Dr. Walter Rodney: Revolutionary intellectual, socialist, Pan-Africanist and historian

 

Walter Rodney

“In evaluating Walter Rodney one characteristic stands out. He was a scholar who recognised no distinction between academic concerns and service to society, between science and social commitment. He was concerned about people as well as archives, about the workplace as well as the classroom. He found time to be both a historian and a sensitive social reformer. -International Scientific Committee, UNESCO General History of Africa

Dr. Walter Rodney was a revolutionary intellectual, socialist, Pan-Africanist and organizer who made a significant contribution to the Caribbean Radical Tradition that seeks to create just, liberated and egalitarian societies in the Caribbean region. October 2016 marks the 48th anniversaries of the expulsion of Rodney from Jamaica and the subsequent Rodney Rebellion that took place as a reaction to his banning and the general exploitation of the African-Jamaican masses by the neocolonial regime.

This commemorative moment is as good a time as any to introduce individuals to Walter Rodney and to hopefully inspire people to explore the relevance of his ideas and praxis to revolution-making in the Caribbean and elsewhere. We are going to highlight some significant periods in Rodney’s life in order to uncover the politics of this revolutionary. Rodney was not an arm-chair revolutionary who sequestered himself on the academic plantation theorizing on what must be done to transform society. He waded into the messy, complicated and threatening world of practice to facilitate resistance to the violent forces of oppression.

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Contrary to the robust assertion of one of Rodney’s professors during his undergraduate years that “There is no such thing [as a revolutionary intellectual]. One can be an intellectual or one can be a revolutionary. You can’t combine the two….” Rodney has shown the world through his action that the revolutionary intellectual option is a possibility for academics and students who would like to become active agents of social transformation.

That ideologically misguided academic who sought to misinform Rodney would have likely dismissed Marx’s assertion that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” The oppressed do not have the luxury of separating radical or revolutionary thought from the requisite transformative practices that are needed to create the just and emancipated society.

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There is an evident absence of a critical mass of students and academics who are engaged in radical social movement organizations. Rodney used the platform of the university to engage in the production and dissemination of oppositional ideas and scholarship. He entered the wider society to educate and mobilize the working-class for self-organization. His legacy of principled commitment and activism is something with which activists or organizers should become fully aware. Neoliberal capitalism has established a seemingly unchallenged ideological and political dominance in the current period. It has left many people believing that there is no viable alternative to capitalism. Rodney would have rejected this defeatist tendency that has induced many progressives to abandon their radical politics or commitment to socialism and accept liberal capitalist democracy as the only political game in town. Some former radicals have gone over to social democracy, which is essentially capitalism with a human face.

Teaching, researching and acting in the world as a revolutionary intellectual

Rodney went to work at UWI, Mona, in January 1968 as a lecturer of African history in the Department of History. His political and public work among Rastas, urban youth and even radicalized members of the petite bourgeoisie earned him the attention of Jamaica’s secret police and the reactionary regime of Prime Minister Hugh Shearer of the Jamaica Labour Party.[17] The urban poor, Rastafari, the progressive intelligentsia could be receptive to what Rodney was offering and the regime knew that it had nothing of substance to serve as an inoculant against the message of empowerment, dignity and justice.

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Rodney identified the African labouring classes and the oppressed peasants who are the overwhelming majority in Jamaica as the only force that “can bear the brunt of revolutionary fighting” for the realization of the socialist society, which was unlike the situation in revolutionary Cuba in which Africans were not the majority. This attempt at conscientizing and politicizing Jamaica’s oppressed in the context of the Cold War, the proverbial “backyard” of American imperialism and the capital of the neocolonial regime could have only led to political repression. Rodney appealed to his petite bourgeois or middle-class colleagues and the UWI students in his speech Black Power – Its Relevance to the West Indies to think about which side they would take in the masses’ struggle against capitalism and racism: “Trotsky once wrote that Revolution is the carnival of the masses. When we have that carnival in the West Indies, are people like us at the university going to join the bacchanal?”

The Jamaica Labour Party had an uneasy relationship and even hostile relationship with the academics at the University of the West Indies because they were not acting as mouthpieces and sanctifiers of the government’s policies and programmes. Rodney encouraged and inspired students and faculty members to join the struggle for justice and emancipation. This action was a source of apprehension and fear within the ranks of the government and its imperial patrons. The middle-class elements were not supposed to put their knowledge and skills at the disposal of the working-class’s struggle for justice, dignity and equity.

Rodney’s work among the Rastafari community was seen as a potential source of subversion. Horace Campbell highlights the thrust of Rodney’s political intervention among the Rastas:

“In Jamaica, Rodney perceived the Rastafari community as a major force in the efforts towards freeing and mobilizing black minds; and he offered his knowledge and experience to the Rastas and all sections of the black population who wanted to break with the myths of white imperialism. The history lessons on Africa which Rodney took to all sections of the community brought uneasiness and fear to a pretentious leadership which never considered itself black, for Rodney stated simply that “being black was a powerful fact of the society.”

The political directorate had no tolerance for dissent, political dissidents and perceived threats to its rule. It had already used the coercive power of the state to attack and destroy working-class squatter communities in West Kingston, which also had a strong Rastafari presence. The neocolonial state had no reservation about using the power of the law to discipline and neutralize the impact of Rodney’s political education and mobilization. Rodney had the potential to unify the different political groupings with Jamaica’s Black Power Movement and even Jamaica’s secret police or Special Branch feared this real possibility.

The government finally made its move against Rodney. On Rodney’s return from the Congress of Black Writers in Montreal on 15 October 1968, he was declared persona non grata and prevented from leaving the plane. On 16 October 1968, the Student Guild organized a protest march against Rodney’s expulsion from Jamaica. However, the ranks of the students were increased by residents from working-class communities in downtown Kingston and they initiated the Rodney Rebellion (aka the Rodney Riots or Rodney Affair).

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The masses used the protest to communicate their solidarity with Rodney and their displeasure with the failure of (in)dependent Jamaica to deliver material benefits to them. Although this uprising of the unemployed youth, workers and the working poor was spontaneous in nature, it represented the first time since the labour rebellions of 1938 that the African-Jamaican masses had returned to the stage of history in this massive and militant way.

Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an organizer, writer and lecturer at the University of the West Indies.

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