[News] 30 year anniversary of his murder - Walter Rodney: Prophet of self-emancipation

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jun 10 15:58:29 EDT 2010

Walter Rodney: Prophet of self-emancipation

(the Freedom Archives has Walter Rodney on Race & 
Class in Guyana & on The Jonestown Tragedy both recorded in 1979)

Wazir Mohamed

2010-06-10, Issue <http://www.pambazuka.org/en/issue/485>485


Thirty years after the murder of Guyana-born 
scholar and activist Walter Rodney, Wazir Mohamed 
considers the role of imperialism and the big 
powers in the silencing of ‘a defender of the people’s right to equality’.

June 13, 2010 will mark 30 years since Walter 
Rodney ‘the prophet of self-emancipation’ was 
murdered in Guyana at the hands of a brutal 
dictator acting in cahoots with the agents of 
international capital. In commemorating the life 
of Walter Rodney, it is our responsibility to 
contextualise his killing and to remind ourselves 
of the role of imperialism and the pivotal role 
of the big powers in his silencing.

It was not the first time in the modern history 
of the world that a defender of the people’s 
right to equality was silenced, nor would it be 
the last time. Walter Rodney’s killing can be 
compared to that of Patrice Lumumba, the first 
elected prime minister of the Congo in 1961. It 
could be compared with the murder of Amilcar 
Cabral, leader of the African Party for the 
Independence and Union of Guinea and Cape Verde 
(PAIGC) in 1973 at the hands of Portuguese 
agents. It could be compared with the killing in 
1983 of Maurice Bishop, prime minister of Free 
Grenada, at the hands of overzealous counter 
revolutionary agents in his party, the New Jewel 
Movement. It could also be compared with the 
murder in 1973 of Salvador Allende, prime 
minister of Chile, at the hands of Pinochet 
acting in collusion with agents of international capital.

These and other leaders committed one single 
crime; they had a passion for real change. They 
drew their examples for change from the working 
people, and created new ways, new approaches for 
dealing with the unequal relationship between the 
ruling classes and the poor. These were change 
agents. They recognised the historical problem of 
racial, economic, social, and cultural inequality 
between the then called ‘third world’ and the 
‘first world,’ and dedicated their lives to 
change the status quo in their respective 
countries. They exposed the role of local 
dictators who benefited from the status quo, and 
hence were invested in dictatorial processes that 
kept the working people in subjection.

These leaders, among many others, were killed by 
agents of foreign and local capital over the 
period 1960–1990 to send a message to the working 
people of the former colonial world. That message 
being that international capital and their local 
agents are not prepared and will not tolerate any 
real demands for changes in the economic, 
political, social, and cultural status quo of the 
former colonies. This accounts in part for 
stagnation, retrogression, and continuous 
deterioration today of the conditions of ordinary 
people in most areas of the former colonial world.

To this day, the dream of self-emancipation and 
real independence is still unrealised in every 
part of the former colonial world. Working people 
across the world today are further than they have 
ever been from realising the dream of economic, 
political, social, and cultural equality. This is 
as true for the Caribbean – the birthplace of 
Rodney and Bishop – as it is in Africa, the 
birthplace of Cabral, Lumumba, Machel, Mandela, 
and others. Despite majority rule and so-called 
political independence in Zimbabwe and South 
Africa, these countries are yet to implement 
meaningful land reform; which if dealt with 
democratically could produce the answer to the 
structure of the historical inequality 
colonialism created on the continent. Like 
Guyana, most of the former colonies in Africa, in 
Asia and in Latin America are yet to find 
solutions to deal with and turn back the 
historical damage of ethnic and racial divisions 
that threaten to consume these societies.

The assassination of Walter Rodney must be 
contextualised from the confine of the people’s 
struggle against foreign domination of mind and 
body, against foreign domination of thought and 
action. Walter Rodney did not wake up one day, 
like so many leader types, and decide that he 
wanted to take the reign of power over the land. 
He had no such ambition; he was thrust into the 
sphere as the recognised leader of the working 
people of Guyana because in their estimation, he 
came closest to understanding and sharing their 
life of pain and suffering. Pain and suffering 
which abounded in part because of the shattered 
dream of democratic self-emancipation; a dream 
snatched away by the unravelling of the 
anti-colonial national movement of the 1950s. In 
the aftermath of this unravelling, political 
forces emerged to represent ethnic interests, and 
hence the outgrowth of political parties around 
which sections of the population coalesced 
because of the perception that they could provide 
ethnic security. Today, Guyana continues to 
suffer from the nightmare of ethnic politics. The 
unravelling of the national movement in Guyana, 
while it had important local players, occurred in 
the context of the global onslaught against such 
movements, a global onslaught against local self 
determination which began with colonialism and 
slavery, and which has kept independent nations 
in subjection for the last 200 years.

Haiti and its poverty is the most striking 
example. Since the revolution, the big powers not 
only refused to recognise the right of the 
Haitian people to self-determination, for over 
200 years they also worked to snuff out the 
possibility of self-emancipation. In Haiti they, 
the big powers lead by the United States, imposed 
and supported the Duvalier family dictatorship, 
which ruled with an iron fist between 1957 and 
1986. To this day Haiti is not free to decide on 
its path toward self-determination, its first 
freely elected President Bertrand Aristide now 
lives in South Africa having been banished into 
exile, because, to use his own words, he opposed 
‘privatisation,’ the imposed prescription for 
small countries by the big powers. He was deposed 
because he wanted labour laws to regulate the 
working of the sweatshops in Haiti, because he 
wanted to impose a national minimum wage, because 
he wanted to protect local producers and rice 
farmers from the onslaught of subsidised food 
which the West dumps on small countries, and 
furthermore because he wanted to create a 
governmental structure to allow ordinary Haitians 
to self-organise in order to emancipate themselves.

Like Duvalier in Haiti, Somoza in Nicaragua, the 
Shah in Iran, Gairy in Grenada, and the many 
countless dictators who stalked and stymied the 
spirit of self-emancipation in Latin America, 
Asia and Africa, the PNC dictatorship of Guyana 
emerged and grew into a position of dominance 
with the backing and support of big powers. Big 
powers whose interest in the politics of these 
countries was firstly about access to control 
their economies, especially their mineral and 
agricultural production, and secondly about their 
political support in the Cold War period at the 
international level. As a young scholar, Walter 
Rodney who studied the impact of big power 
politics on the creation of unequal development 
and inequality, and the construction of the First 
and Third World was unsettled by the machinations 
of local leaders, whether they were in the 
Caribbean, Africa, Asia, or the United States of 
America. In all these theatres, he was drawn into 
debates and discussion on local conditions as 
more and more people came into contact with his 
scholarship. Inevitably, it was the discussions 
and debates which his scholarship opened up that 
lead to his banishment from Jamaica by the 
Shearer government, and which lead to the denial 
of a teaching appointment at the University of 
Guyana, and subsequently his assassination in 1980.

There is no separation between Rodney’s 
scholarship and his activism. His scholarship 
calls into question all those who sat on the 
fence and all those who would like to continue to 
sit on the fence as the divide between rich and 
poor grows, and as the ruling classes concretise 
their mastery to use race, ethnicity and gender 
as a means of imposing varying dimensions of 
divide and rule in specific local settings.

Having mastered the history of the Upper Guinea 
Coast in his doctoral studies, he explained that 
while local African leaders and ‘elites’ colluded 
in slave trading, students of history must come 
to grip with the global dimension; that is the 
growth of markets for slaves as European trade 
and commerce expanded and in this expansion 
varying forms of exploitation in specific local 
areas emerged.[1] He thus explained that ‘African 
agents of the Atlantic Slave Trade must be seen 
in a global perspective,’ that is how the profit 
motive which was shaped by the growth of 
plantations in the Americas, created the 
conditions which lead to internecine warfare, 
with the primary aim of capturing the ‘enemy’ who 
were then sold into slavery.[2] This work 
establishes his fascination with the methodology 
of capital in creating local lackeys, local 
agents through whom the tentacles of exploitation 
of the working people gets constructed and deepened.

Rodney’s scholarship is not idle, it is a call to 
action. It is a call to action by the working 
people in local settings, be it in Africa where 
he was a combatant in the liberation struggle, in 
Jamaica where he helped students to recognise the 
ills of society, in the USA and Europe where he 
implored people on the left to get to grips with 
the limitations of vanguard politics and the 
hegemonic character of the leading socialist 
countries, and in Guyana where he grounded with 
the people and helped them to understand and 
identify the local agents of foreign capital, 
whose wealth and power is derived from their labour and misery.

Walter’s scholarship calls on people to recognise 
that the path to resolution of historical wrongs 
have to arise through the understanding of the 
past. It was in this context that he wrote the 
‘History of the Upper Guinea Coast’, ‘How Europe 
Underdeveloped Africa’, and the ‘History of the 
Guianese Working People’. To quote from the 
introduction by Vincent Harding, Robert Hill and 
William Strickland in Walter’s ‘How Europe 
Undeveloped Africa’, his work is ‘imbued with the 
spirit, the intellect and the commitment of its 
author...with Rodney the life and work were one.’[3]

Nowhere is this impassioned commitment more 
present, than in his ‘History of the Guianese 
Working People’. This work, which he completed in 
the final couple years of his young life, 
represents in his view, a small contribution to 
fill a huge gap, the vacuum which exists in the 
historiography of Guyana, what he identified as 
the ‘profound underdevelopment’ of the 
historiography of the region. Having developed on 
the heels of noted Caribbean nationalist 
historian, Elsa Goveia, he was passionate about 
the task that confronted nationalists’ scholars, 
and new scholars such as him and those to follow. 
The task as he identified it is to create an 
understanding of how our societies were 
constructed through an understanding of the real 
history of the struggles of the working people. 
He firmly believed and was unwavering in his 
commitment that history should be told from the 
standpoint of the people. This commitment to the 
truth was the hallmark of his scholarship, and 
this scholarship was interwoven in his activism.

He believed that real history, if explained, will 
eventually help the mass of working people shed 
the shackles which divide them against each 
other. He exhibited a dispassionate ability to 
inject the understanding of history into his 
work, whether he was in the classroom, or whether 
he was grounding with the working people in their 
homes, in their places of work, or in their 
communities. He made no effort to hide where he 
stood on the issues of inequality and the growing 
divide between the haves and the have-nots in the 
world; he lived his life in and out of the 
classroom as a firm defender of the rights of all 
peoples to full equality. It was this resolve 
that lead to his banishment from Jamaica.

In responding to the ban placed on him by the 
Shearer government of Jamaica in 1968, he said 
that all he was doing was grounding with his 
brothers, ‘I was trying to contribute something. 
I was trying to contribute my experience
I went 
out as I said, I would go to the radio if they 
wanted me, I would speak on television if they 
allowed me
I spoke at the Extra-Mural Centre. I 
would go further down into West Kingston and I 
would speak wherever there was a possibility of 
our getting together. It might be in a sports 
club, it might be in a schoolroom, it might be in 
a church, it might be in a gully
I have spoken in 
what people call ‘dungle’, rubbish dumps
that is 
where the government puts people to live.’[4]

He was a firm believer that the role of the 
conscious (he used the word black) intellectual 
and academic is to move beyond the university, 
that the conscious academic must be able to make 
the connection between their scholarship and the 
activity of the masses of working people. 
Inevitably, it was the commitment to transcend 
the university, as he did after his return to 
Guyana in 1974, which lead to his banishment from 
the University of Guyana. The Burnham government 
was of the view that if they starved him through 
refusal to sanction his employment at the 
University of Guyana, he would be forced to leave 
the country. But they could not kick him out of 
the country because he was Guyanese.

Walter Rodney was committed to the political 
future of the multi-racial masses of Guyana. He 
was a firm believer that if the mass of working 
people was armed with the historical and 
contemporary reasons which create the misery of 
their lives, they would be able to emancipate 
themselves. He was banished from the university 
and subsequently killed because he dared to 
engage ordinary people. He was killed because he 
dared to bring to the people the tools that could 
lead to unity and combined action. He was killed 
because he was engaged with the masses, because 
he was grounding with bauxite workers, with civil 
servants, with sugar workers, with stevedores, with farmers, with villagers.

There is a historical context to the final 
assassination of Walter Rodney. Undaunted by the 
refusal to employ him, his work and contact with 
the mass of working people increased a 
hundredfold – as he would say his ‘groundings’ 
took on new meaning and had a new purpose. He was 
committed to the path of showing the working 
people the way forward, the path towards 
self-emancipation. He was committed to the path 
of helping the working people to sort out the 
problems of the country, a working people whose 
political, social, cultural, and economic 
livelihoods were threatened by a government which 
had seized power through rigged elections. A 
government, which while masquerading as 
‘socialist,’ had begun to trample on the rights 
of workers to organise, on free speech, on the 
right to assemble and mobilise, etc. A minority 
government engaged in the process of 
consolidating its power. A minority government, 
which had begun and was in the process of laying 
the foundation for dictatorial rule and state 
sponsored corruption. A minority government, 
which like other foreign sponsored counterparts 
in that period such as Haiti, Grenada, Nicaragua, 
Iran and so forth, had begun to lay the basis for 
state-sponsored terrorism against its political 
opponents and the people through the 
reorganisation of the police force and the army 
to include special security apparatuses, the most 
notorious of these was the ‘death squad,’ as it 
was known at the time. A minority government, 
that entered into agreements with the Internal 
Monetary Fund, and which imposed strict austerity 
measures on the working people, while the elites 
freely dipped their hands in the treasury and 
dabbled with the wealth of the country.

Walter Rodney was killed because he was 
unwavering in his commitment to practice and 
teach a new kind of politics, a politics which 
abhors the vanguardist top down approach to 
decision-making. He was killed because he was a 
firm believer in the self-emancipation of the 
working, and that this will only come about when 
the mass of working people are united, that is 
when they act in unison. He was killed because 
his efforts to teach the working people the art 
of unity led to the multi-racial mobilisation 
never before seen in modern Guyana. He was killed 
because the enemies of the working people 
understood that multi-racial action would lead to 
self-emancipation, and a self-emancipated people 
would bring about social transformation.

The recipe for ethnic and racial healing in 
Guyana and the Third World was Rodney’s gift to 
the working people. He firmly believed in unity 
of the working people, and was committed to the 
struggle to find long-term solutions to the 
problems of ethnic and racial division that 
consumes Guyana and most of the former colonial 
world. He was not only committed, but placed his 
body and soul in the struggle for a new kind of 
popular politics, a new political culture of 
respect. He belonged to a new generation of 
scholar activists who saw the old political games 
for what they were. He did not equate liberation 
and development with the mere replacement of 
expatriate rulers with local versions. His 
determination as a scholar-activist propelled him 
to argue that transformation and true human 
development can only be achieved through the 
common struggle of all peoples to recognise the 
necessity for a single humanity. His life’s work 
of activism and scholarship stands as an 
exceptional example to anyone willing to think 
and act outside the box. As a scholar activist he 
led the way by showing how easy it was for one to 
switch between researching and writing to 
activism. This is attested to by his ability to 
switch from researching and writing about the 
devastation wrought by outside forces on African 
societies in ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, 
and about the history of the working people of 
Guyana to intervening in the Pan-African and 
liberation movements in Africa, the movement for 
racial unity and democracy in Guyana, and to his 
work with Rastafarians in Jamaica.

While he emphasised, promoted and defended the 
right of former slaves, the African peoples of 
the Americas, the Caribbean and Guyana to 
rediscover their ancestral culture, as attested 
to in his work ‘Grounding with My Brothers,’ he 
was equally concerned for the East Indian 
descendants of indentureship in Guyana. He was 
non-sectarian and did not harbour any sectarian attitude.

His non-sectarian attitude and approach to find 
solutions for all peoples in Guyana is 
established by the equal treatment he gave to 
Africans and East Indians in his last published 
book, ‘A history of the Guyanese Working People, 
1881-1905.’ In this work he debunked the culture 
and popular perception among sections of the 
Afro-Guyanese population that East Indians in Guyana are alien to the country.

Through documentary evidence of the suffering and 
struggles of East Indians for survival on the 
plantations, he demonstrates their contribution 
as equal partners with other groups of people, 
especially Afro-Guyanese to the history Guyana. 
His insights and analysis of the contribution of 
Afro and Indo Guyanese to the history of Guyana 
is instructive and remains as an instrument for 
all of us whose life goal is the creation of a 
united multi-racial democracy in Guyana; a Guyana 
for all its sons and daughters. All of us who are 
imbued with this common goal owe it to our 
ancestors, to our and to future generations to 
put our shoulders to the wheel and work, through 
our scholarship and in our respective communities, to create such a society.


* Wazir Mohamed teaches sociology at 
University. He grew up in small rice-farming family in rural Guyana.
* Please send comments to 
<mailto:editor at pambazuka.org>editor at pambazuka.org 
or comment online at <http://www.pambazuka.org/>Pambazuka News.


[1] Rodney, Walter: A History of the Upper Guinea 
Coast (Monthly Review Press, New York 1970), pp. 240-243.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Rodney, Walter: How Europe Underdeveloped 
Africa (Howard University Press, Washington, D.C. 1982), see introduction.
[4] Rodney, Walter: Groundings with my Brothers 
(Bogle L’Overture Publications Ltd, London 1969), pp. 64-65.

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