4 Rodney the revolutionary

Walter Rodney (1942-1980) was not just a brilliant radical historian but as well, a public intellectual par excellence, a revolutionary firmly devoted to the cause of human emancipation from injustice and exploitation in all their varied forms. His grassroots level involvement in societal ferments, no matter where he was, attested to his unwavering internationalism and commitment. Neo-colonial regimes, conservative scholars and the embassies of Western nations denounced him. Yet his genuinely warm spirit, exquisite oratory skills, extroverted personality, critical articles in the mass media and participation in the day-to-day struggles cemented his popularity with students, Pan-Africanists and anti-imperialist activists, and ordinary people in Africa, the Caribbean, Guyana and elsewhere.

After completing his doctoral studies, apart from a tumultuous year at the University of West Indies and eight months in Cuba, he lectured at the History Department of the University of Dar es Salaam until 1974. During that period, he was the most popular lecturer and progressive persona on the campus. His in-depth command of history, ability to logically critique the conventional historical narratives and articulate his case in a clear style combined with an operatically melodious tone made his lectures a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the students.

The University of Dar es Salaam was by then the prime center for the flowering of progressive ideas in Africa. Inspired by Mwalimu Nyerere’s sustained commitment to African liberation and the announced policy of socialism and self-reliance, scholars of high esteem in a wide range of disciplines from other African nations and abroad visited the campus for short and long time periods. A vibrant part of the student body and local scholars were involved in national and pan-African activism, progressive reform in the organization of education and developing a curriculum that reflected the values of and requirements for building a socialist society. The University Students’ African Revolutionary Front (USARF), comprised of leftist students from Tanzania and neighboring African nations, led the student activism on the campus and beyond.

It was an ideal atmosphere for the scholar-activist Rodney. He engaged closely with the academic, student-based, national and African liberation oriented struggles, both at the practical and theoretical level. His actions included staying in Ujamaa (cooperative) villages, giving talks in schools, debating other academics in the public arena, and writing newspaper columns, popular works and scholarly papers. Despite many a hostile brush offs with the powers that be, he went on with his activism and radical writings. (Further details on Rodney’s work at the University of Dar es Salaam are given in Chapter 9.)

He left Dar es Salaam in 1974 to assume the position of Professor of History at the University of Guyana, the land of his birth. But that did not last, as the neo-colonial rulers soon had him ejected from academia. This did not lead to abatement of his activism. He co-founded and became a part of the collective leadership of the Working Peoples Alliance, whose aim was to fight for a just, non-racial, socialistic society. Just as the Alliance was making major headways, Rodney’s life was tragically cut down by a car bomb, decidedly of imperialist/state origin, on 13 June 1980.  The involvement of the Guyanese government of Forbes Burnham in his murder, which was stated in the Introduction of the 1981 edition of HEUA, has now been confirmed officially. The Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry, in its 2016 report to the Guyanese authorities, noted that there was sufficient evidence to show that the armed forces and state security organs were behind the assassination, and subsequent cover up and deflection of blame (see www.walterrodneyfoundation.org for further information).

This is but a brief sketch of Rodney’s activism and its ramifications. For a fuller portrayal, see the Introduction to the 1981 edition by Harding, Strickland and Hill, and biographical works such as Alpers and Fontaine (1982;1985), Campbell (1985), Chung (2013), Creighton (2000),  Drake and Lalljie (2009), Gabriehu (2003), Hirji (2013), Kwayana (2013), Lewis (1998), Othman (2005), Salky (1974), Shivji (1993;2012), Swai (1981;1982), Wamba dia Wamba (1980) and Wikipedia (2014).

Suffice it to say that Walter Rodney was a humane revolutionary and radical scholar in the finest and fullest sense of these terms. He strove bravely and tirelessly to change society in words and deeds. In that regard, he stands shoulder to shoulder in the reified company of Norman Bethune, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Ernesto Che Guevara, Chris Hani, ML King, Rosa Luxemburg, Ho Chi Minh, PG Pinto, Paul Robeson, MN Roy, Leon Trotsky, Malcolm X and many others.

Walter Rodney remains in our memories for the same reasons that these exceptional human beings remain in our memories: for dedicating and sacrificing their lives to uplifting humanity from the yolk of capitalist and imperialist tyranny and to endeavor to construct a just, humane society on this planet.

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

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