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Walter RodneyWalter Rodney: a revolutionary Caribbean hurricane

Walter Rodney was an exceptional man. He was not only a leading scholar and historian, but a Marxist revolutionary who sought to unite people in Jamaica and Guyana.  A new book of essays pays tribute. Review by Susan Jappie

The book is a tribute to Walter Rodney’s short but inspiring life which started and ended in Guyana, with periods in Jamaica, London and Tanzania as well as brief visits to the USA and Zimbabwe before his brutal assassination in 1980, aged only 38.

Walter A Rodney: A Promise of Revolution is a collection of personal memories of friends and revolutionaries from around the world.  Fellow Guyanese Clairmont Chung has compiled these histories in connection with his 2010 film, W.A.R. Histories.  

Several of the contributors knew Rodney as fellow lecturers at the Universities of Guyana, the West Indies (UWI) in Jamaica and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and others from London University’s School of African and Oriental Studies where he did his post-graduate studies. He was also visiting Professor at Cornell University.

Jamaica’s right-wing Hugh Shearer government expelled the 26-year-old scholar in 1968 and barred him from returning to the island – in what Guyanese historian Michael O. West has called “a triumph for the Jamaican intelligence services”.  Rodney’s expulsion – he was not allowed to disembark from the airplane which had brought him back from a black writers’ congress in Canada – led to the so-called Rodney Riots.

“The day he was banned,” West writes, “the UWI campus erupted; angry students quickly arranged for buses and trucks to take them to the offices of the prime minister and the ministry of home affairs to protest the following day. The vehicles failed to appear, and the students blamed the heavy hand of officialdom. Undaunted, the protestors took to their heels, only to be met by police officers wielding batons and firing teargas. The larger procession dispersed, the determined students made their way in small groups to the ministry of home affairs, where a delegation met the permanent secretary.”

Spontaneous riots ensued in which six demonstrators were killed by the regime’s repressive apparatus.

Rodney was now welcomed in Africa, particularly in Tanzania, where Julius Nyerere headed the newly-independent East African country.  Nyerere launched the Arusha declaration in 1967, stressing the ideas of socialism and self-reliance which led to the nationalisation of big companies. The concept of “Ujamaa” or African Socialism was central to this, and linked in with the nascent Black Power movement in America.

Both Kwame Nkrumah, who had just led Ghana to independence, and Franz Fanon, the West Indian psychiatrist who wrote the famous books The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin: White Masks were strong influences on Rodney, especially in the realisation that self-emancipation was a necessary second step after the slave and colonial emancipations. Rodney himself wrote two very influential books, the second of which was called How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which was published in Dar es Salaam in 1972 and has remained influential in African studies ever since.

Rodney spent two periods in Tanzania as an exile from Guyana, but felt that he should return to his homeland in 1974, where he joined the newly set up Working Peoples’ Alliance, which attempted to unite the two main ethnic groups of African and (East) Indian ancestry to bring about people’s power.

Corinna Lotz adds: Michael West of Binghamton University, New York, has exposed the long-term role of the Jamaican security services in the Rodney story. He quotes official US documents to reveal how the Jamaican spooks worked in concert with the CIA, following Rodney’s every movement, long before the riots of 1968. (Walter Rodney and Black Power: Jamaican Intelligence and US Diplomacy, African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies, November 2005).

Rodney’s major “crime” was that he worked might and main to unite students, young people, workers and even Jamaica’s street gangs in a revolutionary alliance. His extra-curricular activities during his 1968 Jamaica sojourn had a strategic purpose, West writes.

“His goal, it seems, was to forge a broad black power alliance, a formation that would include Rastafarians, urban youths (including gang members), and the likes  of the Rev. Henry. Painting a picture of a man of boundless energy, Rodney’s intelligence file notes ruefully that he also ‘has interested himself in the formation of a Black Power Movement (BPM) in Jamaica and is attempting to set up branches in the UWI and in the city of Kingston’.”

On May 13, at an exploratory meeting at UWI, with 300 in attendance, he outlined the main aims of black power and also demanded “a complete break with the capitalist  system,” and rejected the official Jamaican line, “out of many, one people.” These aims, Rodney is said to have concluded, “could be achieved only by revolution, adding that no revolution has ever taken place without a violent struggle.”

President Linden Forbes Burnham had become the first black president of Guyana, but was seen by Rodney as being in collusion with the CIA and Guyana as a “slave society in transition”.

In 1980, he went to Zimbabwe where he hoped to get support from Mugabe and others to overthrow the Burnham government which had taken over from the left-wing People’s Progressive Party headed by Cheddi Jagan, not for the first time. In 1953, Jagan had been ousted in an MI5-engineered coup.

But although Rodney was warmly welcomed and “treated as a prince” in the newly-independent African countries, he did not get the help he needed. On his return to Guyana from Tanzania, he was due to take up a position as a professor at the University of Guyana but the PNC government prevented his appointment. He founded the Working People's Alliance.

On 13 June 1980, he was killed by a bomb in his car, a month after returning from the independence celebrations in Zimbabwe, by an infiltrator in the WPA.

As Zinul Bacchus of Guyana Journal has written: “This murder deprived not only Guyana, but also the rest of the Caribbean, of one of its most brilliant sons who swept the region like a hurricane, and left an indelible mark on its history.”

But, according to the contributors to this oral history, “Rodney lives because activism lives” with the recent Arab Spring and Occupy movement, with “the promise of a revolution”.

11 March 2013

Walter A. Rodney: a promise of revolution (ed.) Clairmont Chung, is published by Monthly Review Press at £12.95

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