By Leo Zeilig.
One of the most astonishing books that Walter Rodney – the Guyanese revolutionary and historian – ever wrote was published several years after he was assassinated on 13 June 1980. The story of this book and how it came to be published is almost as remarkable as the life of the revolutionary himself. In 1978, Rodney was working as a full-time activist of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. The WPA was a revolutionary organisation seeking to unite the African and Indian working class in the highly divided country, then run by the brutal Forbes Burnham. Rodney was the group’s principal organiser and intellectual, and to support himself and his family, and to fundraise for the WPA, he travelled overseas to teach and work.
One trip to Germany in 1978 shows us how his last book came to be. Rodney travelled from Guyana to Hamburg in April of that year. He was already the celebrated and outspoken author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and his arrival was eagerly anticipated. He had been invited by the radical German scholar, Rainer Tetzlaff, to teach a course on the history of African development at the University of Hamburg.
The lecture course Rodney was employed to teach was titled, ‘African Development, 1878-1978’, and comprised, according to the one-page programme, ‘(i) a brief introduction to development concepts; (ii) a survey of African colonial economies with special reference to East and West Africa; and (iii) an examination of post-colonial developments in Kenya and Tanzania.’ According to the brief programme there were going to be twelve lectures, comprising, ‘The debate on development concepts in Africa’ and ‘Post-colonial development strategies’.1
The book – still unknown by most people familiar with Rodney’s work – was published from these lectures, which were recorded on audio cassettes, and transcribed in 1984 (and included the question-and-answer sessions with his students).The entire course was then compiled and turned into a small, photocopied book entitled, A Tribute to Walter Rodney: One Hundred Years of Development in Africa.2 The book was placed in the library at the University of Hamburg and distributed to a number of comrades and students. Copies also ended up in Peter Lock’s private collection, a colleague and comrade of Rodney and Tetzlaff at the University of Hamburg, who had helped organise the lectures.
A Revolutionary Course
The lectures and resultant book are perhaps the best example of the dizzying breadth of Rodney’s scholarship, reading and activism, synthesized into a single document. The course also showcased Rodney’s astonishing ability to communicate. His capacity for clarity and description – a rare and vital ability among scholars and activists – which had been developed from his work ‘grounding’ – literally meaning to sit on the ground, listen and discuss among the poor in Jamaica in 1968 from which his first book, The Groundings with my Brothers, emerged. Speaking to students at the university is one thing, but Rodney was also working as a political organiser among sugar, rice, timber, and coconut workers.
Working across disciplines, and addressing different audiences including students, workers and children, Rodney developed a rare ability to effectively communicate complex ideas. The course, Tetzlaff and Lock explained in 1984 – in the preface to the book –was ‘an entirely new enriching experience when the students of the Institute for Political Science and the Seminar of History at the University of Hamburg were offered an intellectual discourse with an authentic representative of the Third World’.3
Rodney opens the lectures by challenging two distinct views of African history. One represented by Hugh Trevor Roper – an establishment British historian and racist, who saw pre-colonial African history as primitive and basic. The second view, Rodney explained, sees the colonial period as ‘insignificant, almost irrelevant.’ These historians arrive at this position by ‘saying that African history and African development must be seen in a totality, that African history is almost ageless…’.4
Unsurprisingly Rodney rejects both positions. The second view which sees colonialism as insignificant, a ‘flea-bite’, argued that Africa had already ‘moved away from the colonial heritage’. These were arguments made by both academics and politicians, who saw Europeans as simply ‘visitors’ and now that they had formally left the continent, Africa could re-establish its ‘authenticity’.
By the late 1970s, the idea of ‘authenticity’ – the return to a ‘real’ and ‘proper’ African culture and history – had been taken-up and established as official government discourse in different parts of the continent, justifying often draconian and dictatorial policies. Congo’s President, Mobutu Sese Seko, used to his own advantage the so-called ‘recourse to authenticity’ in 1971, renaming the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zaire that year. His own change of name and title, and the names of towns and streets reflected this ostensible ‘authenticity’.5 While the official proclamation of Patrice Lumumba as a national hero, a man Mobutu had been involved in murdering, was all part of an attempt to forge a new African national identity true to its glorious historical past. These efforts were part of an endeavour to increase the resources available to the state and drive out ‘foreigners’ through use of ‘nationalist’ slogans. The class of state bureaucrats and businessman were the chief beneficiaries of this policy – a process Rodney discussed in devastating detail.6
The second stage of these state-led reforms in the Congo was the institutional and economic consolidation of ’Zairianisation’, which was initiated with the ‘take over’ of the bureaucracy and the ‘nationalisation’ of sectors of the economy previously in private or corporate (Belgian), hands into either private Zaïrean ownership or state ownership. This change tended to encourage the development of two different, and conﬂicting, social formations. The process saw small and medium businesses, mainly in the transport and service sectors, transfer from expatriate private ownership to Zaïrean private ownership. One of the major forces behind this process was a concern to gain greater control for the political elite over the resources of the Zaïrean economy, so that the proﬁts generated could more easily be appropriated; another was to extend the range of resources under nominal state control, and to increase the proﬁts available to a ‘bureaucratic elite’. This was the reality of the second type of history Rodney had identified – the ‘return to an ageless African history’. As he explained explicitly, ‘I feel that the talk of authenticity has generally been associated with this desire to suggest [that] … colonialism really did not make much of an impact’.
Rodney moves onto his ‘third framework of analysis’, which sees colonialism not as a minor moment in the continent’s history, but a ‘major intervention’ on Africa’s politics and societies. As he describes to the students, ‘colonialism in spite of being in Africa for a mere 70, 80 or 100 years, made a tremendous impact and that impact is visible and will continue to be visible on the African continent…’
Rodney’s own work on the continent’s history is most closely aligned to this third approach. In Rodney’s words in Hamburg, ‘colonialism reinforced tendencies that had already begun with the trade in slaves … for those sections of the African continent which were involved in the trading of slaves, it represented their first major involvement in the world economy and that with the coming of colonialism that involvement was going to be intensified in very many ways’.
Understanding African History
Rodney’s fluency when surveying the five centuries-long history of Africa in these lectures is remarkable. Though never lost in the details, he examines the movements of resistance within a Marxist framework – for example, the decades it took the Portuguese to pacify resistance in Guinea – to imperial competition for African territory that led to the Berlin conference in 1884 and the colonial scramble on the continent.
Rapidly he moves quickly on to examine the solidarity between colonial liberation movements and the ‘labour movements and left-wing movements of the colonialising powers themselves.’ While this solidarity did exist, it was highly uneven, so ‘one notes … that the French communist party was the largest communist party in Western Europe … was itself ideologically tied to its own bourgeois state apparatus with regard to colonial rule…’.7
What gives Rodney’s lectures such a dynamic and living energy is that he was often interrupted by the audience with questions and queries. On Algeria, for example, one student, asked: ‘There are opinions many of which go back to the writings of Frantz Fanon which say that the use of violence or the armed struggle is a necessary pre-condition for a real independence, and you have already indicated that there are other ways of struggle…’
Rodney responds, ‘…I think Fanon himself of course was aware of the different possibilities of access to Independence …But what we have to take as the premise is this: African people as such, did not make the decision about armed struggle or no armed struggle; that decision was really dictated by the character of colonial rule …’ Rodney was not simply a teacher in Hamburg but a militant whose own activism in Guyana at the time would raise the possibility of armed struggle. He was responding – and lecturing – as a scholar and militant involved in the on-going post-independence struggle for liberation in the Caribbean.
One of the most significant parts of Rodney’s course were his lectures on Tanzania – an important focus for this review. Tanzania at the time was led by the socialist Julius Nyerere, and the country represented for many an alternative and radical path to socialist development in the Third World. Partly autobiographical, he starts by telling his students, ‘My own experience with those who have really loved Nyerere’s words or read descriptions or discussions of Tanzanian socialism is normally when they come to Tanzania …. they experienced a certain amount of shock.’ In Hamburg he was speaking about a large community of fraternal scholars, and fellow travellers who came to the country with a romantic notion of ‘Nyerere’s words … [and] Tanzanian socialism.’ Rodney had worked with his family in Tanzania from 1966 to 1974, he knew the country and its politics intimately.8
Yet what these foreign socialists experienced, and saw for themselves when they arrived, was shocking. Rodney continues, ‘they had already begun to imagine the society transforming itself into a socialist society of plenty, when in fact, we are dealing with an underdeveloped society where poverty and destitution is as much the common run as you would find in any one of the African territories which may not necessarily be claiming to be moving towards socialism.’ Moving quickly on to consider Tanzania’s history and political economy, Rodney explains to his listeners that the real explanation of this ‘underdevelopment’ was caused by the fact that Tanzania ‘began at the rear.’
Rodney then proceeds to provide a detailed analysis of independence and dependency in the country – while continuing to engage with the audience, ‘That is another thing you have to learn when you are looking at third world countries, when you see companies and firms that begin with Tanganyika this, or Sudan this or Nigeria this, don’t entertain any illusions that they belong to Tanzania or Sudan or Nigeria, in fact that is precisely the moment when you have to become suspicious because foreign firms like to decorate their companies with the names of these national countries …’ He illustrates his point with a vivid example, the Tanganyika Development Finance Company – that sounds ‘home grown,’ a national financing company, but it is in fact ‘partly owned by the Netherlands Government …’
With his exceptional power of explanation, Rodney provides the simplest description of what happens to a newly independent African country as it reaches for economic development. Foreign governments and companies, Rodney explains, say ‘to African governments and other third world countries, “we are going to set up a manufacturing centre in your country. This is in line with your development strategy, you are becoming industrialised. Now if we are going to help you to be industrialized then obviously you must include the conditions under which this industry would succeed. You must provide tariff protection against other exports from Europe and Asia” … Never mind that the domestic industry is owned lock, stock and barrel in many instances by foreign firms, it’s still called domestic, it is still seen as local industry.’
Returning his focus directly to Tanzania, Rodney explains, that from the country’s low economic level, colonial era dependence and the failure to build a genuine autonomous basis for independence, meant that Nyerere’s socialism, pioneered as ‘Ujamaa’ – a programme for socialist economic development – was doomed to fail. Ujamaa was celebrated widely around the world by left-wing radicals but by 1978 Rodney was extraordinarily sober in his analysis, ‘So Ujamaa’ he explained to the class, ‘has not increased production in Tanzania. It has not transformed technology … It has not transformed social relations in the countryside as it aimed at … It has strengthened the bureaucracy. It has failed to cut the dependency links… And at the ideological level it has created confusion in so far as it has sought to negate the concept of class struggle and class responsibilities.’ We should note here that Rodney came to this realisation in part through being pushed by Marxist students on campus at Dar es Salaam (most notable of these was the brilliant young Marxist and for a time, Rodney’s PhD student, Issa Shivji, but also Karim Hirji).
Yet it is when Rodney examines the agency and activism of working people on the course that the excitement becomes tangible. In the final section of his lectures in Hamburg, Rodney moved on to discuss class struggle in Tanzania. In this part of the course, Rodney’s teaching is a giddying, exciting roller-coaster. He tells his class that, ‘The idea of class struggle does not suit a bureaucratic bourgeoisie or any sector of the petit-bourgeois because it’s an idea that speaks about the negation of their own existence over time’. At times, Nyerere suggested that there were no real social classes in Tanzania and that consequently, it did not make any sense to adopt a theory that emphasises the role of class struggle in bringing about social transformation.9
Rodney argued the ‘petit bourgeoise … were trying to disseminate the idea that workers exploit the countryside.’ This was a self-serving point that could be used against wages claims and demands ‘for a larger share of the surplus which they produce.’ These were not abstract arguments in an academic discussion, but justifications made directly by the Tanzanian state (and ‘socialist’ and ‘capitalist’ states across the continent). Nyerere, the radical president of Tanzania, was fond of making such claims himself, Rodney explained, ‘if the workers ask for more, the bureaucratic bourgeoise would reply, “You are getting that at the expense of the peasants.”’
On the role of the state in Tanzania, his attitude had become much more critical. In the strikes and occupations reported by Issa Shivji in his 1976 book, Class Struggles in Tanzania, and noted by Rodney in his lectures, there was a new politics in formation.10 Reporting on the working class action in the factory occupations in the early 1970s, in Hamburg he described, ‘We as workers are capable of running this enterprise more efficiently than the economic bureaucracy.’ In directly challenging the management of companies, workers were ‘making arguments that went beyond their own immediate material interests. They were carrying the class … to even higher levels by in fact posing the question who should control production …’
Omissions and Inclusions
During these last years of his life, Rodney was at the height of his powers. He had a capacity for work which was extraordinary. Increasingly, Rodney’s efforts were focused resolutely on the struggles from below and on the agency and capacity of working people to change society. There are invaluable signs of this shift, this new orientation, in the lecture course he presented in Hamburg and that was then published in the photocopied, limited-edition book in 1984.
The book, and lectures that comprise it, give a powerful impression of an activist and thinker engaged with challenging and wide-ranging issues such as the continent’s history, slavery, independence, and projects of radical socialist development. Frequently interrupted by students to clarify a point, or justify a statement, Rodney deals with complex issues of history, political economy and Marxist theory with sophistication and clarity, never losing patience, or his narrative thread. The transcripts and recordings of the lectures held in the Walter Rodney Papers in Atlanta also give a sense of Rodney’s own political development, reflecting on his activism, and his work with the working class in Guyana.
One of the most impressive aspects of the course is Rodney’s criticism of Tanzania’s socialist efforts. He is uncompromising, there was, he said to the ‘large group of students’, simply nothing socialist about the reforms. He points to the strikes and working-class activity in a wave of action from 1973 as the centre of a genuine movement for socialist change – which saw a shift in the consciousness of those involved in struggle, Rodney explains. This is where we need to look for change, he asserts. This critical reappraisal, made in front of his class in 1978, was still, to me – reading the transcripts of the lectures in the windowless reading room of to the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center – in 2018, a tremendously exciting experience.
Understanding this wave of working-class action required that Rodney undertake a detailed reading of what had taken place. Nyerere was not a socialist in the way Rodney now understood the term, and he had crushed the strikes and occupations of workers, when these workers had dared to take matters into their own hands.11 Yet as I scanned the 1984 book of these lectures, I realised that this significant part of the course, Rodney’s account of the strikes and the ‘wild-cat’ action in Tanzania had been excluded – this vital story had simply disappeared from this 1984 publication of the lectures.
What could be the reason for leaving out this still scintillating account of Nyerere and Tanzania and the role of the post-colonial working class? I can only imagine that even in 1984 – when Nyerere had resigned as president – it was still considered too critical. Whatever the reasons, the book – only a few copies now available anywhere in the world, including in the library in Hamburg – remains an astonishing tour de force of modern African history up to 1978, and evidence of Rodney’s mastery and application of Marxism and radical political economy.
Leo Zeilig is an editor on the Review of African Political Economy and is the coordinator of roape.net. He has written widely on African history and politics, and his study on Walter Rodney, A Revolutionary for Our Times, is being published by Haymarket Books in 2022.
The author would like to thank Louis Allday and Zeyad el Nabolsy for their comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this review.
This blogpost was originally published on the website Liberated Texts. Liberated Texts is an independent book review website which features works of ongoing relevance that have been forgotten, underappreciated, suppressed or misinterpreted in the cultural mainstream since their release. They are primarily interested in texts with anti-colonial, anti-imperialist themes and those related to the history of Marxism, communism and revolution globally. You can submit reviews and contact the editors of the site here.