Guyana’s most precious gifts to itself and the wider world. Born in 1942, his life began in a Guyana that was making its last strides toward its long-sought political independence from forced bondage. He was a child of independence who would become embroiled in the struggle to define that independence. And his life would be prematurely cut down by the deformities of that struggle. It is a crime that Guyana to this day has not fully come to grips with.
For those of us who were brave enough to join in Rodney’s dangerous quest at a time when the struggle for justice was a dangerous undertaking, the memory is personal and political. Over the years I have written and said so much about Rodney and the Rodney phenomenon that my mind feels empty on this anniversary. Yet, the moment before us in Guyana and the wider world makes me think of Rodney. Where is Rodney, I ask.
Over the years, some politicians and others who claim admiration for Rodney have used the public media to validate their narrow partisan narratives or to attempt to embarrass those with whom they disagree. Because of the breadth of his intervention and the sheer weight of his importance there is always the temptation to want to impose him on every historical moment. But experience has taught that such practice runs the real risk of turning a seminal figure into a political football.
As I prepared to write this column, I randomly asked several younger Guyanese what they knew about Rodney. Unsurprisingly, all of them listed the phrase “he must be turning in his grave.” This is a sad commentary on what we have done to our precious gift. My advice to the younger Guyanese is to discover the essential Walter Rodney for yourselves. I end today’s column with a quote from the WPA’s tribute to him on the 40th anniversary of his assassination.
“Walter Rodney returned to Guyana from Tanzania in 1974 to work and teach at the University of Guyana, but his right to work was denied by the regime which terminated his employment before he took up his position. He had returned to Guyana from Tanzania, as Eusi Kwayana once wrote, after informing himself of the situation on the ground. The political situation on the ground in Guyana was that the party in power had declared itself paramount to the State and in the process had closed all doors to a democratic change of government.
Rodney had long warned of the danger of this tendency among the newly independent countries in the so-called Third World. He viewed this post-independence authoritarian order as inimical to the liberation of the working classes and the dispossessed in the societies and as an affront to the logic of independence. It was this reality in Guyana that prompted him to remain in the country despite the denial of his right to work. As he observed at the time “Partly I wish to remain as a matter of personal preference, to be here with my family and friends, and partly because my situation is not unique. It is part of a very widespread economic victimization, which has developed in Guyana.”
He soon concluded, in sync with the newly formed WPA, that the way forward for Guyana in the short term was the struggle for the removal of the authoritarian regime via the building of a multi-ethnic movement of the working peoples of the country. He set to work with his colleagues in the WPA by inserting himself in the work that was already started by the constituent organizations of the party. He brought to the nascent movement his formidable intellect and charisma but above all, the fact that he was not involved in the ethnic politics of the previous decade meant he could appeal to the working people across ethnic lines. Further, his radical perspective was attractive to young people in an age of radicalism.
It was not surprising then that he emerged as the leading figure not only within the WPA but in the wider movement. In the decades since his assassination WPA has noted the tendency to construct the Rodney years as a one-man operation. Rodney would be uncomfortable with that construction. While he recognized the burden that history had placed on his shoulders, he was bitterly opposed to the notion of the maximum leader. He was careful to always stress that he was part of a collective and that ultimately it was the working people who would have to liberate themselves. Hence the Rodneyite praxis of self-activity and self-emancipation.
There are two major characteristics of Rodney’s praxis that are worth referencing on this anniversary. First, his was a broad praxis that reflected the convergence of race, ethnicity, class, and nation. To isolate his thoughts on and activism in relation to any one of those without reference to the others amounts to a falsification of history and a denial of his full worth. His Marxism must be seen as inseparable from his Black Nationalism, his anti-imperialism, and his Caribbean nationalism. Although an advocate and activist in the global Black Power movement, Rodney did not see the philosophy of the movement as a contradiction of the multi-ethnic struggle in Guyana.
This brings us to the second characteristic—Rodney was a Concretist. He never sought to impose aspects of his praxis where they were not necessary. When in Jamaica he engaged the Black Power imperative within the context of the growing social class divisions. While in Africa he employed the class analysis in a society that was relatively homogeneous. And in an ethnically divided Guyana, struggling against an authoritarian order, he privileged a working-class multiracialism. In Rodney’s thinking and that of the WPA, the struggle for social and economic equality could only be attained through the multiracial power of the working people.