Walter Rodney
by Eusi Kwayana Page 1 of  4


See Rodney the Rebel: a Walter Rodney Gallery




This is a political article first and foremost and should not be expected to provide biographical details where these have no relevance to, the main argument. It is concerned with trying to explain, how Walter Rodney's return to Guyana affected the pack of things at home, affected the working people's movement for freedom and the patriotic movement for freedom, and led to the modification of the state and its organs. Apart from his interest in the African revolution and his usefulness to it, and the historical work he was conducting on that scene, one thing which kept Rodney out of Guyana for a few extra years was the racial cleavage which had taken place among the working people. A political scene which had as a main tendency political racial polarisation would have been a very inhospitable one for him to return to. When at last he applied to the University of Guyana for the headship of the History Department to teach one of his favourite subjects, Comparative Revolutions; many of his partisans and admirers in many countries of the West asked whether it was safe for him to work here. The most pointed enquiry came from Monica Jardine in a direct question, "Can he work here? Can he survive?"  My answer was equally direct. It was a straight yes, but my, answer was to a narrow political question: whether the cleavages in race relations were sufficiently breached to permit him to achieve concrete results. The question may have had other political dimensions and concerns which were not visible to me at the time. The answer to the question was correct so far as the question was testing a political potential. Seen as a test of physical survival, the answer was hopelessly wrong and shortsighted. One can say that the class forces in Guyana developed in such a way that political responses of the people can be predicted. We can say that the predicted response is due to the consciousness of the working people and marginally to that of other social groups which play and have always played a key role in the forward movement in our countries. It is not certain that class forces alone can account for the particular response. There has always been something in the Guyanese understanding of life that responds to outstanding scholars. This is true of most formative economies. There is particularly an even stronger something that responds to the victim of oppression. When outstanding scholarship and victim are both combined in the same person, the size and weight of the response rise accordingly. This was the case with Walter Rodney. 


Walter Rodney was concerned, from the time of his awakening, with the destiny of the poor. His activity off the campus at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica showed this. He was concerned with the deprivation of the oppressed classes inside any given country and also with the oppression of the subject peoples of the earth by oppressing nations. In relation to the fate of the oppressed classes in a given country, he believed that they must discover themselves in order to understand their historic mission in their own oppression. From the outset, Rodney knew that the emancipation of the oppressed could be brought about only by the oppressed themselves. Thus it was useful for those who had knowledge, or were in the course of getting knowledge, which the very institutions of oppression had kept from them to point their vision in the direction of that knowledge and open up their appetite for self-discovery. There is nothing in this that can be in conflict with Marx, and if it is, then it only shows that Marxism has a potential for growth and is not a closed Bible as some regard it. Looking at the Indian scene in 1853 Marx also saw that the emancipation in his mind had settled down in a state of non-motion. Marx's views on the future results of British rule in India drew this comment: "Karl Marx, it is true, wrote like a modern liberal when dealing with the impact of England on Indian civilisation. England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan was actuated by the vilest interests and was stupid in the manner of enforcing` them". And he quoted Goethe, "Should this torture then torment us since it brings us greater pleasure?" ("Scars of Bondage" by T and E Kwayana)

 Everyone knows the story of the Jamaica drama. The restless, downtrodden Jamaicans who were influenced by the transmission of Rodney's message, the good news of their human worth and the new class consciousness which was reinforcing proletarian, or working class self-consciousness could not be tolerated by the Caribbean mock bourgeoisie any more than God could tolerate rebellion in Heaven. The ideas popularised by Rodney had become enough of a force in Jamaica to lead the Jamaican government to apply a special technique in suppressing, what they saw as the mischief. They waited until he had left the country to attend a Black Writers' Conference in Canada and then banned him from re-entry. The spirit of the episode and its deep significance for Jamaican society are captured in the novel Joey Tyson by Andrew Salkey. For the more structural results of Rodney's activity in Jamaica, one must examine the whole liberation movement dating from that time as it has expressed itself in every part of the Caribbean to the present day. When Rodney returned to the Caribbean for he returned to the Caribbean rather than to Guyana only the organisations which had been formed or had been radicalised in the wake of the Jamaican struggles had all become important in their own locations. With the exception of NJAC, all of them had moved to Marxism as a tool of national liberation. NJAC did not accept the testimony of Marx, especially since many of its propositions had long become part of the general culture of every revolution and of much of the spirit of scientific enquiry. AC124 accepted Marx but had never accepted the need for a single orthodoxy. DLM had gone through the fire of structural analysis and was seeking to base itself in the needs and aspirations of the Dominican poor. The various campuses had founded their forums and were gearing themselves to be of service to the working people's rebellion against the establishments. In St Vincent, St Lucia, Guyana, Grenada, Belize, Suriname: a whole cluster of organisations was born with the aim of breaking with the old society inspired by imperialist Europe and preparing the people's intervention on the stage of history. The most dramatic development was the February Revolt of the masses in Trinidad & Tobago. Guyana was one country in which the element of orthodox doctrine was never absent from political disputation. The PPP emerged as the spokesman of orthodoxy and the United Force with' its Western orthodoxy claimed its origin in the need to depose the PPP and save the country from communism. The PNC had two approaches: In the drawing rooms it was anti-communist as it was at the level of mass mobilisation. It took a full part in the anti-Cuban hysteria and the anti-Korean, anti-Soviet excitement. For the record, however, in formal public presentations, it was "non-communist rather than anti-communist" and in left circles opposed only the adventurism in the PPP. US White House aides who interviewed the PNC Leader found him "firmly anti-communist" and on that basis and on the condition that he work for multiracialism, decided to use their diplomatic clout to force Britain to change the voting system. The USí interest in multiracialism was not out of concern for Guyanese. It was put as a condition to ensure that their candidate leader and his party would have a base for continued re-election inspite of the relatively small Afro-Guyanese vote. Perhaps it is in obedience to this condition that the PNC has created by fraud, a multiracial electoral constituency without multiracial support, and at present, with little voluntary support at all. NJAC, one of the offspring of the Rodney renaissance, has run into much criticism because of the long-term emphasis they have laid on the cultural aspects of imperialism, not, as some unfairly claim, to the neglect of the economic and political aspects. NJAC became an authority on the cultural aspects of imperialism in the post-independence Caribbean societies, and since energies cannot be spent in two directions at the same time, stagnated as a social political force appealing not only to the converted, but to the masses at large and the patriotic elements a very essential area for a revolutionary organisation to include in its work. This over-emphasis on the wreckage of African traditions on the soul of the Caribbean man and the Asian/Indian psyche helped to present NJAC as that kind of organisation, with only a secondary interest in the battle for economic survival and advance on the Western model. Apart from cultural imperialism, there is, and few serious scientific minds will contest this, another evil into which third world revolutionaries, especially in the Caribbean, are prone to fall. It is the upside- down of cultural imperialism. This evil which has harmed our institutions, our means of communication, our strengths and our effectiveness in many places, is the importation by us of orthodoxy, style, phrase and even mood from this or that revolutionary base in another part of the world. This is one of the ailments against which Walter Rodney's ideological make up was almost completely immune. His political students, including my wife, did not leave his courses spouting slogans and quotations from the great masters, but with some competence in the art of examining the social relations and trying to discover the social motion, or at least with a sense of the need to do this as an important political task. His students left his courses interested in discovering the story of the oppressed classes, and not of these only, and learning of their efforts and limited successes in the destiny of self-emancipation, for which, Rodney taught, there was no substitute. 


The regime in Guyana has misled, or sought to mislead, foreign political leaders about Walter Rodney's direction and intentions. The Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago was assured by the Guyana government that Rodney was killed by the CIA, whereas another was informed that Rodney was an agent of the CIA, and thus had not wanted to work in the University of Guyana. Other juicy bits of gossip were scattered in various directions, as thought 'suitable to the hearers. For these reasons we shall try to re capture the time of Walter Rodney's re-entry to his homeland, before going on to select the important ways in which he helped to accelerate positive tendencies which had begun to appear and the pace of popular rebellion. The Academic Board of the University of Guyana had already taken its decision to appoint Walter Rodney to the headship of the History department, when a certain Minister, Mr Hamilton Green, returned to Guyana from a visit to Tanzania and began to be quoted as saying that he had learned there that Rodney had been a "security risk" and had been thrown out of Tanzania. Apparently working on these pretences, Mr Hamilton Green moved to have Rodney's appointment rescinded. The appointment was rescinded on the orders of the rulers through the University Council, dominated by a large PNC team headed by Green and including elements of the security forces. This confirmed Rodney's exclusion from the university of his own native land. It was the second time that the PNC had refused Rodney's services at the University. The Mirror of October 24, 1968 carried the headline "UG Governors Say No to Rodney". The rejection of his application was moved by Mr T Anson Sancho and seconded by Winston Verbeke of the Guyana Mine Workers Union. Perhaps it was so soon after his expulsion from Jamaica by Burnham's ally, Shearer, that no one thought the incident worthy of comment. I, for one, would not recall it without the aid of the paper cited. The second rejection was about August 1974. As soon as the Council's decision became known, there was a rallying of forces in defence of Rodney's right to teach at the University of Guyana and in defence of the right of Guyanese students to benefit from his teaching. He was already well known as a Marxist historian, a soldier of the African revolution and a partisan of a multiracial working people's movement, in his own phrase, non-racial working people's movement, and as an original thinker. ASCRIA took the lead in proposing that a number of groups and individuals cooperate in the protest against this attack on the action. It took particular pains to invite among others the PPP and it did this not in order to get PPP supporters involved in the protests, but out of respect for Rodney's own position which had seen the PPP as a progressive organisation. Mr Miles Fitzpatrick and Mr Rickey Singh, both supported the protests and mobilised among other sectors of the population in support of them. These protests caused the PNC to panic and caused its thug forces to resume the role they had played during the elections campaign of 1973 when they habitually broke up opposition meetings and destroyed, in at least one case, public address equipment. The first meeting at Durban and Louisa Row in Georgetown brought at least three thousand people into the streets much to the surprise of the purblind PNC. Its thugs were unprepared for this public response and had to confine themselves to heckling with racist jibes at the fact that Cheddi Jagan and I appeared on the same platform after about 21 years with the exception of a single protest meeting in 1968 protesting the banning of C Y Thomas from Jamaica. The organisations involved were the People's Progressive Party (PPP), the People's Democratic Movement (PDM), the Indian Political & Revolutionary Associates (IPRA), Ratoon, ASCRIA and Movement Against Oppression (MAO). The first public meeting was described by some observers as "like 1953" and in any case dwarfed by a long way the many election rallies of the 1973 campaign. It was "like 1953" in size and multiracial composition. Thus, before he had shifted residence back to Guyana, before he had spoken a single word in his home country, Walter Rodney was a political issue and a threat in the eyes of the regime. He was also a hero among the people as he had been ever since his expulsion from Jamaica for daring to fan the flames of the rebirth of the black and oppressed. For it must be remembered that even when he had merely advanced as far as the black renaissance  black power  Rodney defined it to include the masses of oppressed in the West Indies and in particular the (Asian) Indians. In Groundings with My Brothers he writes, anticipating the debate, "Today some Indians (like some Africans) have joined the white power structure in terms of economic activity and culture; but the underlying reality is that poverty resides among Africans and Indians in the West Indies and that power. is denied them. Black power in the West Indies therefore, refers primarily to people who are recognisably African or Indian". (page 28) He added prophetically, "Black power is not racially intolerant. It is the hope of the black, man that,he should have power over his own destinies. This is not incompatible with a multiracial, society where each individual counts equally. Because the moment that power is equitably distributed among the several ethnic groups then the very relevance of making the.distinction between groups will be lost". We say "prophetically" because these are the very issues that' are today vexing many parts, not only of the Third World, but those parts of Europe where the national, or ethnic, or religious problem ‑ calling it as it is called here and there has come to the front. 


When Walter Rodney returned to about 1975, he had already made the natural, or necessary, leap through black power to the science of the revolutionary working people, Marxism. This at first disappointed many who thought he would stop at lending dignity to the Afro‑Guyanese presence. Many of the fanatic wing of the PNC were highly offended when in August 1974 ASCRIA invited the PPP among other organisations to a joint public campaign against the exclusion of Walter Rodney from the University. Some heckled while, in my speech that night, I read from Groundings with My Brothers the passages quoted above. Rodney, therefore, returned with an abundance of.goodwill for him in his country. The various sections though, had various expectations of him. The revolutionary working people wanted him to take, and expected that he would take, their side in .the political struggle. The still comfortable middle class merely, wanted him accepted as an educator at the University of Guyana so that he could teach their children. Some even wanted him installed there at the head of the History department in the hope that it would keep him out of the political struggle. His support extended across racial distinctions. Those who fear struggle are not confined to any one ethnic classification. There are today aspirants to the role of Walter Rodney. They have carefully documented his actions on his return and are hoping to act similarly, behave similarly, put on a similar outer look and win the popularity he won later, within a few short years. Unlike him, they come, "nest" and go. First, these aspirants should know that the Guyanese people can distinguish "fowl egg from fowl dung". Secondly, they should learn that Walter Rodney rose to a prominent place in the hearts of the Guyanese public, not simply on account of who he was. In other words, the historical moment, provided the slow preparatory work has been done, will reveal the actors capable of the roles. If the work has not been done (and the work involves mother, teacher and rebels) the moment will pass, bubble and excite and burst and leave to the future a one-sided account,' full of regrets, but of no lasting blessings. Finally, they should remember that when history repeats itself in this narrow, way, the second performance is more like farce than history. Methodical by nature, Walter Rodney on his return began systematically to inform himself about where the country had reached, how organisations, classes and individuals stood in respect of one another. He did not join the WPA until he had investigated everything fully. He told the only press conference he had ever addressed as an individual in response to a question, "I aspire to be a marxist leninist". From the first public lecture organised for him soon after he joined the Working People's Alliance, he launched into the theme of the self-emancipation of the working class and tried to give it a sense of its, own being and potential power. To illustrate the role of propaganda, current and historical, he told a tale, unknown till then in Guyana, of lions who went to view an art exhibition and were amazed at the claims on canvas made by hunters and their glorifiers: A lion shook his head with resignation and was heard muttering, "If only lions could paint!" One has to assume that it was in order to help lions to learn to paint that he set out with energy to hold classes in political economy with groups of workers and other interested persons. In these classes, it was not his concern to fit events and developments artificially into a certain mould in historical 'sequence which was not native. He dealt with things as they developed in history and applied the method of scientific materialism to those phenomena. To a great extent his student were able to escape the culture lag, or the historical jet lag, which leaves many such enquirers staggering theoretically, concerned that things are not showing themselves or working out as they did in such a place and such a ‑time and wondering whether something is not seriously wrong with history itself or wondering whether Guyana had not missed the boat. His work among the bauxite workers was more concentrated and more intensive. Two things made it so. They had only three main locations or communities - Mackenzie, Kwakwani, Everton with Ituni as a very small township Secondly, their best elements had organised themselves into the Organisation of the Working People (OWP) sometime before. This organisation was able to organise classes running many weeks with both C Y Thomas for. labour economics and Walter Rodney for classes in political economy (on the spot) and revolution, with others of us holding a class or two as reliefs or on special themes. His work among the sugar workers was less intensive and less thorough. The WPA went to the sugar estates in those days mainly by invitation. For the sake of good understanding and mutual trust between us and the PPP we avoided establishing bases in the sugar estates. Not only the PNC, but the PPP also had and misgivings about, the long-term effect of WPA agitation ' and organisation in the sugar belt ‑ and in the case of the PNC,≠ the bauxite belt. Both, from their separate perspectives, saw it as a challenge to established‑leadership. At this point, Rodney and the WPA also had no wish to establish themselves as rivals to the PPP. The WPA still saw itself purely as an agency for the revolutionising of the political culture and for the reversal of political polarisation. The PPP then being the major force opposed to the regime, the WPA very consciously directed its blows outside of the areas of traditional PPP support, and visited those areas only at the invitation of interested persons. It was also our position at the time that while the party would not present itself as an alternative to the PPP, it would also uphold the freedom of choice of all Guyanese. To refuse to organise sugar workers on their invitation would be to deny them freedom to choose. Some political forces have taken the credit for the antipolarisation gains of the Guyanese working people. Doubtless, all political forces in the opposition contributed. An important part of this anti-polarisation process was the fact that the WPA supported every struggle of the sugar workers for improvement in their wages, living conditions and industrial relations. This support was declared not only within the sugar belt itself in the face of the sugar workers, but in the non-sugar areas which had formerly been open only to ruling party propaganda which always had a very distasteful, non-industrial quality. In these efforts Walter Rodney was not idle. They were occasions for preaching the.gospel of the class of earners as well as for advancing the cause of multiracial, or what he called, non-racial politics. The most dramatic of these developments was the sugar strike in 1977 soon after the PPP had proposed the National Patriotic Front which aimed mainly at the time at a political solution in which the PPP, or the PNC, whichever won a fair and free election, would form the government and the other would be unopposed by its counterpart for the Presidency. It also offered scope for the inclusion of other forces in a minor role. GAWU's response to the claim of the sugar workers for their, arrears bonus payment, which by then had run into at least tens of millions, and their declaration of a strike to enforce the demand gave the PNC the occasion it wanted to deal the growing interracial solidarity and empathy a telling blow. The strike surprised both the industrial allies of GAWU (NAACIE and UGSA, now UGWU) and another pro-worker union, the CCWU. They had not been consulted, nor alerted; nor was the WPA, of course. The immediate response of the PNC was to take command of the airwaves and agitate against the PPP on an openly racist basis, telling the public that the PPP wanted "all the money in the treasury" for the sugar workers and asking what would be left for the rest of the nation. The whole issue was played in terms of alleged subjective "greed" and the strike was declared to be political. It was said that the collective labour agreement procedures had not been followed and that the strike had been used as a' first resort. The radio propaganda, totally one-sided, included personal abuse of those who defended GAWU, including this writer who was reminded of his previous antagonism with Dr Jagan and his call for what the propaganda described as "partition". Not for the last time, the WPA had to set aside its own agenda and take to the streets. Our first handbill .on the question avoided the biased frenzy of the regime and. pointed out that there was an industrial dispute between the sugar workers' union and their employers, GUYSUCO. The handbill pointed out that the sugar levy had been imposed on the industry to cream off the higher profits resulting from the record world market 1974 prices for sugar, and had been creamed off without any settlement of the workers' outstanding claims for the customary bonus payments. The regime did not stop at propaganda. It recruited four thousand scabs to take the places of the sugar workers on strike. The bulk of these, in some areas at least, were Afro‑Guyanese out of work. They were trucked to the plantations daily. They included youth hardly of working age and large numbers of unemployed women. The army and other military and semi-military units, the House of Israel and government workers were directed to the canefields. The anti-strike campaign and propaganda followed the well known principle of the rulers "no holds barred". WPA's support campaign for the sugar workers ran up against such widely distributed economic offerings as those named. Nor should it be supposed that only Afro-Guyanese scabs were recruited. The ruling party's counter-moves showed clearly the limitations of GAWU's organisation on its home ground. Scabs were recruited from right within GAWU communities. In many cases striking workers remained at home and scabs from the same home, youth not previously employed, offered themselves for work to keep the home pot boiling. The WPA was not allowed to hold public meetings to oppose the anti‑worker propaganda more effectively. Some 14 public meetings of GAWU and the WPA and others were banned outright for the duration of the 135‑days strike without a proclamation or state of emergency. Our work in the ranks of the people off the sugar estates was energetic and may have prevented serious ethnic conflict. In little time the masses throughout the country accepted the strike as an industrial dispute and the sugar workers won wide moral support. The events of 1977 provided all the evidence necessary to prove to the country a strong PNC characteristic, especially the responses of its leadership: it is the habit of overreaction. This is one of the factors somewhat limiting the normal forms of political struggle and political action in Guyana. Every strike, even every protest, becomes "political" and is surely "aimed at overthrowing the government". The same accusation was made recently against the Guyana Council of Churches for daring to meet to discuss a paper drafted by an official on the Guyana crisis. The biblical reference to the, a putting down of the mighty from their thrones drew a massive response from the PNC including the disruption of the GCC's Annual General Meeting and the accusation that the church was planning violent overthrow of the regime. In the previous year (1976), Rodney had led the support work for a strike in the bauxite industry caused by a rebellion against the fact that a union executive, rigged into office by the regime, had signed a labour agreement on behalf of the workers. On that occasion, the bauxite workers staged a picket saying, "Six percent can't wuk". Forty‑two militants were arrested and locked up in the police station ‑ to be. attacked later by the bursting of tear‑smoke bombs in their cell. The incident had drawn dozens of women‑ into the streets. It essentially marked the fall of the PNC in the Mackenzie and Wismar areas, a course to be followed by Kwakwani and Everton (Berbice) in a matter of two years. Rodney was shortly after invited to speak at the Oilfield Workers Trade Union in Trinidad & Tobago and he lost no time in. mobilising support for the victims. The OWP marked the occasion by the publication of the booklet PNC Versus the Bauxite Workers. It must be emphasised strongly that the support of what would, but for the WPA, have been "Indian" causes to the mass of persons off the sugar estates, was a powerful factor in the anti‑polarisation movement in which the PNC state was a major reactionary force. GAWU, on at least two occasions, had‑declared one‑day strikes in support of the bauxite workers, but the political significance of these can be overdrawn. True, they were actions at the crucial class level and were in the form of 12 solidarity in real terms. But there was no mobilisation around the issues in either the rural or the urban or the bauxite communities and thus the main impact was diffused. I should like to stress however, that these were also measures of the antipolarisation quality and that they were very consciously taken. Solidarity for sugar workers' struggle did not in those days come from the bauxite unions, but from the militants of the OWP who collected money and wrote voice of the Worker in support. They did not control the union

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