The Dar es Salaam years

In the early 1970s, Walter Rodney, expelled from Jamaica, took a post in Tanzania. In Leo Zeilig’s new book, he captures those exciting, but also difficult years and how it formed Rodney.

Image courtesy Haymarket Press ©.

Throughout the writing of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter had taught, designed new courses with his colleagues on the Hill, and, once more, become a father, with the birth of Asha in 1971. It was his extraordinary focus that gave him the time to complete this enormous historical undertaking. Patricia describes how he would work on the manuscript of HEUA while Asha slept on his lap—reflecting both his characteristic focus and care for his children. Still, there were great distractions. One noisy dispute, which has continued to hang in the air for the last fifty years, was on the question of race.

Rodney was not simply an adherent of the radical movement for Black Power but also someone who had helped shape its expression and politics in the Caribbean. He had earned this role, not least with his expulsion from Jamaica over his involvement in a mass program of education, out of which his extraordinary Groundings with My Brothers emerged. He was a leading intellectual at the university in Dar es Salaam, and more widely—lecturing and speaking to activist groups throughout East Africa.

Rodney was acutely aware of his role in Tanzania: he was a guest. He was clear that his position as a socialist was to intervene, and to participate in debates, but that this involvement had to acknowledge his place in the country. Tanzania’s political transformation—its own project of socialism—was ultimately a matter for communities in the country and region itself. As Rodney expressed in 1974: “I can make my contribution here, but I will never be able ever to grasp the idiom of the people. I will not be able to connect easily.”

Unlike other visiting comrades, Rodney understood that he needed to be extremely sensitive when it came to how he operated at the university. Eventually, Rodney would leave, with his family, and so would most of the other comrades. In the end, Tanzanians would be left to continue the debates and struggles in the country. It would also be, at a basic level, Tanzanians who had to fill the posts at the university, in the civil service, in government departments, and in schools and technical colleges. Europeans, whatever their political allegiance and commitments, would have to go.

The various political complexions of the visiting Left, their motivations and idiosyncrasies, were labyrinthine; they did not come from a single tradition, share a unified political perspective, or agree on how to intervene in Tanzania’s transformation. Peter Lawrence, for one, recalls the conditions in the country upon his arrival in 1968, including the complexity of the Left among the various expatriates, their involvement in Ujamaa, and their relationship to Tanzanian comrades and colleagues:

There wasn’t a distinct Left grouping, though I remember that [Giovanni] Arrighi, [John] Saul, [Lionel] Cliffe, and other like-minded people tended to have coffee and tea at around the same times of the day. . . . I can remember an American, Bill Luttrell, who was married to a Tanzanian and who together with a Tanzanian, Simon Mbilinyi, started an Ujamaa shamba [cultivated plot of ground] on some land given by the university and tried to get other academics involved. It didn’t last long, partly because non-Tanzanian academics were not much good at agriculture in practice, and also that no one was prepared to live on the shamba to protect in against wild animals that lived in the outer campus. So the Left comprised many who were enthused by Ujamaa (especially non-Tanzanians) and the Marxist Left, some who took the view that this was Tanzanian business and they were there to do a job—that would have been the Communist Party line—and those, like Saul, Cliffe and others, who thought in terms of more active political solidarity and were critical of those for whom being there and doing a job was solidarity enough. Then [there were] the Left critics of Nyerere and the idealism of Ujamaa, and those who saw the unreality of socialism in one poor country in the age of imperialism. I think people like Lionel, who had already been in East Africa for eight years by then, saw political solidarity as supporting the Tanzanian Left, while Saul saw this as actively leading if necessary, rather than listening. I took that line too, which got both him and me into trouble over faculty reorganization. And Rodney took a critical view of this because we hadn’t taken enough Tanzanians with us. Lionel, who was on his way out at the time, having been replaced by a Tanzanian, also took that view. He was closer to Walter (although the Sauls and Rodneys were neighbors on the campus and had been good friends).

There were only a few Communist Party members from the UK, but there were quite a few East Europeans whom, according to Lawrence (then also a British Communist Party member), could best be characterized as enjoying their time away from their state socialisms. He records that “politically, they were hopeless—except for [Tamás] Szentes of course.”

As Lawrence argues, Rodney—with others—understood the role he had as a lecturer at the university had to, in large part, be about creating the conditions for this “replacement.” When, in 1974, Issa Shivji asked Rodney to stay in the country, he refused. Tanzania could never be his home—not completely.

Rodney worked toward these objectives in a number of ways. Firstly, as an intellectual, he threw himself into the work of redrafting the country’s high school history curriculum. Tanzanians had to have a good and clear sense of their history and the history of the continent. Ultimately, this would prove the overriding intellectual commitment in his life. This project of rewriting the history curriculum had taken up a considerable amount of his time while he was in Dar, and then after his return to Guyana. For a young generation, Rodney was preparing the ground for a sustainable, just, and thorough understanding of the country’s independence—its position in the world order, and the continent’s “historic tasks” for the future.

The second groundwork took place at the university, which, he argued, also needed to be transformed. Indeed, this was a central question with which faculty members and students were engaged: How could an essentially colonial institution be built to service the needs of a new nation?

Race and Politics on the Hill

Surrounded by trees and flowers, a central road winds its way through the University on the Hill, or Mlimani (“the mountain” in Kiswahili). Smaller roads and cul-de-sacs lead to large bungalows, built in the 1960s, with gardens that circle the houses. Set back from the main road are the faculties, lecture halls, dining rooms, and student accommodations. Between the different departments—most of them long, two-story buildings, with offices on both floors—are a series of pathways that meander through the lush green hills of the campus. Today, the university has a population of more than twenty thousand students, and the infrastructure staggers under the impact of years of restructuring and underfunding. However, during Rodney’s days at the university, the notion of “the Hill” expressed not just the verdant hilly beauty of the campus—still visible today, despite decades of austerity and sweeping budget cuts—but also its isolation and privilege from the hardships faced in the city and country. The air on campus was rarefied; its debates seemed distant and obscure to the struggles going on in the country and continent below.

This could not be more clearly illustrated than in a debate that took place in a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences on November 24, 1971. A faculty committee had been set up to investigate changes to the curriculum, and its recommendations included a new direction in undergraduate teaching. Committee member John Saul—a prominent Canadian socialist at the university who remained a vital and radical critic of devastating neoliberal reforms that ripped across the continent in the 1980s and 1990s—saw resistance to progressive changes from less radical expatriate colleagues, now joined by returning Tanzanian academics; the latter had no enthusiasm for changes in the curriculum that could be perceived as undermining their expertise. Saul has since argued that the debate over the report—which was in the end rejected—pitched those who wanted to challenge and reform the “academic infrastructure” (work that had been started with the Common Course) against resistance from within the “professoriate.” According to Saul, the defeat in the highly divisive and angry faculty meeting was a turning point—confirming that radical efforts at reform in the university (and perhaps elsewhere) had crashed on the rocks of philistinism. Tanzania’s grand adventure at radical reforms was being extinguished. “It was now to be only a matter of weeks before a number of us, Tanzanian and expatriate, black and white alike, were sacked and more or less forced to leave the country.”

Saul’s account, still fresh with the anger of the meeting itself, is partial, and the nature of the dispute complex. Given the lofty claims made for this fork in the road, it is worth examining the issues behind it in some detail. Sitting in the large Council Chamber was the entire teaching staff, including Saul, Peter Lawrence, John Loxley, Walter Rodney, Simon Mbilinyi, Archie Mafeje, and Abdalla Bujra. Some were white North Americans and Europeans, while others were Tanzanian colleagues or from countries on the continent. The meeting was charged with discussing and considering the “recommendations on Faculty re-organisation programmes for 2nd and 3rd years, drawn by a Faculty Committee.” The minutes to the meeting are short and include no details of what actually happened, apart from a tantalizing comment in “Any Other Business,” that “[n]oted with regret the manner in which some members of staff reacted to criticism during the early part of the Board proceedings and expressed concern at that kind of behaviour during Board proceedings.” The meeting was lengthy: it opened at 2:15 p.m. and concluded at 6:40 p.m.

On one side of the dispute was Saul, who had drawn up the report with Peter Lawrence, Archie Mafeje, and others. On the other side were some of their Tanzanian colleagues supported by Walter Rodney—the so-called professoriate.

Kighoma Malima, a lecturer in the economics department, wrote to the dean the following day to explain that he was “profoundly horrified” by the way the meeting was conducted. “Faculty Board Paper 12.1 was rejected by the Board, not on the grounds of its merit but on grounds of RACE.” Malima clarified that the committee that had drawn up the report was white except for one member, who was considered—in the meeting—“almost as a traitor.” Despite these accusations, the chief academic officer and the dean were silent. Why did they not speak up, Malima asks, “at a moment when your leadership was desperately needed?” Earlier in the month, the faculty board had elected the committee, on which, Malima recalled, “six Tanzanians including yourself were asked to serve in the committee and they refused!” How seriously then could such racial criticism be made, only weeks later, when the report was being submitted?

Opposition to the report—challenging the integrity of disciplines and recommending serious changes to the curriculum across the faculty—was impassioned, with a variety of voices being raised. At some point, Walter expressed his support of the Tanzanian colleagues who were objecting to the report. According to Saul, he made a “very opportunist and highly rhetorical brand of black-nationalist racism” directed at several leading members of the committee; in turn, Malima criticized him for his “racialist and anti-socialist remarks.” The result of these heated exchanges and accusations—in which Rodney reacted powerfully to what he perceived as a rejection of criticism being made about the “reorganization” by Tanzanian colleagues—was a walkout by members of the committee. Other members of the faculty, in the meantime, endorsed Rodney’s objections, including Abdulla Bujra and Anthony Rweyemamu. The debate was, then, Peter Lawrence argued in a letter to the dean on November 29, “structured on racist lines.” Resigning from his position on the faculty board, along with John Loxley, Lawrence argued that the dean failed to “rule Rodney out of order for blatant racialism,” yet he had “ruled me out of order for trying to tell the Faculty Board that it had been ‘deceived, manipulated and fed false information.’”

What was fundamental—Lawrence argues—was that “racial intimidation was carefully used by those in the Faculty who have always opposed reorganization, in order to suppress any rational discussion of a programme which might affect their departmental self-interests.” The “racial factor” was used against expatriates, Lawrence argues, while the struggle for progressive reforms is “always a political and not a racial one.” Days later, the fury from the faculty meeting was still raging, and it would last much longer.

Saul refused to resign. In a letter dated November 29, he explained, “I have decided not to yield to Dr. Rodney’s racialist intimidation, explicitly sanctioned as it was by Mr. Leshoai, Dr. A. H. Rweyemamu and Dr. Bujra, and tacitly sanctioned by yourself and the Chief Academic Officer, among others.” Saul was furious:

Unlike Dr Rodney I do not patronise Tanzanians by assuming them to be incapable of engaging as equals in rational debate with others of any race nor do I see any need that they be protected from such debate by demagoguery and deceit. Were I a Tanzanian I do not know which of Dr Rodney’s premises would offend me more—his racialism or his paternalism. I choose not to assume that any Tanzanian who finds himself in agreement with an expatriate (black or white) is somehow a tool or puppet of that expatriate.

The real position, Saul argued, that should be taken was ideological—and in this Rodney had failed. For example, Saul writes, on the political question of reorganization, Malima “found himself in agreement with Loxley, Lawrence, and Saul, and Rodney with A. H. Rweyemamu!” In a valedictory statement, he concludes, that “[f]or more than six years I have given the very best that is in me to that effort of which the President speaks and, if I may be forgiven this personal note: I find myself more committed to the future of the Tanzanian socialist experiment than to that of any other system of which I have experience.” Ultimately, he argues, “it is Tanzanians, outside and inside this institution, who are deciding the direction of the movement. . . . [I]n the long run Rodney, Saul and the rest, effectively powerless and rightly so, represent merely some minor footnote to the struggle for Tanzania’s future.”

These letters were copied to all the relevant parties—each member of the faculty, as well as senior management at the university—and inevitably news of the meeting spread quickly across the Hill. Rodney, who had been promoted to senior lecturer at the start of 1971, read the denunciations of his behavior at the meeting (carefully filing the documents in his personal archive) and responded to the dean—J. F. Rweyemamu—on November 30.

Rodney condemned the accusation, writing, “Curiously enough, the open letters which charge me with having made racist utterances at no point repeat what was supposedly racist.” Rodney was not backing down; he notes that the minutes provide no “references to the statement” and explains that “[a] few Europeans, who would describe themselves as ‘Leftists’ and ‘Progressives,’ have been acting in an arrogant, manipulative and hegemonistic manner in refusing to consider or contribute to what the majority of Tanzanians think is correct.” Things had changed, Rodney argues—and it was incumbent on the university, and its “Leftist” staff, to see these changes. Four or five years before, he writes, it might have been “permissible and inevitable that an issue such as Faculty re-organisation should be settled by a predominantly European committee. Today, that is untenable.” Whatever the circumstances, and whether the proposed curriculum reorganization and faculty changes were progressive or not, Rodney was arguing that a decision to make fundamental reforms should not be decided by a white and expatriate committee. This was at the heart of Rodney’s frustration and, it seems, the reason for his outburst during the meeting.

Rodney was acutely aware of the fact that there could not be racial neutrality when some voices were silenced by arguments about progressive-versus-conservative politics. Race was a sharp dividing line, of urgent and pressing political relevance, to every decision. He was approaching the issue from the point of view of historical injustice, which was still—in the early 1970s—being played out powerfully in “socialist” Tanzania. He writes, “The full implications behind what I said go much further, relating to the centuries-old domination of black people by white.” This was not a “racial” argument but a historical and political fact—the legacy of this history, the deep sense of inferiority still felt by Black people, operated in the world at large, in the microenvironments of faculty meetings, and in university organization. It mattered who was making the arguments.

It was not that Rodney imposed a Black Power narrative from the Caribbean and North America on Tanzania. Rather, he was a historian—on the verge of publishing HEUA—and he knew the deeply felt crisis of Black identity after centuries of enslavement, imperial and colonial occupation, and oppression. His colleagues showed an egregious lack of racial awareness. However, Rodney was prepared, as he stated in the letter, “to pursue in a meaningful and constructive manner our disagreements in the Faculty Board meeting.”

The incident exposes much that was difficult, contradictory, and problematic about the Dar years and how utterly distinct the experience was for Black and white expatriates. To Rodney, the white expatriates, from whom he mostly kept his distance, were back-slapping, beery, and boastful—left-wing, maybe, but all the rest of the baggage was there too. How deeply were they actually embedded in African local politics, and who were the Black people that they remembered within their magic circle? Rodney was an astute observer of the racially stratified social setup, which clearly vitiated the radical and revolutionary tenor of Dar and Tanzania under President Nyerere. He was—as we have seen—furious at what he saw and at the insensitivity to racial issues (so often falsely juxtaposed with real political or ideological positions).

These issues exploded across the table, blowing apart even the normally generous limits to dispute in academic meetings at the university. Accusations and counteraccusations were made. To tell a Marxist that they were behaving like “colonialists” would have cut deeply—“yet this is what happened,” Lawrence recalls. Decades later, Lawrence’s concedes the dispute to Rodney: “In retrospect, we played it badly because we looked like a left version of colonialism.”

The dispute involved not only a falling out among faculty members but also among comrades and friends. Their struggles, after all, were meant to be the same; their aims, hopes, and ambitions for Tanzania and Africa identical. To have Rodney’s eloquence, his intellect, and arguments aimed at a fellow traveler must have hurt. Indeed, to be told that their behavior was “colonial,” imbued with white superiority, privilege, and entitlement, would be hard to forget. That Saul remembered the incident so well is probably a symptom of this.

Lawrence seems particularly sensitive to these issues and to what Rodney was attempting to explain to the “visiting” white comrades in Dar es Salaam. As he recalls,

I think Walter was trying to tell us that we need to listen and understand where the Tanzanians are. He always thought Saul should have understood the politics better than he did. . . . But it wasn’t our place to tell Tanzanians what to do even if we were echoing Nyerere. Race was, and still is, a big issue and because we haven’t been on the receiving end of white racism, we are less likely to understand what it does.

Rodney understood—perhaps better than any other “expatriate” comrade in Dar at the time—what race really meant. It was not simply an invented category, clouding analysis and somehow getting in the way of class analysis, but a living and breathing reality (born of a dreadful and long history). Rodney knew that the experience—in Africa and the Caribbean—of being on the “receiving end of white racism” was a fundamental and defining one. If you were a European, white Marxist, no matter how impeccable your analysis, it meant that in certain circumstance one had to either understand what was being said, or shut up and stand down. In a word, he demanded that they listen—something that the radical Left has never been very good at.

Today, these issues continue to be of critical importance: How can we be racially aware as white radicals and also operate as Marxists, sensitive to the realities of exploitation and class and racial determinations? This is the central question—one that was not asked by those expatriate comrades in the meeting in Dar in late 1971 of themselves, or by generations of others today. As Peter Lawrence observes fifty years later, “I think we thought we knew the answer—ignore the racial issue because we were color blind, weren’t we—and act as though we were fervent Tanzanian followers of Ujamaa.”

One of Rodney’s most startling contributions—what scholar and activist Jesse Benjamin has referred to as “a Marxism in which Black Power is central”—was how, as a Black man, to be racially militant and racially conscious, and also simultaneously and fully sensitive to the parallel and complementary realities of exploitation and social class. This synthesis is what makes Rodney’s work distinct and brilliant: his life and writings remain vital to a generation of Black people whose lives are still destroyed by racism and violence, and who are still attempting to topple this system. He managed to bring together the necessity of racial awareness in the charged settings of the newly independent Caribbean and Africa with a Marxist analysis of the development of capitalism in the Third World.

Though Rodney’s work and life were subject to shifts and turns, on this issue his role was transparent. Torn by this dichotomy—essentially, how to integrate a militant racial consciousness and also function as a Marxist sensitive to exploitation and class analysis—Rodney achieved a remarkable synthesis.

Navigating Liberation

Tanzania (and Dar es Salaam, in particular) was the base for Africa’s second wave of liberation movements. It is impossible to understand the period and Rodney’s involvement outside this context. The continent’s most pressing debates, its factional divides, and its vital political organizations and activists were all at one time or other (and often at the same time) on Rodney’s doorstep in Dar. No serious scholar-activist could function in the capital without some involvement in the furious arguments of Africa’s liberation, which were being fought, won, and lost in the country.

However, as we have seen, it would be an illusion to view late-1960s Tanzania as some sort of socialist nirvana. As Rodney described the country in his Hamburg lectures in 1978, Tanzania was a desperately poor and underdeveloped country. Many of those in Dar, at the university, were perfectly conservative and viewed the world without the radical lens of the Left. In fact, many of the battles at the university pitted the Left against the Right—or at least those opposed to the radical Left. In this sense, there was much opposition to any Marxist approach to education. To circumnavigate these institutional blockages, courses were run—including Development Studies and East African Society and Environment. While all students had to attend this course, for many it was not regarded as a proper academic course. Lawrence explains the dynamic at work: “Insofar as a Marxist approach fulfilled a nationalist purpose, then it was okay, but the idea that it should support Tanzanian socialism was not universally approved of.” Some of these intellectual initiatives were driven by non-Tanzanians, which became a source of resentment for the Tanzanian staff members. Lawrence goes on:

Rodney’s position was one of identifying first with Tanzanians and only second with socialists. . . . Rodney saw the issue of race much more centrally than we white foreign lefties did. We thought we were doing what Nyerere wanted but maybe the local academics and others had a different agenda and a different politics, and we didn’t understand that.

Added to this mix were radical students who explicitly questioned the presence of expatriates. Walter Bgoya, for example, also argued that Frantz Fanon’s last book, The Wretched of the Earth—which dealt with the question of liberation and the struggle against racial oppression and colonial control, and first appeared in Tanzania in 1965—played a part in these debates. Widening the context, Bgoya argues that these debates were also reflected in the liberation movements based in Dar and how these organizations were aligned. He argues that South Africa’s Pan-African Congress (PAC)—founded in 1959 as a radical “Africanist” group critical of the African National Congress (ANC)—attracted the support of many Tanzanians. This support (at least from certain groups of Tanzanians), Bgoya argues, was due to the presence of “white” comrades in the ANC (and to the propaganda that the ANC was infiltrated by the US Central Intelligence Agency). In addition, he argues, “many Tanzanians” had doubts about whether white people should be allowed to participate in the various nationalist movements, including the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO).

The PAC had many active representatives in Tanzania, who could press their arguments powerfully. Bgoya remembers a few, in particular, including David Sibeko, a member of the PAC’s presidential council and responsible for foreign affairs, who was murdered in 1979 in Dar. He was a loud and charming man, heavyset, with an impressive presence. There was also Gora Ebrahim. These figures were very present and active in Tanzania’s political scene, and Bgoya, who was close to them, could see their influence. When PAC Chairman Robert Sobukwe died in South Africa in 1976, power shifted decisively to its organization in exile.

President Nyerere was generous to these liberation movements, refusing to take sides. The division between the groups was acrimonious and sometimes violent, occasionally spilling over into the street. Nyerere’s position, Bgoya explains, on the dispute between the ANC and PAC was that it had to be resolved by South Africans themselves. As Bgoya describes the situation, “It takes a long time to decide who was wrong and who was right, and sometimes it’s not a question of who was right, but [of] who wins.”

Overall, Bgoya argues, there was a tendency to regard the presence of white people in liberation movements as a negative. Did Walter Rodney have the same view? There is no clear answer to this highly speculative question. However, Bgoya believes, “by the thrust of his arguments and his work on Black history one would tend to think that he would sympathise with some aspects of this opinion.” Bgoya stresses that it was not just the presence of white people, it was also their leading role in certain liberation movements.

Walter never used the discourse of race without nuance, but nevertheless saw that it had real and lasting impact on the lives of Black people. On July 26, 1972, Ray Tricomo, a graduate student in the United States with whom Walter had spoken during his trip to Michigan State University, wrote to him. The importance of the meeting is apparent in his letter: “After your talk, I came up to, we were introduced . . . In our necessarily brief conversation, I first asked you whether or not a European even had a right to work in the United Republic of Tanzania? You countered my question with a question, ‘What did I have to offer?’” This response, Tricomo explained, “carried more hope than anything I have heard or seen before.”

Speaking about the general atmosphere among the radical Left at the time, Abdul Sheriff—the Tanzanian historian and friend of Walter’s—notes: “[T]his kind of pushiness, dismissing people with slogans tended to fragment the left—which was already divided, along Trotskyist, Chinese socialist, Soviet communist lines. We were fighting each other, quite often we didn’t have problems with the right-wing, it was with each other.” It was this politics, Sheriff argues—these “intra-left divisions”—that was problematic, and the expatriate colleagues had clear positions in these debates.

Black Politics in Tanzania

Tanzania was not an island separated from wider political changes and arguments. Quite the contrary: as the radical capital, at that point, of the continent, it attracted the attention of militant Black lecturers and students from North America. The Black Power movement, and the unique way Rodney intervened in it, resonated loudly in Tanzania. The Urban Center for Black Studies in Poughkeepsie, New York—part of Vassar College—contacted the head of history in Dar, copying in Walter Rodney, on November 23, 1970, about “a group of black female students” who were traveling from the United States in June 1971. The center had only just been formed, in a storm of publicity, after a student occupation demanding a Black studies program in 1969. The explosion of Black studies across North America at this time came about from the movement for Black Power from the 1960s—and the radicalization of that movement. In Jamaica, as we have seen, Rodney was a leading part of this movement.

At each step along the way, every victory was hard-won; even with the ascendancy of Black politics and revolt, established institutions, universities, and research centers had to be dragged kicking and screaming to respond. The situation at Vassar College is a case in point. Claudia Lynn Thomas, one of the Black women leaders of the revolt that led to the foundation of the Urban Center for Black Studies, recorded the experience of the Black students’ protest in her memoir. From October 30 to November 1, 1969, Vassar’s main building was occupied by thirty-four Black female students, demanding that the center be set up and become a fixed part of the college’s curriculum, with core funding, along with a dramatic increase in Black student admission.

As Thomas recorded in 2006, one of their

stipulations was the appointment of a nucleus of qualified full-time Black studies faculty . . . that separate housing be open to Black students coming to Vassar, that an African-American Cultural Center exist and that the Urban Center for Black Studies remain part of the Black studies academic program. If I had harbored any lingering doubts about the validity of the take-over, they were now erased.

No student involved in the occupation was arrested or expelled, and every demand made by the students was met. Thomas concludes: “The Black studies program at Vassar College became a model for colleges around the nation. Its faculty included prominent scholars, and Dr. Milfred C. Fierce directed the program with a style unique to his sincerity, candor and expectations of students. As students of Black studies, we researched our national and international history.”

Under the leadership of Fierce, the new program organized a trip to Tanzania for a group of students—including Taylor and numerous others who had been involved in the occupation at the end of 1969. He now wrote to the University of Dar es Salaam explaining, “We plan to be at the University for three weeks or so and we would like to divide our program into three one week phases: African History, Contemporary African Politics and Seminars on the Liberation Struggle in Southern Africa.” In the end, the group of eighteen—all women except for Fierce—made the trip, which lasted six weeks in all and concluded with visits to Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana. The students were between nineteen and thirty-one years of age. It was Rodney who put together the program on African history for the group, and he greeted the students when they arrived in Dar in the summer of 1971.

On April 25, 1972, while Walter was lecturing and writing in the United States for a short period, he received a letter from Fred Brooks, the director of a radical nonprofit called Pan African Skills, who wrote from the organization’s office in Dar. Brooks mentions a film about famed Black activist and scholar Angela Davis, which he says, “we have shown . . . around Dar.” Davis was then making international headlines as she awaited trial for her alleged connection to an armed occupation of a courtroom in Marin County, California. Brooks, writing to inform Walter of developments in Dar, told him, “We have got to call a big rally because we want to plan something that will coincide with the conclusion of her trial.” Newspapers in Dar, including The Nationalist and The Standard, had been, he reported, following the case very closely.

Similar demonstrations had taken place in Vietnam, China, and Cuba; however, in Tanzania’s domestic political scene, the issue of Davis’s trial—the plight of Black people in America—was marginal. To miss this point is to misunderstand a central aspect of the period: although events in the United States were peripheral to Tanzanian politics, Black Power resonated with Africans and the diaspora around the world.

Public Lectures, Ideological Classes, and Comradeship

Issa Shivji recalls the exciting intellectual and activist environment in the early 1970s, which included visits by US Black Power figures, as well as the former Guyanese prime minister and leader of the People’s Progressive Party:

Outside the lectures, we had public lectures organised; this is a time when C. L. R. James visited, organised by Walter. We were visited by Stokely Carmichael, by Cheddi Jagan of Guyana, and the liberation leaders also used to come onto campus. These leaders always had their ears open, asking, “What is the university saying?” They paid particular attention to what was going on.

Nor was the university at this period a communist jamboree, with students marching in unison to public lectures singing “The Internationale.” Students and staff were divided by multiple issues and discussions within the left camp, and neither of the liberation movements camped out in the country nor the Tanganyika African National Union’s militant-sounding declarations had their exclusive attention. As in the international Left, there was dissension on the role of the Soviet Union, China’s communist path, the historic role of Trotsky in the Russian Revolution, and the position of the peasantry and workers in the struggle against capitalism (to name a few).

Apart from a minority of politicized students, there was also a great deal of apathy on campus, when it came to the question of revolutionary socialism. In his radical student days, Yoweri Museveni—now the widely hated president of Uganda—had looked to Tanzania as a paradise of struggle and was determined to study at Dar. His impressions on arriving, recorded in Cheche in 1970, express his disappointment, giving a vivid picture of life on the campus:

I arrived at the College in July 1967. I was, almost immediately, disappointed. I found the students lacking in militancy. Many were hostile to socialism, and some, even to the question of African liberation. There was no clear social commitment on the part of the broad sections of the student body. Most of our extracurricular time was taken up by frivolous activities: drinking, dancing and watching decadent Western films. I remember one occasion when I was really most unhappy. This was the time when Chief Albert Luthuli died. A service in his honour was organsied at the Arnatoglou Hall. Transport was provided to all the students who wished attend the service. Alas!!—only a handful of us turned up—the majority being students from Southern Africa. Apathy towards, and ignorance of, many vital questions regarding the interests of the African people were the rule of the day.

Similarly, Shivji remembers when, in his words, “we sabotaged rag day. Students would go into the streets dressed in dirty clothes for charity . . . so USARF, after discussing the whole question of charity in capitalist society, decided to sabotage it.”

To confront liberal tendencies among students and develop radical cadre, every Sunday there would be “ideological classes”—frequently attended by thirty or forty students and specifically organized on Sundays to counter the pressures to attend church services. These classes were administered and led by students. However, in the melting pot of the university at the time, faculty members would attend as well. Rodney, for one, was a constant presence. As Shivji explains, participating from the “ground up” was instinctive for him: “Although Rodney by then was a professor of history, well known and popular with students—he used to give lectures on the social and economic problems of East Africa—with John Saul, Lionel Cliffe, all of them were invited.” In spite of his reputation, Rodney’s relationship with the students was not a hierarchical one. “You must understand” Shivji stressed, “that he was a comrade giving lectures; the relationship of us with Rodney was one of comrade. We didn’t talk to him or address him as a professor.” Many students knew him simply as “Walter.” Shivji gives an impression of the university at the time as a crucible of intense debates, in which there were practical efforts to mold a critical and committed student body.

Shivji remembers a trip to Somalia in 1973 organized by a progressive Somali student, in which Rodney participated. Somalia in the early 1970s, was in the midst of its reconstitution as a one-party Marxist-Leninist state under the presidency of Siad Barre, with the support of the Soviet Union. Traveling in a group of about seven, Shivji recalls arriving in Mogadishu: “This was a time when Siad Barre had declared Marxism-Leninism. Where we were taken was very hot. There were revolutionary songs; everywhere you went you would see the pictures of Marx, Lenin, Stalin. There were literacy programs, the adoption of the Latin script from Arabic.” The group was given a tour of revolutionary Somalia—or at least a country that was now embarking on a program of progressive reforms. The small party of visitors exchanged information with Somalis about what was happening locally and in Tanzania. As a group of radical students and scholars, they also gave lectures.

Though it was not an official visit, the group was treated like state guests. Shivji remembers:

Walter was very impressed. I remember distinctly, toward the end of our trip, Siad Barre invited us to his palace; we had dinner there. After dinner, Siad Barre told his assistants to bring a big map—one of his themes was the idea of a “greater Somalia” that included Djibouti, the north frontier in Kenya. From what I remember, some of us were not exactly impressed and took Barre with a pinch of salt, as an army man.

Though no disagreements were expressed in front of the new president, in the group differences of opinions began to emerge about his politics. For their part, the Somalis who were studying in Dar and had traveled with the group expressed a degree of skepticism at some of Barre’s declarations.

According to Shivji, the group was divided between those who tended to orient to the model of socialism exported from China, championed by Mao, and Rodney, on the other side, who saw the Soviet Union’s rapid industrialization and state-led development as a model for the underdeveloped world. Siad was also pro-Soviet, and while he would break with the Kremlin almost a decade later, he was at that time unwavering in his support for Moscow. Shivji explains:

Rodney was impressed by Siad, and I could understand why. Coming from the background that he did and seeing something like that, clearly, on the face of it, left transformation of the people, with the involvement of the people. So for someone coming from a Afro-Caribbean, African American background, from those heavily discriminatory societies, these kinds of developments in Africa obviously gave him hope that something was happening.

It would, however, be a mistake to see Rodney’s attitude in revolutionary Mogadishu in 1972 as an indication of his uncritical support for Soviet-sponsored governments across Africa. No doubt he was making a judgment based on some of the positive reforms that he had seen for himself. Rodney was deeply engaged in some of the most serious criticisms of what was happening in Tanzania, not least of which was Shivji’s penetrating study The Silent Class Struggle. Ultimately, Rodney was ill suited to banging the party drum—or at least to maintaining a regular beat.

Though there were not abrupt turns in Rodney’s positions, until 1973 he broadly supported the Tanzanian state as an instrument for developing socialism and saw the peasantry as its fundamental base. Though he never discarded the central idea of Marxism as the emancipation of the working poor, his emphasis was elsewhere. As Fanon had argued more than a decade before, the African—and Tanzanian—working class was too small and too narrowly spread across the country to lead a revolution.

Even while he was teaching in Dar, Rodney received invitations to teach courses in North America. From February to June 1972, for example, he served as a visiting professor at the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. His official role was “Martin Luther King Writer-in-Residence” at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, where he was based with his entire family. He was paid $7,500. Even though it was an official visit, Rodney and the family had aroused sufficient suspicion from the authorities for their travel documents to have been taken into “custody” when they arrived from Tanzania on February 17. The family seem to have been forced to stay in the country until August, even though Walter had requested a return of the documents so they could leave on June 26. The discomfort of US authorities upon receiving such a well-known radical on their shores was palpable. Patricia remembers: “I was in the US several months before Walter and the children and Mashaka (who lived with us in Dar and who traveled with us) arrived. Walter was not allowed to travel outside of the US during this period, so I attended his good friend Ewart Thomas’s wedding in Toronto, Canada, by myself.”

The Sixth Pan-African Congress 

The dizzying array of activities in which Rodney was involved is exhausting even to read. As an activist, he wrote and published constantly; as a visiting lecturer, he spoke regularly to student groups, while developing new courses for master’s students at universities in East Africa and the United States, as well as maintaining an impressive level of correspondence. Promoted to senior lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam in 1971, by March 16, 1973, he received notification of his further promotion to associate professor in the history department. His colleague and friend, the historian of Nigeria Elizabeth Allo Isichei, wrote to him on June 13, 1973, with “congratulations on becoming a professor! Okwudiba Nnoli was passing through recently and told us about it. It is a very well-deserved promotion.”

In 1974, an important event took place that required all of Rodney’s political authority and reputation—and intellectual might. The Sixth Pan-African Congress, the first to be held on the African continent, was to be hosted by Tanzania from June 19 to 27. The radical “call” of the congress was framed clearly in the language of Black Power:

The 20th century is the century of Black Power. It has already been marked by two dynamics. First, a unified conception of all peoples who have been colonized. They are known by friends and enemies as members of the Third World. And the most significant members of the Third World are those who strive for power to the people and Black Power to the Black People. On the other hand, white power, which ruled unchallenged for so long during this very century, is marked by unparalleled degeneration, first by two savage and global wars such as the World had never before seen. The same mentality prepares for a third war. Its barbarism unpurged, European power strives at all costs to maintain that domination from which the formerly colonial peoples are breaking. That is the world white power seeks to maintain at a time when the colonial peoples have begun one of the greatest movements toward human freedom that the world has ever known. The SIXTH PAN AFRICAN CONGRESS . . . is part of that movement.

This was language that would have been familiar to Rodney and that could almost have come from his own pen. However, before the congress was even held, it was riven with disputes. One of these concerned the inclusion of Caribbean opposition groups and parties. It was a question of central importance. In the Pan-African world, many new states had become independent over the previous two decades—including large parts of the Caribbean and most of the African continent. Yet these new governments were in many cases heavily criticized as failing to deliver real independence or presenting a sham socialism. The “call” stated: “Upon this policy which Africans are carrying out with arms in hand, the Sixth pan-African Congress must draw a line of steel against those, Africans included, who hide behind the slogan and paraphernalia of national independence while allowing finance capital to dominate and direct their economic and social life.” C. L. R. James was heavily involved in drafting the “call,” and in a letter to “My dear Walter” on May 18, 1974, he explained: “I had a large share, in fact, a substantial share in its preparation. Whatever its deficiencies it offers a base.”

Invitations went out to leaders of these states but not to every opposition group. Before long, there were resignations from the organizing committee, including James, a close friend and mentor to Walter. The objective of the conference was to help further deepen the liberation of Southern Africa, end economic exploitation and dependency, and fulfill political independence. Perhaps the last of these objectives was the most important and controversial.

Despite these noble intentions, the congress, as June 1974 approached, saw a real and acute divergence. On the one side were those who wanted to include government delegations and states from the Pan-African world; on the other were those—Walter prominent among them—who strongly rejected this approach and saw the Congress as a forum for opposition groups and radical political movements, and thus as a resolutely nongovernmental activist event. In the name of Black Power, liberation movements in Southern Africa and elsewhere had to be defended; anything else was meaningless. The congress was eventually, as historian Hakim Adi writes, “transformed into one dominated by governments . . . and ruling parties of ‘Black states’ were invited, whilst their opponents were barred from attending.”

James and Rodney withdrew their support. Indeed, what else could they do? Black Power was not, for them, “Black states”; it needed to intersect with class and internationalism to have any future. Was this not the lesson of the collapse of Portugal’s dictatorship in April of that year, which had seen the liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau cripple the decaying Portuguese state, with a militant working-class movement taking to the streets? Political and class forces had to be united.

In the paper prepared ahead of the congress in April 1974 and circulated to comrades and friends in Africa and the Caribbean, Rodney argued that Pan-Africanism was a weapon in the struggle against imperialism. He lamented the continent’s colonial borders, arguing that if Africa remained fragmented, it would continue to be vulnerable to Western companies keen to plunder its wealth and imperialist states ready to invade. He argued powerfully that Pan-Africanism of “the petty-bourgeois states became a sterile formulation  . . .  incapable of challenging capitalism and imperialism.”

Rodney’s paper was an astonishing and thorough class analysis of African independence and the nature of class struggle on the continent—from which liberation and Pan-Africanism was missing, fifteen years after formal independence. Walter’s friend and comrade the historian Robert Hill described it well: “Walter brought to bear a class analysis that was unrivalled for its clarity and its uncompromising nature.” What was emerging in the plans for the congress was a state-led jamboree, and one that need to be resisted: “[T]he realities of state power,” Rodney writes, “have predetermined that when the Sixth Pan-African Congress meets in Dar-es-Salaam in June 1974 it will be attended mainly by spokesmen of African and Caribbean states which in so many ways represent the negation of Pan-Africanism.” Rodney posed the dilemma sharply: “[I]n the light of the above considerations, any African committed to freedom, Socialism and development would need to look long and hard at the political implications of participation in the Sixth Pan-African Congress.” If these militant Pan-African movements were to participate, then “the recapture of the revolutionary initiative should clearly be one of the foremost tasks of the Sixth Pan-African Congress.”

In the end, six hundred participants were present at the congress, including representatives of twenty-six African states. Underlying the tensions was the simple fact that because it was hosted in Tanzania, the state—even a nominally progressive one—would opt for continental and international diplomacy, alliances, and governmental delegations. If President Nyerere had condemned Rodney in 1969 for using his base in Dar to issue statements of revolutionary “hot air” against neocolonial regimes on the continent, he was now even more adamant. The state was the last word—and no fundamental criticism could be broached.

Bgoya explains some of the disputes: “[T]here was a big issue about who comes to the conference. The Tanzanian government wanted a congress with the representatives of governments . . . while the hardcore Pan-Africanists wanted a people’s Pan-African Congress, with as little government as possible and more popular participation.” These were issues for the continent and also for the Caribbean, and most of these “hardcore Pan-Africanists” were opposition parties. For the ruling TANU party, there were divisions—the party wanted an all-inclusive congress, but also did not want to appear to be bringing in radical oppositionists intent on overthrowing the governments and their representatives present in Dar. Rodney was precisely the type of person they did not want to attend.

Recalling several years later, the Nigerian poet and novelist Wole Soyinka, who was present at the congress, wrote about Rodney: “[I]f my memory serves me correctly, more than one Caribbean government had, through their representatives, indicated that their delegations would quit the Congress if Walter Rodney participated in any capacity.” Rodney’s absence was not due to illness, as many have since contended; he had long since recovered, Soyinka argued, from a bout of malaria. Rodney knew he would not be permitted to attend but nevertheless would join James in boycotting the event. “Yet,” Soyinka argued, “the ‘progressive’ government of Tanzania had succumbed to the blackmail of reactionary Caribbean governments to keep out this radical scholar from such a gathering.”

However, an important addendum needs to be made to this account. The records show that it was not so much Rodney following James’s lead and joining the boycott, but rather the opposite: Rodney had penned the above-cited condemnation of the congress before it had taken place, and it was in fact this move that forced the hand of others—including his senior comrade James. On May 19, Robert Hill—or “Bobby,” as Walter called his collaborator—wrote that the document he received from Walter was “immediately copied and circulated.” The “Institute”—presumably the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta—Hill reported, was planning to print and circulate “five thousand copies” to its mailing list. In addition, “a sister in Louisiana has already begun circulating a hundred stencilled copies in her area. Some brothers in New York are also printing it up to circulate on the East Coast.” Apart from anything else, this was an impressive distribution network.

Hill was enthusiastic about the document, writing, “[Y]ou did not pull too many punches about our generalissimo friends.” Then he explained that he had mailed the document to “strategic people,” including James: “I expect that he will be squarely sandwiched between your position and the official position. . . . My best sense is that it will be your position that will chiefly divide the forces at the Congress, and that should be as it is.” He explained that Guyanese president Forbes Burnham had already extracted a promise from Nyerere that he would not allow the congress to become a platform for anti-Burnham protests. James had apparently “patched” it up and ensured there was the assurance needed from the Tanzanian ambassador to the United Nations.

But the point remains: Rodney provided a radical left critique of the congress, from the perspective of class and class struggle, that drove a wedge between the official position held by Nyerere and a militant and principled one. James was compelled to break with the congress, which he had spent years organizing, because of the position Rodney had taken, stated, and published. James was thus challenged by his former student to break from the compromises he was seeking to build in the run-up to the congress—trying somehow to bridge the divide between militant anti-government delegates and official government ones. Robert Hill was clear: the activists were looking to Rodney “to carry a strong revolutionary line against the official fandangle.”

What was left of the congress without the Black Power Marxists was hollow, futile even. Delegates were treated to long-winded speeches, some of which were not even delivered in person. Ahmed Sékou Touré, Guinea’s once-lauded anti-colonialist, had, according to Soyinka, recorded a “three hour” speech that was played to the hall. Nyerere delivered his own long speech, with sycophantic delegates declaring that both speeches should be considered the basis for discussion at the congress. Tedium prevailed. As Soyinka records: “The takeover, the victory of governments was complete.” Anti-apartheid and anti-colonial movements survived the purge, but those opposing Joseph Mobutu and Hastings Banda, the presidents of the Congo and Malawi, respectively, were simply dispatched with. Even Soyinka was instructed—after a message had been sent by the Nigerian government—not to speak. This was post-colonial power on graphic display in a single toothless, state-led congress.

Socialism from Above

Julius Nyerere had put a great deal of effort into cultivating his image as a people’s president who took solitary walks on campus and who debated openly and democratically with his critics; even his security detail was small, with a motorcade of one. In reality, however, Nyerere’s politics was a far cry from such romantic visions. He was a deeply contractionary figure who always defended the interests of the ruling TANU and opposed any genuine struggles from below, which were seen as a threat to the integrity of the state.

In his memoir, John Saul reports on Nyerere’s “high-handed assistance” to Sam Nujoma in Namibia. Nujoma, who would become the first leader of the independent state of Namibia in 1990, was then under fire from critics in his own movement, which was seeking independence from South Africa. Nyerere, Saul reports, protected Nujoma from criticism “by conniving in the arbitrary jailing of democratic claimants in SWAPO-in-exile.” SWAPO—the South West Africa People’s Organization—is the synonym for the Namibian liberation organization founded in 1960. Worse criticisms were to come—including Nyerere’s smashing of strikes at Mount Carmel Rubber Factory, or when the Tanzanian government made an important policy statement in 1973 called Mwongozo, a charter of workers’ rights reviving the radical aspect of the government’s Ujamaa and socialist policy. When workers themselves attempted to implement rights that were supposedly safeguarded by Mwongozo, their actions generated fear and repression by the government.

Other examples abound, including the ruling party’s suppression of the Ruvuma Development Association (RDA), which created seventeen self-governing villages from 1963 to 1969, but whose autonomy and success became a threat to politicians who banned the RDA and sought to bring the initiative under party control. The shine was coming off Tanzania’s people’s president and the state’s championing of Ujamaa.

Many also rubbed up against Nyerere’s rough side; Rodney himself had seen his host’s limits when he spoke of Fanon’s theory of revolutionary change in late 1969, and later when he had seen how the TANU wanted to choreograph the Sixth Pan-African Congress into a state-led jamboree of post-independence leaders, bullies, and murderers. Earlier, Rodney witnessed the invasion of the campus by the Field Force Unit in 1970 when the student leader, Simon Akivaga, originally from Kenya, was, in Saul’s words, “dragged at gun-point down the cement stairs of the central administrative building then tossed like a sack of old clothes into an army vehicle and sped away to expulsion from the university and from the country.” Another example was the savage beatings of student protestors in 1978—long after Saul and Rodney had both left. 

When a prominent university historian, Arnold Temu, had the courage to speak up and criticize the government’s response, he too was dismissed, sacked from his job and told to leave the country—forced to forge a precarious career outside Tanzania. When he met Saul in 2001 in Dar es Salaam, he explained to his interlocutor that he had “sworn to himself not to return to live in Tanzania as long as Nyerere was alive.” Saul writes that “[h]e thus offered a perspective on ‘Mwalimu’ and his ‘democratic sensibility.’” Across Tanzania, Nyerere’s former loyal allies, fellow travelers, and comrades were still drawing the lessons; it had, after all, taken some years for the true nature of regime to reveal itself.

Each of these acts exposed the shallowness of Nyerere’s democratic and socialist declarations, let alone any claim to be empowering the poor in the struggle against their exploiters. Saul explains that this was because he “took the potential challenges of ‘nation-building’ much more seriously than he ever took the imperatives of class struggle and socialist construction in Tanzania!” Saul is both right and wrong; surely a deeper criticism would see the impossibility of “building socialism” in Tanzania alone, or anywhere else, in the context of the pressures of global capitalism.

When there were genuine efforts to transform society from below in Tanzania, these were systematically broken. Make change by all means, the ruling party seemed to say, but it must be directed and limited by state authority. The sort of socialist transformation that Rodney and Saul both wanted could not come from Nyerere’s Tanzania, and, in different ways, they both left the country with the same lesson. But what did they propose in its place?

Many, if not the overwhelming majority of Rodney’s comrades and interlocutors, saw in Mozambique—which in 1974 was close to independence—a popular and radical alternative to the revolution that had run aground in Tanzania. Could the national liberation movement in Mozambique, FRELIMO, be trusted as a “vanguard party” to serve the interests of the popular classes, or would the better path be for the working classes to power popular transformations in their own name? Many radicals leapt from liberation movement to new government, in a game of leapfrog, hoping to find a state that would somehow resolve the challenge of social transformation. For many, including Saul, Mozambique was the next stop.

However, the new state was invariably confronted with the old problem. At the third congress of FRELIMO in 1977, when the party officially swung behind Marxism/Leninism, many threw themselves with great gusto behind the project of socialist change from above being declared in the capital of Maputo. Ruth First, the exiled South African revolutionary, was hard-nosed about the failures of independence in the 1960s and 1970s. Writing in 1970, she argued that decolonization had been little more than “a bargaining process with cooperative African elites.” But she remained an enthusiastic advocate of some of these “projects” on the continent. In 1975, she wrote to her husband, Joe Slovo: “I must say I’m thrilled to bits. Tanzania is one thing, but Mozambique! Wow.” As critical as she was of efforts at transformation from above, two years later she moved to Maputo to contribute to exactly this project.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rodney’s attitude toward Tanzania’s socialist experiment was broadly favorable—always critical, but supportive. Karim Hirji, a student and friend of Rodney’s, explained that Walter leaned “towards the hope tendency,” and that progressive forces in the country had to enhance the “work against the reactionary ones, but within the current political set-up.” The struggle at this time—1970—Rodney argued, was against the bureaucracy who opposed and obstructed the initiatives and projects of Nyerere’s Ujamaa. His student comrades—Shivji, Hirji, and Henry Mapolu, for example—were more critical and had started to craft a thoroughgoing critique of the state and Nyerere’s apparent socialism.

In 1972, in a classic statement of his support for Ujamaa and Nyerere’s projects in Tanzania, Rodney published the article “Tanzanian Ujamaa and Scientific Socialism” in African Review. Like all of Rodney’s writing and work at the time on Tanzanian socialism, it is a serious and considered endorsement. Rodney does two interesting things in the article. Firstly, he draws a clear line between the “African socialism” celebrated by Senegalese president Léopold Senghor and others, and Ujamaa. However, they had similar elements prior to 1967, and Rodney argues that from the Arusha Declaration to Mwongozo, there was a real commitment to (rural) socialist transformation. The second interesting feature of the article is Rodney’s impressive effort to connect “scientific socialism” to Ujamaa, through a historical account of the development of Marx’s work in prerevolutionary Russia. Although Rodney’s position would later shift, there is still much that warrants study. For one, his support—crafted in careful study—for Nyerere’s Tanzania is clear. Rodney writes:

Tanzanian Ujamaa has begun to make the decisive break with capitalism. The evidence lies in the Arusha Declaration, in the Mwongozo, in the Tanzam railway, in the nationalization of certain buildings and in virtually every act of Tanzanian foreign policy. Tanzania Ujamaa, limited as it is in actual achievement can substantiate the claim to be the ideology of the majority of Tanzanian producers in the countryside and the towns.

Even then, however, Rodney was beginning to shift his position, gradually and surely; indeed, in his response to Shivji’s far-reaching and powerful analysis on class and capitalism in Tanzania, Rodney was increasingly favorable. Just two year later, in 1974, Hirji recalls that Rodney was close to turning his back on the Tanzanian project. In Hirji’s words, “[H]is views on socialism in Tanzania retained a modicum of hope. But now he accepted that a reactionary bureaucracy was wresting control of key institutions of the state.” In a lecture Rodney delivered in 1975 at Chicago’s Northwestern University, called “Class Contradictions in Tanzania,” he discusses the tensions in the country after the implementation of the Mwongozo guidelines. Rodney’s “modicum of hope” was still present, and he had not yet made the decisive shift away from the projects in Tanzania. As he explained in his conclusion:

It would be difficult at this time to make a prognosis about the immediate resolution of the said contradictions—whether progressive tendencies or more reactionary tendencies will win out. I have a certain confidence, perhaps, a confidence tinged with hope, that the trend will in fact lead, even in the short run, towards the resolution of these contradictions in favour of the progressive elements among the working peoples.

It is worth contrasting Rodney’s sure and full shift in position on Tanzania’s socialism with that of his teacher and comrade C. L. R. James. Hirji describes James’s lectures and talks in Dar in the late 1960s and 1970s as brilliant but largely “static” with regard to Tanzania’s projects. For a time, James and Rodney shared a favorable position on Tanzania’s trajectory, but there was a crucial difference between the two men. Hirji writes: “[U]nlike his erstwhile mentor, Walter’s stand was a dynamic one. He learned from practice. He paid attention to the facts, the life of the common person and the views of other comrades.” James, by contrast, had not paid enough attention to the shifting facts of Tanzania. Though Rodney had been positive, full of hope and energy for Tanzania’s transformation, he changed his position (and had the courage to do so). Hirji is absolutely correct when he explains that “[i]n Tanzania, he started off with much hope, came to realize the primacy of popular struggles, and went on to implement that in practice in his place of birth.” Walter Rodney, with his own brilliant and distinct arguments, faced a profound predicament of agency and revolutionary change—who exactly would power the socialist transformation that he wanted to see? Indeed, it was one that he would not resolve so long as he remained in Dar es Salaam.

Leaving Dar

By summer 1974, Walter felt he had reached the end of the road in Tanzania. Moreover, he and Patricia both wanted their children to experience life and childhood in Guyana, and Georgetown in particular—where they had not only friends but family. There were other factors that pushed them hard to leave. Walter was quickly arriving at the conclusion that Nyerere’s path to socialism had been exhausted; his criticism of the state’s efforts to reform the country and find an “appropriate” Tanzanian path to socialist change, which Rodney had started to develop himself, was an important element in the decision. Issa Shivji’s demolition of Tanzania’s early post-Arusha efforts had influenced many who had previously been sympathetic to Nyerere and the ruling Tanganyika African National Union.

Many who had been associated with the University Students’ African Revolutionary Front were beginning to break with any hope that Nyerere’s TANU could be reformed. USARF was forced to shut down by the government on November 9, 1970. Even if the vision of Marxism it celebrated contained its own limitations (and omissions), it had rejected nationalism, believing that socialism was only a viable project on the international plane while providing a thorough challenge to Nyerere’s hopelessly compromised Pan-Africanism. Pan-Africanism, in Rodney’s view, should present a socialist vision for the continent, not only an anti-colonial one (and a government-led one at that, as Rodney argued in 1974). Interestingly, when USARF was banned, it was criticized as promoting foreign ideologies—namely Russian—and their publication, Cheche, was criticized for being named after Vladimir Lenin’s Iskra.

However, even for USARF—and many of those associated with it—more radical versions of national liberation fell within a perspective that did not vary fundamentally from Tanzania. On this dimension, FRELIMO, the liberation organization leading the fight against the Portuguese in Mozambique (which shares a long border with the southern edge of Tanzania), was the preferred organization for many USARF activists. Liberation, in their view, could only take place by guerrilla struggle, led by an armed organization from the countryside; FRELIMO was friendly to USARF comrades and shared the analysis produced in Cheche and later Maji Maji.

Activists from the university and USARF went on quasi-military field trips to liberated spaces in Mozambique, producing a pamphlet to challenge “reactionary propaganda against FRELIMO in Tanzania.” There simply was not, even among the left-wing critics of Nyerere, a perspective that criticized the armed struggle. In fact, it was frequently presented as the sole way to fight for real liberation—whether that was simply anti-colonial or socialist in nature. For them, the only real road to freedom required an armed movement.

Penning his document about the Sixth Pan-African Congress in early 1974, Rodney already knew that Dar could not become his permanent home—nor could it continue to serve as a guide to political action. In his last months in Dar, he thought seriously about the years he had spent in Tanzania and reached the same conclusion as Tanzanian scholar Chris Peter and politician Sengondo Mvungi in 1986, who argued that “the death of USARF [at the end of 1970] nipped in the bud the growth of a real revolutionary left in Tanzania.” The signs were already there, for those who cared to see them. The country was on the verge of a rapid descent into authoritarianism, which would escalate through the 1970s, leading to the widespread suppression of workers’ struggles. During that time, Rodney would become a vocal critic of the regime in Dar.

In 1971, the Mwongozo guidelines, issued by TANU to encourage popular involvement in Ujamaa, led to a response by workers with occupations and strikes in state and private businesses and factories. However, these efforts at popular control were broken by the state. The post-Mwongozo wave of workers’ struggles, and the state’s response, was the subject of extensive analysis by Shivji—scholarship on which Rodney would draw in one of his final courses, taught in Hamburg in 1978.

By 1974, the family had become deeply embedded in Tanzanian society and culture—all three of their children spoke Swahili. Though the family was tempted to stay—and professionally speaking, it would have been easy, since Walter was a popular and respected colleague and comrade—ultimately, Walter and Patricia could never consider the country home. Walter had to consider carefully where he could position himself to make a political difference, where he could help shape struggles taking place that might empower another world. For Walter—and Patricia—this could only be Guyana.

In 1975, Walter reflected: “I could have become a Tanzanian citizen, and indeed thought about it seriously. The question is, what does that really mean? You change your legal status, you become a new national and, therefore, hopefully you open both to the advantages and disadvantages of being a national of that country.” But beyond their legal status—which could easily be revoked, as Rodney reflected—there were other more significant obstacles and challenges. “It is much more than a legal definition that makes one effective,” he explains. “[O]ne must have a series of responses and reflexes that come from having lived a given experience.” Walter spoke, for instance, of visiting a marketplace for food and supplies and his inability to “bargain in the Swahili manner without being perceived as an outsider.”

Yet, he goes on, to do this requires a proficiency in Swahili that is a lifetime task—to be truly embedded in the language, beyond the niceties of greetings. This deeper understanding is essential, Walter explains, to “master the higher level of perception which normally goes into a culture. And I didn’t believe that I could afford that.” The world from which he came drew him back with incredible force—his home, as a revolutionary and a man, would always be the Caribbean.

Further Reading