Pan-Africanism and Marxism

A review of Walter Rodney, Decolonial Marxism: Essays from the Pan-African Revolution (London/New York: Verso, 2022).

Verso has to be applauded for the Walter Rodney series that started four years ago with new releases of The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and also includes a new edition of The Groundings with My Brothers. Now, Verso has once again collaborated with the Walter Rodney Foundation to release a collection of “previously unbound essays” titled Decolonial Marxism: Essays from the Pan-African Revolution. It includes important texts with regard to the history of Marxism, revolutionary thinking in the Third World, and Black Liberation.

Walter Rodney, the Marxist theorist and militant hailing from Guyana, only lived to be 38 years old. He was killed by a car bomb in the Guyanese capital Georgetown on June 13, 1980. In 2016, a Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Guyanese government called Rodney’s death a “state-ordered killing”. As an academic, Rodney taught in Jamaica and Tanzania; as an activist, he was involved in Guyana’s Working People’s alliance and the international Black Power movement. The relevance of his work today is summed up in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s foreword to Decolonial Marxism: “Ninety per cent of [Africa’s] resources, including diamonds, gold, oil, copper, cobalt, uranium are still owned by Western corporations. Africa, the biggest continent in the world, continues to be the main donor to Europe and the West.”

It seems fitting that the collection starts with “A Brief Tribute to Amílcar Cabral”, a contemporary to Rodney and one of colonial Africa’s leading freedom fighters. Cabral also appeared in a recent review on this blog, discussing Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else). Rodney called him “a giant who bridged the gap between theory and practice, and hence represented the embodiment of revolutionary praxis”. Murdered by Portuguese agents in 1973, Cabral only got to live ten years longer than Rodney. Pan-African revolutionaries had many enemies.

Most of the essays collected in Decolonial Marxism address the situation of colonial and post-colonial Africa: Rodney discusses the situation in Ghana, Angola, Uganda, and, naturally, Tanzania, where he lived and taught for many years. The article “Tanzanian Ujamaa and Scientific Socialism” seems of particular value, since very little has been written about Tanzania’s Ujamaa villages, one of the most audacious attempts in “African socialism” – a term that Rodney himself never felt comfortable with, stating that the term was “generally taken to mean a set of relations which leave capitalism and imperialism unchallenged”.

Contradicting stereotypes of Pan-Africanists as “narrow-minded”, Rodney’s take of Marxism (which he equates with “Scientific Socialism”) was quite universal. He did not accept the notion that Marxism was a “Western ideology”. In “Marxism and African Liberation” he writes the following about people making that assumption:

“They seem not to take into account that already that methodology and that ideology have been utilized, internalized, domesticated in large parts of the world that are not European. That it is already the ideology of eight hundred million Chinese people; that it is already the ideology which guided the Vietnamese people to successful struggle and to the defeat of imperialism. That it is already the ideology which allows North Korea to transform itself from a backward, quasi-feudal, quasi-colonial terrain into an independent, industrial power. That it is already the ideology which has been adopted on the Latin American continent and that serves as the basis for development in the Republic of Cuba. That it is already the ideology that was used by Cabral, that was used by Samora Machel, which is in use on the African continent itself to underline and underscore struggle and the construction of a new society. It cannot therefore be termed a European phenomenon; and the onus will certainly be on those who argue that this phenomenon, which was already universalized itself, is somehow inapplicable to some black people. The onus will be on those individuals, I suggest, to show some reason, perhaps genetic, why the genes of black people reject this ideological position.”

Rodney’s Marxist approach also becomes clear in his materialism: “Decolonization is going to be inseparable from a total strategy for liberation that encompasses a control of the material resources, which encompasses a restructuring of the society so that those who produce have the principal say in how their wealth is going to be distributed.”

These quotes illustrate one of the strengths of Rodney’s writing: despite its depth, it is clear and easy to follow. The insights are plenty. Just consider the following description of Tanzania, and the implications it entails for contemporary struggles for liberation that, sadly, remain so urgent in the (post)colonial world:

“However, taking the continent as a whole, Tanzania is exceptional in that even at the end of the colonial period the communal forms were still recognizable. This is a consequence of its people having been relatively little involved in the capitalist money economy of mining, settler plantations and cash-crop production. The low degree of internal stratification at the time of constitutional independence was reflected in national cohesion and the solidarity of a single mass party.”

Decolonial Marxism raises only one question mark, namely the lack of background information on the included essays. There are no bibliographical references, no years, no information at all about when, why, and how they came to be. I understand that not everyone is as nerdy as I am when it comes to these things, yet I’m probably not the only one who would have appreciated at least some data to contextualize the texts we are reading. Needless to say, it’s a minor point. At the center of the book are the ideas and observations by Rodney, regardless of the circumstances of production. Decolonial Marxism is highly recommended.

Gabriel Kuhn

(December 1, 2022)