New book!

Revolutionary Education: Theory and Practice for Socialist Organizers
Learn moreOrder a copy

Walter Rodney: A people’s professor

Aug 1, 2022

Introduction

In a recent book on the ongoing relevance of Walter Rodney’s work, Karim F. Hirji notes that, “as with scores of progressive intellectuals and activists of the past, the prevailing ideology functions to relegate Rodney into the deepest, almost unreachable, ravines of memory. A person who was widely known is now a nonentity, a stranger to the youth in Africa and the Caribbean” and the U.S. [1]. Rodney’s theoretical and practical contributions to the socialist movement warrant an ongoing engagement with his life story and major texts.

Rodney’s most recent, posthumously-published text, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World, offers an important perspective on the time period in which it was written and the internal position of the author. Rodney’s family worked with Robin Kelley in taking Walter’s extensive lecture notes on the Russian revolutionary era and forming them into a complete manuscript.

This essay, which complements our new study guide on The Russian Revolution, offers a brief overview of Rodney’s background historical context. Highlighting aspects of Rodney’s individual life demonstrates that his commitments were not just the result of his own individual experiences and conclusions, but were part of and emerged from the revolutionary crisis ripping through the world at the time. To better comprehend A View from the Third World, we turn to Groundings with My Brothers, which Rodney produced as a relatively new professor in Jamaica. In that book, Rodney reflects on the dialectical pedagogy he developed to make his academic labor part of the global movement against capitalist imperialism, which he also called the white power structure [2].

What is clear throughout Rodney’s work is the influence of the materialist insight that, while people make history, they cannot make it as they please, but it in the context of existing material conditions. Rather than start with abstract slogans or formulas, Rodney’s place of departure is an assessment of concrete conditions. For example, Rodney begins Groundings with a political assessment of the situation in Jamaica and he begins A View from the Third World with his analysis of the historical situation that gave way to Russia’s revolutionary era.

Raised in struggle

Walter Rodney was born March 23, 1942 into a working-class Guyanese family. According to Walter’s partner, Dr. Patricia Rodney, his parents introduced him to community activism at an early age. Growing up in Guyana in the 1950s, when the socialist movement was influential, “sociopolitical engagement was not uncommon among Guyanese youth” [3]. This was an incredibly exciting era to be a part of. It was a time of qualitative changes as the people of Guyana set out to build a whole new social and political system. “Walter and I, and our peers,” Patricia writes, “were strongly influenced by the political climate and the infectious spirit for independence that called and moved Guyanese of all generations to action” [4].

In contemporary U.S. society—a society that has been gripped by a deep reactionary counter-revolutionary force in response to the era of Walter Rodney’s generation—critical education tends to be viewed as something that can assist students in developing a critical consciousness. During the era that preceded the current one, when the colonized and oppressed world was in rebellion against colonialism and imperialist capitalism, it was the people, as Patricia Rodney alludes to above, who brought revolutionary commitments to education, not the other way around.

Walter Rodney was therefore one of countless students who took a sense of possibility with him to Queens College in Guyana. While at Queens College, Rodney became president of the historical society and deepened his interest in activism. In 1960, he won an Open Arts scholarship to the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. Patricia notes that “it was as a student in Jamaica that Walter first felt the disconnect between his life on campus and the grassroots community that surrounded the university” [5]. Rodney then attended the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, earning a doctorate in history in 1966 at the age of 24.

While in London Rodney deepened his political commitments through a deep study of Marxism with a group of Caribbean students who would meet at the home of C. L. R. James on Friday evenings for hours on end.

Becoming a people’s history professor

Rodney accepted his first teaching position at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in 1966, but only stayed a year. However, Rodney would return to Tanzania for five years in 1969. Vijay Prashad says that Tanzania at the time was at the “highpoint” of its “experiment with self-reliance and non-alignment, which was then called ‘African socialism’” [6].

Shortly after beginning teaching in Tanzania, “the radical students from across the region formed the University Students’ African Revolutionary Front” as a response to Tanzania’s president Dr. Julius Nyerere’s Arusha Declaration of 1967, which called for a more direct move to socialism [7]. Nyerere was the leader of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), one of the post-WWII independence movements under British-controlled Tanganyika. Support for TANU grew and by 1960 the first elections were planned for the East African country. On December 9, 1961, Tanganyika became an independent republic and changed its name to Tanzania. In 1969, C. L. R. James concluded that, as a result of these developments, Tanzania stood “as one of the foremost political phenomena of the twentieth century” [8].

James specifically points to Nyerere’s focus on rethinking secondary and higher education as Tanzania’s “most revolutionary change of all…in order to fit the children and youth…for the new society which the government…seeks to build” [9]. Many of the students from across the continent Rodney encountered at the University of Dar es Salaam brought transformative, revolutionary determination, optimism, and organizational capacities with them. As a product himself of this revolutionary era, Rodney was well positioned to not just learn from, but contribute to, the radical student movement.

In 1967, Rodney was offered a position as a history professor in Jamaica at the University of the West Indies (UWI), where his contributions flourished. As a professor in Jamaica, Rodney was “torn by the lack of connection between academia and the working class” and having “a strong desire to bridge these worlds” [10]. It is fitting then that “unlike other professors at UWI, he chose to live with his young family outside the insular university compound housing” [11]. Rodney continued to use his position as a university professor to untether his academic labor (e.g., writing and teaching) from the white power structure of bourgeois state forces to contribute to the liberation struggles of the oppressed. Refusing to put the narrow self-interest of his academic position before the broader interests of the working class, Rodney’s commitment to revolution represents not only a recurring theme throughout his work (including A View from the Third World) but of the broader liberatory atmosphere of the times.

Rodney developed a practice for bridging the gap between academia and the working class called groundings. Groundings are a dialectical process of dialogue and exchange aimed at building the revolutionary movement. Rodney saw his studies, travels, and experiences as contributions to groundings, which he shared informally in working-class public spaces and privately through formal lectures.

Groundings with My Brothers is a collection of lectures developed for their practical relevance. These lectures include tidbits of reflections on practice and pedagogy, but mostly include the content that contributed to the process of groundings. In offering a class analysis of Jamaica and various contributions to the Black Power movement, Rodney situates the Soviet example within this broad framework. His interest in revolutionary Russia was part of this larger project of charting “a new direction for Black Studies and African studies” [12]. As he writes in the second essay in Groundings:

Since 1911, white power has been slowly reduced. The Russian Revolution put an end to Russian imperialism in the Far East, and the Chinese Revolution, by 1949, had emancipated the world’s largest single ethnic group from the white power complex. The rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America (with minor exceptions such as North Korea, North Vietnam and Cuba) have remained within the white power network to this day. We live in a section of the world under white domination—the imperialist world. The Russians are white and have power, but they are not a colonial power oppressing black peoples. The white power which is our enemy is that which is exercised over black peoples, irrespective of which group is in the majority and irrespective of whether the particular country belonged originally to whites or blacks [13].

For Rodney, the Russian Revolution represented the first major victory in the global movement against racist capitalism and imperialism, which he experienced in various forms as a young person in Guyana and as an adult in Tanzania. Since capitalism is essentially a globally interconnected system, all progressive movements in the capitalist era are also related to and connected with others, while unavoidably maintaining their context-specific uniqueness. Beyond the larger historical interconnections of popular uprisings in the capitalist era, Rodney draws parallels between the experiences of poor peasants in tsarist Russia and the formerly enslaved of the Third World. The practical lessons gleaned from these connections, as highlighted below, are the raw materials for his groundings.

The Third World’s perspective

Reflecting on his own position as a professor, Rodney asks if “people like us here at the university” will follow the example of Cuba and join the Soviet and Chinese-led struggle against white power, against capitalism/imperialism? Even though most who have studied at the University of the West Indies are Black, reasons Rodney, “we are undeniably part of the white imperialist system” and “a few are actively pro-imperialist” and therefore “have no confidence in anything that is not white.” Even if the professoriate is not actively and openly anti-Black but still “say nothing against the system…we are acquiescing in the exploitation of our brethren” [14]. This silence, Rodney points out, is secured through an individualistic approach to progress, displacing the long tradition of collective struggle. As a result, “this has recruited us into their ranks and deprived the [B]lack masses of articulate leadership.” Part of the answer to the question, what is to be done is for Rodney, “Black Power in the West Indies” which “aim[s] at transforming the intelligentsia into the servants of the [B]lack masses” [15].

Like his other works, Rodney’s approach in A View from the Third World is an example of what commitments to Black liberation looked like in practice. In the Foreword to Rodney’s first posthumously published book, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, George Lamming offers some crucial insights into the practical lessons Rodney saw in past movements, relevant to our understanding of his approach in A View from the Third World: “every struggle planted a seed of creative disruption and aided the process that released new social forces” [16].

Groundings and the Russian Revolution

Revolutionary Russia was an important source of hope in Rodney’s groundings. A View from the Third World deepens the practical relevance of his groundings on the subject by offering a thorough rebuttal and exposure of bourgeois propaganda aimed at discrediting the Russian Revolution as authoritarian, anti-democratic, and so on. Rodney also speaks to the practicality of revolution by engaging the questions of organization, assessment, and tactics and by examining, for example, the differences between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Finally, while demonstrating the correctness of the Bolsheviks, Rodney does not shy away from surfacing their mistakes, highlighting the insights their successes and mistakes offer contemporary organizers.

Rodney engages these tasks through the method of historiography. A View from the Third World compares and contrasts bourgeois, Soviet, and independent socialist writings on the Russian revolutionary era with an eye toward underscoring relevant lessons for the liberation struggles of his time and place. For example, in the first chapter, Rodney points to the international context to situate his “dialectical materialist” approach to historiography noting that, “there is every reason to be suspicious of the Western European (and American) view of the Soviet Revolution, and there is every reason to seek an African view” [17]. Rodney argues for the necessity of historical accounts that advance the view of the oppressed, of those systematically underdeveloped by the capitalist-imperialist system from which Russia was the first to make a break. In developing this view, he addresses various accusations that the Russian revolutionary era was anti-democratic or authoritarian.

Rodney describes many of the critiques against the Soviet Union, from multiple political positions, as idealist, deterministic, or stageist, because they do not deal with the concrete, materialist balance of class forces but rather with abstract concepts of the ideal, such as predetermined stages of development. Rodney engages the question of Marx and Engels’ predictions regarding where socialism would first emerge as a point mobilized to discredit either Marx and Engels or to claim the Russian revolution was a departure from Marxism.

Marx and Engels’ predictions of the socialist future—which were far and few in between—were informed by dialectical or historical materialism rather than idealism, since they were based on the information they had available rather than on predetermined, universal stages of development. Rodney writes that “historical or dialectical materialism is a method that can be applied to different situations to give different answers. Marx’s comments on Western Europe were based on a thoroughly comprehensive study of the evidence that he had before him… Hence to say anything about Russia would also require close study of what was going on in Russia” [18].

The practical relevance of Rodney’s groundings work to build a mass movement is readily apparent here: without an assessment of concrete conditions, organizers are left with irrelevant and/or incorrect abstractions and formulas not likely to gain much traction. Driving home the practical implications of this point for organizers, Rodney is instructive:

Marxism is not a finished and complete product contained in a given number of texts… Marxism is a method and a worldview. Neither Marx nor Engels believed their interpretations were unassailable given the limited amount of scientific and accurate data available to them, as well as their own limitations. Furthermore, new situations arising after their time required new analysis. This is where Lenin made his major contributions” [19].

From questions of spontaneity in the February Revolution to the issue of dissolving the Constituent Assembly in the October Revolution, Rodney makes a strong case for supporting the Russian Revolution and its Bolshevik leadership. He refutes the claim that the U.S., for example, was more democratic than the Soviet Union because it had two major parties. The difference, Rodney points out, is that the U.S. had a bourgeois democracy where the major parties represented the interest of the capitalist class, while the Soviet Union had a proletarian democracy whose ruling party was responsible to–and largely emerged from–the working class and peasantry.

Rodney also addresses the major debates within the international socialist movement. For one example, he foregrounds the international significance of the harsh condemnation of the Bolsheviks by the German socialist Karl Kautsky, “who had known both Marx and Engels since his youth, and after their deaths he became their principal literary executor” [20]. Kautsky argued that Marx’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat as proletarian democracy was not yet possible in Russia since the proletariat were not the majority. Consequently, Kautsky concluded that the Bolsheviks’ seizure of state power represented an anti-democratic dictatorship that imposed its will on the peasantry. Rodney summarizes Lenin’s response to Kautsky, setting the record straight that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the political domination of the exploited classes over their former exploiting ones.

Groundings against reactionary academia

Rodney exposes the counter-revolutionary role of academia as one of the primary locations producing anti-Soviet propaganda. Explaining the hegemony or dominance of the bourgeois approach to revolutionary Russia and history more generally, he interrogates “the university institutions that are responsible for the vast majority of research and publications in the field” as “an important element in the superstructure.” Elite universities exist to “serve the interests of the capitalist or bourgeois class” [21]. At the individual level, for example, “the conservative historians always expose themselves by their contemptuous attitude toward the working people” [22].

Even more explicitly exposing the role of universities in serving the larger interests of the bourgeoisie, Rodney points to a 1957 publication by R.N. Carew Hunt, who was “widely believed to be a British intelligence agent” parading as a “scholar and authority on the Soviet Union” [23]. Beyond individual professors, Rodney implicates entire university projects such as Stanford University’s Hoover Institution for War and Peace, which “is notorious for its connections with the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department” [24].

Using himself as an example to deepen the practical relevance of his critique, Rodney rhetorically asks, “what is my position? What is the position of all of us because we fall into the category of the black West Indian intellectual, a privilege in our society? What do we do with that privilege? The traditional pattern is that we join the establishment…How do we break out of this…captivity” [25]. He offers three suggestions for academics: 1) to confront pro-imperialist and racist knowledge production; 2) to challenge the idea that racial harmony defines our “post-racial society” by moving beyond the intellectual division of labor in bourgeois academies; and 3) to connect with the masses of Black working and poor people.

Expanding on these directives, Rodney makes an important pedagogical statement that, in challenging the many myths of white supremacist imperialism in the process of connecting with the masses, “you do not have to teach them anything. You just have to say it, and they will add something to what you are saying” [26]. As a result of engaging the Jamaican working class as subjects with valuable knowledge, “Rodney encountered a Black Power movement in Jamaica that was already well underway” [27]. But it was a two-way street, and what Rodney contributed was “a framework that critically examined the impact of slavery and colonialism and that gave a foundation for interpreting the current situation of Black and oppressed peoples in these newly independent countries, who continued to be marginalized” [28]. In the Introduction to A View from the Third World, Robin Kelley affirms this contention, writing that “the way Rodney engaged society as a university lecturer was considered ‘strange’ and even dangerous that it was interpreted as a challenge to the establishment” [29]. Outlining what this pedagogy, this practice, looked like in motion, in action, Rodney elaborates:

“I lectured at the university, outside of the classroom that is. I had public lectures, I talked about Black Power, and then I left there, I went from the campus. I was prepared to go anywhere that any group of [B]lack people were prepared to sit down to talk and listen. Because that is Black Power, that is one of the elements, a sitting-down together to reason, to ‘ground’ as the brothers say. We have to ‘ground together.’…[T]his…must have puzzled the Jamaican government. I must be mad, surely; a man we are giving a job, we are giving status, what is he doing with these guys, [people they call] ‘criminals and hooligans’[?]…I was trying to contribute something. I was trying to contribute my experience in  , in reading, my analysis; and I was also gaining, as I will indicate” [29].

Rodney’s groundings emerged from this powerful combination of research and teaching with his eagerness to learn from, and be taught by, those looked down on by mainstream academia. Committed to the revolutionary fervor of the times, the resulting perception and treatment of Rodney as a threat to the establishment was not an effective deterrent. Rodney’s remarkable and unyielding achievements are among the fruits of the post-WWII revolutionary crisis. As the crisis of capitalism and of the white power structure deepens, so too does the influence of Rodney’s life and legacy.

Conclusion

By the age of 38, Rodney had become part of the same “tradition of intellectual leadership among Africans and people of African descent in the Americas” that includes “Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois, George Padmore and C. L. R. James” [30]. It is important to note that for Rodney, scholarship was not simply an academic exercise but one central to making the academy relevant to the liberation of the oppressed. Jamaican professor Verene A. Shepherd argues that it is Rodney’s pedagogy that is the model for the activist academic, a model that remains relevant because activists in academia are still rare and still desperately needed [31].

A recurring theme throughout not only A View from the Third World, but throughout all of Rodney’s work, is  Marx and Engels’ caution against “applying the dialectic mechanically” because the specific historical development of the balance of competing class interests does not proceed in predetermined, inevitable ways, and that what people do matters [32].

The Liberation School study guide for A View from the Third World will help today’s organizers and activists do just that.

References

[1] Karim F. Hirji, The Enduring Relevance of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (New York: Daraja Press, 2017), xi.
[2] For a more in-depth analysis of Rodney’s pedagogy see Jesse Benjamin and Devyn Springer, “Groundings: A Revolutionary Pan-African Pedagogy for Guerilla Intellectuals,” in Keywords in Radical Philosophy and Education: Common Concepts for Contemporary Movements, ed. D. Ford, (Boston: Brill, 2019), 210-225. For more on Rodney’s life, legacy, and pedagogy, see Devyn Springer and Derek Ford, “Walter Rodney’s Revolutionary Praxis: An Interview with Devyn Springer,” Liberation School, 12 August 2021. Available here.
[3] Patricia Rodney, “Living the Groundings–A Personal Context,” in W. Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers, ed. A.T Rodney and J. Benjamin (New York: Verso, 2019), 77-85, 77.
[4] Ibid., 77-78.
[5] Ibid., 78.
[6] Vijay Prashad, “Foreword,” in W. Rodney, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World (New York: Verso, 2018), vii-xiii, viii.
[7] Ibid., viii.
[8] C.L.R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012), 118.
[9] Ibid., 128.
[10] Rodney, “Living the Groundings,” 80.
[11] Robin D. G. Kelley, “Introduction,” in W. Rodney, The Russian Revolution, xix-lxxiii, xxviii.
[12] Carole Boyce Davies, “Introduction: Re-grounding the Intellectual-Activist Model of Walter Rodney,” in W. Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers, xi-xxii, xvi.
[13] Walter Rodney, Groundings with My Brothers (New York: Verso, 1969/2019), 11.
[14] Ibid., 28.
[15] Ibid., 29.
[16] George Lamming, “Foreword,” in Walter Rodney, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905 (Kingston, Jamaica: Heinemann, 1981), xvii-xxv, xix.
[17] Walter Rodney, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World, (New York: Verso, 2018), 3.
[18] Ibid., 50.
[19] Ibid., 150.
[20] Ibid., 105.
[21] Ibid., 12.
[22] Ibid., 15.
[23] Ibid., 14.
[24] Ibid., 18. For a different example of the same line of inquiry, see Gabriel Rockhill, “The CIA & the Frankfurt School’s Anti-Communism,” Monthly Review, 27 June 2022. Available here.
[25] Rodney, Groundings with My Brothers, 66.
[26] Ibid., 67.
[27] Kelley, “Introduction,” xxviii.
[28] Ibid., xxviii.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Lamming, “Foreword,” Rodney, xvii.
[31] Verene A. Shepherd, “The Continued Relevance of Rodney’s Groundings,” In W. Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers, 101-108.
[32] Rodney, A View from the Third World, 170.

Study, fast, train, fight: The roots of Black August

Study, fast, train, fight: The roots of Black August

Editor's note: This article was initially published on Liberation School in 2019.   In August 1619, enslaved Africans touched foot in the first permanent English settlement in what is now the United States for the first time. The centuries since have seen the...

Study, fast, train, fight: The roots of Black August

Study, fast, train, fight: The roots of Black August

Editor's note: This article was initially published on Liberation School in 2019.   In August 1619, enslaved Africans touched foot in the first permanent English settlement in what is now the United States for the first time. The centuries since have seen the...