When Walter Rodney was assassinated in 1980 at the young age of 38, he had already accomplished what few scholars achieve during careers that extend considerably longer than his.
The field of African history would never be the same after the publication of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. At the same time, this meticulously researched analysis of the abiding repercussions of European colonialism in Africa has radicalised approaches to anti-racist activism across the world.
In fact, the term “scholar-activist” acquires its most vigorous meaning when it is employed to capture the generative passion that links Rodney’s research to his determination to rid the planet of all of the outgrowths of colonialism and slavery. Almost forty years after his death, we certainly need such brilliant examples of what it means to be a resolute intellectual who recognises that the ultimate significance of knowledge is its capacity to transform our social worlds.
We have learnt from Rodney, and those before and after him who have critically engaged with Marxism while developing historical analyses of colonialism and slavery, that challenging capitalism’s deeply entrenched suppositions about human nature and progress is one of the most important tasks of theorists and activists who set out to dismantle structures and ideologies of racism.
In refuting the argument that Africa’s subordination to Europe emanated from a natural propensity toward stagnation, Rodney also repudiates the ideological assumption that external intervention alone would be capable of provoking progress on the continent. Although colonisation “officially” lasted only 70 years or so, which, as Rodney points out, was a relatively short period, it was during this period that colossal changes took place in the capitalist world (i.e. in Europe and the United States) as well as in the emergent socialist world (especially in Russia and China).
“To mark time,” he insists, “or even to move slowly while others leap ahead is virtually equivalent to going backward”. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Rodney painstakingly argues that imperialism and the various processes that bolstered colonialism created impenetrable structural blockades to economic, and thus, political and social progress in Africa.
At the same time, his argument is not meant to absolve Africans of the “ultimate responsibility for development”.
I feel extremely privileged to have met Walter Rodney during my first trip to Africa in 1973. I mention this visit to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, because it took place shortly after the original publication of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and because I witnessed first-hand for a brief period of time the revolutionary urgency generated within the scholarly and activist circles surrounding him.
Not only did I have the opportunity to witness lectures and discussions he organised at the University of Dar es Salaam on the relation between African liberation and global contestations to capitalism, I visited the training camps of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, where I met Agostinho Neto and the military cadre fighting the Portuguese Army.
Walter Rodney’s analyses reflected a sober, well-reasoned historical investigation shaped by Marxist categories and critiques, and a deep sense of the historical conjuncture defined by global revolutionary upheavals, especially by African liberation struggles at that time.
Because he was such a methodical scholar, he did not ignore gender issues, even though he wrote without the benefit of the feminist vocabularies and frameworks of analysis that were later developed. Others have pointed out that he would have no doubt given greater emphasis to these questions had he been active at a later time. Nevertheless, at several strategic junctures in the text, Rodney addresses the role of gender, and he is careful to point out that under colonialism, African women’s “social, religious, constitutional, and political privileges and rights disappeared while the economic exploitation continued and was often intensified”.
He emphasises that the impact of colonialism on labour in Africa redefined men’s work as “modern”, while constituting women’s work as “traditional” or “backward”. “Therefore, the deterioration in the status of women’s work was bound up with the consequent loss of the
right to set indigenous standards of what work had merit and what did not.”
At the time How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was published, black activism – at least in the US – was influenced not only by cultural nationalist notions of intrinsic female inferiority, often fallaciously attributed to African cultural practices, but by officially sponsored attributions of a matriarchal – in other words, defective – family structure to US black communities (for example, the 1965 Moynihan Report).
This book was an important tool for those of us who were intent on contesting such essentialist notions of gender within black radical movements of that era. If Rodney’s scholarly and activist contributions exemplified what was most demanded at that particular historical moment – he was assassinated because he believed in the real possibility of radical political change, including in Guyana, his natal land – his ideas are even more valuable today at a time when capitalism has so forcibly asserted its permanency, and when once existing organised opposing forces (not only the socialist community of nations, but the non-aligned nations) have been virtually eliminated.
Those of us who refuse to concede that global capitalism represents the planet’s best future and that Africa and the former third world are destined to remain forever ensconced in the poverty of “underdevelopment” are confronted with this crucial question: how can we encourage radical critiques of capitalism as integral to struggles against racism, as we advance the recognition that we cannot envision the dismantling of capitalism as long as the structures of racism remain intact?
In this sense, it is up to us to follow, expand upon, and deepen Walter Rodney’s legacy.
The new edition of ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ is published by Verso.