The Revolutionary Legacy of Walter Rodney’s ‘Groundings’


In his 1983 song Reggae fi Radni, Linton Kwesi Johnson dedicated the following lines to the Guyanese revolutionary intellectual:

‘Yu noh si how di cloud/dem jus come satta pon mi dream/like a daak silk screen […] but look how mi dream/come just get blown to a smidahreen/inna di miggle a di dream/di miggle a di dream/before the really crucial scene/di really crucial scene is/wen di people come een…’

Johnson’s lyrics describe how the assassination of Walter Rodney on 13th June 1980, at the height of popular unrest against the Forbes Burnham regime, dampened the revolutionary hopes of many working class Black people in the Caribbean. Rodney’s assassination marked a turning point in the uprisings against neo-colonial governments in the West Indies. By eliminating Rodney, whose political and pedagogical praxis ironically prevented him from considering himself a vanguard intellectual, the establishment delivered a fatal blow to the revolutionary masses, depriving them of their outspoken leadership.

Rodney’s tireless efforts to help the Black working class (‘all oppressed peoples whose homelands are in Asia, Africa and the Americas’) overcome deep-seated divisions, and create a new society founded on their collective power, posed an existential threat to the neo-colonial Guyanese state. Considering the fate of many anti-colonial revolutionaries at the time, it is somewhat unsurprising that the Burnham regime went to such great lengths to eliminate a revolutionary scholar and activist, whose influence was growing rapidly across the West Indies and beyond.

The independent commission of inquiry set up to investigate the circumstances of Rodney’s death conclusively showed that it was not a random act of violence, or an accident – as the government had claimed at the time – but an extra judicial killing, sanctioned and orchestrated by the Guyanese state. While official sources claimed that the bomb hidden inside a Walkie-Talkie had accidentally gone off in the car that Walter and his brother Donald were in, the commission concluded that this was in fact a cover up by the government to protect the actual perpetrator – a sergeant in the Guyana Defence Force. At the time, Donald Rodney was charged with the possession of explosives, while Walter’s killer, Gregory Smith, received asylum in French Guiana and assumed a new identity.

Almost forty years later, Rodney’s work continues to inspire scholars and activists all over the world. But the systems of exploitation and oppression that he dedicated his life to destroying remain intact or, in many cases, have become even more vicious. As capitalism continues to reproduce itself through imperialism and neocolonialism, Rodney’s political and pedagogical praxis may serve as a guide for revolutionary intellectuals committed to supporting the struggles against dispossession, gendered violence and exploitation, and environmental destruction that Black communities all over the world are engaged in.

‘Grounding’ as Critical Pedagogy

In The Groundings with my Brothers, Rodney reflects on his position as a revolutionary intellectual in relation to the movements for Black Power taking place in the Caribbean at the time. A collection of public lectures held by Rodney in Jamaica and at the Congress of Black Writers in Montréal, Groundings provides a pedagogical framework for intellectuals fighting to undo the epistemological distortions of imperialism. Most importantly, however, the book shows that ‘grounding’ is more than just a method of teaching, learning or knowledge production. For Rodney, it was a way of life.

Despite his growing influence, Rodney’s work has largely been ignored in the discipline of critical pedagogy. Much like his contemporary Paulo Freire – whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed [1] is still widely read and frequently cited – Rodney practiced an alternative pedagogy that combined Marxist analysis with a sensitivity for local knowledges and co-intentional education. By breaking down the division between teacher and student at the heart of educational hierarchies, Rodney’s critical pedagogy sought to treat both parties as active participants in the re-creation of knowledge. This also meant breaking down the intellectual division of labour that has all-too-often alienated intellectuals from the masses in periods of revolutionary struggle.

To truly ‘ground’, Rodney believed that the revolutionary intellectual must go anywhere to reason with their people. This, of course, included going to places that most intellectuals of Rodney’s stature would not have set foot in. ‘I was prepared to go anywhere that any group of black people were prepared to sit down and listen’, he writes. ‘It might be in a sports club, it might be in a school-room, it might be in a church, it might be in a gully […] – ‘dark dismal places with a black population who have had to seek refuge there. You will have to go there if you want to talk to them.’ [2] For Rodney, the revolutionary Black intellectual cannot hide in the university and challenge the status-quo within the boundaries of academic respectability. These intellectuals, he argued, do not pose a threat to the neo-colonial elites; only when these same intellectuals break out of academic isolation and engage in the mutual exchange of knowledge with those struggling on the ground, do they begin to challenge oppressive and exploitative systems of power.

In the West Indian context, this meant that Black revolutionary intellectuals were required to fulfil a range of different functions. Attacking the epistemological distortions of imperialism within their own discipline was only the first step towards becoming the ‘guerrilla intellectual’ that Rodney envisioned. The intellectual then had to go on to challenge the myth of a harmonious multiracial society that has been propagated by neo-colonial governments to the point that it has become accepted truth, before finally attaching themselves ‘to the activity of the Black masses. If the revolutionary intellectual did not – at the very least – perform each one of these three functions, then they would become as much ‘a part of the system of oppression as the bank managers and the plantation overseers’. [3]

African History and the Revolutionary Intellectual

Prior to the famous ‘groundings’ in Jamaica, Rodney had made a name for himself as an accomplished scholar of African history. He held a PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies and had published an extended version of his thesis on Oxford University Press. Rodney had also taught and researched in university departments in Guyana, Jamaica and Tanzania. These academic accomplishments make it all-the-more surprising and fascinating to read his account of the ‘groundings’ with the Rastafari:

I would like to indicate my own gratification for that experience which I shared with them. Because I learnt. I got real knowledge from them, real knowledge. You have to speak to Jamaican Rasta, and you have to listen to him, listen very carefully, and then you will hear him tell you about the Word. And when you listen to him, and you can go back and read Muntu, an academic text, and read about Nomo, an African concept for Word, and you say, goodness, the Rastas know this, they knew this before Jahnheinz Jahn. You have to listen to them, and you hear them talk about cosmic power and it rings a bell, I say, but I have read this somewhere, this is Africa. You have to listen to their drums to get the message of the cosmic power. [4]

The Rastas had a grasp of African history that was as solid – or in some cases superior – to that of the European scholars he encountered in the academic world. It is also telling that many Rastafari elders considered Rodney as more of a student than teacher in these sessions. One of the participants, Ras Brown, went as far as to claim that a man in his position could not possibly learn anything from a young university professor like Rodney. [5]

Rodney’s ‘groundings’ with the Rastafari show that historical knowledge can restore a sense of pride among the oppressed, and in many cases, can serve as a powerful weapon in the struggle for Black liberation. The Rasta community’s preservation of knowledge on African history and cosmology, provide an example of a counterforce to the historical myths about the continent that are still promoted by bourgeois historians today. But unlike the Rastafari, Rodney believed that the study of African history must then be put in service of a revolutionary objective that both liberates the minds of the oppressed and encourages their active participation in transformation of social realities.

While Rodney respected the Rastafari, and saw them as a ‘conscious articulation of Black pride’, his Marxist views were somewhat at odds with the community’s distrust for political (and especially what they considered ‘European’) ideologies. [6] Rodney on the other hand, defended a methodological interpretation of Marxism that challenged the Eurocentric nature of orthodox Marxism while refusing to abandon its important political project.

Many of those engaged in the debate present the debate as though Marxism is a European phenomenon and black people who are responding to it must of necessity be alienated because the alienation of race must enter into the discussion. They seem not to take into account that already that methodology and ideology have been utilised, internalised, domesticated, in large parts of the world that are not European. [7]

Rodney intended for his ‘groundings’ to go beyond merely challenging the racist and colonial foundations of bourgeois scholarship on an epistemological level. As Carol Boyce Davies reminds us in her introduction to the book – one of several included in the new edition by Verso – imperialism and neocolonialism represent a ‘continuation of colonial relations on the level of histories and epistemologies but also in the realm of political economy’. To fight these systems of exploitation and oppression we must create a new consciousness through ‘grounding’ – as a pedagogical practice and way of life – that enables the Black working classes to confront the epistemological distortions of imperialism and achieve the objective transformation of reality. And this is precisely why we must make the study of African history serve a revolutionary objective.

For Rodney, the study of African history is thus ‘directly relevant but secondary to the concrete tactics and strategy’ that are necessary for liberation. The immediate goal is the conquest of power; the study of African history plays a major part of the revolutionary struggle but ‘the struggle will not wait until the re-education of black people reaches an advanced stage’. [8]

In ‘Groundings’, Rodney also warns us about falling into the trap of measuring the achievements of ancient African civilisations by the standards of Eurocentric scholarship. Instead of focusing solely on the history of large political states, we must challenge Eurocentric and imperialist historiography by highlighting ‘the lives of millions of Africans who lived outside states such as Egypt, Kush or Ethiopia. [9] Revolutionary Black intellectuals should focus on the everyday life of smaller pre-colonial African societies to highlight the accomplishments of all those who have been sidelined by historians in favour of elite groups and dynasties.

Rodney’s ‘Groundings’ was first published at the height of the Jamaican Black Power movement of the 1960s and owes a huge debt to its theoretical and political project. But we must also remember that the history of Black Power comes with its own silences and erasures – especially in terms of Black women’s radical thought and action. Many Black revolutionary struggles of the period were virtually silent on the issue of patriarchal exploitation and often dismissed anti-sexist critiques as ‘racial betrayal’. [10] There are countless cases – like that of Claudia Jones – of women who have virtually been erased from the history of Black left radicalism, and whose stories have only been unearthed through the important intellectual labour of contemporary Black radical feminists. [11]

In the last few decades, the process often euphemistically referred to as ‘globalisation’ has also led to the feminisation of poverty and the emergence of a new colonial order, that harnesses the labour of women from Africa, Asia and Latin America for the reproduction of the metropolitan working class. [12] Given these realities, we must extend Rodney’s conception of ‘grounding’ to include those who experience myriad forms of exploitation and oppression. We must work in diverse spheres to connect a range of struggles with a common commitment to anti-capitalist struggle. Only then can our ‘groundings’ encourage the solidarity required to end the patriarchal practices that are inextricably tied to capitalism, neocolonialism and imperialism, and challenge the always-already gendered and racialised conception of ‘man’ that has ‘over-represented the upper class white male as if he were the human itself’. [13]

The Emancipatory Potential of Decolonisation

Rodney’s critical pedagogy raises urgent and timely questions pertaining to the nature of pedagogy and the aims of knowledge production. ‘What is the position of all of us because we fall in the category of the […] intellectual, a privilege in our society?’, Rodney asks in the final chapter of ‘Groundings’. ‘What do we do with that privilege?’ [14] These questions are all-too-familiar for many of us occupying a space somewhere between the professionalised university and existing struggles for Black liberation on the ground. But how can intellectuals escape this predicament and engage in teaching, learning or knowledge production that is conditioned by the requirements of revolutionary struggle?

Trapped in a cycle of precarious employment, low pay, pressure to publish, excessive teaching and marking duties, and a seemingly endless amount of conferences, many young academics today struggle to connect to the political movements on whose behalf (or rather, in service of whom) they speak and write. The ‘undercommons’ – as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney famously named those who have been ‘written off by the university as unprofessional’ [15] – lack the job security, living wages, health benefits, or professional resources of many of their permanently employed colleagues. Between anxieties of losing their job at any moment, and the pressure to meet the excessive demands of the neoliberal institution, the ‘undercommons’ have little time or energy to engage with the political and social struggles they intend to support. In short, the privatisation and professionalization of university spaces has made it increasingly difficult for activist-intellectuals like Rodney to exist and survive.

All the while, students leave universities with burdens of debt that are virtually impossible to pay off. At university, these same students are treated as customers first, and later as dehumanised ‘resources’ for the labour market. These twin pressures – financial pressure, and the pressure to optimise themselves and their education – have had devastating effects on students’ mental health. The statistics are alarming; a recent poll of 38,000 UK students has shown that one in three students in the UK has experienced serious psychological issues that require professional treatment. The report also suggests that students in their second and third years of university are at a much higher risk, possibly owing to anxieties over entering the job market. These are anything other than ideal conditions for the flourishing of a radical campus politics.

It is easy to pessimistically proclaim the declining relevance of the university as a nucleus for radical politics. But despite these challenges, there have been a number of movements for decolonisation across universities (led by students and ‘unprofessional’ staff) that have reimagined the university’s place in society, and challenged the racist and colonial foundations of higher education. Calls for decolonisation in institutions from South Africa to the UK, have drawn media and public attention to the Eurocentric nature of university curricula and the whitewashed versions of history and philosophy, that are too often presented as universal, even in the most ‘radical’ of institutions.

The decolonisation of universities is an enormous task. Some movements have faltered over time and have struggled to move beyond iconographic and epistemological decolonisation towards a political praxis that links students and staff to wider social struggles. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes that ‘theory is not inherently healing, liberatory or revolutionary. It fulfils this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorising toward that end’. [16] It is not enough to theorise decolonisation; we must practice it. And true decolonisation – a decolonisation that challenges patriarchy, capitalism, neo-colonalism and imperialism – is to support independent radical struggles outside of the university. Yes, it is important to fight for the decolonisation of histories and epistemologies. And no, it is not sufficient.

But there are many other movements that have gone beyond the classroom to build links with outsourced staff and community organisations. Last summer, Justice for Cleaners at SOAS – a movement of students, teachers and the university’s mostly Black, Asian and Latinx cleaning staff – achieved a historic victory by bringing outsourced staff back in house and securing a living wage. Now in its third month of occupying Deptford Town Hall, Goldsmith’s Anti-Racist Action is getting closer to meeting its demands, and has forced the university to consider introducing official anti-racist measures on campus and bringing outsourced staff back in house.

Across UK universities, Cut the Rent campaigns have held teach-outs and brought students and staff closer together in spaces untainted by academic hierarchies. Student-led societies such as Decolonising Our Minds and Decolonising Environmentalism are doing important work to transform academic discourses and practices, while supporting the solidarity campaigns for struggles against dispossession, super-exploitation and environmental devastation in the Global South. In the process of building communities of solidarity, these movements highlight the relationship between education and the production and reproduction of labour-power in the university and beyond. These are glimmers of hope pointing to the emergence of a truly critical pedagogy; the kind of pedagogy Rodney envisioned in his ‘groundings’.

If we want to take seriously our role as committed or revolutionary intellectuals, we must go where the ‘professionals’ refuse to go and continue to encourage the exchange of knowledge between the university and struggles on the ground within the framework of a co-intentional critical pedagogy. Why not support radical efforts at independent self-expression that do not meet our arbitrary standards of academic discourse and respectability? And why not host our book launches and conferences in community spaces that are free and easy to access? I, for one, have gained as much knowledge ‘grounding’ in these spaces as I have in university seminars and lecture halls. And I am certain Rodney would have said the same of himself.

[1] Freire, Paulo. 1996. Pedagogy of the Oppressed . 2nd. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. London: Penguin Books

[2] Rodney, Walter. 2019. The Groundings with my Brothers. London: Verso, p. 68

[3] ibid., p. 66

[4] ibid., p. 72

[5] Lewis, Linden. 1991. “The Groundings of Walter Rodney.” Race & Class 33 (1).

[6] ibid.

[7] Rodney, Walter. 1986. Marxism and African Liberation. Georgetown, Guyana: People's Progressive Party, Georgetown, Guyana, .

[8] Rodney, Walter. 2019. The Groundings with my Brothers. London: Verso, p. 54

[9] ibid, p. 55

[10] Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. 2009. “The Groundings with my Sisters: Toward a Black Diasporic Feminist Agenda in the Americas .” The Scholar and Feminist Online 7 (2).

[11] Davies, Carol Boyce. 2019. “Introduction: Re-grounding the Intellectual-Activist Model of Walter Rodney .” In The Groundings with my Brothers, by Walter Rodney, xi-xxii. London: Verso

[12] Federici, Silvia. 2012. “Reproduction and Feminist Struggle in the New International Division of Labour.” In Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, by Silvia Federici, 65-75. Oakland: PM Press.

[13] Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” The New Centennial Review 3 (3): 257-337

[14] Rodney, Walter. 2019. The Groundings with my Brothers. London: Verso, p. 66

[15] Moten, Fred, and Stefano Harney. 2004. “The University and the Undercommons.” Social Text 22 (2): 101-115

[16] hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress. London/New York: Routledge, p. 61