During ASWAD conference there was constant reference to Walter Rodney almost as a sanctified person. There was uncritical adulation. This is entirely unsatisfactory, particularly from an academic environment. There is an element of irresponsibility here: what do we have to learn from his life? What did he do/say/write that was wrong and what was right? These are fundamental questions that people avoid asking. I attended a memorial for Rodney many years ago and during the question time I raised the issue of discussing Rodney from the simple point of view of ‘what can we learn?’ and was booed from the meeting.
There is a dark element to this. This idea that Rodney was an ideal scholar and revolutionary means that we can conclude that death is the natural consequence of such a role , and now we are all excused from following the call to critical scholarship and activism as it only leads to death!
What is the reality? Rodney was not such a great scholar. I am astonished that the praise of the Western academy is taken as proof of the quality of his work. On this basis DuBois, Nkrumah, Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Aime Cesaire were all poor scholars. Here I am a firm dissenter. On Rodney’s primary opus ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ my primary criticism is that the work is mainly plagiarism of Andre Gunder Frank’s work (note 1). Note Rodney fails to refer to this earlier work of Frank’s in his references, while mentioning unrelated work by Frank. This is deliberate and knowing plagiarism. His supporters appear ignorant that his theoretical structure is unoriginal and an unacknowledged plagiarism.
Further and more importantly, as a practical revolutionary Rodney rejected help from experienced revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro, engaged in what Lenin would describe as ‘voluntarism’. Lenin’s brother, who engaged in such personal extremism, only brought about his own execution much like Rodney. Lenin insisted that this was a lesson about what to avoid. Yet contemporary Black scholars are touting Rodney as a role model. A similar criticism is made by CLR James to an audience of students. (Note 2) Reading between the lines CLR James accuses Rodney of basically committing suicide.
Let us sum this up: this criticism is of both parties: Walter Rodney AND his academic followers and admirers such as some members of ASWAD. Rodney at the level of scholarship was weak and a plagiarist. At the level of practical politics he was a dangerous arrogant amateur whose death brings dissent into disrepute and demoralises his comrades and subsequent generations. Abandoning all critical reflection is a serious academic failing and praising Rodney is a betrayal of trust to a younger generation in asking them to look up to Rodney and hold him as an example to venerate. Shame on you!
- Andre Gunder Frank: ‘Development of Underdevelopment’ . 1966. Monthly Review Press , Volume 18 No.4
updated 8 nov 21
2. CLR James: ‘Walter Rodney and the Question of Power’