My favorite anecdote about Walter Rodney is that he was a regular at Kingston’s Wednesday night passa-passa, for the short period he was allowed to teach at the University of West Indies. There was Dr Rodney, dancing and getting lit, shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Toots Hibbert, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh. For the fact that Walter Rodney is a figure as truly astonishing as he is underrated, as superlative in every way as is he is unduly forgotten – what sticks out to me most is that no biography ever fails to mention how consistently Rodney was out here. It was as he was coming back from a party – a celebration of Zimbabwe’s independence on June 13, 1980, in fact – that Guyana Defence Force sergeant Gregory Smith deployed the bomb that took Dr Rodney’s life. Rodney was due, in all likelihood, to become President of the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana shortly after. He was 38 years old.
In his recent book Washington Bullets, historian Vijay Prashad discusses the true price of such a weapon – bomb or bullet – in the context of assassinations which take place during CIA backed coups. Although Rodney’s assassination was not launched from Washington, the government of incumbent Guyanese president Forbes Burnham was indeed driven by the perverse logics of market dependence and the Cold War to carry out the act. Prashad raises an interesting point in his book, one which applies to the weapon of any assassin, regardless of which capital city it originated in. What is the social cost behind the market price, the human price behind the production cost? As both Prashad and foreword author and former Bolivian President Evo Morales Ayma point out, the human price of an assassin’s bomb or bullet can often be generations of lost hope, the birth of yet another generation without the courage to look their apparent social superiors in the eye, let alone hope, one day, to look down on them as a relic of history.
The confluence of stories that lies at the heart of Rodney’s assassination is a truly remarkable one, a single act that alters the face of Guyana, the Caribbean and, in many ways, black radical and principled socialist politics worldwide. In it, is hidden short but the equally remarkable life of Rodney himself, a man of whom a singularly high praise can be made: that he could never be reduced to a cliche. Walter Rodney was not Guyana or the Caribbean’s answer to this, that or the other. Walter Rodney was Walter Rodney.
The wartime British Guiana into which Rodney was born was on the verge of the previous generation’s crisis. One can imagine the precocious Walter, 9 or 10 years old, attempting to grasp the significance of the struggle for Guyanese independence and its charismatic, socialist-oriented, Indo-Guyanese leader Dr Cheddi Jagan. Jagan’s independence movement had swept the 1953 elections in British Guiana. The United Kingdom – at this point still a colonial power, yet to be humiliated at Suez by the Egyptians – feared both Guyanese independence and potential Soviet geopolitical alignment. The government of Jagan and political ally Forbes Burnham – an Afro-Guyanese trade union leader – lasted 133 days before being removed by force of invasion from the UK. A military government was installed, and Jagan’s movements were limited to the capital city of Georgetown. Fears of Soviet or Cuban involvement turned out to be unfounded, although the bitter experience pushed Jagan further left, strengthening rather than curtailing his fight.
The West, led at first by the UK and then the United States, sought a more compliant alternative for British Guiana, whose future independence the UK had more or less acquiesced to by the late 1950s. Key to this plan was splitting Forbes Burnham – and by extension his largely Afro-Guyanese base – from Jagan and his party. The anti-colonial struggle of the Guyanese working people was segmented into a crude racial division. The British lion was due to recede into the bushes, but not without dividing and ruling one last time. As the independence struggle continued, Jagan was once again elected Chief Minister in 1961, in a government that was fraught with opposition from Burnham and his supporters, and was forced to accept a grand compromise in the subsequent 1964 election. Although this election brought with it Guyanese independence, it came at the cost of a Guyana under the control of a Burnham-dominated military.
By this time, Rodney had completed his undergraduate studies at the University of West Indies near Kingston, and was completing his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Here he feverishly compiled the volume later known as History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800, a seminal work of history written, in his words, “by an African…for an audience, primarily, of Africans.” Here was a history whose author openly stated that he wished for the history of Africa to be mediated, first and foremost, through African eyes and ears.
The work is certainly influenced by the historical materialism which was drifting into even mainstream history in the 1960s, but this piece and his other early work Groundings with My Brothers, nonetheless still document the evolution of Rodney from an Afro-centric student of history to a committed black Marxist. Nonetheless, History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800 is characterized by an academic rigor that even V.S. Naipaul, arch-conservative Trinidadian author and colonial apologist admitted, was impressive. Not content with leaving even his political enemies in awe of him, he kept moving, accepting a position at the University of Dar es-Salaam in Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania, teaching African history, but also learning from and imbibing the culture of pan-Africanism and Global South solidarity emerging there.
Returning to his native West Indies in 1968, his mere arrival was more or less sufficient to prompt the conservative Jamaican government of Hugh Shearer to block his appointment at his own alma mater. This decision sparked the Rodney Riots of 1968 which spread rapidly from Mona, through the poor, black Rastafarian strongholds of Trench Town and, before long, throughout the whole island. These riots pitted not only black nationalists and Rastafarians, but also socialists and supporters of the democratic socialist People’s National Party and its leader Michael Manley, against the conservative Shearer government. The riots presaged not only the gruesome political violence of Jamaica’s 1970’s – violence that would eventually depoliticize into ruthless territorialism by the 1980s – but also an explosion of Rastafarian culture and black consciousness that would soon become Jamaica’s dominant cultural export, for better or worse.
In a vague and removed sense, Walter Rodney was a node between Trench Town and my Iranian dad’s old Marley & the Wailers and Toots & the Maytals records, with their stock photos of the band and spellings of their names improvised in Farsi or Arabic. In a much more real and visceral sense, the Rodney Riots would affect the whole Caribbean in a profound way. The most northerly outpost of the Caribbean – New York City – saw the emergence of West Indian radicals like Kwame Ture. Beyond the obvious impact on African-American civil rights organizing in the United States through revolutionaries like Ture, the controversy reignited interest in the work of other Caribbean radicals such as George Padmore and C. L. R. James in Caribbean outposts in the UK. Needless to say, this burgeoning consciousness would circle back to the Caribbean, igniting unrest in Trinidad in 1970, and setting up the political future of Guyana itself for decades to come.
Burnham’s post-independence Guyana made the typical gestures that most states of the Non-Aligned Movement made toward the socialist world – notably, the use of adamantly socialist terminology, selective nationalization and gestures of Third World solidarity. In practice however, Burnham’s government became increasingly dependent on the ability to extract resources – namely sugar, gold and bauxite – and sell them to the highest bidder, North or South. The same vast sugar fields of Demerara on which countless slaves toiled and lost their lives continued to serve the interests of, invariably, the same basic set of businesses and capitalists. In principle, these exports were invested into the (all of a sudden) Co-Operative Republic of Guyana’s numerous state-owned enterprises, although it was fairly clear who these enterprises benefited. Like so many other co-operatives, Guyana ended up subsumed to the laws of the market, and Burnham’s allies – a very specific sliver of the Afro-Guyanese bourgeoisie, one that basically shifted and changed according to Burnham’s whims – were the stakeholders. Dr Rodney astutely noted that Burnham was not only willing to divide and oppress the working class among racial lines, he was also wholly willing to do the same to segments of the bourgeoisie that opposed him.
Perhaps nowhere are the depths of the contradictions at play in Burnham’s Guyana better than in Rodney’s eye-opening talk on the horrific tragedy at Jonestown, in which almost a thousand members of an apparent personality cult, the People’s Temple, took their own lives. The talk (which I cannot, unfortunately, address at length) is amazingly enough available in its entirety on YouTube. In it, he is introduced by a childhood friend who paints a picture of the real Walter Rodney. Always charming, always precocious. Good dancer, if never much of an athlete. I genuinely question why reams of scholarly paper have not been spilled studying this fascinating, first-hand document of the link between US radicalism, the People’s Temple, Burnham’s Guyana, and the logic of the Cold War. So much is lost when the assassin’s weapon is fired.
In establishing the Working People’s Alliance, Walter Rodney set out on practical political work, bringing together disenfranchised working and rural Afro-Guyanese and disillusioned Indo-Guyanese supporters of Jagan. Never satisfied with one field of activity or inquiry, he even began to work on a series of (now sadly out-of-print) children’s books on how Guyana’s children – whatever race they may be of – arrived there.
It was here that Rodney sowed the seed of the bomb he would ultimately catch, here that the dancehall swagger, the incisive Afrocentric history learned at school, the practical work building pan-Africanism and real-world socialism would coalesce in a person once destined to be President of Guyana. I don’t wish to belabor the excruciating details of the political work, how he came to gain the trust of the Caribbean’s many working people. I will leave it to the historians to explain how Rodney may have been a lynchpin to a brighter West Indies that never happened, perhaps a bridge between Castro and Chavez. Although I am one myself, I will leave it to the political economists to describe the alternate universe in which the Caribbean could maybe have been less beholden to IMF and World Bank debt and remittance payments from hardworking Caribbeans abroad. Let’s leave all of that aside. Like Rodney, I am an organizer and comrade first and I know full well that using the word ‘excruciating’ to describe political work is often a sad reality. I only take some solace in the fact that Comrade Rodney – a man I never knew – seemed to die doing what he loved – celebrating. We can all only hope to go the same way.
I see the tired faces of New York’s Caribbean people – of New York itself – behind the surgical masks and respirators, wearing the scrubs, facing the pandemic much more consistently and directly than most of us have to. I see them every day. The handful of us who have stayed in this city through this pandemic can hear New York’s Caribbean – New York itself – keeping us alive, literally, with every breath and drip of sweat. I have sat alongside New York’s Caribbean – New York itself – handcuffed in a van, dragged to jail together, willing only to be subjected to that excruciating pain through the shared hope that a better world can still be fought for. That Walter Rodney’s legacy is still not dead, though the man himself may be.
I should have been a post-nomadic Iranian, pitching my tent in New York, more or less because the 20th-century led me to. No particular reason to be writing about Guyana. To me, the Caribbean should have been nothing more than the street festivals, dembows, pepperpots and curries that keep so many other immigrants warm through the cold New York winters. Instead, both through an appreciation of figures like Walter Rodney, and through my experience with the sacrifices of New York’s Caribbean community both as an organizer and fellow citizen, I have come to find a deeper appreciation and, one would hope, understanding. Solidarity can forge links between the most seemingly disparate of worlds, and figures of solidarity – people like Walter Rodney – are the steady rhythm to the deafening noise of the struggle for survival and liberation. We must keep dancing to it.