Rodney - ideas and struggle

New book on slain West Indian icon

By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
March 21, 1999

HAD HE lived, Dr Walter Rodney would have marked his 57th birth anniversary on March 23. But the renowned West Indian intellectual, this celebrated historian of the Third World became the victim of Guyana's best known case of political assassination when he was killed in a bomb blast in Georgetown on the night of June 13, 1980, amid his courageous defiance of what came to be known as "the Burnham dictatorship".

Now, in this 20th year of his death, as Guyana continues to face serious social and political challenges in a new dispensation of restored electoral democracy - a cause so unselfishly fought for by Rodney - a book is being launched across the region about his political ideas and struggles.

`Walter Rodney's Intellectual and Political Thought', a most refreshing work by the Jamaica-born West Indian political scientist and author, Professor Rupert Lewis of the Department of Government of the University of the West Indies, is offered as the author's absorbing examination of the intellectual and political biography of "one of the leading Black intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s".

At that traumatic period in Guyana's turbulent political history when a remote control bomb snuffed out his life at 38, Rodney stood as an outstanding symbol for bridging the racial divide between Guyana's dominant ethnic communities -Indian and African.

In a country where the now late Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham had dominated the national politics throughout Rodney's life, Lewis - also author of `Marcus Garvey: Anti-colonial Champion' - reports that the only possible breach in the political space dominated by those two leaders, was for a few months in 1979-1980 when Rodney and his fledgling Working People's Alliance (WPA) rose to political prominence.

The WPA was itself to become in the post-Rodney phase, a victim at successive elections of the racial and political cleavages that have survived his assassination while the primary suspect in his killing, a soldier of the Guyana Defence Force, continues to live in exile in French Guiana and the present PPP/Civic government continues to negotiate with France for the extradition of ex-sergeant Gregory Smith.

A number of books, monographs, pamphlets and essays have been published about Rodney and his contribution to political thought and his life with the intellectual and the ordinary, the poor and oppressed.

But Lewis' effort, as published by The Press University of the West Indies and Wayne State University Press, may very well prove to be one of the finest, if not the best examination, to date, of the contributions of the young Guyanese historian who had given such inspiration and hope to people wherever he lived or worked for varying periods -be it in Tanzania and Zimbabwe in Africa, Jamaica or the land of his birth and place of assassination - Guyana.

With some 19 pages of very useful bibliography, Lewis' extensive research and interviews in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and Guyana have resulted in a work that looks at both the merits and weaknesses of the ideas and political activism of Rodney.

The author credits various citizens of the Caribbean and Africa for helping him in his research. He is particularly appreciative of the quality of contributions provided by some of Rodney's closest colleagues, among them, Richard and Robin Small of Jamaica, and those of his WPA comrades like Eusi Kwayana, Andaiye, Clive Thomas and Rupert Roopnarine. He cites, for example, Kwayana's 1988 pamphlet, `Walter Rodney', as "an indispensable source because of the grasp he has of Rodney's political thought, as well as of his political activities in Guyana during 1974-1980".

Lewis takes the reader through the "early years" of Rodney, whose politics may have been partly inspired by his adoring father who was a member of the early People's Progressive Party (PPP) of Dr Cheddi Jagan, right up to his perspectives on Caribbean and Guyanese politics and his death in 1980 when he was treated by Burnham's regime as `enemy number one' - denied the right to work, freedom to travel, harassed and hunted and, finally killed.

His widow, Patricia Rodney - currently living with her two daughters in the USA where she is teaching and they (Kanini and Asha) are studying, while son Shaka lives and works in Barbados - tells how Walter, having worked for many years abroad, very much wanted to return to his native land. Even if it meant "driving a taxi for a living", as recorded by Lewis.

He was never allowed to work under the Burnham regime. He became fully occupied in politics and writing, including his determination to conclude his `History of the Guyanese Working People (1881-1905)', some of which the author of `How Europe Underdeveloped Africa', did in the Georgetown prison, against the controversy over the destruction by fire of the PNC headquarters, Congress Place in Georgetown.

While following a biographical framework, this is not a biography or life of Walter Rodney, as Lewis himself explains. Rather, it is offered as an attempt to situate Rodney's "intellectual and political evolution in the transatlantic diasporic locations of Guyana, Jamaica, London and Tanzania".

Part of Lewis's concern in writing about Rodney has to do with his own commitment to develop a political dialogue with his students in Caribbean Political Thought and also his children who were born in the 1970s.

What emerges from Rodney's work, the author finds, is not only a critique of empire and capitalism in general, but a dissection of the domestic political elite that assumed political authority from the colonisers in Africa and the Caribbean as well as an analysis of the processes of recolonisation.

The range of topics covered by Lewis includes Rodney's writing of African History, the `Cultural politics of Rastafari and Rude Boy', essentially a Jamaican experience that was to climax with his expulsion and region-wide protests against the then government in Kingston.

Rodney's "academic and political agenda" in Tanzania, his `Pan-Africanism and the Caribbean historian at work', precedes what is a most informative analysis of the late historian's perspectives on Caribbean and Guyanese politics, that forms the concluding chapter of the book.

This chapter addresses issues such as the growth of left-wing politics in the region, the WPA and race, and of Cheddi Jagan's controversial "critical support" for Burnham's nationalisation and foreign policy initiatives that contrasted with Rodney's agitation for "critical exposure" of a dictatorship, Guyana's political crisis and his death.

As observed by Lewis, the assassination that was to put an end to the life of one of the most creative Caribbean scholar-activists of the 1960s and 1970s, had enabled the PNC regime "to continue in power for over a decade with negative social, economic, political and moral consequences for the Guyanese people..."

The reader would find that in his attempt to trace the evolution of Rodney's intellectual and political thought in the period immediately following independence in the Caribbean and Africa, Lewis made the relevant connection with the struggle he waged in Guyana in the 1970s against the politics of Forbes Burnham with a mixture of rigged elections, political intimidation and the manipulation of racial insecurities.

Placing Rodney in an international context, Lewis noted that his brief life coincided with the early years of decolonisation in Africa and the Caribbean, the Cuban revolution, the gains of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA and America's defeat in Vietnam, and remind us about the scholar-activist's direct involvement with participants in the struggles in Southern Africa against Portuguese rule and in South Africa against apartheid.

"I have examined the content of his political positions", said Lewis, "and looked at the merits and weaknesses of his theoretical points of view and political practice. His critical focus on the role of the African and Caribbean middle classes as the social group which inherited power from the colonial powers and their relationship with the working people was very (CLR) Jamesian..."

In general, Lewis offers in his `Walter Rodney's Intellectual and Political Thought' a good, inspiring read of Rodney's interpretations of African and Caribbean history, his analyses of the relationship between social class and race, the role of the working people and his "insistence on understanding the global context shaping the evolution of the post-colonial world".

Such contributions, the author concludes, continue to provide points of departure for academic research and political analyses and action. And he thinks that the changes that have taken place in the world since his death, have, in a sense, realised Rodney's worst fears about the prospects facing the post-colonial world of Africa and the Caribbean.