The invented “Rodney” as human rights activist and advocate of economic development is reconcilable with a sense of wonder that, had he not been assassinated, he may have become a future president of Guyana. Why have there been silences in recent years avoiding the matter that Rodney was a revolutionary who wished to overturn nation-states and ruling classes above society?
The delays of the Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry (WRCOI) in Guyana of February 2016, in not transparently bringing its report to the public about the Forbes Burnham PNC government’s role in Rodney’s assassination in 1980, are disturbing. Whatever happens now, it has been a defining issue. The lack of public clarification of the nature of the dictatorship and repression of that historical period, that Rodney’s Working People’s Alliance was so instrumental in resisting, continues to suggest more than one dilemma for dialogue about history and the future.
There are concerns that given Guyana’s fiftieth anniversary of independence this year, the legacy of Rodney raises an obstacle to peaceful celebration and makes national reconciliation difficult. But why should the legacy of Rodney be permitted to be part of a false discourse of reconciliation in Guyana, the Caribbean, and the African world? This is a more complicated matter than the release of official documentation of what happened in Guyana, though those contributing to mystification and bewilderment in the present government should not be absolved of their responsibility.
Who was Walter Rodney? There seems to be a consensus that Rodney was a Pan Africanist, a socialist, a scholar. Yet some say he was a human rights activist, an ambiguous advisor on economic development. Others say he was an anti-fascist, involved in armed struggle, and advocated people’s power. Could he have been all of these things?
It appears human rights activists raise concerns as a loyal opposition under the premise that the nation-state, that normatively brutalizes us, can embody reason. In contrast, when living under a fascist dictatorship, anti-fascists have to overthrow authoritarian regimes or risk being killed by them.
Economic advisors generally are professional classes who propose plans for statesmen to manage people, as one of the nation’s natural resources, from above society. Aspirations toward a more direct democracy and workers self-management, the “people’s power” that Rodney advocated (and that was expressed by bauxite workers, independent cooperatives, and landless sugar workers in the Guyana of his era) were in conflict with Burnham’s state centered nationalism and Pan Africanism.
Why have there been silences in recent years avoiding the matter that Rodney was a revolutionary who wished to overturn nation-states and ruling classes above society? In order to have a democracy (majority rule) must we not object to those who wish to be the minority who seek legitimacy for their rule above society? We must be on guard that the WRCOI not be a vehicle for aspiring rulers seeking a thin veneer of legitimacy. Can Rodney, the anti-imperialist, contribute to their authenticity? Some of his legacies, if poorly understood, might contribute, and we must remain vigilant.
It is true that part of the legacy of the struggle in Guyana is that Forbes Burnham used illegal means to justify fraudulent electoral victories. But does the process of free and fair elections guarantee our lives are beyond authoritarian abuses? Are there constitutional checks and balances against police brutality, mass incarceration, rape, and shanty towns when our votes are counted fairly?
The invented “Rodney” as human rights activist and advocate of economic development is reconcilable with a sense of wonder that, had he not been assassinated, he may have become a future president of Guyana. There is a type of lamentation for an international icon whose significance is quite protean. Rodney certainly had the charismatic mandate in an otherwise racially insecure and divided society to achieve this type of office. But Walter Rodney also, legend has it, had a critique of maximum leadership personalities as embodying a nation or a party that claimed to speak for people. If this be true, what deep understanding of his radicalism could lament that he never became president?
Symposiums on Rodney’s life and work seek to dovetail Rodney’s legacy with Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Mandela’s “truth and reconciliation” in South Africa discarded the ANC promise of redistributing wealth and empowering the common people. King, the martyr who nevertheless dialogued with President Johnson’s White House to discuss movement strategy, had a “dream” that there could be increasingly equal opportunity to enter the rules of hierarchy under property relations. This King is reconcilable with post-independence Guyana, the Caribbean, and Africa for many with emaciated conceptions of Black empowerment.
The analogy between Rodney and Dr. King is wrong because King divided the domestic anti-racist struggle, from the struggle against poverty in the United States, and the international anti-imperialist struggle in Vietnam for almost a decade – his last symbolic initiatives and well-wisher’s myth-making notwithstanding. Why was the March on Washington of 1963 not also “the poor people’s campaign” of 1968? In contrast, Rodney internationalized the struggle against racism and colonialism by linking up the experience of Jamaica, Guyana, Tanzania, and the United States. Rodney ruptured with white supremacy and Black officialdom.
There are those who long for Rodney someday to be like John F Kennedy in Guyana, another martyr elevated to a pantheon as a shining prince who might have been. But Kennedy invaded Cuba and the Congo so what about him so glistened? Why do we wish Rodney recognition by what the Guyanese national poet, Martin Carter, termed “the shining governments of the damned?”
Perhaps the most heinous silence is that one can witness gatherings in Walter Rodney’s name be quiet about the crimes of President Obama. In both Jamaica and Guyana, Rodney inspired uprisings of Black working people against Black capitalist politicians and their Black police. Why are Rodney’s legacies muted when they should be placed in conversation with the Ferguson and Baltimore rebellions? Obama’s target assassination of thousands without trial by drones in his global wars in Africa and the Middle East, remind us that many can be satisfied with any form of “Black Power.” Are Walter Rodney’s legacies reconcilable with American Exceptionalism and disorienting Black insurgency?
If race vindication seeking to defend President Obama has trumped anti-imperialism and subordinated Pan Africanism to a cultural front around the emperor of the world in the name of U.S. national security, why can’t Rodney find a place back home in the false pantheon of national greatness in Guyana sponsored by ruling elites, whose careers prospered through silence about his death?
Walter Rodney has already had a monument dedicated to him in Guyana. Can Rodney be incorporated into a forerunner of the contemporary Black political class? The government of Guyana must seek to do just that. Where might their motivations and strategies come from? Grasping this requires radical questioning beyond preserving the legacies of Rodney to establishing our own.
Rodney is famous for writing How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. We can see, if we read carefully, in fact that book has a dual heritage. One can see in embryo the struggle of social classes in precolonial Africa through his insightful narrative. But that history also argues that empire underdeveloped Africa’s capitalist modernity, and this makes it an attractive book for aspiring rulers in the African world whom believe their social classes’ pursuit of wealth, not the self-directed liberating activity of people below them, embody self-determination. A whole sector of bewilders of the African world have been raised up on Rodney’s underdevelopment thesis and it is time we reconsider why they are so damn delighted. Certainly, this gathering of forces are not chock full of insurgents. Many are administrators of our lives.
Do we understand the empire of capital as not permitting everyone in the globe to aspire equally to capital accumulation? Or do we view it as a system which degrades toilers on a world scale as a result of the alienation of wage labor/capital relations? If race and class struggles are interwoven who shall be permitted to personify the next development in Black autonomy?
In contrast, Rodney’s Groundings with my Brothers captures best the insurgent orator and activist that many hope we forget. In 1968, he inspired an uprising of the Jamaican workers and unemployed by speaking not just about African civilizations but to the fraud of cultural representation marshaled by the post-independence Jamaican government. There was symbolic appropriation of Marcus Garvey, Nanny, Sam Sharpe, and Paul Bogle by the Black led nation-state. The memory of Maroonage and provisional notions of Black self-government were consciously used to contain new explosions against not simply white supremacy and empire but the new Black political class.
Forbes Burnham attempted to do similar things with “culture,” wielding the Berbice Rebellion and Cuffee, the heroic slave of Guyana’s heritage, as mystification. Of course Africans were human. But how did Africans come to brutalize and kill other Africans in the name of national liberation and retaining state power? The Rodney led movement was best placed to challenge Burnham’s rule in 1979-1980. Rodney was killed in the struggle over the deeper meaning of Black power.
Is it not peculiar then that the Rodney who criticized the Caribbean state building monuments to forerunners of Black Power, leading to mass insurrection, now has a monument in Guyana, where there is little sense of a conflict for his intellectual and political legacies? These may yet surface. But history is not made in the manner we might hope.
New rebellions will come out of conflicting tendencies in the Caribbean political environment and must rupture with bureaucratic stage directed struggle. What of the current Caribbean Reparations campaign led by statesmen and high up university officials who have never disturbed anyone? Why is their touchstone in the Age of Obama reparations from Britain based on the general date of slavery’s abolition in 1833?
Surely many inspired by Rodney are attracted to the idea of reparations for slavery and how empire underdeveloped the Caribbean. Yet, the bigger question of reparations for Walter Rodney’s legacy is not do African people deserve them. Rather, the question is on what terms did Rodney propose to repair – the root word of reparations – society?
Rodney wished to repair racial insecurity among the working people but he did not seek reconciliation or a peace treaty (where they might be financial exchanges) with global ruling classes to repair relations with white supremacy. The older idea, that Black lives matter, was not a means of negotiating for equal opportunity to enter the rules of hierarchy or to seek patronage from institutional racism and its imperial politicians.
What type of consciousness would be raised if in Guyana and the Caribbean, we were reminded today of not 1833, but 1973, the year of the multi-racial occupation of the newly nationalized sugar lands by Forbes Burnham? Or the rebellions of the Black bauxite workers against Black trade union officialdom and Black management the years before and after? In order for there to be new contemporary political ruptures we must have philosophical and historical touchstones, memories of events the last generation left incomplete, that correspond roughly to our own lived experiences.
Guyana and the Caribbean, of the Caribbean New Left generation, was significantly a forerunner of what in recent years has been termed “occupy.” In Guyana in 1973, before Rodney returned, Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese toilers expressed plentiful wisdom to directly govern in the shadow of Burnham’s state power. Rodney became a coalescing voice of an insurgent movement of toilers of color from below.
How will Guyanese independence celebrations remember these obscure personalities? They cannot officially orchestrate such a cultural representation. It would leave their regime tottering. Consistent with the legacy of Rodney, this reveals what are the limits of thin discourses on identity.
Occupy unfortunately did not take off widely in the Caribbean in recent years because the insurgent heritage of those still alive (and those who made careers degrading them) was not widely disseminated. Instead the Caribbean in recent years has been burdened by a tendency toward crafting “Whig” histories as “radical” histories.
Whig history is not about white judicial hair pieces or the heritage of Anglo-American political thought. Rather, it is a type of narrative that a nation tells about its history claiming a long admirable evolution of constitutional government that minimizes all the people’s uprisings that shaped its relative accountability. Guyana and the WRCOI will strive to accomplish this with Rodney. It is similar to placing Barack Obama on the cover of an African American History textbook and listing all the U.S. presidents in an appendix along with Constitutional documents. Whig history legitimizes and papers over all that were degraded, brutalized, and killed for a pageant of pride in those responsible for bankrupt institutions that nevertheless are increasingly inclusive.
The most important legacy of Walter Rodney, and the Caribbean New Left (1968-1983) generation that he was a part, was that Rodney publicly asked which social class leads the national liberation struggle? Yet also the best of that generation had decided that “Black Power” and “national independence” meant little if this did not mean power to the common people -- even where people of color had already ascended to official government posts.
In 1968 in Jamaica, and 1979-1980 in Guyana, Walter Rodney asked Black people to choose between the authority of Black led government above society and the creative potential of ordinary Black people below society.
Rodney’s grasp of what power to the common people looked like may have been incomplete. He may have been emerging out of an anti-colonial period that was still finishing up the struggle of proving that the measure of people of color’s humanity was it could hold and seize whatever forms of power Europeans had previously kept exclusively and denied them. However, the critique of white power, did not always question all hierarchies, or propose the designing of a new society.
Many of the Caribbean New Left, more obscure than Rodney, advocated anti-racist perspectives that argued for the abolition of professional classes as the embodiment of culture and government in nations and communities increasingly led and managed by people of color. Without this challenge, the designing of a new society and insisting on new forms of freedom and self-reliance, Rodney may continue to represent an ambiguous sign of Black power, where there is a place for all (the insurgent rebel and the professional who stays silent as the former is vanquished) at the rendezvous of victory.
* Dr. Matthew Quest is a historian of the intellectual legacies of C.L.R. James and the editor of Joseph Edwards's Workers' Self-Management in the Caribbean (2014). This article previously appeared in Black Agenda Report.
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