Socialism from above or below – Rodney’s politics and activism

Chinedu Chukwudinma describes Walter Rodney’s initial enthusiasm for Tanzanian socialism, and how he participated in projects to build an alternative to capitalism in the country. Gradually, Rodney became critical of these top-down efforts at socialist transformation and turned to the struggle of the working class from below. Chukwudinma examines the development of Rodney’s politics, and his views on Pan-Africanism.

By Chinedu Chukwudinma

Rodney’s friends remembered the parties that he and Patricia hosted at their house in Dar es Salaam. When Rodney wasn’t working, there was always someone visiting the couple to discuss politics or play dominos. Patricia described her husband as a good family man; he did house chores and cooked – he loved making Chinese food. Patricia gave birth to their daughters Kanini in 1969 and Asha in 1971. Rodney enjoyed spending time and playing with his kids. When he visited Ujamaa villages near Dodoma in 1970 with the University Students’ African Revolutionary Front (USARF) and the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) youth league, he brought his son Shaka along. Rodney lodged there for weeks and worked on installations for farming. He relished every opportunity to meet peasants and learn about Tanzanian socialism.

Rodney grew fascinated with Ujamaa. He saw it as a radical initiative to eradicate poverty in the countryside. By 1973, TANU had moved 15 per cent of the peasantry from isolated homesteads into cooperative farms, which revitalised the traditional communal ways of life.[1] These Ujamaa villages were supplied with electricity and clean water, schools, and clinics to encourage peasants to produce more food for the nation. Rodney believed Ujamaa reduced Tanzania’s reliance on trade with the West by replacing cash crops with food farming. In one of his most controversial articles, he went as far as to claim that Ujamaa charted a new path to socialism that would be distinct from that of developed western nations.

Rodney defended his view against some Marxists who argued that a socialist revolution could only happen in western capitalist countries, which had a large modern industry and therefore a large working class. They believed underdeveloped nations like Tanzania must first experience years of capitalist development before a workers’ struggle for socialism would become conceivable. But they overlooked that the Russian Revolution, the only sustained victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, unfolded in an underdeveloped country where the working class accounted for only three per cent of the population. Therefore, Rodney was right to argue against these Marxists that Tanzanians could fight for socialism in the present rather than suffer under more decades of capitalism. But he overplayed his hand when he claimed that Tanzanian socialism could occur without a worker’s revolution.

Rodney assigned no significant role to the Tanzanian working class because he thought the peasant Ujamaa villages alone could form the basis of a socialist society that avoided capitalism, if TANU modernised them with help from other socialist nations. He hoped this route would safeguard peasants against the inequalities that colonialism produced through individual commercial farming – the rise of landlords at the expense of landless peasants. By socialism, he meant preserving the Ujamaa villages from capitalist influence.[2] However, he failed to see that leaving the working class out of the equation would have adverse consequence for the realisation of socialism in Tanzania.

Until 1973, Rodney supported the Tanzanian state as the driver of socialism and the peasantry as its base. He discarded the central idea of Marxism that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers. In Tanzania, the working class was too small and unorganised to lead the nation out of poverty. He naively expected Nyerere and TANU to deliver socialism to the peasants and workers and to share state power with them. Failing to see the masses as capable of liberating themselves, he thus favoured a form of socialism from above. But his enthusiasm for Tanzanian socialism vanished the more he looked at the bureaucratic class that controlled TANU and the state. In 1978, four years after he left Tanzania, Rodney declared: “TANU has not been transformed. It remains a nationalist party under the control of the petit bourgeoisie… incapable of providing the basis for sustained socialist transformation”.[3]

Why did Rodney change his mind in less than five years? His Marxist USARF comrades played a key role in convincing him that TANU’s Ujamaa villages and nationalised factories failed to empower the peasants and workers. They thought these policies allowed the Tanzanian one-party state to exploit and oppress the masses as under colonialism.[4] From late 1973, Rodney also realised this when he looked at TANU’s catastrophic plan to increase Ujamaa villages to stop the food shortage that had hit the countryside. TANU ordered peasants to move to areas that were unsuitable for farming. It then deployed the police when the peasants refused to relocate. That the bureaucrats never sought to persuade the peasant disheartened Rodney. He was even more appalled to learn from his discussions with peasants that they controlled no aspects of production in Ujamaa villages. All that mattered for TANU was how much grain it could quickly extract from the peasants’ labour. Reflecting on these experiences he warned: “It is always dangerous for bureaucratization to parade in the name of socialism. It happened under Stalin”.[5] He feared that TANU, which had led the masses out of colonialism, had now begun to act like any Stalinist one-party bureaucratic state.

Rodney was also struck by TANU’s contempt for workers as it refused to extend management of its nationalised factories to them. Although Tanzanian bureaucrats had replaced colonial managers, workers remained exploited on low wages. He disliked that Nyerere described workers as a privileged class, accusing them of wanting to steal from the peasants when they asked for higher wages. Nyerere had forced workers to sacrifice their interest in favour of national unity. Back in 1964 he co-opted all trade unions into the one-party state after labour leaders supported an army mutiny against him.

The mistreatment of the masses led Rodney to grow suspicious of the petty bourgeois class who ran TANU – the students, intellectuals, and civil servants that colonialism had educated. In 1975, he explained that the petty bourgeoisie never owned anything until it seized the colonial state after independence. The state became its lever of power as it took bureaucratic ownership of the economy from the British and Asian traders. Rodney now saw the Ujamaa villages and national factories not as socialism, but as a means for TANU’s petty bourgeoisie to expand state control over production and to recruit more of its kind into lucrative bureaucratic jobs. TANU, he concluded, could not be reformed from within.

How could the masses free themselves from their exploitation at the hands of the state? Rodney found his solution when he looked back and rejoiced at the workers’ strike movement of the early 1970s. In 1975, four months after he left Tanzania, Rodney spoke to students in Chicago about the conflicts between the masses and the weak Tanzania state, enthusiastically declaring those workers’ struggles threatened TANU with revolution. He argued that the Tanzanian working class was small but its strategic position in the economy gave it great power. Nyerere and TANU could not ignore the agitation of workers in the factories, the docks and in the hospitals. The state, as Rodney explained, issued a charter of workers’ rights in 1971 called Mwongozo to respond to workers’ demands for better conditions. The charter stipulated that employers couldn’t be arrogant, contemptuous and oppressive, as they had been under colonialism. But TANU’s efforts to appease workers backfired. The workers went beyond TANU’s expectations by using the charter to contest low wages, favouritism, and sexual harassment. They printed and kept a booklet version of the charter and opened it on the appropriate page when arguing with management. When the petty bourgeoisie refused to apply the charter in the workplace, the workers led strikes and occupations to implement the Mwongozo charter.

In courses he taught in Hamburg in 1978, Rodney drew even more radical conclusions from his reflections on these workers’ struggles. He showed that the strikes of the early 1970s were not organised by the official trade unions – they were wildcat strikes spontaneously organised by the rank-and-file. He saw in them a new source of power that challenged TANU’s state-led socialism. Rodney reflected on instances where workers’ struggles went beyond demands for wages to ask “who should control production? Who is the boss in a so-called socialist society?” [6] In one rubber factory, he explained, the workers locked out management and ran the factory causing panic and fear among the bureaucracy. The workers realised their power when they said, “we as workers are capable of running this enterprise more efficiently than the economic bureaucracy.” [7]

The petty bourgeoisie crushed these revolts, fearing that they could spread across factories and destroy its existence as a class. Rodney had realised that workers had developed a revolutionary consciousness through their own experience of struggle – they had the power to propose a new democratic and collective way of organising society. Rodney thus returned to the core contention of Marxism, that the working class is the only class that can liberate itself and the whole of society. If Nyerere and TANU could not deliver socialism, it had to be won from below.

Rodney’s views on Pan Africanism

Leaders from Africa and the diaspora gathered in Nyerere’s Tanzania to attend the 6th Pan African Congress in June 1974. It was the first time an African nation had hosted the Congress. Black intellectuals of the diaspora had organised previous ones in Europe. Rodney, however, was disappointed with Nyerere for refusing to allow grassroots organisations from participating in the debates. He feared the Congress would reflect the conservatism of African leaders unable to offer radical solutions to Africa’s problems. So, he wrote a provocative article for the event to address the key issue of African unity and denounced the impotence of petty bourgeois leaders.

In his article, Rodney conceived of Pan-Africanism as a weapon in the struggle against imperialism. It was less an ideology than a historical movement to unite Africans beyond the artificial borders that colonialism had created. He was appalled that most independent nations accepted these colonial borders. If Africa remained fragmented, it would stay vulnerable to incursion from Western companies seeking to rob its wealth. He argued the Pan-Africanism of “the petty bourgeois states became a sterile formulation… incapable of challenging capitalism and imperialism”.[8] He therefore saw the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the African Union, as a club for African heads of state destined to betray the masses. The OAU, created in 1963, at best regulated conflicts between African dictators while it sanctified existing borders to ensure that the elite kept ruling over the masses in their own states.

Rodney’s article offered insight into the treacherous and cowardly nature of the class that ruled Africa after independence. The petty bourgeoisie, he said, once played a progressive role by leading the anti-colonial struggle and voicing its support for Pan-Africanism. But it reneged on African unity when it negotiated independence, lacking the vision and the economic power to enforce that unity. Rodney here echoed Frantz Fanon who argued that the petty bourgeoisie owns nothing and will provide nothing. Apart from Nyerere and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, most leaders sought to get rich by becoming agents of the western bourgeoisie, never seeking to defy imperialism. The petty bourgeoisie’s control over the state—the police, the army and the bureaucracy—meant it had a vested interest in maintaining colonial borders. This was the way Africa’s new ruling classes ensured that multinationals dealt with them, and that workers and peasants stayed oppressed and exploited.

Seeing the petty bourgeoisie as the biggest obstacle toward African unity, Rodney argued that Pan-Africanism had to become a movement driven from below. He called on Africans to struggle against the Western capitalist class and its African allies, to break from imperialism and build a socialist society that would free the masses from exploitation. Which class was to lead that struggle? In 1974, Rodney’s article did not give a definitive answer. He believed that Pan-Africanism had to be an internationalist, anti-imperialist and socialist weapon in the hands of progressive groups and organisations. He saw the seeds of a new leadership in the guerrilla struggles and emerging workers’ movement in Southern Africa when he wrote: “our brothers in the South are striking blows, which include attacks on enemy bases in Angola, the destruction of rail links in Mozambique, the disruption of production through strikes in Namibia and South Africa”.[9] In time, he would come to believe that the working class in Africa and the Global South was the only class able to lead an African liberation struggle to socialism (as I have written about above).

Rodney fell ill before the Pan-African Congress and was unable to attend and deliver his powerful article. Moreover, he thought it was time for him to return to Guyana. Rodney thought he would never be able to fully relate to Tanzanians and grasp their idiom. He told one of his students, “I have to go back to people I know and who know me”.[10] Rodney had made important contributions to the African liberation struggle, which inspired countless radical African students and intellectuals. But he was only an academic moving in academic circles. He was discontented with being a radical intellectual—he wanted to be a revolutionary. He longed to build a close relationship with working people and play an integral part in their struggles against exploitation. He felt that could only be done back home.

Chinedu Chukwudinma is a socialist activist and writer based in London. He writes on African politics, popular struggles, and the history of working-class resistance on the continent and is a member of ROAPE’s editorial board. 

Please click here to read the earlier parts of Chukwudinma’s A Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney which has been serialising.

Featured Photograph: originally published on the Elephant website here.


[1] Jannik Boesen, Birgit Madesen, and Tony Moody, 1977, Ujamaa- Socialism from Above, (Copenhagen: Uppsala, 1977), p.15

[2] Rodney, Walter, 1972, “Tanzanian Ujamaa and Scientific Socialism”, African Review.

[3] Quoted in Leo Zeilig, 2019, ‘Walter Rodney’s Journey to Hamburg’, Review of African Political Economy blog.

[4] For debates between Rodney and USARF students on Ujamaa see Hirji, Karim, 2010, pp.133-55 and Issa Shivji in Chung, Clairmont (ed.), 2012, pp. 90-91.

[5] Rodney, Walter, 1975a, “Class Contradictions in Tanzania”, in The State in Tanzania.

[6] Rodney, 1975a.

[7] Zeilig, Leo, 2019.

[8] Walter Rodney, Walter, “Aspect of the International Class Struggle in African, the Caribbean and America” in Pan-Africanism, (1975b).

[9] Rodney, Walter, 1975b,

[10] Issa Shivji in Chung, Clairmont (ed.), 2012, pp. 89.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.