From the Archive | Walter Rodney and the question of power

On the anniversary of the assassination of the Guyanese historian and activist in 1980, New Frame republishes the Trinidadian activist and intellectual CLR James’ assessment of Rodney’s life and work.

This is an edited excerpt of CLR James’Walter Rodney and the Question of Power, a speech first given in 1981 and then published in Race Today in 1983. It is republished here with permission from CLR James’ estate.

Abraham Lincoln, whom I respect enormously, made a beautiful remark in his Gettysburg Address. He said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” He was quite wrong; they have noted it and remembered it. What we say here this morning, the world will not long note, nor long remember, but you are going to remember. It is going to be with you a part of your life, because what I am talking about is the intellectual preparation for the future safety and development of the Caribbean – and some other territories also.

Walter was born in 1942. In 1936, Dr WEB du Bois had written his superb book Black Reconstruction. I know no finer single-volume history of any episode or any territory than Black Reconstruction. Two years later, by some accident of the time, I had written The Black Jacobins, the first statement of revolutionary policy and instruction for the revolutionary development of the colonial countries. At just about that time, Aimé Césaire had written Return to My Native Land. Around the same time, in 1934, Learie Constantine, with my help, had published a book, Cricket and I. A West Indian, for the first time, spoke to the world at large and to the Caribbean about an event in which many people of the world were interested. In 1936, I published my novel, Minty Alley, the first West Indian novel published in Great Britain. I emphasise that all this took place before Walter was born.

Now I, Aimé Césaire, George Padmore, Dr du Bois and others were faced with a particular challenge. As we grew up and went along, we had to fight the doctrines of the imperialist powers in order to establish some Caribbean foundation or foundations for the underdeveloped peoples. Walter did not have to do that. The aforementioned works were written before he was born. Walter grew up in an atmosphere where, for the first time, a generation of West Indian intellectuals was able, not only to study the revolutionary and creative works that had been created in Europe, but also to benefit from and be master of what had been done in the same tradition in direct reference to the Caribbean. Walter’s generation, therefore, was nurtured by something special and out of the ordinary in the experience of the victims of imperialism. There are not many people like that. An entirely new generation of West Indians was born as a result. That is what Walter Rodney represented.

Related article:

To be born in 1942 was to have behind you a whole body of work dealing in the best way with the emerging situation in the Caribbean and the colonial world. That was Walter Rodney. He grew up in the world of the wars and also in a world where Kwame Nkrumah succeeded in securing independence for the Gold Coast and establishing Ghana; then a little later Julius Nyerere did so for Tanganyika, which united with Zanzibar to become Tanzania. Walter had an upbringing and development that many of you cannot quite appreciate, because to you it is natural. To him, it was not. It was something new. That is why when he completed his studies, he was able to build on these foundations. The work that had been necessary to motivate him to study Africa and the Caribbean had been done already. That is an aspect of the importance of the personality and particular politics of Walter Rodney.

That is Walter’s background. You do not understand him unless you understand that. He was able to look upon the revolutionary ideas, perspectives and analysis of the Caribbean as something natural, normal, fixed, written and beyond dispute. That is what sent him along the path he followed to Africa.

What Walter did not know

Now I come to something more difficult. What did Walter not know? Walter had not studied the taking of power. I am going to emphasise that because you have to do that. The taking of power has to become the common discussion among the Caribbean people and intellectuals so that all will know it; so that, as young people grow up and develop and begin to look at history, they begin to see not only what has been done to us, but what we have done, what we have achieved, and what we have to do. You begin to talk and to think about the taking of power, because that is what faces you now. I am serious about it. Some of you may think I am too serious about it. Let that be. History will decide.

Walter did not study exactly the taking of power, and that is what I am going into. In Lenin’s lecture on the 1905 revolution, which was given on 22 January 1917, he said, “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” Note that: it is a long way out. “But, I can, I believe, express the confident hope that the youth which is working so splendidly in the socialist movement of Switzerland, and of the whole world, will be fortunate enough not only to fight, but also to win, in the coming proletarian revolution.” He mentioned the Soviets, but he spent about ten lines on the Soviets in 1905 in a lecture of about ten pages. On 22 January, he cautioned that he might not live to see the revolution. Yet in March, it was there. I wonder if you get the significance of that. That is what happened to Lenin. You never can tell. Marx phrases it like this, “The revolution comes like a thief in the night.” And he had studied this all his life. Now Walter did not quite get that. He was not aware of that.

The second thing I want to suggest to you, as part of your studies for the future, is “Marxism and Insurrection”. It is a letter to the Central Committee of the Russian party during the preparation of the Russian Revolution, 13-14 September 1917. “To be successful,” says Lenin in writing to his party about the imminence of the October revolution, “insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy [you can’t whisper it] and not upon a party.” Lenin says, “Not upon a party.” You cannot depend upon a party to seize the power. Not upon a party, “But upon the advanced class.” There are three points. The first point is that insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. There was one in Trinidad in 1970. There was one in Trinidad in 1937 and 1938 – and not only in Trinidad but right through the Caribbean. In Jamaica, it is said that the country was in such a state that the governor caught some sort of disease and died. It was too much for him. You can govern when the people are quiet, but when they become not only unquiet, but revolutionary, you get diseases from that. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advance ranks of the people is at its height, when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy have made them weakest, and when the supporting friends are strongest. That is the third point.

Forming an organisation

Firstly, there must be a clash, a revolutionary upsurge of the people. Then, secondly, there must be a turning point, when the activity of the advanced ranks is at its height; and thirdly, the enemy must be vacillation. Those are the three points. You will find them in “Marxism and Insurrection”, and Walter was not aware of those. They did not matter to him in the sense that they were vital questions in his approach to the particular problem. There must be an advanced class. There was one. There were advanced classes in the Caribbean, but they were not in conflict with the rulers. They were not in conflict with the population as they were in 1937 or 1938, as they were in Trinidad in 1970, and as I told them to be aware that it might happen in 1980 and 1981, because you cannot know when this is coming. Lenin in January 1917 was saying that he did not know whether he would hold out long enough. You have to get that into your heads. And, number two, you must be aware that you do not know. So you must be ready. And there must be this conflict between the mass of the population and the government.

Those conditions are necessary, and Walter was not aware of them. Walter did not take them into consideration. Walter was a very advanced Marxist, very advanced indeed. But the advanced Marxist today in particular must be advanced with regard to the art and circumstances of insurrection. We in the Caribbean are not that way. We in the English-speaking Caribbean are dominated by the Westminster model. In the French islands they are different, because they have the great tradition of the French Revolution.

Related article:

Walter returned to Guyana to be head of the history department at the university, and one of the grossest blunders of the notorious blunderer Forbes Linden Burnham was not to allow him to go to the university and start to teach. Undoubtedly, Walter would not have spent the rest of his life teaching in a university, but he would have spent some time there and things would not have been so tense. But, although the appropriate committee appointed him, Burnham panicked and had the decision reversed. It was because of panic that he did not let Walter go.

Walter went into that highly charged situation with people who were familiar with ideas but not with revolutionary organisation, which has nothing to do with the party. A party may organise, but that is not it. As Lenin says, the party can be in conflict. In 1937 and 1938 and in 1970, there was no party to organise the masses. The Stalinists and the rest of them have corrupted Marxist thinking and made the party everything. A party is not useful.

Ultimately, then, Walter formed an organisation. He has to start an organisation. He had spent some time on it, and he formed it. He was the chief person of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). He recognised that Burnham meant mischief and that he was prepared to use all power, the armed power of the state, to destroy the opposition. Rodney knew that and he tried to organise against it. And he organised wrong. A key problem in the face of overwhelming state power is how to arm oneself against it. In fact, the arms for a revolution are there: the police and the army have them. What you have to do is win over a section of the army, and you have arms. And you could also take away arms from the government.

How a revolution works

A revolution is made with arms, but a revolution is made by the revolutionary spirit of the great mass of the population. And you have to wait for that. Lenin in 1917 in January did not know that it was coming two or three months afterwards in Russia. You have to wait. You do not know. There is no calculation. It comes, as Marx says, like a thief in the night. So you had better be ready. Walter saw that his WPA had many good things about it, but he realised that Burnham was ready with the police and the army. He had them to use against the revolutionary movement and against the people. And Walter became too nervous, too anxious about it. He did not wait for the revolutionary people and the revolutionary class to be in conflict with the government before he could start the question of the insurrection. For Walter, it was urgent. Burnham had used the phrase, “Prepare your wills.” This meant – and I know Burnham quite well – that he was going to use any means; but you had to have certain kinds of means that you could use. You could not just have any means. So Walter was expecting a civil war.

A civil war took place in Kenya, and a civil war took place in Cuba, but the people of Guyana were not ready for civil war. The working class by and large was with Walter, the leader, but they were not in any mortal conflict with the government. I will give you an episode that proves that without any doubt. As Burnham watched the working class getting together and taking part in demonstrations against the government, he threatened to disallow the funds that the labour leaders were receiving from the employers and by which they lived. Whereupon these fellows, faced with what was a difficult situation, drew back; and for the moment the working class was being led by leaders who were not at any time very revolutionary, though they were on the way to becoming so.

In any case, they faced the breakup of their organisations. The temper of the working class went down. That was number one: they were not ready. By good fortune, we have the example of where in the Caribbean they have been ready. They were ready in 1937 and 1938 under Uriah Butler, they were ready in Trinidad in 1970, they were ready in Jamaica about 1937 and 1938. But they were not really ready in Guyana when Walter was there to lead. It can come with sudden speed; but you must wait for it.

The second point where Walter was wrong is that, although he was aware of the lack of revolutionary experience and revolutionary temper among the leaders whom he had, he did not train them and spend every minute of the day training them in the essentials, not of Marxism in general, but of the taking of power. Because the question of the taking of power is a question thousands of years old. It does not depend on the knowledge of Marxism. It is a knowledge that there is somebody waiting to destroy you. But Walter did not do that. Instead, he took on all sorts of activities, on the conception that he had to show them that he was not asking anybody to do anything that he would not do himself.

A political mistake

That is why Walter found himself in a car with a member of Burnham’s army making some arrangement about some gadget that turned out to be an explosive. He should never have been there. No political leader had any right to be there. Not only should he have never been there, the people around him should have seen to it that he was not in any such position. That was a fundamental mistake, and it was a political mistake. It was not a mistake in personal judgment. It was because he was doing all sorts of things to show them that revolutionary is prepared to do anything. And that was not the way. In the middle of the Russian Revolution, they were locking up leaders and their followers to tell them, “Go to Finland, get out of here, or you will be arrested. They will have a trial and the judge will condemn you to death. Or even before you are brought out, they will shoot you in the jail.” They had to chase Lenin out. Walter should never have been in that situation. Never, I hope you agree with me, and I hope you realise that that was a fundamental mistake, a political mistake. It is the business of a political organisation to protect its leaders and its important people.

The chief question that faces us today is the question of the seizure of power. It is also the chief question that faces them in Guyana. Nobody has any doubt that Burnham is a catastrophe for Guyana. But that is not enough. You have to study the question of power. You have to make people understand it. You have to study my book, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution. In this book, I have a chapter called, “Lenin and the Problem”, where these matters are discussed. You have to study the Russian Revolution. You have to study Poland, where a new conception of the revolution has appeared. And you have to talk about it, not only among yourselves. You have to get your students to go and write theses on these subjects. That is the way you discuss the question. And if you are bright, and alert, you can discuss them anywhere, even in church. The Bible is full of revolutionary activity.

Related article:

I said the same thing in Trinidad when they invited me to speak there in 1978. I was speaking at the university, and I told them, “One of the things that are needed now, one of the main things, the centre of my talk to you, is the taking of power.” And all of them were there listening, the police and all of them. They could not do anything to me for saying that. I told them, “You have to study the question.” And I went on to say this, “Power was on the streets in Trinidad between 1937 and 1938. The great upheaval of the people had taken place. But nobody was there ready to take advantage of it and to do what was necessary to transfer power to the people.” I said, “In 1970, all of you know power was in the streets, the government was powerless.” I have been told by people that when the late Dr Eric Williams heard that Raffique Shah and others were getting ready to march on Port-of-Spain, he fell down in a faint, broke his glasses, and had to be picked up. It was a crisis: power was in the streets, but nobody knew what to do. They were not organised; they were not ready.

In Guyana, Walter had advantages. He had never been mixed up in politics in Guyana before, so he had no enemies outside the PNC. He was new. He was a man with a worldwide reputation. And he was a black man who was getting on with Indians. These same advantages, however, turned into major liabilities because they made him more of a perceived threat to Burnham. Therefore, I told him, “Beware of assassination, because Burnham will kill you. You are someone who could represent the people against him.” But they did not beware sufficiently. You have to be ready for the upheaval, you do not know when the upheaval is coming. The upheaval does not need a party. The upheaval is an eruption of the people. You cannot arrange that. You can make tremendous mistakes. You may think it is 20 years away, as Lenin did. It was only a few days away.

These are difficult and complicated matters, and you have to study them. You must not only know how the Caribbean people came there. You must not only know the things they did. You must not only know the great men who led them. You must not only know when they gained independence. You must not only know what independence is. You have to know the taking of power. That is what I have come here to say. And that is why I say that, with all his extraordinary qualities and because he began and lived in a world that we did not live in, it was natural for Walter to think in the way he did. That is why he went so far. But he lacked the actual taking of power, the thinking about that, and he failed there.

So Walter was faced with, as is everybody who is faced with insurrectionary situation, a very difficult situation. But I think that he was driven to act without the powers at his disposal that were his. And I do not think that Burnham could have struck and destroyed these forces without the forces responding and giving something in return. That tremendous upheaval of the population in the French Revolution , in the British Revolution, in the Russian Revolution, in the revolution in Iran, everywhere, this is what you have to depend on, and Walter did not wait for that. He tried to force it. There was a danger that Burnham would strike, but I do not believe that, with the people there, Burnham could have put them in jail, and so on. On the contrary, maybe any attempt of his to act impatiently might have unloosed the upheaval, because it was there.

Upheaval takes place without the party

My business here is not to point out the mistakes that Walter made. It is to point out the necessity of your not making similar mistakes and to see that you discuss that and be aware of the taking of power. You cannot link the taking of power to organisation in the sense that is at the back of many people’s minds, that is the question of the party. Lenin said specifically, not the party. He said it is something in the people. But I will go further and make a generalisation. When the people move and there is an actual organisation there, the element of people, joining together to occupy the leading position will be sufficient. In France when 14 July took place, there was no party. When Trotsky said that in 1917 in Russia it was the Bolshevik party that led the first revolt, he was wrong. The party did not lead. The upheaval took place anyway. It is good to have a party. But even if you do not have a party, Lenin’s point is to get the basic objective social and political circumstances that are the inevitable bases to work on the art of insurrection. But you organise by all means, and the more you organise the better. But do not link the question of the organisation to the seizure of power.

But do not be afraid about the upheaval if you have 90% of the population against the government. Never believe that only one body of people and machine guns will get rid of the upheaval. Sometimes that is what brings it on. These upheavals that I am speaking about are not initiated. If you know the Jamaican situation in 1937 and 1938, they were not initiated by anybody. Before 14 July in France, nobody knew. Before the great upheaval in Iran, the Americans had all sorts of Central Intelligence Agency people and others investigating, and they did not know. These are upheavals like earthquakes. The revolution, the upheaval of the masses of the population, is a tremendous event that people cannot control. So we have to accept that. You do not initiate those events. You can depend upon the counterrevolution to do it. To use the word “initiate” would mean that the responsibility is on the party to do that. That is no so. Be sure that it is coming, and it had always come. The latest one is in Poland.

When I was talking to Trotsky in Coyoacan, I asked him, “But how come, time and again, the revolutionary party – this is the party, not the mass movement – was wrong in is analysis of the situation and Lenin turns out to be right and set it the correct way? How did that happen?” And I expected him to tell me how Lenin knew philosophy, how he knew political analysis, how he knew psychology, or how he knew the revolution. He did not. He said, “Lenin always had his eyes upon the mass of the population, and when he saw the way they were going, he knew that tomorrow this was what was going to happen.”

I hope somebody will make it his business to write a thesis on what happened in the Guyana revolution and the death of Walter Rodney, which is not just the death of a singular and remarkable individual. It is a whole political problem that is involved there, and I would like you to work at it that way.

The full text by CLR James is available at, the online Marxist Internet Archive.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.