Thursday, June 15, 2017

Walter Rodney: March 23, 1942 - June 13, 1980

"Dr. Walter Rodney was a revolutionary intellectual, socialist, Pan-Africanist and organizer who made a significant contribution to the Caribbean Radical Tradition that seeks to create just, liberated and egalitarian societies in the Caribbean region."--"Dr. Walter Rodney: Revolutionary Intellectual, Socialist, Pan-Africanist and Historian" by Ajamu Nangwaya, writing for teleSUR

"Historically, the initiative came from Europe. It was the European commercial system which expanded to embrace the various levels of African barter economy, and to assign to them specific roles in global production. This meant the accumulation of capital from trading in Africa, and above all from the purchase of slaves and their employment in the New World. It is essential to stress that all changes on the coast occurred without prejudice to this overall conception. Indeed, the most significant social changes on the Upper Guinea Coast demonstrated how African society became geared to serve the capitalist system."--Walter Rodney

In 1968, while a UWI professor in Jamaica, he joined others to object to the socio-economic and political direction of the government. Unlike his counterparts, however, Rodney involved the working class, including the Rastafarians (one of Jamaica’s most marginalized groups) in this dialogue. His speeches and lectures to these groups were published as Grounding with My Brothers, and became central to the Caribbean Black Power Movement. Rodney’s activities attracted the Jamaican government’s attention and after attending the 1968 Black Writers’ Conference in Montreal, Canada he was banned from re-entering the country. This decision was to have profound repercussions, sparking widespread unrest in Kingston.

In 1974, Walter returned to Guyana to take up an appointment as Professor of History at the University of Guyana, but the government rescinded the appointment. But Rodney remained in Guyana, joined the newly formed political group, the Working People’s Alliance. Between 1974 and 1979, he emerged as the leading figure in the resistance movement against the increasingly authoritarian PNC government. He give public and private talks all over the country that served to engender a new political consciousness in the country. During this period he developed his ideas on the self emancipation of the working people, People’s Power, and multiracial democracy.

As the WPA gained popularity and momentum, the PNC began a campaign of harassment including police raids, house searches, and beatings. On July 11, 1979, Walter, together with seven others, was arrested following the burning down of two government offices. Rodney and four others (known as the “Referendum Five”) faced trumped-up charges of arson, but without proof and scrutiny from international supporters, the government was forced to drop these charges.

Rodney’s voice was not confined to Africa and the Caribbean but was also heard in the U.S. and Europe. In the early-mid 1970s, he participated in discussions and lectures with the African Heritage Studies Association at Howard University; the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, GA; the African Studies and Research Center at Cornell University; and the State University of New York at Binghamton.

The persecution, however, continued: two party members were killed, and the government denied Rodney and others permission to travel. Despite this, Rodney continued his political work and attended Zimbabwe’s independence celebrations in May 1980.

On Friday, June 13, 1980, Walter Anthony Rodney was assassinated by a bomb in Georgetown, Guyana. He was 38 years old.

Walter Rodney wrote:

I would suggest two basic reasons why I believe that Marxist thought, Scientific Socialist thought, would exist at different levels, at different times, in different places and retain its potential as a tool, as a set of conceptions which people should grasp.

The first is to look at Marxism, as, a methodology, because a methodology would, virtually by definition, be independent of time and place. You will use the methodology at any given time, at any given place. You may get different results, of course, but the methodology itself would be independent of time and place.

And essentially, to engage in a rather truncated presentation of Marxism, inevitably oversimplifying, but nevertheless necessary in the context of limited time I would suggest that, one of the real bases of Marxist thought is that it starts from a. perspective of man's relationship to the material world; and that Marxism, when it arose historically, consciously dissociated itself from and pitted itself against all other modes of perception which started with ideas, with concepts and with words; and rooted itself in the material conditions and in the social relations in society.

This is the difference with which I will start. A methodology which begins its analysis of any society, of any situation, by seeking the relations which arise in production between men. There are a whole variety of things which flow from that: man's consciousness is formed in the intervention in nature; nature itself is humanised through its interaction with man's labour; and man's labour produces a constant stream of technology which in turn creates other social changes.

So this is the crux of the Scientific Socialist perception. A methodology that addresses itself to man's relationship in the process of production on the assumption, which I think is a valid assumption, that production is not merely the, basis of man's existence, but the basis for defining man as a special kind of being with a certain consciousness.

It is only through production that the human race differentiates itself from the rest of the primate's and the rest of life...

...But we are suggesting that the word is itself an emanation from people's activity as they attempt to communicate with each other, as they develop social relations out of production, and that we shouldn't be mystified with words. Oh, naturally enough we will have to deal with concepts and with the force of consciousness, which is a very powerful force and one that even some Marxists have been tempted to underestimate.

Now, Marx, taking that broad framework of methodology, tried to apply it to Western Europe. He applied it to a range of societies in different places and at different times; but he concentrated his attention on Western Europe. If you examine the body of literature produced by Marx and Engels, you will find that they speak about slavery, about communal society, about feudalism, but by and large, they concentrated on capitalism. They hardly even talk about socialism.

Marx's great contribution was his fantastic critique of an existing society, capitalist society. How did it come into being in a particular part of the world? The vast majority of their literature concerns this question.

But, as I said when I referred to pre-capitalist society, especially feudalism, they talked about some other parts of the world. Occasionally Marx mentions the Asiatic mode of production. Occasionally he came across to look at the data concerning the United States. So he had something of a geographical span and a long time 'span.

But it was so minimal in comparison with the bulk of his work that it is true that a lot of people have taken Marx's method and his conclusions and have seen them as one and the same thing - that Marxism is not merely a certain methodology applied to Western Europe, but is itself an ideology about Western Europe, about capitalism in the 19th century and cannot transcend those boundaries, when clearly Marx was doing the job he had to do. He was looking at his own society, he was doing it under some of the most adverse conditions, he was doing it by mastering bourgeois knowledge and putting it to the service of change and revolution.

I would suggest, then, that the method was independent of time and place. It is implicit in Marx and it becomes explicit in post-Marxian development, using Marxian in the literal sense of the life of Marx himself. After Marx's death you will get the evolution or the development of scientific socialist thought with other individuals recognising that the methodology can be applied, must be applied to different times to different places.

Again, presenting our history in a very abbreviated form, we can look at Lenin, at his application of Marxist theory to Russian society. That is one of his principal contributions. The first major thesis of the young Lenin was the Development of Capitalism in Russia. He had to deal with his own society. He had to take those formulations out of the specific cultural and historical context of Western Europe and look at Eastern Europe, at Russia which was evolving differently, and apply them to his own society. This he did.

He had at the same time to consider the time dimension that in the 19th century Marx was writing about what has now come to be called the classic period of capitalism, the entrepreneurial version of capitalism, and by the latter 19th century this had given way to monopoly capitalism. It has given way to imperialism. So Lenin had to deal with that method by applying it to a new dimension in time. So he wrote about capitalism in its imperialist stage.

So those are the two variants operating: the ideology; the methodology of it (we'll stick to the methodology for the time being) being applied to different societies at different. times. Having made the point for Lenin, I hope it becomes clear for a. number of people: Mao tse Tung applying it to Chinese society which was a different society from Russian society. Understanding the inner dynamics of Chinese society, relating to the question of the peasantry in a different and more profound way than any previous writer because that was the nature of Chinese society and he had addressed himself to that.

And finally for our purposes, the most important example, the example of Amilcar Cabral because he was dealing with Africa. Cabral, in one of his essays, the one titled The Weapon of Theory, if I recall correctly, one of his most important essays; began by making clear that the best he could do -was to return to the basic methodology of Marx and Engels. But it was not possible for Cabral to begin the analysis of the history of Guinea-Bissau by saying: "I am going to look for classes", for example. He said. "if I say this I will be denying that my people have any history because I do not perceive classes for a long period in the genesis of my own people."

Then he referred back to Marx's and Engels' classic statement that "the history of all existing, societies is the history of class struggle", to which Engels had appended a note saying that by "all history", we mean "all previously recorded history". It so happens that the history of the people of Guinea-Bissau hasn't been recorded and Cabral says, "I want to record that history. We will use the Marxian method. We will not be tied by the, concept which arose historically in Western Europe when Marx was studying that society".

Marx uses the method and he discerned the evolution of classes and of the phenomenon of classes itself as being a major determinant, the major determinant in Western European history at a particular point in time. Cabral says we will begin at the beginning. We will not even concern ourselves initially with classes. We will simply look at men in the process of production. We will look at modes of production in the history of Guinea, and we will see how our society evolved. So without much of a fanfare he was showing the relevance of that methodology to African society.

If, and when, in the history of Guinea-Bissau, the aspect of class appears to have historical importance, then Cabral dealt with it. Until such time, he simply stuck to the basis of Marxian methodology which was to look at Guinean people in the process of production, at the various modes of production, social formations, cultural formations which arose historically and the direction in which the society was tending.

In many respects, when we ask the question today about the relevance of Marxism to black people, we have already reached a minority position, as it were. Many of those engaged in the debate present the debate as though Marxism is a European phenomenon and black people responding to it must of necessity be alienated because the alienation of race must enter into the discussion.

They seem not to take into account that already that methodology and that ideology have been utilised, internalised, domesticated in large parts of the world that are not European.

That it is already the ideology of eight hundred million Chinese people; that it is already the ideology which guided the Vietnamese people to successful struggle and to the defeat of imperialism. That it is already the ideology which allows North Korea to transform itself from. a backward, quasi-feudal, quasi-colonial terrain into an independent, industrial power. That it is already the ideology which has been adopted on the Latin American, continent and that serves as the basis for development in the Republic of Cuba. That it is already the ideology which was used by Cabral, which was used by Samora Machel, which is in use on the African continent itself to underline and underscore struggle and the construction of a new society.

It cannot therefore be termed a European phenomenon; and the onus will certainly be on those who argue that this phenomenon, which was already universalised itself, is somehow inapplicable to some black people. The onus will be on those individuals, I suggest, to show some reason, perhaps genetic, why the genes of black people reject this ideological position.

When we investigate and try to centralise or keep central the concept of relevance, we must ask ourselves questions about the present. What kind of society, do we live in today? What kind of societies do black people live in today in different parts of the world? And while, of course, we as black people in this country, in the Caribbean and in different parts of Africa have our own independent historical experience, one of the central facts is that we are all in one way or another, located within the capitalist system of production.

The society about, which Marx wrote, through a process of outgrowth, dominated Africa and the Americas in the era of mercantilism which was the period that capitalism was growing to maturity. It dominated these parts of the world. It created slave society in the Americas.

Subsequent to the slave era, capitalism, even more powerful, was able to incorporate the whole world into a global network of production which derived from Western Europe and North America, a system which had a metropolitan centre or set of metropolitan centres, and a separate set of peripheries, colonies and semi-colonies.

So that we have all, historically, been incorporated within the capitalist system of production, and that is another dimension of the relevance of Marxism.

Even without the translation in terms of time and place, it seems to me that if we have become part of the capitalist-imperialist world, then we owe it to ourselves to relate to, to follow, to understand and, to hopefully adopt and adapt a critique of that capitalist system because that is essentially what Marx's writing is about. He was critiquing that capitalist system. He did [so] more effectively than any bourgeois writer, and if we want to understand the world in which we live, which is the world dominated by capitalism then we must understand the centre of that system, the motor within that system, the types of exploitation which are to be found within the capitalist mode of production. So that is yet another factor.

Marxism as Revolutionary Ideology

My second consideration after methodology, (and I had originally suggested that there were two basic things, and one was the methodology), is to look at Marxism as a revolutionary ideology and as a class ideology.

In class societies, all ideologies are class ideologies. All ideologies derive from and support some particular class. So for all practical purposes we have grown up in capitalist society, and bourgeois ideology is dominant in our society. These institutions in which we function were created to serve the creation of ideas as commodities, ideas which will buttress the capitalist system.

Now, I would suggest, historically, as Marx suggested himself, that the set of ideas we call Scientific Socialism arose within capitalist society to speak to the interest of the producers in that society, to speak to the interest of those who are exploited and expropriated, to speak to the interest of the oppressed, of the culturally alienated; and we must understand that of the two major sets of ideas before us, idealism and materialism, bourgeois philosophy and Marxist philosophy, that each of the two is representative of a particular class.

I don't have the time to go into all the historical roots of the formation of socialism, but briefly, in the 19th century it was in the rise of capitalist society that conditions were created for the development of socialist ideas. Out of the diverse and unsystematised socialist ideas, Marx was able to formulate a clear and systematic theory - Scientific Socialism. -It had a particular class base and because it had this particular class base, it was revolutionary. It sought to transform and upend the relations in society.

Bourgeois ideology is of necessity status quo preserving. It seeks to conserve, it seeks to buttress the given system of production, the relations which flow, the relations which flow from a certain system of production.

A Scientific Socialist position is and remains revolutionary, because it aims, consciously aims, at undermining that system of production and the political relations which flow from it. This is what I mean by revolutionary.

From time to time there are Marxists who have arisen, who have attempted to deny or denude Marxism of its revolutionary content. That is true. There are Marxists who have become legal or armchair Marxists, who would like to see Marxism as merely another variant of philosophy and who treat it in a very eclectic fashion, as though one is free to draw from Marxism as one draws from Greek thought and its equivalent, without looking at the class base and without looking at whether an ideology is supportive of the status quo or not.

Nevertheless, by and large, we can see Marxism and Scientific Socialism as subversive of and antithetical to the maintenance of the system of production in which we live. Because ideas, let me repeat, do not float in, the sky, they do Not float in the atmosphere, they are related to concrete relations of production. Bourgeois ideas derive from bourgeois relations of production. They are intended to conserve and maintain those relations of production. Socialist ideas derive from the same production, but they derive from a different class interest and their aim is to overthrow that system of production.

Africa and Scientific Socialism

There again I will suggest that African people, like other Third World people, have virtually a vested interest in Scientific Socialism, because it offers itself to them as a weapon of theory. It offers itself to them as that tool, at the level of ideas, which will be utilised for dismantling the capitalist imperialist structure. This is its concern.

What I will attempt to deal with as best I can, are certain questions arising from individuals who might say yes to most of what I've said and then will ask the question, "Is there no other alternative? Is there no other ideological system which is neither capitalist nor socialist, but is anticapitalist, but addresses itself more humanely, if you like, to the interest of African people wherever they are?"

These questions are worth looking into because there are black people asking these questions and we have to try and resolve them. My own formulation will be to suggest that we look at concrete examples of African or black people who have attempted to devise systems which they-consider to be non-capitalist and non-socialist, systems they consider valid alternatives to. Scientific Socialism for the emancipation, of. African people.

In this regard, we have a number of pan-Africanists, a number of African nationalists in Africa, in the Caribbean and in this country, who have taken that road. George Padmore did this at the end of his life, and made a distinction .between Scientific Socialism and pan-Africanism. He said this is the road we will follow: pan-Africanism. We do not want to go that road which is capitalist, we do not want to go the socialist road, we will derive for ourselves something that is pan-African.

In a sense, Nkrumah followed up on this; and although at one, time he called himself a Marxist, he always was careful to qualify this by saying that he was also a Protestant. He believed in Protestantism, at the same time. So he was trying to straddle two worlds simultaneously - the world which says in the beginning was matter and the world which says in .the beginning there was the word.

And inevitably he fell between these two. It's impossible to straddle these two. But there he was, and we must grant his honesty and we must grant the honesty of many, people who have attempted to do this impossible task and follow them to find out why they failed.

They failed because their conception of what was a variant different from bourgeois thought and different from socialist thought inevitably turned out to be merely another branch of bourgeois thought.

And this was the problem, that bourgeois thought, and indeed socialist thought, when we get down to it, can have a variety of developments or roads and aspects or paths. With bourgeois thought, because of its whimsical nature, and because of the way in which it prompts eccentrics, you can have any road, because, after all, when you are not going any place you can choose any road!

So it was possible for these individuals to make what. I consider to be a genuine attempt to break with the dominance of bourgeois thought and yet find, in the final analysis, that they had merely embraced another manifestation of that which they themselves had suggested that they were confronting at the outset.

There are a number of examples, some more apt than others. Some of the examples actually, are Africans who I think were blatantly dishonest from the beginning. I do think that most of the ideologues of African socialism claiming to find a third path are actually just cheap tricksters, who are tricksters who are attempting to hoodwink the majority of the population. I don't think they're out to develop socialism. I don't think they're out to develop anything that addresses itself to the interest of the African people. But, nevertheless, it is part of the necessity of our times that our people no longer are willing to accept anything that is not put to them in the guise of socialism.

And therefore I shan't in fact go on to African socialism. What I'll do is take examples of those who were, in my opinion, being serious, being honest. And certainly Kwame Nkrumah was one of these. Nkrumah spent a number of years during the fifties and, right up to when he was overthrown - that would cover at least ten years - in which he was searching for an ideology. He started out with this mixture of Marxism and Protestantism, he talked about pan-Africanism; he went to Consciencism and then Nkrumahism, and, there was everything other than a straight understanding of socialism.

What were the actual consequences of this perception? That is what matters to us. Let us assume that he was searching for something African and that he was trying to avoid the trap of adopting something alien. What were the practical consequences of this attempt to dissociate himself from an international socialist tradition? We saw in Ghana that Nkrumah steadfastly refused to accept that there were classes, that there were class contradictions in Ghana, that these class contradictions were fundamental.

For years Nkrumah went along with this mish-mash of philosophy which took some socialist premises but which he refused to pursue to their logical conclusion - that one either had a capitalist system based upon the private ownership of the means of production and the alienation of the product of people's labour, or one had an, alternative system which was completely different and that there was no way of juxtaposing and mixing these two to create anything that was new and viable.

A most significant test of this position was when Nkrumah himself was overthrown! After he was overthrown, he lived in Guinea-Konakry and before, he died he wrote a small text, Class Struggle in Africa. it is not the greatest philosophical treatise but it is historically important, because it is there Nkrumah himself in effect admits the consequences, the misleading consequences of an ideology which espoused an African cause,. but which felt, for reasons which he did not understand,; an historical necessity to separate itself from Scientific Socialism. It indicated quite clearly the disastrous consequences of that position.

Because Nkrumah denied the existence of classes in Ghana until the petty bourgeoisie as a class overthrew him. And then, in Guinea, he said it was a terrible mistake. Yes, there are classes in Africa. Yes, the petty bourgeoisie is a class with interests fundamentally opposed to workers and peasants in Africa. Yes, the class interest of the petty bourgeoisie are the same or at least are tied in with the class interest of international monopoly capital; and therefore we have in Africa a class struggle within the African continent and a struggle against imperialism.

And if we are to aim at transcending these contradictions, at bringing victory and emancipation to the working peoples, the producers of Africa, we will have, to grapple with that ideology, which first of all recognises and challenges the existence of exploiting and oppressing classes.

It is a very important historical document. It is the closest that Nkrumah comes to a self-critique. It is the record of a genuine nationalist, an African nationalist who wandered for years with this assumption and feeling that somehow, he must dissociate himself in one way or another from Scientific Socialism because it originated outside of the boundaries of his own society and he was afraid of its cultural implications.

This is putting it in the most charitable way. But the fear is due, in fact, to aspects of bourgeois ideology. Due to the fact that he made a distinction between social theory and scientific theory, which is not a necessary distinction. That is the distinction which comes out of the history of bourgeois thought.

People seem to have no difficulty in deciding that they are going to use facets of the material culture that originated in the West, whether it originated in capitalist or socialist society. People have no difficulty relating to electricity but they say: "Marx and Engels, that's European!" Was Edison a racist? But they ask the question, "Was Marx a racist?" They genuinely believe, that they are making a fundamental distinction, whereas, in fact, they are obscuring the totality of social development.. And the natural sciences are not to be separated from the social sciences. Our interpretation of the social reality can similarly derive a certain, historical law and hence scientific law of society which can be applied irrespective of its origin or its originators.

Of course, it is true, and this is the most appropriate note on which to end, that any ideology, when applied, must be applied with sensitivity. It must be applied with a thorough grasp of the internal realities of a given society.

Marxism comes to the world as an historical fact, and it comes in a cultural nexus. If, for instance, Africans or, let us go back to Asians; when the Chinese first picked up the Marxist texts, they were European texts. They came loaded with conceptions of the historical development of Europe itself. So that method and factual data were obviously interwoven, and the conclusions were in fact in a specific historical and cultural setting.

It was the task, of the Chinese to deal with that and to adapt it and to scrutinise it and see how it was applicable to their society. First and foremost, to be scientific, it meant having due regard for the specifics of Chinese historical and social development.

I have already cited Cabral in another context and he reappears in this context. The way in which he is at all times looking at the particularities of class development in contemporary Guinea-Bissau. Looking at the potential of classes in Guinea-Bissau at this point in time. And therefore he is, of course, making sure that Marxism does not simply appear as the summation of other people's history, but appears as a living force within, one's history.

And this is a difficult transformation. This is the task of anybody who considers himself or herself a Marxist. However, because it is fraught with so many difficulties and obstacles, many people take the easy route, which is to take it as a finished product rather than ongoing social product which has to be adapted to their own society.

One finds that in looking at Marxist theory, at its relevance to race, looking at the relevance of Marxist theory to national emancipation, we come up with a very important paradox. And it is this: that the nationalist, in the strict sense of the word, that is the petty bourgeois nationalist, who aims merely at the recovery of national independence in our epoch, is incapable of giving the people of Africa or the peoples of the Caribbean any participation in liberal democracy.

The petty bourgeois cannot fulfil these historical tasks. For national liberation requires a socialist ideology. We cannot separate the two.

Even for national liberation in Africa, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique very clearly demonstrated the necessity for an ideological development, for consciencization, as they say in, Latin America; and the nationalist struggle was won because it came under the rubric of Scientific Socialist perspective.

As Cabral said, "There may be revolutions which have had a revolutionary theory and which have failed. But there has certainly been no revolution which has succeeded without a revolutionary theory".

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