Rodney and the concept of labour
By George Lamming
Pambazuka Press has recently published a new edition of Walter Rodney’s seminal book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. To commemorate the reissue, 40 years after its initial publication, and the 32nd anniversary of Walter Rodney’s assassination, a panel discussion was held at the Cipriani Labour College, Trinidad and Tobago, on June 13, 2012. This week we carry the text of Barbadian novelist George Lamming’s address.
I would like to suggest that we see Walter Rodney’s book – How Europe Underdeveloped Africa- as one critical chapter in the whole body of his work, for there is an impressive continuity from his History of the Upper Guinea Coast, through History of the Guyanese Working People, Groundings With My Brothers and the essay in New World – Masses in Action.
Underdevelopment was the deliberate consequence of capitalist exploitation, and whenever Rodney uses the word exploitation it means robbery in its most extreme forms and by means of torture, or enslavement or murder on a genocidal scale. It’s what the novelist Joseph Conrad in the novel Heart of Darkness means by Kurtz and the words: “The Horror. The Horror.” Every page of this classic is stained with blood. The activities associated with names like Barclays and Lloyds in the 17th and 18th centuries would be declared today as crimes against humanity.
It should not be understated that 40 years after its publication, capitalism, which he explores over three or four centuries, has become more aggressive, more sophisticated in its rapacious demands.
We are now a market society where every value is a commodity up for sale. Although the continental terrain is Africa, in this study Africa is a symbol of the dispossessed across all boundaries of race and ethnicity. Webster’s Third new International dictionary ascribes to the term “black” the connotations “outrageously wicked, a villain, dishonourable, indicating disgrace connected with the Devil…” On the other hand, “white” carries such connotations as “free from blemish, decent…In a fair upright manner, a sterling man.”
This ideology was planted here the very first day the Admiral set foot on these shores. And in the concrete scenario of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana the question would arise: Where is home and when does it begin? In the 1995 publication Enterprise of the Indies, the Indo- Trinidadian historian Dr. Kusha Haraksingh draws attention to the predicament of the first generation of Indian indentured labourers whose contract carried the condition of return to India after five years. A choice had to be made, and it is Dr.Haraksingh’s opinion that this choice to stay carried a symbolic significance which was deliberately ignored or lost on those who were not Indian:
“The decision to stay was often coupled with a residential move away from the plantation to ‘free’ villages, which itself often involved the acquisition of title to property…..Thus the trees which were planted around emergent homesteads including religious vegetation, constitute a statement about belonging; so too did the temples and mosques which began to dot the landscape….When all this is put together it is hard to resist the conclusion that Indians had begun to think of Trinidad as their home long before general opinion in the country had awakened to that as a possibility.”
It was Rodney’s conception that labour and the social relations experienced in the process of labour, constitute the foundation of culture. It is through work that men and women make nature a part of their own history. The way we see, the way we hear, our nurtured sense of touch and smell, the whole complex of feelings which we call sensibility, is influenced by the particular features of the landscape that has been humanized by our work; so there can be no history of Trinidad or Guyana that is not also a history of the humanization of those landscapes by African and Indian forces of labour.
This is at once the identity and the conflict of interests that engaged the deepest feeling of those indentured workers inscribing their signatures on a landscape that will be converted into home and also the bitter taste of loss that the emancipated African experiences as he sees the same land become the symbol of his dispossession.
How to reconcile these contradictions with the past is for us, in these circumstances, not just an exercise in memory. The past becomes a weapon that ethnicity summoned as evidence of group solidarity. Politics would become an expression of ethnic grievance made rational and just by any evidence the past would sanction.
And here was the burden of commitment that Walter Rodney assumed, as a Marxist and a humanitarian scholar. Walter Rodney as political activist and historian had sought to show that those Indians in the category of indentured labour had always waged heroic struggle against that condition (31 strikes in 1886 and 42 in 1888). This investment of labour and resistance had made them partners with their African brothers and sisters in a struggle to liberate a people and a region from the imperial encirclement of poverty, illiteracy and self-contempt.
Rodney’s scholarship sought to help dismantle a tradition that, before and after independence, has used the device of race to obscure and sabotage the fundamental unity that married the destinies of Indian and African workers through their common experience of labour.
A democratic future rested, above everything else, on the recognition of that historical fact. Difference in cultural heritage is not an objective obstacle to such an achievement. Indeed, this cultural difference can only be accepted, respected, and cherished after the artificial conflict of race had been abolished by the unifying force which derives from their common experience of labour. It was this possibility that alarmed Rodney’s executioners.
Rodney had achieved at an early age the special distinction of being a permanent part of a unique tradition of intellectual leadership among Africans and people of African descent in the Americas that belongs to the same order of importance as Garvey and Du Bois, George Padmore and James.
His scholarship was sure, but it was also a committed and a partisan scholarship. He believed that history was a way of ordering knowledge which could become an active part of the consciousness of an unsophisticated mass of ordinary people, and which could be used by all as an instrument of social change. He taught from that assumption. He wrote out of that conviction and it seemed to have been the informing influence on his relations with the organized working people of Guyana.
In History of the Guyanese Working People, it is an indication of Rodney’s sense of priorities, his critical realism as a historian, that he should deliberately focus our interest on the peculiar character of the landscape. First he plunges us into the sodden realities of mud and feces, the menace of flood, either from the sea or from overwhelming torrents of rain. Every triumph of cultivation was subdued by the constant fear that overnight the ocean would advance and swallow up the achievement. The morning would awaken men to the smell of animal corpses. For days, they would follow spectacle of a rotting bull or sheep or cow, the decomposition of carcasses, stuck or afloat across the hidden landscape. Workers quenched their thirst from the same mud water. Fever struck. Gastroenteritis prevailed.
The Venn Commissioners of 1948 noted that the construction of these waterways must have entailed the moving of at least 100 millions tons of soil. “The slaves moved 100 million tons of heavy, waterlogged clay with shovel in hand, while enduring conditions of perpetual mud and water. Working people continued making tremendous contributions to the humanization of the Guyanese coastal landscape.” It is the operative word, humanization, that confirms his real intention.
Caribbean scholars on the whole, have concentrated on the intricate arguments and provisions made by those who ruled the land. This is an important contribution. But Rodney was engaged in illuminating our understanding from a different perspective. Working people of African and Indian ancestry in Guyana have a history of active struggle, which it has been a habit to omit or underestimate in political discourse about the past.
In the History of the Guyanese Working People he sought to explode the myth of Indian passivity before the tyrannical constraints of the plantation. An artificial division was planted between the ranks of labour with consequences that became more complex and debilitating in any struggles against the plantation.
The politics of resistance became obscure or submerged by conflicts of demographic interests and the more dangerous scenario of cultural antagonism, and each group now viewed the other through a filter of that European lens which had brought them, at different times, in the same region for precisely the same purpose. Rodney wanted to participate in overthrowing the hegemonies of the plantation and its vested institutions, and to work towards the emergence of an alternative consciousness.
He did not only argue with those who had taken refuge in the enclaves of research and doctoral pursuits; he walked and talked with those African and Indian peasants and workers who had become the raison d’etre of his intellectual activities.
He had initiated in his personal and professional life a decisive break with the academic traditions he had been trained to serve, and died in the conviction that the only fruitful emancipation was self emancipation, that ordinary men and women should be intellectually equipped to liberate themselves from those hostile forms of ownership that are based exclusively on the principle of material self-interest.
“How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” is an elaboration of all these themes – and in the present crisis of our regional fragmentation- it is more urgently relevant today than it was fifty years ago.