(Posted originally to the Introduction to Marxism mailing list on Yahoo.)
I want to wrap up the discussion on dependency theory by referring to a jewel that I stumbled across on the Marxism Internet Archives a week or so ago. Written in 1973, Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” is one of the few Marxist books that I read while in the Socialist Workers Party that did not have the imprimatur of Pathfinder Press. Rodney’s book had a huge impact on the left back then and even inspired a similar treatment in Manning Marable’s 1983 “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America”.
Although Rodney’s book was not published by Monthly Review, it certainly was seen as a companion volume to such MR classics as Eduardo Galeano’s “The Open Veins of Latin America” and Pierre Jalee’s “Pillage of the Third World”, two other books that I found time to read even though they were not published by SWP authors. I only regret that I had not read more such books since the cumulative effect might have been to persuade me to turn in my resignation earlier.
Walter Rodney was born into a working class Guyanese family in 1942. He received his PhD in 1966 on the basis of a dissertation on the slave trade. Clearly he was following in the tradition of fellow Caribbean Marxist Eric Williams, the author of “Capitalism and Slavery,” a book also based on a PhD that was strongly influenced by CLR James.
Rodney began teaching at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1968, a natural base for the political organizing that would lead to his banning from the country by the Jamaican Labor Party. This led to widespread protests which were met by police violence. After being expelled from Jamaica, Walter taught in Tanzania until 1974 where he developed the ideas incorporated in “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”.
In 1974 Rodney returned to Guyana where he again combined teaching with political activism. While running for office in the Guyanese elections in 1980, he was killed by a remote control bomb.
Turning once again to the critique of dependency theory, Brenner et al level the charge that dependency theory does not address class relations within the regions under analysis and implicitly give aid to the local bourgeoisies. It is difficult to see how the first charge can be taken seriously since it was never the aim to provide such an analysis. In fact, the same charge could have been leveled against Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Final Stage of Capitalism” or Rosa Luxemburg’s “Accumulation of Capital,” at least the sections that deal with precapitalist societies. On giving aid to the local bourgeoisies, perhaps it would be useful to quote Walter Rodney, a fairly typical dependency theorist:
Securing the attributes of sovereignty is but one stage in the process of regaining African independence. By 1885, when Africa was politically and juridically partitioned, the peoples and polities had already lost a great deal of freedom. In its relations with the external world, Africa had lost a considerable amount of control over its own economy, ever since the 15th century. However, the loss of political sovereignty at the time of the Scramble was decisive. By the same reasoning, it is clear that the regaining of political sovereignty by the 1960s constitutes an inescapable first step in regaining maximum freedom to choose and to develop in all spheres.
Furthermore, the period of nationalist revolution gave rise to certain minority ideological trends, which represent the roots of future African development. Most African leaders of the intelligentsia and even of the labour movement were frankly capitalist, and shared fully the ideology of their bourgeois masters. Houphouet Boigny was at one time called a ‘Communist’ by the French colonisers! He defended himself vigorously against that false charge in 1948:
We have good relations with the (French) Communist Party, that is true. But it is obvious that that does not mean that we ourselves are communists. Can it be said that I, Houphouet-Boigny – a traditional chief, a doctor of medicine, a big property owner, a catholic – can it be said that I am a communist?
Houphouet-Boigny’s reasoning applied to so many more African leaders of the independence epoch. The exceptions were those who either completely rejected the world-view of capitalism or at least stuck honestly to those idealistic tenets of bourgeois ideology such as individual freedom-and, through experience, they could come to realise that the ideals remained myths in a society based on the exploitation of man by man. Clearly, all leaders of the non-conformist type had developed in direct contradiction to the aims of formal and informal colonial education; and their differences with the colonisers were too profound to have been resolved merely by ‘flag-independence’.
African independence was greeted with pomp, ceremony and a resurgence of traditional African music and dance. ‘A new day has dawned’, ‘we are on the threshold of a new era’, ‘we have now entered into the political kingdom’ – those were the phrases of the day, and they were repeated until they became clichés. But, all the to-ing and fro-ing from Cotonou to Paris and from London to Lusaka and all the lowering and raising of flags cannot be said to have been devoid of meaning. Withdrawal of the directly-controlled military and juridical apparatus of the colonisers was essential before any new alternatives could be posed with regard to poetical organisation, social structure, economic development, etc.
The above issues were raised most seriously by the minority of African leaders who had individually embarked on a non-capitalist path of development in their mode of thought; and the problems were considered within the context of inequalities and contradictions not just between Africa and Europe but also inside Africa, as a refection of four centuries of slavery and one century of colonialism. As far as the mass of peasants and workers were concerned, the removal of overt foreign rule actually cleared the way towards a more fundamental appreciation of exploitation and imperialism. Even in territories such as Cameroon, where the imperialists brutally crushed peasants and workers and installed their own tried and tested puppet, advance had been made in so far as the masses had already participated in trying to determine their own destiny. That is the element of conscious activity that signifies the ability to make history, by grappling with the heritage of objective material conditions and social relations.
One imagines that a number of the critics of dependency theory might have found themselves nodding in agreement with the final sentence of Robert Brenner’s 1977 article: “The necessary interdependence between the revolutionary movements at the ‘weakest link’ and in the metropolitan heartlands of capitalism was a central postulate in the strategic thinking of Lenin, Trotsky and the other leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution. With regard to this basic proposition, nothing has changed to this day.”
As the Marxist equivalent of apple pie, mom and the American flag, it is hard to disagree with Brenner’s call for a revolutionary movement that integrates the heartlands and the hinterlands. However, the Trotskyist movement which Brenner identified with to a large degree never developed the kinds of analysis that could be found in a Walter Rodney or an Andre Gunder Frank. Too often it was satisfied with repeating formulas about “permanent revolution”, which consisted mainly of the observation that unless a socialist revolution was made in a backward country, it would remain backward. This is what is called a tautology. Instead of issuing empty calls for the need for socialism, Walter Rodney and A.G. Frank were content to hammer away at the exploitative nature of colonialism and neocolonialism. That should be sufficient in this day and age.
In one of his numerous footnotes, Robert Brenner takes Rodney to task for not adequately tying together African slavery and the world capitalist system after the fashion alluded to above:
See Walter Rodney, ‘African Slavery and other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave Trade’, Journal of African History, VIII (1966), p. 434; A. G. Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa, New York 1973, pp. 104, 106. Both of these authors naturally see the development and/or intensification of slavery as responsive to the world market, but they do not adequately explain the specific character of the processes of class formation and class conflict which made this response possible.
This was the same complaint I have heard about Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery”. If your argument is that capitalism developed exclusively in the British countryside, it is most inconvenient to be reminded about the role of slavery. I for one am not exactly sure what Brenner is looking for in his footnote. There certainly was a “class conflict” when Spanish, Portuguese and British slave traders came to Africa and dragged off slaves to the Western Hemisphere. The slave traders were representatives of an incipient bourgeoisie that relied heavily on forced labor in the early stages of the capitalist system and the Black Africans belonged primarily to feudal and hunting-and-gathering societies.
With respect to the role of slavery in the formation of the capitalist system, I will allow Rodney to make the case. This is from Chapter Three. Africa’s Contribution to European Capitalist Development – the Pre-Colonial Period. You will note that Rodney has no trouble connecting developments in the New World to the genesis of capitalism in Europe. In doing so, he was clearly echoing Marx’s observations in the chapter on the “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” in volume one of Capital:
The connections between slavery and capitalism in the growth of England is adequately documented by Eric Williams in his well-known book Capitalism and Slavery. Williams gives a clear picture of the numerous benefits which England derived from trading and exploiting slaves, and he identified by name several of the personalities and capitalist firms who were the beneficiaries. Outstanding examples are provided in the persons of David and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays’ Bank. There was a similar progression in the case of Lloyds – from being a small London coffee house to being one of the world’s largest banking and insurance houses, after dipping into profits from slave trade and slavery. Then there was James Watt, expressing eternal gratitude to the West Indian slave owners who directly financed his famous steam engine, and took it from the drawing-board to the factory.
A similar picture would emerge from any detailed study of French capitalism and slavery, given the fact that during the 18th century the West Indies accounted for 20% of France’s external trade-much more than the whole of Africa in the present century. Of course, benefits were not always directly proportionate to the amount of involvement of a given European state in the Atlantic trade. The enormous profits of Portuguese overseas enterprise passed rapidly out of the Portuguese economy into the hands of the more developed Western European capitalist nations who supplied Portugal with capital, ships and trade goods. Germany was included in this category, along with England, Holland and France.
Commerce deriving from Africa helped a great deal to strengthen trans-national links within the Western European economy, bearing in mind that American produce was the consequence of African labour. Brazilian dyewoods, for example, were re-exported from Portugal into the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the Baltic, and passed into the continental cloth industry of the 17th century. Sugar from the Caribbean was re-exported from England and France to other parts of Europe to such an extent that Hamburg in Germany was the biggest sugar-refining centre in Europe in the first half of the 18th century. Germany supplied manufactures to Scandinavia, Holland, England, France and Portugal for resale in Africa. England, France and Holland found it necessary to exchange various classes of goods the better to deal with Africans for gold, slaves and ivory. The financiers and merchants of Genoa were the powers behind the markets of Lisbon and Seville; while Dutch bankers played a similar role with respect to Scandinavia and England.
Western Europe was that part of Europe in which by the 15th century the trend was most visible that feudalism was giving way to capitalism. The peasants were being driven off the land in England, and agriculture was becoming a capitalist operation. It was also becoming technologically more advanced – producing food and fibres to support a larger population and to provide a more effective basis for the woollen and linen industries in particular. The technological base of industry as well as its social and economic organisation, was being transformed. African trade speeded up several aspects, including the integration of Western Europe, as noted above. That is why the African connection contributed not merely to economic growth (which relates to quantitative dimensions) but also to real development in the sense of increased capacity for further growth and independence.
I would conclude by saying that you owe it to yourself to read Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa“. This is a classic of anti-imperialist literature that will continue to educate people about the damage done to African society which will only be undone when the people of Africa take hold of their destiny following in the steps of Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara.