But these valiant struggles suffered major setbacks. Four decades on, the global reality has altered fundamentally. The socialist camp is no more. Unbridled capitalism has re-established its hegemony in every nook and cranny of the planet. From Washington to Moscow, from Paris to Peking, markets, liberalization, privatization and investors run the show. The land of Mao is a capitalist power house while the US/NATO military forces spread mayhem where they please. Even Cuba has partially yielded, and faces mighty pressure to re-join the neo-liberal fold.
In Africa, neo-colonial domination is solidly entrenched. Most of the earlier attempts at economic self-determination such as the local import substitution industries that sprang up after Independence, qualitatively limited as they were, have been decimated under the fierce onslaught of the World Bank/IMF led policies. Africa is locked under the tutelage of global capital as Western, Chinese and other giant corporations plunder its land, labour and resources with the firm assistance of the local bourgeoisie and corrupt political elite (Burgis 2015). (For scores of well documented, revealing examples from across the continent, explore the websites www.africafocus.org and www.pambazuka.org).
Despite that ugly reality, popular consciousness does not view the West as the economically exploitative entity it truly is but, instead, it has been reborn as the fountain of freedom, democracy, humanitarian assistance, social development and modern culture. It is now seen as a generous funder of health, education health and social services, and supporter of free and fair elections, good governance and much more.
We regularly witness acts and pronouncements that make a mockery of even the nominal independence of African nations. The litany of unilateral Western military interventions in recent years have lacked any semblance of accountability and violated the basic norms of international law. These powers also interfere in local African affairs brazenly in major and minor social, political and cultural arenas daily (Turse 2015).
Such a drastic reversal in the African economic and political reality has accompanied an equally dismal reversal in the arenas of culture, ideas and outlook. The progressive visions from the past have largely been expunged from memory and scholarly discourse. History has bitten the dust as the intellectual and practical efforts of that era for a world based on equality and universal dignity are a mystery to the modern African youth. Little from the massive intellectual edifice developed in that era garners even a passing attention in the academia and mass media today. And when it does, it is in derogatory or dismissive tones. The grotesque violations of human rights perpetrated in the name of socialism (like those in Cambodia under Pol Pot) are repeated while the equally horrific or worse crimes of capitalism (like the murderous US aggressions in Indochina, Central America and Iraq) are swept under the rug.
The dominant tone is: ”those misguided leftist ideas only compounded Africa’s social and economic problems; the modern world has no room for the totalitarianism they espoused; democracy, individual initiative, private investment and free trade promise the best future for humanity, including Africa.”
The resilient ones
It is not that the entire intellectual edifice of that era has been reduced to ashes. That cannot be. With its unique mix of veracity, logic and ethics, with its appeal to the sense of justice, a socialist vision is by now integral to human thought. Activists and committed scholars, old and new, will invariably keep the flame alight. But currently, it is a vision with but a tiny audience. The cacophonous dominant media drown out the voices that even faintly appear to support it. As they lose broad appeal, socialists and anti-imperialists converse, utilizing arcane and elusive terminology, among themselves. Dejected, many adopt a stance that does not query the capitalist-imperial system as such. While noting its multitude of major problems, they pursue reformist, specific, NGO-based goals within that allegedly unquestionable system.
Nevertheless, a few elements of anti-capitalistic thought have withstood the gale force winds of bourgeois ideology. A few have even broadened their reach. Creative gems from Ngũgĩ and Saramago still command a good audience. Zinn’s opus has a stable following in the USA and has spawned an impressive line of derivative works including Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World and R Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. But in general, the thinkers of that era, including the towering figures like Amin, Cabral, Chomsky, Sembene and Said retain but a tiny readership. Che is a commercialized, romantic icon; the modern youth who flaunt his badges have no clue as to what he stood for. Martin Luther King Day, a holiday in the USA, is a day for the expression of unbridled consumerism that is decorated with a one-sided presentation of his real legacy.
Among the progressive intellectual fare from that era that still command a decent audience, one resilient baobab stands out: Rodney’s epic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
In print continuously since 1972, it has secured a better global presence in the education system and general readership than most of the premier progressive books from those days. It is still the subject of occasional conferences and seminars in universities in Africa, Europe and America (see Wikipedia (2014) for a partial list). And, it still attracts hostile diatribe from right wing elements. Not content with assassinating the man, they seek to bury his ideas too. But this giant of a human being continues to haunt them from his grave.
What accounts for the global impact and sustained popularity of a book written in Tanzania forty and some years ago and brought out by two small publishing houses? Before answering this question, a few words on Rodney, the man, and the brand of historiography embedded in his book are in order.