Walter Rodney: Prophet of self-emancipation by Wazir Mohamed

Thirty years after the murder of Guyana-born scholar and activist Walter Rodney, Wazir Mohamed considers the role of imperialism and the big powers in the silencing of ‘a defender of the people’s right to equality’. Published by |+| pambazuka news.

June 13, 2010 will mark 30 years since Walter Rodney ‘the prophet of self-emancipation’ was murdered in Guyana at the hands of a brutal dictator acting in cahoots with the agents of international capital. In commemorating the life of Walter Rodney, it is our responsibility to contextualise his killing and to remind ourselves of the role of imperialism and the pivotal role of the big powers in his silencing.

It was not the first time in the modern history of the world that a defender of the people’s right to equality was silenced, nor would it be the last time. Walter Rodney’s killing can be compared to that of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected prime minister of the Congo in 1961. It could be compared with the murder of Amilcar Cabral, leader of the African Party for the Independence and Union of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) in 1973 at the hands of Portuguese agents. It could be compared with the killing in 1983 of Maurice Bishop, prime minister of Free Grenada, at the hands of overzealous counter revolutionary agents in his party, the New Jewel Movement. It could also be compared with the murder in 1973 of Salvador Allende, prime minister of Chile, at the hands of Pinochet acting in collusion with agents of international capital.

These and other leaders committed one single crime; they had a passion for real change. They drew their examples for change from the working people, and created new ways, new approaches for dealing with the unequal relationship between the ruling classes and the poor. These were change agents. They recognised the historical problem of racial, economic, social, and cultural inequality between the then called ‘third world’ and the ‘first world,’ and dedicated their lives to change the status quo in their respective countries. They exposed the role of local dictators who benefited from the status quo, and hence were invested in dictatorial processes that kept the working people in subjection.

These leaders, among many others, were killed by agents of foreign and local capital over the period 1960–1990 to send a message to the working people of the former colonial world. That message being that international capital and their local agents are not prepared and will not tolerate any real demands for changes in the economic, political, social, and cultural status quo of the former colonies. This accounts in part for stagnation, retrogression, and continuous deterioration today of the conditions of ordinary people in most areas of the former colonial world.

To this day, the dream of self-emancipation and real independence is still unrealised in every part of the former colonial world. Working people across the world today are further than they have ever been from realising the dream of economic, political, social, and cultural equality. This is as true for the Caribbean – the birthplace of Rodney and Bishop – as it is in Africa, the birthplace of Cabral, Lumumba, Machel, Mandela, and others. Despite majority rule and so-called political independence in Zimbabwe and South Africa, these countries are yet to implement meaningful land reform; which if dealt with democratically could produce the answer to the structure of the historical inequality colonialism created on the continent. Like Guyana, most of the former colonies in Africa, in Asia and in Latin America are yet to find solutions to deal with and turn back the historical damage of ethnic and racial divisions that threaten to consume these societies.

The assassination of Walter Rodney must be contextualised from the confine of the people’s struggle against foreign domination of mind and body, against foreign domination of thought and action. Walter Rodney did not wake up one day, like so many leader types, and decide that he wanted to take the reign of power over the land. He had no such ambition; he was thrust into the sphere as the recognised leader of the working people of Guyana because in their estimation, he came closest to understanding and sharing their life of pain and suffering. Pain and suffering which abounded in part because of the shattered dream of democratic self-emancipation; a dream snatched away by the unravelling of the anti-colonial national movement of the 1950s. In the aftermath of this unravelling, political forces emerged to represent ethnic interests, and hence the outgrowth of political parties around which sections of the population coalesced because of the perception that they could provide ethnic security. Today, Guyana continues to suffer from the nightmare of ethnic politics. The unravelling of the national movement in Guyana, while it had important local players, occurred in the context of the global onslaught against such movements, a global onslaught against local self determination which began with colonialism and slavery, and which has kept independent nations in subjection for the last 200 years.

Haiti and its poverty is the most striking example. Since the revolution, the big powers not only refused to recognise the right of the Haitian people to self-determination, for over 200 years they also worked to snuff out the possibility of self-emancipation. In Haiti they, the big powers lead by the United States, imposed and supported the Duvalier family dictatorship, which ruled with an iron fist between 1957 and 1986. To this day Haiti is not free to decide on its path toward self-determination, its first freely elected President Bertrand Aristide now lives in South Africa having been banished into exile, because, to use his own words, he opposed ‘privatisation,’ the imposed prescription for small countries by the big powers. He was deposed because he wanted labour laws to regulate the working of the sweatshops in Haiti, because he wanted to impose a national minimum wage, because he wanted to protect local producers and rice farmers from the onslaught of subsidised food which the West dumps on small countries, and furthermore because he wanted to create a governmental structure to allow ordinary Haitians to self-organise in order to emancipate themselves.

Like Duvalier in Haiti, Somoza in Nicaragua, the Shah in Iran, Gairy in Grenada, and the many countless dictators who stalked and stymied the spirit of self-emancipation in Latin America, Asia and Africa, the PNC dictatorship of Guyana emerged and grew into a position of dominance with the backing and support of big powers. Big powers whose interest in the politics of these countries was firstly about access to control their economies, especially their mineral and agricultural production, and secondly about their political support in the Cold War period at the international level. As a young scholar, Walter Rodney who studied the impact of big power politics on the creation of unequal development and inequality, and the construction of the First and Third World was unsettled by the machinations of local leaders, whether they were in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, or the United States of America. In all these theatres, he was drawn into debates and discussion on local conditions as more and more people came into contact with his scholarship. Inevitably, it was the discussions and debates which his scholarship opened up that lead to his banishment from Jamaica by the Shearer government, and which lead to the denial of a teaching appointment at the University of Guyana, and subsequently his assassination in 1980.

There is no separation between Rodney’s scholarship and his activism. His scholarship calls into question all those who sat on the fence and all those who would like to continue to sit on the fence as the divide between rich and poor grows, and as the ruling classes concretise their mastery to use race, ethnicity and gender as a means of imposing varying dimensions of divide and rule in specific local settings.

Having mastered the history of the Upper Guinea Coast in his doctoral studies, he explained that while local African leaders and ‘elites’ colluded in slave trading, students of history must come to grip with the global dimension; that is the growth of markets for slaves as European trade and commerce expanded and in this expansion varying forms of exploitation in specific local areas emerged.[1] He thus explained that ‘African agents of the Atlantic Slave Trade must be seen in a global perspective,’ that is how the profit motive which was shaped by the growth of plantations in the Americas, created the conditions which lead to internecine warfare, with the primary aim of capturing the ‘enemy’ who were then sold into slavery.[2] This work establishes his fascination with the methodology of capital in creating local lackeys, local agents through whom the tentacles of exploitation of the working people gets constructed and deepened.

Rodney’s scholarship is not idle, it is a call to action. It is a call to action by the working people in local settings, be it in Africa where he was a combatant in the liberation struggle, in Jamaica where he helped students to recognise the ills of society, in the USA and Europe where he implored people on the left to get to grips with the limitations of vanguard politics and the hegemonic character of the leading socialist countries, and in Guyana where he grounded with the people and helped them to understand and identify the local agents of foreign capital, whose wealth and power is derived from their labour and misery.

Walter’s scholarship calls on people to recognise that the path to resolution of historical wrongs have to arise through the understanding of the past. It was in this context that he wrote the ‘History of the Upper Guinea Coast’, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, and the ‘History of the Guianese Working People’. To quote from the introduction by Vincent Harding, Robert Hill and William Strickland in Walter’s ‘How Europe Undeveloped Africa’, his work is ‘imbued with the spirit, the intellect and the commitment of its author...with Rodney the life and work were one.’[3]

Nowhere is this impassioned commitment more present, than in his ‘History of the Guianese Working People’. This work, which he completed in the final couple years of his young life, represents in his view, a small contribution to fill a huge gap, the vacuum which exists in the historiography of Guyana, what he identified as the ‘profound underdevelopment’ of the historiography of the region. Having developed on the heels of noted Caribbean nationalist historian, Elsa Goveia, he was passionate about the task that confronted nationalists’ scholars, and new scholars such as him and those to follow. The task as he identified it is to create an understanding of how our societies were constructed through an understanding of the real history of the struggles of the working people. He firmly believed and was unwavering in his commitment that history should be told from the standpoint of the people. This commitment to the truth was the hallmark of his scholarship, and this scholarship was interwoven in his activism.

He believed that real history, if explained, will eventually help the mass of working people shed the shackles which divide them against each other. He exhibited a dispassionate ability to inject the understanding of history into his work, whether he was in the classroom, or whether he was grounding with the working people in their homes, in their places of work, or in their communities. He made no effort to hide where he stood on the issues of inequality and the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in the world; he lived his life in and out of the classroom as a firm defender of the rights of all peoples to full equality. It was this resolve that lead to his banishment from Jamaica.

In responding to the ban placed on him by the Shearer government of Jamaica in 1968, he said that all he was doing was grounding with his brothers, ‘I was trying to contribute something. I was trying to contribute my experience…I went out as I said, I would go to the radio if they wanted me, I would speak on television if they allowed me…I spoke at the Extra-Mural Centre. I would go further down into West Kingston and I would speak wherever there was a possibility of our getting together. It might be in a sports club, it might be in a schoolroom, it might be in a church, it might be in a gully…I have spoken in what people call ‘dungle’, rubbish dumps…that is where the government puts people to live.’[4]

He was a firm believer that the role of the conscious (he used the word black) intellectual and academic is to move beyond the university, that the conscious academic must be able to make the connection between their scholarship and the activity of the masses of working people. Inevitably, it was the commitment to transcend the university, as he did after his return to Guyana in 1974, which lead to his banishment from the University of Guyana. The Burnham government was of the view that if they starved him through refusal to sanction his employment at the University of Guyana, he would be forced to leave the country. But they could not kick him out of the country because he was Guyanese.

Walter Rodney was committed to the political future of the multi-racial masses of Guyana. He was a firm believer that if the mass of working people was armed with the historical and contemporary reasons which create the misery of their lives, they would be able to emancipate themselves. He was banished from the university and subsequently killed because he dared to engage ordinary people. He was killed because he dared to bring to the people the tools that could lead to unity and combined action. He was killed because he was engaged with the masses, because he was grounding with bauxite workers, with civil servants, with sugar workers, with stevedores, with farmers, with villagers.

There is a historical context to the final assassination of Walter Rodney. Undaunted by the refusal to employ him, his work and contact with the mass of working people increased a hundredfold – as he would say his ‘groundings’ took on new meaning and had a new purpose. He was committed to the path of showing the working people the way forward, the path towards self-emancipation. He was committed to the path of helping the working people to sort out the problems of the country, a working people whose political, social, cultural, and economic livelihoods were threatened by a government which had seized power through rigged elections. A government, which while masquerading as ‘socialist,’ had begun to trample on the rights of workers to organise, on free speech, on the right to assemble and mobilise, etc. A minority government engaged in the process of consolidating its power. A minority government, which had begun and was in the process of laying the foundation for dictatorial rule and state sponsored corruption. A minority government, which like other foreign sponsored counterparts in that period such as Haiti, Grenada, Nicaragua, Iran and so forth, had begun to lay the basis for state-sponsored terrorism against its political opponents and the people through the reorganisation of the police force and the army to include special security apparatuses, the most notorious of these was the ‘death squad,’ as it was known at the time. A minority government, that entered into agreements with the Internal Monetary Fund, and which imposed strict austerity measures on the working people, while the elites freely dipped their hands in the treasury and dabbled with the wealth of the country.

Walter Rodney was killed because he was unwavering in his commitment to practice and teach a new kind of politics, a politics which abhors the vanguardist top down approach to decision-making. He was killed because he was a firm believer in the self-emancipation of the working, and that this will only come about when the mass of working people are united, that is when they act in unison. He was killed because his efforts to teach the working people the art of unity led to the multi-racial mobilisation never before seen in modern Guyana. He was killed because the enemies of the working people understood that multi-racial action would lead to self-emancipation, and a self-emancipated people would bring about social transformation.

The recipe for ethnic and racial healing in Guyana and the Third World was Rodney’s gift to the working people. He firmly believed in unity of the working people, and was committed to the struggle to find long-term solutions to the problems of ethnic and racial division that consumes Guyana and most of the former colonial world. He was not only committed, but placed his body and soul in the struggle for a new kind of popular politics, a new political culture of respect. He belonged to a new generation of scholar activists who saw the old political games for what they were. He did not equate liberation and development with the mere replacement of expatriate rulers with local versions. His determination as a scholar-activist propelled him to argue that transformation and true human development can only be achieved through the common struggle of all peoples to recognise the necessity for a single humanity. His life’s work of activism and scholarship stands as an exceptional example to anyone willing to think and act outside the box. As a scholar activist he led the way by showing how easy it was for one to switch between researching and writing to activism. This is attested to by his ability to switch from researching and writing about the devastation wrought by outside forces on African societies in ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, and about the history of the working people of Guyana to intervening in the Pan-African and liberation movements in Africa, the movement for racial unity and democracy in Guyana, and to his work with Rastafarians in Jamaica.

While he emphasised, promoted and defended the right of former slaves, the African peoples of the Americas, the Caribbean and Guyana to rediscover their ancestral culture, as attested to in his work ‘Grounding with My Brothers,’ he was equally concerned for the East Indian descendants of indentureship in Guyana. He was non-sectarian and did not harbour any sectarian attitude.

His non-sectarian attitude and approach to find solutions for all peoples in Guyana is established by the equal treatment he gave to Africans and East Indians in his last published book, ‘A history of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905.’ In this work he debunked the culture and popular perception among sections of the Afro-Guyanese population that East Indians in Guyana are alien to the country.

Through documentary evidence of the suffering and struggles of East Indians for survival on the plantations, he demonstrates their contribution as equal partners with other groups of people, especially Afro-Guyanese to the history Guyana. His insights and analysis of the contribution of Afro and Indo Guyanese to the history of Guyana is instructive and remains as an instrument for all of us whose life goal is the creation of a united multi-racial democracy in Guyana; a Guyana for all its sons and daughters. All of us who are imbued with this common goal owe it to our ancestors, to our and to future generations to put our shoulders to the wheel and work, through our scholarship and in our respective communities, to create such a society.

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* Wazir Mohamed teaches sociology at Indiana University. He grew up in small rice-farming family in rural Guyana.
* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

NOTES
[1] Rodney, Walter: A History of the Upper Guinea Coast (Monthly Review Press, New York 1970), pp. 240-243.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Rodney, Walter: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Howard University Press, Washington, D.C. 1982), see introduction.
[4] Rodney, Walter: Groundings with my Brothers (Bogle L’Overture Publications Ltd, London 1969), pp. 64-65.

Picture: © walterrodney.com

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