THAT WALTER RODNEY’S How Europe Underdeveloped Africa still reads cogently after almost 50 years has more to do with how little things have changed rather than with any prophetic quality of the text or its author. If anything, it shows how resilient (neo)colonialism has proved to be as well as how fundamentally untouched its economic edifice remains. The apparent paradox whereby the richest continent on earth (in natural resources) is also the poorest hasn’t lost any of its bitter irony. Africa is at the very center of global economic interests, with major powers still scrambling over its highly lucrative resources. Though stereotypically perceived as the quintessential recipient of humanitarian aid, Africa still is, for the most part, being deprived of (its own) wealth rather than benefiting from charitable, outside help.

If one wants to trace the genesis of this historical theft, often associated with or mistaken for “civilization,” Rodney’s text is as indispensable as it is exhaustive. From the outset, the Guyanese historian, revolutionary, and academic disallows any moralistic understanding of colonialism, resolutely moving beyond accusation and guilt. While the dominant discourse around postcolonial reparations tends to be conducted in strict ethical terms, Rodney’s work compellingly links racial inequality with social injustice. It is the economics of colonialism he is after, not its morals or clear lack thereof. Even when tackling the ancillary apparatuses of colonial rule such as culture and education, the relation between white supremacy and the exploitation of resources is always brought to the fore. So much so that Rodney concludes that “African development is possible only on the basis of a radical break with the international capitalist system.” The ultimate responsibility for the emancipatory struggle falls on the shoulders of Africans, he thought, implicitly warning that the benevolence or philanthropic charity of (post)colonial powers will never be a solution. As A. M. Babu notes in the postscript of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa: “[F]oreign investment is the cause, and not a solution, to our economic backwardness.”

What constitutes development, and, conversely, what exactly do we mean by underdevelopment? This is the question Rodney feels compelled to answer before venturing further in his militant diagnosis of Africa’s ills. He stresses how development should not be seen merely as an economic phenomenon but rather as an overall social process shaping and being shaped by the way societies came to be ideologically structured. Most crucially, “underdevelopment is not absence of development” the author notes. If anything it’s a by-product of it, its (in)direct consequence. There cannot be development, that is, the accumulation of wealth and expertise derived from the exploitation of natural resources and human labor, without its flip side — underdevelopment. The latter therefore denotes a relationship of exploitation, of one country by another in the colonial case, or one class over another in any case. The two phenomena are by no means natural or dependent on the superior ingenuity of one particular people or race. Development and underdevelopment are politically determined, at the heart of their correlation we inevitably find exploitation. It would otherwise be difficult to explain why some of the poorest nations in terms of natural resources are among the richest on earth; their wealth was derived from the violent appropriation of other countries’ wealth. By re-positing economic exploitation at the center of his analysis, Rodney is able to comprehend and examine the persistence of the colonial paradigm and its racist superstructure. “Under colonialism, the ownership was complete and backed by military domination. Today, in many African countries the foreign ownership is still present, although the armies and flags of foreign powers have been removed.” Foreign aid and loans were in fact already replacing military coercion in the ever-evolving and innovating business of colonial theft.

The structural dependency that came to characterize the political and economic relation between Africa and Europe is to be traced back to a foundational moment for the modern history of the African continent: slavery. All the premises that still determine the current predicament of most African countries were laid out in the genocidal days of the slave trade. It was then that the cultural and social traditions of basically an entire continent were extirpated, its population subjected to a mass dislocation, the likes of which humanity had never seen before nor has it experienced since. Once again Rodney insists on linking the brutality of slavery to its financial rationale by quoting the English commercial expert Malachy Postlethwayt, who in 1745 enthused, “British trade is a magnificent superstructure […] on an African foundation.” The comparative analysis of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa does not exclusively focus on its titular assumption, but on its reverse deduction too. Slavery was in fact the engine of industrialization and as a matter of consequence the very basis of Western development and global supremacy. Without the stolen gold from Africa, Amsterdam would have never emerged as the financial capital of Europe at the time; and when in 1663 the English named their new coin “Guinea,” it was not by coincidence. The very poles of the Industrial Revolution, like Liverpool for instance, “depended first of all on the growth of its port through slave trading.”

Racism in Rodney’s analysis cannot be separated from the divisions created by the dominant economic system, which doesn’t mean that white supremacy did not evolve into its own cultural pathology. But to try solve racism, according to Rodney, without looking at its economic purpose is delusional at best. “[N]o people can enslave another for centuries without coming out with a notion of superiority,” the author observes, “white racism […] was an integral part of the capitalist mode of production.” This is a distinctive clarification that the book argues throughout, pointing out that “it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons. European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons.”

The slave trade established a ruthless divide that came to define the historical chances Europe and Africa were given. The social and cultural advancements that European societies granted themselves are inseparable from the barbarity inflicted through slavery on African societies; it’s an irreconcilable contradiction Europe still refuses to face. It is indeed just a myth that attributes to colonial powers a civilizing result, in spite of their so-called mistakes. “The most convincing evidence as to the superficiality of the talk about colonialism having ‘modernized’ Africa is the fact that the vast majority of Africans went into colonialism with a hoe and came out with a hoe.”

Rodney notes that while impossible to calculate the impact of the slave trade first, and colonialism after, has virtually deprived Africa of any developmental opportunity, condemning it to a subsidiary role. The continent and its resources had to be sacrificed on the altar of European expansionism and its priced economic growth. Material disparity obviously led to political, cultural, and, most crucially, educational inequality. Furthermore, while Western economists theorized the free market and its legendary advantages, in Africa capitalism bypassed democracy and went straight to its monopolistic stage with no institutional obstacles. Europe cultivated its freedoms, human rights, and cultures, while its colonies were saddled with violence, exploitation, and misery. Gigantic monopolies emerged as a result of the unregulated brutality of colonial capitalism: Unilever, Crédit Lyonnais, Cadbury, Barclays, Procter & Gamble, Lloyds, Société Générale, De Beers, and many others all had a slice of the African pie (the author dedicates a whole case study of Unilever as a “Major Beneficiary of African Exploitation”).

The continent that barely survived the European conquest was one deprived of subjectivity, both cultural and political. “Colonialism determined that Africans were no inure makers of history than were the beetles — objects to be looked at under a microscope and examined for unusual features.” The “characteristics” still stereotypically associated with Africans are not of their own making. Tribalism, for instance, commonly assumed to be an atavist feature of “primitive” societies, is a preeminently modern phenomenon, the strategic result of divide and rule which Europe methodically applied in all its colonies. “[C]olonial powers sometimes saw the value of stimulating the internal tribal jealousies […] so that the march towards broader African national and class solidarities could be stopped and turned back,” Rodney points out. And as Angela Davis notes in her foreword to the volume, even gender relations suffered an involution as a direct result of colonialism. Thus, the devastated image of Africa and its inhabitants, infants with a transparent rib cage, bloated stomach, and supplicant eyes became the iconography of choice for the profitable charity business. Rodney cites the example of a poster from Oxfam to explain how humanitarian entrepreneurship occulted the root causes of poverty to emotionally blackmail its backers. Far from being a solution to the poverty wrecked upon Africa by colonialism, charity represented its continuation by different means.

Unsurprisingly, the answer to the plight of Africa came from Africans, not from benevolent, guilt-stricken Europeans. It’s in the cracks of this brutal system that sedition and subversion seeped in to challenge colonial administrations and their armies: “The educated played a role in African independence struggles far out of proportion to their numbers, because they took it upon themselves and were called upon to articulate the interests of all Africans.” What Amílcar Cabral called “the weapon of theory” turned out to be a crucial asset in the anti-colonial struggle, systematically denounced by the West as the ultimate manifestation of Africans’ barbarity. Though militarily victorious on most fronts, anti-colonialism could not shake off the more insidious chains of economic dependency on which neocolonialism still thrives. The pitfalls of national consciousness against which Frantz Fanon had warned may have contributed to the many difficulties that faced newly independent nations, but it is worth remembering that “in the 1940s and 1950s it was common to have strikes that were specifically connected with the struggle for independence.” Anti-colonialism, in other words, was never an exclusively nationalist endeavor.

While national independence was easier for postcolonial powers to circumvent, the class struggle remained their nightmare, and any African leader who put it on his agenda was immediately taken out — from Patrice Lumumba to Thomas Sankara. Even Apartheid’s end in South Africa was stipulated on the fatal compromise wherefore gold and diamond mines were not nationalized (as Mandela’s African National Congress had demanded) as a concession to the white ruling class that owned them. The failure to achieve social justice resulted in a deeply polarized country where, aside from a small black bourgeoisie, class and racial divisions still run deep into South African society. It is precisely in this regard that Rodney’s analysis remains as relevant as it was when first published — a call to arms in the class struggle for racial equality.

Quotes from revolutionary thinker, activist and historian Walter Rodney’s 1972 “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”

  • “Pervasive and vicious racism was present in imperialism as a variant independent of the economic rationality that initially gave birth to racism. It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labor. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule.
  • “In a way, underdevelopment is a paradox. Many parts of the world that are naturally rich are actually poor and parts that are not so well off in wealth of soil and sub-soil are enjoying the highest standards of living. When the capitalists from the developed parts of the world try to explain this paradox, they often make it sound as though there is something “God given” about the situation. One bourgeois economist, in a book on development, accepted that the comparative statistics of the world today show a gap that is much larger than it was before. By his own admission, the gap between the developed and the underdeveloped countries has increased by at least 15 to 20 times over the last 150 years. However, the bourgeois economist in question does not give a historical explanation, nor does he consider that there is a relationship of exploitation which allowed capitalist parasites to grow fat and impoverished the dependencies.
  • “During the colonial period, the forms of political subordination in Africa were obvious. There were governors, colonial officials, and police. In politically independent African states, the metropolitan capitalists have to insure favorable political decisions by remote control. So they set up their political puppets in many parts of Africa, who shamelessly agree to compromise with the vicious apartheid regime of South Africa when their masters tell them to do so. The revolutionary writer, Frantz Fanon, has dealt scorchingly and at length with the question of the minority in Africa which serves as the transmission line between the metropolitan capitalists and the dependencies in Africa. The importance of this group cannot be underestimated. The presence of a group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment. Any diagnosis of underdevelopment in Africa will reveal not just low per capita income and protein deficiencies, but also the gentlemen who dance in Abidjan, Accra, and Kinshasa when music is played in Paris, London, and New York.”
  • “White racist notions are so deep-rooted within capitalist society that the failure of African agriculture to advance was put down to the inherent inferiority of the African. It would be much truer to say that it was due to the white intruders, although the basic explanation is to be found not in the personal ill-will of the colonialists or in their racial origin, but rather in the organized viciousness of the capitalist/colonialist system.”
  • “As part of the hypocrisy of colonialism, it became fashionable to speak of how Europe brought Africa into the twentieth century. This assertion has implications in the socio-economic and political spheres, and it can be shown to be false not in some but in all respects. So often it is said that colonialism modernized Africa by introducing the dynamic features of capitalism, such as private property in land, private ownership of the other means of production, and money relations. Here it is essential to distinguish between capitalist elements and capitalism as a total social system. Colonialism introduced some elements of capitalism into Africa. In general terms, where communalism came into contact with the money economy, the latter imposed itself. Cash-crop farming and wage labor led away from the extended family as the basis of production and distribution. One South African saying put forward that “the white man has no kin, his kin is money.” That is a profound revelation of the difference between capitalist and pre-capitalist societies; and when capitalism came into contact with the still largely communal African societies, it introduced money relations at the expense of kinship ties. However, colonialism did not transform Africa into a capitalist society comparable to the metropoles. Had it done that, one might have complained of the brutalities and inequalities of capitalism, but it could not then have been said that colonialism failed to advance Africa along the path of human historical development.”
  • “It is fairly obvious that capitalists do not set out to create other capitalists, who would be rivals. On the contrary, the tendency of capitalism in Europe from the very beginning was one of competition, elimination, and monopoly. Therefore, when the imperialist stage was reached, the metropolitan capitalists had no intention of allowing rivals to arise in the dependencies. However, in spite of what the metropoles wanted, some local capitalists did emerge in Asia and Latin America. Africa is a significant exception in the sense that, compared with other colonized peoples, far fewer Africans had access even to the middle rungs of the bourgeois ladder in terms of capital for investment.”
  • “The interpretation that underdevelopment is somehow ordained by God is emphasized because of the racist trend in European scholarship. It is in line with racist prejudice to say openly or to imply that their countries are more developed because their people are innately superior, and that the responsibility for the economic backwardness of Africa lies in the generic backwardness of the race of black Africans. An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonized world have gone through a cultural and psychological crisis and have accepted, at least partially, the European version of things. That means that the African himself has doubts about his capacity to transform and develop his natural environment. With such doubts, he even challenges those of his brothers who say that Africa can and will develop through the efforts of its own people. If we can determine when underdevelopment came about, it would dismiss the lingering suspicion that it is racially or otherwise predetermined and that we can do little about it.”
  • “The question as to who, and what, is responsible for African underdevelopment can be answered at two levels: First, 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. Second, 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.In recent times, they were joined, and to some extent replaced, by capitalists from the United States; and for many years now even the workers of those metropolitan countries have benefited from the exploitation and underdevelopment of Africa. None of these remarks are intended to remove the ultimate responsibility for development from the shoulders of Africans. Not only are there African accomplices inside the imperialist system, but every African has a responsibility to understand the system and work for its overthrow.”
  • “It can further be argued that by the nineteenth century white racism had become so institutionalized in the capitalist world (and notably in the U.S.A.) that it sometimes ranked above the maximization of profit as a motive for oppressing black people… In the short run, European racism seemed to have done Europeans no harm, and they used those erroneous ideas to justify their further domination of non-European peoples in the colonial epoch. But the international proliferation of bigoted and unscientific racist ideas was bound to have its negative consequences in the long run. When Europeans put millions of their brothers (Jews) into ovens under the Nazis, the chickens were coming home to roost. Such behavior inside of “democratic” Europe was not as strange as it is sometimes made out to be. There was always a contradiction between the elaboration of democratic ideas inside Europe and the elaboration of authoritarian and thuggish practices by Europeans with respect to Africans. When the French Revolution was made in the name of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” it did not extend to black Africans who were enslaved by France in the West Indies and the Indian Ocean. Indeed, France fought against the efforts of those people to emancipate themselves, and the leaders of their bourgeois revolution said plainly that they did not make it on behalf of black humanity.”
  • “Fascism is a deformity of capitalism. It heightens the imperialist tendency towards domination which is inherent in capitalism, and it safeguards the principle of private property. At the same time, fascism immeasurably strengthens the institutional racism already bred by capitalism, whether it be against Jews (as in Hitler’s case) or against African peoples (as in the ideology of Portugal’s Salazar and the leaders of South Africa). Fascism reverses the political gains of the bourgeois democratic system such as free elections, equality before the law, parliaments; and it also extols authoritarianism and the reactionary union of the church with the state. In Portugal and Spain, it was the Catholic church — in South Africa, it was the Dutch Reformed church.”
  • “Fascism was a monster born of capitalist parents. Fascism came as the end-product of centuries of capitalist bestiality, exploitation, domination, and racism — mainly exercised outside Europe. It is highly significant that many settlers and colonial officials displayed a leaning towards fascism. Apartheid in South Africa is nothing but fascism. It was gaining roots from the early period of white colonization in the seventeenth century, and particularly after the mining industry brought South Africa fully into the capitalist orbit in the nineteenth century. Another example of the fascist potential of colonialism was seen when France was overrun by Nazi Germany in 1940. The French fascists collaborated with Hitler to establish what was called the Vichy regime in France, and the French white settlers in Africa supported the Vichy regime. A more striking instance to the same effect was the fascist ideology developed by the white settlers in Algeria, who not only opposed independence for Algeria under Algerian rule, but they also strove to bring down the more progressive or liberal governments of metropolitan France.”
  • “In some districts, capitalism brought about technological backwardness in agriculture. On the reserves of Southern Africa, far too many Africans were crowded onto inadequate land, and were forced to engage in intensive farming, using techniques that were suitable only to shifting cultivation. In practice, that was a form of technical retrogression, because the land yielded less and less and became destroyed in the process. Wherever Africans were hampered in their use of their ancestral lands on a wide-ranging shifting basis, the same negative effect was to be found.
  • “Ever since the mid-nineteenth century, Marx had predicted class collision would come in the form of revolution in which workers would emerge victorious. The capitalists were terribly afraid of that possibility, knowing full well that they themselves had seized power from the feudal landlord class by means of revolution. However, imperialism introduced a new factor into this situation — one that deferred the confrontation between workers and capitalists in the metropoles.”
  • “Besides, where the government was reluctant to build schools or to subsidize missionaries to do so with African taxes, there was an even greater incentive to handle educational matters directly. […]The [Muslim] religion was also a stimulator of educational advance during the colonial period. In North Africa, Muslims often found it necessary to channel their efforts into schools other than those built by the colonialists. The Society of Reformist Ulema in Algeria started a large primary school program in 1936. By 1955, its primary schools catered to 45,000 Algerian children; and, from 1947, the Society also ran a large secondary school. Similarly, in Tunisia, popular initiative financed modern Koranic primary schools, providing places for 35,000 children — equivalent to one out of four going to primary school. In Morocco, the Muslem schools that were established by popular effort possessed the unusual feature of aiming at women’s emancipation by having a high percentage of girls — far higher than government schools. The French colonial administration deliberately kept mention of such schools out of their official reports, and they tried to keep their existence hidden from visitors.”
  • “It is sometimes said that Kwame Nkrumah organized the illiterates in the Convention People’s Party. That was a disrespectful charge made by other conservative educated Ghanaians, who thought that Nkrumah was going too far too fast. In reality, the shock troops in Nkrumah’s youth brigade were not illiterate. They had been to primary school, and could read the manifestos and the literature of the African nationalist revolution. But, they were extremely disaffected because (among other things) they were relative latecomers on the educational scene in Gold Coast, and there was no room in the restricted African establishment of the cocoa monoculture. Colonial powers aimed at giving a certain amount of education to keep colonialism functioning; Africans by various means required more education at the lower level than their “allowance,” and this was one of the factors which brought about deep crisis, and forced the British to consider the idea of withdrawing their colonial apparatus from Gold Coast. The timetable for independence was also sped up against the will of the British. As is well known, the regaining of independence in Ghana was not just a local affair, but one that was highly significant for Africa as a whole; and it therefore highlights the importance of at least one of the educational contradictions in bringing about political independence in Africa.”
  • “Political instability is manifesting itself in Africa as a chronic symptom of the underdevelopment of political life within the imperialist context. Military coups have followed one after the other, usually meaning nothing to the mass of the people, and sometimes representing a reactionary reversal of the efforts at national liberation. This trend was well exemplified in Latin American history, so that its appearance in neo-colonial South Vietnam or in neo-colonial Africa is not at all surprising. If economic power is centered outside national African boundaries, then political and military power in any real sense is also centered outside until, and unless, the masses of peasants and workers are mobilized to offer an alternative to the system of sham political independence. All of those features are ramifications of underdevelopment and of the exploitation of the imperialist system. In most analyses of this question, they are either left out entirely or the whole concept of imperialism and neo-colonialism is dismissed as mere rhetoric — especially by “academics” who claim to be removed from “politics.” During the remainder of this study, a great deal of detail will be presented to indicate the grim reality behind the so-called slogans of capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, and the like.”
  • “The moment that the topic of the pre-European African past is raised, many individuals are concerned for various reasons to know about the existence of African “civilizations.” Mainly, this stems from a desire to make comparisons with European “civilizations.” This is not the context in which to evaluate the so-called civilizations of Europe. It is enough to note the behavior of European capitalists from the epoch of slavery through colonialism, fascism, and genocidal wars in Asia and Africa. Such barbarism causes suspicion to attach to the use of the word “civilization” to describe Western Europe and North America. As far as Africa is concerned during the period of early development, it is preferable to speak in terms of “cultures” rather than civilizations.”
  • “Colonialism was not merely a system of exploitation, but one whose essential purpose was to repatriate the profits to the so-called mother country. From an African viewpoint, that amounted to consistent expatriation of surplus produced by African labor out of African resources. It meant the development of Europe as part of the same dialectical process in which Africa was underdeveloped.
  • “Scholars often distinguish between groups in Africa which had states and those which were “stateless.” Sometimes, the word “stateless” is carelessly or even abusively used; but it does describe those peoples who had no machinery of government coercion and no concept of a political unit wider than the family or the village. After all, 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 society in its own interests. Generally speaking, one can consider the stateless societies as among the older forms of socio-political organization in Africa, while the large states represented an evolution away from communalism — sometimes to the point of feudalism.
  • “It is also true that very often a captive was sold and resold as he made his way from the interior to the port of embarkation — and that too was a form of trade. However, on the whole, the process by which captives were obtained on African soil was not trade at all. It was through warfare, trickery, banditry, and kidnaping. When one tries to measure the effect of European slave trading on the African continent, it is essential to realize that one is measuring the effect of social violence rather than trade in any normal sense of the word.”