From the Archive | Part one: Marxism and African liberation

In this first of a two-part series, Guyanese historian and activist Walter Rodney links Marxism’s relevance in Africa to its methodology, which is particular to time and place.

In 1980, Walter Rodney was assassinated by a car bomb in Georgetown, Guyana. He gave this speech at Queen’s College, New York, in 1975. The transcript is taken from Yes to Marxism!, People’s Progressive Party, Georgetown, Guyana, 1986.

First of all, we must understand the background for this kind of debate. When one is asked to speak on the relevance of Marxism to Africa at this particular time, one is being asked to involve oneself in an historical debate, an ongoing debate in this country, particularly among the black population. It is a debate which has heightened over the last year, and from my own observations, it is being waged in a large number of places across this country.

Sometimes it appears in the guise of the so-called Nationalist versus the Marxist; sometimes it appears in the guise of those who claim to espouse a class position as opposed to those who claim to espouse a race position. Thus it would not be possible for us in a single session to enter into all the ramifications of that debate, but it does form the background for our discussion.

It is an important debate. It is an important fact that such issues are being debated in this country today, just as they’re being debated in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America and in many parts of the metropolitan world in Western Europe and in Japan. Because the widespread nature of the debate and its intensity at this time is a reflection of the crisis in the capitalist-imperialist mode of production. Ideas and discussion do not just drop from the sky. There is not simply a plot on the part of certain individuals to engage others in a meaningless debate.

Whatever the outcome of the debate, whatever the posture the different participants adopt, the very fact of the debate is representative of the crisis in capitalism and imperialism today; and as the crisis deepens, people find it more and more difficult to accept the old modes of thought which rationalise the system which is collapsing. Hence the need to search for new directions, and quite clearly, Marxism, scientific socialism poses itself as one of the most obvious of the available options.

The question is not new to Africa or to the black people as a whole – that is perhaps essential to understand. Many of us have raised before the question of the relevance of Marxism to this or that. Its relevance to Europe; many European intellectuals debated its relevance to their own society. Its relevance to Asia was debated by Asians. Its relevance to Latin America was debated by Latin Americans. Individuals have long debated the relevance of Marxism to their own time. Was it relevant to the 19th century? If so, was it still relevant to the 20th century? One can debate its relevance to a given facet of the culture of society or to the society’s law or culture as a whole.

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These are all issues that have been debated before and we should have some sense of history when we approach this question today, because with that sense of history we can ask, why is it that the question of the relevance of Marxism to society always crops up? And, in a very brief answer, I would suggest that what is common to the application of the question is first of all, a condition of struggle, a condition in which people are dissatisfied with the dominant mode of perceiving reality.

At that point they ask about the relevance of Marxism.

More than that, the second condition is that people ask the question because of their own bourgeois framework. One starts out located within the dominant mode of reasoning, which is the mode of reasoning that supports capitalism and which we will call a bourgeois framework of perception. And because one starts out that way, it becomes necessary to raise the question about the relevance of Marxism.

After one is advanced, it is probably more accurate to raise the question of the relevance of bourgeois thought, because the shoe would be on the other foot!

But initially, it is true that however much the bourgeoisie disagree, there is one common uniting strand to all bourgeois thought: they make common cause in questioning the relevance, the logic, and so on, of Marxist thought. And therefore, in a sense, unfortunately, when we ask that question we are also fitting into that framework and pattern. We are also, in some way, still embedded to a greater or lesser extent in the framework, of bourgeois thought, and from that framework we ask with a great degree of hesitancy and uncertainty – what is the relevance of Marxism?

It is particularly true in our part of the world, that is, the English-speaking part of the world, because the Anglo-American tradition is one of intense hostility, philosophically speaking, towards Marxism, a hostility that manifests itself in a peculiar way. It manifests itself by trying to dissociate itself even from the study of Marxism. If you were to check on the continental tradition in Europe, you would find it is not the same. French, German and Belgian intellectuals, whatever their perspective, understand the importance of Marxism. They study it, they relate to it, they understand the body of thought which is called Marxism and they take a position vis-à-vis that body of thought.

In the English tradition, which was also handed down to this part of the world, to the Caribbean, to many parts of Africa, it is fashionable to disavow any knowledge of Marxism. It is fashionable to glory in one’s ignorance, to say that we are against Marxism. When pressed about it one says – but why bother to read it? It is obviously absurd.

So one knows it is absurd without reading it and one doesn’t read it because one knows it is absurd, and therefore one glories in one’s ignorance of the position.

It is rather difficult to seriously address the question of the relevance of Marxism unless one does the basic minimum of accepting that one should attempt to enter into this full body of thought, because it is a tremendous body of literature and analysis, and from the outside as it were, it is extremely difficult.

Indeed, I would say it is pointless, strictly from the outside, without ever having moved towards trying to grapple with what it is, to ask what is its relevance. It is almost an unanswerable question; and I think in all modesty, that for those of us who came from a certain background (and we all come from that background), one of the first things we have to do is establish a basis of familiarity with the different intellectual traditions, and as we become familiar with them we can then be in a better position to evaluate Marxism’s relevance or irrelevance, as the case might be.

I will proceed on the assumption that what we are trying to discern in this discussion is whether the variants of time and place are relevant or, let me put it another way, whether the variants of time and place make a difference to whether Marxism is relevant or not. In a sense we would almost have to assume its validity for the place in which it originated, Western Europe. We don’t have the time to deal with that in detail. But we can then ask, assuming that Marxism has a relevance, has a meaning, has an applicability to Western Europe, or had in the 19th century, to what extent does its validity extend geographically? To what extent does its validity extend across time?

These are the two variables, time and place; and those can be translated to mean historical circumstances, time and culture which means the place, and what social and cultural conditions exist in each particular place. For us, to make it more precise, black people, no doubt well-meaning black people, ask the question whether an ideology which was historically generated within the culture of Western Europe in the 19th century is, today, in the third quarter of the 20th century, still valid for another part of the world, namely Africa, or the Caribbean, or black people in this country; whether it is valid to other societies at other times. And this is the kind of formulation which I wish to present for discussion.

The methodology of Marxism

I would suggest two basic reasons why I believe that Marxist thought, scientific socialist thought, would exist at different levels, at different times, in different places and retain its potential as a tool, as a set of conceptions which people should grasp.

The first is to look at Marxism, as a methodology, because a methodology would, virtually by definition, be independent of time and place. You will use the methodology at any given time, at any given place. You may get different results, of course, but the methodology itself would be independent of time and place.

And essentially, to engage in a rather truncated presentation of Marxism, inevitably oversimplifying, but nevertheless necessary in the context of limited time I would suggest that, one of the real bases of Marxist thought is that it starts from a perspective of man’s relationship to the material world; and that Marxism, when it arose historically, consciously dissociated itself from and pitted itself against all other modes of perception which started with ideas, with concepts and with words; and rooted itself in the material conditions and in the social relations in society.

This is the difference with which I will start. A methodology which begins its analysis of any society, of any situation, by seeking the relations which arise in production between men. There are a whole variety of things which flow from that: man’s consciousness is formed in the intervention in nature; nature itself is humanised through its interaction with man’s labour; and man’s labour produces a constant stream of technology which in turn creates other social changes.

So this is the crux of the scientific socialist perception. A methodology that addresses itself to man’s relationship in the process of production on the assumption, which I think is a valid assumption, that production is not merely the basis of man’s existence, but the basis for defining man as a special kind of being with a certain consciousness.

It is only through production that the human race differentiates itself from the rest of the primate’s and the rest of life.

What does Marxism pose itself against? It poses itself against a number of hypotheses, a number of views of the world which start with words and concepts. For those who are familiar with Marx’s own evolution, it is well known that he started by looking first at Hegel, a very plausible and perceptive analyst of the 19th century who was guilty, in Marx’s own estimation, of putting forward an entirely idealist position, one that placed ideas in the centre of the universe and saw the material world as virtually deriving from those ideas.

In thinking about this, I felt that I wouldn’t go into Hegel. I would go further than Hegel. for a classic exposition of the idealist world view. I take it from the New Testament, the Book of John, where he stated: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. And the Word was God.” That is the classic exposition of the idealist position. You take every other thing from there: the Word was God!

But we are suggesting that the word is itself an emanation from people’s activity as they attempt to communicate with each other, as they develop social relations out of production, and that we shouldn’t be mystified with words. Oh, naturally enough we will have to deal with concepts and with the force of consciousness, which is a very powerful force and one that even some Marxists have been tempted to underestimate.

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Now, Marx, taking that broad framework of methodology, tried to apply it to Western Europe. He applied it to a range of societies in different places and at different times; but he concentrated his attention on Western Europe. If you examine the body of literature produced by Marx and Engels, you will find that they speak about slavery, about communal society, about feudalism, but by and large, they concentrated on capitalism. They hardly even talk about socialism.

Marx’s great contribution was his fantastic critique of an existing society, capitalist society. How did it come into being in a particular part of the world? The vast majority of their literature concerns this question.

But, as I said when I referred to pre-capitalist society, especially feudalism, they talked about some other parts of the world. Occasionally Marx mentions the Asiatic mode of production. Occasionally he came across to look at the data concerning the United States. So he had something of a geographical span and a long time span.

But it was so minimal in comparison with the bulk of his work that it is true that a lot of people have taken Marx’s method and his conclusions and have seen them as one and the same thing – that Marxism is not merely a certain methodology applied to Western Europe, but is itself an ideology about Western Europe, about capitalism in the 19th century and cannot transcend those boundaries, when clearly Marx was doing the job he had to do. He was looking at his own society, he was doing it under some of the most adverse conditions, he was doing it by mastering bourgeois knowledge and putting it to the service of change and revolution.

I would suggest, then, that the method was independent of time and place. It is implicit in Marx and it becomes explicit in post-Marxian development, using Marxian in the literal sense of the life of Marx himself. After Marx’s death you will get the evolution or the development of scientific socialist thought with other individuals recognising that the methodology can be applied, must be applied to different times to different places.

Again, presenting our history in a very abbreviated form, we can look at Lenin, at his application of Marxist theory to Russian society. That is one of his principal contributions. The first major thesis of the young Lenin was the development of capitalism in Russia. He had to deal with his own society. He had to take those formulations out of the specific cultural and historical context of Western Europe and look at Eastern Europe, at Russia which was evolving differently, and apply them to his own society. This he did.

He had at the same time to consider the time dimension that in the 19th century Marx was writing about what has now come to be called the classic period of capitalism, the entrepreneurial version of capitalism, and by the latter 19th century this had given way to monopoly capitalism. It has given way to imperialism. So Lenin had to deal with that method by applying it to a new dimension in time. So he wrote about capitalism in its imperialist stage.

So those are the two variants operating: the ideology; the methodology of it (we’ll stick to the methodology for the time being) being applied to different societies at different times. Having made the point for Lenin, I hope it becomes clear for a number of people: Mao tse Tung applying it to Chinese society which was a different society from Russian society. Understanding the inner dynamics of Chinese society, relating to the question of the peasantry in a different and more profound way than any previous writer because that was the nature of Chinese society and he had addressed himself to that.

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And finally for our purposes, the most important example, the example of Amilcar Cabral because he was dealing with Africa. Cabral, in one of his essays, the one titled The Weapon of Theory, if I recall correctly, one of his most important essays; began by making clear that the best he could do was to return to the basic methodology of Marx and Engels. But it was not possible for Cabral to begin the analysis of the history of Guinea-Bissau by saying: “I am going to look for classes,” for example. He said, “If I say this I will be denying that my people have any history because I do not perceive classes for a long period in the genesis of my own people.”

Then he referred back to Marx’s and Engels’ classic statement that “the history of all existing societies is the history of class struggle”, to which Engels had appended a note saying that by “all history”, we mean “all previously recorded history”. It so happens that the history of the people of Guinea-Bissau hasn’t been recorded and Cabral says, “I want to record that history. We will use the Marxian method. We will not be tied by the concept which arose historically in Western Europe when Marx was studying that society.”

Marx uses the method and he discerned the evolution of classes and of the phenomenon of classes itself as being a major determinant, the major determinant in Western European history at a particular point in time. Cabral says we will begin at the beginning. We will not even concern ourselves initially with classes. We will simply look at men in the process of production. We will look at modes of production in the history of Guinea, and we will see how our society evolved. So without much of a fanfare he was showing the relevance of that methodology to African society.

If, and when, in the history of Guinea-Bissau, the aspect of class appears to have historical importance, then Cabral dealt with it. Until such time, he simply stuck to the basis of Marxian methodology which was to look at Guinean people in the process of production, at the various modes of production, social formations, cultural formations which arose historically and the direction in which the society was tending.

In many respects, when we ask the question today about the relevance of Marxism to black people, we have already reached a minority position, as it were. Many of those engaged in the debate present the debate as though Marxism is a European phenomenon and black people responding to it must of necessity be alienated because the alienation of race must enter into the discussion.

They seem not to take into account that already that methodology and that ideology have been utilised, internalised, domesticated in large parts of the world that are not European.

That it is already the ideology of 800 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 which was used by Cabral, which 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 universalised 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.

When we investigate and try to centralise or keep central the concept of relevance, we must ask ourselves questions about the present. What kind of society do we live in today? What kind of societies do black people live in today in different parts of the world? And while, of course, we as black people in this country, in the Caribbean and in different parts of Africa have our own independent historical experience, one of the central facts is that we are all in one way or another, located within the capitalist system of production.

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The society about which Marx wrote, through a process of outgrowth, dominated Africa and the Americas in the era of mercantilism which was the period that capitalism was growing to maturity. It dominated these parts of the world. It created slave society in the Americas.

Subsequent to the slave era, capitalism, even more powerful, was able to incorporate the whole world into a global network of production which derived from Western Europe and North America, a system which had a metropolitan centre or set of metropolitan centres, and a separate set of peripheries, colonies and semi-colonies.

So that we have all, historically, been incorporated within the capitalist system of production, and that is another dimension of the relevance of Marxism.

Even without the translation in terms of time and place, it seems to me that if we have become part of the capitalist-imperialist world, then we owe it to ourselves to relate to, to follow, to understand and to hopefully adopt and adapt a critique of that capitalist system because that is essentially what Marx’s writing is about. He was critiquing that capitalist system. He did so more effectively than any bourgeois writer, and if we want to understand the world in which we live, which is the world dominated by capitalism then we must understand the centre of that system, the motor within that system, the types of exploitation which are to be found within the capitalist mode of production. So that is yet another factor.

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