“What I am trying to say is this: The revolution is made by ordinary people, not by angels, made by people from all walks of life, and more particularly by the working class who are in the majority. And it is a sign of the times, the sign of the power of revolutionary transformation, when a street force (i.e. gang) member is developed into a fighting cadre in a political movement.”
—Walter Rodney, in his final speech, June 1980
Political activist and scholar Walter Anthony Rodney was born in Georgetown, Guyana on March 23, 1942, to Edward and Pauline Rodney. From an early age, Rodney developed an interest in the struggles of working-class people through his father, Edward, who was active politically. From 1960 to 1966, Rodney graduated first in his class as both an undergraduate and a graduate student receiving his Ph. D. with honors in African history by the age of 24. His thesis A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (1970), received accolades for its originality and unique perspective on the Guinea slave trade while his focus on activism, the struggles of the working class and oppressed peoples set him apart from his peers.
From 1966-67, Rodney taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. It was during this period that Rodney, influenced by Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James, Marxist theory and the Black Power Movement in the US, increased his criticism of capitalism. In 1968, Rodney returned as a lecturer to his alma mater, the University of the West Indies – Mona, Jamaica where he spoke out against the socio-economic and political direction of the Jamaican government. While many of his peers excluded or ignored Jamaica’s working poor, Rodney embraced them, including the Rastafarian community, one of Jamaica’s most marginalized groups, by lecturing in the streets of Kingston. These lectures were published in a book The Groundings with My Brothers (1969), which became central to the Caribbean Black Power Movement.
Rodney’s activities quickly gained the attention of the Jamaican government, and while Rodney was out of the country attending the 1968 Black Writers’ Conference in Montreal, Canada declared him persona non grata and banned him from re-entering the country. This action by the government sparked riots across Kingston. Students from UWI closed the campus and joined by the poor, and working-class people of Kingston marched to parliament. The “Rodney Riots,” as they became known, turned violent. Several people were killed, and scores were injured while damages caused by the rioting exceeded over a million dollars.
The Jamaican government’s expulsion of Rodney was meant to silence him, but exile only increased Rodney’s influence and radicalized him even more. In 1969, Rodney returned to the University of Dar es Salaam where he taught African history until 1974. While in exile at Dar es Salaam, Rodney became a prominent Pan-Africanist writing his most influential book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972). In it, Rodney details how European imperialist policies exploited the African continent and its people leading to the underdevelopment of African society both politically and economically. The book received praise for its new and unique perspective on underdevelopment in Africa and European imperialism.
Rodney’s return also coincided with a shift in the understanding of the role of the university in post-colonial Africa. Horace Campbell, professor of African American Studies at Syracuse University, argues that it was Rodney’s return to Dar es Salaam, along with other progressive intellectuals, that changed the traditional role of the university in Africa from one that reproduced an ideology which justified a mode of economic and social exploitation by the ruling class to one that had to balance the contradictory demands “for skilled manpower, the anti-colonial thrust of the freedom fighters and the thirst for knowledge by the producing masses.” Rodney’s work, according to Campbell, “consciously sought to break the alienation of history and the social sciences” from “the voiceless millions.” Rodney’s return to Tanzania and his exile from Jamaica pushed Rodney even harder in his intellectual commitment to African liberation and working-class consciousness. Rodney’s work also helped to distinguished Dar es Salaam as a progressive University, differentiating it from the many other African universities at that time.
In 1974, Rodney returned to Guyana to teach history at the University of Guyana but the government rescinded his appointment, and Rodney turned instead to politics, joining the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). From 1974 – 1979. Rodney became a leading figure in the WPA and spoke out against the increasing corruption of the ruling People’s National Congress (PNC) and worked to create a new political consciousness in the country. It was during this period that Rodney developed his theories of self-emancipation of the working class, People’s Power and the development of a multiracial democracy. It was also during this period that Rodney traveled throughout the US lecturing at numerous universities including Cornell and Howard University in the US.
In 1979, Rodney was arrested on a false charge arson but without proof, was released. By 1980, government harassment and surveillance had reached a fevered pitch, and Rodney’s life was in danger. On June 13, 1980, Rodney was assassinated. He was 38 years old. Rodney completed four books during the last two years of his life, one of which, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, received the Albert J. Beveridge Award by the American Historical Association in 1982.
For more information on Walter Rodney, add the following books to your book lists:
- “Walter Rodney & Works,” WalterRodneyfoundation.org, http://www.walterrodneyfoundation.org/biography.
- Issa G. Shivji, “Remembering Walter Rodney,” Monthly Review 63 no 7 (December 2012).
- Clairmont Chung, Walter Rodney: A Promise of Revolution, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).
- Michael O. West, “The Targeting of Walter Rodney,” Solidarity.com, https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/136#N12