Rachel Iboraii reviews Leo Zeilig’s A Revolutionary for Our Time: the Walter Rodney Story (2022), finding a compelling account of the life of one of the twentieth century’s greatest Marxists and pan-Africanists.
In the fascinating A Revolutionary for Our Time: the Walter Rodney Story, Leo Zellig outlines the life of one of the twentieth century’s greatest Marxists and pan-Africanists. Interviews with family, friends and comrades are combined with Rodney’s scholarly work and interventions as an activist to give a picture of an extraordinary revolutionary who was murdered by the state.
Walter Rodney was born in 1942 to a working-class family in then British Guiana. His parents were activists in the socialist People’s Progressive Party. Rodney’s parents hosted branch meetings in their home and would give him political tasks such as delivering manifestos. Consequently, by the age of eleven, Rodney was already learning about popular politics, leaflet distribution, and class. A talented student, he won a scholarship to study at the School of Oriental and African History at the University of London. Whilst in London he joined a study group led by C.L.R. James, Marxist and author of Black Jacobins. In 1965 he married Patricia, with whom he shared a political vision, and they had three children together. Then, in 1966 he was offered a position at the University of Dar es Salaam in recently independent Tanzania. After eight years, he returned to Guyana where he was denied an academic appointment but became active in the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) and an international speaker, teacher, and writer. In 1980, Walter Rodney was murdered by the state.
Zeilig’s book is not a historical biography in the traditional sense, rather an exploration of Rodney’s work as someone who synthesized his theoretical work with his role as an activist. It’s an appeal for revolutionaries to learn from Rodney’s approach in order to improve their own practice.
Theory and practice
Rodney’s most famous work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA) was written during an escalation of Black power movements throughout the world. Independence from colonial powers was being won at the same time as the campaign for civil rights in America had escalated. HEUA was written to show that Africa was not a ‘savage country’ before the Europeans colonised. It showed conclusively that Africa was violently exploited which led to the ‘underdevelopment’ of Africa. Rodney felt that activity had to be underpinned by theory, and wrote HEUA to raise the consciousness and confidence of those fighting for Black liberation. Despite HEUA being rigorously researched and analysed, it was written in an accessible style with no footnotes so it could be read by the widest number of activists. Zellig does a brilliant job of explaining the ideas in HEUA and describing their importance to the movement whilst commenting on some of the weaknesses of the book.
Rodney spends time in HEUA disproving the common European view that Africa was ‘backward’ or ‘savage’ before the European colonisers came. Rodney devotes much time to describing the history of Africa before 1500. Some examples of African development include Egypt from 2000 BC, and later Ethiopia. When the Europeans first arrived, they were amazed to find gold being mined and traded, and the magnificent ruins of buildings in Zimbabwe.
From 1500 to 1885, Africa was catastrophically influenced by Europeans who traded in slaves, ivory, and gold. Gradually the whole continent was caught up in this commercial domination of Africa by Europe. Such brutal exploitation was met by resistance including that by Angola in 1648, King Agaja Tudo of Dahomey in 1724, and the attempt by Tomba to unite the people in small states of what is modern-day Guinea in the 1720s. European arms and violence suppressed this resistance. Rodney also describes how the development of racist ideas was key to justifying slave trade. He also explores the move from slavery to colonialism and how a small group of Africans collaborated with European capitalists to establish colonialism. Even after independence many companies including banks and mines were still owned and controlled by Europeans and Americans. For example, Western powers dictated what crops they wished to buy for export, such as so-called cash crops like cocoa and nuts, which led to regions that were previously self-sustaining by producing varied agricultural products being reduced to total dependency, subject to famine and environmental destruction.
Socialism from below
In 1966, Rodney joined Dar es Salaam University a few years after Tanzania had gained independence in 1962. Rodney witnessed Tanzania as it was led by Nyerere, a socialist who based the country’s transformation on the egalitarian past. However, without challenging the class divide of the present, Tanzania didn’t develop in a socialist direction. Rodney had witnessed several national liberation movements, seeing how capital was still able to control the economies, meaning the movements weren’t able to transform society in a way that was necessary for socialism and postcolonial liberation to be achieved.
In 1974, the sixth Pan-African Congress was to be hosted by Tanzania. In the preceding 20 years many countries had formally won independence yet still had strong ties to colonial powers. For example, in Tanzania much of the officer class in the Army remained white settlers. The call for the conference stated: ‘The congress must draw a line of steel against those, Africans included, who hide behind the slog and paraphernalia of national independence while allowing finance capital to dominate and direct their economic and social life.’ Rodney and C.L.R James argued that opposition groups and radical movements, such as the South African liberation struggle, should attend the conference. Rodney wrote a widely distributed paper urging a Marxist analysis that centred class struggle versus imperialist-led neo-colonialism. In the end, Nyerere of Tanzania, Mobutu of Congo, Banda of Malawi, Sekou Toure of Guinea and other leaders tied to their former colonial rulers had the conference to themselves, and anti-colonialist movements were excluded. Rodney recognised that only socialism from below could deliver the change that was necessary.
Learning from the class
In 1974, Rodney returned to Guyana as he felt he would be better able to organise in his homeland. Despite being a celebrated academic, his political activism meant that he was unable to find work at the University of Guyana. Though he had to travel around the world teaching and speaking to support his family, Rodney became an avid working-class organiser in Guyana. He was a leading member of the WPA, an explicitly revolutionary socialist organisation. It was involved in a wide range of campaigns and struggles such as wildcat strikes of bauxite workers and sugar workers, and struggles against police brutality, among others. As always, Rodney spent much time talking with and listening to rank-and-file workers. So dangerous was the radical multiracial struggle led by the WPA that Rodney and other leaders were marked for arrest and assassination. In 1980, at the age of 38, a government agent sold Rodney a walkie-talkie that exploded in his hand and killed him.
In his book, Leo Zellig has extensively described the life and works of Walter Rodney. I would say as revolutionaries the most important lessons that we can take from Walter Rodney are the importance of theory and connecting that to practice, the importance of socialism from below, and the importance of learning from the working class.
Fundamentally, Rodney believed that workers could understand history and political analysis and act in their own interests. His life was dedicated to forwarding a movement for human liberation that could only be established by a revolutionary change. Zeilig’s book is a great introduction to an important revolutionary to our struggle.
You can get a copy of Walter Rodney: A Revolutionary for Our Time from Haymarket Books from their website here.