CENTRAL aspects of Walter Rodney’s political thought in relation to Guyana were his ideas on ethnicity and class, self-emancipation and political violence. These inter-related planks of his thought informed his political practice which in turn enriched his ideas. Rodney’s ideas on ethnicity are derived from both his Black Nationalist and Marxist thoughts. His Black nationalism was simultaneously racially grounded and class-based. Insofar as he engaged what he referred to as “White Power,” he reached for a racially grounded Black Nationalism that critiqued White racism and affirmed Black humanity and dignity.
However, in his articulation of Black Power within the context of neo-colonialism, he privileged a class-based Black Nationalism that situated Black empowerment within the class struggles in Africa and the Caribbean. These two approaches were not separate; they flowed from the same source and aimed for the same objective of people’s liberation. In much the same way, his Marxism leads him to an embrace of ethnic unity. If Black Nationalism facilitates an overt racial analysis, then Marxism afforded the opportunity to stress class. But Rodney always struggled for a synthesis of those two approaches. Whether he achieved that objective could only be borne out by his political practice. It is within this context that his Guyana groundings are vital to his wider praxis.
Rodney’s Black Nationalist views for the most part reflected those of Marcus Garvey, whom he described as “one of the first advocates of black power” and “the greatest spokesman ever to have been produced by the movement of black consciousness” (1975:20). Rodney defined Black Power as “the hope of the black man that he should have power over his destinies” (1975: 29). For Rodney, Black Power meant three related things–“the break with imperialism which is historically racist; the assumption of power by the black masses of the islands; the cultural reconstruction of the society in the image of blacks” (1975:28). Like Garvey, he accepted the primacy of race:
Black Power is a doctrine about black people, for black people, preached by black people. I’m putting it to my black brothers and sisters that the colour of our skins is the most fundamental thing about us. I could have chosen to talk about people of the same island, or the same religion, or the same class – but instead I have chosen skin colour as essentially the most binding factor in our world. In so doing, I am not saying that is the way things ought to be. I am simply recognising the real world – that is the way things are. Under different circumstances, it would have been nice to be colour blind, to choose my friends solely because their social interests coincided with mine – but no conscious black man can allow himself such luxuries in the contemporary world.” (1975:16).
But Rodney grounded his perspective on race in the broader context of class and anti-imperialism. In this regard, he argued that the interests of the Black ruling class were inimical to Black Power which, according to him, must be rooted in the aspirations of the masses:
..the local government was given to a white, brown and black petty bourgeoisie who were culturally the creations of white capitalist society and who therefore support the white imperialist system, because they gain personally and because they have been brainwashed into aiding the oppression of Black people (1975-28)
On the issue of cultural nationalism, Rodney’s views were similar to those of Garvey and Malcolm X. As he contended, “The road to Black Power here in the West Indies and everywhere else must begin with a revaluation of ourselves as blacks and with a redefinition of the world from our own standpoint.” (1975: 33-34). Consequently, he was critical of the negative images and stereotypes of blackness among Blacks and echoed Malcolm X’s “self-love”:
Everybody recognises how incongruous and ridiculous such terms are, but we continue to use them and to express our support of the assumption that white Europeans have the monopoly of beauty, and that black is the incarnation of ugliness. That is why Black Power advocates find it necessary to assert that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. (1975: 33).
While the ideas he developed during the Guyana years were part of his larger political praxis, the fact that Guyana was a peculiar society riven by ethnic conflict between two non-white peoples, his emphasis was not the same as when he dealt with conflict between Blacks and Whites. Rodney’s call for unity between African and East Indian Guyanese along class lines was not an abandonment of Black Nationalism; he did not find it a necessary tool in Guyana. During the Jamaica years he had advocated the inclusion of East Indians in his articulation of Caribbean Black Power. His, therefore, was always a class-based Black Power. Hence, his Black Power was racially oriented as it related to the Black/White question and class-oriented in relation to the ethnic conditions in Guyana and Trinidad.
Rodney viewed African liberation in Guyana as being tied to working-class liberation. He rejected the notion that African Guyanese should not oppose an African Guyanese government and contended that unity between the African and Indian Guyanese working classes was essential. He was adamant that any advance in Guyana had to be premised on unity across ethnic lines. Towards this end, he argued that although external influence and the machinations of the political parties were responsible for ethnic polarisation, Guyanese, in the final analysis, must rise above the division. He further contended that the socio-economic problems faced by the Guyanese people had very little to do with race and ethnicity and more to do with class. As he observed:
No ordinary Afro- Guyanese, no ordinary Indo-Guyanese can afford to be misled by the myth of race. Time and time again it has been our undoing. Does it have anything to do with race that the cost of living far outstrips the increase in wages? Does it have anything to do with race that there are no goods in the shops? Does it have anything to do with race when the original lack of democracy as exemplified in the national elections is reproduced at the level of local government elections? Does it have anything to do with race when the bauxite workers cannot elect their own union leadership? Does it have anything to do with race when, day after day, whether one is Indian or African, without the appropriate party credentials, one either gets no employment, loses one’s employment or is subject to lack of promotion? (Rodney 1981:6)
But unlike other Marxists, he did not dismiss race and ethnicity as irrelevant; he accepted their salience in Guyanese politics. He argued that ethnicity was institutionalised in the socio-political and economic systems and was critical of those who interpreted the absence of ethnic violence as a reflection of harmony. He drew attention to the linkage between white subjugation of non-white peoples and ethnic polarisation between non-white communities and observed that non-white groups tended to view each other through the lens of the dominant culture. As he stated after a visit to Guyana in 1970:
…my belief is that, while, ultimately socialism is an ideology which takes no cognizance of colour and so on, our recent situation is one in which we have to admit to the reality of racial divisions, not just the oppression of the White World over the non-White world, but also of the forms of division within the non-White world, itself, as in our own Guyanese society…there is a single dominant culture to which each sub-group relates, so that when I as an African, in Guyanese society, speak of an Indian, I really am speaking of the European’s Indian. I see that Indian through the eyes of the European, and the other way around. (Rodney, 1970:1)
As I observed earlier, Rodney had advocated a multi-ethnic position as far back as 1968 when he argued then that Caribbean Black Power must include East Indians. He posited the view that unity between Indians and Africans was pivotal to Caribbean liberation. He contended that the problem should be tackled at two levels. First, he called for the development of separate ethnic consciousness as a prerequisite for ethnic unity. Second, he advocated the simultaneous development of “integrative” or multiethnic consciousness and political mechanisms based on the socialist principle of social equality. Rodney’s multi-ethnicity, therefore, was premised on the acceptance rather than the rejection of ethnic identity. For Rodney, ethnicity by itself is not necessarily problematic; it is the linkage of ethnicity to political competition that is the crux of the problem in Guyana:
I always like to distinguish between the existence of ethnicities, whether they are called tribes or races, and the politicisation of that ethnic factor. You can exist in different situations without being politicised, or certainly without being politicised into an act of confrontation. However, there is a little more to it in Guyana, and Trinidad, than just a case of ethnic groups. Many of the ethnic groups in African political systems did not necessarily have any conflicting interest in production, though some did. Some were actually, in fact, the remnants of feudal stratification (1990:77).
He saw no contradiction between the assertion of ethnic identity and the embrace of multi-ethnicity; for him the former was necessary for the success of the other:
What we must try and understand (and this is a point I’m always trying to make very clearly) is that there is no contradiction between saying that, at this particular point in time, a man needs to assert his given identity, so that, at another point in time, he wouldn’t have to assert it…And I think that within our community of Guyana, different ethnic groups need to assert their identity, need to put themselves together, to pull themselves together, and when they have and when they can operate on the basis of mutual respect, which they are not doing, now, then I think that the way will be clear for building a new society, a society of a mixed unity (Rodney 1970:3)
Rodney accused both major parties of exploiting ethnic insecurity to further political ends. He pointed to the fact that although the PNC regime discriminated against Indian Guyanese, Indian merchants and other sections of the Indian Guyanese middle class supported the PNC. He particularly chided African Guyanese for allowing the PNC regime to manipulate their fears to further its political agenda.
Although he seldom invoked Black Nationalism in his public discourse on ethnicity, he linked Black dignity to the African Guyanese need to avoid ethnic animosity towards Indian Guyanese. He, however, did not think that cross-ethnic solidarity was impossible. Towards this end, he urged both groups to draw on their common history of struggle against colonialism. Rodney viewed cross-ethnic solidarity as crucial to ethnic peace and the overall development of Guyana. But he was opposed to a “hypothetical” unity; he preferred an active unity or “unity in struggle.” Rodney, therefore, rejected the superficial unity embraced by the PPP and the PNC such as ethnic tokenism and multi-ethnic rhetoric.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org