June 13th, 1980: the Third World and the progressive peoples of the earth lose one of their most eloquent and brilliant spokespersons, a man who employed his genius to the liberation of the working and wretched masses of the neocolonial peripheries of the earth. Walter Anthony Rodney was one of those rare occurrences, an event, a comet that flashes brilliantly for a while and disappears – except this time the flash didn’t disappear. He continues to shine, ever bright, guiding wandering revolutionaries and budding scholars in every generation since he was brutally cut down. Rodney was a child of history, both as its student and as its subject, and as such has earned his place within its annals, not as a passive object to be briefly stunted on, but as an active participant who deserves a solemn silence, a deep study and an honourable mention as a righteous ancestor.
Walter was a brother who knew. 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, to historicise, to 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. It wouldn’t be a stretch to liken him to a Christlike figure, except he didn’t come with a metaphysical rendition but with the physics of revolution, in the form of philosophical materialism.
He lived and engaged with and examined life by grounding with his fellow women and men. He debated, spoke, taught, learned, and ate with the nobodies, those who the academy only sees from a distance. Those who are studied for dry academic publications to be reproduced and contested by a few trained eyes in the colonial metropole and neocolonial sublets. Those heaving mass whose being and realities are scorned in derision by those who walk the corridors of power. It’s with those people you’ll find Walter breaking bread with. By taking his knowledge and intellectual prowess back to that community, he taught us all, till the end of time, that the learned, the educated, the scholar in the Third world or anywhere is nothing but an oppressor if she/he can’t be with the masses, for indifference is the boon of the satiated and privileged in a world laid to waste by capitalism and neocolonialism.
Walter taught us to humanise knowledge production through a popular educational groundation with the masses of our people, not only as teachers, but as learners in the inevitable dialogue between the masses and the progressive scholar. If one would engage his life, one thing that would stand out would be his sheer penetrating insight into the material conditions that abounded in his existence, both as a scholar and a citizen of the Third world — these two categories, though, were not mutually exclusive for him. An instance amongst many would be his desire to go back to Guyana to struggle alongside his people, even though he was well settled in Tanzania. His argument was he understood more the context of the land of his birth; its language, nuances, cultural patterns and such. It would take him a long time to assimilate into the Tanzanian land and mindscape, and as such he preferred to go back to the people and ground he hailed from. Yet this isn’t in any way a sort of nationalism that blinded him to the struggles with the African and Black world. Wherever Black and African people existed, Rodney considered his province. You will find him in Zimbabwe with the revolutionaries one day and the Africans in America another day. His internationalism was fiercely reality based and still transcendent. Rodney wasn’t one to accept the norm. He subverted it. He rebelled against it, and in this rebellion, he taught us what it means to be a guerrilla against oppression, not just in arms, but in ways of being, seeing and thinking. He took the bourgeois mode of knowledge production to task and he took it hard. He dismantled complexes on Africa and her underdevelopment, and it has never been the same since. At a time when it was considered the arena of a few grey-headed white men to analyse, write, and speak about Africa and her people, Walter came along to not only put them to rest, but to move beyond that, to write and to speak for and within the people.
Wherever Black and African people existed, Rodney considered his province. You will find him in Zimbabwe with the revolutionaries one day and the Africans in America another day.
His works were intended for the masses, not for the so-called gatekeepers at SOAS and all other institutions of this sort and he never sought the validation of these institutions because the people were with him, making his righteous attempt at putting them at the centre of knowledge production and reproduction. With all this greatness and brilliance, he still went back to his people. He stood with them to fight the neocolonial, reactionary government of his time, and for this he paid with his life.
Rodney could have saved himself, could have accepted the many offers to stay far from Guyana when trouble was brewing. A talented scholar, he could have made a fine researcher and author and could have had a career in speaking and inspiring millions. He was a fine teacher and professor who could have chosen a fine, tenured career. But he didn’t. He went homewards, suffering and smiling and never once wavering. Not because he was an adventurist or a seeker of martyrdom, it was only that he recognised he was nothing without the people, and the people are nothing without liberation and radiant new beginnings in a classless world.
Walter Rodney lives on in the favelas of Brazil, the townships of South Africa, the ghettos of Guyana, the hoods of America, and wherever you’ll find those fighting against oppression
By stealing this giant of a man from the world through assassination, those cowards think they have laid this burning spear to rest, but they were mistaken. Every generation since then has faithfully carried his flame and fanned it in ways unfathomable. He lives on in the favelas of Brazil, the slums of South Africa, the ghettos of Guyana, the hoods of America, and wherever you’ll find those fighting against oppression. He lives on through the many ways in which his works have multiplied rebels, revolutionaries, and scholars across oppressed lands. New, posthumous works continue to emerge from his great and vast corpus. Rodney was but a one-man canon. His image, voice, and works will continue to be a testament and witness to the yearning of the human condition for freedom and redemption, and until such a time where no one human is oppressing another, it will remain so. Walter refuses death. He refuses silence. He continues to haunt capital and empire. He continues to give nightmares to the bourgeoisie of Babylon and the neocolonial leeches of the Third World. In transcending death, he elevated himself to the highest peak of the world socialist revolution and the African nation that must be.
Be like Rodney.