Review of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Part 1/3

Review of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Part 1/3

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Walter Rodney was a writer and activist who was influential in the anti-imperialist, the Black Power, and socialist movements across the Black and African worlds. In 1980, Rodney was assassinated in his homeland of Guyana by a car bomb while participating in local politics. Rodney is probably best remembered as the author of the very influential How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Published in 1972, Rodney’s book has become a classic work on the political economy of Africa and underdevelopment generally. Rodney has a place alongside writers like Andre Gunder-Frank, Samir Amin, Malcolm Caldwell, Arghiri Emmanuel and similar theorists who have studied modern imperialism and underdevelopment. This tradition foreshadows the development of Leading Light Communism. Even though almost four decades have passed since its publication, the book is a must-read for those seeking to understand the poverty of Africa and the wealth of Europe and North America. It helps us understand how the wealth of First World countries is a result of poverty in Third World countries. Rodney’s work is an important forerunner of the political economy of the Leading Light Communist movement.

Africa prior to large-scale European contact

Imperialism is not just about armies, labor and gold. Imperialism has a cultural dimension. When one part of the world systematically oppresses another, it changes not only the material make-up of those societies, it also affects the cultures. It is a kind of master-slave dialectic writ large, on a global scale. Part of this relation is the need by the oppressors to see themselves and their victims as different than they really are. To justify their inhuman acts, imperialists must invent narratives where they are not the villain. As part of this, imperialists often portray Africa prior to large-scale European contact in the fifteenth century as an uncivilized jungle. They portray Africans as barely out of the forest, as akin to wild animals, as apes. The most extreme version of the racist and imperialist narrative not only exonerates European slavers, but turns them into heroes. Slavers tamed apes into men, or at least two-thirds men. Plantations were not akin to concentration camps. Rather, the plantation was one big happy family. The master was kindly and paternal to his darker “children.” So goes the myth, the lie, of the gentile South. Some have even claimed that not only that Blacks deserve no reparations, but Blacks should be thankful to the United States that they were saved from eternal African night. This kind of narrative, and similar and subtler ones, rest on the myth that Africa was hopelessly backward prior to large-scale European contact. Rodney thoroughly refutes the myth. He demonstrates that Africa had a long and rich tradition of civilization prior to widespread contact with Europe. Although Africa’s development was not the same as Europe’s, Africa had long been developing just fine:

“Africa in the fifteenth century was not just a jumble of different ‘tribes.’ There was a pattern and there was historical movement. Societies such as feudal Ethiopia and Egypt were at the furthest point of the process of evolutionary development. Zimbabwe and the Bachwezi states were also clearly on the ascent away from communalism, but at a lower level than the feudal states and a few others that were not yet feudal such as those in Western Sudan.” (68)

Rodney states:

“It can be said that most African societies had not reached a new stage of society markedly different from communalism.” (69)

Early European travelers to Africa were often impressed with what they saw. Rodney quotes an early Dutch traveler who visited Benin:

“The town seems very great. When you enter into it, you go into a great broad street, not paved, which seems to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes street in Amsterdam…

The king’s palace is a collection of buildings which occupy as much space as the town of Harlem, and which is enclosed with walls. There are numerous apartments for the Prince’s ministers and fine galleries, most of which are as big as those on the Exchange in Amsterdam. They are supported by wooden pillars encased with copper, where their victories are depicted, and which are kept carefully clean.

The town is composed of thirty main streets, very straight and 120 feet wide, apart from an infinity of small intersecting streets. The houses are close to one another, arranged in good order. These people are in no ways inferior to the Dutch as regards cleanliness…” (69)

Obviously, there were great differences between Holland and Africa too. However, it is pure racism to portray Africa as barbaric and uncivilized prior to large-scale European contact. Such racist conceptions are not based in reality. They are part of a complex, evolving, and often contradictory narrative that has been used for hundreds of years to justify the plunder and exploitation of Africa by Europeans and other imperialists. Similar tales have been used to justify the imperial conquest of the Americas and Asia.

While pointing out early Africa’s accomplishments, Rodney does not understate the differences between Western Europe and Africa. Rodney does not exaggerate the development of Africa prior to the fifteenth century. Rodney could not be further from contemporary Afro-centrists who wildly falsify history in order to claim Africa as the center of virtually all great advances. Rodney is a scientist, not a story teller and myth maker. He is part of the Marxist tradition. He does does not romanticize pre-colonial Africa. Rodney is no utopian longing for a return to a “golden age” that never existed. Rodney points out that African societies had their own contradictions, configurations and distributions of power.

Imperialist and productivist metaphysics

In the Manifesto, Karl Marx describes the development of Western European society, and the world, as a march from primitive communism to slave society to feudalism to capitalism to communism. Although in other writings Marx sometimes postulated other modes of production like the “Asiatic mode,” some have held that this march, this pattern of development, is inevitable and universal. Often such claims are made with little concrete investigation into the particularities of development, especially outside of Europe. Such an outlook is often useful to so-called Marxists who apologize for or even openly align with imperialism. Unfortunately, these pretenders find some support for their reactionary views in certain aspects of Marxist tradition, especially those works that overemphasize the development of the productive forces as the driving force of history. Maoists criticized certain aspects of the tradition as the Theory of Productive Forces, a revisionist theory.

First Worldists, chauvinists and racists often say that imperialism, despite itself, is good for the backward parts of the world because it brings technology, it modernizes, it sweeps away primitive and feudal fetters on development. Thus they invoke Marx to echo the slaver narrative. This revisionist train of thought is common, in varying degrees, to a number of revisionists from Kautsky, Trotsky, Khrushchev, Liu Shaoqi, and Deng Xiaoping. It is even found, although usually to a lesser degree, in Marxists who are upheld by the revolutionary tradition. By dogmatically clinging to such a Euro-centric and teleological scheme, one easily becomes an apologist or open advocate for imperialism. This kind Marxoid imperialism is sometimes referred to as social imperialism. Social imperialism is especially common to those claiming to be Trotskyists. It is no secret that today’s Neo-cons have Trotskyist origins. Even First Worldist onetime Maoists have taken this kind of view. Bill Warren of BICO fame and the “Strange Times Maoists” have such a view. Some of those in the long defunct RIM did too. The argument goes or implies something like this: Imperialism is positive because it brings capitalism, thus opening the possibility of socialism. Imperialism is a progressive agent of history according to this teleology. This view says there is only one road to socialism, the European road through European-style capitalism. This kind of First Worldist revisionism is especially unscientific considering that the “advanced” First World countries, in Europe or elsewhere, do not even have a proletariat and have never experienced anything even close to a socialist revolution — unless you count the imposition of people’s democracy on eastern Germany by the Red Army as a revolution. The First World should not be considered developed, but parasitic and maldeveloped in a sense. The reality is that proletarian revolution has only occurred in what Lenin called the “weak links” of the world system. This is what Lenin meant when he said the storm center of world revolution was headed east. In agreement with Lenin, Mao said the East Wind prevails over the West Wind. And it was Lin Biao who said the whole cause of world revolution hinged on the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Rodney is part of this emerging Third Worldist thought, he correctly points out that Africa does not fit neatly into the Euro-centric teleology that underlies much First Worldism and social imperialism:

“Both Marxists and non-Marxists alike (with different motivations) have pointed out the sequence of modes of production noted in Europe were not reproduced in Africa. In Africa, after the communal stage there was no epoch of slavery arising out of internal evolution. Nor was there a mode of production that was a replica of European feudalism… The assumption that will underlie this study is that most African societies before 1,500 were in a transitional stage between the practice of agriculture (plus fishing and herding) in family communities and the practice of the same activities within states and societies comparable to feudalism.” (38)

This isn’t to say that real trends and patterns are absent from social development. And certain social development presupposes certain conditions exist. One cannot simply jump to communism or even socialism. Rodney’s survey of African development shows that the complexity of the real world often escapes vulgar simplifications. Yet Rodney does not end up in idealism or anarchist utopianism or epistemological skepticism. In this respect, Rodney shares much with Mao at his best moments. Mao too did not embrace the idealist position that rejects the idea that revolution and development happens in stages. However, Mao too understood that development did not always fit into such a linear straight-jacket. Mao recognized that building socialism in the Third World would mean taking a path that did not match up exactly with the scheme Marx originally predicted for Europe. Mao built off Lenin’s understanding that imperialism was a real game changer across the world. Imperialists imposed a socioeconomic configuration on China that Maoists variously call, depending on what aspect they want to emphasize, “colonialism” or “semi-colonialism,” “semi-feudalism,” “comprador capitalism,” and “bureaucrat capitalism.” These are the terms that Maoists have used to describe the underdevelopment that has been imposed across the “global countryside,” the Third World. Mao saw that imperialism altered the mode of production, the political development and cultural life of the exploited countries for the worse. The imperialists often enter into an alliance with the most backward segments of the indigenous populations, the comprador capitalists and feudalists. In some cases, colonialism even imports and imposes feudal institutions alongside capitalism as in parts of Latin America. Thus imperialism does not develop a poor country, it underdevelops. Imperialism is thoroughly reactionary. This is why Lenin identified imperialism as the highest and last stage of capitalism. Capitalism was no longer progressive in the world. This is why Lenin called it moribund and decadent. Mao’s answer to this was to find another road to socialism. Mao united all the popular classes under proletarian, communist leadership in a people’s war against the two mountains of imperialism and feudalism, for New Democracy and national liberation. This laid the groundwork for socialist revolution. Mao’s theory of New Democracy proposes a different sequence of development than the traditional euro-centric one. This was one of Mao’s greatest theoretical accomplishments. It was Chen Boda and Lin Biao who universalized this aspect of Mao’s work. Mao’s road was not simply socialism for China, but rather Mao’s contributions applied far beyond China.

Mao, at times, challenged the metaphysical and teleological model in general. At their best moments, Maoists in China understood that there is nothing inevitable about social evolution or progress toward social revolution. The claim, common within the revolutionary tradition, that the victory of the proletariat is inevitable and an absolute law of history is metaphysical and teleological hyperbole. Stalin once stated that the proletariat will eventually row the boat to the shore of communism even without communist leadership. This kind of statement is an expression of a very teleological and metaphysical conception of progress and revolution. Mao recognized that all social development is transitional, but in a different way. Mao did not see socialism as a static affair. Mao said that there is nothing worse than a stagnant pond. Nor did Mao see socialism as calmly marching toward communism. Mao understood that socialism could only be understood as a transitional society in flux, filled with violent ruptures, life-and-death clashes and antagonistic contradictions. “Never forget class struggle!,” Mao warned during the Cultural Revolution. Because of the transitional nature of socialism, because of remaining inequalities in power and remaining reactionary culture, a new bourgeoisie arises within the Communist Party and state. This new class seeks to restore capitalism. Thus class struggle still exists under socialism. Counter-revolution is always a danger. Socialism does not inevitably transform into communism. Rather socialism can transform back to capitalism. There is nothing inevitable about victory. The proletariat could row Stalin’s boat in circles until the end of time. This is one reason why scientific leadership is key. This is why Maoists emphasized the subjective aspect of struggle. This is why Lin Biao raised the slogan of “Politics in command!” as part of his Four Firsts campaign around 1959. Later the slogan was transformed into “Mao Zedong Thought in command!”

Science learns. Even though socialism has been lost everywhere, the knowledge of that experience survives in the form of the highest stage of revolutionary science, Leading Light Communism. Even though we lost the Soviet Union, China and other other progressive experiments, Leading Light Communism has preserved the lessons of the revolutionary experience of the last century. The next time we take power, the proletariat will be able to march further toward communism. This is one reason it is so important to struggle against revisionism, especially First Worldism. The last two revolutionary waves are defeated. The Bolshevik revolution was defeated after World War 2 and the Maoist revolution in China was defeated in the 1970s. We stand like Lenin before 1917. There are no socialist states. We stand before the next upsurge, the next wave of revolution. We need to continue the breakthrough of the Leading Light. Part of this is educating the people in real Marxism. Works like Rodney’s are very advanced, even by today’s standards. They need to be popularized again as part of this struggle. This is part of putting “Leading Light Communism in command!”


Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, D.C.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

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