JUNE 13, 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr Walter Rodney, the renowned Guyanese scholar/activist. While his name has recently been conveniently used to propagate certain political views, the general public is not as aware as they should of the breadth of his contributions to Guyana and the rest of the world.
Today we remember him with a short profile of his life and work. When Walter Rodney was born, the Anglophone Caribbean had just experienced a decade of protests which highlighted the miserable conditions under which the majority of people lived. These protests forced the British government to send a commission to investigate the causes and to make recommendations for a solution. The commission’s report led to the granting of limited self-government to the region, which speeded up the decolonisation process. Rodney, therefore, grew up with the decolonisation movement. His father was an active member of the colony’s nationalist party, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), which brought Rodney into contact with radical politics while he was still in primary school. Rodney won a scholarship to attend the elite Queens College (QC), an opportunity made possible because of changes made to the education system by the PPP government which won the country’s first elections held under universal adult suffrage. While at QC, he excelled in academics and athletics, but he maintained a keen interest in politics. His years at QC coincided with the split of the PPP into two ethnic factions in 1955. However, he traced his interest and receptiveness to Marxism back to this period. He explained that the PPP’s openness on the issue was an advantage which he and other Guyanese noticed when they arrived at the University of the West Indies. Rodney entered the UWI in Jamaica in 1960 to study history at a time of growing Caribbean nationalist sentiments.
The region was in the middle of the Federation experiment and the imminence of independence excited Rodney’s generation. He had left a Guyana which had begun to show signs of ethnic confrontation and would not return permanently for 14 years. It was during his undergraduate years in Jamaica that he became interested in African history. He recounted how when given an assignment on the relevance of Africa and Europe to the Caribbean, he could articulate the relevance of Europe but could not do the same for Africa. It was at that point that he decided to study Africa. As he puts it, “I couldn’t articulate why Africa was relevant. So eventually it was necessary to move in that direction.” (Rodney 1990:14). It was also while at the UWI that he became closely acquainted with the work of CLR James, particularly through his book: The Black Jacobins. James’s use of Marxist methodology to explain the Haitian revolution had a big impact on the young Rodney and helped to crystallise his attraction to Marxism. He also credited his travels to the USSR and particularly Cuba with helping in some small way to propel him in the direction of Marxism. So, as he left to pursue graduate Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in England in 1963, he was already armed with an interest in African history and Marxism — one the subject, the other the methodology–which would form the basis of his intellectual work. He quickly completed his PhD within three years; his dissertation was on the slave trade on the upper Guinea Coast in West Africa. While in England, he sharpened his political consciousness and moved closer to an embrace of Marxism. He attended a study group conducted by CLR James and his wife Selma, who had returned to England following CLR’s falling out with Trinidad’s Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams. His first teaching assignment was at the University of Dar Es Salam in Tanzania. Although his preference was West Africa, given his academic specialisation, he felt the unstable
politics of Nigeria and Ghana at that juncture would not have facilitated his quest to effectively learn the African society and its politics. He also ruled out Guinea, because of the language difference. After spending two years in Tanzania, he returned to the University of the West Indies. But after just one term he was banned from Jamaica. The government considered him a security risk on account of public lectures he had been giving off campus to Rastafarians and the urban youth. There were huge demonstrations following his expulsion that came to be known as the “Rodney Riots.” After a short visit to Cuba, he returned to Tanzania in 1969 where he taught for the next five years. In 1974, he left for Guyana expecting to get a job he had applied for at the University of Guyana. But the government overruled the decision of the Academic Board and denied him the job. Contrary to the government’s expectations, Rodney decided to stay in Guyana. He joined the newly-formed Working People’s Alliance (WPA) and became immersed in the political struggle. Within six years, he had inspired a broad-based mass movement that put the government on the defensive. On June 13, 1980, he was assassinated in Georgetown, bringing the physical end to a life that shone so brightly while it lasted. We salute this acclaimed Guyanese who, through his scholarship and activism, made Guyana proud. There was a time in the 1970s when he inspired a multi-ethnic solidarity movement in Guyana that inspired hope for a cohesive nation. Perhaps our country may be inspired again if we reach for his example in this regard.