Walter Rodney’s Journey to Hamburg

In this blogpost, Leo Zeilig looks at Walter Rodney’s journey from Tanzania, his return to Guyana in 1974 and then his extraordinary lectures in Hamburg in 1978. An astonishing scholar and activist, Rodney was constantly rethinking the question of working class agency and politics, and refused simplistic political statements or formulations. In Germany, Rodney asserted the central role of the working class in socialist transformation.  

In 1974, despite appeals for him to stay, Walter Rodney decided to leave Dar es Salaam, Tanzania which had been his home for a number of years. Tanzania was a place of incredible hope, the socialist government of Julius Kambarage Nyerere, had boldly declared its intention of constructing socialism in the East African country, and reversing the country’s poverty and marginalisation. Tanzania became an international base for radicals, and liberation movements. The university, in the capital Dar es Salaam, drew in socialists and activists from North America, Europe, other countries in Africa and the Caribbean. Rodney threw himself into debates at the university, as it began to transform itself from a colonial institution, and in the country as it sought to address decades – indeed generations – of underdevelopment. Though he was critical of these impressive and largely state-led initiatives – ‘briefcase revolutions’ he once quipped – he gave them his support.

Two years before he left his east African home he had published his masterpiece, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, in 1972, a breath-taking historical account of how the continent had been dragged into poverty, the ‘underdevelopment’ of the title, by centuries of European intrusion and the more recent experience of colonialism. Written largely for a Black audience across the continent,  the Black power movement in the US, and the Caribbean, the book  marked Rodney as a man who could write cutting edge radical history that had a vital political point – addressing the deep and pulverising sense of inferiority of Black people.

Among the book’s arguments, he was addressing a Black audience, and explaining the poverty of their societies, and the continent’s position in a global hierarchy that has systematically bled its wealth, resources and humanity. One early reader of the book from Lagos, Nigeria, wrote to Rodney in 1973, ’I have just bought your book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and I want to inform you that you are one of my heroes… I am just twenty and entering the University of Ibadan next September… So, all I need now are inspirations from you.’ For years Rodney received dozens of ‘fan’ letters from a largely Black readership inspired by his writing and activism.

Yet, two years after the book’s  publication Rodney, his wife Patricia and their three children, were planning to leave the continent. When  his comrade and friend Issa Shivji – the well-known socialist and writer – questioned his motives for leaving Tanzania-and  appealed for him to reconsider. Rodney responded, ‘No, comrade, I can make my contribution here, but I will never be able ever to grasp the idiom of the people. I will not be able to connect easily. I have to go back to the people I know and who know me.’

In late 1974 Rodney, his wife, and children, returned to Guyana and the capital Georgetown. Rodney had secured a professorship in history at the national university. However, on the eve of his departure, the government led by Forbes Burnham,  intervened and the university rescinded the appointment. Burnham led the People’s National Congress (PNC) and paraded himself, internationally and nationally, as a socialist, who supported progressive causes – despite receiving covert funds from the CIA. Under Burnham all independent political opposition was suppressed, opposition activists were targeted and murdered.

Determined to stay in Guyana despite not having formal employment, Rodney quickly became immersed in the militant organisation, the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). Before long he was one of the main leaders of the WPA, organising in the capital, Georgetown and across the country, in the regions Essequibo and Pomeroon. The country’s small and combative working class were concentrated in the extractive, primary sectors of sugar production, bauxite mining and in agriculture. For years the Indian population – transported to the country by the British colonial government as indentured labour in the 19th century – and the Black community, former slaves, had been divided. The two main political parties played one community off the other. As the leading organiser for the WPA, Rodney sought to bring these two groups together.

Rodney’s party work was conducted under the watchful and brutal eye of Burnham’s PNC, and its repressive state.  Abyssinian Carto, an activist in the WPA at the time, records, ‘You were constantly being stopped and searched … By that time the death squad had been formed as part of the police force [and] on any given day you never knew what would happen…The police would drive around with these cutlasses in their vehicle and place them next to their victims and claim they had been attacked. So, the danger of that happening was always there for us.’

Rodney quickly emerged as a leading figure of the party – its stunning orator, the party’s best organiser and coordinator. Reluctant to delegate the most difficult tasks to other comrades, Rodney involved himself in every aspect of the party’s work, delivering messages, recruiting workers, producing party propaganda and speaking at meetings. He also maintained a prodigious output of writing, articles, pamphlets and a book A History of the Guyanese Working People that was published after he was murdered; which provided an historical account of the role of Indian and Black labour and struggle in Guyana in the late 19th century, historical evidence of the unity that he was trying to forge between the two groups.

Yet Rodney also faced a financial bind. He was essentially without a salary. His 1972 book, though selling well, it had become the ‘movements’ publication, on activist stalls in New York, in California and across Africa. So, to pay for his work as a political organiser in Guyana, and his family’s new life in the country, he was forced to accept temporary lectureships, seminar invitations and requests to speak at public events in North America and Europe. Charting his travel schedule in the years after his return home is dizzying. Though some of this travel was undertaken for political reasons, he was in huge demand to speak on African history and contemporary politics in the Caribbean.

During these last years of his life, Rodney was at the height of his powers. He had a capacity for work which was extraordinary, as well as a pleasure in partying and dancing. His friend and comrade, the Tanzanian publisher, Walter Bugoya, recalls, ‘Walter was a serious person and he seemed to be very good at scheduling. When it was time to work, it was time to work, and you could be partying next door and Walter would be busy working. This was something in Walter which I admired a great deal.’

During these years of intense activism, travel and research, his political involvement in the WPA was focussed on the self-organisation of the Guyanese working class. This represented a shift from his early, cautious support for top down projects of socialist transformation in Africa. Now Walter’s efforts had shifted resolutely to the struggles from below.

There are invaluable signs of this shift, this renewed orientation, in a fascinating trip he made in 1978 to Hamburg. Invited by Rainer Tetzlaff and Peter Lock, two radical lecturers at the University of Hamburg to teach the course, ‘One Hundred Years of Development in Africa’, between April and June. The lectures were recorded, and full transcripts were made in 1984, including the question and answer sessions with the students.

The lectures he gave on the course give a powerful impression of an activist and thinker on astonishing form – engaging with challenging and wide-ranging issues, the continent’s history, slavery, independence, projects of radical socialist development. Frequently interrupted by students to clarify a point, or justify a statement, Rodney deals with complex issues of political economy and Marxist theory with sophistication and clarity, never losing patience, or his narrative thread. The transcripts and recordings of the lectures in the archive in Atlanta also give a sense of Rodney’s own political development, reflecting on his activism, and his current work with the working class in Guyana.

The lectures are deeply reflective, referring back to his experiences in Tanzania and the conclusions that he was drawing on the weaknesses of state socialism. To start with Rodney dispensed with the widely held notion of the working class in Africa as an ‘aristocracy’, in some ways privileged in post-colonial state. As he explains, ‘In some parts of the ideological justification of Tanzanian socialism [they] come very close to saying that the worker is an exploiter of the peasantry, that the workers are part of the exploiting classes. Even though the workers earn minimum wage, even though the workers in the towns and in the countryside were in the vanguard of the struggle against colonialism…’

These may seem like obvious arguments to us today, but they were not at the time. The Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon had made the point in 1961 that the colonial working class was one of the major beneficiaries of the settler state. In 1978 Rodney argued that this argument was now being advanced by the ‘petit bourgeoise … who were trying to disseminate this idea that workers exploit the countryside.’ This was a self-serving point that could be used against wages claims and demands ‘for a larger share of the surplus which they produce.’ These were not abstract arguments in an academic discussion, but justifications made in the organisation of the Tanzanian state (and ‘socialist’ and ‘capitalist’ states across the continent). Julius Nyerere, the radical president of Tanzania, was fond of making such claims himself; Rodney explains, ‘if the workers ask for more, the bureaucratic bourgeoise would reply, “You are getting that at the expense of the peasants.”’

On the role of the state in Tanzania, which Rodney had previously defended as a vehicle for socialist transformation, his attitude had become much more critical.  After independence the so-called official organisation of workers was a farce, a process of co-option by the state – independent unions were vacuumed up into a state controlled organisation. However, in the strikes and occupations reported by Shivji in his 1976 book, Class Struggles in Tanzania, and noted by Rodney, there was a new politics in formation. Reporting on the ‘workerist’ turn in the factory occupations in the early 1970s, in Hamburg Rodney described, ‘We as workers are capable of running this enterprise more efficiently than the economic bureaucracy.’ In direct challenge to the management of companies, workers were ‘making arguments that went beyond their own immediate material interests. They were carrying the class … to even higher levels by in fact posing the question who should control production …’ In these struggles from below celebrated by Rodney he saw a direct challenge to a state that had declared itself socialist, and the possibility of a new society based on that class challenge. Yet, there were serious obstacles. ‘Even though theoretically the Tanzanian revolution accepted a greater role for workers, when they made an important policy statement in 1973 called Mwongozo [a charter of workers’ rights, reviving the radical aspect of the government’s ujamaa or socialist policy] … the workers themselves tried to implement the rights that was supposedly safe-guarded by Mwongozo…’

As has often occurred with initiatives from above, workers themselves attempted to implement the rights that were ostensibly enshrined in the official ‘Mwongozo’ charter. Rodney records one of these cases, ‘In one very important instance, workers actually took over a factory and they didn’t take it over from the government, they took it over from a private owner … And they said we can run this factory which was a rubber factory, [Mount] Carmel Rubber Factory … They locked out the management and they were running the factory. And this caused the greatest excitement and fear on the part of the bureaucracy.’

Rodney draws the vital and obvious conclusion, as did Tanzania’s political elite, ’if workers were running one factory then maybe they will run another and another. And this doesn’t look too good for the economic wing of the bureaucracy … their whole rationale of production as a class would disappear if there was workers’ control… so they moved to crush those initiatives.’ In other words, it made no differences what the complexion of the government’s rhetoric had been, the threat of these occupations and the possibilities for real transformation that they contained was the same. The strikes and occupations had to be stamped out.

Rejoicing at what the ‘bureaucratic bourgeoise’ despised, Rodney goes on to explain to his audience, ‘What in English we call wild-cat strikes, [are] not strikes which the union initiates but strikes which come from below. The workers themselves decide on direct action.’ The ‘unorganised’ strike, not prearranged by trade union leaders, becomes the centre of Rodney’s focus in these reflections. Yet it was not simply a strike, rather what the strike portends. Out of the action, away from the immediate material interests of the workers themselves, were the seeds of another society and power.

Yet these strikes raised important political questions and organisational issues and posed an uncomfortable dichotomy. So, the organised working class and the strategy of organising workers was central but conversely, the action of unorganised workers with their spontaneous protests was vital to a genuine project of transformation. In Hamburg, Rodney was busy thinking through these issues.

Rodney argued that some sort of rehash of national liberation advocated at the time by the ruling party, TANU, in Tanzania was not enough. So Nyerere, still in power in 1978 (he left the presidency in 1985), who attempted to revive the politics of liberation, and ‘to reassert [the] liberation movement’ was likely to fail. Rodney was clear about this, ‘my feeling is that in spite of all the rhetoric, TANU has not been transformed, that it remains a nationalist party under the control of the petit bourgeoise… incapable of providing the basis for sustained socialist transformation.’

In other words, socialist change required pressure from outside the ruling party and in opposition to it, much as Rodney’s WPA was working against Burnham’s regime in Guyana. The regimes were profoundly different, but the essential class component was not. If working class struggle from below (in occupations and ‘wild-cat’ strikes) was necessary in Guyana, it was also indispensable for the construction of socialism in Tanzania. To those who declared that there was something unique about Tanzania, Rodney was equally dismissive, ‘it is important to recognise that it fits within the general pattern, which we have been discussing so far by which the colonisation process ended through an alliance of classes … but within this alliance the workers and the peasants never really had hegemony.’

What we see in the Hamburg lectures is a shift in Rodney’s work toward the self-activity – the occupations and ‘wild-cat strikes’ – of the working class, not as one of numerous players in the revolution, but as the central organising force. A new state would not come about by an enlightened leader, but through the frenzy of a class in the process of knowing itself, and through what it alone was capable of creating. In this scenario, the existing national bourgeoisie, in Rodney’s words, and ‘their whole rationale of production as a class would disappear.’

Tragically the full development of this politics and its realisation, with the coordination and leadership of Rodney and the WPA, was broken by his murder on 13 June 1980. In circumstances still not fully investigated, Burnham decided that Rodney must be eliminated, the unity he had helped forged between the Indian and Black working class, and the struggles he had led were simply too great a threat to Burnham’s hold on power.

A close friend in Tanzania, the radical lawyer, Joe Kanywanyi, describes the unique, unusual quality to Rodney’s character, ‘he was on some kind of a mission … that he was ready to die for. Grounding with his people, living their life, eating their food, speaking their language, taking their concerns … His commitment was distinct for the cause of the poor …’ Rodney’s turn to the working class, recorded in his Hamburg lectures, was an important moment in an extraordinary life.

Leo Zeilig is a member of the Review of African Political Economy’s editorial collective and coordinator of (some information about his work can be found here).



  1. great piece upon reflection, the roots of this i.e. in terms of the title you mention here ” how Europe underdeveloped Africa. Should be included for those who would wonder about this astonishing sweep of history. I mean his published Dissertation The Upper Guinea coast 1500 – 1800.

  2. A writ piece on works and contributions of one African legend and writer, Walter Rodney. His works, like Bob Marley’s music, resonates with Africa’s problems and challenges even to this day. Within the global society, Africa has continued to be the recipient of structured inequality established to feed the gluttonous food web of global capitalism. Having said that, some circles of the African societies feel that Rodney, like Mandela after the prison time, sold out in the end for failing to stand by the continent when it needed him the most.


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