Walter Rodney on Europe and Africa

Walter RodneyI like it when classic texts blow you away. Walter Rodney had some of the same impact as Fanon or C.L.R. James, all of them writing from a Afro-Carribean perspective. Born in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1942, Walter Rodney’s parents were part of the People’s Progressive Party, a Marxist and multiracial group… I imagine they were proud of their son. In 1963 he won a scholarship to SOAS, and became part of the group around C.L.R. James (ah, can you imagine how awesome that must have been?). Rodney taught in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, then in Jamaica until he was expelled for his politics. He traveled, but moved back to Guyana in 1974 where he worked for the positive transformation of his country, helping to centralise the Working people’s Alliance in the face of intense oppression, beatings, torture and assassinations. On June 13, 1980, Walter Rodney’s car exploded, bombed, his voice silenced.

He built connections all over the world, but this book was introduced and edited by Vincent Harding, Robert Hill, and Bill Strickland of the Institute of the Black World based in Atlanta. These connections in struggle inspire… from the Caribbean to the U.S., Africa to Europe. They are not just oppressions — more and more I see that to fully understand the functioning of racism in one place, you must understand the others, go back to the source and the ways that Imperialism has connected them all over time and space. The way it has connected us. Harding, Hill and Strickland write:

Without rehearsing all the old political arguments about coalitions and alliances, neither forgetting the past nor being bound by it, we must find some way to respond to them and to allow them to come in touch with us. This is no passing luxury, in the old “race relations” style. Rather, we now realize that the children of the oppressed and the children of the oppressors are involved in a dialectical relationship that is deeper than most of us choose to recognize, and that there is no fundamental development for one without the other. (xxiii)

This is Rodney’s fundamental insight in this book as well — that Africa and Europe are dialectically related, that the development of one is related directly to the undevelopment of the other, the wealth of one built on the exploitation of the other. What does that mean for the undoing of things? Hopefully we are better than it being just a case of chickens coming home to roost, though he does use that phrase. It would be nice if the poor and the working classes of all countries might benefit from rearrangements.

Here is an exploration of his arguments under the chapter headings.

1: Some Questions on Development

There was a period when the capitalist system increased the well-being of significant numbers of people as a by-product of seeking out profits for a few, but today the quest for profits comes into sharp conflict with people’s demands that their material and social needs should be fulfilled.

Capitalism has proved incapable of transcending fundamental weaknesses such as underutilization of productive capacity, the persistence of a permanent sector of unemployed, and periodic economic crises related to the concept of ‘market’ – which is concerned with people’s ability to pay rather than their need for commodities. Capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the U.S.A. Above all, capitalism has intensified its own political contradictions in trying to subjugate nations and continents outside of Europe, so that workers and peasants in every part of the globe have become self-conscious and are determined to take their destiny into their own hands. (10)

Understanding underdevelopment:

At all times, therefore, one of the ideas behind underdevelopment is a comparative one.

A second and even more indispensable component of modern underdevelopment is that it expresses a particular relationship of exploitation: namely, the exploitation of one country by another. All of the countries named as ‘underdeveloped’ in the world are exploited by others; and the underdevelopment with which the world is now preoccupied is a product of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation. (14)

And why might we mistake underdevelopment based on exploitation to anything else?

Mistaken interpretations of the causes of underdevelopment usually stem either from prejudiced thinking or from the error of believing that one can learn the answers by looking inside the underdeveloped economy. The true explanation lies in seeking out the relationship between Africa and certain developed countries and in recognising that it is a relationship of exploitation. (22)

Always look to the relationships between things. Those relationships between Africa and Europe? Slavery, domination of trade, ownership of the means of production, foreign investment in the form of loans and interest:

The things which bring Africa into the capitalist market system are trade, colonial domination and capitalist investment… African economies are integrated into the very structure of the developed capitalist economies; and they are integrated in a manner that is unfavourable to Africa and ensures that Africa is dependent on the big capitalist countries. Indeed, structural dependence is one of the characteristics of underdevelopment. (25)

‘At the social and cultural level, there are many features which aid in keeping underdeveloped countries integrated into the capitalist system…’ (26) the church, language, music, the political system at first overtly through colonial rule and then through puppet governments

And perhaps the most important point in thinking about ‘underdeveloped’ countries today, across Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean:

Political instability is manifesting itself in Africa as a chronic symptom of the underdevelopment of political life within the imperialist context…If economic power is centred outside of national African boundaries, then political and military power in any real sense is also centred outside… (27)

That seems so simple, yet most people working in development now fail to get it.

So, the nitty gritty of how this development on one side based upon the underdevelopment of the other worked — slavery almost makes it seem too obvious yet it is still so much ignored.

3: Africa’s Contribution to European Capitalist Development — the Pre-Colonial Period & 4: Europe and the Roots of African Underdevelopment — to 1885

The developed and underdeveloped parts of the present capitalist section of the world have been in continuous contact four and a half centuries. The contention here is that over that period Africa helped to develop Western Europe in the same proportion as Western Europe helped to underdevelop Africa. (75)

To discuss trade between Africans and Europeans in the four centuries before colonial rule is virtually to discuss slave trade. Strictly speaking, the African only became a slave when he reached a society where he worked as a slave. Before that, he was first a free man and then a captive. Nevertheless, it is acceptable to talk about the trade in slaves to refer to the shipment of captives from Africa to various other parts of the world where they were to live and work as the property of Europeans. The title of this section is deliberately chosen to call attention to the fact that the shipments were all by Europeans to markets controlled by Europeans, and this was in the interest of European capitalism and nothing else. (95)

The massive loss to the African labour force was made more critical because it was composed of able-bodied young men and young women (96) … African economic activity was affected both directly and indirectly by population loss. For instance, when the inhabitants of a given area were reduced below a certain number in an environment where tsetse fly was present, the remaining few had to abandon the area. In effect, enslavement was causing these people to lose their battle to tame and harness nature — a battle which is at the basis of development. (98)

The changeover to warlike activities and kidnapping must have affected all branches of economic activity, and agriculture in particular (99) … Therefore, there was what can be called ‘technological arrest’ or stagnation, and in some instances actual regression, since people forgot even the simple technique of their forefathers. … What Africa experienced in the early centuries of trade was precisely a loss of development opportunity, and this is of the greatest importance. (105)

Interesting note about land — and how it was never a commodity.

At no stage in the independent history of these interlacustrine states did land become purely a personal possession, to be monopolised by a given class, as in the classic European feudal model. Scholars frequently demand this feature before they concede that feudalism has arrived; (123)

What contact with Europe really meant for Africa:

It is clearly ridiculous to assert that contacts with Europe built or benefited Africa in the pre-colonial period. Nor does it represent reality to suggest (as President Leopold Senghor once did) that the slave trade swept Africa like a bush fire, leaving nothing standing. The truth is that a developing Africa went into slave trading and European commercial relations as into a gale-force wind, which shipwrecked a few societies, set many others off course, and generally slowed down the rate of advance. (135)

On the connections between capitalism and imperialism

To elucidate the main thesis of this study, it is necessary to follow not only the development of Europe and the underdevelopment of Africa, but also to understand how those two combined in a single system — that of capitalist imperialism. (135)

The growing technological and economic gap between Western Europe and Africa was part of the trend within capitalism to concentrate or polarise wealth and poverty at two opposite extremes.

European monopoly firms operated by constantly fighting gain control over raw materials, markets and means of communications. They also fought to be the first to invest in new profitable undertakings related to their line of business — whether it be inside or outside their countries. Indeed, after the scope for expansion became limited inside of their national economies, their main attention was turned to those countries whose economies were less developed and who would therefore offer little or no opposition to the penetration of foreign capitalism. That penetration of foreign capitalism on a world-wide scale from the late 19th century onwards is what we call ‘imperialism’.

Imperialism meant capitalist expansion. It meant that European (and North American and Japanese) capitalists were forced by the internal logic of their competitive system to seek abroad in less developed countries opportunities to control raw material supplies, to find markets, and to find profitable fields of investment. The centuries of trade with Africa contributed greatly to that state of affairs where European capitalists were faced with the necessity to expand in a big way outside of their national economies. (136)

The development of arms and military technologies that allowed the complete conquest of the continent from the very resources of the continent itself:

Pre-colonial trade in slaves, ivory, gold, etc., was conducted from the coasts of Africa. On the coasts, European ships could dominate the scene, and if necessary forts could be built. Before the 19th century, Europe was incapable of penetrating the African continent, because the balance of force c their disposal was inadequate. But the same technological changes which created the need to penetrate Africa also created the power to conquer Africa. The firearms of the imperialist epoch marked a qualitative leap forward. (137)

5: Africa’s Contribution to the Capitalist Development of Europe — the Colonial Period

There was a great expatriation of African surplus under colonialism. This was partly through European trading companies, but

Channels for the exploitation of surplus were not exhausted by the trading companies and the industrial concerns. The shipping companies constituted an exploitative channel that cannot be overlooked. The largest shipping companies were those under the flags of the colonising nations, especially the British. The shippers were virtually a law unto themselves, (161)

In the background of the colonial scene hovered the banks, insurance companies, maritime underwriters and other financial houses. One can say ‘in the background’ because the peasant never dealt directly with such institutions, and was generally ignorant of their exploiting functions (162)

The seizure of land also created a labour force — Walter Rodney doesn’t make the connection to its similarities to the pillaging of the commons back in England as explored by Linebaugh and Rediker, but I couldn’t get away from it.

When colonial governments seized African lands, they achieved two things simultaneously. They satisfied their own citizens (who wanted mining concessions or farming land) and they created the conditions whereby landless Africans had to work not just to pay taxes but also to survive.(165)

And then there was always force.

Finally, when all else failed, colonial powers resorted widely to the physical coercion of labour – backed up of course by legal sanctions, since anything which the colonial government chose to do was ‘legal’. The laws and by-laws which peasants in British East Africa were required to maintain minimum acreages of cash-crops like cotton and groundnuts were in effect forms of coercion by the colonial state, although they are not normally considered under the heading of ‘forced labour’.

The simplest form of forced labour was that which colonial governments exacted to carry out ‘public works’. Labour for a given number of days per year had to be given free for these ‘public works’ – building castles for governors, prisons for Africans, barracks for troops, and bungalows for colonial officials. A great deal of this forced labour went into the construction of roads, railways and ports to provide the infrastructure for private capitalist investment and to facilitate the export of cash-crops. Taking only one example from the British colony of Sierra Leone, one finds that the railway which started at the end of the 19th century required forced labour from thousands of peasants driven from the villages. (166)

Fucking hell you say.

I bet it was hell.

It wasn’t just about money though, it was about technology and innovation. Seems like academics are still ‘discovering’ this, yet here’s Rodney laying it all out there decades ago.

But, Africa’s contribution to European capitalism was far greater than mere monetary returns. The colonial system permitted the rapid development of technology and skills within the metropolitan sectors of imperialism. It also allowed for the elaboration of the modern organisational techniques of the capitalist firm and of imperialism as a whole. Indeed, colonialism gave capitalism an added lease of life and prolonged its existence in Western Europe, which had been the cradle of capitalism. (173)

Then, of course, the US began expanding its influence, particularly after WWII while Europe lay in ruins. Another key point of Rodney’s is that imperialism does not require the same relationship as colonialism:

Colonialism was based on alien political rule and was restricted to some parts of the world. Imperialism, however, underlay all colonies, extended all over the world (except where replaced by Socialist revolutions), and it allowed the participation of all capitalist nations. Therefore, lack of colonies on the part of any capitalist nation was not a barrier to enjoying the fruits of exploiting the colonial and semi-colonial world, which was the backyard of metropolitan capitalism. (189)

More ways that colonialism was vital to the survival of capitalism, and more of what the colonial relationship actually stripped from Africa to give to Europe:

Over the last few decades of colonialism, colonial possessions served capitalism as a safety-valve in time of crisis. The first major occasion when this was displayed was during the great economic depression of 1929-34. During that period, forced labour was increased in Africa and the prices paid to Africans for their crops were reduced. Workers were paid less and imported goods cost a great deal more. That was a time when workers in the metropolitan countries also suffered terribly; but the colonialists did the best they could to transfer the burdens of the depression away from Europe and on to the colonies. (195)

The second major occasion on which the colonies had to bail out the metropoles was during the last World War. As noted earlier, the African people were required to make huge sacrifices and to supply vital raw materials at little cost to the metropoles. (195-196)

6: Colonialism as a System for Underdeveloping Africa

I love how he devastates that whole ‘pro and con’ argument over colonialism that I have heard so many damn times…and I am still meeting people who think there are more pros:

However, they would then urge that another issue to be resolved is how much Europeans did for Africans, and that it is necessary to draw up a ‘balance sheet of colonialism’. On that balance sheet, they place both the ‘credits’ and the ‘debits’, and quite often conclude that the good outweighed the bad…It is our contention that this is completely false. Colonialism had only one hand — it was a one-armed bandit. (205)

I have only copied the arguments here, not the many proofs offered by Rodney in the text. I’ll just give one as illustration, as if a long hard look at Africa over the past 60 years weren’t enough:

At the end of 500 years of shouldering the white man’s burden of civilising ‘African natives’, the Portuguese had not managed to train a single African doctor in Mozambique, and the life expectancy in Eastern Angola was less than 30 years. (206)

There is so much more here on slavery, direct exploitation and forced labour, killing, rape, poverty, malnutrition, limited education through church (and mostly for manual labour), trains that led from industrial and natural resources to ports and nowhere else, shanty towns, absence of hospitals, the stripping of natural resources and the witholding of technology and expertise…

Part 2 will look more at the arguments around all of this and the development of racism, its connections to fascism and how both articulate with capitalism.

I had some critique, and it is less of Rodney and more of Marxist theory at the time he was writing —  particularly Marxist arguments on the evolution of societies, and the trajectory through feudalism to capitalism and on to socialism. Walter Rodney’s work is much more nuanced on this than many, because he is fucking smart and it is starting where people are, respecting their differences. I read it now in view of climate change and in face of a reality that our ‘advanced’ civilization is actually on the brink of destroying itself, and see there is quite a lot in here about the wealth of knowledge in African cultures about other ways of life that he notes, but still places broadly within this ‘improving’ trajectory. Just one example:

There was no single dam or aqueduct comparable to those in Asia or ancient Rome, but countless small streams were diverted and made to flow around hills, in a manner that indicated an awareness of the scientific principles governing the motion of water. In effect, the people of Zimbabwe had produced ‘hidrologists’, through their understanding of the material environment. (66)

These are things we should be learning from. But of course, for Rodney I think, damns and factories and mining and its technologies were still marks of progress. Left unexamined by him (but noted) is the terrible environmental costs of European extractions. Their cost born by the poorest people in the poorest countries, the wealth in exporting metals and precious stones as well as all the technology and development they enabled going to Europeans:

The mining that went on in Africa left holes in the ground, and the pattern of agricultural production left African soils impoverished; but, in Europe, agricultural and mineral imports built a massive industrial complex.(180)

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