Tuesday, June 24, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Walter Rodney's Intellectual and Political Thought, Reviewed by L.V. Gaither

A few years back Mr. L. V. Gaither wrote an insightful book review about Rupert Charles Lewis’ book, Walter  Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought. In reading through Mr. Gaither’s critique of Mr. Lewis’ book as well as his own observations of the Guyanese scholar-activist, you will see how Mr. Gaither’s writing clearly highlights the significance of Dr. Walter Rodney’s legacy.   The fact that there are just a handful of books about Dr. Rodney simply raises the value of both Mr. Lewis’ important book as well as Mr. Gaither’s review of it.  Although Mr. Gaither’s book review was published in 1998 – nearly sixteen years ago – it is plain to see why Dr. Rodney’s legacy has grown even stronger as the years go by.

L. V. Gaither is the publisher of The Gaither Reporter, and author of Loss of Empire: Legal Lynching, Vigilantism, and African American Intellectualism in the 21st Century. Mr. Gaither has written many essays and articles published in several publications.

WALTER RODNEY’S INTELLECTUAL AND POLITICAL THOUGHT
Reviewed by L.V. Gaither
Walter Rodney, born in British Guiana in 1942, was one of the most outstanding historians within the radical, international Caribbean tradition. Largely remembered for his Marxist reading of the underdevelopment of Africa, Rodney possessed that rare capacity to take theory and situate it into practical politics; to push liberating ideas beyond the limits of one’s imagination into concrete reality. Although Rodney’s life, and correspondingly his course of revolutionary activity, ended when he was assassinated at the young age of 38, his intellectual production continues to resonate in the international arena.

 Rupert Lewis’s new book delves deeply into the impressive and wide-ranging panorama of Rodney’s political and intellectual thought. As I read it, I was reminded over and over again that at a time when a reassessment of Rodney’s ideas could benefit us most, his contributions to Caribbean and African political thought are unfamiliar to the present generation. Popular awareness of his contributions to the intellectual formation of black radicalism in North America is limited mostly to his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. But even here, as the next generation emerges to take the reins of political, social, and intellectual leadership, prospects for understanding the importance of this major work are fading.


This historical amnesia isn’t at all unique to the intellectual and political legacy of Rodney, but unlike other Caribbean intellectual activists such as C.L.R. James and Frantz Fanon, whose lives have been extensively written about, for Rodney there has been almost total erasure. No mention is made of him in the Dictionary of Global Culture (Gates and Appiah, 1997), and Cornel West, a very popular public intellectual, suggests that with the exception of C.L.R. James, black intellectuals over the past sixty years “have yet to produce a major black Marxist theoretician.”[1] Nevertheless, the fact that Rodney’s work remains in many instances a central point of reference for both sides of the debate over the extent to which the Atlantic slave trade negatively impacted Africa’s development affirms the enduring meaning of his scholarship and the added importance it takes on today.[2] Unless one takes an ahistorical approach towards analyzing the conditions of continental and Diaspora Africans, reading Rodney is indispensable.

In this first single-authored study of Rodney’s intellectual and political thought, Lewis, a professor of Government at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, suggests that Rodney’s work represents an important chapter in the radical West Indian intellectual tradition that concerned itself both with regional issues and with freedom. He argues that in order to fully comprehend Rodney’s thought, we must grasp his African and Caribbean intellectual and activist contributions in their totality. In carrying out this mandate, Lewis provides a much-needed historical reflection on the larger dynamics that have structured post-colonial African and Caribbean politics.

Lewis’s first four chapters focus on Rodney’s academic and intellectual development and his importance as a scholar and historian. Despite Rodney’s success in these areas, his political activism placed him in precarious positions for a good part of his life. Rodney’s life symbolizes the narrative of the Caribbean intellectual in exile, unresponsive to the dictates of Her Majesty, or of the “children” in charge during her absence. There is a certain duality in Rodney’s evolution as a historian, one that is relatively rare today. He represented the best of both traditions: intellectualism and political activism. Lewis’s treatment of this duality is carefully balanced in a way that enriches our understanding of Rodney as a theoretician and revolutionary.

Rodney was one of the founders of the discipline of postcolonial African history and his writings, published in such prestigious works as the Cambridge History of Africa and UNESCO General History of Africa, are examined and appropriately placed within their political and social context. In assessing Rodney’s evolution as an historian, Lewis argues against the tendency to view Rodney’s trajectory as a linear development, from bourgeois historian trained at the London School of Oriental and African Studies to a Dar es Salaam Marxist historian. Instead, he locates Rodney’s radicalism in the tradition of C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Henry Sylvester-Williams, and of course, Marcus Garvey. In addition, as Lewis argues:

Rodney’s Marxism was influenced by the radical politicization of the [People’s Progressive Party] in the 1950s and the subsequent negative racialization of Guyanese politics, by the Cuban Revolution, the decolonization movements in Africa and its theoreticians such as Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral and, of course, C.L.R. James’ approach to the Marxist legacy as historian and political activist. To this must be added Rodney’s own independent reading, research and political experience. (224)


Rodney’s historical perspective was tied to [an] understanding of his role and that of his predecessors, who had in the past combined Marxist political thought with Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism. In no way can one comprehend the significance of Rodney’s intellectual presence in the Caribbean during the height of his political activity without some background into the evolution of Caribbean and US/British relations from the postwar period to the postcolonial period. As Samir Amin has noted, the East-West conflict of 1945-1990 was not merely a struggle between socialism and capitalism, but also a conflict between the periphery and the center. This particular state of the world system provoked liberation struggles throughout the periphery, however bourgeois in their orientation and capitalist in their aspirations.[3] I emphasize the latter because Rodney’s raison dê’tre was his unwavering critique of the role of the African and Caribbean bourgeoisie as a social class, one that inherited power from its colonial rulers. “His focus on the role of the middle class, its control and use of the state, and its general evolution, remains a very important issue in contemporary politics,” writes Lewis.

The Cuban revolution, the Black Power movement, and the intellectual presence of individuals such as Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, C.L.R. James, George Padmore, and Amilcar Cabral—such factors ushered in an era of radicalism throughout the world. Additionally, the fact that most Caribbean and African countries upheld socialist values and ideals—although a façade in many instances—had at least created an anti-imperialist counterculture, which, in effect, served to nurture worldwide radicalism and anti-imperialism. Nevertheless, these sets of social and political arrangements could also serve to mask the class, gender and racial contradictions of the left.

Rodney’s development as an historian and activist took shape within this cauldron of postcolonial turmoil, which in large part was based on continued Western hegemony as well as the internal contradictions of the Afro-Caribbean bourgeoisie. There were other factors, most notably the wave of Black Power consciousness that infiltrated the Caribbean during the late sixties. Here Lewis might have provided better treatment of the influence of the Black Power movement on Rodney’s thinking. Although Rodney’s involvement in the cultural politics of Jamaican society and his scholarly achievements during his stay in Tanzania are dealt with sufficiently, little attention is given to Rodney’s association with the Institute of the Black World (IBW), an Atlanta-based (US) organization which linked Black Marxists, Nationalists and other progressive forces together.

But where Lewis succeeds most is in his focus on the interaction between Forbes Burnham, Cheddi Jagan and Rodney. By the time Rodney was born, Cheddi Jagan, a popular leader of the anticolonial struggle of British Guiana, was already a popular hero and champion of the working class Guyanians, while Burnham, according to Lewis, “like Jagan, embodied the hopes of many as the colonial years receded.” (10) Both men were living political icons in a society divided down the middle between Indians and Africans. Jagan was one of the founders of the independent state of Guyana and was elected to lead the Guyanese three times. However, he was viewed by the U.S. as a Stalinist and Moscow-inspired communist and was twice overthrown, first by the British in 1953 and then by a coup in 1964. Burnham, on the other hand, was adept at toeing the line, kowtowing to the West yet maintaining relations with the left.

At the height of Rodney’s political activity in Guyana, Lewis situates him on the far left of Caribbean politics. During this period in the Caribbean, for example, there was a flourishing of groups of Marxist intellectuals, of Marxist theoretical trends, and of political organizations linked to the left, including the Soviet Union. Progressive forces in United States, as well as progressive forces within Third World countries formally recognized many of these groups. Thus, it was difficult for Rodney’s independent Marxism to intervene in the political landscape, even as an opposition group. Jagan, whose pragmatism appeared to be more palatable to the working classes, did not suffer similar constraints. While Rodney was highly regarded for his ideological leadership, he often found himself at loggerheads with other leftist leaders and groups over which political direction to take, and over the extent to which there should be cooperation with various Caribbean and African states. Even after Burnham nationalized the Demerara Bauxite Company, which was previously owned by Alcan (Aluminum Company of Canada), the conditions for the workers in Guyana continued to deteriorate. At the time of the 1973 elections, Guyana was in a state of near anarchy, as fraud, corruption and totalitarian repression permeated the country. Responding to the domestic, international and geopolitical shifts, Jagan’s opposition People’s Progressive Party adopted the slogan and policy proposal called “winner will not take all.” This was an attempt to insert the party in to the mainstream of Guyanese politics. Thus, there was a shift from “noncooperation and civil resistance to critical support.” (213)

For Rodney, however, the proper political strategy would be critical exposure. He based this view on his belief that the Caribbean masses were at a level of political awareness that demanded change. During this period, Rodney advocated similar positions towards Julius Nyerere, Michael Manley and Maurice Bishop. “Rodney was more critical,” writes Lewis, “looking less at personalities and more at the social bases of regimes as well as the context of international economic and political systems in which postcolonial states functioned.” (214) In Guyana, Rodney and other black and East Indian radicals went so far as to found the Working People’s Alliance, which called for the masses of working people to rise up in full protest against Burnham.

Lewis’s analysis of the Sixth Pan-African Congress in 1974 is perhaps the most important part of the book. Rodney was very critical of the African petty bourgeoisie and their narrow nationalist outlook, and tried to highlight the class contradictions of the nationalist movements. Although Rodney was ill, his paper entitled “Aspects of the International Class Struggle in Africa, the Caribbean and America” was widely circulated and had an impact on the ideological debates that took place among the delegates. This paper synthesizes many of Rodney’s views on race and class particular to various countries and regions into an international treatise on the subject. Rodney’s ideas began to crystallize and resonate throughout the Black World. In analyzing Rodney’s impact on the delegates to the Sixth Pan-African Congress, Lewis draws extensively, as he does throughout the book, on primary sources and interviews.

In the end, Lewis seems to believe that Rodney might have been too far to the left or too idealistic. He concludes that Rodney “would have been forced to look more pragmatically at issues…of economic development and politics in Africa and the Caribbean.” (256) It will be up to readers to draw their own conclusions. But even with this intellectual skepticisms, Lewis should be applauded because he succeeds in laying the basis for further examination of one of the most important Black Marxist intellectuals of the sixties and seventies, and provides a greatly improved understanding of Rodney’s evolution within the context of Caribbean and African politics during the decolonization and postcolonial period.


[1] Cornel West, Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 78.

[2] Rupert C. Lewis cites the work of Joseph E. Inikori, whose research centers on the evolution of the contemporary world economic order from the 16th century: “While supporting Rodney’s thesis on the slave trade and African underdevelopment, Inikori argues that Rodney exaggerated the extent to which the African elite participated in the trade. The important point here is that Rodney’s work set the agenda for some of the fundamental issues in African history and development.” (p 51) On November 6-8, 1998, at the University of Binghamton, New York, hundreds of activists and intellectuals from around the world attended the Walter Rodney Conference to discuss the life and works of Walter Rodney. For an opposing view to Rodney’s thesis, see the revised edition of John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[3] Samir Amin. Empire of Chaos (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1992), pp. 8-9.

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