A decade before his assassination in 1980 by the Guyanese state, Walter Rodney taught a graduate course named “Historians and Revolutions” at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the lectures of which serve as the basis for The Russian Revolution: A View From the Third World. As the book’s editors Jesse Benjamin and Robin D.G. Kelley explain in the Introduction, “Rodney’s objectives were to introduce students to dialectical materialism as a methodology for interpreting the history of revolutionary movements, to critique bourgeois histories and their liberal conceits of objectivity, and to draw political lessons for the Third World” (xix). The final product, the book published in 2018, is displaced temporally from its inception in 1970, and thus cannot answer many of the questions about the fall of the Soviet Union and its afterlife since 1991. But it achieves an incredible prescience about the subject of the Third World. Rodney’s writings on the Soviet Union are no less incisive, but it is his ability to draw out the lessons of Russian Revolution as they pertain to the Third World that gives this text longevity. Rodney reveals how history itself is a weapon in an ideological war. Rodney is cultivating a scholarship in the Third World that is not dependent on bourgeois historians to proselytize the history of the world. Both aspects of the book’s title thus speak to its twofold mission; first, to tell a history of the Russian Revolution that matters to the Third World, and then to assert the necessity of a historical viewpoint situated there. Rodney accomplishes both, and in the process asserts himself not just as a historian of and from the Third World, but one of world historical significance.
Foremost is Rodney’s reading of the Russian Revolution, and how he applies his conclusions to the process of building an anti-imperialist, socialist alternative in the Third World. Rodney’s conclusions are often linked to Tanzania; he was observing and participating in the process of constructing Julius Nyerere’s “African Socialism,”or Ujamaa, when these lectures were delivered. As a result, he frequently refers to Tanzania in his reflections on Russia. When he discusses the Soviets’ move to a single-party state, he says that “In Tanzania, there is a single party representing the workers and peasants. The number of parties in existence is quite irrelevant—the issue is, to whom are they responsible?” (32). Rodney comments on how “looking at Russia in the nineteenth century was almost like looking at Tanzania today” (50) in order to draw out how the contradictions of Russian society before the Revolution resemble many of the conditions in the Third World. Rodney asserts the “relevance of placing the discussion [of the Revolution] in an imperialist context” (172); he directs his critique of Western “Marxists” like Kautsky who believed the Russian Revolution contradicted Marx. Rodney is caustic toward Kautsky, calling him a Marxist “who forgot to be radical” (186). He criticizes Social Democracy, identifying it as “the improvement in the standard of living of many Western European workers, based on colonial exploitation” causing “their representatives to cease talking about revolution” (112). He asserts that Kautsky “gradually slipped into that position; the apparent rigidity of his Marxism in interpreting the Russian Revolution is a reflection of the debilitating effect of imperialism on the consciousness of Western European workers.” In the process, Rodney identifies a dogmatic worldview “Marxism” in the labor aristocracy, deriding Kautsky as part of the “new strata in Western European society: the imperialist worker elite and their intellectual spokesmen” (113).
Rodney’s criticisms in 1970 have since become integral to the critique of the “labor aristocracy”. But more significant is his condemnation of Kautsky for his dogmatic reading of Marx, and his effort to synthesize a worldview that does not allow for innovation. As Rodney writes, “It is always in the interests of bourgeois scholars to take Marxism as expressed in a rigid and dogmatic manner, because such dogma is then easily shown to be false when it is tested against experience” (110). Rodney quotes Marx himself in an 1877 letter responding to the editor of the Russian publication Otecestvenniye Zapisky, who wrote a critique of Capital, saying that “It is absolutely necessary for [this critic] to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of general development, imposed by fate on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they are placed” (49). Rodney’s commitment to understanding the Russian Revolution stems from a concurrence with Lenin that Marx’s method and analysis can be lifted from their historical specificity in Britain and applied in a novel manner to the differing conditions of other countries. This is Rodney’s way of lambasting the theorists who derided the Bolsheviks for their “contradiction” of Marx, so as to apply Lenin’s approach to the Third World. Rodney is critical of the “many popes in the Marxist world who ordain and excommunicate this or that person or organization as true or false Marxists” (10); instead identifying “that aspect of Marxism which lays claim to universal validity” as “its method—the scientific method of dialectical materialism. Like any other scientific method, it produces results on being applied to a given set of data or conditions” (70).
This is a relevant assertion, as it maintains the validity of a common approach to the problems of the world, while focusing on the particular historical conditions of the Third World. Rodney thus follows carefully the treatment of peasants in the Revolution because of the predominantly peasant population in Tanzania and the Third World in general; “the role of the peasantry in socialist revolution was an unavoidable issue for Rodney since this was the fundamental question for post-independence Africa, especially in Tanzania where Ujamaa entailed the creation of collective villages” (lix). Rodney becomes invested in studying Trotsky’s concepts of combined and uneven development, relating them to the conditions in Tanzania. As Benjamin and Kelley write, “Rodney takes from [Trotsky’s] dynamic notion of combined and uneven development an explanation for how skipping over the vaunted “stages” of history could be a way of promoting a socialist path for Africa” (lix). Rodney is also compelled by Lenin’s focus on anti-imperialism in Russia and the colonies; Rodney agrees with Lenin that “before 1917, industry in Tsarist Russia was not merely capitalist; it belonged to foreign imperialists” (147). Rodney argues that “Lenin saw that nationalism was always associated with capitalist development, but was not always favorable to the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, the struggle in the colonies could be expected to assume national forms, which would challenge the bourgeoisie of the imperialist countries. He called the colonies a vast reservoir of potential allies of socialism against imperialism and was particularly interested in the national democratic revolution in Asia” (161). Rodney believes this is a valuable legacy of the Bolsheviks challenging the dogmatism of the Second International “Marxists,” saying “the accuracy of Lenin’s analysis has subsequently been borne out by the revolutionary process in Asia, Africa and Latin America” (151).
Rodney affirmatively quotes Mao Zedong’s distinction in “On Contradiction” between the “universality of contradiction” and the “particularity of contradiction,” in order to argue that “to understand the specific content of the contradiction in the given society, one must look at the particular features of the two aspects of the contradiction” and after says “this is really an argument stressing the study of objective local conditions, and Mao condemns dogmatists for failing to study the particularity of contradictions in their local settings.” Rodney applies this analysis to studying Russia; take his analysis of the collectivisation process. Rodney is in favor of taking “a more compassionate view [of Soviet policy] without necessarily saying that Stalin’s policy was right or that the Bolshevik government should be free from blame” (120). Despite this, Rodney is on the whole supportive of the process of collectivization and socialist transformation in Russia, noting that the result was the “transformation of the USSR from an agrarian country into an industrial power” (126), a model for the Third World. Rodney nevertheless urges the Third World to emphasize particularity in their interpretation: “China, Korea, Vietnam, Eastern Europe and Cuba have shown that the peasant can have the use of the land in a collective socialist form and be perfectly satisfied. The likelihood is that the African continent will in time produce other examples of the successful peaceful collectivization of agriculture and the institution of socialism in the agrarian sector” (121). Or, when discussing the historical debate about whether the transformation of Russian society would have occurred without the October Revolution, he condemns bourgeois historians for “stating that the revolution would have occurred without the political revolution,” arguing that “they are trying to suggest that capitalist development can still continue in the present century, and that it has the capacity to transform a backward agrarian country into a modern industrial power” (146); in other words, this cannot happen in the Third World.
This becomes one of the most fascinating elements of Rodney’s thought: his ability to comprehend historiography and historical development together. Writing on bourgeois historiography in its totality, Rodney states “the above historiography is directed as much to the “Third World”' as to the citizens of capitalist countries. The message that they are trying to get across is that underdeveloped countries today need not take the socialist path, since they can develop just as well through capitalism” (148). Rodney is guided by a belief that for the Third World, socialism and anti-imperialism are the only way to development; in fact, he argues that “today, the welfare of capitalism in America, Britain, Japan and so forth is incompatible with the development of colonized areas even along capitalist lines, because that development would mean the end of the parasitic relationship that is the essence of imperialism” (149). Such an option is no more available to the Third World today than it was when Rodney wrote.
This is where, for Rodney, the historiography of the Soviet Union and the Russian Revolution become essential. Rodney writes that “the Russian Revolution itself did more than any other historical event to bring about ideological polarization on a world scale between the two world views of the socialist and capitalist systems” (7). The Russian Revolution meant that “Marxism was to acquire a class base and the support of a state power” (7) but also that it created the possibility for future revolutions against this world-system, and this particularly important for the people of the Third World; Rodney explains that “the lives of Africans over the last five centuries have been affected to varying degrees by forces originating in Europe. Increasingly, Africa became enmeshed in the web of relations that constitute international capitalism— imperialism. The Russian Revolution was the first decisive break away from international capitalism, affecting thereby the subsequent course of events around the world, including Africa” (4). After the Revolution, the critical debate (still today) is what path the Third World will choose. Rodney believes that the contestation for the future of the Third World will factor as part of “an ideological war for the possession of the whole world,” and so “the writing of history has been a facet of, and a weapon in, that war, and historians interpreting the Russian Revolution itself have been active combatants” (7). Rodney asserts that “the colonizer had national and ideological conflicts with the Soviet Union. Indeed, they were self-declared enemies. Therefore, ‘A’ was interpreting his enemy, ‘B,’ to a third party, ‘C,’ which happens to be comprised of Africans” (3). Rodney believes that the history of the Revolution has been narrated to Africans in a European universalist manner in spite of the inability for the Third World to follow the same development path as Europe. His task thus becomes laying “the theoretical ground for an alternative: that of Third World, non-aligned Marxism, which Rodney refers to here as “an African perspective”—an explicitly global viewpoint from an African position” (xxii).
As Rodney admits in the beginning, “to a certain extent, this inquiry has as a premise that there is such a thing as “an African perspective” (4). Rodney had been at the center of debates about whether such a thing as “African” socialism existed in Tanzania; as Benjamin and Kelley explain in the introduction, Rodney “wrote a provocative essay that argued President Julius Nyerere’s concept of Ujamaa was not “African socialism,” as the latter described it, but an expression of scientific socialism” (lxii). As Rodney writes in his first chapter, “There is an area of potential conflict that arises by trying to reconcile an African view with the two world views. It can be argued that aspects of ideology coming from Europe are irrelevant to the African perspective or the black world view. Conversely, it can and has been said that a world view is either idealist or materialist and that the label “African” conveys no meaning and probably mystifies. That issue can only be resolved in the forces of discussion, and it is my intention to try and avoid prejudgment” (4). Rodney is constantly in tension between a proletarian universalist application of the categories of materialism against idealism, or asserting the particularity of an African view. He ultimately lands on a compromise: “1. the superiority of materialism over idealism, and 2. that materialist views are partial and do not take African perspectives into account” (4). It is this contradictory position, caught in between the universal struggle between capitalism and communism, and the individual struggle of Africans, that he is able to capture the meaning of something like the Third World; clearly wedded to the side of materialism as historically progressive, but in need of refinement from the colonized peoples of the world, who can nevertheless assert a shared historical condition across borders between Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and at the same time assert the particularity of their struggle.
Rodney uses this perspective to see clearly how historiography itself is used as a weapon to keep colonized people in the camp of their oppressor. He writes for instance that “the bourgeois historical interpretation of Stalin was very effective within the large part of the world that was until recently politically subjugated to Western Europe, and that until now is culturally colonized by the bourgeoisie of North America and Europe. One did not need to read a history book to know that Stalin was a terrible monster . . . In colonial territories, it was part of the warning used against independence movements, which were invariably described as “communist” or “communist-inspired,” and many a sermon has been preached in our part of the world against the dangers and evils of Godless Communism—as exemplified under Stalin’s rule in the 1930s in particular” (178). Rodney is successful because he demonstrates the extent to which Western scholarship is used to perpetuate the existing hierarchies of domination. He uses an anecdote of English anti-Communist geographer John C. Dewdney. Rodney quotes Dewdney as qualifying the success of Communism by saying “we should not make the error of exaggerating the Soviet achievement and assuming that the rapid progress which has been made since the Revolution is due solely or even mainly to the superiority of the Communist system over alternative economic and political systems” (132). Rodney incisively points out that at the time of writing, “Dewdney was a professor of geography at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone” in order to show how a bourgeois view of history, implicitly interested in preserving itself, works to replicate power over the colonized and keep them estranged from alternatives. As Rodney remarks, “how this fellow must have confused our brothers in Sierra Leone!” By relating the figure of Dewdney, Rodney reveals that for the colonized, “we were taught that the varieties of bourgeois thought encompassed the truth (just like people in the developed capitalist countries). The materialist worldview is excluded or mentioned as one among many alternative views. The result is a Marxist view through a distorted bourgeois lens” (186).
Rodney’s assertion that, in the end, Africans and the Third World must create their own perspective on the events of history is an expression of the need for alternative scholarship that does not dictate the terms of history to the colonized. After this rejection, however, and caught in between two views of history, which one should be accepted by the Third World? It is with this that Rodney concludes, in 1970, what today still serves as a vital lesson for the struggle in the Third World. Rodney, as a representative of the Third World at large, is grappling consistently with a choice between embracing fully and supporting the Soviet view of history (and by extension the Soviets themselves) or taking a “Non-Aligned” path. With historical hindsight, we can see the struggle for the Third World as critical in helping the capitalist camp win the first phase in the longue durée. Such hindsight offers us an opportunity to recalibrate for the present moment, to avoid making the same mistakes that Rodney labels as “chauvinism” within the Soviet camp. Nevertheless, Rodney is most salient when he asserts that “We cannot say that we are in between, neutral, or any more objective. We have our own historical stand and must define our position relative to our own history. By “we” I mean the colonized and formerly colonized, black Africans, workers and peasants or intellectuals with roots in said classes.” Rodney is clear that the Third World’s view “could not be that of the bourgeoisie.” He then asks, “Is it that of Soviets? They have their national and international interests, and their historiography reflects this. While we share much with the Soviets because of the similarity of our present and past with their past in the period under study, current political and economic developments mentioned above complicate our position vis-à-vis the Soviets.” Today, the Soviet Union is no longer an alternative option for the Third World. But the views of the Bolsheviks who took the first step in challenging the dogmatic, social democratic reading of Marx are not, and this scholarship is now more popular than ever in the Third World. Rodney concludes his lectures with this: “What we need to do is define our own stand first and see where it coincides… the Soviet Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent construction of Socialism emerges as a very positive historical experience from which we ourselves can derive a great deal as we move to confront similar problems” (186). From the Third World view, then, the legacy of the Soviets remains an imperative source of study to learn about this first great polarization of the world-system. But Rodney’s words, echoing long after his untimely murder, echo in the world today that the Soviets may have been the first great Revolution, but as the Third World learns its own history, develops itself with alternatives being theorized everyday, and becomes confident in its ability to challenge the dominating world view and world-system, it will certainly not be the last.
By Joseph Mullen