Wed. Dec 12th, 2018

Book Review: A Black Radical Intellectual Hero Writes, And Scholars Rescue, A Victory-Tinged History

Walter Rodney’s notes of his 1970-1971 lectures have been shaped into a book by Robin D.G. Kelly, Jesse Benjamin and Vijay Prashad. In this book, the professor Walter Rodney and his Tanzanian students are studying the possible future of Africa by studying the past victories and mistakes of Europe, since Marxism was being tested across the African mainland and around the world.

The Russian Revolution: A View From The Third World.
Walter Rodney. Edited by Robin D.G. Kelley and Jesse Benjamin. Foreword by Vijay Prashad.
Verso, 336 pp., $26.95.

Reviewed By Todd Steven Burroughs

Walter Rodney (1942-1980), grounded in grassroots activism experiences and anchored in radical, historical words, echoes W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay “The Propaganda of History,” the coda of his Black Marxist history classic Black Reconstruction in America, but in a whole book about revolution in Europe and that topic’s historiography. “The rise of states governed by Marxism sharpened the contradictions between socialist and bourgeois ideologies, producing an ideological war for the possession of the whole world. The writing of history has been a facet of, and a weapon in, that war, and historians interpreting the Russian Revolution itself have been active combatants.” That sentence was born, in Rodney’s lecture notes, in 1970 and 1971. The purpose of that and other sentences, collected here in an act of love and solidarity decades later by 21st century radical Third World scholars, is to inspire Rodney’s Tanzania’s university students, future world citizens interested in continuing then-nationwide and continent-wide experiments with democracy’s forms. As Kelley said in the comments in the video above, this was the beginning of the time in which Marxism was winning.

In this book, the professor and his students are studying the possible future of Africa by studying the past victories and mistakes of Europe, since Marxism was being tested across the African mainland and around the world. To see that humane African future, a thoughtful but decolonized history of a pioneering revolution needed to be born. But until Kelley, Benjamin and Prashad went all in, this history stayed in note form; Rodney did not get a chance to write this book because other tasks, including the writing of another book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, had consumed him. The introduction and foreword by itself is worth the book’s cost, since they explain Rodney’s young, radical life and priorities in the moment-context. The editors point out that the author had no choice to pull out his machete against Western historiography because the non-white, non-colonized  perspective had to be represented in world history: “Rodney set out to defend both the achievements of the Russian Revolution and a Marxist interpretation of history from the distortions of bourgeois historians–namely, those Western European and American scholars motivated by Cold War imperatives and precolonial designs.” Kelley, Benjamin and Prashad, who poured through Russian history to contextualize Rodney’s thoughts and to update via endnote, have taken great pleasure in filling in the empty spaces in 1971 bookshelves containing what was then called, respectively, Black Studies and Soviet Union history. It is a book purposely out of its time.

The author stands apart from both the Russian and Western historians, commenting and critiquing both (hence the subtitle), while he tells a specific story of how radical democracy is created and tested. What Rodney pointed out about Karl Marx could have been said about himself, especially now, mediating on Rodney’s 1980 assassination 38 years from his birth and the publication of this book 38 years from his martyrdom in his native Guyana: “Marx pointed out that man makes history himself, but his consciousness in so doing is historically determined by factors such as technology, class and previous ideas.” It reminds the reader that this is, in the end, an analog analysis. Rodney–particularly in this period, in this book–represents the Third World revolutionary optimism that abounded in China, Vietnam, Cuba, many post-election African nations and elsewhere.

What then, to the American revolutionary, is the Fourth of July? It could be a time to celebrate successful 20th century revolutions in places like Cuba, China and Vietnam. To not only remember those scholar-activists such as Walter Rodney, but to continue to promote intellectual de-colonialism in all relevant forms–Black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, socialism of many colors and any other isms that are appropriate. (Analysis + action = revolution, or, as Rodney said of Russian leader Leon Trotsky: he knew that “history is guided by action.”) And the key word, more and more during Lex Luthor’s current U.S. presidency, might be relevant. Because important products of our Ancestors are being pulled up steadily out of time’s ground into the present, which forces 21st century brains into often-painful memories and thoughts. Great. Let the uprooting continue, and with this book (proceeds of which go to The Walter Rodney Foundation), let Rodney again lead.

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Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J. He is the author of Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells, and Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, both published by Diasporic Africa Press. His 2014 audiobook, Son-Shine On Cracked Sidewalks, deals with the first mayoral election of Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist and writer Amiri Baraka, in Newark.

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