The Message and Meaning of Groundings 2005: Walter Rodney Lives!

— Sara Abraham

"It is the supreme distinction of Walter Rodney that he had initiated in his personal and professional life a decisive break with the tradition he had been trained to serve...  the reader is made to feel that his academic authority is always faced and humanized by a sense of personal involvement with matters at hand.  He lived to survive the distortions of his training and the crippling ambivalence of his class."
—George Lamming

"To bring together women, men and youth from grassroots organizations and academia in Guyana, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and beyond who share Rodney's core principles to examine today's social, economic and political environment and to renew our commitment to the struggle for another world.  Walter Rodney's main arenas of struggle and work were Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.  The core principles of the groundings are to re-examine and renew commitment to anti-imperialism, sovereignty and unity of the region; the multi-racial unity of the working people; the self-activity of the working people."
—Groundings 2005 Core Principles

SEEKING TO GRASP at the core of Walter Rodney's legacies for Caribbean peoples today, speakers at the recent Groundings in Guyana used the words "decency," "boldness," and "humanity."  It was in such spirit that the Groundings were organized to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Rodney's assassination at the hands of the ruling paramount party, PNC, in Guyana in 1980.

For twelve days from June 2-13, 2005, Walter Rodney's political ideas and practice were introduced to new generations and debated among older generations in Guyana in organized groundings from Kabakaburi to the Corentyne.

Congo Nya musicians accompanied many of the out of town groundings.  Posters on every other lantern post, banners on key buildings and streets, television and radio talk and call-in shows, newspaper and TV ads, public address announcements, and house-to-house distribution of leaflets provoked impromptu groundings in waged workplaces, on the streets, and in homes.

The groundings therefore met their key objective, especially for Guyana and the Caribbean—to spark renewed commitment to the struggle for another world.  Among the largest turnouts were by school students in the Essequibo, Georgetown and Berbice.

At the culmination of these events, on June 13 on an adjacent street to where Rodney was assassinated, the local organizers of Groundings dug out and landscaped a Memorial Park, for which official permission had not been granted, and placed a large granite rock at the center of a cemented space along with a jeweled plaque.

The plaque recorded the dates of Rodney's life and assassination with the words "Champion of the Multi-Racial Working People/Assassinated by the Enemies of Unity close to this spot in John Street Georgetown."

It was very significant to the success of the Groundings that the widow of Rodney, Pat, with their three children now in their 30s, returned to Guyana to support, speak and be present at the various events.  This was the first time that Pat had returned to Guyana, her homeland, since 1980.  Many times the families of activists do not get their fair share of recognition.

The President of Guyana, upon receiving a letter from the family while they were there, introduced a motion in Parliament which has called for a full, independent, impartial enquiry into the conditions of the killing of Rodney.  He has also agreed to an full, annual University of Guyana scholarship in Rodney's name.

The Life of Walter Rodney

Walter Rodney was born in 1942 in Guyana.  After his early years there, from the ferment of nationalist politics, he went on to study and be radically repoliticized in the rebellious and Rastafarian culture in Jamaica.  He moved on to London where he deepened his understanding of Pan Africanism and was in contact with students from Africa and the Caribbean.

C.L.R. James provided the bridge between these communities.  James had been a member of the International African Service Bureau (IASB) and had cooperated with George Padmore, W.E.B. DuBois, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah in placing the decolonization question squarely before the British political leaders and peoples.

Walter Rodney was a member of the group of Caribbean workers and students who studied and debated with C.L.R. James.  He visited the States and Canada, where he spoke widely.  He returned to, and then later was banned from, Jamaica.

In early 1969 he turned to Tanzania, where he resumed teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam.  At this time, The University of Dar Es Salaam was a magnet for many in Africa thinking through the issues of liberation.  Horace Campbell reports that:

Rodney was deeply involved in working with those dedicated to freedom and emancipation.  He gave classes to the Workers at the Urafiki Textile Mill near the University and traveled on weekends to communal villages.  Tanzania was then undergoing a revolutionary experiment, and it also served as the headquarters for many liberation movements from various parts of Africa.

Rodney, who considered study and struggle inseparable, was involved in all of these activities.  He was central to the development of an intellectual tradition that became known as the Dar es Salaam School.  His numerous writings on the subjects of socialism, imperialism, working class struggles and Pan Africanism and slavery contributed to a body of knowledge that came to be known as the Dar es Salaam School of Thought.

In one short article, "Tanzanian Ujamaa and Scientific Socialism," published in 1973-4, Rodney drew attention to the potentialities for revolutionary change in the context of the African revolution as long as the struggle for socialism was led by the working poor.  Rodney drew on the correspondence between Karl Marx and Vera Zasulich to point to the importance of peasant struggles in this context.

Rodney traveled extensively throughout East Africa and was one of the founders of the History Teachers Workshop of Tanzania who assigned themselves the task of rewriting the textbooks for high school students in Tanzania.  One of the results of these debates was popular opposition to the efforts of the World Bank and western donors to prop up a conservative brand of economic theory in the University.

By the end of the eighties, World Bank thinkers and consultants were blaming Walter Rodney for the radical thinking in the University of Dar Es Salaam.

With the closing of political space in East Africa by the early '70s for "outsiders," Rodney turned to Guyana, which was undergoing its own severe repression but also radical organizing.  Bauxite workers, landless peasants, university faculty and others had been organizing separately and now again jointly, sometimes with Cheddi Jagan's official opposition, PPP, against the "socialist" and "Black" leadership of Forbes Burnham.

Since before independence, colonial machinations in Guyana had ensured that the Indian and African populations were pitted electorally against each other.  This had culminated in race riots in 1964, from which the country had not recovered.  Rather, Forbes Linden Burnham who led the country into independence consolidated the division through building a powerful state apparatus, recruiting primarily from the Afro- Guyanese population.

Elections were now rigged or boycotted, the defense forces and paramilitary were growing, the Indian majority of the population as well as popular opposition to the government were becoming rapidly marginalized and discouraged, and mass emigration from the country had begun.

The government denied Rodney a job at the University, hoping that he would leave the country.  Rodney did not oblige the government; instead he turned to full time work in the political organization, the Working People's Alliance.  In this context of widespread fear, Rodney spent his time mobilizing workers wherever they were to be found in the society in the form of "groundings."

He traveled and spoke to workers at their homes, at street corners, at bottom house meetings, on sugar estates, in villages, and in schools.  He also constantly collected material, oral and archival, which he integrated into his writings.

Works and Legacy

The last two years of Rodney's life saw the development of a civil rebellion in the country against one-party rule.  This rebellion defied laws and police control to embolden and bring forward people in widespread struggles and a movement around food prices, union autonomy, and wages.  The Working People's Alliance party was at the helm of this movement, and Rodney was the most popular leader of the WPA.

He had become widely known across the country for his electrifying speeches, "groundings," which were popular education sessions with workers and citizens, and for organizing cells of resistance.

In the span of his 38 years Rodney also had a family of three children, and wrote a number of widely read books.  First was Groundings with my Brothers.  Horace Campbell writes: "(W)hile mainstream sociologists mobilized concepts of 'outcast,' 'escapist,' 'millenarian,' 'cultists' and 'criminals' to describe the Rasta, Rodney recognized the deep yearning for freedom and dignity among this force.  The influence of Walter Rodney on the lyrics of Bob Marley can be seen from reading 'Groundings' and listening to the album 'Survival' by Bob Marley.  In seeking to respect the culture of the people, Rodney participated in numerous sessions teaching the history of Africa in poor communities.  For this, he provoked the wrath of the Jamaican government, which claimed that he was a threat to national security."

Next, while he was briefly in Cuba, the leadership asked him to recommend a good book on African History.  How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, written in Tanzania, was the result: a materialist analysis of the deformations of social processes that accompanied colonial incursion into Africa, with careful historical attention given to the numerous economies of the continent.  Again, a book for its time, this text was apparently in every bookstore in Lisbon in 1973 in a Portuguese edition.

A decade later The History of the Guyanese Working People was posthumously published.  It was intended to be the first of a trilogy in Guyanese history.

Every year since 1980 commemorative events have been held on June 13 in Guyana and in other parts of the world.  This year's was perhaps the largest and grandest.

25th Commemoration: Moving Forward

The 2005 Groundings were structured to revive the memories of the civil rebellion and its ghosts that were banished or suppressed in 1980, to popularize Rodney's name to youth and schoolchildren who have never encountered his writings or thoughts, to declare him a national hero, to demand an inquiry into the conditions of his assassination, and to clear a space for decent, bold and human discussion on the increasingly violent ethnic divisions that are tearing at Guyana.

Groundings also seeks to clear a space for the wider region's re-engagement with radical politics following the almost equally long silence since 1983 in Grenada (when the murderous implosion of the New Jewel Movement and the U.S. invasion ended that country's revolutionary hopes).

Thus Groundings, for an all too brief few days, brought some fresh news and plenty of inspiration, t-shirts, posters and buttons and wonderful music, to a strife torn and poor society.

Speakers at the 2005 Groundings who knew Walter Rodney in all his capacities attempted to explain this fusion of intense political activist engagement with intense scholarship and writing—"he wrote everywhere"—but were unanimous in recollecting his "decency," "boldness" and "humanity" to convey the impact of his presence.

It is interesting that the word "revolutionary" remained firmly in the sub-text.  In the context of the political violence in Guyana, including by "liberationists," it might be that the word evokes too many meanings to be casually used.

In the unanimous respect that was accorded Rodney at the Groundings there was no question of "hero worship."  In Guyana both the ruling government and its successor had not made amends for their role in burying Rodney and the struggles which had been inspired in part by his courage.  There was a strong sense amongst the organizers of therefore righteously and joyfully claiming his space, with the knowledge that the politicians would have to follow.

Yet the creation of a "national hero" in the context of upcoming national elections must be raising concerns about its possible uses and abuses.  In the space of the past few days, a new political formation in Guyana is claiming credit for some of the successful rural groundings where visiting activists spoke to over a thousand children about Rodney and his life.

The work of building popular multiracial unity in opposition to zero sum politics and polarized political identities of Indian versus African, in a country increasingly experiencing the kind of drug-related and political violence that Rodney never had to witness, is left to be done.

Regionally, the work of challenging restricted export markets and intense competition remains.  How does one challenge U.S. military might?  Thus, the majority of the more "analytic" groundings of about 50-100 people over the weekend focused on the details of present struggles of Caribbean and other Third World peoples today.  Some Highlights of Groundings 2005:

  • A panel on Haiti, led by Pierre Laboissier of Haiti Action Network, had prominence, so as to show support for the struggles of Haitians against Canadian, American and French military presence.  It acknowledged that Guyana was one of the three CARICOM governments (the others were St. Vincent and the Grenadines led by PM Ralph Gonsalves who was the Keynote Speaker at the Groundings, and St Lucia) which had swung the CARICOM decision to oppose the U.S. unseating of president Aristide.
  • A panel on Latin American struggles, with Humberto Brown and Norma Jackson and Guyanese activist Andaiye, explained recent Venezuelan and Afro-Colombian experiences, and their importance as regional neighbours to politics within Guyana.  Guyana's location as a key drug shipment location but also as a possible launching pad for U.S. aggression against Venezuela was highlighted.
  • In response, the need to attend the Youth Festival in Venezuela in August was stressed.  The Oilfield Workers Union of Trinidad and Tobago representative, David Abdullah, announced to loud cheers that they had chartered a ship to carry activists to Venezuela for this upcoming occasion.
  • Regional food security offered a stimulating discussion.  Some of the concluding thoughts were on the need for 1) defending market protection capacity of governments against liberalization, 2) land reform, 3) value-added innovation, especially regarding sugar, 4) regional integration on this focus, and 5) education on diet and its connection to producers, culture and health.
  • Ali Mazrui, an older contemporary of Rodney in East Africa who was a leading academic at Makerere university in Uganda when Rodney was in Dar, highlighted the gains in the areas of democratization in many countries, and the new threats to liberty in the form of unfulfilled high expectations of the people for democracy to deliver on the bread and butter issues.
  • Mazrui discussed the role of individuals in history and waded into some of the ongoing debates in the groundings about Walter as a hero.  He concluded that every nation needs its own heroes both for inspiration and nation-building.  He called for Rodney to be recognized as a National hero.
  • Micere Mugo, a Kenyan and a veteran of Women's rights and pro-democracy struggles, concentrated on the theme of the need for decolonisation of Africa's thinking, planning and educational system as indispensable for its liberation.  She shared with participants instances of struggles of women using their creativity and ingenuities to pry open vistas of patriarchal power and dictatorship across Africa.
  • Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, General Secretary of the Global Pan-African movement based in Kampala, Uganda, also a Director of Justice Africa based in London, shared with the audience recent developments that have led to the reinvigoration of subregional and continental integration efforts culminating in the inauguration of the African Union (AU).

Pan Africanism is back on the agenda, Abdul-Raheem reported, as Africa's concrete response to the threats of recolonization posed by a rampaging globalization.He looked at the various opportunities that the Union offers for popular participation through the Pan African Parliament, The African Court on Human Rights, the Peace and Security Council.  By far the most potentially useful organ of the new Union especially for Pan Africanist activists in the diaspora is the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOC), in which Africans in the diaspora have full representation and participation.

We have also heard a message from Tanzania on their activities on June 13 this year, though we have yet to fully fathom its meaning: "The march and the discussions were in and of themselves peculiar and historic in that for a long time in our University (Dar e Salaam) nothing like that has taken place.  It was an event which lasted for about four hours and all of us attending wanted to hear more and more...The day we commemorated Rodney was a day of a new awakening for many youth and for them to take the challenge and continue the struggle."

Clear Analysis Needed

Despite the space for serious reflection, it is my sense that the Groundings was long on spirit, and a bit short on hard hitting clear analysis.  This particularly showed up in the many discussions on "race."  For all the recgnition that "race" is a manufactured and political difference, its proponents who were actively present in the audience and in the media, ensured that the discussion kept getting pushed into that of "race conflict."

Imperialism, state, class and party system itself remained largely off the hook, and the Amerindian population remained invisible.  Strategies to move beyond racial division were only presented by the example of the women organizing through the Women's Centre, who reflected on the hardships they collectively suffered in the recent floods.

The links between the severe underdevelopment of the local economy and the wider region and the political problems created by hegemonic party systems in every country were not sufficiently made to allow a view of the solution.  The wide spectrum of themes also meant that only limited time was allowed for discussing the practical implications.

However, the organizers of the Groundings are clear that this is only the beginning.  London, Washington DC, and Trinidad and Tobago will be holding their own groundings of commemoration later this year.  There are plans too for more groundings across Africa.  All these will definitely renew memories of Walter Rodney, inspire new generations of interest in his work, and hopefully provide more examples of complete dedication to the cause of human liberation.

ATC 118, September-October 2005