A central aspect of Walter Rodney’s political thought, in relation to Guyana, was his ideas on ethnicity and class, self-emancipation and political violence. These inter-related planks of his thought informed his political practice, which in turn, enriched his ideas.
Rodney’s ideas on ethnicity are derived from both his Black Nationalist and Marxist thoughts. His Black nationalism was simultaneously racially grounded and class-based. Insofar as he engaged what he referred to as “White Power” he reached for a racially grounded Black Nationalism that critiqued White racism and affirmed Black humanity and dignity.
However, in his articulation of Black Power within the context of neo-colonialism he privileged a class-based Black Nationalism that situated Black empowerment within the class struggles in Africa and the Caribbean. These two approaches were not separate; they flowed from the same source and aimed for the same objective of people’s liberation.
In much the same way, his Marxism led him to an embrace of ethnic unity. If Black Nationalism facilitated an overt racial analysis, then Marxism afforded him the opportunity to stress class. But Rodney always struggled for a synthesis of those two approaches. Whether he achieved that objective could only be borne out by his political practice. It is within his context that his Guyana groundings are vital to his wider praxis.
Rodney’s Black Nationalist views for the most part reflected those of Marcus Garvey, whom he described as “one of the first advocates of black power” and “the greatest spokesman ever to have been produced by the movement of black consciousness” (1975:20).
Rodney defined Black Power as “the hope of the black man that he should have power over his destines” (1975: 29). For Rodney, Black Power meant three related things–“the break with imperialism which is historically racist; the assumption of power by the black masses of the islands; the cultural reconstruction of the society in the image of blacks” (1975:28).
But Rodney grounded his perspective on race in the broader context of class and anti-imperialism. In this regard, he argued that the interests of the Black ruling class were inimical to Black Power, which according to him, must be rooted in the aspirations of the masses:
On the issue of cultural nationalism, Rodney’s views were similar to those of Garvey and Malcolm X. As he contended, “The road to Black Power here in the West Indies and everywhere else must begin with a revaluation of ourselves as blacks and with a redefinition of the world from our own standpoint.” (1975: 33-34). Consequently, he was critical of the negative images and stereotypes of blackness among Blacks and echoed Malcolm X’s “self-love.
While the ideas he developed during the Guyana years were part of his larger political praxis, the fact that Guyana was a peculiar society riveted by ethnic conflict between two non-white peoples, his emphasis was not the same as when he dealt with conflict between Blacks and Whites.
Rodney’s call for unity between African and East Indian Guyanese along class lines was not an abandonment of Black Nationalism; he did not find it a necessary tool in Guyana. During the Jamaica years he had advocated the inclusion of East Indians in his articulation of Caribbean Black Power. His was, therefore, always a class-based Black Power. Hence his Black Power was racially-oriented as it related to the Black-White question and class-oriented in relation to the ethnic conditions in Guyana.
Rodney viewed African liberation in Guyana as being tied to working class liberation. He rejected the notion that African Guyanese should not oppose an African Guyanese government and contended that unity between the African and Indian Guyanese working classes was essential. He was adamant that any advance in Guyana had to be premised on unity across ethnic lines.
Towards this end, he argued that although external influence and the machinations of the political parties were responsible for ethnic polarization, Guyanese, in the final analysis, must rise above the division. He further contended that the socio-economic problems faced by the Guyanese people had very little to do with race and ethnicity, and more to do with class.
But unlike other Marxists, he did not dismiss race and ethnicity as irrelevant; he accepted their salience in Guyanese politics. He argued that ethnicity was institutionalized in the socio-political and economic system, and was critical of those who interpreted the absence of ethnic violence as a reflection of harmony. He drew attention to the linkage between white subjugation of non-white peoples and ethnic polarization between non-white communities, and observed that non-white groups tended to view each other through the lens of the dominant culture
As I observed earlier, Rodney had advocated a multi-ethnic position as far back as 1968, when he argued then that Caribbean Black Power must include East Indians. He posited the view that and unity between Indians and Africans was pivotal to Caribbean liberation. He contended that the problem should be tackled at two levels.
First, he called for the development of separate ethnic consciousness as a prerequisite for ethnic unity. Second, he advocated the simultaneous development of “integrative” or multiethnic consciousness and political mechanisms based on the socialist principle of social equality.
Rodney’s multi-ethnicity, therefore, was premised on the acceptance rather than the rejection of ethnic identity. For him, ethnicity by itself is not necessarily problematic; it is the linkage of ethnicity to political competition that is the crux of the problem in Guyana. He saw no contradiction between the assertion of ethnic identity and the embrace of multi-ethnicity; for him the former was necessary for the success of the other.
Rodney accused both major parties of exploiting ethnic insecurity to further political ends. He pointed to the fact that although the PNC regime discriminated against Indian Guyanese, Indian merchants and other sections of the Indian Guyanese middle class supported the PNC. He particularly chided African Guyanese for allowing the PNC regime to manipulate their fears to further its political agenda.
Although he seldom invoked Black Nationalism in his public discourse on ethnicity, he linked Black dignity to the African Guyanese need to avoid ethnic animosity towards Indian Guyanese. He, however, did not think that cross-ethnic solidarity was impossible. Towards this end, he urged both groups to draw on their common history of struggle against colonialism.
Rodney viewed cross-ethnic solidarity as crucial to ethnic peace and the overall development of Guyana. But he was opposed to a “hypothetical” unity; he preferred an active unity or “unity in struggle.” Rodney, therefore, rejected the superficial unity embraced by the PPP and the PNC such as ethnic tokenism and multi-ethnic rhetoric.
More of Dr. Hinds’ writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.news Send comments to [email protected]
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