Critical Praxis: Walter Rodney and the Russian Revolution

Walter Rodney, The Russian Revolution: A View from The Third World, ed. Robin D. G. Kelley and Jesse Benjamin (London: Verso, 2018); 336 pages; ISBN 978-1786635303 (paperback)

• June 2020

It is always a challenging proposition to critically review a book that has been heavily edited and has introductions and a preface by the editors, as is the case with Walter Rodney’s The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World. In this instance, the editors have thoroughly sectionalized and analyzed the context, strengths, weaknesses, and potential impact of the text and have done a remarkable job in locating, editing, and organizing the notes into nine chapters. More importantly, in releasing this posthumous volume on the Russian Revolution for the general public, they have delivered a remarkable document for posterity. The footnotes that accompany the themed chapters are especially valuable and informative.

Apart from the editorial and introductory information and analysis of origins, parameters, and contexts, the book provides a great opportunity to contextualize Rodney’s assessment of the range and breadth of world events and processes encapsulated in the Russian Revolution. This book, appreciated in tandem with his other colossal works, is an entrée into the historian’s methods and interests in the period in which his notes were conceived. And the subtitle, essentially the operative title of the book, is a crucial point of the analysis, given Rodney’s more comprehensive focus and work on the Caribbean, Africa, and North America. How does Walter Rodney deal with the Russian Revolution? The clue is writ large in “A View from the Third World.”

Rodney’s writings that have culminated in this edited volume were conceived in Tanzania and more than likely overlapped with his subsequent sojourn in Guyana. Perhaps even more substance was added as Rodney was preparing for lectures in anticipation of teaching at the University of Guyana in 1974, a venture that was stymied after he was denied a formal job by the Guyanese state. The book consists of nine relatively short chapters conveniently themed by the editors.

Rodney’s take on the Russian Revolution covers a dizzying array of issues, including an overview of prerevolutionary conditions in Russia; an assessment of the “February” and “October” revolutions in 1917; discussion of the Leon Trotsky-Joseph Stalin imbroglio; the “irreconcilable disagreements” in the application of Marxism (66); general narration of the key elements of the revolutionary process; the issue of democracy and Rosa Luxembourg; the building of the socialist state system; and a number of other minor and major points on the Russian Revolution and its impact on the world. Some idealistic moments apart, Rodney’s voice and vision throughout the text is remarkable for its wide-ranging, nonsectarian assessment of the revolution. But what undergirds the entire text is Rodney’s critical lens on every subset of the themes that form the chapters; he constantly wrestles with the meaning of this Russian Revolution for the third world.

In chapter 1, “Two World Views,” Rodney lays the foundation for the entire text when he emphasizes that “as far as black people are concerned, white people are historically disqualified from interpreting black folks to black folks” (1). Rodney begins with the view that the Soviet revolution ought not to be assessed via the colonizer, while lamenting that “few major scholarly Marxist studies have been carried out in the West on the Russian Revolution from an entirely sympathetic viewpoint” (8).

The sensitivity to dangers of a “global model” or “view” is consistent throughout the text, but there are places at which Rodney relies on descriptives that appear out of sync with the social and political composition of “third world” societies. One such term utilized prodigiously in the text is bourgeois. For example, the first chapter is focused on a comparison of the “bourgeois” and “Marxist” worldviews of the Soviet experiment. Bourgeois, or bourgeoisie, is descriptive of a social, wealthy class and was a pejorative descriptor from the Left, and while its usage is not unusual for the time in which the notes were written, it has now for the most part disappeared in everyday leftwing usage around the world.

Rodney’s assessment of the Russian Revolution must be taken in context of his own experience of Guyanese and Caribbean history and his own revolutionary experience, a kind of foundation on which to weigh this major global revolution. Location, experience, and context are key. After teaching in Tanzania between 1968 and 1974, Rodney returned to Guyana to teach at the University of Guyana. He arrived with a wide experience of the African liberation movements that were then fighting against Western-backed colonial and white-settler regimes. Rodney’s experience of the Soviet Union must be seen through this lens. There were claims that those immersed in African revolutionary movements were uncritical of the Soviet Union and its internal sociopolitical situation, all the more so because they were also receiving Soviet aid—including military support. Such conditions led many leftwing and African liberation fighters to see the Soviet Union in a positive light. In any event, at the time Rodney pulled together the lectures that form the text under review, the Soviet Union was about twenty years from atrophying. Rodney did not require the comfort of the “present” to display his own critical views of Russia, as is apparent in several passages of the book. Ahead of his time, he was observing what we now know as Vladimir Putin–like formation of the Soviet state.

This volume also allows for insights into what is not addressed by the author. Interestingly, Rodney says little or nothing about the Communist international in his book. He does concede that “socialism has not yet become an international phenomenon,” which could mean that he acknowledged the modern world system as salient only when socialism had become more global than the confines of Eastern Europe at the time (185). This is an important issue for modern observers who come to this text in an era saddled with the dominance of Western capitalism.

While most of his focus is on the Russian Revolution, Rodney does also reference the French and Cuban Revolutions, but he makes no mention of the Haitian Revolution. Credit is due to Michael West as one of the few to point out Rodney’s “loud” silence on Haiti, at least in his published work.1 The reasons for this omission are beyond the scope of this review, but it remains an important omission, especially given Rodney’s extraordinary layered scholarship on Africa, the Caribbean, and the history of slavery.

As with Haiti, there is a paucity of reflection on the Russian Revolution’s handling of race and the subsequent disillusionment and break of early enthusiasts of the Revolution, such as George Padmore and Claude McKay, among others. There is a brief, unrelated mention of Padmore, but none of McKay or of any other Black heretic. I find this a little surprising, that Rodney, coming from a background in which his work and activism consistently interacted with the question of “race” at a global level, did not attempt to seriously interrogate race and racism in the Soviet Union. Perhaps if he had carefully read the 1964 Moscow Is Not My Mecca by novelist, activist, and fellow countryman Jan Carew, Rodney would have had a more critical perspective of modern race relations in Russia.2 As it stands, Rodney discusses race or racism in the Soviet Union very sparsely—and even then it is delimited to the “nationalities question” or the “ethnic” question, as seen in chapter 8, “The Transformation of Empire,” in which he discusses the heterogeneity of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics and promotes a generally favorable view of the Bolsheviks.

And what about the gender question or the roles of female revolutionaries and their perspective of the Soviet revolution? Rosa Luxembourg is mentioned, yes, but what about other women in the Revolution? It might appear a moot point, given the “era” in which Rodney’s notes were composed, but in the text there is very little consideration of the gender question and likewise no reference to, for instance, Alexandra Kollontai, one of the main ideologues and female leaders of the Bolshevik revolution. Attendant with this is an uneasy tendency on the author’s part to advance a “romantic” view of the Soviet model of economic development at the expense, for example, of “third world” development models—to wit, Rodney’s mentor C. L. R. James’s claim that even cooks can govern.3

Yet throughout the text we witness a master historian tussling with his subject matter, looking for answers with available material. As members of the Rodney family observe in the acknowledgments section, “Readers are reminded that this work needs to be examined in the context of the world as it existed at the time and in the context of who Rodney was at the time” (187). Indeed, we witness at the very end of the book an almost perfect description of Rodney’s motive and practice: “The Soviet Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent construction of Socialism emerg[e] as a very positive historical experience from which we ourselves can derive a great deal as we move to confront similar problems” (186). The operative phrases here are “we ourselves” and “similar problems,” defining Rodney’s vantage point as a denizen of the “third world.”

Overall, Rodney offers an authoritative, introspective, and discerning view of the Russian Revolution. The active reader, pushed by the clarity of his prose and sometimes prescient offerings, will perhaps see the Bolshevik revolution as a “contemporary event” (6).

In a comment on Rodney’s activism in Guyana, Eusi Kwayana notes, “Methodical by nature, Walter Rodney on his return began systematically to inform himself about where the country had reached, how organisations, classes and individuals stood in respect of one another. He did not join the WPA until he had investigated everything fully.”4 This example demonstrates Rodney’s mantra of familiarizing himself with conditions in any place he visited or body of work related to that context. In the case of his study of the Russian Revolution, Rodney, warts and all, was likewise methodical and investigative, and along with the huge reservoir of writing on this most important twentieth-century revolution, Rodney’s text will be a sought-after item, especially by scholars and citizens of the “third world.” It is an essential referent for activists and scholars of the Russian Revolution and deserves wide readership and acclaim.

 

 

Nigel Westmaas is an associate professor of Africana studies at Hamilton College, New York. His research interests include the history of the newspaper press in Guyana, Pan-Africanism, and the rise and impact of political and social movements, mainly in the anglophone Caribbean. In Guyana he was politically active in Rodney’s party, the Working People’s Alliance.

 


1. See Michael West, “Rodney and the Question of Revolution” (presented at “Confrontations: UWI Student Protest and the Rodney Disturbance of 1968,” University of the West Indies, Mona, 20 October 2018).

2. Jan Carew, Moscow Is Not My Mecca (London: Secker and Warburg, 1964).

3. C. L. R. James, “Every Cook Can Govern: A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece; Its Meaning for Today,” Correspondence 2, no. 12 (June 1956).

4. Eusi Kwayana, Walter Rodney (Georgetown: Catholic Standard, 1988), 8.

 

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