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Race and Class in the Postcolonial Caribbean: The Views of Walter Rodney

Author(s): Alex Dupuy


Source: Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 23, No. 2, Ethnicity and Class in Latin America
(Spring, 1996), pp. 107-129
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2634249
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Race and Class in the Postcolonial Caribbean


The Views of Walter Rodney
by

Alex Dupuy

The objective of this article is to trace the evolution of Walter Rodney's


views on the relationship between race and class in the postcolonial

Caribbean in general and more specifically in Jamaica and Guyana. I argue

that though already a marxist in 1968 Rodney advanced a radical cultural


nationalist perspective that reduced class to race and therefore was incapable

of transcending the racialist categories and language that he attributed to


imperialism. Moreover, this emphasis on race as the key to understanding the
contradictions of Caribbean society prevented Rodney from proposing a

nonracial democratic project. This perspective is developed in The


Groundings with My Brothers (1983 [1969]), a collection of talks he gave
in Jamaica and in Montreal, Canada. By 1974, however, Rodney had aban-

doned the cultural nationalist perspective in favor of a democratic marxist


perspective that explained the race question in terms of class. This shift

allowed him to leave racialist discourse behind and propose a much more
democratic and inclusive political agenda. Rodney himself may not have
been aware of the inconsistencies between his earlier and later positions on

the race question; his later writings do not explicitly disclaim the views
advanced in The Groundings, although they constitute a break with that

earlier position. The break, it will be shown, was conditioned by Rodney's


experience in postcolonial Africa, which led to the further development of
his marxist ideas, and by the political evolution of postindependence
Guyana under the dictatorship of the Afro-Guyanese People's National
Congress (PNC) led by Forbes Burnham.
Before I show this, however, it may be useful to say a few words about
who Walter Rodney was and why it is important to study his thought. In my

view, Rodney was not just another Caribbean intellectual who made signifi-

cant and internationally recognized scholarly contributions. He was at the


Alex Dupuy is a professor of sociology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He
is the author of Haiti in the World Economy: Class, Race, and Underdevelopment Since 1700

(Boulder: Westview Press, 1989) and is completing a book on Haiti in the New World Order:

The Limits of the Democratic Revolution (forthcoming from Westview Press).


LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 89, Vol. 23 No. 2, Spring 1996 107-129
? 1996 Latin American Perspectives

107

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108 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

same time a committed political activist who joined in the struggles of th

oppressed and exploited classes and racial groups to create a better, just an

egalitarian Caribbean. It is this unique combination that I believe made him


an important Caribbean personage whose ideas were both shaped by and
influenced his practical political activities.

Walter Rodney was born of working-class parents in 1942 in British


Guiana-renamed Guyana after independence in 1966. After completing his
secondary education, he attended the University of the West Indies in

Jamaica, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1963, and went on


to obtain a Ph.D. in history at the University of London in 1966. From 1966
to 1968 he taught history at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and
in 1968 he returned to the Caribbean to take a teaching position at the
University of the West Indies. Rodney's radical views and involvement in

political struggles in Jamaica led the government to label him as a "communist" who engaged in "subversive activities" and advocated violent revolution (Payne, 1988: 28). The government banned his return to Jamaica in
October 1968 while he was attending the Congress of Black Writers in
Montreal. Rodney's reflections on this experience and on the struggles being
waged elsewhere in the Caribbean, the United States, and Africa led him to
write his first major essay on the race question in the Caribbean, The
Groundings with My Brothers.

Unable to return to his teaching position in Jamaica, Rodney went back


to the University of Dar es Salaam, where he remained until 1974. It was

during that time that he wrote his most influential work, How Europe
Underdeveloped Africa (1972). In this work Rodney showed how the conquest, colonization, and partitioning of Africa in the 19th century led to the
economic, political, and cultural underdevelopment of the continent while
simultaneously contributing to the enrichment and industrialization of
Western Europe.

In 1974 Rodney was offered the chairmanship of the history department


of the University of Guyana, but the Burnham government withdrew the

appointment when Rodney returned to Guyana to assume his new position.


Rodney remained in Guyana to become involved in his country's politics and
to continue his scholarly work, which now focused almost exclusively on
Guyana. Amidst his political activities, he wrote a seminal history of British

Guiana entitled A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905 that


was published posthumously (1981a).

Rodney's reputation was not limited to his major scholarly contributions


to the debate on African and Caribbean history, culture, and development. He

also became known in the Caribbean and elsewhere as a marxist militant and

one of the most effective leaders and spokesmen of the Working People's

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Dupuy / RACE AND CLASS IN THE CARIBBEAN 109

Alliance (WPA), a coalition of four progressive organizations that he helped


found in 1975. It was primarily because of the growing political strength of
the WPA in Guyana, the influential role that Rodney played in it, and the
Burnham government's fear of it that the latter is widely believed to have

been responsible for Rodney's assassination in June 1980 (Alpers and


Fontaine, 1982: 186-187; Payne, 1988: 33).
Rodney's political education, however, began during his youth as the son

of a working-class activist in the marxist People's Progressive party (PPP)

during the 1950s. It was during these years that his thought on the existence
and significance of racial and class distinctions and politics began to be
formed (Huntley and Huntley, 1990 [1983]: i; Alpers, 1982: 61-62). As Alpers

argues, by the time Rodney entered the university "the basis of his mature
political belief was well established and the challenge for him was more one
of determining what role these would come to play in his life than one of

struggling against the blandishment of a petty [sic] bourgeois academic life


style" (Alpers, 1982: 62). Moreover, when Rodney went to London from

1963 to 1966 to pursue his graduate studies, his political ideas developed
further as he became involved in a study group with other Caribbean students
formed around the renowned Trinidadian marxist C.L.R. James. It was also

during his years in London and later in Lisbon, where he did research for his
doctoral dissertation A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800

(1970), that he learned firsthand what it meant to be black in racist Europe


(Alpers, 1982: 62-63).

During his first two years at the University of Dar es Salaam (1966-1968),
Rodney became directly involved in the struggles to create a socialist Tanzania
after the Arusha Declaration of 1967 established the principles of Ujamaa or
Tanzanian socialism. Particularly important for Rodney was the role he

believed that the petit bourgeois intellectual must play in postcolonial society
and in the construction of socialism. Basically, Rodney argued-following
Amilcar Cabral-that as a class-in-formation the petite bourgeoisie could
commit "class suicide" and align itself with the working class and the

peasantry to defend their interests against the forces of imperialism and

neocolonialism. Despite the progressive role of the petite bourgeoisie in the

struggle against colonialism (in Africa and the Caribbean), Rodney was well
aware that with the coming of independence and the creation of the postcolonial state the petite bourgeoisie in most cases sought to transform itself into
a dominant class opposed to the interests of the workers and peasants
(Fontaine, 1982b: 150; Alpers, 1982: 65-66; Hill, 1982: 86-89). It was this
realization, I will argue, that led Rodney to break definitively with the cultural
nationalist views espoused in The Groundings.

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110 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

THE NATIONALIST PHASE

When he returned to the Caribbean in 1968 to begin teaching, then,


Rodney's marxist and socialist ideas were well established. The Caribbean
and the United States were in the midst of a political and cultural ferment that

expressed itself in the movement for racial equality, racial pride, and Black
Power. In the search for a socialist alternative to the emerging neocolonial
Caribbean state in the 1960s, given the demise of the West Indian Federation,
the defeat of the socialist PPP in Guyana, and the squashing of the mass
movement in Trinidad, Rodney articulated a version of Black Power adapted
to Caribbean conditions (see Hill, 1982: 77-78). His views were developed
in The Groundings.

The immediate context for the arguments he advanced was the Jamaican

society of the 1960s, where foreign capital controlled most of the key sectors
of the economy-the leading sugar estates, the bauxite industry, some of the

large hotels, banks, and insurance companies, and the communications


network and utility companies (Payne, 1988: 16)-and where the class
structure was closely correlated with the racial/color classification and stratification of the population (Lewis, 1968: 191).

In addition to the representatives of the foreign sector, the Jamaican

capitalist class consisted mainly of the local or Creole Europeans, Jews, and
Lebanese and, to a lesser extent, of Chinese and those of mixed Afro-European

parentage referred to as the "browns" (Stone, 1988: 12). The lower, working,
and peasant classes were made up almost entirely of those of African descent
and a smaller number of East Indians. The browns and Afro-Jamaicans, along
with some Chinese and East Indians, were heavily represented in the middle
to top professional, managerial, civil service, retail, and supervisory occupa-

tions (Payne, 1988: 17; Stephens and Stephens, 1986: 33-36; Lewis, 1968:
191-192; Stone, 1988: 12-14). The postindependence period, particularly the
decade of the 1970s, saw a significant increase in the proportion of black
middle-class individuals in top corporate positions as well as in the ownership

of relatively small and a few large business enterprises (Stone, 1988: 14).
The brown and black petite bourgeoisie were also in control of the two
principal political parties that came to dominate Jamaican politics after the
introduction of the universal franchise in 1944 and independence in 1962.
Rather than being political parties with a distinct class base, both the Jamaican

Labor party (JLP) and the People's National party (PNP) were essentially
electoral machines "led and dominated by educated professionals who acted
as brokers and bargainers in an attempt to assemble multi-class coalitions that

could contain the divergent interests of all social strata" (Payne, 1988: 18).

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Dupuy / RACE AND CLASS IN THE CARIBBEAN 111

Moreover, each party had its financial backers among the local capitalist
class, its trade union affiliates, and its defenders in the ghettos recruited from
the lumpenproletariat in the form of gangs. At the same time, each party

leadership "paid homage to the official myth of the multiracialism of Jamaican


society" (Payne, 1988: 18). The clientelist or patronage system created by the

two parties worked against the "formation of either class or racial solidarity
among the large, massively underprivileged sector of the population" and
caused the two parties to have "a common stake in the stability of Jamaican

political life and [to work] together to suppress the dissemination of disruptive political messages" (Payne, 1988: 19). As Lewis put it, Jamaican society
of the 1960s was a "society of repressed violence in which the real threat to
the carefully nurtured image of inter-racial fraternalism comes, not from the

mass, but from the top groups placed on the defensive by the advent of
independence" (Lewis, 1968: 192-193).
It is easy to understand, then, why the JLP, as the government in power in

1968, considered Rodney a threat, deported him, suppressed the riots his

deportation occasioned, all with the relative acquiescence of the PNP opposition (Payne, 1988: 20-30). One of the principal targets of Rodney's critique
was the black and brown petite bourgeoisie that had assumed state power in
the postcolonial Caribbean states and had become in his view the "indigenous
lackeys" of British and North American imperialism (Hill, 1982: 78). In

agreement with Fontaine, however, I will argue that despite elements of a


materialist class analysis, The Groundings is "to a great extent a statement in
cultural nationalism," even though Rodney may have been "too preoccupied

with the class nature of nationalism, especially with its petty [sic] bourgeois

character, to allow himself to become a full-blown cultural nationalist"


(Fontaine, 1982b: 150).
In The Groundings, Rodney invoked the nationalist ideology espoused
by Marcus Garvey, whom he believed to have been "one of the first
advocates of Black Power, and the greatest spokesman ever to have been

produced by the movement of black consciousness" (Rodney, 1983


[1969]: 20-21). Rodney argued that the contemporary Black Power movement in the Caribbean had three principal objectives: (1) to break with
imperialism, which was equated with white racism, (2) to assume power,
and (3) to reconstruct the Caribbean culturally in the image of blacks.
Achieving these objectives was essential for Rodney if blacks in the
Caribbean were to overthrow white domination and regain control of their
own future (Rodney, 1969 [1963]: 28).

The meaning and imperatives of Black Power, Rodney argued, could be


understood only in relation to its dominant opposite, white power, the

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112 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

expression of the domination of the imperialist countries of Western Eur


and North America over the rest of the world. White power, which had its
origin in the expansion of Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and
in the creation of slave colonies in the New World, consolidated its global

dominance with the division of the world among the imperialist powers with
the onset of World War I in 1914. The international division of labor created
by the imperialist powers whereby the countries of Western Europe and later
the United States dominated and exploited the countries of Africa, Asia, and
Latin America also corresponded to the international racial division of the
world whereby white Europeans dominated black and other Third World
peoples in the subordinated countries. This racialist imperialist system led
not only to the domination of capital over labor but also to the domination of
whites over blacks politically, economically, militarily, and culturally. Thus,
whereas in the core or metropolitan capitalist countries whites were a numerical majority, in the dominated peripheral countries a small minority of whites
ruled over a vast majority of black, brown, or yellow peoples.
Even with the gaining of independence, Rodney maintained, the black
rulers remained subordinated to and dependent on the imperialist powers. He
concluded that it was not at all accidental that wealth came to be associated

with whiteness and poverty with blackness, for it was "the nature of the
imperialist relationship that [it enriched] the metropolis at the expense of the

colony, i.e., it [made] the whites richer and the blacks poorer" (Rodney, 1983

[1969]: 16-19). The essential themes Rodney developed in his best-known

work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), namely, that the development of Western Europe was directly and dialectically linked to the underde-

velopment of Africa, were already formulated in The Groundings. The

cultural significance of the global European dominance was that the white
world had the power to define who was white and who was black. Furthermore, once someone was defined as black by the white world, this became

the most significant factor in that person's life, and it was also part of the
process of homogenization of blacks, who were thereby denied their distinc-

tiveness as individual human beings (Rodney, 1983 [1969]: 16-17).


For Rodney, therefore, blackness was a phenomenon defined in its relation
to whiteness and white power. Even though he did not believe that this was
how things should be, Rodney argued that the color of their skin was the most

fundamental fact in the lives of Caribbean blacks and that it took precedence
over their other allegiances, such as their religion, their identity as citizens
of the same or different island nations, or their class (Rodney, 1983 [1969]:
16). The struggle for Black Power, therefore, was a struggle to alter the
cultural consciousness of Caribbean blacks to stress the positiveness of black
cultural values and esthetics. It was also to rid them of their identification

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Dupuy / RACE AND CLASS IN THE CARIBBEAN 113

with the white esthetic and ethical values that they were socialized to accept
and extol while denigrating black values and associating everything that was
ugly, negative, or evil with blackness. "The road to Black Power in the West
Indies," Rodney wrote, "must begin with a revaluation of ourselves as blacks
and with a redefinition of the world from our standpoint" (Rodney, 1983
[1969]: 33-34).

Rodney was well aware, however, that, in addition to those of African and
Afro-European descent, several other racial groups lived in the Caribbean,
most notably those of East Indian and Chinese origin, and that the population
was also divided along class lines that cut through the various racial groups.
These distinctions notwithstanding, he insisted on homogenizing the stratified racial groups by identifying the Caribbean masses as blacks, whether

they were of African or East Indian origin. This reduction of the two racial

groups to the single concept of "black" was warranted for Rodney because
both African and East Indian workers were exploited by and experienced
similar racial degradation from the dominant whites (Rodney, 1983
[1969]: 28).

Similarly, the fact that sectors of the African population, primarily those
of Afro-European origin, and of the East Indian and Chinese population had

joined the ranks of the dominant and privileged classes-primarily as professionals and civil servants and in the service and retail businesses-even
before most of the colonies became independent did not alter the fundamental

racial characteristics of the class structure. These groups simply joined the

white power structure, adopted its values, and served its interests without
altering the fact that the vast majority of blacks-that is, Africans and East
Indians-continued to be poor and powerless. Moreover, from the standpoint
of the Black Power movement, these parvenu blacks, browns, East Indians,
and Chinese had to choose whether they would continue to ally themselves
with and serve the interests of the white imperialists or commit "class suicide"

and join forces with the black masses to overthrow white imperialism
(Rodney, 1983 [1969]: 28-29).
For Rodney, therefore, the Black Power movement in the Caribbean aimed

not so much to create a racially intolerant society as to eliminate the subordination and exploitation of the black masses by whites and their parvenu

lackeys, referred to as "white-hearted black men" by the "conscious elements." As Rodney put it, the objective of Black Power was to proclaim that

the West Indian societies were black: "We should fly Garvey's Black Star
banner and we will treat all other groups in the society on that understanding [and] they can have the basic right of all individuals but no
privilege to exploit Africans as has been the pattern during slavery and
ever since" (1983 [1969]: 30).

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114 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

A CRITIQUE
I agree with Rodney's characterization of imperialism as involving not

only class exploitation on an international scale but the creation as well of an


international division of labor predicated on racial or ethnic hierarchies. In

this sense, The Groundings preceded by many years Immanuel Wallerstein's

argument that the international division of labor of the world capitalist system
is made up of a class and ethnic hierarchy that expresses itself as nationalism.
Despite my agreement with Rodney on this point, I argue nonetheless that

the book remained trapped in the essentialist and racialist categories and
language created by that imperialism. The ultimate consequence of this

racialist discourse is that despite Rodney's claim that the Black Power
movement did not aim to create a racially intolerant society, it could not but
re-create exclusivist and hence fundamentally antidemocratic practices.
I offer three reasons for these claims. The first is that Rodney was aware
that racist prejudices and cleavages existed within and between the two main
racially defined working-class groups-those of African and East Indian

descent-and that there were also class differences and class prejudices
among the various culturally defined racial groups in the Caribbean (Rodney,
1983 [1969]: 29, 31-34). Yet he insisted on reducing class structure to two
principal racial categories by keeping the designation "white" for the domi-

nant and privileged classes and "black" for the dominated and exploited
classes. The racist reductionism of the European colonialists denied class and
cultural differences among the Europeans by redefining them as "whites" and
similarly deprived the various African ethnic groups brought to the New

World as slaves their individuality and distinctiveness by designating them


as "blacks." The concept "white" therefore expressed the cultural, political,
and economic hegemony of certain specific social classes within the cultur-

ally defined and homogenized "white" racial group over other equally

culturally defined and homogenized class and racial groups.


By adopting the language of race to refer to oppressed social groups,
Rodney similarly robbed the Caribbean working and dominant classes of

their distinctiveness and their integrity by homogenizing them under the


terms "black" and "white" respectively. By accepting the reduction and
redefinition of class divisions and relations into racial divisions and relations,

Rodney in effect reproduced what Depestre referred to as the fetishism of


race relations caused by the metamorphosis of a social relation between
masters and slaves or between capital and labor into a relation between

"whites" and "blacks" (Depestre, 1980: 93). Moreover, he was well aware
that the two main racially defined working-class groups had very different

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Dupuy / RACE AND CLASS IN THE CARIBBEAN 115

cultural and self-identities. Yet, he did not question why in this homogenization process the concept "black" was chosen to refer to all other oppressed
racial/ethnic groups and whether the concept "Black Power" did not in fact

express the struggle of the black nationalist faction of the politically emergent
Afro-Caribbean petite bourgeoisie to impose an Afro-Caribbean "somatic
norm image" as the hegemonic cultural esthetics and ideology in the postin-

dependence Caribbean.
The second justification for my claims against Rodney directly follows

from the first. Rodney not only reproduced the fetishism of race by accepting
the metamorphosis of class relations into racial relations but also endowed
each racial category with its inherent valuational or ideational contents. To

be "white" for Rodney meant to be an exploiter of blacks, to believe that


blacks were racially inferior and that all that was positive, beautiful, and
virtuous in the world was "white" and all that was negative, ugly, and sinful

was "black." To be "black," on the other hand, meant the negation and
opposite of "whiteness."
The above point may be illustrated by showing how Rodney dealt with

the membership of some Caribbean blacks, East Indians, and Chinese in the
dominant class and the racial cleavages between African and East Indian
workers. It was not only that these individuals became members of the
dominant class as a class but rather that they joined the "white power structure
in terms of economic activity and culture." Thus, in addition to exploiting

blacks by joining the white power structure, individual parvenus denigrated

themselves by adopting the white values of black inferiority and losing


"confidence in anything that [was] not white." It was in such a way that "white

people produced black people who [administered] the system and [perpetuated] white values" (Rodney, 1983 [1969]: 29, 33). Similarly, when African
and East Indian workers confronted one another violently it was because

"both groups [were] held captive by the European way of seeing things,"
which meant that each group had accepted what "the white man said about
[East Indians and Africans]," as if "no black man [could] see another black
man except by looking through a white person" (Rodney, 1983 [1969]:
33-34).

Rodney's point is unambiguous here: blacks or East Indians who exploited

other blacks or East Indians or who harbored racist beliefs about lower-class

blacks or East Indians or vice versa could not do so because of their individual

or class interests. This could happen only because they had been duped by
whites into acting against their own self-interest or "their own kind." Thus,
they were not really "black" but rather were the prototype of the Antillean
black, alienated from his own culture, depicted by Fanon in his Black Skin,

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116 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

White Masks (1967). I believe that Depestre's (1980: 82-83, my translation)


poignant critique of the contradictions of negritude applies equally well to
those of Rodney in The Groundings:
Formulated to invoke and nourish a self esteem, confidence in their own
strength, on the part of those whom slavery had reduced to a state of beast of

burden, Negritude evaporates them in a somatic metaphysics. Far from arming


their consciousness against the violence of underdevelopment, Negritude
dissolves its blacks into a perfectly inoffensive essentialism for the system that
dispossesses men and women of their identity.

Lastly, Black Power, as an expression of a cultural nationalist agenda, is


fundamentally exclusionary and antidemocratic. This is shown by those
groups that are seen as the legitimate constituents, participants, and benefi-

ciaries (if it were to succeed in capturing state power and reorganizing society
in its image) of the Black Power movement, namely, the redefined blacks and
the brown petite bourgeoisie, but only after they commit class suicide by

choosing to ally themselves with the workers. Euro-Caribbean groups, that


is, whites, are not given such an option, even if they share the political

objectives of the working classes. Whites, in short, are excluded by definition

because they are white and therefore cannot commit "class suicide"; they

simply cannot choose to be "black." Though they would not be denied "equal
rights" in the new society, the implication is clear that they would remain

whites in a redefined black Caribbean in which "black" culture was


hegemonic. A multiracial and genuinely democratic and pluralist Caribbean

society-or, better yet, one free of racial or ethnic prefixes altogether-is


therefore unthinkable in this perspective.

THE BREAK WITH BLACK NATIONALISM

It was with the racialism and essentialism of The Groundings that Rod
broke when he returned to Guyana in 1974 to become active in its political

life and to write his definitive History of the Guyanese Working People before
his tragic assassination in 1980. Rodney's second interlude in Tanzania
(1968-1974) may have been important in contributing to the break with the
nationalist perspective of The Groundings, for it was during that time that

Rodney further developed his views on Pan-Africanism and marxism.


Rodney (cited in Hill, 1982: 85) defined his marxism thus:
Many of us accept the analysis of contradictions in society in a particular kind
of way that seeks to use the dialectical methodology, that seeks to recognize
the crucial nature of contradictions between the capitalists and the workers,

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Dupuy / RACE AND CLASS IN THE CARIBBEAN 117

not just in our society but in the international capitalist society. But of course
what we're trying to do is to extend that analysis and indeed to go beyond it.
The situation has gone beyond the analysis in the sense that we're talking about
capitalism as a living mode of production, which has gone through many
changes, and that someone who calls himself/herself a Marxist... [starts] from
a Marxist perspective.

Given the rise to political power of the African petite bourgeoisie in the
postcolonial period and the vast differences among the various African states,
Hill argues that Rodney never saw Pan-Africanism as a "simple process of
mutuality, whereby its force was derived from some mystical racial union"
(Hill, 1982: 80). Rather, for Rodney Pan-Africanism derived its substance
from the particularities and internal dynamics of each struggle for the
emancipation of the workers and peasants and from the ways in which a
struggle in a specific domain shed light on and encouraged struggles in other
domains (Hill, 1982: 80). Pan-Africanism was useful for Rodney, therefore,
because it allowed for a "rigorous delineation of the facets of class structure

and class struggle that underlay the earlier anticolonial struggles and the
distorted social formations that succeeded to formal independence" (Hill,
1982: 86). This perspective led Rodney to believe that in analyzing any
African or Caribbean society "we are dealing with state power and we must
examine the class nature of that power" and "must see [that] the goal of our

international activity is to develop a perspective that is anti-capitalist, antiimperialist, and that speaks to the exploitation and oppression of all peoples"
(Rodney, cited in Hill, 1982: 86).

It was in the context of this specifically marxist perspective on PanAfricanism and his arguments against its petit bourgeois and antisocialist

variants that Rodney developed his most forceful criticism of the postindependence African and Caribbean petites bourgeoisies in control of the state.
Despite the progressive role played by the African and Caribbean petites

bourgeoisies in the struggles against colonialism, Rodney argued that they


nonetheless pursued their own class objectives cloaked in nationalist discourses. For Rodney, both Pan-Africanism and negritude had become "in the
hands of petty [sic] bourgeois black states sterile formulation[s] of black chauvinism, incapable of challenging capitalism and imperialism" (Rodney, 1975a:
33, 1975b: 15-16).

Unlike the entrepreneurial bourgeoisies of the developed capitalist countries that created their respective nation-states to achieve the integration of

production and consumption in the process of capital accumulation, the


African and Caribbean petites bourgeoisies accepted their subordinate positions in the international division of labor as a precondition for their formal
political independence. That is, they did not seek to eliminate the domination

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118 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

of imperialist capitalism through greater territorial unity-that is, Pan-

Africanism (or Caribbean integration)-but accepted the creation of the


postcolonial nation-state on the basis of the political boundaries created by
colonialism. This allowed the postcolonial petite bourgeoisie to defend its
narrow class interests against the workers and peasants because these were
based not on the control of large-scale industry, which remained in the hands
of foreign capital, but rather on the control of the state administration, public
service and public enterprises, and the professions (Rodney, 1975a: 21-23).
The interests of foreign capital and those of the African and Caribbean

petites bourgeoisies, then, converged and mutually reinforced each other in


the formation of the postcolonial African and Caribbean nation-states. The
former was able to maintain its economic dominance while giving up its

direct political control, and the latter were allowed to share in the exploitation
of the workers and peasants through their control of the state bureaucracies
and those economic sectors not in competition with foreign capital. Thus,
rather than redressing class exploitation and social inequalities, the gaining

of constitutional independence and the control of the state by the petites


bourgeoisies in Africa and the Caribbean have in fact contributed to their
increase. The conclusion that Rodney drew in preparing for the Sixth PanAfrican Congress that was to be held in Dar es Salaam in 1974, then, was

unambiguous: the postcolonial African and Caribbean petites bourgeoisies


had become a new ruling class with its own interests opposed to those of the
workers and peasants. As a class, therefore, the postcolonial petite bourgeoi-

sie was no longer a progressive force that could be counted on to advance the
cause of equality and social justice in a future socialist (and united) Africa
and Caribbean (Rodney, 1975a: 23-29, 1975b: 15-21).

By the time he returned to Guyana in 1974, then, Rodney had rejected


the notion that racial contradictions were the most fundamental source of

social cleavages and conflicts in favor of a class perspective within which


racial divisions and contradictions expressed themselves. The Burnham
dictatorship had been in power in Guyana since 1966, and its class
character had become transparent. The consolidation of political power

by the petite bourgeoisie in Africa and the Caribbean, therefore, perhaps


more than any other factor, caused Rodney to break decisively with his
earlier nationalist formulations. In the case of Guyana specifically, Rodney
argued, the failure of the predominantly Afro-Guyanese PNC and the
petite bourgeoisie in control of the state to improve the living standards
of the Guyanese working classes called for a new method of analysis that
could demythologize the false premises of a racial explanation. And the

only perspective that could accomplish this task for Rodney was marxism
(Prescod, 1976: 111-112).

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Dupuy / RACE AND CLASS IN THE CARIBBEAN 119

Whereas in The Groundings Rodney had argued that black racial con-

sciousness was essential for the unity and emancipation of the oppressed
African and East Indian working classes, he now maintained that to identify
oneself primarily in racial terms worked against forming alliances between
the two broad sectors of the working class and between them and sectors of
the progressive and racially diverse middle class to create a movement of

national unity against the dictatorship (Rodney, 1981b: 76-78). Rodney


acknowledged, as he had done earlier, that the working class was ethnically
differentiated and that each ethnic group harbored and manifested racist
prejudices and even violence against the other. But what was significant here
was that he understood that the racism of the two working class ethnic groups

was not simply a mimicry of European racism. On the contrary, the racism
of the ethnically differentiated workers had an existential basis in the relative

positions that they occupied in the system of production, on the one hand,
and, on the other hand, vis-a-vis both the colonial ruling and planter classes

and, after independence, the Guyanese petite bourgeoisie in control of the


state and private business interests.

To understand the class and racial cleavages among the Guyanese people,
Rodney had to reconstruct the historical evolution of the Guyanese working
class during the colonial period and the creation of ethnically based political
parties prior to and after independence. Given that the indigenous Amerindi-

ans had been withdrawn to the hinterland of Guyana, the Afro-Guyanese,


whose ancestors had been brought to Guyana as slaves to work on the sugar

plantations, had come to see themselves as the true indigenous and creole
inhabitants and considered the East Indian Guyanese as immigrants who
came later as indentured servants to replace the Africans on the plantations.
The significant fact for Rodney was not only that these two groups of
involuntary immigrants developed competing interests but that they perceived their interests to be conflicting (Rodney, 1981 a: 174).
According to Rodney, there were essentially three bases for the conflicts between Guyanese of African and East Indian descent during the
latter part of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th: issues of
employment and wages in the sugar estates when both African and East
Indian laborers were employed in them, issues of residential patterns
when Africans began to leave the sugar estates to seek employment in the
coastal economy, and issues of land redistribution by the colonial authorities. At every turn those of African descent claimed that they were the true

creoles and hence that they ought to have priority in treatment over the
more recently arrived East Indians. The creole Africans felt threatened by
and resented the East Indians, whom they perceived to be undermining
their precarious positions and achievements. The East Indians, especially

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120 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

the descendants of immigrants, saw themselves as creole East Indians who


had equal rights to participate in the colonial economy and considered the

creole Africans their rivals in the struggle for survival and social advancement (Rodney, 198 1a: 175-183).

To appreciate Rodney's argument it may be useful to discuss his understanding of the process of creolization. The term "creole" refers to all those
of immigrant ancestry who are born in the colonies. This is so for all racial
or ethnic groups. Because they had arrived in Guyana long before the East
Indians, the Afro-Guyanese claimed that they were the "true" creoles and that
the East Indians were simply "immigrants." But subsequent generations of
East Indians inevitably underwent the creolization process under strong
Euro-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese influence while simultaneously influ-

encing Guyanese culture themselves. Both Afro-Guyanese and East Indian


Guyanese underwent similar work experiences on the plantations and met
with the same racial contempt and racist treatment at the hands of the planter

class and its plantation overseers. Thus, though each ethnic group brought
fragments of its particular continental culture with it to Guyana, the creoli-

zation process and the patterns of interaction between them and with the
dominant classes acted as a counterforce. It was inevitable, then, that a new

Guyanese culture emerged that reflected the influences of its various parts.
Subsequent generations of Afro-Guyanese and East Indian Guyanese,
therefore-as well as those of European descent-would become more

Guyanese than either African, East Indian, or European in terms of their


cultural outlook and their behavior, though in the context of the social,
economic, political, and cultural dominance of the European creoles (Rodney, 1981a: 178-179).

Yet, despite these tendencies toward cultural convergence, Rodney maintained that they were not sufficiently advanced to eliminate ethnic or racial

animosity between the two working-class groups and lead them to form
bonds of class solidarity vis-a-vis the dominant classes. Put differently,
Rodney argued that, the creolization process notwithstanding, the two main
ethnic components of the working class failed to develop a class consciousness strong enough to overcome the barriers created by perceived racial and
cultural differences and their separate trajectories. The consequence of these
differences was to maintain the existence of "two semiautonomous sets of
working class struggles against the domination of capital," the one waged by
the descendants of African slaves and the other by the descendants of East
Indian indentured servants (Rodney, 198 la: 179).
As can be seen, Rodney's argument here is qualitatively different from the

one advanced in The Groundings. In the earlier work Rodney reduced


conflicts between and within classes to racial conflicts and downplayed the

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Dupuy / RACE AND CLASS IN THE CARIBBEAN 121

significance of inter-working-class ethnic or racial contradictions and conflicts by appealing to a unitary and essentialist notion of "blackness" opposed

to a unitary and essentialist notion of "whiteness." By contrast, in A History

of the Guyanese Working People as well as other post-Groundings writings


he categorically rejected the appeal to racial solidarity and argued instead for
the need for class solidarity among the working people in their common
struggles against the capitalist classes that exploited and treated them both
with contempt. And it was precisely the preservation of perceived racial and
cultural differences by the working-class ethnic groups that led them to

confront each other and blocked the creation of bonds of class solidarity
between them.

In effect, in A History of the Guyanese Working People Rodney proposed


a nonreductionist class theory of race or ethnicity. Basically, Rodney argued,
the racism of the two main ethnic groups of the Guyanese working class

toward each other could be understood only when situated in the context of

the evolution of the class structure and the patterns of class conflicts in
Guyanese society. Each ethnic group entered the society at a different point in

its history and in different contexts. Each confronted the racism and exploitation of the Guyanese planter class, and each competed against the other for

access to limited job and other opportunities in the colonial economy.


To make the same point differently, one can say that racism can be

explained neither independently from other social relations nor by reducing


it to those relations. Racism, as a set of ideological, economic, and political
practices that interact with other practices in a specific society, has as one of
its effects the positioning of different social groups in relation to one another
vis-a-vis the principal structures of society. It also ascribes and legitimizes

these positionings and helps to secure the hegemony of the dominant class
or social group over the subordinate ones (Hall, 1980: 337-338). Thus,

although in the abstract one can conceive of social classes and the relations
between them as unitary and homogeneous, in the concrete one must always
keep in mind that social classes exist in fragmented forms and are divided
politically, culturally, ideologically, and economically in terms of their specific positioning in the system of production and distribution. Perceived racial
or ethnic distinctions, then, can serve and historically have served as a means

of positioning and reconstituting individuals or groups in relation to the


fundamental economic or political structures of society. And insofar as racism

has as one of its effects the categorization and positioning of individuals, it


may in fact take precedence and become dominant over the class interests of
the racially or ethnically fragmented social groups (Wolpe, 1986: 121-128).
To say that ethnic or racial identity and interests may become dominant
over class identity and solidarity is not, however, to say that ethnic or racial

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122 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

identity may not serve the interests of social classes or class factions or that
once formed ethnic or racial identity and interests remain unchanged. Indeed,

as Patterson (1975: 305-313) argued, an ethnic or a racial identity is not


inherent in the individuals or the social groups whose cultural or racial

attributes distinguish them from others. Cultural or racial attributes as such


are of no intrinsic interest except insofar as individuals or social groups use
them to maximize their respective socioeconomic or political positions in a

particular society. It is therefore the social context in which individuals


mobilize certain cultural or racial symbols to constitute themselves as members of an ethnic or racial group for the pursuit of socioeconomic or political

objectives that gives ethnicity or race its special significance. The reverse is
also true, however. Just as individuals may use their ethnic or racial identity

to maximize their advantages, they may also abandon or deemphasize these


identities in favor of other allegiances, such as class, if they perceive that their

ethnic or racial allegiances are obstacles to the pursuit of their interests.


In A History of the Guyanese Working People Rodney demonstrated how

different social groups and classes used ethnic and racial identities and

differences to position themselves in Guyana in such a way as to maximize


their respective interests. Despite the development of a specifically Guyanese
creole culture that tended to efface particularistic cultural differences, the
dominant colonial classes used their racism not only to demarcate themselves
from the subordinate classes but to maintain their hegemony over them by

excluding them from positions of power and privilege. Similarly, the ethnically fragmented subordinate classes reproduced their ethnic particularities
to distance themselves from each other and to advance their interests vis-a-vis
the dominant classes by excluding the other from competition for scarce
resources and relatively advantageous positions in the labor system.
The privileged petites bourgeoisies of the two main ethnic groups in
Guyana used similar strategies to maximize their interests in the postinde-

pendence era, when the political enfranchisement of the previously excluded


racial groups gave rise to the possibility of capturing state power and gaining
control over important economic resources. The politicizing of ethnic differences reached its highest point in the late 1950s. At that time the PPP was the
first and only multiracial political organization in Guyana with a dual

Afro-Guyanese and East Indian Guyanese leadership, and it had decisively


won the legislative elections of 1953. Labeling the PPP "communist" and

fearing its program of social reforms and political independence, the British

colonial authorities suspended the PPP government after 133 days and
replaced it with an interim administration nominated by the governor (Latin
America Bureau, 1984: 32-34).

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Dupuy / RACE AND CLASS IN THE CARIBBEAN 123

With the encouragement of the British colonial authorities who opposed

the PPP's marxist politics, the party split along racial and political lines in
1955 and became a predominantly East Indian Guyanese organization led by
Cheddi Jagan. In 1958 the breakaway faction led by Forbes Burnham, which
had merged with the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the urban middleclass League of Coloured People, renamed itself the People's National
Congress (PNC). The PNC became the party of the Afro-Guyanese sector
(Latin America Bureau, 1984: 34-36; Fontaine, 1982a: 20). The larger East
Indian population, combined with the racial polarization of Guyanese politics
and the political system of simple plurality, contributed to successive PPP
electoral victories in 1958 and 1961. Given this situation and the higher
birthrate among East Indians, the Afro-Guyanese PNC was doomed to remain
forever a minority party. This led it to join forces with the predominantly
Euro-Guyanese and proimperialist United Force (UF) party to destabilize the
PPP and to foment social unrest and racial violence that polarized Guyana
until the 1964 elections (Latin America Bureau, 1984: 38-40).
Urged by the United States, the British changed the electoral system to
one of proportional representation, which made for a more equitable distribution of legislative seats and allowed the PNC to form a coalition government with the UF after the 1964 elections even though the PPP had won the

largest percentage of votes, 45.8 percent, and captured 24 seats as opposed


to 22 seats for the PNC and 7 seats for the UF (Latin America Bureau, 1984:

45; Rodney, 1975a: 18). Once in power, however, the PNC used various
strategies, including fraud, to retain control of the government and to rule
alone without the support of the UF, which disintegrated shortly thereafter
(Fontaine, 1982a: 21-23).

It was this state of affairs that Rodney struggled to change when he


returned to Guyana in 1974. By then it had become clear to him that race and

ethnic allegiance rather than class dictated political behavior in Guyana and
that this primarily served the interests of the petit bourgeois sectors of both

ethnic groups. He began to perceive, moreover, that increasing numbers of


Guyanese of all racial groups were becoming aware that a decade of independence and PNC control had not led to appreciable improvements in the
living standards of the majority of the population and that their continued
oppression and exploitation by the new dominant classes had nothing to do
with whether they were of African or East Indian origin.

The gaining of independence and of control of the state by indigenous


Guyanese essentially meant the demise of the old white ruling groups.
Control over the state by the PNC and the process of Guyanization transferred

the key economic positions in the state administration, the civil service, the

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124 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

public enterprises, the professions, and the private sector to members of t

mixed Afro-Guyanese and East Indian Guyanese middle classes. The large

scale nationalization of foreign-owned assets that began in the late 1960s

that by 1980 had given the Guyanese government control of about 80 perc

of the economy was more than any other single factor responsible for
emergence of a new Guyanese managerial and professional middle class
based in the vastly expanded public sector and the cooperatives. The control
it exercised over the state and the economy gave the PNC a great deal of
power and patronage not only over the public sector but over the other sectors

of the economy that heavily depended on the state sector. Though the
Afro-Guyanese sector of the middle class undoubtedly became the primary

beneficiary of the PNC dictatorship, the East Indian Guyanese faction also
benefited from PNC patronage and support (Baber and Jeffrey, 1986: 51-53).

The extensive nationalization of the economy, therefore, had not been


accompanied by a radical transformation of the class relations of production
either in the state enterprises or in the cooperatives. Instead, the same class

relations of domination and exploitation between management and labor had


been reproduced in the public as in the private sectors, the only difference
being that now Afro- or Indo-European and Afro- and East Indian Guyanese
managers or businessmen had been substituted for the Europeans. Thus,
though it was justified in the name of a "socialist thrust," the nationalization

of the Guyanese economy by the PNC had been nothing less than a "process
by which a local governing class was extending and consolidating its base of
power" (Mandle, 1982: 113).

It had become increasingly apparent to Rodney and to many others,

therefore, that the Afro-European or Afro-Guyanese petite bourgeoisie in


control of the government and the East Indian businessmen and petite
bourgeoisie had the sarne class interests. Despite competition among them, both
petites bourgeoisies benefited the most by reinforcing ethnic or racial allegiances.

Whereas the Afro-Guyanese petite bourgeoisie sought to perpetuate the PNC's


dictatorship and maintain its monopoly over the state bureaucracy and the state

enterprises, the East Indian Guyanese petite bourgeoisie, along with the
small Chinese, Portuguese, and European populations, strove to retain
their control over the private manufacturing and mercantile sectors.
These changes in the character of the Guyanese economy and class
relations led Rodney to reconsider the relationship of the new Guyanese
middle class to the formerly dominant European groups. Given the postcolonial experience in Africa and the Caribbean and the fact that in Guyana the
old colonial planter class was no longer dominant and the major foreignowned and foreign-controlled sectors of the economy had been nationalized,
Rodney could no longer argue that the Guyanese petites bourgeoisies were

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Dupuy / RACE AND CLASS IN THE CARIBBEAN 125

merely mediating foreign interests and hence were nothing more than "whitehearted black men." It was unambiguously clear that the new dominant
classes in Guyana had their own interests to defend and that these interests
stemmed not from the color of their skin but rather from the privileged
positions they came to occupy. Thus, just as with the racism of the planter
class, the racism of the petit bourgeois sectors of the two major ethnic groups
was instrumental in consolidating their dominant positions after independence and in exploiting the working classes.
Norman Girvan, analyzing the political economy of race in the Caribbean
in general, provides a further clarification of this point. The rise of a new
black and brown bourgeoisie in the postindependence Caribbean, he argues,

did not fundamentally alter the living conditions of the large majority of the
population. Insofar as the overall political economy of the region remained
unchanged, the masses of workers and peasants continued to be restricted to

the role of suppliers of cheap and unskilled labor. Therefore, Girvan argues,
it may be the case that this economic structure is perpetuated not because of
the continuing institutionalized racism of the past but rather because of its

continued insertion into the international capitalist order that reproduces the

"development of underdevelopment" in the Caribbean. Therefore, a fundamental change in the living conditions of the working and peasant classes

would require a "collective disengagement from the international capitalist


order for a socialist transformation of the economy designed to implement a

'people-centered' rather than a 'profit-centered' pattern of economic development" (Girvan, 1975: 27).

Nonetheless, Girvan argues, an ideology of ethnic-cultural racism remains


useful for the preservation of the new status quo because the new ruling
classes in the Caribbean could not admit that the obstacles to the improvement

of the lives of the working classes stemmed from the extant socioeconomic

structures and their insertion into the international capitalist system without

endangering their own class position. Under these circumstances, an ideology


that ascribes poverty to the alleged lower capacities, intelligence, and motivation of the working people becomes useful to the dominant classes, "for
only by a systematic and permanent assault on the sense of individual and
collective self-esteem amongst the general population can their continuing

acquiescence to the socioeconomic order be secured" (Girvan, 1975: 28). And


insofar as "the cultural attributes of the population are inextricably associated
with racial factors, this ideology in effect constitutes a new and more subtle

form of racism which is superimposed on the forms which represent the


legacies of the past" (Girvan, 1975: 28).

It was the recognition of this fact in Guyana that led Rodney to conclude
that people could "look around and see who among them have advanced and

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126 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

recognize that the system is one that gives opportunity only to the few
[and] that surely the time must come when the African and Indian people
organize around their interests as producers in the Guyanese society as
distinct from pursuing this myth of racial superiority or racial subjugation"
(Strickland, 1976: 8-10).

The creation in 1975 of the multiracial leftist Working People's Alliance


aimed to break decisively with race as a basis of organization and to overcome

the racist-oriented politics of the two major political parties and to engage

more seriously than any other organization in the political and ideological
education of the Guyanese masses (Strickland, 1976: 120). The ultimate

objective was to defeat the PNC dictatorship and build a new and genuinely
democratic socialist Guyana. For Rodney, however, it was apparent that
before that task could be achieved, a broad, cross-class movement of national
unity had to be created. He felt that the Guyanese middle class and businessmen could be called upon to participate in this movement because of the need

to expand and increase production. To encourage the participation of the


business and professional classes, however, concrete and mutually acceptable
conditions that satisfied their interests would have to be offered. At the same
time, measures would have to be taken to safeguard the interests of the
working classes, which were seen as paramount. Thus, although Rodney and
the WPA believed that the working class had to play a leading role in a new
government of national unity, the appeal now was to an alliance between the
working class, that is, the African and East Indian creoles, and the progressive

sectors of the dominant classes, which now consisted not only of the
European creoles but also of the African and East Indian creole petites
bourgeoisies and businessmen (Rodney, 198 lb: 76-78). In effect, then, Rodney

was calling for the establishment of a democratic socialist or a mixed


economy in Guyana similar to the one attempted by the Manley government
in Jamaica between 1974 and 1980.
It is clear here that in addition to shifting his position on the race question,

Rodney also shifted his position on the role of the progressive petite bourgeoisie in the struggle for a democratic socialist Guyana (and, by extension,
a democratic socialist Caribbean). In contrast to his earlier call for the petite

bourgeoisie to commit "class suicide" and subordinate its interests to those


of the workers and peasants, Rodney now argued that progressive sectors of
the petite bourgeoisie could join in an alliance with the workers and peasants
while maintaining their class positions. It was the responsibility of the new
democratic socialist state to mediate the interests of the different classes but

by prioritizing those of the workers and peasants. Moreover, whereas in The


Groundings there was no role for progressive creole Europeans in the
construction of the new society, Rodney now argued that their participation

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Dupuy / RACE AND CLASS IN THE CARIBBEAN 127

was essential. The construction of the new Guyana that Rodney called for,
therefore, would not be in the image of blacks only but in the image of all

those who had positive contributions to make, regardless of their class, race,
color, or ethnicity (see also Fontaine, 1982a: 30). The essential criterion for
their inclusion was that they opposed dictatorship (of any class or racial/ethnic
group) and shared the objective of creating a democratic socialist and pluralist
Guyana.

CONCLUSION
Rodney, then, had made a 180-degree turn. Having advanced a black

cultural nationalist perspective in 1969 that called for the solidarity of the
oppressed classes around the racial concept of "blackness," by 1974 he had
jettisoned race or ethnic consciousness as a mystification and hence as a major
obstacle to an inclusive cross-class and cross-racial alliance of the progressive
sectors of Guyanese society. Three related factors served as the raw materials
for the development of Rodney's marxist views: (1) the rise of new indigenous petit bourgeois classes to positions of dominance in the postindependence Caribbean and African states, (2) the new associated relations of
exploitation and the class and ethnic conflicts that these indigenous classes
generated, which could no longer be explained by the reductionist

white/oppressor-black/oppressed dichotomy, and (3) the specific class character of the PNC dictatorship.
The evolution of Rodney's thought on these race and class questions

suggests that he was moving in a direction similar to Depestre's when he


broke with the negritude movement. By 1980, Rodney, like Depestre, seemed

to be questioning the retention of an ethnic prefix before a creole or American


identity as an inevitable reproduction of this old ethnocentrism with its racist

connotation that keeps Caribbeans or Americans imprisoned in a methodology that has compartmentalized and "racialized" the knowledge of the
historical laws of the Americas (Depestre, 1980: 88). Unfortunately, the
cowardly assassination of Rodney, who had become the Burnham dictator-

ship's Nemesis, will prevent us from knowing this with certainty.

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