One thing about me: I love Walter (and Patricia) Rodney, so much so that I identify as a “Rodneyist” in much the same way that others identify as Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, or Trotskyists.
Rodney’s work is an inspiring combination of Pan-Africanism, Black power, scientific socialism, and historical materialism, with the Third World generally, and the African diaspora particularly, as his locus of enunciation. Importantly, he was the archetype of bridging scholarship and activism. As Patricia Rodney explained, he was “torn by the lack of connection between academia and the working class, and he had a strong desire to bridge these worlds” in order to “foster a culture of grassroots change and empower people with tools to implement such change.”
As such, Walter Rodney was a prime example of the “guerilla intellectual”, a concept he introduced in a discussion with members of the Institute of the Black World which was published as Walter Rodney Speaks.
In academic institutions where there is an imbalance of power between white and racialized scholars, guerilla intellectuals use their “strength to transform the actual logistical position over a period of time into one where [they] can call the tune and ultimately carry the battle to the enemy.” In doing so, they reject and break with the class legitimacy bestowed upon them by virtue of working in academia by waging the struggle over ideas as part of a broader effort to explode the distinction between mental and manual labor.
Further, guerilla intellectuals utilize their position to “subvert the intention of the capitalists to reproduce [the petite bourgeoisie] as members of their service class.” Rodney’s guerilla intellectualism was manifested in his practice of “grounding,” and in his development of methods of perceiving and analyzing Black and Third World history and society in the service of liberation in books including How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, History of the Guyanese Working People, and History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800.
There is no shortage of brilliant Walter Rodney quotes that provide tremendous insight into underdevelopment, processes of racialization, class formation, histories of enslavement and colonialism, the role and potential of working people, the historical and material conditions of Africa and the Caribbean, the nature and function of imperialism and neocolonialism, and the task of the intellectual, among many other topics. Below are five that I think with and return to often in my own work as an aspiring guerilla intellectual.
#1: “One rough yardstick which indicates the level or extent to which an African state has been decolonized in any profound [way] is the extent to which the African state is capable of entering into meaningful relations with the liberation movements. That is to say, outside of Southern Africa it is not an accident that the most conservative, the most reactionary states are the ones which have consistently failed to give any meaningful support to the liberation movements.”
Here, Rodney conveys that necolonialism in Africa was not only a tool of exogenous political and economic domination, but also a means of undermining solidarity across the continent. The governments that were invested in preserving their relationships with the West, or that were under the latter’s control in all but name, were hostile to liberation movements happening in Angola, Cape Verde, Namibia, and elsewhere because these struggles jeopardized kickbacks and privileges for the African comprador class facilitated through European control. The indigenous governing class whose ability to accumulate was linked to maintaining an extraverted and dependent economy were deeply hostile to liberation struggles because ongoing imperialism was instrumental to its power. These conservative, reactionary rulers were ultimately enemies of African people.
#2: “A racist streak is never far from the surface in bourgeois presentations on the problems of development, because non-European people are equated with backwardness and stagnation, while progress is uniquely European. It would be simple to ignore such a misconception if it were merely held by the bigoted oppressors, but the racist historical experience has implanted the same negative self-evaluation in the minds of many Africans, and especially in the minds of the imitative African petty bourgeoisie.”
These words powerfully convey how colonization of the mind was, and remains, an invaluable tool of racist subjection. Ideologically, developmentalism is rooted in the racially codified historicist assumption that populations in the “underdeveloped” Global South are located in the “waiting room” of modernity because of their cultural inadequacies. These assumptions apply to every segment of underdeveloped society, including its bourgeoisie, its working class and its peasantry. These societies’ material realities are then attributed not to histories of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalist domination, but rather to failures emanating from cultural lack, backwardness, and inadequacy—ideas that are internalized by African/Black ruling classes who then adopt policies and practices that reinscribe the immiseration of the majority in an attempt to ape the West.
#3: “Underdevelopment is a process of exploitation, which began with the European slave trade, continued through colonialism, and is now being perpetuated by neocolonial and imperialist polices. It is susceptible to eradication only by breaking with the international capitalist system and making the transition to Socialism.”
In too many circles, scientific socialism is considered white people’s shit. However, Rodney is one of numerous radical Black folks—not least Kwames Ture and Nkrumah, Shirley Graham and W.E.B. Du Bois, Maurice Bishop, Vicki Garvin, Thomas Sankara, Onyesonwu Chatoyer, and Eugene Puryear—who understand the inextricable relationship between Black/African liberation and scientific socialism.
Rodney’s body of work renders the race versus class debate irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst and offers a basis for theorizing and analyzing what is now commonly referred to as “racial capitalism.” This quote also emphasizes that underdevelopment is an historical and ongoing capitalist process that can be neither explained nor properly understood by abstract, idealist, or “ontological” arguments. Indeed, Rodney writes (bonus quote): “…we must understand that of the two major sets of ideas before us, idealism and materialism, bourgeois philosophy and Marxist philosophy, that each of the two is representative of a particular class.”
#4: “I felt that somehow being a revolutionary intellectual might be a goal to which one might aspire, for surely there was no real reason why one should remain in the academic world—that is, remain an intellectual—and at the same time not be a revolutionary.”
This quote reminds me that being an academic is a responsibility, not a privilege. Because academia affords resources, access, and time to study deeply and analyze carefully, my historical task is to produce useful and relevant knowledge in service to those who do not have these opportunities. To treat academia as a money-making venture, a clout expedition, or a pathway to fame and celebrity would be a waste of skill and a betrayal of those who are struggling in manifold ways to forge a sustainable world for the majority.
To be sure, academics are not saviors; rather, we ought to be persons who redistribute intellectual resources and democratize knowledge in conversation and community with those organizing and building movements outside of the college and university.
#5: “…[A]ll white people are enemies until proved otherwise, and this applies to black intellectuals, all of us are enemies of the people until we prove otherwise.”
This quote, (alongside George Jackson’s “Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution”) is one I keep close and repeat often. I am particularly struck by the duty to “prove otherwise.” The latter should not be misconstrued as the prevalent anti-intellectualism that derides academics, reading, study, and “big words” as antithetical to revolutionary struggle. In fact, it’s the opposite.
The duty to ensure that, as a Black intellectual, I am not the enemy of Black people has inspired me to join an organization; to understand my work in dialogue with the contributions of working-class, poor, and non-academic comrades; to take up, as much as possible, the Black Studies mission of merging “gown” and “town”; and to intentionally refuse the oppressive and elitist logics of academia and be honest and self-critical when I fall short. This quote reminds me that not being an enemy of, and more importantly, being a comrade to, ordinary Black and oppressed people is a lifelong practice and a critical aspect of the work.