In the week that marks the fortieth anniversary of the murder of the revolutionary Walter Rodney, Jesse Benjamin – member of the Walter Rodney Foundation - speaks to ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig about Rodney’s astonishing work, life and activism and how he speaks to the dehumanization of Black lives everywhere. Rodney’s work, Benjamin argues, remains vital for those now seeking to overturn the systems of oppression worldwide.
Firstly, can you tell us something about your own political and intellectual journey, how and where did it start?
I was born a citizen of the world, already with two citizenships due to my itinerant 1960s parents who had travelled and then started living in the Middle East. I had a third citizenship a year later when we got to rural Nova Scotia, where my brother was born, and my parents split up. Until I was 10, I then lived all over Toronto, from Etobicoke to Cabbage Town, from the ‘good school’ neighborhood of Forest Hills to years running between the recording studios and international vendors on the streets of Kensington Market.
I arrived to live in the US for the first time, just as the New York Islanders hockey team went on to win four Stanley Cups in a row – a literal miracle for a 3rd
grade Canadian kid with every pro hockey player’s cards in his collection, but it went almost completely unnoticed in upstate New York where we now lived, and wasn’t even on TV. Almost four years in a rural small town situation was a new experience with some good friends and a new love for computers, physics and sci-fi, but before I was 13 we moved suddenly again, to Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, surrounded by religious communities and the most shockingly new kind of overt and vulgar racism I had ever experienced within the confines of my then brief, ostensibly colorblind, ideologically liberal humanist upbringing. It was South African apartheid style racism in the schools and streets I was now on, and that was also formative.
I’ve traced my willingness to question and even stand against what is going on around me pretty far back. I recall failing only one class in Canada, my civics grade at a particular school, because I refused to stand or sing the anthem and the Queen-related song that followed it. I did do the subsequent state-mandated exercises to the piped-in music of Stevie Wonder every morning, but I did not want to align with the symbols of a single nationalism, even though I really liked Canada as a kid, it seemed ordered and largely fair compared to the adults in my world. I also remember anti-Pakistani racism from students and their parents within days of arriving to school in a more working-class immigrant community outside of Mississauga.
But the simmering race hatred we encountered in those early Reagan-era Brooklyn years was shocking and awoke me to my first attempts at more direct activism. Eastern Parkway was very white and Jewish on one side, and mostly Black and particularly Caribbean on the other side, and in hindsight as a young teenager I was one of the very few people with friends on both sides of this apartheid line around which violence could easily erupt on any given day and sometimes did.
By 1987 I’d dropped out of high school, relocated to the Middle East, gone through some pretty dramatic struggles, and improbably managed to join a radical Quaker international college in Jerusalem. I was introduced to Marxist theory, Paulo Freire and Edward Said, while doing fieldwork with marginalized Bedouin communities in the Naqab/Negev and Sinai Deserts. The next year I made my way to my school’s European Center as a Marxist 17-year-old.
While studying in London I was lucky to have a series of mentors who I officially made my teachers and took courses with, starting with my primary advisor, professor and musician Vic Gammon, who taught me political economic theory and ethnomusicology. Then my development theory mentors introduced me to Ewan MacColl – a folk musician, leader in street and radical community theatre praxis, ethnomusicologist, lifelong Marxist theorist and activist who was the same age as my grandfather. He was then starting a Marxist theory class for his disaffected ‘capitalist’ children, in his home in South London, together with his partner, folk singer Peggy Seeger. I joined the first session, as we read paragraphs aloud from the Communist Manifesto
for several weekly meetings, then Lenin’s Imperialism
, some Engels, always illuminated in unparalleled detail by Ewan but also by the general conversation at this close-in level. Ewan’s kids never showed, but he ran the group anyway, and he later insisted I take voice lessons from him to improve my diaphragmatic breathing, oratory, and ‘the way I carried myself.’ I tried to warn him that it might not be for everyone, but I did give it a serious shot and learned a lot from him in the process. He used a lot of Paul Robeson in our exercises, and I got to spend hours with their incredible record collection.
In my fourth year of college, I studied in Kenya for two years. I immersed in a coastal community north of Mombasa that was a mix of Mijikenda and Swahili cultures, including many descendants of formerly enslaved people from the brief plantation period that had emerged right in this area from the 1830s – 1890s. Land and the struggle for it was central. The deeper my investigations went I discovered evictions of thousands of people into undocumented, largely hidden rural slums, the commodification of land as a resource in itself, and increasingly shady land dealings. This continued on as my dissertation research and is still an active area of my work. Underdevelopment was explicit in this setting, so Walter Rodney became a primary theoretical framework for me as an undergrad, because it provided even better answers than world systems theory seemed to and provided direct explanations for the contradictions my studies were revealing.
So, underdevelopment became central to my thinking and has seeped into my work in many ways. To my knowledge, though it started with my unpublished 550-page undergraduate thesis, I am still one of the only people using underdevelopment as a primary explanation for the profound economic, political and cultural marginalization of the numerically predominant non-Swahili, largely Mijikenda people of coastal Kenya. After the tripod-mounted machine-gunning British were largely defeated by Me Ketilili and her Giriama rebels in 1913/1914 (because they levelled the playing field with spears dipped in one of the deadliest of all neurotoxins, produced locally of black mamba and deadly sea mollusk poisons), the British punished them for this humiliation by charting all subsequent colonial development to circumvent their territories. Thus, the Mijikenda hinterlands were deprived of roads or railways, schools and administrative centers, economic or any other forms of development, providing an unintended positive cocoon of cultural independence from the steady erosion of colonial cultures, but also producing undeniable long-term effects such as an almost complete lack of social science doctorates some seven decades later.
Honestly, by the time I got to grad school in a more traditional state university setting back in upstate New York, in 1993, I not only had four years of serious fieldwork under my belt, I was also up to speed on most of the critical and radical theories of the day, and was already evaluating them on the basis of their applicability in real work contexts. So, I was probably a more intellectually aggressive and politically intense student than usual. I was also now a pretty experienced activist and, at least intellectually and morally, a self-avowed revolutionary. I quickly joined the growing social movements, was soon a campus leader, and we engaged in major social movements there for years, resisting arming of campus police, fighting to keep our co-op bus service, fighting state tuition raises and other regressive social policies, and mainly contesting racism and demanding a more diverse curriculum on campus in a cycle of incidents, actions, repressions, getting pepper-sprayed, building takeovers, marches and more occupations.
It became an education in and of itself, the struggles at SUNY Binghamton were almost a shadow PhD I accidentally enrolled in, as my closest comrades and I insisted on taking our classes into the world and our struggles into the classroom. For my first tenure track job, in Minnesota, I was hired to teach a required first year anti-racism course in a heavily white community with active racism and white supremacist organizing, with the expectation of incorporating community activism into all my work. I didn’t need the invitation, but I took it – we worked on dozens of issues like police profiling and brutality, and racist Native sports mascots, we fought to remove swastikas from the stone masonry of the regional Catholic cathedral and resisted anti-Somali and anti-Hmong violence. In Atlanta, my praxis came with me, as my colleagues soon discovered, and here one of my main groundings has been with the Rodney family and the Walter Rodney Foundation.
I am always on the lookout for activism and activist comrades, but I never expected the degree of involvement and movement we were a part of in Binghamton. But it was theory that truly reared its head unexpectedly when I needed it. In those same years I discovered coloniality and got to study with Anibal Quijano, and although we were in very different disciplines, Carole Boyce Davies was a significant influence as I deepened my knowledge of Pan-Africanism and Black radical thought, especially Black radical feminist thought. Rodney and Sylvia Wynter would be central in all of this.
How did you become involved and interested in the work of Walter Rodney? When did you first read his work and what were your first impressions?
Friends World College was a blessing on so many levels. I had survived a meandering transnational childhood, a religious cult, homelessness and drugs and now I wanted to understand the world in every way I could. Political economy, anthropology, philosophy became my primary tools, and for a few years I basically studied revolutionary thought and history. Every generative book that blew my mind in those early years led to a study of all the works in its bibliography, and so I studied the genealogy of revolutionary thought, from Marx and Engels to Che, Freire, Cabral. That is when Rodney’s name first started coming up. At the idyllic job I landed in London, working the late shift at Regent’s College Library, I talked to patrons of the Overseas Development Institute and basically anyone checking out any radical books, and in that context a dissident Eritrean PhD student insisted I read Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
(HEUA) that weekend in order to continue our already intense discussion about development theory. So I did, with great appreciation. I remember being that
radical librarian, who after reading this text, and Nkrumah’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism
, politely but earnestly told everyone I could about the blood soaked sugar slavery origins (Tate and Lyle Sugar Co.) of the stately Tate Reading room we were standing in as they checked out books with me. It was one of many times the world all around me was directly illuminated by Rodney.
His book was one of the reasons I decided to travel next to Africa, and my school had a Center in Kenya. I read an immense amount of Kenya-specific scholarship, and then two years later as I worked to complete the ethnography that would be my senior thesis I returned to Rodney, along with Marx, Lenin, Robert Brenner, Fred Cooper, Wallerstein, Roger van Zwanenberg and anyone else who seemed to helpfully explain the neocolonial squatter evictions and land privatization I was seeing.
Rodney was just so explanatory, his work provided the deepest of answers, and unmasked the dynamics usually left opaque or unexamined altogether. It used a nuanced and flexible Marxism and flexible thinking in general, to describe more than 500 years of history in Africa, and with a high degree of specificity for each region’s details. While reading Rodney again in Kenya I remember figuring out that East Africa Industries, which produced a preponderance of staple products in all the stores (like Blueband margarine and Omo laundry powder), was in fact not local as its name slyly implied, but just a regional hub of the Unilever corporation, the largest and most colonial of Dutch/Anglo multinationals since the deeply colonial roots of the Lever brothers. Lloyds of London and Barclays Bank were also indelibly located within their violent imperial origins. It was the only book that evoked major reactions, mostly loving, when I took it on the crowded matatu rides to town. Everywhere I went with that book people who were touched by a lecture or a work of Rodney’s announced themselves, started sharing their stories. That was a special experience in relation to a book unlike any I’d ever experienced.
Years later, in Binghamton New York, entrusted with my first ever solo-taught course as a now PhD student, I was teaching ‘Africa in the World System’, and in the third week or so, we had occupied buildings in protest, and I was teaching my class in the occupied building, sitting in our discussion circle, each reading and then discussing paragraphs from our main text HEUA. There in the introduction was the statement about Rodney teaching in Michigan, Cornell and Binghamton to pay his bills, having been blocked from working in Guyana by the dictator. So, my class discussed how crazy that was, how we’d received no loving history of his presence on our campus, how the activists would be so empowered to know about him. We asked why no building was named for him, no study lounge, nothing. Few of my activists friends knew much about him either, and my own knowledge was still limited to three books and several articles, so I started a Walter Rodney study group with some other students, focused on Rodney and his writings, as well as his scholar/activist model, which we were already trying to embody a version of.
Walter Rodney Speaks
was key to this time for me, for the blueprint and legitimation it provided for the radical academic life I was slowly realizing I might actually continue working in long after my degree was completed. Rodney was a rare example of a truly committed intellectual, an important role model. We started monthly meetings around his scholarship, ran a petition and fundraiser to launch a scholarship, demanded the Student Union be named for him, and most consequently, after three years of work we held a major international conference on him and his work, run entirely by radical students, which became itself an historic event. That is where I met Patricia Rodney, Walter’s wife, and Asha Rodney, his youngest daughter, who I was very excited to be on a young scholars panel with. Patricia Rodney riveted us with an intimate session about all she had lived through with Walter and the assassination, a night none in attendance will ever forget.
Eight years later, when I got a job offer to work in suburban Atlanta, they were the only people I knew in the region, and the prospect of their friendship and collaboration was a significant factor in our move. My informal mentorship with Carole Boyce Davies – more of me being a dutiful follower and student really – was foundational too, including her unparalleled scholarship, internationalism and willingness to engage with student movements, her rigorous example on both sides of the scholar/activist divide. Wynter was also a key part of this period for me. She was one of two keynotes at our Rodney conference, together with George Lamming. She also came to some of our early coloniality studies sessions and one of our first conferences, and honestly blew us all away with her brilliance, her intensity and unique style, her appreciation and recitation of Nas, that she chilled and danced with us until after midnight at the party we set up in her honor, or came to our house for dinner on another visit.
For readers of roape.net who may not be overly familiar with Rodney’s work could you give us a brief overview?
Rodney is both loved and appreciated all across Africa and the Diaspora, but too often pigeonholed into categories and limitations that suit the needs of contemporary scholars. He is an ancestor via martyrdom in the cause of his people’s liberation, so interpreting his thought and ideas is, or should be especially sensitive. After achieving his PhD at 24, his body of work over the next 14 years made him one of the great Marxists and Pan-African scholars of the twentieth century, whose work is still insufficiently cited and engaged across a vast range of fields.
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
is by far his best-known book, still relevant and in print almost 50 years later because it dared to explain the fundamental relations of the world order like few other books ever have. He wrote erudite books like this for a broad general audience, and he also wrote refined historiographic works of anticolonial recuperation and reorientation that remarkably remain definitive in the historiography of both Guyana and the Upper Guinea Coast of West Africa. He was a peerless scholar/activist everywhere he went, an unusually solid example for us today, his concept and praxis of grounding
providing a major pedagogic model. At a minimum, Rodney’s work is central to discussion of underdevelopment, Marxism, Black history, race/class, world systems, pan-Africanism, Guyana’s politics and history, Jamaica’s too, Caribbean studies, Tanzania’s Ujama politics and the Dar School of radical historiography, Education theory, and I would also argue that he should be more central to modern genealogies of how we understand the politics of knowledge, coloniality and decolonial theory.
[caption id="attachment_20625" align="aligncenter" width="941"] Jesse Benjamin and Asha Rodney talking at Medu Books in Atlanta in 2019, Patricia Rodney on the left side
You have recently coedited a book by Walter Rodney on the Russian revolution, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World. The book is based on the extensive and detailed lectures that Rodney prepared for an advanced course on the historiography of the revolution at the University of Dar es Salaam in the early 1970s. Can you tell us about how you came to put this extraordinary book together, the work that was involved and what you regard as its principal contribution?
Different versions of the history and status of the work were out there. I heard little traces. Horace Campbell was the only person I knew who’d really written much about it, in a little-known essay, and Rupert Lewis in his biography. Rodney was at the height of his powers when he was killed, and he had many projects almost finished and ready to work on in his travels and various moments for research and presentations. Somehow, he was able to continue his major research projects while organizing furiously and engaging in a steadily increasing battle with a dictatorship. Toward the end they were moving regularly between safe houses. Some of his unfinished works were confiscated from the Rodney home by the regime on the day of the assassination, others were saved and collected into what the family held together and preserved until it officially became the Walter Rodney Papers at the Archives Center of the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library
Much later, while he was in town for a conference on race and integration in the post-WWII military industrial context of northern Atlanta/Marietta, I met with David Roediger who shared what he knew about the manuscript that Robin Kelley had worked on as a student of Ed Alpers in UCLA. And so, I got Robin together with Pat and Asha to form a plan and we worked to get the book out after that, over a few years, in conjunction with Verso. Rodney had written the book first as a series of lecture notes on the Russian Revolution, with the intention of developing them later as a book, and he used the same deep preparation for the class as the writing process, where he read the primary literature deeply and directly himself, taking meticulous notes on cards, starting from the ground up with his own independent evaluation of the history. Robin got to do a lot of work on the original handwritten drafts while they were in UCLA in the mid-80s in the care of Edward Alpers, before the Atlanta archive was set up. We now had the task of turning what was unfinished into a book, so we tried to leave it as close to the way it was in his papers, the reader gets to see the unfinished chapters in a few places, and wonder what other chapters he’d have added, what he would have revised before publishing. It's a fresh take on the Russian Revolution, with the clear point of what could be learned for then-contemporary revolutions, anticolonial struggles and non-aligned movement blocs. It's a snapshot of very critical 1970s thought, almost like a time capsule. For almost everyone it was an unexpected 10th
book, a text which flows with a voice that feels closer in style I think to How Europe
than almost any other of his works. Rodney frames the work as part of Black Studies, with the obvious but radical notion that any area of the world could be the legitimate subject of this newly ensconced academic framework. I also argue that his critique of bourgeois scholarship and its obvious biases compared to the largely more accurate technocratic records of the Soviets, encapsulated his original Two World Views of the Russian Revolution
title concept for the book, which revealed the epistemic and cultural level of his work, parallel with critiques of knowledge/power in Michel Foucault and Edward Said.
Why do you think the Russian revolution held such interest for a radical activist and researcher working in Africa, and focused on the struggles of the Third World?
When I think of the 1970s and the transnational Non-Aligned Movement in which Rodney was a major presence, it was a similar moment to the one we are facing now, a period of unwritten possibilities based on unprecedented ruptures in the capitalist world system, where better visions emerge to confront colonialism, imperialism and outright fascism. When you think of the fight against Portuguese colonialism or the forward advance of apartheid South Africa and the resistance that frontline states had to put up, with the help of Cuba, these were transnational struggles against imperial fascism. Fascist dictators were ascendant in the Americas and elsewhere then too, creating stark choices, and from our vantage point we see that, with a few exceptions, the better side did not win.
The post-Vietnam era was characterized by ‘low intensity conflicts’ and proxy wars, sometimes genocidal, often fueled by clandestine drug and arms running operations, from Guatemala and El Salvador to Indonesia and East Timor. A lot of that imperial history has been coming home to roost for decades, as the US metropole reimports the only remaining industries it has, bringing the technologies of its imperial ‘Third World’ domain back to the US. Things like debt manipulation, repackaged versions of structural adjustment and privatization, infinite wealth disparities, militarizations of all varieties. Just as we must now assess our situation and draw from the best and also the most illustrative examples that history has to offer, Rodney wanted to understand every aspect of the Russian Revolution in all of its complexity. And on close examination there are innumerable parallels that help raise questions and ideas in relation to many African and Third World nations, and really people everywhere, regarding land and peasant production, industrialization, ethnic and religious diversity, power and the state, power and the international arena.
You get a sense reading the book and looking through Rodney’s archive in Atlanta, of the phenomenal extent of his reading, his deep grasp of Marxism (and its various tendencies) and his knowledge of a wide-ranging literature on the revolution. What do you think the volume tells us about who Rodney was, how he worked and his political commitment?
How real and urgent his search for truth and answers was, but also how undoctrinaire and creative he was in his thinking. The groundings approach he already typified and then greatly refined during and ever after his Jamaican sojourn in 1968 was a very rigorous mode, one of self-reflection as to one’s role and capacity in a given space, one of studying thoroughly the deep historical roots of each place, and then the process of decolonizing our thinking sufficiently to the task of liberation. He mentions his interest in physics, he read about the natural world and the environment, he went wherever the questions and issues took him, and he was always independent in his thought, reading the original texts and forming his own analyses in the process, never skipping steps as a scholar, meticulous in his language and his argument. In his 20s he was openly contesting with the doyens of the field of African history and African studies in their peer-reviewed journals and remarkably holding his own. Really, he was boldly writing decolonial historiography and they were feeling threatened and therefore contending with him, not entirely successfully either. Because he was a prolific scholar and wrote in various media across his career, we can see many examples of his attempt to forge critical praxis wherever he was, grounded in Marxism and Pan-Africanism, always building his analysis from deep local roots and then navigating toward the primary contradictions, usually finding himself way ahead of almost everyone else, labeled a threat, surveilled. Already in grad school he and Pat were followed between restaurants and archives in Portugal where he was researching colonial history in his third or fourth language.
There is a balance of pragmatism and rigor on the one hand, and a creativity and realness on the other. When we read him, we find someone with the same questions as us: why is the world this way, and how can we understand it deeply enough to transform it? I am pained that we don't get to see his intellect contending with the powerful theories that have emerged since the late 70s. His praxis, the way he grounded, the way he went to the deeper truth and called it out, the way he was willing to reach unusual or challenging conclusions based on the evidence even if it was groundbreaking or unexpected, these are all license for us in the present, models of how we can tend to the world and its contradictions today. And as you allude, even with the tragic loss of some of his work in the events around 1980, there is considerable work still either unpublished, obscure or little known, some of which will continue to flow out hopefully from the Verso loft. And scholars can seek his work, it is on all the servers and in journals which are increasingly accessible.
Rodney’s research and writing, at all points, was marked by his commitment to putting ‘ideas’, teaching, books and articles ‘to work’ in the vital and necessary struggle of continued liberation and revolution. How would you chart Rodney’s intellectual and activist trajectory from the 1960s to his murder in 1980?
Relentless, multifaceted, unfinished, focused on numerous projects at once, focused on Guyana and its very specific geometry in the final years, and might have helped lead the country to freedom and unification beyond what has since seemed remotely possible. He was unusual in connecting organically and genuinely with people in all lines of work and at all levels of poverty and dispossession, he seemed to have no boundaries in that regard. In Guyana he crossed over racial lines and united people with knowledge of shared colonial histories. In Binghamton I met more working-class people who remembered him than academics, people who attended an open lecture of his or took one of his classes or knew him from some interaction in town. His praxis was so powerful in 1968 Jamaica, at such a significant time, that he was expelled from the country in under 9 full months, leading to the Rodney Riots or Rebellion, an event of national, Caribbean and arguably world historical significance. In Tanzania he was a leading voice on campus and in the Dar School of Radical Historiography, and participated and was a leader in student social movements of national consequence, but he also left campus and taught and grounded with high school students, rural labor unions and collective farmers, and all sorts of groups that invited him.
Less seriously, but no less complexly, Rodney’s thinking and work put him at odds with the government again, though he was close with President Nyerere. His transnationalism was off putting to nationalist party leaders, as were his withering but essential critiques of comprador petty-bourgeois elites and neocolonialism, and he knew that his groundings would be deeper in Guyana than anywhere because it was his home society. His work there deserves more attention from PhD researchers and scholar visits to the archives, it was an incredibly rich grounding, probably his deepest of all. He produced his definitive, A History of the Guyanese Working People
, and the subsequent two volumes intended to follow it were done or nearly completely when they were stolen from his house. He produced the beginnings of an ambitious children’s book series which was to cover the true historical stories of all the major groups in the country, to undermine the divide and conquer legacies that separated Guyanese communities. And his speeches to the Guyanese people, including ‘Peoples Power, No Dictator,’ are another set of documents altogether, some of his least known and most important, though his comrades have maintained a steady literature and engagement with this and all the literature in Dayclean
, and more than a few other venues. He was planning to get out for a while, the complexities were staggering, political, legal, personal, familial; newly independent Zimbabwe had invited him and there was a plan to go when the bomb was planted in his walkie-talkie.