Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

There may be more questions raised than answers proffered in Walter Rodney’s classic but we seek to summarize the book whilst importing a critical look to complement the book.


Some Questions on Development

1.1 What is Development?

Development defined as a process of change is, according to Walter Rodney, many-sided involving individualism, social stratification/castes, and the society at large. This development is represented in the context of increased skill, greater freedom, creativity, self-discipline, responsibility and material well-being. However, during the course of this discourse Walter Rodney’s greater attention was directed at material well-being, freedom and skill.
Individual development, though sometimes moral, is tied to the overall development of the state. At the level of social groups, development implied an increasing capacity to regulate both internal and external relationships while for the society at large, development has exhibited strength to single-handedly improve their ability to live better lives through harnessing the earth’s resources available to them. Africa, construed to be the home of man, is not excluded in this regard.
The advent of tools greatly impacted economic development positively no matter how crude they were. However, human industry was beset by varying degrees of setback as they sought to achieve economic development. Using early China as an example, circumstances propelled their discovery of man-made fire and planting seeds. The resultant economic prosperity was evenly distributed equally amongst families. By the time of the T’ang dynasty of the 7th century AD, this quantitative growth progressed into qualitative changes that became evident in the structured political clime of the Chinese society and in specialization and division of labour which resulted in more production.

The stages of development progressed from communalism which gave way to slavery and from there to feudalism before finally settling on the capitalist stage. A further stage, bearing a semblance to communalism, socialism, is predicted to materialize soon on the world scene as the fifth stage. Communalism is adhering to the principles and practices of communal living or ownership, or support for a communal society. Under this system, property was collectively owned, work was commonly done while proceeds were shared equally. Under slavery, some group of persons were overwhelmed by others and subjected to a life of servitude working for the needs of the more powerful ones. Their major duty was the cultivation of food. The slaves had neither will nor property of their own. Slavery helped open up Europe, and was characterized by the repression of free people, repressed technological advancement and slave revolts that were expensive to put down.
In the feudal stage, the then slaves were now free men. Howbeit, without land for cultivation they were therefore still subject to their previous slave owners now renamed feudal lords. However, they could walk off the plantation any time they choose although to nothing because land, their main source of livelihood, was not within their reach. As was obtainable in slavery, the children of serfs (servants to the feudal lords) were serfs. The final stage, capitalism, was characterized by the concentration of wealth and the factors of production (with the exception of labour) in the hands of a privileged few. Capitalism is outmoded, inhibits science and technology because of continuous clash with the fundamental motive which is profit, it is incapable of superseding market crises, it under-utilized productive capacity, and encouraged wastes via competitive agencies such advertising.
Rodney posits that socialism, on the other hand, improved on the weakness of imperialism by aiding the release of the nationalist energies of colonized people, it turned the aim of production from the money market to the actualization of human needs, eradicated bottlenecks such as permanent unemployment and periodic crises and provided equality in economic conditions by creating plenty for an egalitarian society.

1.2 What is Underdevelopment?

Underdevelopment should not be erroneously conceived to be the absence of development but the low level of development of a nation state in comparison to other states at a given time. Underdevelopment is the product of selfish and unreasonable exploitable of the underdeveloped, or developing (as it is euphemistically referred to) states and the exportation of the surplus produce to the developed states from the under developing countries.
Characteristics of developed states are that they are highly industrialized, high output of labour in ratio to men, improved social services, advanced agriculture with fewer people producing much more compared to underdeveloped countries where more people produce less and finally the exportation of the surplus from the underdeveloped countries to the developed ones.
A comprehensive look at underdeveloped countries reveals that certain factors keep these nation states underdeveloped which is the reception of the Christian church and faith, acceptance of the language of their colonial masters, political instability and subordination, education which tilts to the West and music.
Finally, the question of who or what is responsible for Africa’s underdevelopment is answered in two parts:
The operation of the imperialist nations and
Manipulators of the African system either as agents or their unwitting accomplices.


How Africa Developed Before the Coming of the Europeans – Up to the 15th century.

General Overview

The development of Europe and the underdevelopment of Africa is not a mutually exclusive event but the exploitation of one to the benefit of another. The above will be studied in operations:
Reconstruction of Africa’s development before the coming of the Europeans
Reconstruction of the level of development of Europe before expansion
Analysis of Africa’s contribution to Europe’s present ‘developed’ state and
Analysis of Europe’s contribution to Africa’s present ‘underdeveloped’ state.
During the period of early development, it is preferable to speak of Africa’s development in terms of ‘cultures’ rather than civilizations. These civilizations or cultures were reflected hugely in our music and musical instrumentation. Highly acclaimed art were evident in Benin bronze castes, Ife’s terracotta, Egyptian pyramids and embalmment amongst others. Religion positively aided in the discipline of a large number of persons living within an area but negatively refused to change in line with current economic changes. Familial relationships which were either matrilineal or partrilineal helped the distribution of land since under communalism it was owned by a group and not an individual. Rights and obligations, as obtainable now, were also a crucial part of Africa’s culture or civilization with the emergence of age grades to help put responsibilities in order. Agriculture was also another area that Africa recorded development such as the Egyptian irrigation practices although the weakness in Africa seemed to have been the lack of professional interest in acquiring more scientific knowledge and in devising tools to lighten the load of labour as well as to transform hostile environments into areas suitable for human activity.
In manufacturing, Africa had recorded substantial development prior to the coming of the Europeans. They satisfied the need for such tools and equipments required by them but failed in the area of specialization and economies of scale. On the part of the creation and maintenance of statehood, some groups and states had the structure while others did not and they are sometimes derogatorily referred to as stateless. However, if there is no class stratification in a society it follows that there is no state, because the state arose as an instrument to be used by a particular class to control the rest of the society in its own interests.

2.2 Some Concrete Examples of Developed States

(a) Egypt
(b) Ethiopia
(c) Nubia
(d) Maghreb
(e) Western Sudan
(f) The Inter-lacustrine Zone.


Africa’s Contribution to European Capitalist Development – The Pre-Colonial Period

3.1 How Europe became the dominant section of a world-wide trade system

There was a transfer of wealth from Africa to Europe from the 15th century when trade between Europe and Africa became international. Europe took the initiative and approached Africa for trade. There is no record of any Chinese approach to Europe or of Africa to Europe. North Africans with their superior nautical powers preferred to play around only in the Mediterranean Sea. Europe’s drive for international trade was however fuelled by their own burgeoning naval powers and their monopolistic knowledge of the international exchange system. They saw the economic sector as a whole and acted accordingly. When the Portuguese and Spaniards controlled the world trade, they bought cotton from India, bought slaves from Africa for the gold mines of Central and South America while Europe however, sold to Africa whatever they had to sell and bought whatever they wanted to buy from Africa. It was an uneven business transaction. Europe sold what they were currently producing and using such as English pewter, French brandy, Portuguese wines, Venetian glass beads etc but they also unloaded goods that were useless to Europeans such as old sheets, cast-off uniforms, out-dated firearms and other oddities. Unfortunately, Africans found them interesting.
Europe assumed the powers to make decisions within the international trading system. They ignored international laws which governed the conduct of nations on the high seas. Europe had an interest to import gold from Africa. The truth of this statement is verified by the number of forts built in the Gold Coast but due to the relative unavailability of gold in the continent they resorted to slavery. Europe’s lust for gold was fuelled by their desire for gold coins and jewelry. The newly discovered American continent was a first stop for Europe to achieve economic greatness but the Indian population could not withstand the stress of hard, physical labour so they diverted their attention to Africa where the labour was abundant, could be cheaply got and exported to the gold mines of America and the products could withstand the toughest of hardships. Slavery was then made possible by Europe’s hunger and the classless society of Africa’s rulers.
However, there were known and recorded resistance to slavery; the king of Kongo (now Congo) preferred a physician and did ask for one but never got any. The Oba of Benin wanted to deal only in female slaves but the Europeans wanted it in a ratio of 2 males to 1 female and pressurized the Oba to sell the male slaves which could have aided Benin’s development. In 1630, Queen Nzinga of Matamba (in present day Angola) tried to resist the slave lure of the Europeans and in a way succeeded until the Europeans left them isolated. Since they could not stand alone, they acquiesced to Europe demands in 1648. Another example is Baga (modern day Guinea,) a group of states. In 1720, one of their leaders, Tomba, tried to secure an alliance aimed at putting a stop to slave trading but he was defeated by European resident-traders. Also worthy of note is King Agaja Trudo of Dahomey.

3.2 Africa’s Contribution to the Economy and Beliefs of Early Capitalist Europe.

Some rewards were accruable to the slave trade commerce that Europe embarked upon;
Slavery provided cargo for merchants
Helped build up Europe already advanced ship-building industry
Slavery built up European towns and cities through imported labour from Africa.
It aided the utilization of European forests, fisheries and soil.
Helped America emancipate themselves from the tentacles of Britain’s grip and also strengthened her political growth. An African was the first casualty in the 1774 American Revolution against Britain.
Apart from economic development, slavery also emboldened Europeans with the erroneous belief that Whites are superior to Blacks because it is a simple fact that no people can enslave another people for centuries without engendering a notion of superiority and when the enslaved have noticeable difference in colour and physical traits then the prejudice would definitely take a racist form.


Europe and the Roots of African Underdevelopment – to 1885

4.1 The European Slave trade was a basic factor in African Underdevelopment

Any discussion of trade between Europe and Africa is virtually a discussion of slave trade because that was the basic trade that both continents engaged in. The shipments of human cargo were all by Europeans to areas controlled by Europeans and in the interest of European capitalism and nothing more. We will discuss European slave trade since European books recognize Arab slave trade; when Arabs bought and sold Africans. Although there are so many uncertain aspects of the trade, the destructiveness is far-reaching. This brings us to the question; how many Africans were imported? Estimates range from a few millions to hundreds of millions, however, a new study estimates ten million Africans but the low figure has been trumpeted by capitalist apologists.
This figure is very low based on the following deductions; the high mortality of slaves during transshipment. The fact that about 15 – 20% deaths resulted during the middle passage, death of captives between time of capture and embarkation, and finally death and destruction during warfare which was the major source of slaves.
There are devastating effects of slavery resulting from the drastic reduction in population. Population growth necessitated economic advancement for Europe but population decimation in Africa. Reduced population equated reduced economic activity. Violence and insecurity were fueled by kidnapping, raiding and warfare and consequently diminished economic progression for Africa. The changeover from economic activities to warfare activities decimated the African population and economy. Finally, viable manpower was shipped off Africa meaning that they could not even be used within Africa. There are some misguided arguments about the benefits of slave trade to Africa one which includes the acquisition of novel food crops that became staples in Africa such as maize and cassava. However, Italians adopted spaghetti from China, while Britain adopted potato from American Indians without going through the process of slavery. It might appear that slavery did not adversely affect some parts of Africa but the various afflicted components reflected the well-being of continent as a whole. Therefore, when there is depression in one sector, that depression invariably transfers itself, to some extent, to others.
A hypothetical question that may need to be asked although it may lead to absurd speculation is – what could have happened if …?’ slavery never ravaged Africa? What might have happened in Buganda if the Katangese were concentrating on selling copper to the Baganda instead of captives to the Europeans?
Did slavery benefit Africa is a recurrent question. And in trying to justify it an argument employed by certain European scholars is that despite the fact that slavery was undoubtedly a moral evil, it was economically beneficial to Africans in that by the mutual exchange of commodities Africans gained wealth. But the truth is that these odds and ends bought strangled any economic resurrection by Africa. And the theory incredibly overlooks the fact that the imports were the worst consumer goods that Europe had discarded such as cheap wines, pots and kettles with holes, beads and other assorted rubbish. These pro-slavery scholars also propounded that certain African kingdoms benefited and grew from these trades citing Oyo, Benin, Dahomey and Asante kingdoms as examples. However, they forget that the Oyo and Benin kingdoms were already developed prior to the arrival of the merchant ships of the Europeans while though Dahomey and Asante prospered during the era of the so-called ‘trade’ the roots of development were set long before then.
In reality, slavery resulted in technological stagnation for Africa while Europe boomed. Slave trade made sure that Africans were concerned primarily with freedom (for badly hit slave-areas) or at best with trade (for relatively calm areas) and not production for both instances which is necessary for economic growth. When Britain was the world’s leading economic power it was referred to as a nation of shop-keepers but we forget that the goods were produced by themselves. Even in the 19th century Europe was indifferent to request for practical assistance from African rulers. Cases abound such as when a king in Calabar, Nigeria asked for a sugar refinery from the British. In 1804, king Adanozan of Dahomey was bold enough to ask for a firearm factory. They were not obliged and neither were there any decisive efforts to teach Africans how to make firearms or gun-powder.
However, we have documented evidence where socialist countries helped build up Africa. Take for example when the Soviet Union helped build the Aswan dam in Egypt and when China showed solidarity to peasants requesting for a railway line from Tanzania to Zambia.

4.3 Continuing Politico-military Developments in Africa – 1500 to 1885

Nationalistic Africans assert that Africa had a history long before and long after the coming of the Europeans. This statement is reconciled by 3 factors
The external impact up to 1885 was very uneven in geographical terms, with the coasts being obviously more exposed.
Commerce with Europeans affected different aspects of African lives in varying degrees, with the political, military and ideological apparatus being virtually developmentally untouched.
Dynamic features of independent African evolution and development continued to operate after 1500.
Politico-military development was evident in Africa from 1500 to 1885 and it means that the collective people within the African state were capable of defending the interests of their members. The truth of this is noticed in the following;
The eastern and Inter-Lacustrine States

4.4 The Coming of Imperialism and Colonialism

Imperialism is the policy of extending rule or influence over a country or colonies. It is also the political, military or economic domination of one country by another. Colonialism, on the same vein, is a policy where a country rules over other nations and develops trade for its benefit.
At the onset of European colonialism of Africa, Europe was already in the capitalist phase while Africa was still in the communalism-feudalism transition. The competition of capitalism was getting across to European companies and they were seeking for places where they could get raw materials for their industries at a cheaper price. Africa was their answer and so the scramble for Africa began. In the 1884 Berlin conference, this scramble came to a head when the European economic powers partitioned Africa, not for Africa’s development but, for Europe’s selfish motive. Even the impoverished European country of Portugal jostled for a share of the booty. Racism and economic gains for Europe were the only motives why Europe sought to colonise Africa and nothing else.
Africans’ involvement in the West’s colonialism of Africa cannot be neglected; they conducted trade on behalf of Europeans and they were not merely commercial agents but cultural agents as well; they were heavily influenced by European thoughts and values and another striking feature in 19th century African history is the manner in which Africans who had just returned from slavery contributed in no small measure to the setting up of colonialism in Africa. Europeans also recruited Africans to serve in the army and police, at first, against other colonial masters but later against fellow blacks who opposed their continued servitude.


Africa’s Contribution to the Capitalist Development of Europe – The Colonial Period.

5.1 Expatriation of African Surplus under Colonialism

(a) Capital and wage labour
The colonial African states were exploited to feed the greed of their metropolitan masters. Exploitation is necessary for development only if the profits from the exploits are plunged back into the exploited areas. But the profits from Africa’s undue exploitation were shoveled back to the ‘mother country.’ These exploitative tendencies were made possible by three reasons which are that the alien colonial states had monopolistic political powers. Secondly, the Africans were in little groups because of factors like migration and nomadic lifestyles and so could not cluster up to fight for a single cause and finally European Capitalists had additional racial justification to exploit the African worker. There were even cases when blacks were discriminated against from holding some positions in the civil service and if a black man and a white man were to occupy the same position the white man was sure to be paid better wages. Typical examples of Africa’s exploitation and Europe’s siphoning of Africa’s wealth is in Northern Rhodesia (South Africa) where gold and diamond mining were choice ‘European-only’ businesses yielding super-normal profits on capital invested.
(b) European trading companies versus the African peasant.
Since only a little percentage of Africans were employed under the civil service of the European colonial masters or colonial private businesses, it has been argued by colonial apologists that the vast majority of Africans were peasant farmers producing crops for sale and that they benefited from the businesses that European presence brought. This is untrue as there were Indian and Arab middle men in East Africa, and Lebanese and Syrian shylocks in West Africa. These groups of people bought off Africans peasant produce cheaply and lent money to Africans at exorbitant interest rates called ‘usury.’ The situation was so bad that the European colonialists had to step in to institute the ‘Native Credit ordinance.’ However, despite the little clashes between the colonialists and the middle men now and then, they were part of the same exploitative process. The middle men did the little exploitative jobs that the Europeans could not be bothered to do.
(c) Shipping and Banking Services
Africa’s exploitation was not excused in shipping services. The shipping lines, being highly regarded by their home countries, were a law unto themselves. They charged a rate five times more for goods from Africa that they normally would have charged for the same distance. It may seem that the merchants who purchased the goods from Africans bore the costs but this was out of the huge profits they were reaping off the African peasants. Alternatively, white settlers paid the same huge shipping costs but then regained their profits through the exploitation of rural wage labour. From 1929 to 1931, the UAC (backed by Unilever) engaged in an economic war with the West African Lines conference and the trading monopoly won a major victory over the shipping monopoly but it was a war of two big elephants and the grass (the African peasants) were the worst hit.
Profits from banking services were not left out. Huge dividends were paid out to shareholders in mostly Europe or in South Africa, but these profits were made by Africans in Africa who did not enjoy the benefit of their labour.
(d) The colonial administration as an economic exploiter
Africa’s exploitation was not only done by private companies but by the colonial masters too with their principal functions being
To protect national interest against competition from other capitalists
To arbitrate the conflicts between their own capitalists and
To guarantee optimum conditions under which private companies could exploit Africans.
The last mentioned objective was the most crucial. This led to the imposition of taxes for the administration of the colonies by the colonial masters.
(d) Colonialism as a prop to metropolitan economies and capitalism as a system
The composition of Unilever should serve as a warning that colonialism was not simply a matter of ties between a given colony and its mother country but between colonies on the one hand and metropoles on the other. The German capitalist joined forces with the British to exploit Africa and the Dutch to exploit the East Indies. The rewards spread through the capitalist system in such a way that even those capitalist nations who were not colonialists were also beneficiaries such as New Zealand, U.S.A and Canada.
Economic partition and repatriation of Africa was going on all the time, because the proportion of the spoils that went to different capitalist countries kept changing. Special mention must be made of the U.S.A because their share of the benefits from Africa was constantly increasing. Liberia was an American colony in everything but name. In the guise of providing loans to the Liberian government they took over the Liberian custom revenue and dictated to the weak Liberian government. Firestone, an American company made such huge profits that a book was written to show how American businesses flourished abroad.


Colonialism as a system for under developing Africa.

6.1 The supposed benefits of colonialism to Africa

(a) Socio-economic Services
Many bourgeois writers concede that colonialism benefited the metropoles more but they also stress that on a proposed ‘balance sheet’ the ‘credits’ were more than the ‘debits’ and so the good outweighed the bad. The limited number of services available were distributed in such a way to reveal the pattern of domination and exploitation. The viciousness of the colonial system, with respect to the provision of social services, was most dramatically brought out in the case of economic activities which made such huge profits such as mining. Mining is injurious to the health of its workers and the lack of basic services was so stark that a lot these miners died in their hundreds. And as the Arusha declaration best put it – we have been oppressed a great deal, we have been exploited a great deal, and we have been disregarded a great deal.

(This analyss is drawn from a work submitted to the Howard University Press, Washington D.C in 1974 and was extracted from the link –

Walter Rodney’s work “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” is an empirical investigation of the relationship between Africa and Western Europe. The time period of his study extends from 1500 to the period of decolonization of the 1960’s. Thus, Rodney’s major concern is to note by way of scientific study how, in fact, Western Europe by way of their imperialist policies toward Africa exploited its people and their resources.

The sequential nature of the chapter organization in the book is of definite consistency with Rodney’s major concern. Realizing that this is a historic writing, Rodney has made excellent use of what historians describe as ‘historical development.’ Historical development occurs when one seeks to document an event by logically beginning with the point in time that the event originated. Within the realm of the historical development, of the underdevelopment of Africa Rodney seeks to first define development and under-development.

In order to present his argument Rodney gives his explanation of how he views development. “Development in human society is a many-sided process. At the level of the individual, it implies increased skill and capacity, greater freedom creativity, self-discipline, responsibility and material well-being.”(P.3)
Being that some of the categories are in regard to moral behavior the evaluation process is difficult. Rodney maintains that the indisputable position of the achievement of any of these aspects of personal development is very much tied in with the state of the society as a whole. Rodney asserts that the term development is often used in an economic sense.
“The justification is that the type of economy is itself an index of other social features. What then is economic development? A society develops economically as its members increase jointly their capacity for dealing with the environment.” (Pg. 4)

Rodney further asserts that taking a long-term view, it can be said that there has been constant economic development within human society since the origins of man, because man has multiplied enormously his capacity to win a living from nature.

Rodney’s research hypothesis lays claim to an understanding of underdevelopment. He points out that once development is understood one can best comprehend the concept of underdevelopment.
“Obviously, underdevelopment is not the absence of development, because all people have developed in one way or another and to a greater or lesser extent. Underdevelopment makes sense only as means of comparing levels of development. It is very much tied to the fact that human social development has been uneven and from a strictly economic view point some human groups have advanced further by producing more and becoming wealthier.” (P.13)

As Rodney expounds on underdevelopment he maintains the necessity of comparative analysis in making an assessment of the underdevelopment of a country with economics as a determinist. Thus Rodney argues that if one is to maintain the realities of underdevelopment he must move from an economic analysis. Economic comparisons can be made by looking at statistical tables or indices of what goods and services are produced and used in the societies under discussion.

Rodney in defining the major concepts offers detailed explanations of development and underdevelopment. In order to support his argument his definition of terms is consistent with building the empirical foundation of his research. The empirical results of the major concepts are documented by Rodney in that:
“One can maintain some degree of development by studying the national income and the national income per capita. Developed economies have certain characteristics which contrast with underdeveloped ones. The developed countries are all industrialized. The amount of steel used in a country is an excellent indicator of the level of industrialization. Statistics that relate to basic food requirements also is an indicator of development and underdevelopment. The extent to which basic goods and social service are available in a country can also be measured indirectly by looking at the life expectancy, the frequency of deaths among children, the amount of malnutrition, the occurrence of diseases and the proportion of illiterates.”

The author makes a definite distinction between the terms developing and underdevelopment in reference to the term developing being used to identify the present status of the underdeveloped nations. Realizing that developing implies ongoing advancement relative to the developed nations, Rodney asserts that a proper analysis of the underdeveloped nations renders a picture of continued exploitation and increasing underdevelopment.

To understand the essence of the research problem it is very necessary that one maintain a firm understanding of the major concepts. Thus, in Rodney’s broad explanation of underdevelopment he used common sense and traditional language in an attempt to show rationale for the data he gathered to support his argument.

Terms such as socialism, capitalism, colonialism, labor, trade, culture, education, industrialization and stagnation are used in a conventional sense to give a more definitive quality to data collected in the study. The theoretical representation of the problem and the character of the major concepts can be described in the following terms. :
“The question as to who, and what, is responsible for African underdevelopment can be answered at two levels. Firstly, the answer is that the operation of the imperialist system bears major responsibility for African economic retardation by draining African wealth and by making it impossible to develop more rapidly the resources of the continent. Secondly, one has to deal with those who manipulate the system and those who are either agents or unwitting accomplices of the said system. The capitalists of Western Europe were the ones who actively extended their exploitation from inside Europe to cover the whole of Africa. “(P. 27)

The character of the data purported by the author is extensive, but one could most likely pose endless empirical models to determine the underdeveloped state of any system in question. Noting that Rodney maintains explicitly that the economic analysis is the proper means to determine the validity of this statement, it is possible to question the reality or disproof of the major hypotheses. But a review of the data stipulated to ascertain the question of underdevelopment (maintaining its economic qualities) one can conclude that the data documented by Rodney is capable of providing a disproof of the major hypotheses. The general intellectual structure in which Rodney lays out his claim is consistent with his historical approach to the major concern and blends into a logical structure of the book.

As Rodney conveys the tragic causes and results of economic exploitation of Africa by the Europeans, it is obvious that he has already arrived at his conclusions. Thus, he views this study as a prolific reply to western and bourgeois historians. Therefore, he notes the real nature of African underdevelopment, with irrefutable corroborative evidence. In so doing his basic hypothetical statement is answered.

Following the initial discussion of development and underdevelopment the author seeks to make critical assessments of: (1) The development of Africa prior to the fifteenth century (before the coming of the European (2) The contribution of Africa to Europe during the pre colonial period; (3) The European slave trade the roots of African underdevelopment and technical stagnation; (4) Africa’s contribution European capitalism during the Colonial period: and (5) The underdevelopment of Africa through colonialism. Conclusions maintained by Rodney are certainly ingrained in his arguments. His basic conclusion is that Africa should “break” from European capitalism

A total break from European capitalism is outlined by Rodney as he looks at Europeans’ as the benefactors of the institution of slavery, and the phenomena of colonialism as a further means of continued European economic exploitation of the African continent. For the first three decades of colonialism, hardly anything was done that could remotely be termed a service to African people. (P. 205) The only positive development in colonialism was when it ended. (P.261) When one looks at the intellectual framework of the Rodney study one can realize that the basic conclusions by Rodney are clearly related to the major concern of the study.

If one is to garner any rational position of open-end are new avenues of empirical and/or theoretical inquiry, it is necessary to place this study in a historical perspective. Historical writings, by their nature often are interrelated with the existing political conditions but often they do not offer the systematic and scientific analysis of existing political culture that would establish one’s argument toward the liberation of the masses toward a socialist utopia. Even though Rodney does not answer the question of socialism as the panacea he repeatedly implies that if one is to break with the international capitalist order socialism will bring order to one’s existence.

Writing from a historical perspective, utilizing the essence of historical materialism, Rodney feels that if one is to understand the present one must delve into the past. This gives the work scientific objectivity. However, Rodney interjects his own personal views and biases. It is apparent that he holds the capitalist system responsible for the socio-economic ills of Africa. He sees capitalism as the obstacle to further human social development in that social relations of the system are outmoded just as feudal and slave systems were eventually outmoded. Rodney argues consistently that Africa can only develop if there is a radical break with the international capitalist system which has been the principal agency of underdevelopment of Africa over the last five centuries.” (P. 7)

By maintaining the empirical quality of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and placing it in its historical realm, one is able to evaluate the findings in the study as to its intellectual value. Rodney limits the scope of his study by reaching the conclusion prior to collecting data that underdevelopment of Africa results primarily from an economic motive. The religious and dogmatic thinking of most Marxists does not afford them the rational perception to include the totality of one’s culture and counterculture (culture of the ruling regime) in making an analysis of the oppression of African people.

Protest based on race has come to terms with protest based on class. Especially since the latter seemed relatively more successful, certainly intellectually more sure of itself, and commanded more mass support. In time the Marxist thinking of Rodney and others came to permeate the thinking of African intellectuals, who began to see colonial and racial oppression as based on economic considerations. Marxist ideology has no valid response to the theory of race over class as a premise and conscious point of view for Black people.

The mistaken notion of Rodney to disregard race in determining his findings affords us an opportunity to distinguish between what I see as the two-dimensional dilemma of Marxism. Rodney is a first dimensional Marxist. Thus, he is a historian that takes the essence of historical and dialectical materialism in maintaining socialist and/or Marxist conclusions. But in so doing, this dimension Marxist discards from their empirical historical offering the realities of race in an understanding of the exploitation of Africa. The second dimension Marxist is a true philosopher of the science of Marx, Lenin, Engles etc. His involvement in the historical materialism of the science he worships is very shallow for his strength flows from his endless rendition of Marxian science as the cure all for society.

Rodney’s work and its use to a serious scholar must be understood in its historical contribution. But realizing the first dimensional position of Rodney we realize that the study as a political writing has seriousshort-comings.
In the case of political questions as to inquiry Rodney’s treatise is limited. To the student of African history his work takes on an excellent quality that gives one a historical overview of the cause and affects of European intervention in Africa. It is without a doubt a worthy collection of data, information and statistical information that covers the range of the African condition.

On Friday, June 13, 1980 in Georgetown, Guyana, Walter Rodney was said to be murdered by Forbes Burnham and People National Congress henchmen. Rodney as a revolutionary Pan Africanist, radical socialist and historian, was well known for his commitment to unity and struggle throughout the Americas, Caribbean and the Pan African World. As a socialist Pan Africanist Rodney is quite explicit with his normative bias. He is a definite opponent of capitalism, he finds that bourgeois and/or Western scholarship is reactionary and further attacks nationalist for their apparent disregard of the essence of class. Throughout the treatise Rodney makes it clear that his world view embraces Marxism and theoretical assumptions as to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This study would have been of more use to the serious scholar if Rodney had indeed cast off his normative bias and dealt with the whole question of development and underdevelopment without drawing from underdevelopment the rationale for an attack on capitalism (and/or need for its destruction) and the logical institution of socialism.
It has been many years gone that the systematic development of society was outlined by Marx. The world yet waits for the impending eventuality of world socialism, thus as the committed Black political scientists goes about his work blind dedication to strict socialist principles obstructs and eludes the reality of the distinctions of class and race. Meanwhile, the struggle of Black Americans, Africans and Africans in the Diaspora continue to bid for ideologies, philosophies and theories.

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17 thoughts on “Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

  1. This is a great work and a challenge on African leaders. Indeed Walter Rodney has done a wonderful job. It is also a call to duty.


  2. still in some african countries, african teachers teach children how beneficial was the colonialism for the africans. like in senegal, dakar.


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