By Nick D
Walter Rodney was a revolutionary Marxist born in Guyana in 1942. He studied history at the University College of the West Indies (CWI) in the early 1960s and – aged just 24 years old – received a PhD from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1966. While still a student at CWI, Rodney travelled to Cuba in 1960 – just one year after the Revolution – and to the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.
During his time in London, he also spent 3 years in a reading group led by feminist author Selma James and her husband, the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R James. These experiences, coupled with the rising tide of revolutionary struggle throughout the Global South, were formative for Rodney as a committed Marxist thinker and activist.
In 1969-74, Rodney worked as a history professor at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania which was a hotbed of revolutionary struggle, national liberation and Pan-Africanism. After the Arusha Declaration in 1967, the Tanzanian government of Julius Nyerere had also put the country on a path of socialist transformation and experimentation.
Against this backdrop, Rodney delivered a set of lectures at Dar es Salaam in 1970-71 on the French and Russian Revolutions which were intended to form the basis of a book titled The Two World Views on the Russian Revolution – Reflections from Africa. However, Rodney’s assassination in 1980 – orchestrated by the government of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham in Guyana – meant that he was never able to complete this work.
Rodney’s wife, Patricia, was able to smuggle his lecture notes out of Guyana. These were eventually woven together into the book The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World, published in 2018 by Verso. It was edited by Robin Kelley (who was the first person to type up the original lecture notes) and Jesse Benjamin. It also includes a preface by Vijay Prashad.
Critique of Bourgeois Historiography
As the intention of this book is to establish a post-colonial or ‘African Perspective’ from which the October Revolution and Soviet Union can be understood, one of Rodney’s immediate tasks is to review the various ways that writers analyse and understand this history.
He asserts that historians of the Revolution can be categorised as either Marxist or Bourgeois. Obviously, these two camps are not homogeneous with the former including ‘official’ Soviet historians as well as Marxist writers outside the Soviet Union like Leon Trotsky and Maurice Dobb.
Because of “fundamental ideological differences” the two perspectives are distinct and cannot be reconciled. Indeed, since 1917 the divide between Marxist and Bourgeois analysis related to the real-world struggle between socialism and capitalism,
“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.”
Something that makes this book particularly useful for socialists today is that it is avowedly Marxist and based on the “superiority of materialism.” Yet, since Rodney’s intention is to develop a unique African Perspective, his analysis is not dogmatic. Even his treatment of bourgeois writers, while often searing, is an honest presentation of their arguments.
A noteworthy polemic is with the “snobbery” of bourgeois writers like Hugh Seton-Watson and Jacob Walkin. Rodney vehemently opposes these author’s dismissal of the agency of ordinary people in making history. He describes this as the “contemptuous attitude of the bourgeoisie toward what they call the mob, the rabble, the gullible masses.”
Another example is Rodney’s critique of Nicolas Berdyaev whose books The Origins of Russian Communism and The Russian Idea in part assert that Marxism-Leninism is an accumulation of problematic and often unsavoury aspects of pre-Marxist Russian thought such as the Narodniks and (strangely enough) Peter the Great.
Rodney demonstrates that this argument is based on a flawed methodology wherein “one gets the impression that he starts with an idea and treats the nineteenth century as an attic through which he can rummage for interesting little bits that prove his point.”
Although Rodney wholeheartedly disagrees with Berdyaev, he nonetheless dedicates the better part of a whole chapter to explain the author’s argument which he also uses as springboard to explain the development of revolutionary Marxism in Russia.
With this said, while Rodney is scathingly critical of the various bourgeois historians, at times he seems to accommodate them too much. For example, the chapter On Democracy: Lenin, Kautsky and Luxemburg dedicates barely three pages to Rosa Luxemburg.
This is quite different from the five plus pages given to Berdyaev’s ridiculous propositions, such as that Lenin “…united in himself traits of…the Grand Princes of Moscow, of Peter the Great and Russian rulers of the despotic type.”
As this book is based on lectures given at the University of Dar es Salaam, the writing style is both informative and entertaining. The reader gets a vivid insight into important writers, figures and leaders of the 19th and 20th century as well as key events before and after October 1917. Rodney’s clear explanation of complex Marxist concepts is also helpful, such as his explanation of dialectical and historical materialism,
“It is a notion that first of all recognises that change and historical movement are dependent upon the contradictions within things and between things… The dialectical notion stresses that every phenomenon is constantly transforming itself, owing to its own internal contradictions and to contradictions between itself and other phenomena… one can always discern a pair of opposites in operation – thesis and antithesis, giving rise to synthesis, which in turn is merely a thesis in relation to another opposite. Hence the law of the unity of opposites.”
Another aspect that increases the readability is his humorous and engaging prose. One can imagine Rodney in a packed lecture theatre explaining that the Tsarist regime under Nicholas II was “a circus rather than a government” and asking, “why was it possible for a government of a huge country to fall into the hands of such utter reactionaries, charlatans and fools?”
The Soviet Union after 1917
While the early chapters are focused on the October Revolution, the final three deal with the Soviet Union. Chapter 7, Building the Socialist State, is an exploration of industrialisation since the 1920s while Chapter 8, The Transformation of Empire, considers the “transition from Russian imperialism to Soviet Federalism.”
In these chapters and elsewhere, Rodney employs an effective tool of debate against the seemingly endless onslaught of hostile, anti-Soviet texts. He argues that if bourgeois writers are to prove that capitalist development is superior to socialist development – they have to actually provide a truthful account of the history of capitalism.
In the case of the capitalist agricultural for example, bourgeois writers should account for the fact that “outside of Europe, wherever Europeans established capitalist farming, they did so by expropriating the land of the indigenous peoples and often they virtually committed genocide.”
Both implicitly and explicitly, Rodney argues that socialist development in the Soviet Union – despite the various shortcomings involved in its real-world application among difficult material conditions – is far superior to capitalism in terms of improving the lives of ordinary people.
The final chapter, The Critique of Stalinism, is particularly interesting and critically discusses the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. This begins with discussion of two critiques – put forward most famously by Leon Trotsky and Isaac Deutscher – about the adoption of ‘Socialism in One Country’ and bureaucratisation under Stalin.
Rodney is very critical of both Trotsky and Deutscher – dismissing their arguments as “hollow.” He argues that both ‘Socialism in One Country’ and bureaucratisation were due to material realities beyond the control of the Soviet leadership – namely the absence of revolutions elsewhere and Russia’s backwardness.
Yet given Rodney is clearly an admirer of Trotsky (this book includes a chapter Trotsky as Historian of the Russian Revolution), it is somewhat strange how dismissive he is. Indeed, he allocates just over four pages to both of these critiques of Stalinism.
The final criticism that Rodney addresses is that the Soviet Union under Stalin was an oppressive dictatorship akin to German fascism – a common argument of bourgeois historians that do not use a class analysis. Ultimately, he finds the comparison with fascism “a crude propaganda device” and instead argues that “there was an enlargement of freedom in the Soviet Union after 1917 because real freedom is a function of cultural and economic equality.”
With this said, Rodney is highly critical of Stalin’s leadership and argues that it led to “a considerable distortion of socialism.” This includes a drop in ideological standards within the Communist party and the fact that “committed and mature Marxists were replaced by a generation of opportunists and sycophants who often made up for their lack of socialist insights by their zeal in persecuting people whom they defined as enemies of the people.”
Rodney is also wholly against the unnecessary use of violence during the Stalinist period – in particular during the period of Forced Collectivisation. In this discussion, he delineates between revolutionary violence – the use of force against counter revolutionary forces – and violence once the power has been seized by workers and peasants. He writes, “once they have the power, a workers’ government has to carry out the revolution by transforming society, and that is not done through violence.”
This book is a meticulously written and researched work wherein Rodney establishes his authority as a historian of the October Revolution. At the same time, his purpose was not to carry out an academic study, but to draw out lessons for ‘Third World’ revolutionaries involved in struggles to seize state power as well as those already involved in the construction of socialism.
A crucial aspect of Rodney’s work – which is beyond the scope of this review – is his engagement with questions of revolution in a peasant-based economy and the transformation of agriculture under socialism. Rodney’s contribution to the question of transforming a ‘backwards,’ peasant-based country into a modern, socialist economy deserves its own article and it is hoped that we can provide just that on the Red Ant website.
Much has happened since Rodney delivered these lectures at Dar es Salaam and, compared to the 1970s, the balance of powers has massively shifted in favour of imperialism. What would Rodney have thought of developments such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the adoption of market reforms in China or the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela?
How would he have proposed anti-imperialist struggle in the 21st century? The answers to these questions are denied to us by the forces of reaction who murdered Walter Rodney in 1980. While the world lost a highly original and dedicated thinker, Rodney’s ideas endure through books such as this. I look forward to reading his other contributions to anti-imperialist Marxism.