One of Africa’s and the Caribbean’s most fervent scholars of the late 1960s to 1980s was the revolutionary intellectual, Walter Rodney. The year 2022 marks the 80th anniversary of the birth of Walter Rodney. We are now 42 years on from Rodney’s assassination, and 50 years on from the publication of his most influential book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. This is an important year for organic radical intellectuals, activists, and social movements organizing against the hegemony of capitalism and imperialism.
Rodney was 38 years old when he was assassinated by car bomb in Georgetown in 1980. In his short life, Rodney’s contributions to the struggle for revolutionary change both within the university and through his participation in the people’s struggles were unmeasured.
Born in 1942 into a working-class family, Rodney attended the University College of the West Indies in 1960 and was awarded a first-class honors degree in history in 1963. He earned a Ph.D. in African History in 1966 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England.
As a scholar, Rodney combines intellect and revolutionary thought, often sacrificing the privilege and prestige of the academy for the liberation of the working and wretched masses in the world. In an era when the phrases “scholar-activist” and “public intellectual” have become popular, it is critical to borrow lessons from an intellectual revolutionary like Rodney to avoid the risk of reducing these concepts to a meaningless trendy exercise in populist rhetoric and empty sloganeering.
Mao Zedong warns (1966: 14):
A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection; an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.
It is essential then that we grasp that it is the pursuit of revolutionary change that led to the assassination of Walter Rodney, and learn that such a pursuit is serious and difficult, is not fashionable, and will bring no funds or accolades!
Rodney lived among the masses and actively engaged in fighting to end the horrors of capitalism and imperialism both in his home country, Guyana, and in Africa. He engaged closely with the academic, student-based, national and African, liberation-oriented struggles at the practical and the theoretical levels. Alieu Bah (2022) reflects on Rodney:
A righteous child of the Third World who took the difficult path of merging intellectual vocation and social practice with sublime grace and incisive depth, and it is this that made him stand out from the lot that inhabited his time. He dared to question, historicize, contest the bourgeois academy and its lopsided knowledge production, and, not stopping there, to ground that work within the masses by being with them. Walter wasn’t afraid of the masses, he loved them. His was a life that walked the ivory tower in the morning and the slums in the afternoon.
Ideally, scholar activism is viewed as having one foot in the academy and one foot in the struggle for social justice – a mash-up of scholarship and activism.
In the last decade, Africa has seen the emergence of pro-democracy protests. Uprisings such as the Arab spring beginning in 2010–2011 challenged some of the region’s entrenched authoritarian regimes, such as those of Presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. In West Africa, Burkina Faso’s barefoot revolution ended the 27-year rule of Blaise Compaore. Mali and Sudan saw country-wide protests that led to regime change. Scholars and public intellectuals participated in the people’s struggles – offering solidarity, exposing the oppression of these regimes in writing, or engaging with the LGBTQ, feminist, and liberation theology struggles against other forms of oppressions.
Unfortunately, public intellectualism now seems something fashionable to do rather than radical to actualize and revolves around academia and university halls. Decolonial programs and the decolonization processes have become hollowed out with a focus on seminars and academic engagements, rather than challenging the colonizing practices that influenced education in the past, and are still present today. Decolonization academic programs seem to be active only when seeking funding, often from the institutes and corporates that enable oppression in various forms in our society. For scholars, this offers just another path to further their career.
Social movements and activists outside academia also have their shortcomings in engaging in activism against the root cause of society’s inequality and oppression. Most will acknowledge capitalism only in a superficial manner as that root cause. They do little to promote socialism as the solution.
Revolutionary struggles are not that easy. There exist consequences. Amilcar Cabral, a revolutionary intellectual of the same pedigree as Rodney, and who was assassinated in 1973, cautioned us not to claim easy victories. In fact, Cabral called on intellectuals and the petty-bourgeoisie to “commit class suicide” and forego their privileges for the revolutionary cause. Cabral led by example. As an educator and agricultural engineer he joined the Movement for the Liberation of Angola and later formed the African Party for the Independence and Union of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). Gibson (2013) says:
Cabral’s wonderful phrase, “claim no easy victories” resonates critically with contemporary struggles, which, amplified in the age of Twitter and the internet, grab the imagination and often gain rapid support, only to quickly dissipate. Rather than the end of ideology, our globally connected age requires a critique which begins from concrete and locally grounded analyses and historically informed reflections that help a movement anticipate problems and contradictions, so that isn’t merely responding in the moment.
This is how the modern-day scholar-activist is: very active whenever an issue goes viral on the internet – a statement here, a statement there – without fully immersing themselves in social movements that are tirelessly fighting. These scholars also distance themselves from radical ideologies, operating within the neoliberal spectrum of liberalism and human rights theory. There is too much talk and no action.
Scholar-activists and intellectuals cannot be neutral or play safe so as not to become too publicly associated with liberation struggles. Revolutionary intellectuals must choose a side or step aside. As Durrani (2021) puts it, all aspects of life on the bourgeois side are mirrored in working-class society. Thus, intellectuals exist on both sides. But whereas bourgeois intellectuals support their class, the existing class system, and capitalism and imperialism, working-class intellectuals oppose all of these.
It is their class position that decides whether an intellectual is either on the side of the oppressors or rooted among working people and on the side of the oppressed and exploited. Just as the bourgeoisie needs intellectuals to create an ideology and a vision to justify their class rule and capitalism, the working class needs its own intellectuals to create its ideology and articulate its vision that explains and justifies their struggle for liberation.
Rodney consistently chose the working class. He took the academy and the bourgeois framework to task in what he saw as the dominant mode of reasoning that supports capitalism and tied it to the oppression that the proletarians faced.
In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Rodney clarifies (1972: 289): “If there is anything glorious about the history of African colonial education, it lies not in the crumbs which were dropped by European exploiters, but in the tremendous vigor displayed by Africans in mastering the principles of the system that had mastered them.”
As neoliberal capitalism continues to tighten its grip on the economy and the academy, it is imperative that scholar-activists go on the attack armed with the right ideology, pedagogy and theory of change. Of Rodney’s other seminal work, Groundings with my Brothers, Shepherd (2019) says:
Groundings is the reclamation of a methodology of conscientizing developed by Walter Rodney in the 1960s to provide critical social intervention among a population of somewhat disposed but knowledge-hungry urban dwellers. Rodney’s aim was to render his intellectual skills available of campus to those who had no access to the university.
Rodney’s non-conventional pedagogy enabled him to interact with the people, as opposed to the traditional conservative intelligentsia within academia that alienates the masses, who are in fact at the center of knowledge production and dissemination. Mao Zedong reminds us that (1966: 97):
Knowledge begins with practice, and theoretical knowledge, which is acquired through practice, must then return to practice. The active function of knowledge manifests itself not only in the active leap from perceptual to rational knowledge, but – and this is more important – it must manifest itself in the leap from rational knowledge to revolutionary practice.
Rodney became what Antonio Gramsci called an organic intellectual. He did not see himself occupying a stratum above the rest of society. As Willy Mutunga (2021) says:
Organic intellectuals are connected to the academy and the movements there, but also in other social movements outside the academy. Their research is particularly critical in glorifying the work of social movements that would otherwise not be known and amplified. They are also involved in publishing books and articles that call for transformation and revolution. They are auxiliaries to feminist, reproductive health, gay, women, prison, anti-racial, non-sexist, and anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements.
Kenya is home to revolutionary intellectuals that belong in the same category as Walter Rodney. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Micere Mugo, Maina wa Kinyatti, Gakaara Wa Wanjau, Willy Mutunga, Kamoji Wacira, Alamin Mazrui, and Shiraz Durrani are clear examples of how to connect intellectual and working-class struggles.
For example, Prof. Maina wa Kinyatti, Kenya’s foremost scholar on the Mau Mau Movement, was a lecturer at Kenyatta University. He was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Mwakenya December-Twelve Movement which challenged capitalism, imperialism, and President Moi’s authoritarian rule in Kenya. He taught his students and the masses about socialism as an alternative system, uniting working-class struggles and the academia. Like Rodney, he paid heavily for doing so. Prof. wa Kinyatti was arrested in 1982, accused of possessing and producing seditious literature. At his house, the police confiscated 29 files of his research work on the Mau Mau movement and 23 books, including the works of Karl Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Che Guevara.
President Moi’s regime next declared war against proponents of socialism, who included political activists, students, and scholars – and on the publishing of progressive literature. Spies were embedded in universities to monitor teaching and to remove any literature on Marxism, socialism, and communism.
During the six years Prof. wa Kinyatti served in prison, he was beaten and he was tortured by vermin, untreated diseases, hunger, and loneliness. But he remained defiant, his courage and spirit unbroken.
This is the reality for revolutionary scholars: the struggle is neither an easy one, nor an abstract intellectual exercise. Rodney’s experiences demonstrate that scholars must ground with the masses for any revolutionary change to take place. As Mao Zedong starkly puts it:
Whoever sides with the revolutionary people is a revolutionary. Whoever sides with imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat-capitalism is a counter-revolutionary. Whoever sides with the revolutionary people in words only but acts otherwise is a revolutionary in speech. Whoever sides with the revolutionary people in deed as well as in word is a revolutionary in the full sense.
In conclusion, as Agwanya (2016) reiterates, “Rodney was not an armchair revolutionary who sequestered himself on the academic plantation theorizing on what must be done to transform society. He waded into the messy, complicated, and threatening world of practice to facilitate resistance to the violent forces of oppression.”