Dr. Fraser- Point of View
June 17, 2005
Remembering Walter Rodney

• Continued from last week.

Last week I ended with a reference to Rodney’s outstanding polemic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

I continue with a comment on this work by A.M Babu, a one-time minister in the Tanzanian government. It appeared as a postscript in that work; “Dr. Walter Rodney, in this very instructive book, provides a very refreshing opening for discussions which may well lead to finding the right solution. He is raising the most basic and fundamental questions regarding the nature of underdevelopment and economic backwardness… It is clear, especially after reading Rodney’s exposition that throughout the last decade we have been posing the wrong questions regarding economic backwardness. {{more}}

We did not ‘look into the past to know the present.’ We were told and accepted that our poverty was caused by our poverty in the now famous theory of the ‘vicious circle of poverty’ and we went round in circles seeking ways and means of breaking that circle. Had we asked the fundamental questions which Dr. Rodney raises in this work we would not have exposed our economies to the ruthless plunder brought about by ‘foreign investments’ which the exponents of the vicious circle theory urged us to do. For it is clear, foreign investment is the cause, and not a solution, to our economic backwardness.”

There are obviously aspects of his comments that would be widely disputed especially about foreign investment, framed in the way he has done it.

The other aspect of the role of the black intellectual that Rodney raised is his view that the black intellectual must attach himself to the activity of the black masses. In his groundings with the brothers in Jamaica, in his lectures and raps with bauxite and sugar workers in Guyana and in

his Working Peoples Alliance’s activities Rodney put his intellect at

the service of the black masses.

It was this kind of activity and commitment that led to his exclusion from Jamaica. He was prepared to move out of the walls of the University to go anywhere people were willing to listen to him. Speaking about this activity he stated, “I have spoken in what people call ‘dungle’, rubbish dumps, for that is where people live in Jamaica…I have sat on a little oil drum, rusty and in the midst of garbage and some Black Brothers and I have grounded together. Now, obviously, this, first of all must have puzzled the Jamaican government. I must be mad; surely, a man we are giving a job, we are giving status, what is he doing with these guys… So they are puzzled and then obviously after that suspicion, he must be up to something…”

The Impact of Rodney

When Rodney left Jamaica in October 1968 to attend the Congress of Black Writers the Jamaican government seized the opportunity to prevent him from re-entering the territory. There was immediate reaction by students and the common man in Jamaica which sent heat waves throughout the rest of the Caribbean, forcing reactionary governments like that of St.Vincent to ban Rodney although at that time he had not indicated an interest in coming here.

Ironically enough the physical ban on Rodney did not prevent his words from echoing throughout the Caribbean but did in fact help to lift his stature among Caribbean people.

October 1968 has marked a turning point in Caribbean history. The Caribbean has certainly not been the same since even though it suffered certain setbacks during the climate created by

the United State of America’s aggression against Grenada that eventually led to the collapse of the revolutionary government.

Caribbean intellectuals and academics following this deserted what Rodney had expounded as their role. They swallowed the thinking of the White House and rushed in to accept its views on liberalization and free market policies as being in the best interest of the Caribbean.

After his ban from Jamaica, Rodney went to Tanzania before finally returning to Guyana in 1974. He was expected to take up an appointment as Professor of History at the University of Guyana but was prevented from doing so by the intrigues of President Forbes Burnham and his People’s National Congress regime.

Despite these obstacles to his work and living in Guyana he continued his historical research and in early 1980 published Guyanese sugar plantations in the late 19th century – A contemporary description from the now defunct ‘Argosy’ newspaper. Appropriately, the new National Archives on completion is to be named the Rodney National Archives. It was there that Rodney had done a lot of his work on his return to his homeland.

It was as a political activist deeply involved in the struggles of the Guyana working people that Rodney represented a threat to the Burnham government. A government swept into power by CIA manoeuvres and gross exploitation of the racial divisions of Guyanese society, was kept in power by electoral malpractices and military rule and so could not tolerate Rodney and his colleagues in the WPA who were bent on breaking down racial barriers and lifting the consciousness of the masses.

Writing in Latin American Perspectives in 1981, James Petras then a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton said about Rodney, “Rodney’s intellectual and political presence might have altered the stereotype that many Western intellectuals apply toward activists of the Third World: egocentric demagogues who mouth socialist rhetoric while cultivating personality cults and stashing millions in Swiss bank accounts.

Rodney lived modestly, earning what he could by lecturing abroad periodically. He was extremely articulate and persuasive…He was one of the few intellectuals with power to reach out to both Harlem cleaning women and budding Ivy League professionals. He was the rare leader who accepted the same sacrifices as his followers.”

The Caribbean, particularly Jamaica and Guyana, has organized a series of activities to commemorate the life and works of Walter Rodney that outstanding Caribbean son.

The St. Vincent Government like that of Guyana is offering a scholarship from the 2005/6 academic year in his honour. This is a fine gesture and was pushed by the Prime Minister who was tutored by Rodney and had been a leading figure in the student body that protested his ban from Jamaica.

Our Caribbean students and young people need to know more not only about his work but also about his life, a life of commitment and service to his people.