Classic Texts: Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’

Walter Rodney, (2018) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, London/New York: Verso, 2018, paperback (with free ebook) £11.89.

Reviewed by Andy Higginbottom

This book is a masterpiece. Walter Rodney wrote How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA) in his late twenties while a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The book brings together in a broad narrative the history of the African continent from a perspective that is at one and the same time Pan Africanist and Marxist. Moreover, it is an original contribution to what was known as the dependency school emanating from Latin America. [1]

The re-edition of HEUA by Verso is to be fully welcomed.  As well as the Introduction to the 1982 edition, written shortly after Rodney’s murder, the new edition carries a short and inspiring Foreword by Angela Davis, which sets the scene well in stating that none of the fundamental problems addressed by Rodney have been resolved. One of these threads, Davis notes, is how the condition of African labouring women, as well as men, was pushed down by colonialism.  Davis rightly calls on the readership to pick up and ‘deepen Walter Rodney’s legacy’.   Let us now review that legacy.

HEUA takes forward the Marxist theory of dependency and underdevelopment from a Pan Africanist perspective. It is a sign of the range and depth of HEUA that there are at least three major debates that it enjoins with various historians, all apologists for European imperialism. The first debate concerns the specific destructive awfulness of the European slave trade. The second debate is over whether Europe benefitted economically from the late nineteenth century ‘Scramble for Africa’ and the colonial regimes that were installed. The third debate concerns the intersection of race and class, the position of the African working poor and the nature of their exploitation under the European colonial regimes.  In this review I will identify some of Rodney’s protagonists and the arguments in these debates because of their continuing ideological significance.

As characterises all of Rodney’s writing, the structure of HEUA is clear and methodical.  Chapter 1 is a paradigm statement which asks, ‘what is development?’ and ‘what is underdevelopment?’[2] In responding, Rodney outlines his main argument:  that Africa’s poverty and underdevelopment are not due to any intrinsic social or biological attributes of Africans but arise from systemic predatory external relations that have in turn become internalised. Whilst some of the specific mechanisms changed, the book’s central message is that for centuries European capitalist imperialism exploited Africa.

Chapters 2 and 3 look at African history up to and then after the arrival of the European slave trade, respectively. Here Rodney counteracts the then emerging orthodoxy (especially of English establishment academia) which tended to minimise the novelty, extent and sheer destructiveness of European slavery for Africa’s development.

Africa’s own history up to the 15th century was remarkably varied and Rodney charts this in overview and then surveys the internal dynamics of several societies. In his conclusion to this chapter Rodney returns to the concept of development, which he sees as normally arising from the ‘slow imperceptible expansion in social productive capacity ultimately amounted to a qualitative difference, with the arrival at the new stage sometimes being announced by social violence’ (p. 82). His assessment is that in the fifteenth century by and large African societies were still generally characterised by communalism, and only exceptionally had they entered into a degree of class differentiation similar to feudalism in Europe, as in Egypt and Ethiopia.

Of importance for the ideological arguments to come, Rodney further emphasises that while forms of enslavement existed in the pre-European slave trade period, care should be taken as the same term is applied to quite different processes, he analyses their character as specific forms of social oppression that were qualitatively different from what was to come. He summarises ‘slavery as a mode of production was not present in any African society, although some slaves were to be found where the decomposition of communal equality had gone furthest’(p. 82).  Here Rodney makes a methodological point that Africa’s history has to be studied both in its own right as well as in comparison to Europe and other parts of the world.

Although Rodney is only occasionally explicit in his text, this is the first big debate against which his synthetic interpretation is positioned.[3] In 1969 historian J. D. Fage wrote that slavery was endemic in Africa before the 15th century and moreover that trade was stimulated by the coastal groups of Africans who willingly cooperated with the Europeans, and benefitted by kidnapping from Africa’s interior.[4]  Fage concluded that the European slave trade ‘was essentially only one aspect of a very wide process of economic and political development and social change in West Africa’ (1969, p. 404). There was a connected discussion on the number of captured Africans. The academic consensus, based on counting the arrivals in the Americas, centring on around 11 million. Basing his argument on this data, Fage continues:

…the volume and distribution of the export slave trade do not suggest that the loss of population and other effects of the export of labour to the Americas need have had universally damaging effects on the development of West Africa. Rather, it is suggested, West African rulers and merchants reacted to the demand with economic reasoning, and used it to strengthen streams of economic and political development that were already current before the Atlantic slave trade began (1969, p. 404).

Against this benign view sanitising European destruction, Rodney writes in terms resonant today:

In one sense, it is preferable to ignore such rubbish and isolate our youth from its insults; but unfortunately one of the aspects of current African underdevelopment is that the capitalist publishers and bourgeois scholars dominate the scene and help mould opinions the world over. It is for that reason that writing of the type which justifies the trade in slaves has to be exposed as racist bourgeois propaganda, having no connection with reality or logic. It is a question not merely of history but of present day liberation struggle in Africa (p. 117).

Chapter 4 is the central pivot of the book. Its earlier sections are about the impact of European slavery and can be seen as a chapter in its own right. Rodney’s point is that the European slave trade was both hugely beneficial to Europe and a basic factor in African underdevelopment. In terms of the huge impulse to capitalism that slavery and the slave trade brought, Rodney refers approvingly  to the classic of Eric Williams arguing their significance in fuelling the industrial revolution in England.[5]  Rodney agrees with another Williams thesis, that African were enslaved ‘for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited’ (p. 103).

The extreme destruction of the European slave trade went beyond the numbers of young African men and women who ended up in the Americas, because the process of their capture generated continuing wars between collaborators and resisters across West Africa and parts of Central and Southern Africa. Rodney also argues that European slaveholder interest was behind the ‘East African Slave Trade’ (p. 109). He shows that whilst the populations of Europe and Asia more than doubled between 1650 and 1850, there was no increase at all in Africa during the two centuries when the trade was its height.  The population lost was ten times greater than the 11 million normally cited. Thus, due to slavery, Europe’s expansion sucked the life force of Africans, its success was based on the destruction and distortion of Africa’s development for centuries, even before its further subordination under colonial rule.

Further into Chapter 4 Rodney explains the mid nineteenth century interregnum between Britain ending slavery in its colonies (in 1834) and the ‘Scramble for Africa’ that reached its apogee in the Berlin Conference 1884/5 which decided how the continent would be fully divided up between the rival West European powers.  Following a similar approach to that in Chapter 2, Rodney again provides several detailed accounts of different regions, explaining how they fitted into a complex pattern of politico-military developments beset with technological and economic stagnation. This review cannot do justice to the wealth of insight in the detailed studies, as we are sticking with the broader contours of Rodney’s argument.

‘The Coming of Imperialism and Colonialism’  is a key section that takes us into the second major debate. Rodney argues against the ‘curious interpretation of the Scramble and African partition which virtually amounts to saying that colonialism came about because of Africa’s needs rather than those of Europe’ (p. 164). Rodney’s account of colonialism is completely opposed to the orthodoxy of British establishment ‘Oxbridge’ historians such as D.K. Fieldhouse who, he argues, ‘proclaim that colonialism was not essentially economic, and that the colonisers did not gain’ (p.363).   In Chapter 5 Rodney explains the many ways that colonisation of Africa contributed to the development of capitalism in Europe.  There are many illustrative details, he gives the example of Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever as ‘a major beneficiary of African exploitation’ . Fieldhouse’s later works can be read as an extended response to Rodney’s underdevelopment paradigm. Fieldhouse went on to write:

Unfortunately for the record of colonialism it often proved necessary to use methods unacceptable to humanitarians, then and later, to persuade Africans and some other indigenous peoples to undertake regular work or to produce for the market (1983, p. 73)[6]

Much more unfortunate for the Africans and those other peoples who had ‘unacceptable methods’ i.e. systematic violence, forced upon them! The persistence of English apology for empire as typified by Fieldhouse (one can find all too many examples today) is all the more reason to bring Rodney’s African anti-imperialist history back centre stage.

Chapter 6 of HEUA critically evaluates the supposed benefits of colonialism for Africans. Here Rodney tackles the big myths, that at least the Europeans built railways, schools and the like. He brings out that in one field after another, most especially in education, how colonialism underdeveloped Africa. Rodney argues that colonial education’s promotion of individualism was particularly destructive. There were some minor facilities post 1945 as European colonial powers entered the end game of their rule, and sought to encourage loyalty amongst some sections of the occupied populations, but having weighed these claims the overall evaluation ‘it would be an act of the most brazen fraud to weigh the paltry social amenities provided during the colonial epoch against the exploitation, and to arrive at the conclusion that the good outweighed the bad’ (p. 246).   Even more categorically, ‘the only positive development in colonialism was when it ended’ (p. 320).

Rodney’s book stands out because it provides us with an integrated history of Africa from the standpoint of the dependency/underdevelopment paradigm, which is that capitalism and imperialism are ‘an integral system involving the transfer of funds and other benefits from colonies to metropoles’ (p. 362). Beyond the notion of transfer, Rodney’s history is an example of the Marxist theory of dependency, in that he analyses the class relations involved, that takes us on to the original source of the transferred funds, African labour in different forms of exploitation, from peasant producers to migrant labour.

Rodney had a great sense of how the working poor of Africa suffered under slavery and colonialism. ‘Capitalists under colonialism did not pay for an African to maintain himself and family.’ (p. 265)  One of HEUA’s virtues is that it consistently expresses a class standpoint, connecting national oppression with the specific modes of labour exploitation. ‘By any standards, labour was cheap in Africa, and the amount of surplus extracted from the African labourer was great. The employer under colonialism paid an extremely small wage – a wage usually insufficient to keep the worker physically alive – and, therefore, he had to grow food to survive’ (p.172).  Perhaps under the influence of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, [7] Rodney uses the term ‘surplus’, whereas it is clear from the context that what is meant is ‘surplus-value’, as Marx defined the concept. Taking from Marx cotton spinning as the example, Rodney draws attention to ‘the labour that went into growing the raw cotton’ and observes that ‘from an African viewpoint, the first conclusion to be drawn is that the peasant working on African soil was being exploited by the industrialist who used African raw material in Europe or America. Secondly, it is necessary to realise that the African contribution of unskilled labour was valued far less than the European contribution of skilled labour’ (p. 266).

Leaving aside for now that the African labourer was also skilled, Rodney argues that their much lower reward (‘valued far less’) was not due to the playing out of free market forces, but the result of repressive ‘monopolistic domination’ by the colonial state.  Rodney repeatedly reminds us that although in the same system, the colonial face of capitalism was distinct from its metropolitan face, where at least ‘the rise of the bourgeois class indirectly benefitted the working classes, through promoting technology and raising the standard of living.’ By contrast, ‘in Africa, colonialism did not bring those benefits, it merely intensified the rate of exploitation of African labour and continued to export the surplus’ (p. 312).

In his critical review of HEUA, the South African historian and Trotskyist Martin Leggasick commented that of the work’s ‘limitations and deficiencies’, the most significant ‘is the manner in which its Marxism is at crucial points overtaken by its African nationalism’ and, to reinforce the point, ‘even the title has this implication’ (1976, p. 436).[8] Legassick challenged the wider conceptual framework ‘of the “development-underdevelopment” paradigm’; and was particularly concerned to deny that African workers were more exploited than European workers, whose ‘higher living standards may well be associated with a higher technical rate of exploitation is essential to any systematic understanding of Marx’s analysis’ (p. 436). The reason Legassick gave for European workers getting higher pay is their presumed higher productivity because of working with machines, and hence producing more ‘relative surplus value’. This one sided reading of Capital is the hallmark of Eurocentric Marxism and marks the terrain of the third debate around HEUA, which remains ongoing. Legassick is typical of the Eurocentric Marxist school in his further claim that Rodney is overly concerned with the transfer of surplus from Africa to Europe and is not concerned with the class relations of the production of that surplus, which is blatantly inaccurate.  Rodney shows that ‘wages paid to workers in Europe and North America were much higher than wages paid to African workers in comparable categories’ (p. 177, emphasis added). He reports disparities of between four and up to even thirty times, that ‘illustrate how much greater was the rate of exploitation of African workers’ (p. 177). This third debate is vital in considering the continuities of international exploitation as Africa moved out of colonial occupation, to formally independent states where nonetheless mechanisms of underdevelopment and brutal exploitation of African labour continue to operate.

If, as Rodney wrote in 1972, colonialism in Africa had ended, what came after? A.M. Babu’s postscript gives important pointers to the actuality of the problem. In HEUA Rodney laid a thorough historical basis for the study of neo-colonialism in Africa, without itself yet being that study. Rodney’s own life was cut short, he was assassinated in 1980 because he was fighting on the frontline of struggle against neo-colonial capitalism in his home country Guyana. Nonetheless Rodney’s various writings on neo-colonialism are a further strand in his tremendous legacy, and part of the collective consciousness with his contemporaries committed to revolution in Africa, which requires a separate commentary.

HEUA stands on its own as a considerable achievement whose core arguments and debates deserve to be studied carefully by all interested in African liberation, and most especially the upcoming generation for whom it provides an outstanding example of committed revolutionary scholarship.

Andy Higginbottom was involved in the Imperialism study group that Redline collective members initiated in late 2017 and early 2018.  He is an Associate Professor at Kingston University, London and involved in solidarity groups supporting social movements in Colombia, South Africa and Tamil Eelam.  Thanks to Andy for passing on this review, which first appeared at the online Review of African Political Economy, here.  

The new Verso edition of Rodney’s classic is available from the publisher, here.


[1] I would like to thank all the students at Kingston University who have worked with me in studying this text.
[2] Between the 1972 first edition by Bogle L’Ouverture and the 1982 Howard University edition, which is followed closely by this Verso edition, the italicisation of certain words for emphasis by the author has been lost in Chapter 1. This would be no more than a quibble except that some of these lost italics occur at key points of the overview argument that Rodney emphasises (see new edition p. 16).   It is to be hoped that if there is a reprint by Verso these italics are recovered.
[3]  Rodney is almost certainly referring to works by D. Mannix and M. Cowley (1963) Black Cargoes, a History of the Atlantic Slave Trade New York: Viking Press subsequently republished as a Penguin Classic (2002); and especially J. D. Fage (1959) Introduction to the History of West Africa Cambridge: Cambridge University Press which Rodney critiqued in in his 1966 article ‘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, 7 (3), pp. 431-443. This article was part of Rodney’s PhD thesis that was published in 1970 as A History of the Upper Guinea Coast: 1545-1800 New York: Monthly Review Press.
[4] Fage, J.D. (1969) ‘Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Context of West African History’  The Journal of African History, 10(3), pp. 393-404.
[5] Williams, Eric (1994) Capitalism and Slavery. 2nd edition.  Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
[6] Fieldhouse, D.K. (1983)  Colonialism 1870-1945: An IntroductionBasingstoke/London: Macmillan.
[7] Baran, Paul and Paul Sweezy (1966) Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.
[8] Legassick, Martin (1976) ‘Perspectives on African “Underdevelopment”’ The Journal of African History, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 435-440.


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