Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 28, 2008

Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”

Filed under: Africa,imperialism/globalization,Introduction to Marxism class,racism — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

(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.


  1. The point Brenner might be making (or at least the point he should be making) is that the African slave trade was not so much a class relationship itself (as you seem to frame it, between a merchant bourg enslaving class and an enslaved working class) but a business transaction between two groups who were constituted as classes within their own societies. Of course, much violence and coercion was involved in that transaction (no Marxist should need to be told that business and violence are not exactly mutually exclusive!), but the “Roots” narrative of European merchants dragging slaves off to the West usually proceeds by radically oversimplifying what was going on in those societies themselves: the dynamics by which slavery became a central part of those local economies, creating substantial class interest in maintaining the trade on the part of the local power structure, and arguably producing the various “slave kingdoms” in West Africa. I pretty much accept the broad thrust of Eric Williams’ argument with regards to talking about Europe and the West, but if you want to understand the ramifications that the centuries of the slave trade have had on Africa itself, Williams and Rodney really aren’t sufficient, because they don’t address the class dynamics that were set up in the country. It’s not that they’re wrong (I think you’re right to say “it was never the aim to provide such an analysis”) but the issue of how the slave trade functioned to create a class system in Africa itself is a really important part of African historiography (one which people like JF Bayart usefully integrate into the historiography of the present day African state); it’s just an approach that dependency theory is poorly situated to take on. I don’t say that to fault the endeavor of people like Rodney, exactly; I just think it’s a theory with some significant limitations, and Western academia’s tendencies to over-generalize when talking about Africa makes it easier to overlook those limitations. Characterizing Africa as “feudal and hunting-and-gathering societies,” for example, is a really poor way to address the complexity of those societies; it’s adequate as a short-hand, but it falls apart the closer you look at it.

    Comment by zunguzungu — October 28, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

  2. Who knows what point Brenner was trying to make. I have read copious amounts of Brenner, Wood and others in this school and have never been able to locate a single, in-depth analysis of class relations in Africa or Latin America. Brenner did write a long article on China in response to Ken Pomeranz but it is so technical that somebody unfamiliar with Pomeranz’s arguments could not make heads nor tails out of it.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 28, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

  3. The point Brenner might be making (or at least the point he should be making) is that the African slave trade was not so much a class relationship itself (as you seem to frame it, between a merchant bourg enslaving class and an enslaved working class) but a business transaction between two groups who were constituted as classes within their own societies.

    That’s a neat trick, focusing on the trade in slaves, rather than slavery itself, with the corollary that you can go on to muddy, or indeed totally elide, the class relationship between the slaves and the slave owner.

    Whether the African societies integrated into capitalist a world market through the slave trade were hunter gather, pastoralist, nomadic, feudal, or anything else, Rodney’s thesis that these societies were tied to the capitalist economy in such a way that would only lead to the development of underdevelopment in Africa, and acceleration of capital accumulation in Europe, still stands. Further, the relationship between the world capitalist market and the societies dominated by the comprador bourgeoisie today is not so drastically altered from the relationship that existed between the world market and societies dominated by native intermediaries in the atlantic slave trade. All this makes it hard to see what, if anything at all, the first comment above is getting at.

    Comment by Lajany Otum — October 30, 2008 @ 10:34 pm

  4. Right? Clearly there could be many more in-depth studies of the internal dynamics of African societies and the internal slave trade prior to the hegemony of capital, but that wasn’t Rodney’s focus. Given that he wasn’t allowed time to press the question in more depth, it seems a little off to be focussing on what isn’t found among his works.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — November 1, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

  5. “Given that he wasn’t allowed time to press the question in more depth, it seems a little off to be focussing on what isn’t found among his works.”

    I would argue the same goes for Wood (I can’t speak for Brenner). I’ve read most of Ellen Wood’s stuff and what she is focusing on is the specificity of capitalism compared to other previous modes of production. With relation to imperialism, the question for Wood is why did the European expansion that produced the world we live in today not go the way of the Roman, Arab, Chinese, Moghul, Mayan etc. Empires? Wood argues that it was the contingent historical conditions in England that eventually produced capitalism (and which then spread via inter-state competiton to places like Germany and Meiji Japan).

    That’s the argument, but whether it’s right or not, I don’t see it as being in contradiction to what the radical dependency theorists were doing. Rodney and Wood are focusing on different aspects of the same process. Seems like a classic blind-men-and-an-elephant type of thing.

    Much more troubling than the choice of topics pursued by individual academics decide is the failure of socialist currents to recognize the importance of imperialism and colonialism in the history (and I take the present as history) of capitalism.

    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — November 2, 2008 @ 4:53 am

  6. Nik, defining the problematic in terms of the specificity of capitalism as compared to other *modes of production* predetermines the answers. The mode of production approach is in sharp distinction to the more global approach of an Eric Williams or a Walter Rodney. I keep coming back to the analysis of Belgian tire production during the reign of King Leopold. I cannot accept the proposition that there was capitalism in the mother country and not in the colony just because “extra-economic” forms of coercion existed in one place and not in the other. You need to understand capitalism as a *system* in my opinion.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 2, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

  7. Lajany,
    Saying that “the relationship between the world capitalist market and the societies dominated by the comprador bourgeoisie today is not so drastically altered from the relationship that existed between the world market and societies dominated by native intermediaries in the atlantic slave trade” is a useful starting point for a useful comparison, but they are also very, very different in ways Rodney is a poor guide to elaborating. I’m really not attacking Rodney (or endorsing Brenner’s argument, which I barely remember reading); I’m just saying that he asked really important questions — which no one else was asking at the time — but that his answers to those questions are the sort of thing we need to build on critically. The only way you could possibly say that those two things the same is to have a very, very fuzzy understanding of the historical dynamics in, say, 18th century Angola (a kind of ignorance that is endemic in the Western academy), and it’s this that makes me protest when I see terms like “feudal” used to describe African pre-colonial economies. It’s just not a useful term; after all, how can you have feudalism without the commodification of land? Historically, labor not land has been the limiting factor in production relations in Africa, and that has consequences for how you understand the historical dynamics of what’s going on, both then and now. You can draw parallels (and ask the question of how to compare the two) but it doesn’t seem to me like anyone’s doing that; instead, people are simply asserting that the two are the same, and using an implicitly Western model to describe something for which that model is very poorly fitted.

    Michael says that “it seems a little off to be focussing on what isn’t found among his works,” but I don’t see why that’s so; it isn’t knocking the guy to say that his work didn’t answer all of the questions he asked, and in many ways his work is necessary for people to build on. But that doesn’t make him right in every particular, nor is it an attack on him to say so.

    Comment by zunguzungu — November 11, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

  8. “It’s just not a useful term; after all, how can you have feudalism without the commodification of land?”

    I never meant to draw an exact parallel between pre-capitalist/pre-colonial Africa and Europe in the 12th or 13th centuries, but I would advise you to look at John Haldon’s “The State and the Tributary Mode of Production” which seeks to provide a common approach to all such societies. It can be read online at:


    I found Haldon useful in discussing pre-capitalist Ethiopia:


    Comment by louisproyect — November 11, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

  9. i so much appreciate what you have written, i really want a review on the book, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”.

    Comment by justina — August 27, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

  10. I would like you to send me a review of this book.

    Comment by Muazu njidda — September 6, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

  11. Please send to me a review of this book.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Suleiman m sani — October 26, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  12. Can Africa ever be recognised as an actor to certain developement in Europe,such as Sports?

    Comment by Edet — November 22, 2010 @ 10:59 am

  13. How can I read the complete Book

    Comment by Edet — November 22, 2010 @ 11:09 am

  14. Hi Louis,

    I went through a similar process in recent years, not in relation to Trotskyism – I have never been a member of a Trotskyist party in the past – but certainly in relation to the school of Brenner, Wood, et al. Although my attitude toward Brenner was tempered somewhat by my embrace of significant elements of Guy Bois’s critique of Brenner in the Past & Present ‘Brenner Debate’, I still embraced a large part of his basic assumptions, especially regarding his understanding of the nature of capitalism and its origins. My position has become considerably more open to that of Frank – although I have always admired Rodney to some extent, even if from afar – but perhaps due in part to my becoming more open toward elements in the Trotskyist traditions as well, especially with regard to the theory of ‘uneven and combined development’. Although certain people in that discourse used to be very sympathetic towards Brenner et al – for example, Justin Rosenberg – I detect a more critical tone in his recent work. Also, although his work is often pompous and the prose often bordering on bewildering the work of Banaji on the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean offers a different perspective that enables aspects of Frank to be integrated with Marxist concepts such as relations of production.

    I also think you overstate things a little when you say that you have read few books outside of those published by Pathfinder – I remember you reading some by Verso back in the mid ’90s, and Brenner’s work falls into that category, and of course Frank was published by MR Press. Anyway it is good that you are feeling liberated from the SWP – I would only suggest that you do not fall into the trap of taking their interpretations as gospel, and find your own relation (apologies for any Lutheran undertones here) to the texts that they transformed into objects of veneration.

    Wood et al seem to have become consumed with this holy war against the enemies of ‘Marxist humanism’, and defending the work of Dunayevskaya. I’m not really sure what that’s all about – these days when I read something that goes on at length about how Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts or Hegel’s Logic are the key to understanding Marxism my eyes kind of glaze over – but you might want to have a look. http://www.usmarxisthumanists.org/

    If I can make a recommendation I would suggest having a look at the books in the Historical Materialism book series, many of which have recently been published in more affordable paperback versions by Haymarket. I have yet to find one in the series that was a waste of my time. You can find a complete list here: http://www.brill.nl/hm

    I believe that the next one to appear in Haymarket editions is #21 on that list. I can recommend #16 & #17 as having encyclopedic value. Although #24 by Thomas is not out in paperback until much later this year I have found that one to be the most significant.

    Comment by David McInerney — January 5, 2011 @ 3:24 am

  15. I real appreciate Walter rodney for his creativity and awerness to african’s on how whites become selfish for bring changes to blacks

    Comment by Mmassy — March 3, 2011 @ 7:11 am

  16. I would like to inform make it short

    Comment by yilma mihret — April 4, 2011 @ 8:03 am

  17. Bcos of selfishness the white killed the man who open our eyes.May his gentle soul rest in perfect peace “amen”

    Comment by ABDUL JA'AFAR — May 15, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

  18. we say try and error,people who try to open our eyes are not with us anymore they all gone,may God be with Africans.Amen

    Comment by Esperanter — December 3, 2011 @ 6:10 am

  19. Please i will really appreciate it if you can send me a review of this text.May the soul of Walter Rodney rest in peace

    Comment by Lurlar — March 9, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

  20. I love the book,walter rodney have done a great job.

    Comment by Raliat Ali — March 20, 2012 @ 9:45 pm

  21. It is quite interested to read issue of colonial domination in africa

    Comment by Sani zubairu — April 2, 2012 @ 8:46 am

  22. This is very informative. I just came across this site when trying to understand why pre-colonial African societies did not develop the slave mode of production. I will be grateful if you recommend readings that cover this subject for i have come to realize,through a quick search though,that there is a strong debate that revolves around this matter.

    Comment by mwanamajumui — April 3, 2012 @ 5:38 am

  23. How can i get the complete book of Walter Rodney online?

    Comment by Muhammad Tanimu — April 22, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

  24. The book,’how Europe underdeveloped Africa is an eye openner about the damages done by colonial masters in past centuries to Africa land.

    Comment by Agbaluda odun — April 27, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

  25. how can i get the complete book of Walter Rodney on line?

    Comment by Mremi Yussuph — May 20, 2012 @ 8:52 am

  26. truly there developmemt is what led to our underdevelopment we will never forgive

    Comment by Yazid Surajo Karofi — July 12, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

  27. From my observation in reading the literature by this African son ,the book was more of historical development and an emperical investigation of the relationship between mother AFRICA and western capitalist europe.i shed tears after reading the text.

    Comment by Nwazuo stephen — July 21, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

  28. Although most Europeans do not accept that African underdevelopment is the outcome of exploitation posed to them,the truth will remain and stand there.
    comment by Edmund Kankusye Kilibura

    Comment by EDMUND — January 23, 2014 @ 9:35 am

  29. I still reserve highest respect to this scholar , whose literature gave foundational ground for modern understanding OG dependency theories

    Comment by Abdullahi yuguda — April 23, 2016 @ 8:13 am

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