New book on Walter Rodney 42 years after his assassination

By Chaitram Aklu
ON the morning of June 14, 1980, four cars and a hearse pulled up at the Thomas Street entrance of the Georgetown Public Hospital morgue in a lightning-quick, military-style operation. The gates flew open and the hearse backed up. A body (in a body bag) was thrown in and the hearse and cars sped away. Directing the operation were two senior government ministers who had exited their vehicles — one from a dark green car and the other from a light-coloured car.

I had no idea what I had witnessed until I went to the newsstand at the north-western corner of Parliament Buildings where I regularly picked up a copy of the weekly Catholic Standard newspaper. The female seller whispered, “Rodney was murdered last night.” I went into the Stabroek Market just across from the car park to get my Dayclean ‘paper’ published by the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) and asked the seller if what I had heard was true. He reached into a drawer, took out a narrow strip of folded paper and spread it on the counter. It read “Walter Rodney was assassinated last night.”

Word spread quickly across the country and across the world. Condemnation was universal.

Within an hour, individuals with reams of paper flyers were distributing them free to the public. A pink one showed a likeness of Walter Rodney nailed to a cross and a few people kneeling at his feet. It was captioned: Catholic Church worships St Marx.”

The internationally known Marxist historian and radical was assassinated about 8:30 pm, June 13th by an agent of the governing PNC party who tricked him with a time bomb, which Rodney believed to be a walkie talkie. His brother, who was injured in the blast, survived to tell the story. He named army sergeant Gregory Smith as the assassin.

The recently published book (March 2022): A Revolutionary for Our Time –The Walter Rodney Story by Leo Zeilig, published by Haymarket Books, the book provides a most detailed chronology of Rodney’s life and works. The book traces Rodney’s short (38 years) life from growing up in a working-class family, his education and work in the Caribbean, Britain, Tanzania, United States, Canada, Germany and back to Guyana where he was assassinated. Zeilig’s extensive research is presented in 14 chapters and is evidenced by the 37 pages of bibliography and footnotes – almost every paragraph on each page is footnoted. In addition there is an abundance of direct quotes.

Rodney won a government scholarship to attend the top high school in Guyana. He then completed a degree in history at the University of the West Indies, Kingston Jamaica campus before moving on to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he completed his Ph.D, specialising in African History.

Zeilig has done a remarkable job in researching and organising the text into one detailed book that provides the greatest insight into the life and work of Walter Rodney from primary sources —  The Walter Rodney Papers, which are housed at Atlanta University Center of the Robert W Woodruff Library.

Rodney believed that one must learn, understand one’s history, and organise before taking action. In London, he frequented Hyde Park corner in the summer where he practised public speaking to perfect his verbal communication skills.

Rodney believed that in order to change history, “We must read and understand the history that has been silenced by academics and establishment historians.” W.E.B Dubois, the American Marxist historian had already “revealed the shortcomings of the popular and scholarly consensus of the Reconstruction era” in the United States. According to Gerald Horne, who reviewed Du Bois’ book: The Making of Black Reconstruction (Ed. 2021), noted the book “was the first extended effort to shine Marxism’s sweeping floodlight on the tortured history of his homeland. — it offered a solid foundation for the emergence of like-minded scholars from Eric Williams to Philip S. Foner and Walter Rodney” (The Nation May 16-23, 2022). Du Bois was persecuted by the US Federal Government, which indicted him as a foreign agent, tampered with his mail, and intimidated his friends and supporters to silence him. His passport was revoked. Unlike Rodney, Du Bois chose to exile himself in Kenya where he died in 1963.

While studying in Jamaica and London, Rodney could not confine himself to the university campus. In Jamaica, he visited rural communities to learn about the struggles of the working class. According to Zeilig, in London he was able “to survive the bourgeoisie trapeze – delivering a work of serious, radical, and respectable scholarship to pass his exam, but also managing to say things that were groundbreaking.” This is Rodney’s genius. He successfully defended his Ph.D thesis: “A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545–1800” in 1966.

He immediately took an 18-month teaching position at the University of Dar-es-Salaam (DAR) in Tanzania. He believed in President Julius Nyrere’s Ujamaa development policy to transform Tanzania through socialism and engaged himself fully – both on and off campus — in teaching and organising.

His commitment to Tanzania’s development was unwavering. So committed he was in supporting the development policy that he asked for a pay cut (in solidarity with locals) when economic conditions deteriorated there.  Always leading by example, he supported agricultural development by actually participating in the growing of crops.   Zeilig writes, “He grounded with students and radical politics.”  He spoke on campus and outside of the university. But he ran afoul of Nyrere’s government when he observed that it was deviating from true socialism and disagreed with the direction in which the country was heading and was almost banned. Later, he was to be disappointed that Nyrere was basically playing a game to keep himself in power, and was not serious in transforming the lives of Tanzanians. It turned out Rodney was right.

In 1968 after his DAR contract ended, Rodney, fully committed to socialism and his family (he had gotten married in England and now had three children), returned to Jamaica to work.

According to Zeilig, he did not fit into the elite and started going off campus to depressed areas such as Trench Town and speaking with and learning from the Rastafarian community – bringing his expertise as a historian and radical to these communities. This was also during the Black Power Movement.

Rodney did not introduce Black Power to the Caribbean, but he used his knowledge “to elaborate the complex historical layers to its development.” He spoke, Zeilig writes, “not as an act of flamboyance or self-regard, but as a way of connecting the gaping absences of official accounts of independence.”  He taught the true meaning of black power, emphasising that “when repression escalates, so does stagnation and poverty for the poor.” He disagreed with Stokely Carmichael, who visited Guyana and the Caribbean in 1970, that Indians should not be included in the Black Power Movement – calling Carmichael’s position ‘unhelpful.’ Rodney saw people as a class rather than as a race – the poor working-class people.

Rodney grounded with Kingston’s unemployed numbering about 150 000, which accounted for one quarter of the capital’s population, one third of which “were involved in much of the city’s already-notorious economy based on petty crime, theft, prostitution, and trade in marijuana,” Zeilig writes.

Zeilig wrote that Rodney saw possibility in the “racial expression” of the Rastafarians, a role they could play in freeing the region from foreign control.” Zeilig quotes from author Horace Mitchell’s Rasta and Resistance (1985) that Rodney was “fully aware of the negative influences of the movement, but he was sure that if the positive attributes could be harnessed —– the Rastafarian movement could be part of the dynamic regeneration of the working people in the search for complete freedom.” He engaged in regular group meetings with them. As a result, Rodney was trailed by the security forces and after just nine months was banned from re-entering Jamaica in October 1968 while on a trip to Canada to attend an academic conference.

However, it was from those meetings (groundings) with the poor and suffering, that he produced the still widely read book: Groundings with my Brothers (1969).

Rodney returned to DAR where he undertook to redraft the country’s High School Curriculum. He was writing, lecturing, researching and travelling. By then his international travel were also being monitored. Once on a visiting professor’svisa to the United States, his travel documents were seized.

But returning to Tanzania confirmed the direction in which Nyrere and The Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) were heading. Rodney and CLR James the Trinidad-born historian, Marxist and leading figure in the Pan-African movement withdrew from the 6th PAN-AFRICAN CONGRESS of June 1974 when it was revealed that Nyrere was inviting anti-democratic leaders from Africa and the Caribbean to attend and speak. They feared that would have turned the congress into a political spectacle. Zeilig writes, “Guyanese President Forbes Burnham had already extracted a promise from Nyrere that he would not allow the congress to become a platform for anti-Burnham protests.” Robert Hill, Congress collaborator is quoted by Zeilig: “Tanzania and TANU wanted to turn the 6th PAN-AFRICAN CONGRESS into a state-led jamboree of post-independence leaders, bullies, and murderers.” Tanzania’s Peoples President and Ujamaa as the means of transforming the economy were being questioned.

(to be continued)



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