Skip to main content

Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa: The Continued Relevance of a Landmark Book

Rodney lays out an invaluable concept: that underdevelopment expresses a relationship of exploitation. It implies not lack of development but the existence and results of suppression, oppression and exploitation.

,

The Covid-19 pandemic has both illustrated and dramatized the ongoing North/South divide on planet Earth. The question of who has been able to obtain the vaccine and who has not; who is able to produce the vaccine, and who is constrained by corporate patent restrictions.

It is not that people in the so-called Global North—Canada, the United States, the European Union, Japan—have been able to defy the pandemic and secure health. Within the Global North, there are stark divisions over who is able to get access to the vaccine and who is not, not to mention which populations are sickening and dying disproportionately—divisions that are particularly rooted in oppressions based on class, race, and nationality.

Yet, when one looks at planet Earth, we see global patterns in the manner in which the pandemic has spread and brought disaster, patterns that date back to the fifteenth century, patterns that are rooted in slavery and colonialism and, ultimately, in the construction of so-called race and racist oppression. When one looks at such patterns, one inevitably returns to the continent of Africa.

The challenges facing contemporary Africa make no sense in the absence of an analysis that digs into the slave trade, colonialism, and the arbitrary division of the continent into alleged nation-states, many of which lack the resources to stabilize and advance. In this context, there have been a myriad of opinions—I would hardly call them analyses—as to the root causes of the challenge. All too often, such opinions place the blame on the Africans themselves or simply treat the slave trade and colonialism as matters from the past which lack contemporary relevance. In the early 1970s, however, a book was published that threw down the gauntlet and challenged the apologists of colonialism and neocolonialism to look at why and how Africa found itself in the conditions that it did.

It is difficult to overstate the importance and impact of the 1972 publication of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. In this major contribution, Rodney reaffirmed the centrality and relevance of Africa in world history; the impact of the rape of Africa in the development and expansion of European and Euro-American capitalism; and the challenges that awaited the post-colonial world. This landmark book’s fiftieth anniversary provides a welcome opportunity for its reassessment.

In the early to mid-1970s, there was a fierce ideological battle underway within the Black Freedom Movement between what were referred to at the time as “cultural nationalists”/Pan Africanists, on one hand, and on the other hand, revolutionary nationalists and Marxists. The battle revolved around how to understand the oppression of U.S. African-Americans and, following from that understanding, the strategies and organizational forms necessary to prosecute a struggle for full emancipation.

The cultural nationalists and non-Marxist Pan Africanists, believing that Marxism was a Eurocentric phenomenon (what many of them called, at the time, “white boy ideology”), attacked anything that approached a Marxist understanding of history and the nature of racist and national oppression. There were major differences among the cultural nationalists as to what they understood to be at the root of our oppression, ranging from suggestions of a genetic predisposition by so-called whites, to the alleged inability of whites to break from racism. The cultural nationalists and many Pan Africanists denied the relevance of a class analysis of the U.S. African-American situation, as well as downplayed the relationship of capitalism to racism and national oppression, relying much more on a more generalized critique of Europeans and Euro-Americans.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Revolutionary nationalists and most Marxists linked the struggle for Black liberation directly to the history of the construction of capitalism. They inserted a class analysis into the overall framework. But for some Black leftists, the class analysis was counter-posed to an analysis regarding race and the construction of U.S. capitalism. This led, ultimately, to an entire segment of Black leftists—though certainly not all or even most—falling prey to an economic deterministic analysis accompanied by a practice that sought to build unity across “racial” boundaries based on common economic struggles (in some cases embracing the idea that struggles against racist and national oppression were divisive).

Into this mix, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa appeared. Here was a book written by a committed Pan Africanist, a deeply qualified academic authority, one who also happened to be an equally committed Marxist. Rodney, Guyanese by birth, was influenced by the strong Marxist and Pan Africanist current in the Caribbean. But he did not limit himself to the Caribbean. Shortly after the publication of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Rodney was at the center of efforts to hold a sixth Pan African Congress in 1974. He returned his focus to the Caribbean and led in the construction of a new political party in Guyana, the Working People’s Alliance, a left-wing alternative to the existing parties in Guyana, with a special emphasis on bridging the divide between Guyanese of African descent and those of South Asian descent. Ultimately, he was murdered by forces who were alleged at the time to be connected with the regime of then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham.

In this one book, Rodney completely unsettled the ideological debate, changing many of the terms of the discussion. The key to any analysis of the post-1492 African experience was the relationship of racism and national oppression to the construction of capitalism, as Rodney asserted. Racism and national oppression were not the result of a genetic deformity or a predisposition on the part of Europeans, argued Rodney, but rather racial oppression enabled capitalism’s development and continued operation as an economic system. Rodney’s seminal book altered this debate and played a substantial role in influencing the thoughts and practices of Black social justice activists coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This included a substantial influence on the African Liberation Support Committee (formed in the aftermath of the May 1972 African Liberation Day [ALD] protests in Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Toronto, Canada; Antigua; and Barbuda), the Congress of Afrikan Peoples, the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, as well as a myriad of other left-wing organizations within the United States. It is worth noting that Rodney addressed the 1972 ALD rally in San Francisco!

Opening the Book

First, and perhaps paradoxically, it must be remembered that this book was written in the early 1970s. Particularly in the first chapter, there are both references and analyses which are dated, and in some cases problematic. Rodney saw a world that he largely divided between a capitalist bloc and a socialist bloc, though he acknowledged the existence of what was understood as the non-aligned nations. He made no distinction regarding the approaches taken within the so-called socialist bloc, for example, between the roads pursued by the U.S.S.R. and China. He also paid little attention to the weaknesses that had emerged within the so-called socialist bloc.

A reader should not become discouraged or put off by the first chapter. It simply must be read in the context of the period, and it is far from the most important part of the book. The book’s first chapter contains, however, an invaluable concept: Rodney’s assertion that underdevelopment expresses a relationship of exploitation. In other words, “underdevelopment” is not a value-neutral term expressing a lack of development. Rather, it is an expression of the existence and results of suppression, oppression, and exploitation. Metaphorically, it is the person with a ball and chain tied to their ankle yet expected to run.

The African Contribution

If one were to define one feature that is central in the struggles of people of African descent from 1492 until today, it is the battle to affirm our humanity, the legitimacy of our history, and the contributions people of African descent have made over time. Particularly with the advent of so called scientific racism in the nineteenth century, repeated efforts have been undertaken, including on the part of supposedly legitimate scholarly authorities, to ignore, falsify, and debunk the African contributions to human history.

Walter Rodney reaffirmed African humanity and history. His book offers a dramatically different narrative, distinct even from the narrative that many people on the left articulated at the time of the book’s original publication. Breaking with linear and deterministic thinking about history, Rodney demonstrates the existence of various thriving African civilizations, prior to the arrival of the Europeans. He also helps the reader to appreciate that Africa and Europe had been engaged for years preceding the European slave trade, and that the development of civilizations on the Continent did not precisely mirror the development of civilizations in Europe.

Rodney notes that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, whose analysis Rodney largely supports, focused primarily on analyzing Europe yet were willing to acknowledge that they lacked the information to fully analyze Asia. This acknowledgment was also a recognition that history and the development of civilization could and did unfold in various ways across the globe. While there were certain common modes of production, the nature of the societal superstructure could and did have an impact on the way the economic infrastructure operated and evolved. All of this was and remains relevant in an examination of the history of African civilizations.

In the fifteenth century, when European explorers, colonizers, and slavers began entering the scene, the developmental levels of African and European societies were not markedly different. What was critical, however, was European advances in weaponry and oceangoing navigation. With those advantages, Europe took the lead in world trade, ultimately dominating key markets.

What is more, the European contact with sub-Saharan Africa in the fifteenth century came at a time when the major West African empires and kingdoms were in decline and/or disarray, making it that much easier for European penetration to succeed. During the ensuing centuries, this would allow for the European exploitation of existing contradictions within the Continent as a whole.

Beyond reaffirming African humanity and civilization, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa—in the tradition of the iconic Eric Williams 1944 work, Capitalism and Slavery[1]—offers a detailed examination of the contribution of Africa and African people to the development of European capitalism. In advancing Williams’ thesis, Rodney describes, in dramatic yet scholarly detail, the impact of these “contributions” on Africa and Africans and critically, the centrality of the exploitation of Africa and Africans in the development of European and Euro-American capitalism. A few examples may be useful here.

Along with the exploitation of the Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, the European trade in African slaves brought enormous wealth to Europe. This ranged from expanding European trading fleets to the wealth that moved from Spain and Portugal to the banks in the Netherlands to the emerging capitalist state in Britain. Rodney emphasizes that the European exploitation of Africa and Africans was not the result of racism. Rather it was driven by economic motives. The importance of this last point cannot be overstated, given that a recurring theme within a portion of the Black Freedom Movement had centered the motivation behind the degradation and exploitation of people of African descent on racism. Rodney directly challenges that line of thought. Racism, then, plays a central role in the construction of capitalism—and not just in settler colonies—but it was not the racism that inspired the slave trade.

This last point is critical, albeit controversial in some circles. The relationship between capitalism and racism is sometimes described as one of racism preceding the development of capitalism. Rodney would disagree, though acknowledging that Europe was full of ethnic and religious oppression prior to the emergence of capitalism. Those various forms of ethnic and religious oppression laid the foundation for what we have come to experience as racism, but racism—as such—is integrally connected with the rise of capitalism, with racism serving as the very lungs through which capitalism breathes.

The impact of the European trade in African slaves and the eventual colonization of the Continent was nothing short of devastating for African people. Slavery brought with it population decline, disease expansion, and the proliferation of wars between various African kingdoms with the aim of securing of captives to be sold as slaves. All of this held back the full development of the Continent, so much so that one could argue that slavery became a “narcotic” to which large portions of the Continent were addicted, and thereby weakened.

The Continent was pillaged, resulting in the removal of key resources, rare materials, and people. The division of the Continent (through the Berlin Conferences of 1884-1885) and the inability of Africans to consolidate genuine national or regional markets—in part because resources were overly deployed toward war—left the Continent further and further behind. Outright colonization became the coup de grace regarding any attempt at independent and genuine development.

Colonialism provided nothing for Africa, a point that Rodney correctly emphasizes. This has been a fact around which there has been much debate over the years on the part of apologists for colonialism who have insisted that the Europeans brought the key elements of civilization to the allegedly backward Africans.

Rodney not only points out the technical and cultural advances that had existed within Africa (prior to the European conquest) but also goes on to show how little the colonizers actually offered the Continent and how much they took from it. Every intervention by the colonialists was aimed at deriving gain for the colonizer. Railroads that were constructed were not aimed at providing transportation for Africans but, instead, to transport goods from the hinterlands to the coast. People living within miles of one another had no direct route to connect but instead had to follow roads and railways that were never designed to assist a public.

The Crises Following Independence

Independence brought with it a series of new challenges because the national boundaries of the new states were not ones created by Africans and because Africans lacked economic infrastructure and, in some cases, experienced the destruction of infrastructure by departing colonists—for example, Guinea in 1958, Mozambique in 1975. In both cases, the former colonial powers destroyed all that they could to disable the newly independent governments from going forward. The infamous case of Guinea is one the best known examples of this destruction. The French removed everything that they could because Guinean President Sekou Touré refused to enter into the economic relationship with France that President De Gaulle insisted upon. Quite literally, the French removed light bulbs and lighting fixtures in their exit. In Mozambique, the Portuguese followed a similar pattern.

The new states also confronted a challenge touched upon by Rodney but explored in depth in 2020 by Mahmood Mamdani in his excellent work, Neither Settler nor Native,[2] of the “creation” of “tribes” and “ethnic groups” by the colonizers. One of the most dramatic examples of this, though certainly not the only one, was the transformation of Hutus and Tutsis from class-like designations (in which a person could go from one to the other) into alleged ethnic groups in Rwanda and Burundi by the colonizers. The impact of these designations sowed the seeds for ongoing conflict, indeed, for genocide in some cases.

Africa emerged from its colonial horror at a level of disfunction that shares many parallels with the condition of the Indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere after five hundred years of colonialism, slavery, settler colonialism, and in some cases, near annihilation. Nation-states had to, in most cases, be created out of whole cloth, with divisions and strife built into that which was developed in borders never designed by Africans. This dysfunction and underdevelopment came to be blamed by many Europeans, Euro-Americans, and even by some Africans, on the Africans themselves (!) for allegedly not being capable of taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the modern world.

The Critical Importance of History

Walter Rodney’s landmark book is a meditation on the need to understand the historical antecedents of contemporary crises and challenges. And by extension, the book is an argument for historical accuracy as a precursor to the just resolution of crises.

Within the United States, there is currently a battle revolving around history. This battle takes the form of a peculiar attack on what is called “critical race theory” (CRT). CRT is a framework introduced in the early 1980s by Derrick Bell, a lawyer and legal scholar who elaborated the view that race is a social construct, and that racism is embedded in legal systems and policies, and not mainly the product of individual racial bias or prejudice. In the ensuing years, the theory has been further elaborated by scholars Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Mari Matsuda, Patricia J. Williams, and others. Until about a year ago no one, outside of academia, had ever heard of the concept.

The U.S. right wing, however, chose, much as they did in the 1940s with their anticommunist crusades and tirades, to use the notion of CRT as a means of rallying the white voter in support of right-wing candidates and causes. Republicans and right-wing ideologues depict CRT as an attack on white voters’ personhood, rather than as a call to understand the ways in which racism undergirds political, legal, and economic institutions in the United States. The fundamental goal of the attack on so-called CRT goes beyond energizing white voters for this or that election. Rather, the aim is to carry out an overturning of the “twentieth century,” that is, to push back on the victories for democracy won in the twentieth century, including but not limited to those won on the front against racist oppression. Thus, abandon history so that there need be no discussion of the sorts of repair work that must be undertaken domestically and globally. Use the attack on CRT as a way of ignoring the impact of hundreds of years of “damage,” and instead act as if there is either a level playing field or, among the far right, act as if there is an effort underway to eliminate white people entirely.

It may appear odd to introduce Walter Rodney into this discussion, but his analysis of what actually happened to Africa is very pertinent. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is not an academic text. It does not offer an abstract look at an historical question from thousands of years ago. Rodney uses history as a means of posing a question as to what must be done now to address the catastrophe that unfolded on the African continent. As just noted, what course of action must be undertaken to repair the damages brought about—in the case of Africa—by slavery and colonialism?

As in the struggle to respond to the rightwing attacks on a truthful telling of U.S. history, Rodney’s book is an invaluable resource in responding to the ever-present approach toward Africa exhibited by the major powers and the transnational capitalist class. The suggestion that Africa suffers as it does largely due to its own errors and deficiencies such as corruption, rather than the centuries of rape by Europe, the United States, as well as the myriad corporations that have penetrated the Continent, is beyond insulting. It results in an erroneous approach toward the resolution.

In the early 2000s, I had a discussion with a Haitian migrant to the United States. The individual in question was highly educated and presented themself as being progressive. When we started discussing the situation in Haiti, however, they said, “What do you do when a people seem incapable of getting themselves together and climbing out of poverty and degradation?”

When they finished posing their unsettling rhetorical question, I had to do everything in my power to restrain myself. The absence of history, in their remarks, was startling. Did they not appreciate the impact of the blockade that the United States and France imposed on Haiti after the Haitians successfully defeated Napoleon? Did it not occur to them that the French imposition of “reparation” demands—between $20 and $30 billion in today’s dollars exacted from the Haitians for the liberation of the slaves, which Haiti paid from the 1820s until 1947—might have had an impact on Haiti’s underdevelopment? Might the fact of repeated U.S. military and quasi-military interventions, usually to support dictatorships, have contributed to Haiti’s morass?

Yet it was the historical amnesia that led this otherwise very good person into a combination of despair and self-blame. A version of this unfolds in the Global North—Europe, North America, Japan—when it comes to discussions of Africa. The lack of acknowledgment and accountability for what transpired since the fifteenth century and the efforts to turn the tables and blame the oppressed for their own situation stymies efforts to repair the damage that the continent has suffered.

Repairing the damage could involve cancelation of the debt that so many African countries found imposed upon them by countries and institutions rooted in the Global North: a crackdown on illicit financial flows out of Africa, largely to North America and Europe; a withdrawal of military institutions and bases occupied by the Global North; a refusal to recognize dictatorships and coup regimes imposed upon African people; and directed development assistance based upon the actual needs of the countries themselves rather than by governments and institutions rooted in the Global North.

None of this is about generosity, to be clear. None of this would be the result of abstract moralism. Rather, it is the result of conclusions derived from the sort of historical analysis offered by Walter Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and analyses that have been deepened by scholars ever since.

While some of the facts of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa may be dated, the analysis remains timely. It also remains every bit as much of a call to action that it was in 1972 when so many U.S. African-American activists, followed by other social justice activists, found themselves glued to and inspired by its framework.


Notes
1. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2021.
2. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a longtime labor activist, writer, and a past president of TransAfrica Forum. He is the coauthor (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (University of California Press, 2009). He also wrote “They’re Bankrupting Us”—And 20 Other Myths about Unions (Beacon Press, 2012), and The Man Who Fell From the Sky (Hard Ball Press, 2018).