C.L.R. James once opened a talk by stating, “Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, Black Power.” I begin today by saying Ladies and Gentlemen, Walter Rodney and Heresy. J. Peter Euben writes about the tragedy of political theory. Euben’s tragedy refers to tragic texts in the history of canonical professional political theory and moves from excavations of these texts to providing descriptions of their impact on our lives today. G.W.F. Hegel’s tragedy in both the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Right may be looked at with respect to the classic Hegelian notion of the struggle for recognition. The struggle for recognition involves dialectical struggles between lordship and bondage, master and slave, and in the international relations arena the struggle between states. For Sylvia Wynter, the tragic setting need not serve as a primary optic of analysis. The challenge for Wynter, however, is transcending tragic conditions of the Human in so far as they relate to her goal achieving “forms of life.” These new forms of life are new ways of looking at the Human being, and given the discussions of yesterday from the morning session to the keynote lecture it appears the Wynterian challenge remains as pressing as ever.
My area of intellectual interest deals with both descriptive and normative political theory. In particular, my interest is in Afro-Caribbean political theory from the moment of Caribbean modernity ushered in from Columbus’s arrival in the Bahamas to the advent of the Haitian Revolution to the struggle for emancipation from slavery and indentured servitude to the anti-colonial movements to the Cuban Revolution to the diverse shades of Caribbean Marxism to the paradoxes of the so-called postcolonial condition. My views and theoretical optics regarding political theory shape my opinions about the ethics of advocacy and professional success. The political thought and activism of the late Walter Rodney continues to serve as a constant illustration for me of a thinker who exemplifies a person trying to address many of the aforementioned concerns. Far too long has Rodney been thought of as a person with an amazing biography who died in the struggle for black and working-class liberation. However, we now need to elevate him to the role of a theorist and think through his theoretical contributions to transforming the terrain of contemporary political theory. I plead guilty today that much of what I will say about him comes from the biographical perspective. I do this simply to introduce or re-introduce him to what seems like an entire generation of activists and theorists who, despite their self-proclaimed radicalism, have entirely given up on Rodney and instead have come down with the condition of collective amnesia. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot contends, we must stop silencing the past. I wish to do three things in my short time in order to address the silence on Rodney: (1) introduce the notions of heresy and heretical discourse, (2) briefly describe Rodney and Rodney’s heretical thought, and (3) conclude with the implications of Rodney’s heretical thought for thinking about the ethics of advocacy and professional success.
Heresy and Heretical Discourse
Discourse on the periphery of a dominant belief system poses a threat to the theoretical foundations buttressing a system’s normative operation. Heresy is a moment or act challenging the orthodoxy of a dominant belief system from the margins. Usually associated with a metaphysical belief system feared by a normative religious order such as infidelity by Muslim Moriscos in sixteenth century Christian Spain and lens-grinding Baruch Spinoza’s radical theological-political views among Amsterdam’s seventeenth century Sephardic Jewish community, heresy may also refer to a secular moment or act feared by the power upholding the status quo. A normative system responds to heretics through methods of excommunication, burning one’s flesh at the stake, domination, and oppression. Heretics respond to a normative system by either conforming to norms or expressing the willingness to suffer severe consequences in their desire to transform normative absolutes.
The notion of heretical discourse, by extension, involves dialectical relationships between center and periphery, non-liminal and liminal ideas, and normative and heretical belief systems. These dialectical tensions form a condition of unfreedom, dread, and state of nonbeing among heretics. Overcoming these negative conditions and achieving states of freedom and full being are aims of heretics willing to take on normative authorities regardless of the costs. Rodney’s thought and activism epitomize the heretic up for the task for radical transformation.
Walter Rodney’s Heresy
But who was Rodney and what does his life and work have to do with heresy, struggle, the ethics of advocacy, and professionalism? The scholar-activist Walter Rodney (1942-1980) was born in Georgetown, Guyana and died a tragic death in Guyana as a result of a car bomb assassination designed to mute his political activity. Rodney was an activist in Caribbean islands other than Guyana (especially Jamaica), Africa (especially Tanzania), and the United States (especially Atlanta). Rodney made it a life project to produce scholarship that would remain linked to working-class and progressive movements. He joins Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, and Sylvia Wynter as one of the leading twentieth-century Caribbean revolutionary intellectuals whose work brings together concerns for the Caribbean, North America, and Africa. Unlike the theoretical works of Fanon and James, the works of Wynter and Rodney have not received yet the critical attention they deserve. Rodney is best known for his political activism and the 1972 text How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. However, like Wynter, Rodney’s oeuvre extents in space and time well beyond one period of life or one text as is manifest in works ranging from the The Grounding with my Brothers to the posthumously published A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905.
Rodney’s intellectual journey began when he traveled from Guyana to Kingston, Jamaica in the early 1960s and completed his undergraduate studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus, specializing in History and participating as a core member of the debating society along with his friend and debating partner, the Jamaican historian Franklin Knight. Following his undergraduate years, he completed his Ph.D. in 1966 in England at the School of Oriental and African Studies with a dissertation entitled A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800. This dissertation topic reflects Rodney’s interest in Africa, not unlike the Jamaican Rastafarian chanting of a spiritual connection with Africa, King Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, Jah, and the desire of leaving “Babylon” and going back-to-Africa.
The 1960s were a time on the world historical continuum in which the souls of many black folk in the Caribbean were recently “freed” from their colonial powers and were trying to solidify ties with black people in various African nations. While in London during the 1960s, Rodney was part of study group comprised of West Indians led by the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James. Other members of the James study group were Richard Small, Orlando Patterson, Walter Look Lai, Margaret Carter Hope, and Norman Girvan. James’s influence on Rodney was profound, and it was the Jamesian influence that helped solidify his belief in the ethical dimensions of Marxist thought. Dialectical materialism, historical materialism, the theory of surplus value, the labor-capital dialectic, the notion of man as a “species being”, and man’s alienation from labor were all concepts that Rodney brought to life where they were relevant. Rodney’s Marxism is not pronounced in his Ph.D. dissertation, but it is rampant in his later works.
After completing the dissertation, Rodney traveled to Tanzania during the era of Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, Nyerere’s Arusha Declaration, and changes in Eastern Africa. Rodney taught History at the University of Dar es Salaam from 1966-67 and 1969-74, becoming close colleagues with Caribbean political scientist Horace Campbell who happened to be teaching in Tanzania then as well. In the interim period of teaching in Tanzania, namely the year 1968, Rodney returned to Jamaica as a lecturer in history at his alma mater, the University of the West Indies, Mona. He did not know in 1968 that he would only be allowed to teach in Jamaica for that year.
In that short time, Rodney had profound involvement with the cultural politics of Rastafarians and “rude boys”. Rastas then were still viewed as cultists rather than an accepted or even liminally acknowledged religious sect. The creativity, black consciousness, and lower to working-class background of many Rasta practitioners of the period attracted Rodney. He made it a mission to work in urban Kingston communities of need and with members of Jamaican society that middle to upper class Jamaica had left behind. His “groundings” and reasonings with Rasta brethren and sistren complemented the ideals he championed in the classroom. Howard McGary spoke yesterday of the need to think about ideals, moral facts, and a priori intuitions. While Rodney may not have agreed with a priori moral facts or first-principles in the manner of an Immanuel Kant or John Rawls’s political liberalism, he certainly tried to expand our notion of moral ideals and political practice with respect to the Rasta condition.
Let us time warp to October 1968. A Black Writers Conference was convened in Montreal, Canada by the likes of Caribbean persons living there at the time such as Robert Hill, and Rodney flew there to present his views on Black Power among other issues. While he was off the island, Jamaican Prime Minister Hugh Shearer ordered an official ban on Rodney, effectively denying him entry back into Jamaica and stripping him of his title as UWI lecturer. As Rupert Lewis notes in an amazing study of Rodney that you all should read, “Rodney’s visits to Cuba and the USSR as a student were part of the charges brought by Prime Minister Shearer to justify the banning order.” Rodney’s The Grounding with my Brothers were in essence a compilation of lectures given in the wake of the ban, a political manifesto originating from the struggle for academic ethics and professionalism. Furthermore, his activities off and on campus in his position as a radical university lecturer were evidence enough for the more conservative Shearer administration to stand by its decision to uphold the ban.
The (in)famous “Rodney Riots of 1968” involved protests against the Prime Minister’s decision and represented the dissatisfaction of many citizens with the state of Jamaican politics. Philosopher Charles Mills recently describes his feelings as a student at UWI during this moment in a piece for one of George Yancy’s edited works. This was a time of color consciousness. The ban on Rodney signified a suppression of black consciousness. Rodney believed the Jamaican government worried about the possible impact of radical color consciousness by citizens of African descent. The irony of ironies is that Shearer himself is a brown-skinned black man. Yet this points to the deeper issues of class, color, and party politics in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. But what was to be done?
A black think tank in Atlanta known as the Institute of the Black World (IBW) was founded in the late 1960s. It sought to attract black scholar-activists from the US, Africa, Caribbean, and African Diaspora in order to theorize about the plight of black existence so that epistemic change ultimately could take place. Initially headed by the African-American historian of Caribbean descent, Vincent Harding, the IBW became the locus of progressive black thinkers. Following Rodney’s expulsion from Jamaica, he was contacted about participating in the IBW. Rodney’s contact with Atlanta and its black history provided another lens for him to view the larger world.
I will let you all investigate in further detail Rodney’s life. I do wish to point out that in addition to his involvement in Tanzania and Jamaica, Rodney involved himself during the last stages of his life in his native Guyana. C.L.R. James said he had to write a work on the Haitian Revolution in order to illustrate what the struggle for Human freedom really meant. Rodney had to return to Guyana to implement the new society as he envisioned it. He helped to form the Guyanese political party the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), conversed with the major progressive politician Dr. Cheddi Jagan, and voiced his opposition to the policies of Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham [SHOW AUDIENCE PICTURES].
I must now wind down, returning to the theme of tragedy seemingly omnipresent in global anti-colonial and postcolonial struggles. On Friday, June 13, 1980 Rodney died from a car bomb that resonated through his bones. Rodney’s heresy resulted in the assassination of one of our most brilliant political theorists. The Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam could not deal with Spinoza, thereby excommunicating one of their own geniuses. The normative authorities of Guyana could not deal with Rodney, thereby terminating one of their own’s life. Rodney’s death still resonates with those of us such as me who live in the legacy of this true ancestor. My words are a requiem in commemoration of the legacy of the person affectionately called “Walter” from Rastas to university Professors. Rodney was on the quest for freedom of thought and political action. He ranks among the giants of Caribbean thought, and he lived up to Sylvia Wynter’s injunction that it is the duty of the writer to contribute to new “forms of life.”
What must we make of the conundrum of the ethics of advocacy and professional success? I believe Rodney would say professionalism need not prevent us from carrying through our work as advocates. Advocacy and professionalism come into being together. It is only professional, I suggest, to speak one’s mind. I do not mean carrying out a logic of anarchy or utopianism within the arena of academia or primary and secondary school settings. Rather, I call for a logic of advocacy that hopes one carries out his or her intellectual desires and desires for teaching and learning in a manner synonymous with one’s ethical ambitions. If those we interact with holding normative power cannot see this, then it is up to us to continue heretical thought until they change their ways and notions of the good life instead of holding out for acquiring mythical, almost fictional notions such as tenure. Heretics must be willing to face the consequences of their heretical acts.
Taking inspiration from political theorist Danielle Allen, I wish to conclude my presentation by bridging rhetorical strategies of millennia ago with the contemporary stage. Aristotle says the best way to close an argument is to end the way he finishes his highly neglected work called the Rhetoric. Aristotle concludes the treatise by stating, “You’ve heard me, you understand. Now judge.” [EMPHASIZE]. Although Aristotle’s words do not address directly the heresy of Rodney, they offer profound insights into how we may judge Rodney’s heretical political thought, rethink collectively the world of intellectual life, rethink our activism, contemporary political theory, and most importantly philosophy born of struggle.
Philosophy Born of Struggle X:
Rethinking the Intellectual Life
Panel IV, 10/25/03
The Ethics of Advocacy and Professional Success:
Oxymoron, Irony, or Non Sequitur?
Department of Political Science
University of Chicago