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The life and politics of Walter Rodney

A review of A Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney

A Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney

by Chinedu Chukwudinma

Bookmarks, 2022

Scholars have attached various labels to Rodney’s ideas and political identity. They have described him as a Pan-Africanist, a Black Nationalist and an anti-imperialist. Meanwhile, his most ardent supporters identify as ‘Rodneyites.’ Although there is some truth to all these descriptions, they fail to highlight that mature Rodney aspired above all to be a Marxist.”

– Chinedu Chukwudinma, A Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney, 2.

When revolutionaries transition from this physical world, those left to cherish and translate their work and legacies often have the power to shape the narrative as they see fit. It is imperative that those of us invested in reclaiming the legacies of our heroes combat limiting versions of their lives, work, and political thought. Like other thinkers who have contributed to the Black radical tradition, Dr. Walter Rodney’s legacy has been twisted and contorted to suggest that he was just an academic scholar and Pan-Africanist whose main political priorities were rooted in a Black nationalist program that centered uniting Africans, no matter their class affiliation. Perhaps the most consequential result is the complete erasure of the importance of Marxism to Rodney’s politics as a strategy to understand imperialism, capitalism, and Black liberation.

A Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney by Chinedu Chukwudinma, a compact yet informative book, serves as a primer for those interested in the life, work, and legacy of one of the most influential Black Pan-African Marxists of the twentieth century. One of the major successes of this book is that it directly addresses the questions that have arisen posthumously about Rodney’s politics: What exactly were his political commitments and priorities? What was his stance on Marxism? As Chukwudima argues, Rodney first and foremost was a tireless student of the life and struggles of the people, those suffering at the hands of bureaucratic, capitalist-driven imperialism. His political ideas and strategies were shaped by the real-life experiences of Black and Brown folks that were working class or peasants.

This book solidifies Rodney’s identity as a revolutionary Marxist whose intellectual and organizational ideologies centered around the emancipation of the working class and peasants. Rodney’s first exposure to Marxism came as a young child in British Guyana. His parents were supporters of the People’s Progressive Party, a self-identified Marxist organization. The lessons learned from his childhood experience selling political leaflets would inform his work in Guyana as an adult, where he advocated to unite the Afro-Guyanese and Indian workers under the banner of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), an organization that advocated for anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and socialism from below (Chukwudinma, 56).

Chukwudinma highlights the significant Marxist thinkers and revolutionary rebellions that both inspired and grounded Rodney in revolutionary ideas. Rodney found Marx, Lenin, Mao, CLR James, Frantz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral, and Che Guevera insightful and inspiring as revolutionary thinkers. In Lenin, Rodney was able to find an intellectual organizer that defied the academy and allowed him to find his voice outside of academia. In CLR James, Rodney found a Black Marxist, mentor, and comrade. In Cabral, Mao, and Che, he found revolutionary strategies used in the Global South necessary for their specific liberatory projects. Although Chukwudinma acknowledges the latter, he interjects his own critiques of the limitations of guerrilla strategies, stating,

Rodney, however, failed to understand why the strategy of guerrilla warfare that the third world revolutions adopted was incompatible with Marxism, which emphasized revolution through working class self-activity. By definition, guerilla warfare is oriented around the actions of a small minority as opposed to self organization of the masses. And by removing the site of struggle away from its proletarian base, guerilla struggles strip workers of the most important tool they have to engage in struggle, their ability to withhold their labor. As guerrilla warfare involved shifting the struggle from the town to the countryside, intellectuals in the global south claimed the agent of the revolution was not the urban working class but the peasantry led by commanders from the urban middle class (Chukwudinma, 11).

Despite his clear admiration for guerrilla warfare, it was Lenin that kept Rodney anchored in revolutionary Marxist thinking. Lenin’s work and political analysis shaped Rodney’s political thought, so much so that he wrote a book on the Russian Revolution, which unfortunately was not completed before his assassination at just 38 years old.

On the left, a photo of a poster of Walter Rodney speaking into a microphone, in black and white graphic design style, on a utility pole. On the right, the book cover of ‘A Rebel’s Guide to WALTER RODNEY’ with the author’s name printed on the bottom: ‘CHINEDU CHUKWUDINMA.’ The top half of the cover is a photo of Walter Rodney and diagonal stripes of alternating white and green cover the lower half.
Walter Rodney was one of the most influential Black Pan-African Marxists of the twentieth century. Photo Credit: (Left) Nicholas Laughlin / (Right) AbeBooks.

Rodney utilized his professional position as leverage to travel and organize with working-class people throughout the Caribbean and Africa. It is through these experiences that he was able to learn more about the impacts of colonialism and discover just how steeped in Western imperial projects the Caribbean and African governments were. Rodney’s undeniable presence electrified audiences and galvanized students, Rastafarians, and others across the Caribbean. The exchanges between communities and his knowledge of pre-colonial societies helped sharpen his political analysis and, in turn, he gave empowering lectures that taught the power of organizing.

Rodney had such a profound influence in places like Jamaica and Guyana that the political establishment attempted to subdue and stifle his organizing efforts by expelling and banning him from those countries. Chukwudinma discusses the impacts of the “Rodney Riots,”  mass demonstrations in 1968 advocating for Rodney to be allowed to re-enter Jamaica against political opposition and to improve working conditions in the country. In Guyana, Prime Minister Forbes Burham was afraid that Rodney’s appointment to the university would mean collective solidarity for the masses. Chukwudinma writes,

Burham and his cronies feared him because of his past activism in Jamaica and his popularity among the Guyanese masses. Rodney was an advocate of racial solidarity and a Marxist critic of the government, which divided the Guyanese along racial lines and kept them in poverty. (Chukwudinma, 47)

Rodney’s political reach is demonstrated in the book by his ability to connect with the Rastafarian youth in Jamaica, with students, and with poor working-class communities in London, Tanzania, and Guyana. Chukwudinma gives a comprehensive analysis of the main issues plaguing each society and Rodney’s attempts to ignite revolutionary change by supporting working class people to organize and struggle to emancipate themselves.

One of Rodney’s revelatory experiences discussed in the book is Tanzania’s attempt at creating a socialist society. Rodney was intrigued by an early Tanzanian socialist project that centers on a state capitalist model, but he eventually acknowledged the importance of a revolutionary project focused on liberating the masses from below. The Tanganyika African Nation Union (TANU) created an anti-imperialist program designed to provide material support to places like Mozambique that no longer relied on Western capitalist societies or their African constituents for financial support.

As he engaged with these ideas, Rodney began to see parallels between those African and Caribbean heads of state that claimed to be engaged in a socialist project and Tsarist Russia. Chukwudinma writes that Rodney eventually began critiquing those African leaders who served Western capitalism and enraged Tanzanian governmental officials after suggesting that they should be overthrown by the people (Chukwudinma, 29). This position was most pronounced in his graduate teachings on the Russian Revolution, where he encouraged students and the masses to draw political conclusions from how the Russian working class and peasantry were able to break from capitalism and fight to establish a real working-class revolutionary victory.

In chapter six, Chukwudinma discusses the arguments Rodney takes up in his masterpiece, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. For Rodney, it was important to tell the true history of African colonization and exploitation.  According to Rodney, prior to imperialism, colonization, and slavery, Africa had thriving societies that made advancements in agriculture, art, and science. All of these advancements were overshadowed by European exploitation and theft. Chukwudinma notes,

Rodney argued that underdevelopment was never the absence of development. It was not inherent to Africa and its people, but the historical consequence of capitalist expansion and imperialism. (Chukwudinma, 33)

This chapter, among the most inspiring of the book, explores Rodney’s profound analysis of the ways in which the ruling classes of the Western world have created and reinforced negative images and stereotypes of Africa.

While A Rebel’s Guide to Walter Rodney is not meant to cover all the intricate parts of Rodney’s life and struggles, it does capture important elements of his revolutionary political trajectory. Although this book presents a condensed version of his life, it is an important contribution for anybody interested in understanding Rodney outside a solely Black nationalist framework. Chukwudinma does a great job of capturing the essence of Rodney’s political maturity, while also highlighting the political contradictions and blindspots that Rodney did not fully wrestle with and work through.

Rodney’s political analysis is more relevant than ever before as revolutionaries (especially those in the Black and African Diaspora) struggle to find their identities within political homes and ideologies. Drawing on Rodney’s political trajectory challenges the narrative that Marxism and Pan-Africanism or Black Liberation struggles are incompatible. Dr. Rodney found Marx and Lenin’s work to be imperative guides for those seeking liberation. His analysis should spark healthy political debates and encourage political education that includes Black and Brown intellectual thinkers. It is important that we leverage his work in politicizing those engaging in struggle.

Featured Image credit: Nicholas Laughlin; modified by Tempest.

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Anyanwu L View All

Anyanwu L. is a member of the Tempest Collective and a Black, queer socialist.