New books | The Story of Walter Rodney: New Setting

This is a series of slightly edited excerpts from A Revolutionary for Our Time: The Story of Walter Rodney (Haymarket Books, 2022) by Leo Zeilig.

The life of Walter Rodney contains so many lessons and presents us with such valuable teachings. Throughout his life, from his beginnings in activism, Rodney knew that there could be no lasting or desirable change that did not pass through the action and mobilizations of the poor themselves. This continued, grew and developed, when Rodney worked and led the Working People’s Alliance in Guyana after 1974, as he sought empowerment of the poor and working class for themselves, by their own hand and in their own name. Celebrating two anniversaries this year, that of his birth 80 years ago and the publication of his masterpiece, How Europe Underdeveloped Africathere is so much to say.

Rodney paid particular attention to the role of environment and ecology in his 1972 masterpiece, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa – showing how many African societies, before the arrival of Europeans, had demonstrated an acute awareness of what he describes as the “total ecology” of society. These were, in his words, “soils, climates, animals, plants and their multiple interrelationships”. When the colonialist invaded, disaster followed – for human beings and the environment. A form of agriculture that has sustained complex societies and cultures for centuries was based on a deep understanding of the potential of the soil, but, in Rodney’s words, “when the colonialists began to upset the thin topsoil, the result was disastrous”.

Indeed, Rodney had a keen and historical sense of the complex interrelation between human society, production and the environment. For him, this “total ecology” was vital to sustaining human life and protecting nature. Prior to the era of climate emergency, Rodney’s work remains remarkably prescient on this dimension.

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These ideas and interest in colonialism, empire, capitalism and environmental destruction continued. In a lecture given by Rodney in 1978 (Walter Rodney – Crisis in the Periphery: Africa and the Caribbean), he again turned to the environment and the revelations that Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat had recently visited France and Austria to negotiate the export of their nuclear waste to Egypt. Rodney explained, “We know, those of us familiar with the way of life in this society, that capitalism in its pursuit of profit maximization has been totally oblivious to the effects on the environment. We know that capitalism has killed the environment in the process of capital expansion. But the alienation this has produced in capitalist countries has at least triggered environmental movements, and now there is some resistance to indiscriminate development.

The pandemic has been fueled by an economic system programmed to endlessly accumulate, regardless of the consequences: after all, capitalism views the natural environment as a commodity that can be bought and sold, and the growing proliferation of virus is intimately tied to food production and the profit margins of international corporations.

The context of this disaster, Rodney spoke and wrote with more clarity, purpose and force than anyone. As Naomi Klein has written, robbing people in Africa was a practice of ruthless expropriation that was so profitable that it produced the capital and energy that sparked our era of fossil fuel-fueled industrial revolution, human-induced climate change and capitalist development. . It is the roots and branches of this system – the total system – that Rodney sought to understand and transform throughout his life.

Rodney was a contemporary Marxist; a man who devoted his life to political education, aware that only through careful and careful study could capitalism be known and ultimately overthrown; his landmark work and his 1972 classic should be understood in this way.

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Armed with this knowledge, he embarked on efforts to change the world in Tanzania, Jamaica, and then, most remarkably, in his home in Guyana after 1974. He was a leading figure in an extraordinary time: moving to across the Caribbean, Africa and North America, he achieved a bold and exciting synthesis of Black power and Marxism.

Today, the global uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement that exploded across the world in the summer of 2020 has challenged the deep roots of vicious oppression and exploitation, and it calls on us to get back to work. and Rodney Life for ideas and answers. A world in which monuments to the American Confederacy, British slave owners and settler colonialism crumble at the hands of protesters would be familiar to Rodney. Yet it was the system behind these statues and these crimes, that was his ultimate target. Indeed, Rodney not only analyzed the historical roots of slavery and colonialism, but also saw how capitalism had mutated and developed in the modern world.

In Africa, Europe, the United States and beyond, there can be no final reckoning with these legacies without a challenge to global financial institutions and remaining governments. The profits of today’s rich are still dripping with the blood and sweat of slavery and colonialism. Rodney analyzed the behavior of this class in detail, and in the 1970s Rodney became one of the most brilliant proponents of self-emancipation, elevating working class and poor activism to the heart of any project. serious about revolution.

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Rodney’s work demonstrates the breadth and depth of his reading; in his approach to research, every primary source had to be read, and he declined an approach to scholarship. To change this story, Rodney told us, we have to do certain things. We must read and understand the history that has been silenced by academics and establishment historians – a key task. Indeed, much of Rodney’s life has been devoted to “explaining”, teaching from the bottom up – literally, whether from a barrel of oil in Kingston’s Trench Town, to students at the University of Dar es Salaam, or to the workers and poor across Guyana in the 1970s. Wherever he went, he spoke, lectured and taught. If there is only one goal in life, that was it for Rodney: education. In his books and speeches he educated, to the highest and most exacting standards.

But he didn’t do it just for enlightenment; Rodney was a teacher who sought revolutionary change that he knew could only come from informed and grounded practice.

Walter Rodney was a revolutionary socialist who understood, as he wrote in 1972, that the only great people “among the unfree and oppressed are those who struggle to destroy the oppressor.” That’s what he taught.

A revolutionary for our time was written in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, responding to the movement’s desire for theory, history and practice. It is hoped that a comprehensive account of Rodney’s life will help illuminate our struggles to forge a new society. Understanding Rodney’s work and life is essential to this vital and decisive project.

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About Stuart M. McFarland

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