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Rodney faced racism when he arrived in London to pursue his doctorate in African history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1963. Although he had graduated with a first-class degree at UWI (University of the West Indies), SOAS almost forced him to take admission exams. If Rodney were a white English man, he wouldn’t have had to justify himself. But he was a black man from the colonies and therefore British society saw him as inferior. Yet he felt privileged compared to his friends and his older brother who had migrated to England to seek work—they faced the brunt of job and housing discrimination. The resistance of black people in Britain to racism fascinated Rodney. He spent much of his free time speaking at Hyde Park Corner where West Indians gathered to discuss politics. He talked about racism, Caribbean politics, apartheid and Zimbabwean independence. Rodney was happy to reunite with his girlfriend Patricia, who had left Guyana for Britain to work as a nurse. They had started dating in the summer before Rodney went to university in Jamaica and maintained a long-distance relationship until he arrived in London. Having reunited, the couple deepened their affection for one another and married in 1965.

In England, Rodney aimed to deepen his engagement with Marxism to relate to the black working class. SOAS, however, proved unable to help him with such a task. “There was nobody”, he lamented, “who could be remotely termed a Marxist.” Rodney thought that SOAS, which was founded in 1916 to train British colonial administrators, now educated Africans to serve the interests of Europe. He despised his curriculum and his pretentious professors entrenched in bourgeois ideology. For example, one of his lecturers, the renowned historian John D Fage, argued that the slave trade had benefited West African development, and did no harm to the region’s demographics and economy. Rodney challenged Fage’s defence of the slave trade in his thesis A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800. Although he thought his dissertation showed no strong Marxist scholarship, it was nonetheless the work of a people’s historian. Rodney portrayed pre-colonial West Africa as innovative and culturally refined and countered the narrative of Western scholars that depicted it as primitive. He exposed how European powers disrupted the lives of African people and their societies through the slave trade. Rodney sought to develop this theme in his later work “to upset … the deans of African history in London”.

The British Marxist left of the time made a poor impression on Rodney. He was repelled by the sectarianism of the Communist Party and the different, smaller Trotskyist groups that he came across. They seemed to him more interested in debating amongst themselves than organising workers and defending migrants. He found them old, inarticulate and unprepared. Rodney, moreover, accused the British left of neglecting the fight against racism. He resented the paternalism, the silent and sometimes open racism he encountered from some of them.

Rodney was not the first black activist to be frustrated with the British left. Before him, Claudia Jones, the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival and a member of the Communist Party, had criticised her own party for marginalising anti-racism in the 1950s. But Rodney found solace in a Marxist study group taught by CLR James and his wife Selma. From 1963 to 1966, he and a handful of radical West Indian students visited James’ home in North West London on Friday evenings.

Walter Rodney in 1963.

Rodney saw in CLR James qualities that he admired. James never went to university, yet he was a brilliant Trinidadian Marxist scholar, a prolific writer and a powerful orator. As a black Bolshevik, he placed the liberation of Africans and colonised peoples at the core of his politics. In his earlier Trotskyist days, James led campaigns against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia before writing his path-breaking Marxist history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, in 1938. Although James had long broken with Trotskyism when Rodney met him in the 1960s, he was still in a class of his own. He had recently returned from Trinidad and Tobago after opposing the despotism of his old friend, Prime Minister Eric Williams, by resigning as editor of his party’s newspaper. James taught Rodney about Marx’s theory of historical change and the Russian Revolution. They read classics such as, Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and Lenin’s What Is to Be Done.

From listening to James, Rodney learnt about the revolutionary potential of the working class through its past and present militancy in Europe and abroad. He discovered that exploitation gave workers immense power, as the capitalist relied on their labour-power to make profits—if workers engaged in mass strikes, they could bring the capitalist system to a halt. Rodney also wrote a paper on Marxism and democracy to show what the workers must do to the state in a revolution. Years later, he wrote about the lessons of the Russian Revolution: “The workers could not simply take over a bourgeois parliament and consider the revolution achieved…the bourgeois state had to be destroyed and replaced by institutions which sprang from the working masses.” That’s how well he understood the key concepts of Lenin’s State and Revolution.

Rodney’s understanding of Marxism was also shaped by a world in which the communist parties of the Soviet Union, China and Cuba had conquered state-power and challenged western imperialism. That most Third World nationalist movements and regimes in the 1960s identified with socialism and sometimes called themselves Marxist was no coincidence. They received material and logistical support from the Soviet Union, which hoped to find allies in the Cold War against the United States. Moreover, they looked to the Chinese (1949) and Cuban (1959) revolutions because they appeared to offer a new path to socialism that suited the interest of underdeveloped countries that had a large peasantry and a small working class. The idea that guerrilla struggle in the countryside was essential to achieve national liberation became central to Third World Nationalist ‘Marxism’.

Many on the European left, who opposed the Soviet Union’s bureaucratic oppression of workers and peasants, came to see Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba as favourable socialist alternatives. Rodney’s mentor CLR James, for instance, supported the workers Hungarian Revolution of 1956 against the Soviet Union and advocated for a proletarian revolution in the advanced western capitalist countries. But he also saw the Cuban Revolution and its strategy of guerrilla warfare as a model for Third World revolutions. Rodney would display a similar ambivalence towards revolutionary strategy as Third World guerrilla intellectuals such as Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral, influenced him as much as Marx and Lenin. While he acknowledged the centrality of strikes and workers’ struggles in his later writings on the Russian Revolution, he also believed that guerrilla warfare presented a viable approach to revolutions in the Global South.

Rodney, however, failed to understand why the strategy of guerrilla warfare that the Third World revolutions adopted was incompatible with Marxism, which emphasised revolution through working class self-activity. As guerrilla warfare involved shifting the struggle from the town to the countryside, Third World intellectuals claimed the agent of the revolution was not the urban working class but the peasantry led by commanders from the urban middle class. They had thus revised Marxism and removed it from its proletarian base. Che Guevara saw the working class in underdeveloped countries as a weak and impotent force, while Fanon even claimed it as an obstacle to national liberation because workers benefited from colonialism. The Guinean leader Amilcar Cabral, who directed the guerrilla war against Portugal in Guinea-Bissau with unparalleled success in Africa, had initially attempted to organise the small working class in Bissau. However, he turned to guerrilla struggle after the Portuguese massacre of 50 dockworkers in 1959. Che Guevara continued to pay lip service to the international proletarian revolution and affiliate with Marxism despite his revisions. He wrote: “The peasant class of Latin America, basing itself on the ideology of the working class whose great thinkers discovered the social laws governing us, will provide the great liberating army of the future.”

Guevara forgot that the great thinkers—Marx, Trotsky and Lenin—had argued that the essence of a socialist revolution lies in the self-emancipation of the working class, whereby “the proletariat becomes the subject of history, not the object.” In the absence of the proletariat, the guerrilla wars of the Third World led not to socialism but to bureaucratic one-party regimes that resembled the Soviet Union. The seeds of this failure were obvious in the contradiction in aims within the guerrilla army—the elitist middle-class commanders wanted to rule, while the peasants wanted land. As a result, the middle class mobilised the peasantry to give itself state power, and then exploited and oppressed the masses to bring the nation out of underdevelopment.

Despite its flaws, guerrilla warfare had nonetheless inflicted serious defeats to western imperialism in Africa, Asia and Latin America. By the mid-1960s, it had become the main form of anti-colonial resistance in Portuguese-speaking west and southern Africa. That explains why Rodney, throughout his life, saw this strategy as a high form of politics, convinced that it forced revolutionaries to educate and mobilise the masses. He believed in the redemptive qualities of revolutionary violence that Fanon discussed in his book on anti-colonial struggles, The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon argued that this violence freed the colonised from their inferiority complex and transformed them into proud independent people. Rodney especially saw this transformation occur in the guerrilla liberation movements against Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. He felt attached to them, as he had witnessed Portuguese dictator Salazar’s repressive fascism when he was conducting his PhD research in Lisbon.

The national liberation movements in the Global South informed Rodney’s ideas on the role of revolutionary intellectuals in the struggle. Rodney was particularly impressed with the Amilcar Cabral. He admired that Cabral had thoroughly analysed the formation of the various classes in his country and based his anti-colonial mobilisation strategy upon the sensitivities of each class towards the colonial state. In his analysis of Guinean society in 1964, Cabral had found that the educated middle class, which he belonged to, could become an elitist and greedy caste that would compromise with the old colonial power to enrich itself. However, he idealistically maintained that this middle class also had the potential to lead the anti-colonial struggle only if it committed “class suicide” to resurrect itself as revolutionary cadres “identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong”. Rodney nevertheless took from Cabral the idea that revolutionary intellectuals must understand the historical reality they seek to transform. They must do away with their elitism, learn from the people and grasp their needs to influence the struggle.

On 5 July 1966, the day Patricia gave birth to their son Shaka, Rodney earned his PhD in African history. He then moved with his family to Tanzania to teach history for one year and meet the Mozambican and Angolan freedom fighters stationed there. But Rodney forged his reputation as a revolutionary when he relocated to Jamaica to lecture at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in January 1968.

First published by ROAPE.

Join the Walter Rodney Foundation for the 19th Annual Walter Rodney Symposium on “Walter Rodney: 50 Years of ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,’” which will be held on Saturday, March 26, 2022 (10:00am EST) – click here to register. 

Join Chinedu for the launch of his new book, A Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney, on 1 April at Bookmarks Bookshop, London (register here).