Decolonial Marxism: Essays from the Pan-African Revolution
Walter Rodney, edited by Asha Rodney, Patricia Rodney, Ben Mabie, and Jesse Benjamin
Verso, $26.95 (paper)
In 2015 a movement for decolonization among student activists and academics in the West gained momentum following protests in South Africa to remove the statue of notorious colonizer Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. By June 2021 protesters were tearing down a statue of Egerton Ryerson—an architect of Canada’s genocidal residential schools—at the Ryerson University campus in the heart of Toronto following discoveries of unmarked mass graves of Indigenous children.
These scenes are part of a broader movement that now calls to decolonize universities, museums, the development sector, and even businesses. British scholars Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nişancıoğlu summarize the premise of the academic arm of the movement in their 2018 edited volume, Decolonising the University. “It was in the university,” the editors write, “that colonial intellectuals developed theories of racism, popularised discourses that bolstered support for colonial endeavours and provided ethical and intellectual grounds for dispossession, oppression and domination of colonised subjects.” Though formal colonialism has mostly ended, they argue, knowledge production continues to be “by the West for the West,” yielding “intellectual materials that reproduce and justify colonial hierarchies” and that are “strategically deployed in pursuit of imperial projects by Western states and firms in former colonies.”
The volume’s emphasis on knowledge production is typical: over the last decade, many scholars and university administrators in the West have given decolonization a distinctly epistemological and cultural cast. In the U.S. and U.K. academy especially, decolonization has come to be associated with a program of institutional and curricular reform: challenging Eurocentric ideas by incorporating Indigenous, Black, or Global South voices, complementing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and attending to what Bhambra, Gebrial, and Nişancıoğlu call “discursive projects.” According to this increasingly fashionable outlook, universities can decolonize their syllabi, for example, by ensuring adequate representation of non-white authors and reshaping classrooms to be more student-centered. Little surprise, perhaps, that Western universities can proudly endorse the rhetoric of decolonization while suppressing Palestinian anticolonial protest and maintaining ties with Israeli settler-colonialism in the face of its genocidal assault, which includes killing academics and destroying every university in Gaza. Their understanding of decolonization dodges such contradictions.
This vision—arguably a case of “elite capture,” as Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò describes in the case of identity politics—has flourished in spite of criticism from academics such as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, who declared in 2012 that “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” It also bears only passing resemblance to the concept and practice of decolonization as it emerged in the twentieth century: a comprehensive political project contesting material power relations, centered not on or within universities but in global mass struggles. As elaborated by the late Guyanese historian and revolutionary socialist Walter Rodney in Decolonial Marxism, a recent volume from Verso collecting sixteen of his unbound and lesser-known works spanning the 1960s and ’70s, “decolonization is . . . inseparable from a total strategy for liberation,” which entails “control of the material resources” and “a restructuring of the society so that those who produce have the principal say in how their wealth is going to be distributed.”
At a time when influential decolonial scholarship has issued crude equations of Marxist thought with Eurocentric class reductionism, the book’s title itself is a provocation. (Rodney does not use the word “decolonial,” nor, as we will argue, would he think “Marxism” needs such a qualifier.) Throughout Rodney’s tragically short life, Africa and indeed much of the world were the sites of wide-ranging Marxist struggles—from Amílcar Cabral’s Guinea-Bissau to the Mazdoor Kisan Party (MKP), or Worker-Peasant Party, in Pakistan; from Naxalism in India to Maoism in the Philippines and communism in the Arab world; from Indigenous Maoism in North America to guerrillaism in Cuba, liberation theology in Latin America, and Black radicalism in the United States. While these movements would later be grouped under the banner of “Third World Marxism,” we refer to them as “worldly Marxism” to emphasize that this project extended beyond the Third World to include and even influence the West. Neither Eurocentric nor simply postcolonial, worldly Marxism represents a Marxism undergoing constant reinvention as it exceeds its origins in Europe to extend across settler colonies, (post)colonies, and metropoles—a Marxism that acquires universal significance precisely through its attention to particular contexts.
By demonstrating Rodney’s deep and nuanced engagement with these ideas throughout his life, Decolonial Marxism offers an essential corrective to popular misrepresentations of the legacies of Marxist thought and its alleged incompatibility with anticolonial struggles. Though it lacks an editorial introduction (featuring instead a brief foreword by Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o) and any commentary on its selections, the book also makes an implicit case for the limitations of today’s mainstream understanding and adoption of decolonization, both within and beyond the academy—at least to the extent that it is stripped of political economy, focuses on culture and consciousness to the exclusion of class and power, and fails to be linked to mass struggles.
With a career spanning continents, Rodney was uniquely situated to appreciate the global legacies of Marxism. Caribbeanists D. Alissa Trotz and Nigel Westmaas have recently argued that Rodney’s transnational intellectual and political trajectory exemplifies his commitment to an internationalism rooted in specific contexts and the struggles of working people. Born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1942 to a working-class family, Rodney completed his undergraduate degree at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica before departing to London’s School of Oriental and African Studies for graduate study. While writing his PhD dissertation on the history of slavery in the Upper Guinea coast, Rodney attended the study circles held by Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James and his wife, Marxist feminist Selma James, at their London home, where he learned more about Marxism and the histories of socialist revolutions.
From London, the arc of Rodney’s internationalism took him to the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, where he accepted a lecturer position shortly after completing his PhD in 1966. At the time, Tanzania was led by Julius Nyerere, head of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), who championed a non-Marxist approach to African socialism and hosted the militant liberation movements of white-ruled African nations—including South Africa’s African National Congress, Mozambique’s Marxist Frente da Libertação, and Angola’s Movimento Popular da Libertação. Eventually convinced he could be more politically useful in his native Caribbean, Rodney returned to Jamaica in 1968 to teach at his alma matter and organize among Rastafarians. But his time in Jamaica was infamously cut short; after attending the Congress of Black Writers in Montreal in late 1968, he was barred from returning by the government of Prime Minister Hugh Shearer, who suspected him of agitating for a Castro-like revolution.
The decision ignited what would become known as the “Rodney riots,” protests across the University of West Indies campus and throughout Kingston at large—a testament to his influence both in and outside the university. Rodney returned to Tanzania in 1969, teaching again at the University of Dar es Salaam, traveling to lecture extensively in the United States, and publishing his most well-known work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, in 1972, only to leave again in 1974 for Guyana, where he would be assassinated six years later at the age of thirty-eight.
Rodney was among the midcentury thinkers deeply influenced by Marxism who argued that formal independence from colonial powers did not entail actual emancipation. Instead, it led to a “neocolonial” order in which a country’s “economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside,” as independent Ghana’s first leader, Kwame Nkrumah, put it in 1965. Not long thereafter, in the 1960s and ’70s on another continent, Pakistan’s MKP, the country’s largest communist party that led militant struggles of peasants and workers, advanced similar claims. As one of the MKP’s founding leaders, Ishaq Muhammad, put it, “whereas British forces and administrative machinery were withdrawn, British administrative structures stayed intact. . . . Pakistan continued to be tied to the apron strings of the world imperialist market.” Hailing from a peasant family from what is now the Faisalabad region, he was imprisoned between 1951 and 1955 alongside other members of the Communist Party of Pakistan—including the legendary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz—as part of the Rawalpindi conspiracy.
Rodney’s and Ishaq’s thought both emerged from and developed the worldly Marxism that saw the endurance of colonialism—across both political economy and culture—even in the post-colony. This body of work argues not only that modern capitalism emerged out of empire and dispossession—“dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” as Marx wrote—but also that the new world order, predicated on profit maximization, maintained imperial domination. As these figures saw it, even in the Global South—where classes were not always as sharply resolved as in capitalist Europe—entry into this world system would, Marxism implied, shape class struggle and the emergence of classes. (“Class,” here, refers to a group’s relation to productive assets like land, labor, or capital.) Moreover, to the extent that culture, knowledge, and ideas developed alongside economic, political, and social relations, Marxists of this period understood that resistance against exploiting classes and imperialist powers would also be cultural. As Cabral, leader of the anti-colonial movements of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (and to whom Rodney pens a tribute in Decolonial Marxism), put it in 1970, “national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.” Likewise, Ishaq argued in the MKP’s Manifesto that cultural struggle was crucial because it “reflects the ideological essence of a society’s politics and economics.”
At the same time, these thinkers recognized, the project of restructuring society would face powerful obstacles from exploitative classes and those poised to enter them. Indeed, not all anti-colonialists were concerned with challenging capitalism or imperialism or contending with class struggle. In Pakistan, many of the communists who would go on to form the MKP in 1968 did so after falling out with the National Awami Party, an alliance of radicals and ethno-nationalist landlords that had increasingly prioritized the interests of the latter. Meanwhile, many African anti-colonial leaders claimed throughout the 1950s and ’60s that African societies were basically classless and casteless, with no private ownership of the means of production. Some, including Senegal’s first president Leopold Senghor, focused on identifying distinct African cultural values to resist European ideological intrusion, seeking neither capitalism nor Marxist socialism but an “African socialism” built on indigenous values. By curving around material relations of power, Rodney argues in Decolonial Marxism, figures like Senghor effectively left “capitalism and imperialism unchallenged.”
The current academic project of decolonization extends this legacy of cultural nationalism, significantly disjointed from the materialist radicalism of Rodney, the MKP, and the Marxist ideas on which they drew. The most influential scholarly impact has been through what has become known as the “decoloniality school” that first emerged in Latin America and takes its inspiration and conceptual vocabulary from the writings of late Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano.
In essays such as “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality,” which first appeared in Spanish in 1991, Quijano argued that colonialism meant not just the exploitation of material resources but also the domination of indigenous epistemologies—a combination of political economy and epistemology that Quijano called the “coloniality of power.” The neologism “coloniality” itself, as distinct from “colonialism,” was meant to denote the colonial consciousness and conquest that endures even after formal independence—whether in sixteenth-century Latin America or mid-twentieth-century Africa and Asia.
In similar fashion, literary scholar Walter Mignolo and Latin American cultural studies scholar Catherine Walsh—among the leading proponents of decolonial theory today, and editors of a series on decoloniality at Duke University Press—have argued that it is this enduring grip on Western consciousness that accounts for many of the predicaments and failures of postcolonial societies. In their 2018 book On Decoloniality, for example, Mignolo and Walsh argue that coloniality shapes habits and “work[s] to negate, disavow, distort and deny knowledges, subjectivities, world senses, and life visions.” Their political horizon therefore is “not only—or primarily—the confrontation with capitalism and the West,” they state, but rather defending and elaborating on pre-colonial indigenous epistemologies. Only by “delink[ing] from the theoretical tenets and conceptual instruments of Western thought” can we arrive, Mignolo and Walsh contend, at a truly decolonized society.
Among those “instruments of Western thought,” these decolonial theorists have argued, is Marxism itself, which they portray as an essentially European form of thought, ill-fitted to the realities of the Global South. Besides Mignolo and Walsh, others that make this argument include Berkeley sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel, the anthropologist and post-development theorist Arturo Escobar and, at times, Quijano himself. Grosfoguel elaborates on two inferences from this line of reasoning. First, that Marxism mirrored capitalist thought in privileging the economic over the cultural and thus “never radically problematized the racial/ethnic hierarchies built during the European colonial expansions that are still present.” Second, that Marxism valorized the state and thus overlooked “social struggles below and above the nation state.” This economic reductionism and state-centrism, both stemming from Marxism’s encasement in Western thought—have had “terrible political consequences” and are grounds for rejecting Marxism altogether.
Indeed, some decolonial theorists go further and attribute the failure of many anti-colonial movements in the mid-twentieth century to their leaders’ misguided embrace of Marxism or socialism. As Mignolo puts it, radical decolonization movements inspired by Marxism failed because it “remained within the frame” of coloniality. “Knowledge was not called into question,” he writes, “but it was accepted as if decolonization could be achieved without delinking from the knowledge of political theory and political economy, and the corresponding subject-formation that these knowledges entail.” Trapped within this “frame,” these scholars argue, many newly independent countries took state-led socialist industrialization as their political horizon, damaging ecologies and alienated peasantries who were forced to collectivize and eventually undermining the popular legitimacy of these regimes and leading to their demise.
This is not how Rodney or the MKP understood it. While worldly Marxists in many cases focused attention on the state—because, as Ishaq put it, it is the “force that protects the interests of the ruling class”—they did not limit their horizons to the state. As Rodney argues throughout Decolonial Marxism, revolutionaries must also establish genuine “people’s power,” sometimes with the “boldness to break completely with the state machinery and to operate entirely outside the boundaries of petty bourgeois politics.” The point of people’s power was to secure—from both imperialism and domestic elites—a decolonized and socialist state and society, which meant moving away from bureaucratic institutions toward greater popular sovereignty—worker-peasant rule.
In an essay on “Class Contradictions in Tanzania,” for example, Rodney reflects on the conflicts among commercial petty bourgeoisies, bureaucratic bourgeoisies, working classes, and peasants in the emerging state. Petty bourgeois elements sought to concentrate authority and use the state to become a bourgeoisie, imposing plans like villagization on the peasant population as opposed to “entering in and with the mass of the population to effect transformation.” For both Rodney and the MKP, it was Marxist politics and analysis—particularly its attention to the way class struggle shaped even socialist transitions—that enabled one to understand and contend with a state that served some at the expense of the many. As they saw it, state-centrism represented not the horizon of Marxist politics but its co-option. “It is always dangerous that bureaucratization should parade in the name of socialism,” Rodney writes. In a similar vein, Ishaq cautioned in the mid ’70s that the Pakistan People’s Party, “who had come to power in the name of socialism, were the agents of capitalists and feudalists.”
Rodney’s and the MKP’s writings also undermine Grosfoguel’s criticism that Marxists and socialists were insufficiently sensitive to “racial/ethnic hierarchies.” Indeed, Rodney understood how ascriptive identities such as race could both structure dominant class relations and help to disrupt them: a “double-edged blade,” he calls them in Decolonial Marxism. In an essay on mass politics in his native Guyana, Rodney demonstrates this double-sidedness in action. Although the white colonial regime recruited Indian indentured laborers at the turn of the twentieth century to undermine the militancy of black former slaves, he shows, Indian and Black laborers nevertheless united at moments to resist colonialism. “Simple and definitive explanations must give way,” Rodney writes, “to a more sober analysis … of the relationship between racial consciousness and racial prejudice, between economic competition and racial conflict, between communal identification and class objectives.” In Pakistan, meanwhile, MKP leaders learned that, notwithstanding common struggles against the landlords, worker-peasant alliances were not a given; they had to be sutured together by confronting both class and caste contradictions.
It was thus precisely a commitment to Marxist theory and practice that led worldly communists like Rodney to take ascriptive identities seriously—even, some have argued, to the point of influencing the decoloniality school, that very body of scholarship that now accuses Marxism of class or economic reductionism. According to Carole Boyce Davies, in her introduction to a recent edition of Rodney’s The Groundings with My Brothers (1969), it was Rodney—and through him, Marxism—who helped shape the decoloniality school’s attention to race. In the mid-1990s a group of sociology and philosophy students at Binghamton University in New York created the Coloniality Working Group (CWG) to theorize the endurance of colonialism, going beyond the world-systems framework of Binghamton sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein. Quijano, who coauthored several works with Wallerstein, came to Binghamton each spring as a visiting scholar. Composed mostly of Latin American and Black students, the CWG pushed Quijano to refine his analysis of race—to see colonialism’s endurance as racially coded and differentiated, as exemplified by the experience of Black communities in Latin America.
In pushing Quijano along these lines, the students took inspiration from none other than Rodney, who had taught at Binghamton in the 1970s and in honor of whom the students held a conference in November 1998, a month before another conference featured Quijano as a keynote speaker. (Other presenters at the latter event included Mignolo and Jamaican writer-scholar Sylvia Wynter.) Jesse Benjamin—a Binghamton PhD student at the time, cofounder of the CWG, and editor of Decolonial Marxism—observed on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Groundings that “for some of us, Walter Rodney, as a meta-theorist of the highest order, but also as a local figure in our own regional history, was core to connecting and empowering our work across the usually separated fields of scholarship and activism, and across the intersections of race and class.” In his foreword to the edited collection Marxism and Decolonization in the 21st Century (2022), Grosfoguel, also a former Binghamton professor who helped organize the 1998 conference, singles out Quijano for “epistemic racism” that “never allowed him to recognize the intellectual sources of his work”—particularly those in the “Black Marxist tradition.”
In the worst cases, decolonial arguments can fuel crude essentialisms or cultural nationalisms focused above all on expunging or subordinating foreign influence. In India, for instance, politicians, journalists, and scholars are increasingly using decolonial frameworks to legitimize far-right Hindutva ideologies.
To take just one example, in his 2021 book India, That Is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution, prominent lawyer and Hindu supremacist Sai Deepak argues that India (“Bharat”) is a civilization undergirded by a unique “Indic consciousness” disrupted not just by European coloniality but also “Middle Eastern coloniality” (that is, Islam). Overlooking the Muslims (and Dalits and Scheduled Tribes) disproportionately represented among oppressed minorities at the bottom of India’s class structure, Deepak exalts as “decolonial” several anti-Muslim laws and court decisions that uphold Brahmin caste supremacy in fascist Hindutva politics. As it happens, Mignolo enthusiastically endorsed the book. While he later retracted the endorsement after a Twitter uproar, the incident exemplifies the risks of a decolonial perspective focused above all on repudiating foreign cultural forms.
Worldly Marxists, for their part, sought to build on the democratic and egalitarian qualities of pre-colonial cultures while also rejecting their hierarchical impulses. “Studying the development of our indigenous culture and extracting its democratic impulse are necessary conditions to advance our new national culture and national self-confidence,” Ishaq wrote in the MKP Manifesto. But he also recognized that pre-colonial and indigenous societies could very well have non-capitalist class structures, justified through “decadent” epistemologies. Against these, Ishaq counterposed the “great indigenous culture of the masses, which has a more or less democratic and revolutionary character.” One of the MKP’s slogans, jera vaahe oo hi khaave (“whoever tills has the right to eat”), hails from seventeenth-century Sufi spiritual guide Shah Inayat, who led the formation of egalitarian peasant collectives in defiance of the landed ruling class and allied religious figures.
Rodney also critically engaged native Tanzanian ideas in the 1960s and ’70s. The most important was ujamaa, a Kiswahili word meaning familyhood. In the hands of Rodney, Nyerere, and TANU, the idea became an indigenous African philosophy upon which to construct a socialist Tanzania, as well as the concrete implementation of this philosophy in the form of agricultural cooperative villages (known as ujamaa villages). Several communists opposed ujamaa for violating Marxist teleology—by striving for socialism without first passing through capitalism—or for being “a petty-bourgeois socialism” compatible with the aspirations of upwardly mobile rural classes. In the essay “Tanzanian Ujamaa and Scientific Socialism” in Decolonial Marxism, by contrast, Rodney argues that ujamaa was historical materialism as applied to the Tanzanian context, since it illuminated both the historical and class dynamics of the country while also pointing a way forward. In making this argument, Rodney notes that Marx and Engels were themselves nuanced thinkers who did not have a simplistic unilineal view of history. Had Marx and Engels worked in mid-twentieth-century Tanzania instead of mid-nineteenth-century Europe, Rodney implied, they too would have arrived at ujamaa.
Rodney’s defense of ujamaa thus showed how left internationalism could be realized through attention to specific contexts. “Marxism can only be of value,” he noted in a powerful 1975 speech included in Decolonial Marxism and provocatively titled “Marxism as a Third World Ideology,” “if whatever it takes to be the universal is applied to the particular; and it is in the very particularity of the exercise that one will demonstrate that the universal is actually universal and that it is applicable.” (It is thus doubly unfortunate that the volume does not offer historical context for Rodney’s essay and speeches, which are presented without noting the years of publication, the circumstances of their composition, or any explanation as to why they were selected.)
In his attention to context, Rodney departed from the views of Eurocentric Marxists from the Global South. As Black studies scholar David Austin has argued, Rodney’s attempt to build a Marxism within non-European societies represented a shift—a passing of the torch—from a tradition of pan-African Marxism whose guiding light was C. L. R. James. James saw the world through the lens of European civilization, even as he sought to push that tradition to acknowledge the part of Black struggles like the Haitian revolution in shaping it. By contrast, Rodney came of age during a time of Caribbean independence and nationalist pride when the supremacy of European civilization was being widely questioned.
The contrast between the two men was evident at the famed Congress of Black Writers held in 1968 in Montreal. In his speech at the conference, James commented that ancient Greece represented the pinnacle of human achievement and an aspirational model, to the discomfort of some in the audience; Rodney spoke instead of the centrality of African traditions and culture to African liberation movements. African history and culture, not Europe, was at the center of Rodney’s Marxist politics—but he did not see that as a contradiction in terms. In similar fashion, the MKP too emerged from a critique of Euro- and USSR-centric communisms in the Communist Party of Pakistan (which operated officially from 1948 to 1954).
For these reasons, issues of pedagogy and epistemology were central, if not “primary,” to both the MKP’s and Rodney’s revolutionary and anti-imperialist politics. In two essays on education in Africa in Decolonial Marxism, Rodney contrasts—perhaps too sweepingly and nostalgically—precolonial African education systems, which he commends for building an ethos oriented to community and ecology, with a colonial model centered on competition and individualism, which accentuated inequalities. In addition to the work of James and Paulo Freire, Rodney particularly appreciated Nyerere’s Education for Self-Reliance (1968), which outlined a vision for education centered on African sovereignty and community.
In Tanzania Rodney made a point to learn Kiswahili so that he could engage the country’s working masses. Likewise, in Jamaica, he acquired a reputation as a professor of the people as he embedded himself in ghettoized, often Rastafarian, communities around Kingston. With them, Rodney discussed African and Caribbean history and advocated for Black power—an Atlantic iteration of ujamaa, as it were—but his concept of Blackness was emphatically internationalist. “The black people of whom I speak,” he noted at one of these sessions, “are non-whites—the hundreds of millions of people whose homelands are in Asia and Africa, with another few millions in the Americas.” His collection of speeches during this period were later published in Groundings—“groundings” referring to Rodney’s dialogical and mutually transformative pedagogical practice adjacent to, and developed around the same time as, Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed. Rodney thus viewed epistemology and pedagogy as central to decolonization, but within limits. “Educational transformation alone,” he states clearly in Decolonial Marxism, “will never lead to the total liberation of society.”
Ultimately, Rodney’s nuanced approach to culture and epistemology was grounded in fidelity to Marxism, which he, like the MKP, understood as inherently dynamic. Marxism is an “ongoing social product,” he writes in Decolonial Marxism, and its dynamism stemmed from its core method of historical materialism.
Of course, “Marxism”—like any label for a complex political and intellectual tradition—can mean many things, both in theory and in practice. For his part, Rodney did not shy away from identifying with Marxism simply because it originated in Europe or because it had been developed, applied, or practiced in ways he found objectionable.
On the contrary, he insisted on understanding it historically. Where the decoloniality school has tended to identify Marxism with a rigid body of thought intrinsically compromised by the context in which it originated, Rodney challenged those who had made Marxism “into a barren, dogmatic, mechanistic and uni-dimensional theory.” In “Marxism as a Third World Ideology,” he warned of the practical dangers of such thinking:
If you proceed into a situation, whether it be an analysis of Afro-America or an analysis of Pakistan, and you do not attempt to develop with respect to those specific situations, but rather merely to transfer a body of knowledge in a fixed static form from another part of the world, then you will be accused . . . of cultural hegemony; you will be accused of trying to force the indigenous interpretation into your own external imperialist-oriented model.
The dynamism that Rodney saw in Marxism has led to the incorporation and development of feminist criticism as well. Africana Studies scholar Keisha-Khan Y. Perry, for instance, has criticized Rodney and the wider Black revolutionary tradition for ignoring anti-sexist critiques by Black women or dismissing them as “racial betrayal.” For their part, MKP leaders prioritized conflicts between landlords and peasants, worrying that tackling gender head on would alienate male peasants from the movement. As a result, many Marxist women took the task of opposing patriarchy into their own hands. In 1977 MKP leader Shamim Akhtar criticized the men in her party for controlling women’s mobility: “No doubt, in our absence, you are troubled: you don’t get your food on time, or people question you as to where your wife goes every day. So, comrades, we say that if you also want to destroy the oppressive, violent and exploitative system in our country, then you have to destroy your feudal thinking.”
This attention to women’s role in social reproduction through material and affective labor echoes that of Claudia Jones, who in 1949 called for “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women!” in the Communist Party of the USA. Born in Trinidad, Jones applied the historical materialist method to examine how racial and gender oppression facilitated “super-exploitation”—a prefiguration of the concept of intersectionality, as well as the Marxist feminisms developed through the writings and activism of figures like Selma James, Silvia Federici, Angela Davis, and Anuradha Ghandy. In short, even while criticizing masculinist Marxism, these thinkers argued that Marxism was integral to the analysis of patriarchy, including in the post-colony. It did not have to be repudiated for having arisen in the context of struggles by a Western European, overwhelmingly male proletariat.
In the U.S. context, especially over the last decade, the legacy of Marxism and its relationship to race has been deeply influenced by the popular reception of Cedric Robinson’s 1983 study Black Marxism—in which Rodney is named only twice, in passing. Scholars such as Charisse Burden-Stelly and Arun Kundnani have noted Robinson’s ambiguous relation to Marxism. On the one hand, he can sometimes seem to repudiate it, contrasting it to what he sees as a superior “Black radical tradition.” “Western Marxism,” he writes, “has proven insufficiently radical to expose and root out the racialist order that contaminates its analytic and philosophic applications.” On the other hand, he mobilizes a historical materialist method clearly informed by Marxism to develop the theory of “racial capitalism.” As historian Robin D. G. Kelley sums up: “Black Marxism is neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist. It is a dialectical critique of Marxism that turns to the long history of Black revolt.”
Perhaps it is fairest to say that Robinson’s target is less Marxism as such than some of its Western incarnations, which could certainly be class reductionist and dismissive of race. In a 2020 interview, Davis distilled the productive possibilities of Robinson’s ambiguity. Noting that she “always appreciated . . . the openness of Marx’s work, its implicit invitation to push it in new directions,” she added:
Although the term “racial capitalism” as first used by . . . Robinson was originally proposed as a critique of the Marxist tradition . . . it can also be a generative concept for new ways of holding these two overlapping intellectual and activist traditions in productive tension. If we set out to examine the many ways in which capitalism and racism have been intertwined, from the eras of colonialism and slavery to the present . . . I think that we are not so much “stretching Marxism” as we are continuing to build upon and critically engage with its insights.
It is in this sense that Marxism was and remains a worldly ideology, and certainly one of and for the Global South. “Marxism-Leninism started out undoubtedly as something within Europe,” Rodney writes in Decolonial Marxism, but it was, he notes, “embraced by 800 million Chinese.” This fact, Rodney writes, “always makes me wonder why it is that people still say that Marxism is a white ideology.” Understood in this way, Marxism doesn’t need any qualifying adjectives: Black, feminist, or even decolonial.
There is some dispute as to why Rodney ultimately decided to leave Tanzania for good and return to his native Guyana in 1974. Some argue that authorities pushed him out following his brewing criticism of the Nyerere regime. In a presentation at a local student conference, shortly published thereafter in 1969 in TANU’s magazine, Rodney criticized many independence leaders for hijacking the revolutionary momentum of anticolonial movements and negotiating with colonial powers to inaugurate post-colonial African states that merely rearranged the order of “capitalist-imperialism” and strengthened an indigenous black bourgeoisie. “Briefcase revolutions,” he called them.
The day after the publication of Rodney’s presentation, an editorial appeared in TANU’s magazine, believed to be written by Nyerere himself. It rebuked Rodney and stated that he was welcome to stay in country as long as he didn’t preach violence. Rodney responded by saying that he was grateful for being allowed to live in the country and that his ultimate target was capitalism and neocolonialism. Five years passed. Perhaps he departed not because he was pushed out, but because of his commitment to a locally grounded, culturally sensitive internationalist politics. Issa Shivji, a Tanzanian scholar-activist and a close comrade of Rodney’s, insists that Rodney left out of his own choosing because he felt out of place politically. “I can make my contribution here,” she reports him as having said, “but I will not be able ever to grasp the idiom of the people. I will not be able to connect easily. I have to go back to the people I know and who know me.”
Upon leaving Tanzania, Rodney was set to assume a professorship at the University of Guyana, but the government of Forbes Burnham blocked his appointment, leading Rodney to devote most of his time to the revolutionary Working People’s Alliance (WPA). The organization built a mass movement, putting Rodney’s expanded, internationalist conception of Blackness into practice and uniting Indian and African Guyanese. While in Guyana, Rodney also continued his groundings sessions among working classes of both populations, especially among bauxite miners and sugar workers, speaking at “bottom houses” and wherever else people assembled. And he penned two children’s books—Lakshmi Out of India and Kofi Baadu Out of Africa—that evoked his joint commitment to the plight of the country’s formerly indentured and enslaved Indian and African communities, as well as the importance he placed on revolutionary pedagogy. Building these solidarities in otherwise racially divided Guyana, where party politics had been divided between Cheddi Jagan’s East Indian–based People’s Progressive Party and Burnham’s African-based People’s National Congress, was a significant achievement. Around the same time, Pakistan’s MKP was also building a mass movement, which entailed forging its own international solidarities.
The sort of mass alliances forged by the MKP and Rodney’s WPA posed a significant threat to the regimes in Pakistan and Guyana. Several leaders of both parties were jailed, including Ishaq in the late 1970s and Rodney in 1979, who was charged with arson after two government offices were burned. While both men were quickly released, they both soon faced tragic demise. In 1980 Rodney was killed by a car bomb; the device, the government only admitted in 2021, was planted by Burnham’s government with the full backing of the president himself. Ishaq died two years later, suffering a stroke following the stress of imprisonment.
In retrospect, the middle of the 1970s—when Marxist movements won significant victories in national liberation struggles in Vietnam and Mozambique—looks like the peak of decolonization and global socialist struggles. By the 1980s, the Third World faced a debt crisis and the West doubled down on reactionary regimes in South Africa and what is now Namibia. As the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, South Africa formally dissolved apartheid, China turned to the market, and worldly Marxism began to recede into the Western academy.
Decolonial Marxism illustrates how much has been lost in this transformation, and what we stand to be gain by revisiting Rodney today. For worldly Marxists who struggled against capitalism and imperialism around the globe, and who continue to do so in places like India and the Philippines, historical materialist analysis and a steadfast commitment to the mass politics of socialism were and are, as Rodney puts it in the final chapter, “an integral part—not a later stage—of the very process of decolonization itself.”
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