by Nigel Westmaas
“A struggle doesn’t drop from the sky; it has roots, it has been going on for years – people’s energies, their consciousness, their organizations have evolved in response to specific historical conditions.”
Walter Rodney, (Groundings)
On the night of June 13, 1980 celebrated Guyanese historian and political activist Walter Rodney was assassinated in Georgetown, Guyana by what turned out to be a remote controlled explosive device. His assassination produced shockwaves in Guyana, the Caribbean and around the world. The Working People’s Alliance (WPA), of which Rodney was a part, was at the time the most militant of the opposition forces against the rule of Forbes Burnham’s People’s National Congress (PNC), which had held power in the country since independence in 1966. By the 1970s the regime had become more entrenched and repressive through rigged elections and the suppression of opposition parties, especially the WPA. It was indeed a fairly uncommon feature in the Anglophone Caribbean for assassination to be utilized as a factor in politics, in contrast to the Hispanic Caribbean or other developing societies in Latin America or African societies. Jamaican activist and academic Horace Campbell, in conversation with then Commonwealth Secretary General Shridath Ramphal just after the assassination, was told: “We don’t do things like that in Guyana.” But they did.
Forty years after his assassination, Walter Rodney still retains enormous respect from people of all walks of life for his immense contribution to revolutionary activity among his own people and around the world. We have had ample testimony about his restlessness in the search for justice and about his confirmed status of one of the great historians of the modern period.
Rodney’s assassination is only one of the ‘major’ public political issues that still hangs over Guyana. There are scores of other unsolved murders (and attempts on the lives of public figures) in the recent and not so recent past, unresolved mainly on account of the relative silence and inaction of two main political parties and their respective state machines under whose watch Guyanese society has been run in the modern political period.
From the moment that Rodney encountered the science of history, he wished to utilise it to serve society and not be led by it. In his own analytical approach he would go forth boldly to challenge assumptions that he thought required redefining if not destroying, and all societies he touched felt his restless and relentless search for the laws of social motion in the specific location, together with the method and the organization to engage the motor of change.
His publications made him world famous, especially How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, a revolutionary and paradigm shifting publication that remains effervescent in activist and academic circles. Likewise with the publication Groundings with my Brothers, which established him as a scholar-activist. Of more recent vintage were Rodney’s teaching notes on the Russian revolution, published in 2019 under the title The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World.
There were gaps in Rodney’s scholarship on Guyana. There is no serious treatment of gender in his work and not much on Amerindians. But had he survived he would have redressed these and other gaps in his historiography. He was planning to write a substantial history of Amerindians.
In her recently (and posthumously) released anthology The Point Is To Change The World (published in 2020 by Pluto Press, Dr. Alissa Trotz, Editor), the late social activist Andaiye emphasizes the way Rodney was always thinking through contexts and availing himself of more information:
“Working with him both as his editor and as the editor and coordinator of the 1978-1980 WPA, I saw that as stubbornly as he always argued for his views, he was so quintessentially political that his political thinking and action were constantly being informed and reshaped by the teachings coming out of the social motion of oppressed groups.”
In essence, from his early activist days in Jamaica in the early 1960s all to the way to his ultimate sacrifice in 1980, Rodney was a revolutionary, pure and simple, but concurrently a careful reader and articulator of each social and political environment he found himself in.
And he was feared by government authorities everywhere – from the US to Kingston and Georgetown. Intelligence services around the world had him as one their foremost preoccupations.
Rodney and the Jamaica rebellion
Indeed on two separate sojourns in Jamaica the authorities built a profile on the Rodney ‘danger’. The Jamaican government grew increasingly angry over his political work and described him as a “threat to national security”. The Minister of Home Affairs was even more blunt and direct on the nature of the ‘threat’ posed by Rodney: “In my term of office, and in reading the records of problems in this country, I have never come across a man who offers a greater threat to the security of this land than does Walter Rodney.” The ‘threat’ posed by Rodney is even documented in declassified documents on Jamaican security reports on Rodney’s activity on the island. One section of an Internal Security Review held that the Jamaican Special Branch “received information that Rodney had been in touch with the Rastafarians in the Montego Bay area and was trying to incite them to attack the tourists in December which is the beginning of the peak of the tourist season.” The Jamaican intelligence services were obviously overreaching to build a case against the historian. And when he left Jamaica to attend a conference in Canada, Rodney was banned from re-entering. In the protests that followed, aptly deemed “Rodney riots,” students and working people came on the streets to protest. News accounts vary on the damage inflicted on the capital. The Gleaner of October 18 reported thirteen buses destroyed, seventy-two damaged, and ninety buildings either totally or partially damaged. Buses appeared to be identified for special treatment on account of the preceding fury of Kingston residents with the rise in bus fares and people’s anger with the transportation system. The police came out to put down the disturbances. A declassified US Department of State telegram said the “trouble seemed to be a spontaneous outburst of poor dark Jamaicans as a result of a long period of frustrating strikes and impotence…” This was no surprise. Kingston, Rodney said in a his letter to his friend Gordon Rohlehr, “is meaner than when you left it, and when you left it you did not know how mean it was.”
After 1968, Rodney returned to Tanzania in 1969 with his wife Pat for a second time to live and work.
The Guyana Sojourn
Before he returned to Guyana in 1974 and joined the WPA, Rodney looked carefully at Guyana’s context and political situation and offered the following perspective:
I recall very well, as late as 1960 or 1961, being very confused on the question of whether one went for the PPP or PNC. And for those of us who were struggling for some clarity in order to take a progressive position, it was extremely difficult. Many who joined the PPP as the better of a bad choice, as it were, actually had to leave the party. And ultimately, because of these racial questions, a generation of us have actually stayed clear of the two dominant political parties.
As US Marxist academic Robin Kelley contends, Rodney was “uniquely allergic to sectarian politics.” Perennially credited with an impressive sensitivity to each place he touched down, He would size up the situation and act accordingly. In Guyana Rodney’s practical intervention was almost identical with his sojourn everywhere if you add the race-class dialectic. Whether bauxite or sugar worker, urban and rural unemployed and so called “lumpen” – Rodney was active in studying and actively involved with the working people.
Rodney even established a kind of unorthodoxy in how to deal with the Burnham regime – through peaceful protest, calls for constitutional change, free and fair elections, iconoclastic attacks and use of humour against the maximum leader, coupled of course with open calls for the toppling of the regime. This had a powerful impact on the population. The support for a PPP activist Arnold Rampersaud who was on trial for murder was the most spectacular example of multi-racial organizing. PPP members along with Walter Rodney and Eusi Kwayana were part of a defense committee that represented Rampersaud. He was eventually acquitted of the charges after three trials and Rodney gave a famous speech in Georgetown (later published) in defence of Rampersaud
It is People’s Progressive Party, its spokespersons, and others, have always tried to co-opt Rodney from one specific plank, that is, using the period of his fight to end the Burnham regime as a lightning rod to attack Rodney’s comrades in the WPA. This strategic reflex, while correctly identifying Rodney’s no holds barred fight against the authoritarian Burnham regime, holds a basic flaw. These convenient celebrants of Rodney restrict themselves to his fight against Burnham’s authoritarian regime, but rarely look at his universal revolutionary record, his scholarship on Africa or on Black Power, or for that matter try to absorb critical social lessons from the way he and WPA organised multi-racially in Guyana.
In 1979, after the successful overthrow of the authoritarian Eric Gairy regime, the Grenada revolution was born. Rodney and WPA’s support for the Grenadians (De Shah Gone! Gairy gone! Who Next?) was enthusiastic but not unconditional. But the cautions extended by new left activists in the Caribbean including Walter Rodney and Clive Thomas, for the Grenada revolution not to head down the path of the erosion of civil liberties, fell on deaf ears.
The decision by the New Jewel Movement (NJM) to close down the opposition Torchlight newspaper in 1979 was a case in point. Bernard Coard, in his belated regrets over the closing of the Torchlight, refers to a meeting at Pegasus hotel in Guyana when Rodney made a passionate plea for freedom of the press. Rodney’s criticism of the NJM was of course not surprising. He was always developing new layers of understanding of societies and the world in general.
After his assassination in 1980 there were whispers and open statements about Rodney’s “adventurism” in the fight against the Burnham regime.
CLR James and the Rodney Critique
In the wake of Rodney’s death, renowned Caribbean writer, philosopher, and Black icon CLR James gave a speech eventually published as a booklet (1981) titled “Walter Rodney and the Question of Power,” in which he offered several critiques of Walter Rodney’s Guyana sojourn and organisation against the Burnham regime in the 1970s and his demise in 1980. James enquired, among other things, in what was the most striking comment in the speech/publication. “why Walter found himself in a car with member of Burnham’s army making some arrangement about some gadget that turned out to be explosive. He should never have been there. No political leader had any right to be there…”
In the essay, James also focuses on what he deems Rodney’s lack of knowledge of the taking of power and his alleged inability to understand what he was up against with respect to Burnham’s armed state.
This critique of Rodney’s so called “adventurism” was not only the remit of James. Cheddi Jagan, leader of the PPP, was even quoted at a public meeting of supporters in Grove (East Bank Demerara) as stating, in a reference to Rodney’s famous statement about overthrowing Burnham by Christmas, “they promised you a Christmas present and all you got was Walter Rodney’s head on a platter”. This was in 1981 after the WPA had campaigned to boycott the elections of that year. This statement was corroborated by two WPA activists who attended the meeting and the national newspaper at the time.
But back to James. I fully acknowledge that James’ critique of Rodney was born out of genuine hurt for the loss of the scholar-activist and the implications of this for Guyana and the Caribbean and for scholarship in general. And the thrust and parry by the great man provides some angst about his mentee (Walter Rodney) and in this sense, no matter how faulty his analysis is in the long run, James’s intervention allows for clarification of Rodney and the question of power on the ground in Guyana in the material time under focus.
First let me quickly address the philosophical basis on which CLR directs his critique, that is, his interpretation of a “correct” application of physical safety of individual revolutionary leaders like Rodney and by extension all revolutionaries when faced with situations like the one Rodney faced in Guyana.
The fact, is there was no “different” Walter Rodney, he was organically a scholar activist. In other terms he had broken with the conception of an academic “staying in his or her lane” from his early days in Jamaica all through to his Guyana sojourn.
In the historical architecture of revolution and the actions of revolutionary leaders how can we assess risk? Could we have told Rosa Luxembourg, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Thomas Sankara, and Amilcar Cabral, to name a few, how to avoid risk in pursuit of their goals against repressive institutions and states? In other terms, we can assume that throughout history individual precaution was the expected modus vivendi. But then how much is too much and what would have been the impact of too much precaution or armchair leadership on levels of progress or success? Rodney was not as simplistic and reckless as CLR James assumes. From all accounts he was careful and cautious but also bold in his prosecution of systems of inequity and racial hierarchy.
I can offer my own personal testimony of Rodney’s caution and awareness of his surroundings in Guyana at the time. At a very young age I was driven by car in the 60 mile journey to the industrial mining town in Guyana called Linden (after Forbes Burnham). Although traditionally a PNC stronghold, Linden had by then become a hotbed of resistance to the regime and Rodney was much sought after by the bauxite workers. When I went up to Linden the person sitting in the back seat of the car (a woman was the driver and I was in the front seat as a decoy pretending to be her son) was actually Rodney. He was dressed as a carpenter. He was dressed to perfection for the ruse, with a saw and tools, old clothes and a hat to pull down over his face, designed to hide his identity from the several road blocks set up to prevent and/or observe the movement of WPA personnel. We were stopped on one occasion but got past the toll gate/security checkpoint. The disguise worked and we reached the bauxite town safely. On arrival, we were met by about a dozen bauxite workers and WPA activists who appeared suddenly out of the darkness by pre-arrangement. We sat in the middle of the night, in the open air, with Rodney was in his element. I recall him telling the group, “you have to hold strain’, steel yourselves, things are going to happen.”
There are many other stories of this nature by others who worked in one way or other with Rodney.
40 years on we must go beyond what Jamaican scholar David Scott terms the “conventional narrative” as we locate Rodney’s legacy and his importance for the present.
Given Rodney’s activist arc of principle and method of operation in any political theatre across the world, he would have been extremely critical of both modern periods of rule of the two political dinosaurs of Guyana, the PPP and PNC (with their additional configurations of alliances and civic etc) over the constitutional, corrupt, and racial depredations of the PPP regimes in the 1997 – 2015 period. He would have been equally critical of the APNU-AFC’s record in office between 2015 and 2020.
Finally, the Commission of Inquiry report tabled with the government of the APNU-AFC should be formally released to the public.
It is also now time, 40 years on, for scholars and public commentators to reach beyond the “formal” assessment of Rodney’s period in Guyana between 1974 and 1980 and frankly discuss the entirety of his and the WPA’s struggle against the state at the time. While aspects of the events of the period might reside in a swirl of mystery and some of the actors have passed, it is still important as part of the reckoning with history for Guyanese and the world to know more, if not ever fully, about what transpired. I do not believe that this opening will in any way detract from the revolutionary record and valor of this outstanding citizen of Guyana and the world.
Walter Rodney Lives!