| 1974 Walter Rodney and his family returned to Guyana | MR Online

A difficult return – race, class, and politics in Rodney’s Guyana

Originally published: ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy) on May 5, 2022 by Chinedu Chukwudinma (more by ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy)) (Posted May 09, 2022)

In Guyana, a multiracial gathering was a rare sight. Yet, in August 1974, between two and three thousand African and Indian Guyanese rallied in front of the University of Georgetown to support Walter Rodney. They had heard that Prime Minister Forbes Burnham’s regime had pressured the University to overturn his appointment as head of the History Department. Angered by that decision, the university staff union and students boycotted classes for two weeks, while the Guyanese Bar Association went on strike. Many intellectuals launched a global campaign to reinstate Rodney, who had gained an international reputation for his scholarship on African history.1 Rodney had not even left Tanzania, yet he was already the focus of protests and a major political issue for the Guyanese government. Burnham and his cronies feared him because of his past activism in Jamaica and his popularity among the Guyanese masses. Rodney was an advocate of racial solidarity and a Marxist critic of the government, which divided the Guyanese along racial lines and kept them in poverty. He knew he would return to a country that was different from the one of his childhood.

Rodney had left Guyana at 18 years of age and did not live through its decline into racial violence. The racial solidarity of the anti-colonial movement crumbled after the British overthrew the People’s Progressive Party’s (PPP) government in a coup in 1953. The coup produced a split between the PPP’s two leaders, the African lawyer Forbes Burnham and the Indian dentist Cheddi Jagan. Burnham now accused Jagan of being “a communist stooge”2 and left to create the People’s National Congress (PNC) in 1957. The ideological split turned into a racial one as both parties mobilised for elections on the basis of racial loyalty. Indians remained in the PPP while Africans joined the PNC. The PPP won the 1957 and 1961 legislative and local elections because it relied on the votes from the Indo-Guyanese majority. The Cold War, however, interfered again into Guyanese politics to ensure the PPP’s defeat in 1964. The CIA financed a coalition between Burnham’s PNC and the smaller United Force, which represented the local Portuguese and Chinese capitalists. The Americans wanted to prevent Jagan from turning Guyana into a second Cuba, once it became independent from Britain. Thus, Burnham’s coalition led Guyana to independence in 1966 because of his close relations with the United States.3

The electoral campaigns revived old tensions between Africans and Indians, which culminated in violent clashes between 1961 and 1964. The deadliest confrontations unfolded in the spring of 1964 when the colonial government sent African scabs to break the strike of Indian sugar workers. Ten years later, the bitterness and animosity between African and Indian communities had not disappeared. The semblance of racial harmony that the PNC’s propaganda tried to convey was obscured by the glaring fact that Burnham and the Afro-Guyanese bureaucracy dominated the state and continued to discriminate against Indians. This was the country that Rodney returned to in September 1974.4

Patricia and the children, who had relocated before Rodney, welcomed Rodney upon his arrival in Georgetown. The family struggled to adjust to life in Guyana. Patricia missed her African friends and the hospitality she encountered in Tanzania. She disliked that people did not greet each other in Guyana and that her children were bullied in school because of their African names and accents. Patricia was also refused employment in healthcare when hiring managers found out that she was married to Walter Rodney. Yet, she secured a job and a house despite the government’s hostility towards her husband. Rodney, however, was jobless as the protests of August 1974 had failed to achieve his reinstatement at the University. He earned a little from lectures he gave overseas and teaching at Cornell University from January to May 1975. But he decided to stay in Guyana and fight Burnham’s despotism.

Interviewed in 1976, Rodney accused the government of using control over jobs to intimidate people. “This control is important”, he said, “we are a small-undeveloped economy with a large unemployed sector—to retain one’s job is a matter of life or death”.5 He also claimed Guyanese workers could not seek work elsewhere because the state had become the largest employer. Burnham’s regime had nationalised 80 percent of the economy, which included the bauxite mines and sugar plantations. This takeover of foreign companies represented Burnham’s opportunistic shift in ideology to what Rodney called pseudo-socialism. Burnham had reneged on his earlier anti-communism and alliance with the United States when Guyana’s production and exports had fallen. Burnham now looked to Cuba and China for economic assistance and declared Guyana a ‘Socialist Cooperative Republic’. Burnham’s ideological zigzag enabled him to promote himself as a progressive leader abroad, though his citizens saw him as a dictator.6

Burnham and the PNC kept stoking the tensions between Africans and Indians to divert attention from its failure to provide jobs, public transport, and decent health care. They rigged elections and granted senior bureaucratic positions to Africans while purging their opponents. The state shot and arrested PPP activists and blamed Indian sugar workers for stealing the nation’s revenue when they went on strike. The key issue of racism in Guyana preoccupied Rodney who spent his days writing articles and speeches on that question. He travelled across the country; conducted interviews among his people and researched archives for his famous book, A History of the Guyanese Working People 1880-1905. Rodney’s formidable body of historical work provided a Marxist explanation for the divide between African and Indians.

Race, Class and Guyanese politics

Rodney’s writings and speeches on race and class in Guyanese history explained how capitalist exploitation created the conditions for modern racism. Speaking on this topic at Columbia University in 1978, Rodney presented racism as a product of capitalism when it developed as a global system in the 1600s. Europe’s ruling class invented racism to justify African slavery in the New World to produce goods for the world market. Racism, he said, always stems from the interest of the exploitative classes.7 This meant that the racism between Guyanese African and Indians workers was not a matter of natural prejudice or cultural difference. In fact, this divide originated in the colonial plantation society, which brought Africans as slaves and then Indians as indentured workers. As a Marxist, Rodney regarded racism in Guyana as the consequence of the white planter class’s divide and rule strategy to control labour after the abolition of slavery in 1838. He gained that insight from his analysis of Guyanese history, where he recognised the material conditions for the existence of racism under capitalism.

First, Rodney identified that racial tensions among workers arose out of competition over jobs on plantations in the decade after emancipation. In his article Plantation Society in Guyana and his History of the Guyanese Working People, Rodney explained that most ex-slaves became plantation workers and fought the planters over decent wages and working conditions. They even organised two general strikes right after emancipation. Although the strike of 1841 was victorious, that of 1847 failed because the planters imported indentured Indians as scabs. The white planter class had introduced cheap and precarious labour from India in an attempt to break the rising African militancy. Rodney also argued that Indian indentureship created excess labour in British Guyana, which enabled the planters to use unemployment to control the workforce. If Africans refused the terms of employment, they feared Indians might replace them. At the same time, as Rodney notes, indentured immigration split the working class. African workers tended to perform skilled labour, such as cane-cutting, while the Indians did the menial tasks.8

Secondly, Rodney saw that racism offered African and Indian workers a false sense of comfort in the face of the exploitation and misery they endured in the colony. The economic competition on the plantation meant that African workers despised Indians as job stealers and tools of the planters. Conversely, Indians saw Africans as lazy workers who would have starved without indenture. As Rodney claimed, they “began to relate to each other via the white (planter) stereotype.”9 Thirdly, Rodney identified that all ruling classes in Guyana deliberately took advantage of the racial tension between Africans and Indians. He argued that the policy of the colonial state was aimed at ensuring that both races policed each other–by using one racial group to quell the resistance of the other. Rodney quoted one planter who understood that the safety of his class relied upon maintaining the animosity between and Indians: “‘if the Negroes were troublesome every coolie (Indian) on the estate would stand by one. If the coolies attacked me, I could with confidence trust my Negro friends to keep me from injury.’”10 This ‘divide and rule’, which separated and weakened workers in the face of exploitation, meant that the wages in Guyana stagnated from the 1840s until the end of indenture in 1920.11

In his speech at Columbia University, Rodney claimed the African and Indian elite of the 1970s drew on the old racist manipulation to defend their interests as rulers. He explained that the African middle class emerged, through the colonial schooling offered in towns, as teachers, junior civil servants and sometimes lawyers. The Indian elite, however, emerged from the plantations as landlords and merchants. The African elite, which saw itself as the heir to the colonial state, opposed the Indian elite who also wanted state power to support its businesses. From the 1930s to the 1970s, both elites used racism to mobilise their communities against each other as they battled for access and then control of the state. Burnham’s regime, for instance, revived the old stereotypes of Indians being greedy to vilify the 135-day strike of Indian sugar workers of 1977-78, while he recruited thousands of African scabs to break the strike.

The racial politics of African and Indian elites also served as a mechanism to reinforce solidarity within their respective communities. Rodney argued that the Indian landlord farmers, who grew wealthy from callously exploiting their fellow Indians, were ironically often spiritual leaders and the most vocal defenders of Indian interest against Africans. Likewise, Burnham bragged about belonging to the African community while oppressing his own people. By mobilising on the basis of race, both elites could hide the class differences between them and their workers.12

The Guyanese people, however, did not always accept the racist manipulation of their rulers. Rodney observed that while the class struggle was fragmented in the 1800s, Africans and Indian workers often united against their bosses in the following century. He devoted the final chapter of his History of the Guyanese Working People to the 1905 rebellion. Indian sugar workers had mounted a strike that spread to the African canecutters and stevedores, setting the stage for an unprecedented multiracial alliance. But the colonial state rushed to crush the revolt before the alliance took shape.13 1905 proved to Rodney that racial unity was possible on the basis of class struggle. By fighting for higher wages, African and Indian workers started to realise their common interests and overcame their racial prejudices. At Columbia University, Rodney mentioned that workers united again in the strikes of 1924, 1938 and the 1950s during the anti-colonial movement. He pointed out that colonial governors saw this workers’ unity as the biggest threat to the colony and he predicted that it would be the Achilles heels of Burnham’s dictatorship.14 Rodney’s Marxist writings on race and class promoted the idea that racism could only be abolished through a revolution that united African and Indian workers against their exploiters.

While Rodney admired the spontaneity of Guyana’s multiracial strikes, he also saw their shortcomings. The ruling class reversed the solidarity the strikes had engendered when it restored order. Rodney concluded that workers’ spontaneous struggles needed to be channelled by an organisation. His concern was how African and Indian workers could forge an irreversible bond through organisation.15 In this respect, he saw the anti-colonial alliance of the 1950s as a fragile one, resting on the electoral ambitions of Jagan and Burnham. Rodney aspired to politicise the masses in ways that had not been done before. So, he joined the Working People’s Alliance in 1976 to fight racism and the Guyanese dictatorship.


Chinedu Chukwudinma is a socialist activist and writer based in London. He writes on African politics, popular struggles, and the history of working-class resistance on the continent and is a member of ROAPE’s editorial board.

Notes:

  1. Boukari-Yabara 2010, pp 496-498.
  2. Ralph Premdas, “Guyana: Changes in Ideology and Foreign Policy”, World Affairs, Vol. 145, No. 2, (1982) p183.
  3.   See Premdas,1982, pp.141 and Lewis, 1998a, pp. 5-13.
  4. Andaiye, and D. Alissa Trotz, The Point Is to Change the World: Selected Writings of Andaiye. (Pluto Press, 2020), pp 59-74.
  5. Dr David Hinds (2014) In the Sky’s Wild Noise: A documentary on Dr.Walter Rodney (online video) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= (assessed August 2020).
  6. Premdas, 1982, pp.184-194.
  7. A speech Rodney gave to black students at Columbia university, in 1978 Kilombo Uk (2015) Walter Rodney: Race and Class in Guyanese Politics, (online video) available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9szjOu-yIPs&t=965s (assessed August 2020).
  8. Walter Rodney, Walter, “Plantation Society in Guyana”, Fernand Braudel Center, Vol. 4, No. 4, (1981b)pp. 657-664.
  9. Rodney, 1981, p664. See also Walter Rodney, A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981a), pp174-189.
  10. Rodney,1981a, p189.
  11. Rodney, 1981b, p659
  12. Kilombo Uk (2015) Walter Rodney: Race and Class in Guyanese Politics, (online video) available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9szjOu-yIPs&t=965s (assessed August 2020).
  13. Rodney,1981a, pp174-189.
  14. Kilombo Uk (2015) Walter Rodney: Race and Class in Guyanese Politics, (online video) available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9szjOu-yIPs&t=965s (assessed August 2020).
  15. Kilombo Uk (2015) Walter Rodney: Race and Class in Guyanese Politics, (online video) available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9szjOu-yIPs&t=965s (assessed August 2020).
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