9 Hope and struggle

Walter Rodney was not the first, only, or last person to apply the Marxist approach to unravel the history of Africa. He stood on the shoulders of giants. But as an intellectual, he too became a giant, a highly influential giant. He did not approach history like an accountant producing a balance sheet. Instead of a pros and cons style, he adopted a systemic method that sought to unveil, within an interdisciplinary perspective, the short and long term dynamics of societal change. His approach did not target or blame races, nations or religions. Instead, he looked for explanations in the context of an evolving global capitalist system, the tentacles it set up in Africa and the resultant consequences for the continent and its peoples.

My diary says that I first met Walter Rodney on July 10, 1969 at the University of Dar es Salaam. He had just given a lecture on The Cuban Revolution and its Relevance to Africa to a packed audience of students and staff. It was sponsored by the University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF) – a socialist, Pan-Africanist student organization of which I was a member. A few comrades had stayed behind to meet with him.

We had had discussions about Cuba in the USARF study groups, read Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and the Cuban magazine Granma. Nevertheless, our knowledge of its revolutionary process was still shallow. We knew events and personalities, but not the reality beneath the surface.

Walter sketched the background, identified the critical signposts, gave illuminating details, and set the global context in an integrated but clear manner. His captivating metallic voice and lyrical style transfixed the audience. He made us laugh and ponder at the same time. His exposition of US imperialism made the case for the essential relevance of the Cuban experience to Africa unimpeachable. I am sure that that evening Walter won over many wavering student minds to the cause of African liberation.

Before going to bed that night, I wrote in my diary:

The most impressive and brilliant speech I have heard so far. One could almost feel the strong conviction and deep emotions from which he spoke. I am convinced that Comrade Rodney is one of the most devoted and brilliant socialists to be found anywhere (Karim Hirji, 10 July 1969).

First impressions are reputed to mislead. In this instance, the opposite was the case. This first impression hit the nail right on its head. Over the following six years, I learned, struggled and laughed with this wonderful man on many occasions, over a host of issues, and at a close level. Never did I have cause to revise my initial take. It is thus with a sense of honor that, in this concluding chapter, I present my remembrances of a titan of the human race and the lessons about the struggle for human dignity and emancipation he has left for us.

First I recollect a few personal interactions. Then I outline the socio-political context of those days. Thereafter, I discuss the contradiction between hope and struggle as it affected the building of socialism in Tanzania, relate how Walter Rodney dealt with it over the course of his stay in that country, and explain its contemporary import.

The contradiction between hope and struggle, in its general form, pertains to the strivings for a just, humane, non-militaristic, non-corporate, egalitarian social order everywhere. I argue that we have much to learn from the way Walter Rodney formulated, navigated and resolved it in a specific instance.

Walter the man

Three months after I met him, I was elected the senior editor of Cheche, the new USARF magazine. As we scoured around for articles, he readily agreed to write one. Not only did he keep his word, but his article was the first ever submission for Cheche. And it was directly typed on stencils, saving us much trouble (Rodney 1969a). He handed me the stencils near the student cafeteria – the scene lingers in my mind, and I still have those now frayed, barely legible stencils.

Walter became a key contributor to this student run magazine and its successor, MajiMaji. His trenchant, analytic pieces did not shy away from controversy. They were a major attraction for students, academics, and people beyond the campus. The quality, circulation and reputation of the radical, but resource-deprived, fledgling magazines were well promoted by the presence of his amply researched articles.

Walter was an associate member of USARF (only students could get full membership). He gave lectures in the Sunday USARF self-education classes, participated in sweat drenching work in cooperative villages and student-run farms, attended symposiums, demonstrations and exhibitions about the war in Vietnam, the struggle against Portuguese colonial rule and apartheid South Africa, and supported the efforts of the African liberation movements.

This was in addition to the demanding teaching, research and other responsibilities in the History Department. On that front, he challenged, with evidence and keen logic, the biases in the mainstream elaborations of global and African histories. It was not to the liking of reactionary social scientists, Tanzanian and expatriate, but among the students, he was a distinctively admired and popular teacher.

Since I was majoring in mathematics, I was not formally enrolled in his history courses. But I learned a lot from my continual interactions with him outside the classroom. A high point on that front was when he asked Henry Mapolu, a Cheche co-editor and sociology major, and me to comment on the draft chapters of HEUA. To this day, I boast that I was among the very first persons to read what has become a classic of African history. I remember the three of us sitting down week after week, two to three hours at a time, discussing one chapter after next in the close confines of the USARF office.

Henry and I were influenced by Andre Gunder Frank’s theory of underdevelopment. But our understanding was of a mechanistic variety. Walter provided the complexity and dynamics.  We critiqued the lower emphasis on internal struggles. The towering historian patiently paid attention to the two upstart students, and, in places, revised what he had written. Without doubt, those sessions were the best lessons in history I have ever had.

When the aptly sized book came out a year on, we proudly carried it around in the same spirit as the Chinese youth carried around the pocket book of quotations of Chairman Mao!

But it was not all work and work. Walter interacted with us on a personal basis too. We went to his place, played with his children, and enjoyed the tasty food Pat Rodney served us. Once, two months or so after we had gotten married, Farida and I were at a party in his place. On the social front, I had a reserved personality. As the party got swinging, Farida and I sat in a corner, whispering to ourselves. When Walter observed us, he marched to us forthwith and pronounced loudly, ‘The two of you need to separate.’ With that he took Farida by the hand and set her amidst one vibrant group, and then, with a wink, hauled me off to another.

Two years earlier, I was set to depart for postgraduate study at the London School of Economics. My family, Joe Kanywanyi and Haroub Othman were at the airport to bid me safari njema (safe trip). In those hot-headed days, it was taboo for me to put on a formal dress. But my father said that I could not go to London looking like a ‘vagabond.’ So he purchased a suit, tie and associated stuff. At his insistence, I put them on.

When Walter arrived and saw me dandily attired, he elicited a loud laugh. ‘Karim, Cabral says the petty bourgeoisie need to commit suicide,’ (A reference to the Guinea Bissau freedom fighter Amilcar Cabral’s call to the elite in Africa to abandon the get-rich-quick mentality and facile imitation of Western culture, and dedicate itself to serve the masses), he said as he thumped me on the back, ‘But what I see here is a petty bourgeois rebirth!’ I cherish a picture of that episode (see Photo). When I look at it, I recall his jest with a smile.

Talking of elitism, I had one misgiving. Walter was enamored with cricket. He attended cricket matches and played the game. But in Tanzania, it was an exclusive sport. Most teams were parochial, representing the different segments of the Asian business community. Among the audience or players, hardly any black faces were seen. Why did he go to such elitist events? Reasoning that no one is perfect, and that it was but a minor transgression, I did not raise the issue.

It is only when I read CLR James’ majestic rendition of cricket in the West Indies that I came to realize how misguided I had been. In that part of the world, cricket, though a colonial import, was internalized into the local culture and had become a pastime of the masses. It also was a vehicle for the expression of nationalistic sentiment (James 1993). Walter’s predilection towards cricket reflected that socio-historic reality, not elitism. Seek the meaning of an act, as they say, not in the abstract but in the social context in which it occurs.

Ujamaa in Tanzania

Now I outline the political scene of this period. Under the leadership of Mwalimu Nyerere, Tanzania adopted the policy of Socialism and Self-Reliance. Banks, industries, firms, and plantations were nationalized, rural development was promoted under collective villages, the education system was overhauled, and a code to restrict the accumulation of wealth by the political elite was instituted. Guidelines for worker self-management and local control in the rural areas were promulgated. All this fell under the rubric of the policy of Ujamaa (Nyerere 1967; TANU 1967; TANU 1971).

The masses at home and progressive forces abroad hailed these moves. Coming on top of a firm anti-colonial foreign policy, they gained wide international acclaim for the nation. Reactionary African leaders, Western media and the imperialists, however, spared no vitriol for what Mwalimu Nyerere said and did.

Progressive students and academic staff at UDSM were in full support of anti-colonialism, socialism and Pan-Africanism. We promoted these ideas in words and deeds. We studied the theoretical aspects of Ujamaa, and examined how it was implemented. We investigated how it affected the lives of the workers, peasants, teachers and common folk. Public discussions and written debates on what we observed took place.

The September 1970 special issue of Cheche was devoted to a pioneering paper by Issa Shivji entitled Tanzania: The Silent Class Struggle. He subsequently expanded his analysis in Tanzania: The Class Struggle Continues (Shivji 1970;1973;1976). These works scrutinized Ujamaa in practice and the emergent socio-economic trends in Tanzania. An extensive outpouring of research and analyses relating to the condition of workers, life in rural areas, health and education policies, agriculture and industrialization projects, development planning, and so on by others also occurred. Some details and references are in Hirji (2011) and Coulson (1979;2014).

Two tendencies

The voluminous research and analyses by progressive scholars presented an unmistakable message: there was a large gap between the theory and practice of Ujamaa. Whether in rural or urban areas, agriculture, tourism or industry, education or social services, colonial era tendencies persisted. Unplanned, counterproductive implementation was the norm, and new forms of bureaucratic domination were emerging. Key institutions were public in name only as they were dominated by Western capitalist entities and modes of action. Ordinary people were marginalized and bore the brunt of the ensuing economic and social chaos. Investigations by astute mainstream scholars conveyed essentially the same message. The benefits of the new policy were, apart from a few demonstration cases, limited in time, place and extent.

Such revelations generated two basic modes of thought among the progressive students and staff. I will call them the tendency of hope and the tendency of struggle.

The former argued that despite the observed problems, there were other factors and forces that made attainment of socialism under the existing framework a realistic possibility. The gap between the haves and have-nots was much smaller in Tanzania than elsewhere in the Third World. Landlessness and similar societal ills were less extreme. The country was stable and unified, culturally and politically, unlike most African nations. And most importantly, Mwalimu Nyerere was a genuinely committed, honest and enlightened leader, respected by the nation at large. The errors in implementing Ujamaa would thereby be a springboard from which lessons would be learned, and the nation put on the desired path.

In other words, there was great room for hope. The progressives should rally behind Mwalimu Nyerere, mobilize support for his policies at the grassroots level, and isolate the reactionary forces in the ruling party and the state. Extreme conditions like those in Latin America that bred armed rebellions were not only non-existent, but, given the trends, were also unlikely in Tanzania.

The tendency of hope is exemplified in a speech given by the respected Caribbean Marxist and Pan-Africanist CLR James. He deemed Julius Nyerere a practical socialist who thoroughly understood the problems facing Africa. In his estimation, Nyerere stood shoulder to shoulder with Lenin in confronting the challenging problems of the peasantry. On the question of education, his assessment is worth a quote:

[T]here is one of the most important features of political development in the world today, not only for the underdeveloped countries but, I am positive, I have examined it, the advanced countries, in their systems of education in particular, have a lot to learn from what is taking place in Tanzania (James 1973).

The tendency of struggle accepted that the intense, Latin America-type of contradictions were not present in Tanzania. But it noted that all the trends in the economy and state organizations were in an anti-socialist direction. Socialism had become a cover for policies inspired by the World Bank. The rural decentralization scheme enacted in 1972 ensued from a report produced by a major American management consultancy firm. Imagine Fidel Castro calling upon a US multinational to guide the rural policy in Cuba! Yet, that was what was happening here. Despite the call for self-reliance, Tanzania became among the top recipient of foreign funds in Africa. The funders called the shots in key aspects of development policies.

This tendency showed that despite Mwalimu’s commitment, the existing trends were entrenching neo-colonial domination of the economy, political control of the state by the elite, and disempowerment of the masses. If not halted, the future of Tanzania was greater inequality, structural dependency, imperial domination and persistent poverty. It was gradually but consistently on the way to be either a version of state capitalism or a Latin American model state.

Take one case: Henry Mapolu’s empirical evaluation of the villagization program reached a firm conclusion – for all the fanfare about cooperative farming, the major outcome was popular disillusionment, and enhanced integration of the peasantry into the global capitalist economy, and that in a condition of further subservience (Mapolu 1986;1990).

The tendency of struggle did not promote armed rebellion. What it called for was independent education and mobilization of the peasants and workers using ways and means that were autonomous, in form and content, from the establishment. The ruling bureaucracy was unlikely to march towards socialism. The essential task was to establish a new political reality through mass mobilization and struggles.

I estimate that the progressive students were about equally divided into the two camps of hope and struggle. Among the progressive academic staff, most of whom were expatriates, the majority favored the hope tendency.

Hope or struggle?

Like Ernesto Che Guevara, Walter Rodney was a universal being. Outside his home country, he was also at home, keenly immersed in local politics and struggles, and promoting a socialistic agenda in cooperation with local activists. He was not an onlooker, but one of us He engaged in words and deeds, animated heart and soul, with the rough, risky socio-political landscape. Yes, he was grounding with his brothers and sisters.

Earlier I noted some of his activities in local matters at the pedagogic and practical levels. For details, see Alpers and Fontaine (1982), Campbell (1985;1986), Shivji (1993) and Hirji (2011), and the special memorial issue no. 39 of MajiMaji. A comprehensive account of his life and work in Tanzania, though, has yet to appear.

My focus is on one matter, namely the discussions on the character of the socialist process in Tanzania. Walter Rodney was a central figure in these debates. In the classroom and beyond, with students and academic staff, in public exchanges and ideological classes, in popular and scholarly writings, he discussed his stand. For example, he and John Saul wrote the two main responses to Issa Shivji’s Silent Class Struggle (Rodney 1971c; Saul 1971).

I will not render an academic sort of review. My remarks come from my personal interactions with him. After the publication of Silent Class Struggle, Walter and I had many one-to-one sessions, some lasting hours, discussing this question. I remember one occasion when we kept Ted Jones, the fabulous African American poet, waiting as we poured over a thorny matter. Needless to say, meeting the dynamic poet later was an enthralling experience.

At this time, Issa Shivji was in London. I wrote long letters to him to keep him abreast of the situation on the campus and the nation. I also conveyed what I discussed with Walter. One of the letters, dated 20 January 1970, survives to this day.

Walter leaned towards the hope tendency, and I towards the struggle tendency. As I wrote to Issa, the key points underlying his stand were:

  1. Socialistically inclined forces under the leadership of Mwalimu Nyerere controlled political power in Tanzania.
  2. Economic disengagement from neo-colonial domination was a long process with ups and downs.
  3. Rural contradictions and land issues in Tanzania were not as sharp, and the peasantry not as intensely dominated by landlords or multinational firms as elsewhere in the global capitalist system.
  4. The current direction of the nation exhibited both positive and negative signs.
  5. The progressive section of the political elite was expanding. It would eventually put the nation onto a consistently socialistic direction.
  6. Our task was to enhance the progressive forces and work against the reactionary ones, but within the current political set-up.

On points (2) and (3), I generally agreed with him. But on other points, I did not. On (1), I held that the character of the state was essentially what was inherited from the colonial times. On (4), I felt that the negative trends far outweighed the few positive ones. On (5), I partly agreed but felt that his assessment was too optimistic. And, on (6), I stressed independent efforts so as not to be compromised by and sucked into an authoritarian bureaucracy.

The supporters of socialism held such discussions in many venues. They also confronted, verbally, in writing and in public demonstrations, a strong group of camouflaged or overtly anti-socialist organizations and people at all levels in the society.

Walter Rodney did not sit back and hope. He actively promoted socialist ideas, and over time acquired a deep insight into the social and economic set up in Tanzania. His views evolved. His critique of Shivji’s The Class Struggle Continues faulted some details, but his optimism about the socio-political trends was distinctly tempered:

In Tanzania, as elsewhere, the strengthening of the state has gone hand in hand with the emergence of privileged classes who themselves depend inordinately on the state machinery for power and accumulation (Rodney 1974).

This was a major change from his earlier, short-lived depiction of Ujamaa as Scientific Socialism (Rodney 1972b). As Walter refined his analysis, our dialogue continued. In early 1974, I was ejected from the university. Though couched as a normal transfer, it was a politically driven banishment to a remote area. Comrades and academics tried to reverse the decision but to no avail. Walter gave me firm moral and practical support during those trying days when Farida was pregnant with her first child.

The last time I met him was just before I headed into the hinterland. His views on socialism in Tanzania retained a modicum of hope. But now he accepted that a reactionary bureaucracy was wresting control of key institutions of the state. From viewing class struggle as a battle of ideas among sections of the petty bourgeoisies, he argued that the actual trends were mostly disheartening. To realize Ujamaa, a strident struggle against these tendencies was required (Rodney 1980a).

His last words to me in essence were: ‘Comrade, wherever we are, the struggle continues.’ He was by then preparing to make a transition in which the struggle on the ground would constitute the dominant aspect of his life. And for conducting that struggle, he chose an arena where he would be most effective. I did not meet him again.

Hope and struggle

When times are bleak, when socially retrogressive forces run amok, an entity standing up anyhow and anywhere to the powers of the day can inspire hope; indeed, a great deal of hope. That is but a natural reaction. And when one comes from afar, it is easy to misjudge the situation and be more hopeful than need be. One lacks the concrete experiences of the local folk. One is not as versed in the local cultural and social exchange to draw as critical a conclusion as ought to be the case. But being an outsider has its advantages too in that one can be less biased in terms of supporting this or that view on subjective, person-based, or non-evidentiary factors.

Nyerere boldly stood up to Western imperialism like few other African leaders did. He was an honest, decent, intellectually astute, visionary, Pan-Africanist leader. He lived in the era of Mobutu, Banda and Kenyatta. He inspired many. He initiated major changes in his country. No wonder, he generated a great deal of hope, both in the nation and abroad.

This quote by CLR James was a typical instance of the veneration of his policies by far sighted personalities of unimpeachable integrity from Africa and beyond. Yet, 1973 was not 1968. Had James written those words in 1968, I would have stood with him. By 1973, I had had a five-year worth of contact with many schools – in teaching practice, as a supervisor of trainees in teaching practice, as a speaker before student groups, in contacts with numerous teachers, and as an informal visitor. My assessment of Education for Self-Reliance concluded the opposite of what James states. In virtually all schools, among teachers and students, it was an unpopular policy. It was implemented in a haphazard manner and was blamed for lowering the standard of education (Hirji 1973; Mbilinyi 1979). And it was essentially for writing those critical words that I was banished from the university.

CLR James gave several inspiring speeches at the UDSM in 1968. I was in the audience. But his views remained static. Perhaps he had too many things in mind. But, without detracting from his profound contribution to our understanding of the situation in the Third World, I say with confidence that by 1973 his take on education in Tanzania was way off the mark.

At the outset, Walter Rodney and CLR James had similar stands on socialism in Tanzania. But unlike his erstwhile mentor, Walter’s stand was a dynamic one. He learned from practice. He paid attention to the facts, the life of the common person and the views of other comrades. He exuded the humility and intellectual honesty that a person genuinely dedicated to social transformation ought to possess.

Just after Walter Rodney was assassinated, CLR James critiqued him on the question of state power (James 1981). He had some valid points. But a while back, James had also dealt with that question in Tanzania in a superficial way. He did not note that fact. Nor did he admit that Rodney had eventually come to a more valid analysis of state power in Tanzania.

Contemporary import

Hope and struggle are fundamental to striving for social (or personal) change.  No movement can flourish without both. The question is what aspect dominates at what point in time, and where to draw the line so as not to be side tracked or get stuck in a morass.

Take the case of the progressive forces in the USA: the workers, immigrants, women, Native Americans, oppressed communities like African Americans and Hispanic Americans, and the anti-war and social justice groups. The past fifty years show that when the president is a Republican, they are energized, come out on the streets and struggle for change. But when a Democrat is in the White House, their expectations are so raised that most community based struggles come to a halt or are suspended. That the Democrat, without exception, implements what is essentially the Republican economic, foreign policy, military, educational and other agendas is overlooked or downplayed.

When he raised basic economic and anti-war issues, Martin Luther King faced criticism from those who had hope in the establishment. The same thing happened to progressive activists who maintained their critical stands under Bill Clinton and Obama (Comissiong 2012; Ford 2012).

That dilemma prevailed in the Arab Spring as well. At the outset, it was a progressive, local liberation movement. But then it was hijacked. The forces of struggle placed undue reliance on Western entities that previously propped up the regime. But others proclaimed that there was little hope for fundamental change through cooperation with these imperial powers (Beckett 2009; Smulewitz-Zucker and Thompson 2015; Traboulsi 2012).

The same problem exists regarding regimes like those of Robert Mugabe. The tendency of hope espouses nationalism and anti-imperialism, but in alliance with a tyrant, while that of struggle calls for democracy, but with help from the unrepentant enemies of Africa.

The life and work of Walter Rodney teaches us that the dichotomy between hope and struggle is a false one. It is not a question of hope or struggle but that of hope and struggle. We need to combine the two, operate independently and never abandon one at the expense of the other. In Tanzania, he started off with much hope, came to realize the primacy of popular struggles, and went on to implement that in practice in his place of birth.

The irony is that those of us who theoretically critiqued him for having too much hope were not able to fully follow our own recipes for community mobilization and struggle. He was a truly dedicated revolutionary; his words were consistent with his deeds; he evolved as the concrete conditions demanded.

Let us honor the memory of this unique member of the human family by learning that lesson, and, in our collective strivings for a better world, draw the right balance between hope and struggle, between theory and practice, between specific concerns and broad transformation, between localism and internationalism, between issue oriented politics and systemic change.

As Africa remains mired in grotesque inequality, structural dependency, imperial domination and persistent poverty, consider an exaltation I think both Walter Rodney and Malcolm X would be in full agreement with:

[L]ook at that thing the way it is. They have got a con game going on, a political con game, and you and I are in the middle. It’s time for you and me to wake up and start looking at it like it is, and trying to understand it like it is; and then we can deal with it like it is (Comissiong 2012).


A whole generation of youth, from Africa and the Caribbean, but also in Europe, America and other parts of the Third World, were inspired by Rodney and his writings, especially HEUA. Many were driven to activism by the exceptionally bright light he shed on the gruesome realities of the domination of Africa. He demonstrated that Africa was not poor due to innate cultural, biologic or geographic deficiencies but principally because it had been abjectly exploited for too long. In addition to its critical pedagogic value, by restoring dignity and enhancing hope, this major work became a veritable instrument for questioning the current socio-economic realities and promoting fundamental change.

History provides us means to grasp how we came to be what we are and gives a sense of purpose to life. In class societies, two distinct versions of history prevail. One promotes the vision and interests of the rulers, and the other, of the ruled. The former justifies the existent social structure; the latter queries it and seeks avenues to change it. The strong control exercised by the dominant economic class on the means of generation and promotion of ideas makes the former version inundate the public mind much of the time. In times of crisis and transformation, though, the latter version begins to surface, develop and spread (Zinn 1990).

Today the global capitalist system faces a deep crisis that manifests itself on multiple fronts. Massive economic crises, high levels of poverty, homelessness and unemployment, militarism, wars between and within nations, social instability and horrific violence, racism and xenophobia, fascistic tendencies and unbelievable extremism, public disillusionment, dysfunctional health and educational systems, voter apathy, and so on. The poor and rich nations are affected, though in varied ways.

Establishment history, in the West and elsewhere, is in a state of crisis. The traditional narrative no more exercises as strong a grip on the public mind as it did until recently. Cynicism, despair and irrational visions are on the ascendance. The US public increasingly does not buy the message that their nation is a global force for justice, rule of law and fairness. Eminent mainstream historians are worried. Seeking to counter public alienation, they are calling for a revamp of how history has been approached and presented in the past fifty years. They decry the stress on micro-level studies, gender, ethnic and post-colonial studies, short term focus, data driven strategies etc. They call for historical narratives based on unitary, society wide horizons and longer term perspectives. They ask for the reintegration of historians within the circles of decision making (Guldi and Arimtage 2014).

However rational their call may sound, ultimately it stems from a desire to protect the capitalist system. They seek to reform it and find ways to tackle the excesses like high level of inequality, mass poverty, housing crises, avaricious financial institutions, environmental catastrophe and unchecked militarism.

The peoples of the planet, the 99%, however, do not need to go in that direction. Instead of superficial reformist measures, they should strive to replace capitalism and imperialism with a just social order based on equality, internal and international cooperation, social and economic justice, peace and total disarmament. Neo-liberalism, particularly, must be exposed and banished from Africa and the planet.

Liberationist historians have a major role to play in helping that process take off. African historians, academics and activists of goodwill should think along systemic, long term lines and consider the issue of class analysis and class struggles. They need to creatively invoke the Marxist methodology. They must engage with the ideas of equality, socialism, cooperation, popular democracy, regional economic integration and planning, environmentally appropriate technology and so on in relevant ways. Instead of the micro-level, donor driven, NGO-based vision, we need independent, innovative, society level paths for progress.

Not that it will be a straightforward or easy task. As the analysis of books done earlier indicates, the bulk of the current crop of historians of Africa, of diverse historiographical persuasions, are entwined in an embrace with the neo-liberal social order. They will oppose such a move. On the continent, as well the discipline of history has suffered a major setback.  In Rodney’s days, the Department of History at the University of Dar es Salaam and the Historical Association of Tanzania were globally prominent in terms the volume and quality of their output on Tanzanian and African history, some which shone with methodological innovation. It was active in the improvement of history teaching in schools. Today, the quantity and quality of its publications have declined precipitously. Despite a ten-fold increase in the student population at the University, the numbers of students in history programs have remained stagnant. Most students are attracted to Business Studies, Computer Science, Communication Studies and Law. In 2016, a much-publicized event to remedy that state of affairs was organized at the University. The Historical Association of Tanzania, which had been dormant for twenty-five years, was to be revived. Yet, it was a ‘donor’ funded effort. One wonders how far it will go and the direction it will take (Kamagi 2016; The Citizen 2016a).

For those who will pursue an alternative path, there is a major political risk too. Adopting a Marxist stand in the academia of the Third World or the West has historically been a dangerous option, in professional and personal terms. Eminent historians have paid a steep price. In the UK, Eric Hobsbawm’s career was for long thwarted by behind the scenes dirty actions of the intelligence agencies (Saunders 2015); in the US, Howard Zinn faced a life time of politically inspired barriers due to his civil rights, anti-war and social justice related writings and activism (Kirstein 2015); in Latin America, Eduardo Galeano endured years of sustained harassment, imprisonment and frequent forced exile by the US backed dictatorships (Fulton 2015); in India, the Marxist DD Kosmabi, despite his first rate output in many fields, faced career damaging moves of political origin (Kosambi 2013). Walter Rodney, the stellar Marxist historian and fighter for social justice, faced, throughout his career, a diversity of daunting hazards, and paid the ultimate price.

Yet, pursuing those avenues is essential for the liberation of Africa. More than anything else, Africa needs young activists/scholars who will write for the public and not exclusively for the academic specialist. It needs a breed of scholars who will take modern reactionary academics to task as Rodney did in his time. It needs scholars who, besides learning from his writings and methodology, will also take a fresh look at his work. They will need to rectify the factually flawed aspects of his book, and improve his approach in relation to internal class relations and class struggle. They will need to take the vastly different global reality into account. The socialist world is no more. China is a major capitalist power. The manifestations of neo-colonialism under the neo-liberal order, on the economic, political and cultural arenas, need meticulous, systemic, critical analysis.

In particular, Africa needs a four volume People’s History of Africa that portrays the four phases of the evolution of African societies – pre-European contact, initial contact to the onset of colonial era, the colonial era and the independence period – in a systemic, Marxist perspective. That work must integrate the internal and external class relations and struggles with comprehensive depictions of the basic economic realities, and simultaneously link them to cultural, political and societal trends and occurrences (Depelchin 2011; Temu and Swai 1981; Therborn 2012). It should dynamically and vividly show us why things went the way they did and indicate possible ways and means out of the dire predicament Africa faces. That tome, maybe jointly produced by a group of committed intellectuals, must be supplemented with smaller derivative books written in a lively, inspiring style for popular consumption. Besides English, French and Portuguese versions, they should be available in languages like Swahili, Yoruba and Arabic. That would be a fitting legacy to our brave, departed comrade Walter Rodney.

Having said that, I confidently declare that How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was the twentieth century’s most outstanding book on the history of Africa. Its basic methodology has withstood the test of time and remains solid. It retains its relevance for understanding the African past, grasping its trajectory from the time of Independence, and importantly, for insight into distinctive future scenarios that may unfold. Let us give this intellectual giant and committed human being the credit due to him. Let us follow in his footsteps to not just interpret the world scientifically but also to join hands with the popular masses to change it effectively and for the better.

The simple words of a modern day young scholar-activist on Rodney’s masterpiece sum up much of what one can say about it:

Through the lens of scholar and academic, what is most useful about this work is its ability to enlighten and transform. ….. Through the lens of the activist and movement builder, what is most useful about this book is its ability to organize and stand in solidarity with those in the struggle to redevelop Africa (Sabrina Smiley 2010).

 The question I am left with is: Considering the daunting hurdles, existential threats and mammoth tasks presently facing Africa, are its intellectuals and activists ready to take on, in the spirit of Walter Rodney, Amilcar Cabral, Chris Hani and others who valiantly struggled in days gone past, the challenges that lie ahead?


The enduring relevance of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Copyright © 2017 by Karim F Hirji. All Rights Reserved.

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