Walter Rodney – A Revolutionary for Our Time

Chaitram Aklu reviews Leo Zeilig’s biography of the Afro-Guyanese Marxist Dr Walter Rodney: A Revolutionary for Our Time: The Walter Rodney Story. He argues that Zeilig’s extensive research, drawn from primary sources, provides a brilliant insight into the life and work of Rodney. Aklu also shares his own short eyewitness account of events surrounding Rodney’s tragic assassination in the opening sentences. 

By Chaitram Aklu

On the morning of June 14, 1980, four cars and a hearse pulled up at the Thomas Street entrance of the Georgetown Public Hospital morgue in a lightning-quick, military-style operation. The gates flew open, and the hearse backed up. A body (in a body bag) was thrown in and the hearse and cars sped away. Directing the operation were two senior government ministers who had exited their vehicles—one from a dark green car and the other from a light-coloured car.

I had no idea what I had witnessed until I went to the newsstand at the north-western corner of Parliament Buildings where I regularly picked up a copy of the weekly Catholic Standard newspaper. The female seller whispered, “Rodney was murdered last night.” I went into the Stabroek Market just across from the car park to get my Dayclean ‘paper’ published by the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) and asked the seller if what I had heard was true. He reached into a drawer, took out a narrow strip of folded paper and spread it on the counter. It read “Walter Rodney was assassinated last night.”

Word spread quickly across the country and the world. Condemnation was universal. Within an hour, individuals with reams of paper flyers were distributing them free to the public. A pink one showed a likeness of Walter Rodney nailed to a cross and a few people kneeling at his feet. It was captioned: Catholic Church worships St Marx.”

The internationally known Marxist historian and radical was assassinated at about 8:30 pm June 13th by an agent of the governing party who tricked him with a time bomb, which Rodney believed to be a walkie-talkie. His brother who was injured in the blast survived to tell the story. He named army sergeant Gregory Smith as the assassin.

A Revolutionary for Today

The recently published book (March 2022): A Revolutionary for Our Time: The Walter Rodney Story by Leo Zeilig, published by Haymarket Books, the book provides a most detailed chronology of Rodney’s life and works. The book traces Rodney’s short (38 years) life from growing up in a working-class family, his education and work in the Caribbean, Britain, Tanzania, United States, Canada, Germany and back to Guyana where he was assassinated. Zeilig’s extensive research is presented in 14 chapters and is evidenced by the 37 pages of bibliography and footnotes – almost every paragraph on each page is footnoted. In addition, direct quotes are abundant.

Rodney won a government scholarship to attend the top high school in Guyana. He then completed a degree in history at the University of the West Indies, Kingston Jamaica campus before moving on to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he completed his PhD, specialising in African History.

Zeilig has done a remarkable job in researching and organising the text into one detailed book that provides the greatest insight into the life and work of Walter Rodney from primary sources—The Walter Rodney Papers, which are housed at the Atlanta University Center in the Robert W Woodruff Library.

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Rodney believed that one must learn, understand one’s history, and organise before taking action. In London, he frequented Hyde Park corner in the summer where he practised public speaking to perfect his verbal communication skills.

Rodney believed that to change history, “We must read and understand the history that has been silenced by academics and establishment historians.” W.E.B Dubois, the American Marxist historian had already “revealed the shortcomings of the popular and scholarly consensus of the Reconstruction era” in the United States. Gerald Horne, who reviewed Du Bois’ book: The Making of Black Reconstruction (Ed. 2021), noted the book “was the first extended effort to shine Marxism’s sweeping floodlight on the tortured history of his homeland. — it offered a solid foundation for the emergence of like-minded scholars from Eric Williams to Philip S. Foner and Walter Rodney” (The Nation May 16-23, 2022). Du Bois was persecuted by the US Federal Government, which indicted him as a foreign agent, tampered with his mail, and intimidated his friends and supporters to silence him. His passport was revoked. Unlike Rodney, Du Bois chose to exile himself to Kenya where he died in 1963.

While studying in Jamaica and London, Rodney could not confine himself to the university campus. In Jamaica, he visited rural communities to learn about the struggles of the working class. According to Zeilig, in London, he was able “to survive the bourgeoisie trapeze – delivering a work of serious, radical, and respectable scholarship to pass his exam, but also managing to say things that were ground-breaking.” This is Rodney’s genius. He successfully defended his PhD thesis: “A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545–1800” in 1966.

He immediately took an 18-month teaching position at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. He believed in President Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa development policy to transform Tanzania through socialism and engaged himself fully–both on and off-campus—in teaching and organising.

A Committed Socialist and Black Power Activist

His commitment to Tanzania’s development was unwavering. So committed he was to supporting the development policy that he asked for a pay cut (in solidarity with locals) when economic conditions deteriorated there. Always leading by example, he supported agricultural development by participating in the growing of crops. Zeilig writes, “He grounded with students and radical politics.” He spoke on campus and outside of the university. But he ran afoul of Nyrere’s government when he observed that it was deviating from true socialism and disagreed with the direction in which the country was heading and was almost banned. Later, he was to be disappointed that Nyerere was playing a game to keep himself in power and was not serious about transforming the lives of Tanzanians. It turned out Rodney was right.

In 1968, after his University of Dar es Salaam contract ended, Rodney, fully committed to socialism and his family (he had gotten married in England and now had three children), returned to Jamaica to work. According to Zeilig, he did not fit into the elite and started going off-campus to depressed areas such as Trench Town and speaking with and learning from the Rastafarian community – bringing his expertise as a historian and radical to these communities. This was also during the Black Power Movement.

Rodney did not introduce Black Power to the Caribbean, but he used his knowledge “to elaborate the complex historical layers to its development.” He spoke, Zeilig writes, “not as an act of flamboyance or self-regard, but as a way of connecting the gaping absences of official accounts of independence.” He taught the true meaning of black power, emphasising that “when repression escalates, so does stagnation and poverty for the poor.” He disagreed with Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), who visited Guyana and the Caribbean in 1970, that Indians should not be included in the Black Power Movement – calling Carmichael’s position ‘unhelpful.’ Rodney saw people as a class rather than as a race – the poor working-class people. Rodney grounded with Kingston’s unemployed numbering about 150,000, which accounted for one-quarter of the capital’s population, one-third of which “were involved in much of the city’s already-notorious economy based on petty crime, theft, prostitution, and trade in marijuana,” Zeilig writes.

Zeilig wrote that Rodney saw possibility in the “racial expression” of the Rastafarians, a role they could play in freeing the region from foreign control.” Zeilig quotes from author Horace Mitchell’s Rasta and Resistance (1985) that Rodney was “fully aware of the negative influences of the movement, but he was sure that if the positive attributes could be harnessed —– the Rastafarian movement could be part of the dynamic regeneration of the working people in the search for complete freedom.” He engaged in regular group meetings with them. As a result, Rodney was trailed by the security forces and after just nine months was banned from re-entering Jamaica in October 1968 while on a trip to Canada to attend an academic conference. However, it was from those meetings (groundings) with the poor and suffering, that he produced the still widely read book, Groundings with my Brothers (1969).

Rodney returned to Dar es Salaam where he undertook to redraft the country’s High School Curriculum. He was writing, lecturing, researching and travelling. By then his international travels were also being monitored. Once on a visiting professor’s visa to the United States, his travel documents were seized.

But returning to Tanzania confirmed the direction in which Nyerere and the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) were heading. Rodney and CLR James the Trinidad-born historian, Marxist and leading figure in the Pan-African movement, withdrew from the 6th Pan-African Congress of June 1974 when it was revealed that Nyerere was inviting anti-democratic leaders from Africa and the Caribbean to attend and speak. They feared that would have turned the congress into a political spectacle. Zeilig writes, “Guyanese President Forbes Burnham had already extracted a promise from Nyerere that he would not allow the congress to become a platform for anti-Burnham protests.” Robert Hill, Congress collaborator is quoted by Zeilig: “Tanzania and TANU wanted to turn the 6th PAN-AFRICAN CONGRESS into a state-led jamboree of post-independence leaders, bullies, and murderers.” Tanzania’s Peoples President and Ujamaa as the means of transforming the economy were being questioned.

In Chapter Six, Zeilig examines Dr Rodney’s 1972 book: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA) in which Rodney skilfully accounted for how Africa became underdeveloped, poor and dependent. Zeilig referenced HEUA: The gradual incorporation (underdevelopment) of Africa and African labour was exploited “as a source for the accumulation of capital.” And “The African contribution to European capitalist growth extended over such vital sectors as shipping, insurance, the formation of companies, capitalist agriculture, technology and the manufacture of machinery.” Further “Algeria in the earlier 19th century displayed far fewer deficiencies – than by the end of the century – stripped of its millions of hectares of forest, robbed of its mines, of its liberty, of its institutions and thus the essential prop and motor of any collective progress.”

The book also notes: “Schooling, which had been widespread when the French arrived in 1830, was almost completely wiped out. By 1950 UNESCO reported 90 per cent illiteracy among the Algerian population.”

Organising the Guyanese Working People

In September 1974, Dr Rodney returned to his native Guyana, only to find on landing that the job he had accepted at the University of Guyana was rescinded on the direct instruction of Forbes Burnham. Dr Rodney immediately declared that he had returned home to stay. He was offered employment in other countries. Instead, he organised the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), bringing together pressure groups from the two ethnic groups. The goal was not necessarily to contest elections. However, his wife, a nurse was given a job in the City’s health service.

Dr Rodney would not be intimidated. He took jobs in and out of Guyana and applied for grants to continue his work, including short stints in the US. When Burnham failed to exile Dr Rodney permanently, his wife was also denied the right to work in 1979. He secured a research grant from a Canadian organisation which allowed him to travel and do research. From this grant, he produced his last major work: A History of the Guyanese Working People (1977) in which he presented a historical account of the emergence of working-class unity between Afro- and Indo- Guyanese.

At the same time, Dr Rodney became the leader and organiser for the Guyanese people of all races and especially the youths. Zeilig writes about Dr Rodney’s Hamburg lectures from the manuscripts which show, “The lectures give a powerful impression of an activist and thinker in astonishing form. Rodney engages with challenging and wide-ranging issues, including the continent’s past, slavery, independence, and projects of radical socialist development.” He would rebuke the Third World pseudo socialists such as Forbes Burnham and Julius Nyerere whose Ujamaa had failed to transform Tanzania and raise the standard of living of the working people. At one of his meetings in Georgetown, Dr Rodney told a gathering of what seemed like thousands that the electoral road to change in Guyana was blocked but that his Working Peoples Alliance was promising a new government by Christmas.

Dr Rodney was officially invited to join in the independence celebrations of Zimbabwe but he was banned from leaving Guyana, after he was charged with arson in July 1979 (he was later cleared of the charges). He managed to skip out of the country unnoticed and arrived in Zimbabwe via what came to be known as the ‘Rodney Airport’. Burnham was also present at the celebrations.

The Tragedy

Dr Rodney was assassinated on the night of June 13, 1980. His body was seized by the government for nearly a week. At a memorial on June 21, at the Brickdam Cathedral, Dr Rodney’s friend and associate George Lamming, who delivered the eulogy, began by telling the audience: “We are gathered here in a dangerous land at a dangerous time.”

CLR James, who had cautioned Dr Rodney’s associates to “take care of Rodney and keep him safe” when Dr Rodney returned home in 1974, chastised Dr Rodney for “taking too many risks”. I agree with James– Dr Rodney did take too many risks. I disagree with those who say that there were divisions in the military, and that would help in the removal of Burnham’s authoritarian regime. Labour leaders were bought out or intimidated by the regime. No revolutionary leader, including Fidel Castro, gave support to any opposition forces in the country. In fact, Castro strengthened relations with the Guyanese leader. And as Zeilig informs us, two leading members of Dr Rodney’s WPA who joined the short-lived 2015-2020 Coalition Government, of which the largest party was the People’s National Congress, refused to testify at the Rodney Commission of Inquiry (CoI). Not even mentioned by the CoI were the two senior government ministers who supervised the removal of Dr Rodney’s body to a private mortuary.

The CoI (2016) concluded “that Rodney was the victim of a State-organised assassination on June 13, 1980, and this could only have been possible with the knowledge of then PNC Prime Minister Forbes Burnham,” and that “Gregory Smith was not acting alone but had the active and full support, participation and encouragement of the Guyana Police Force, the Guyana Defence Force, agencies of the State and the political directorate in the killing of Dr Rodney”.

Finally, Zeilig writes: “What we see in the Archive — and what I have tried to capture in this book – is Rodney’s exhaustive historical work and scholarship.” He has been very successful in doing just that. This book is a very interesting and informative read.

Chaitram Aklu is a writer, educator and union leader based in New York City. He writes on a variety of topics including history, education, environment, labour and current events.

Featured Photograph: “From the Archive Walter Rodney’s last speech” New Frame, 25 March 2021 (illustration by Anastasya Eliseeva)

 A version of this article was first published in Guyana Chronicle (21 June 2022)


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