Groundings with a Black Marxist: Walter Rodney

Walter Rodney lived his life as a friend of the people and an enemy of the state. After earning his PhD in African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and teaching for a couple years at Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Rodney returned in 1968 to his alma mater, the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) in Mona, Jamaica. There he rapidly immersed himself in social movements among the urban poor, focusing his efforts on segments of the youth who had already been radicalized by Rastafarianism. Rodney’s charisma and ability to articulate the concerns of working people made him a valuable member of the Black Power movement, and unlike other intellectuals he developed close relationships with the grass-roots. To the still young Jamaican government, Rodney appeared as a very real threat.1

Fearful of the possibility of an alliance between intellectuals and the masses, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) declared Rodney unwelcome in their country that very October. Outraged, students led several civil disturbances known as the “Rodney Riots,” solidifying the young scholar as a symbol of radical intellectual thought in the Caribbean. But what exactly was so frightening about Walter Rodney, activist and historian? Most of all, I suspect it was his closeness to the common people and openness to “ground” with them. In the discursive practices of the Jamaican Rastafari, “groundings” were informal public gatherings that broke the traditional barriers of race, class and education. They were open spaces for the meeting of peers, where each person could contribute equally to “reasonings,” a form of discussion without pre-established hierarchies of thought or social position.2 In listening, sharing, and learning with Jamaican working class people, Rodney showed that he was no conventional intellectual. He wrote of these experiences, 

I got knowledge from them, real knowledge. You have to speak to Jamaican Rasta, and you have to listen to him, listen very carefully and then you will hear him tell you about the Word. And when you listen to him, and you can go back and read Muntu, an academic text, and read about Nomo, an African concept for Word, and you say, Goodness the Rastas know this…

And when you get that, know you get humility, because look who you are learning from. The system says they have nothing, they are illiterates, the dark people of Jamaica… but with the black brothers you learn humility because they are teaching you.3

The influence of these groundings was later reflected in Rodney’s scholarship, which tackled the histories of working class people in Africa and the Caribbean.4 His work took on an overtly Marxist character, seeking to arm anti-capitalist forces with a critical awareness of the past. Like many other Marxist scholars of his time, Rodney was writing “history from below” — that is, a history of the lower classes. But for him this slogan did not just mean writing about oppressed people and their struggles. It also meant listening and learning — viewing people not as objects for dissection and analysis, but as peers and comrades. 

Fig 1: Police chase UCWI students protesting the expulsion of Walter Rodney along Mona Road in St. Andrew.5

Rodney’s willingness to learn from the urban poor differentiated him from other intellectuals, who have not typically incorporated non-scholarly perspectives in their work. This general exclusion implies that the consciousness of the masses is either limited in scope or lacking in knowledge and understanding. Even among Marxists, who are primarily concerned with the plight of working people, there remains the suspicion that the people’s “false consciousness” is responsible for perpetuating the very systems of exploitation that oppress them. György Lukács, a foundational figure in western Marxism, exemplifies this school of thought when he says that any successful revolution must have a “true” consciousness — that is, a comprehension of capitalism and class conflict. In contrast, popular movements with a “false” consciousness, which lack any such understanding, are “doomed” to remain aimless, passive, and subordinate.6 For Lukács, ideology is the final determining factor in the success of radical politics:

The fate of the revolution…  will depend on the ideological maturity of the proletariat, i.e., on its class consciousness.7

In the end, Lukács says, only workers with a “true” consciousness will succeed — and if they have failed to bring about progress, it is only because they lacked the “ideological maturity” required to cut through bourgeois illusions and see the “totality” of the capitalist system. This mindset, which is hardly unique to Marxists, blames the poor for their own oppression and rejects the possibility that people’s ideologies might already have the maturity necessary for positive change. How might things be different if they saw revolutionary potential in the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of working people, rather than ideological failings and inadequacies, mere problems to be overcome?

It is telling that Lukács uses the word “maturity” to specifically refer to an understanding of capitalism and class conflict. Naturally, then, the most “mature” members of society are the radical intellectuals, whose elite education gives them an all-encompassing view of the world that the “masses” just don’t have access to. In comparison, the people remain unfit for revolution; having a merely “false” consciousness, they are not ready to rule themselves.8 The question then arises: when will they be ready? Will they ever be ready? Or are they locked in a perpetual state of “not-quite,” while the intellectual waits one step ahead, having swallowed the keys to the future?

Of course, intellectuals don’t hold the keys to anything but their own offices (and sadly, only the lucky ones). But the point is that the social sciences often don’t take oppressed peoples — their struggles or their ideologies — seriously enough. Implicit in history and other fields is the assumption that people don’t really understand their past or the worlds they inhabit. The “totality,” which the average person cannot see, is often considered more important than more local or limited lived experiences. Based on these assumptions, scholars often unwittingly present themselves as specialized purveyors of a truer consciousness, as educators of those less enlightened than themselves. Rodney didn’t see things this way:

…[during our groundings] we spoke about a lot of things and it was just the talking that was important, the meeting of black people. I was trying to contribute something. I was trying to contribute my experience in travelling, in reading, my analysis…9 

Rodney saw himself as another participant in the genuinely transformative gatherings that were taking place in Jamaica, where people were already developing a radical consciousness of their own. Most important was the act of coming together, through which people could come to understand their place in the world and forge a path forward. For Rodney, the knowledge of the intellectual has value only when it is grounded in this way, in the knowledge of common people. Thus when he declared that “the black intellectual, the black academic must attach himself to the activity of the black masses”, he was advocating a model of activism and knowledge that is fundamentally non-hierarchical and democratic.10  When it came to the politics of revolution, Rodney realized,

You do not have to teach them anything. You just have to say it [i.e. Black Power] and they add something to what you are saying.11 

Rodney envisioned the radical intellectual in an auxiliary role, contributing to the wider conversation and lending their support to ongoing revolutionary struggle. At the same time, however, he never relinquished his faith in the objectivity of historical investigation or its exclusive ability to “formulate the strategy and tactics of African emancipation and development.”12 Indeed, Rodney was a social scientist through and through, and he placed a great deal of importance on radical scholarship. Like other Marxists, he also identified capitalism as the primary agent in the oppression of working people on a global scale. But even though he based socialist thought on the “scientific” analysis of human society, Rodney realized that existing approaches were rife with problems and prejudices. In a 1974 interview, he noted,

Something towards which one strives — to be scientific in  looking at our society — is fraught with many dangers, limitations and perils.13

Most of all, Rodney realized that the prevailing frameworks of social thought had simply been imported from European bourgeois traditions and failed to account for the uniqueness of the African or Caribbean context. Thus, although he would remain firmly within the Marxist tradition, Rodney’s closeness to the people led him to revise the ways in which he saw the world. Reflecting on his bourgeois education in 1974, he recalled,

I saw the world in the way capitalists intended that I should see the world. Or at any rate my attempt to see the world for myself and on behalf of other peoples was severely restricted by the frames of reference which I had required–precisely in the educational ladder and moving towards a more skilled position. So that struggle to disentangle this commitment on my part from the ideological framework with which I started, and to try to develop an alternate vision of the world which was more in tune with… that emotional or gut commitment to our own people.14 

Rodney’s “gut commitment” to the people prevented him from carelessly embracing the established social sciences, which had centered on the European experience but nonetheless claimed to be universal in scope and application. Instead, Rodney put capitalist forces in the context of the experiences of black people, elaborating on how their unique social and cultural circumstances interacted with the profit motives and administrative strategies of Europeans. He also refuted the Western tradition of viewing the non-West simply as less “developed” or “primitive” versions of Europe. When Europeans “underdeveloped” Africa, Rodney argues, they purposefully undid its finest achievements, creating new structural obstacles specific to each region and setting black people up for ever greater oppression. Just as Fanon once said, it is therefore not a matter of “catching up” to Europe — a goal made impossible by the fundamental inequities of capitalism.15 One must find another way forward.  

Fig 2: From the cover of A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905 (published 1981). Rodney dedicated the book to his mother and the working people of Guyana.

Like other postcolonial thinkers, Rodney discredited racist stereotypes of black people and valorized their cultural history — but he also went a step further than that. By incorporating lessons from black history into the Marxist understanding of the world, he hoped to negate the eurocentrism of radical political thought. In a lecture on reclaiming African history by celebrating the achievements of its great civilizations, he said, 

What is most fundamental is an attempt to evaluate the African contribution to the solution of the problems posed by man’s existence in society.16 

For Rodney, the “problems posed by man’s existence in society” are exactly what socialism promises to address. He was not just extolling Mother Africa; he was also indicating that the study of African history can contribute to the understanding of human society more broadly. In order for that to be possible, the historian would have to pay close attention to working people and their forgotten struggles. The scientific approach of socialism is therefore bound to the experiences of the oppressed, both in thought and practice.  


One must see as the goal of our international activity… to develop a perspective that is anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and that speaks to the exploitation and oppression of all people.

Walter Rodney17

Why have independence movements in the modern world failed to bring about freer, more equitable, and more humane societies? More pressingly, what is to be done regarding the exploitative and inhumane systems of capitalism today? These are important questions that Walter Rodney and countless others have devoted their lives to answering. I mean this very literally; in 1980, Rodney tragically gave his life to the cause of black liberation. At the young age of 38, he was assassinated by car-bomb. It is generally agreed that the President of Guyana, Forbes Burnham, was responsible for the murder, but unsurprisingly, he was not held accountable. It hardly needs to be said that Rodney’s death was a grave loss for the working people of the Caribbean and all those who stand alongside them. 

In my eyes, Rodney stands out as a model for what the radical intellectual can be. His record as a scholar and activist proved that it is more than possible to reach people who “wish to explore the nature of their exploitation,” without assuming a position of authority or suggesting that one knowledge is greater or more “total” than another.18 After all, hierarchies of knowledge have always been critical elements of the imperialist program — and so it is vital to embrace a model of education and truth-seeking that is more open to more voices. No, it is not as simple as educating (read: civilizing) the masses about the “totality” of the capitalist system that oppresses them. Indeed, the facts do illustrate that change is needed. But as Rodney put it, the only solution is a “radical break with the international capitalist system.”19 What could be more radical than the recognition that everyone — past, present, and future — has something to offer in pursuit of that goal?  


Notes

1 For more on Rodney’s time in and expulsion from Jamaica, see Rupert Lewis, “WALTER RODNEY: 1968 REVISITED,” Social and Economic Studies 43, no. 3 (1994): 7–56.
2 Anthony Bogues, Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals (Taylor & Francis, 2015), 129.. 
3 Walter Rodney, Groundings with My Brothers (London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1983), 66-67.
4 See Rodney’s two historical monographs, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1972) and A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, (Heinemann Educational Books, 1981).
5 Image courtesy of the Gleaner Company Ltd.,“Rodney Riots,” DiG Jamaica, July 10, 2013, http://digjamaica.com/m/blog/rodney-riots-wordlesswednesday/.
6 György Lukács, “History and Class Conciousness,” in An Anthology of Western Marxism, ed. Roger S. Gottlieb (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 61.
7 Ibid., 73. 
8 The call for the leadership of a revolutionary vanguard often, but certainly not always, assumes this lack of readiness. 
9 Rodney, Groundings, 64.
10 Ibid., 63.
11 Ibid.
12 Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, vii.
13 WALTER RODNEY, “THE BLACK SCHOLAR INTERVIEWS: WALTER RODNEY,” The Black Scholar 6, no. 3 (1974): 47.
14 Ibid., 46-47.
15 Frantz Fanon et al., The Wretched of the Earth (Grove Atlantic, 2007),238.
16 Rodney, Groundings, 56.
17 Rodney, “The Black Scholar Interviews,” 40-41.
18 Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, viii.
19 Ibid., vii.

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