This past week marked the 39th anniversary of Walter Rodney’s assassination. Each year we, his political colleagues, honour his memory to remind ourselves and Guyana at large of his central role in shaping post-colonial consciousness in Guyana, the Caribbean, Africa and the African Diaspora.
As is the case with someone of his stature and wide reach, many have laid claim to him in pursuit of their narrow political agenda. How often we hear how Rodney “is turning in his grave” from those who would not go near him when he was alive or answer his call to action. Some even derided him in life, but since his death pretend that he is their hero.
In Guyana, Rodney remains a mystery to the younger generation, who did not have the opportunity to directly engage him and his movement. There are three narratives about Rodney. First, there is the WPA narrative which presents Rodney in heroic terms—a special gift that Guyana gave to itself and the world and who moved the country along a revolutionary path that confronted the old order.
Then, there is the PNC narrative of the brash upstart who sought to overthrow a beloved Black government by violent means. And finally, there is the PPP’s narrative of a man whose only contribution to Guyana was fighting the PNC regime and whose political outlook was closer to the PPP’s than to that of his colleagues in the WPA. It follows then that in the larger ethnic context, there are also different narratives of Rodney.
African Guyanese have a complex attitude to him. Those who remember his activism and encounter him through books – including PNC-types – revere his scholarship as part of the Black Intellectual tradition. Others embrace his Black Nationalist and Pan Africanist scholarship and activism. Still others extoll his revolutionary thought and activism, including his activism in Guyana.
Finally, there are many in the first two categories who do because of his opposition to a Black government. Hence there tends among African Guyanese to be a rigid separation between his scholarship and his politics.
For some Indian Guyanese, Rodney is the embodiment of the true revolutionary. They embrace his multiracial praxis as a revolutionary principle. But for those who are influenced by the PPP narrative, he is a “good African” who fought on their side and against his own. He then becomes the standard by which African revolutionaries are judged—if you oppose the PPP or agree with the PNC on anything, you betray Rodney and make him “turn in his grave.”
African Guyanese activists who advocate African Guyanese empowerment are generally viewed as racists who are not worthy of being tied to Rodney. This, of course, arises from the myth that Rodney was not a “race man”; that he was a Marxist whose only ideological prism was social class. But as I observed elsewhere, Rodney was a race man—he engaged race and ethnicity.
A central aspect of Rodney’s political thought in relation to Guyana were his ideas on race, ethnicity and class. 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 leads him to an embrace of ethnic unity. If Black Nationalism facilitates an overt racial analysis, then Marxism afforded 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 this context that his Guyana groundings are vital to his wider praxis.
Rodney defined Black Power as “the hope of the black man that he should have power over his destinies”. 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”. Like Garvey, he accepted the primacy of race:
“Black Power is a doctrine about black people, for black people, preached by black people. I’m putting it to my black brothers and sisters that the colour of our skins is the most fundamental thing about us. I could have chosen to talk about people of the same island, or the same religion, or the same class – but instead I have chosen skin colour as essentially the most binding factor in our world. In so doing, I am not saying that is the way things ought to be. I am simply recognising the real world – that is the way things are. Under different circumstances, it would have been nice to be colour blind, to choose my friends solely because their social interests coincided with mine – but no conscious black man can allow himself such luxuries in the contemporary world.”
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:
“…the local government was given to a white, brown and black petty bourgeoisie who were culturally the creations of white capitalist society and who therefore support the white imperialist system, because they gain personally and because they have been brainwashed into aiding the oppression of Black people.”
But it is Rodney’s broader praxis that makes him invaluable as far as thinking through the challenges we face today. What are the building blocs of his praxis?
First, Rodney exemplified a broadened role for the intellectual in Guyanese and Caribbean society. For him, the intellectual must put herself and himself at the service of the people by becoming immersed in the popular struggle for freedom. The premise of this was the fact that it is the struggles and sacrifices of the working people that make it possible for the intellectual to attend university and hone his or her skills.
This element of Rodney’s praxis is particularly relevant as our society grapples with the tension between individual aspiration and achievement on the one hand, and responsibility to community and nation on the other. For Rodney, there was no tension. His was a harmonisation of individual endeavour and collective advance.
A second aspect of the Rodney praxis was his instinctive embrace of the concrete. Rodney saw no place for dogmatism in political praxis. This allowed him to construct an outlook which did not confine or limit his ability to understand social motion, but helped him to navigate the diversity of our historical tapestry. This aspect of his praxis helped him to distinguish between the tree and the forest, even as he articulated the relationship between the two. Rodney, therefore, would not be stuck in time and place, as some are desperately trying to do to him today.
A third aspect of the Rodney praxis that is applicable to our discourse today is this vision for the wholeness of our multi-ethnic society. His approach to ethnic problems which have plagued Guyana was three-fold. First, he adopted the approach of confronting the problem as a real living phenomenon. He did not see ethno-racialism as a fiction of people’s imagination, but as an unfortunate but real outcome of our history.
Second, he made a distinction between ethno-racialism as identity and ethno-racialism as domination, insubordination and otherisation. Third, he saw the overcoming of ethno-racial polarisation as rooted in a praxis of inclusion rather than exclusion. But he advocated an inclusion premised on equality and mutual respect or what he referred to as “jointness.” Such inclusion is multi-faceted–ethno-racial inclusion, class inclusion and generational inclusion. While he did not speak much on gender inclusion, his praxis did not silence it.
A fourth aspect of Rodney’s legacy was the inclusion of resistance as a necessary aspect of nationhood. The right to resist was, for him, central to the realisation of freedom. In that regard, he saw the independent actions of the masses of people as critical to the process of democratisation and freedom. It is within this context that his notions of self-activity and self-emancipation were located.
For Rodney, protest and resistance were not meant as tools of destruction and domination, but as sites of self-activity of the people. In the process of resisting, the people are creating and recreating their own identities and carving out their own spaces of liberation.
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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