The popularity and anti-imperial stance of HEUA made it a target of unsparing criticism from elitist, right wing quarters. And its method, contents and conclusions as well underwent sharp scrutiny from some progressive academics.
The key flaws of HEUA were said to be: (i) It converts history into a rigid deterministic process; (ii) it reduces human existence to the material dimension; (iii) it accords the principal, if not the sole, weight to external factors; (iv) it denies agency to the African people; (v) its terminology is too polemical; (vi) it is more like a political propaganda tract than a scholarly work; (vii) it is not a Marxist work because it side lines class relations; (viii) it is an expression of racially biased black nationalism; (ix) it does not depict the role of women in African history; and (x) it is factually inaccurate on many counts. Several of these points are interrelated.
Below I examine these criticisms in a point by point manner.
The claim that HEUA employs a rigid approach for elucidating history is not unique. Regularly levied onto works that derive from the Marxist method, it has its roots in a misperceived aspect of that method. Unlike for the varied branches of bourgeois social science, the fundamental tenets of Marxism are clearly identifiable. Because of that, Marxist historians are accused of applying these tenets reflexively, thus promoting a formula driven method of conceptualizing human society. The fact that many Soviet era books were written in a standardized way lends a degree of credibility to this charge.
To assess this claim, I resort to an analogy from biology. Ward and Kirschvink (2015) pose the question: What is life? One definition they put forward is that a living entity (i) metabolizes, (ii) has complexity and organization, (iii) reproduces, (iv) develops, (v) evolves, and (vi) is autonomous. Another more succinct definition of life they give is: ‘Life is a chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution’ (pp 32—35). Both definitions posit a few simple tenets. Yet, each forms a foundation on the basis of which we can capture and explain a complex biosphere comprising of millions of distinctive life processes and organisms. Those myriad of beautiful forms of nature are depicted in a systematic fashion in biology books. The message is: a simple, terse functional foundation can be consistent with a majestically varied edifice. A scientific approach to explicate an elaborate natural or social reality can be based on the tenets of such a foundation. To discover these tenets is a primary aim of science. The relevant queries are: Do they form a logical and coherent system? Are they empirically valid? Is the theoretical system based on them aligned with the trends in the natural or social domain?
Compared to the natural sciences, application of the scientific method to history has many limitations. They stem from the inaccurate, restricted and biased nature of the information available. But it does not mean that we should not apply conceptual rigor and the scientific method to history. In this discipline as well, identification of basic laws (tenets) of societal stability and change is a key task. Applying them critically to information from historical research, one can write scientific works that sparkle with creativity. Deficiencies in the raw material at hand and the complexity of the phenomenon are not a license to, as post-modernists are inclined to do, fly off on speculative, empirically dubious tangents.
Elements of creative interpretability are evident in classic Marxist works like Engels’ The Rise of the Family, Private Property and the State and VI Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia. The voluminous outputs of later Marxists like Samir Amin, JD Bernal, Gordon Childe, AG Frank, Eduardo Galeano, Eric Hobsbawm, CLR James, DD Kosambi, Paul Sweezy and Howard Zinn as well display extensive methodological and interpretive novelty and creativity. Their well-researched works interweave multiple facets of human society into elaborate but logical tapestries. Walter Rodney, as any decent venture into HEUA reveals, belongs to this group of Marxist writers who did not have a formula driven approach to the study of human society. His earlier book, History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1540 to 1800, persuasively enjoins a wide range of information to construct a narrative brimming with insightful, glittering gems.
Sterile scholarship affects all brands of history, Marxist and non-Marxist. To declare that Marxist renditions of history are, by default, formula driven signifies either lack of familiarity with this creative arena of intellectual activity, or a politically motivated diatribe, or what is most likely, both. I continue to elaborate this point below.
Facts and theory
Any endeavor in the natural or social science faces the chicken-or-egg dilemma: Commence with a theory and gather facts, or collect facts, then formulate the theory.
Most scientists declare preference for an empiricist stand on this issue: Facts first, theory next. Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle’s master sleuth, prescribed an identical tenet:
It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
Since HEUA begins with a well-defined framework for historic analysis, it is said to be fitting facts to a preconceived, one-fits-all version of history. That accusation, like that of rigidity, is invalid. First, as noted above, a terse conceptual foundation does not necessarily make the output a fixed and dry one. Second, the facts-first view overlooks the reality that science does not emerge from a series of separate, unique events. It is not a conglomeration of discrete facts, snapshots or events about nature, society or persons. Science develops as a cumulative process, building on the work of other scientists, past and present. At each stage, an a priori theory exists. The new work may confirm, alter, augment or negate it. Many theories emerge along the way. Far from being a haphazard collection of information, science research is a systematic process guided by a preliminary understanding of the phenomenon under study. That knowledge affects the kind and volume of facts that are deemed relevant, and the design of the scheme for acquiring them.
For example, an epidemiological investigation of whether an industrial chemical increases the risk of lung cancer must account for age and smoking status, the known risk factors for the disease. The researcher begins with a theory that involves these two factors. They should be incorporated into the design of the new study, type and manner of data collection, and the analysis of the collected data.
Facts and theory follow a Hegelian dialectic. Theory guides the research process but the new data may change it, at times markedly. To separate the two aspects of science in an abstract manner is not reflective of the actuality of science.
Despite its empiric limitations, research in history follows that scheme. Consciously or not, historians proceed on the basis of some vision of the historic reality. How they perceive social change is influenced by one or another model for understanding society. That model affects the kind of research conducted, the methods of data collection, the type of data collected, and as important, the kind of data not collected. Processing and organizing the collected data, and the eventual write up is also guided by those historiographical predilections.
The Marxist and other historians differ in a principal aspect. For the former, the guiding theoretical framework is laid out clearly and openly. The status quo inclined historians, operating under an illusory claim of objectivity, utilize background tenets that are usually not explicitly stated. And when they are, they are presented in an elusive, diffuse, distorted or incomplete manner.
Take John Illife’s Africans: The History of a Continent (Iliffe 2007). In this well-regarded text, he opines that the continent’s ‘unique population history’ makes ‘demographic growth’ the basic principle for deciphering its distant and recent past. He goes further: ‘The modern histories of all Third World nations need to be rewritten around demographic growth’ (p 2). That is an unambiguous declaration of a theoretical framework: that population growth is the principal factor driving social and economic advancement. Even as its empirical and conceptual validity is open to question, and his application to African history hardly establishes its veracity, that declaration does not generate controversy. It does not elicit the charge of rigidity or putting theory before data. Why not? Because not only do many mainstream historians ascribe to that tenet but also, its application does not entail unmasking the mechanisms of the capitalist, imperialist system. Instead, it elicits the standard recipe given to Africa by Western think tanks and funders: Curb population growth and you will prosper.
Another case: MK Asante in The History of Africa (Asante 2007) decries the lack of ‘thematic centrality’ in African history. To cover that deficiency, his book utilizes the Afrocentric framework. Regarded as a leading work in that genre, the key tenets of its theory are, however, not defined with any degree of clarity.
Again, we have a paradox: On the one hand, historians lament the lack of an organizing framework. But when one is given, and especially if it is of the political economy variety, its merit is set aside. It is by definition dismissed as deterministic. The contrasting treatments accorded to Rodney, on one side, and Illife and Asante, on the other, reflect a standard practice. In history, as in the other social sciences, the Marxist approach is regularly judged according to harsher, more elusive standards. If, following Rodney, you were to declare that the modern history of Africa should be rewritten around the evolution of structures of dependency, it would instantly raise loud alarm bells in the profession: How can you prejudge history? You would be prejudged. Even a cursory examination of the evidence you have marshalled would not be done. ‘It simply cannot be true,’ the distinguished professors from the renowned ivory towers of the West would reflexively proclaim.
Those who charge Marxist writing with rigidity blithely ignore the numerous creative, flexible works produced by Marxist historians from all the corners of the globe. In relation to Africa, the reference and reading list in Freund (1998) gives a good picture of the vast scope of such creative scholarly output.
The Indian historian DD Kosambi, who exercised a significant influence on a generation of students of Indian history, is a specific case in point. In his pioneering 1956 book, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, he identifies his historiographical scheme by defining history as ‘the presentation, in chronological order, of successive developments in the means and relations of production’ (Kosambi 1956, p 1). That classic Marxist stand notwithstanding, what he subsequently does is to roundly critique Karl Marx. He calls the notion of the Asiatic mode of production, used by Marx to explicate Asian societies, seriously flawed. Nonetheless, he also asserts that the political-economy approach developed by Marx remains an eminently useful, scientific method for the study of human society. Applying that method in an innovative, multidisciplinary fashion to India, he gives us a novel, consistent, fascinating picture of the trajectory of early India. One important arena pioneered by Kosambi was the analysis of the coinage of the day to cast light on social and economic features of the social order (see Guha 2013; Kosambi 2013; Thapar 2013). Howard Zinn, who corrected the intense patriotic, elitist bias found in the standard US history texts and approached that history from the conditions and viewpoints of ordinary people, is another mesmerizingly creative Marxist historian (Zinn 1980).
HEUA is cast in the same light. Even as it employs Marx’s insights into how human history unfolds, it does not blindly apply the modes of production scheme Marx proposed for Europe to Africa. Though it utilizes key concepts formulated by Marxists like VI Lenin, P Baran and AG Frank to explain the African reality under imperialism, it does not do that in a routine manner.
Importantly, HEUA does not succumb to the strictly structural variety of the development of underdevelopment model. It attends to the internal class structures and is cognizant of the importance, dominant at times, of the superstructure in historic change. Rodney’s explanation of why, unlike Europe, China did not autonomously evolve into a developed capitalist society is one example. His analysis of the contradictory impact of colonial education in Africa shows the scientifically adaptable nature of his methodology. Overall, his book does not mimic a scheme adopted from a standard text. On the contrary, it uses available historic evidence to indicate which of the social, political or economic factors and actors played critical roles at specific geographic locations and points in time. Further, these disparate factors are connected within an overall systemic framework.
Primacy of economics
True to his Marxist stance, Rodney declares economic factors as the primary drivers of African history. He thereby is deemed guilty of not just the sin of determinism but worse, of economic determinism.
Firstly, note the fact that today most historians dealing with Africa give noticeable weight to economic factors, at least into the presentation of the situation up to the end of colonial rule. Only a rare chronicler of the past disputes the primacy of the economic motives for colonialism. Yet, what is rarely acknowledged is that this historiographical transformation in no small measure reflects the long-term influence of the Marxist historians active in the sixties, among whom Rodney was the leading light.
Second, double standards extend to this issue as well. Establishment historians are not immune from succumbing to biologic, genetic, or race based deterministic explanations. Yet, we do not hear Asante (2007) being taken to task for narrow cultural determinism or Ilife (2007) being castigated for simplistic demographic determinism. Why then does economic determinism, real or alleged, cause a widespread uproar?
Rodney’s critique of the bulk of the historians of Africa was that they not only ignored or marginalized the essential economic issues but also that when they considered the racial, tribal, religious, cultural, behavioral or environmental factors, they did so in a disjointed manner. They either failed to utilize or, at best, presented in a masked fashion, known facts about the exceedingly exploitative dimensions of the African economic reality. Hence, their narrowly framed histories served more to justify slavery, colonial domination and neo-colonialism than to enlighten us about the African past and present. They as well favored post-colonial trajectories for Africa that were essentially pro-imperial in substance.
Interestingly, it may be noted that a few heavy weight right wing analysts of societal change have advocated their own quite rigid yet empirically hollow forms of economic determinism (Rostow 1960). And these have served to rationalize past and recent Western economic inroads into the dominated nations.
Rodney’s strident expose of their pro-status quo bias decidedly unnerved the mainstream historians. And they responded with the usual diversionary tactics. Charges of inflexible economic determinism automatically arose. Dismissals of Marxist analysis of society along these lines hark back to ancient days. But such a charge was effectively rebuffed by Engels a long way back.
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase (Engels 1890).
A foundational aspect of Rodney’s economic thinking generally escapes attention. As noted earlier, following Marx, he held that human labour – routine or creative, unskilled or skilled, mental or physical – is the source of all value in human society. It is not machines, money, stocks or forces of supply and demand but, in the final analysis, productive human labour that is the source of all wealth. For Marx, this was not an emotive declaration but one backed by rigorous analysis. And by placing that role onto a broader segment of the population instead of on the genius of a few entrepreneurs, he converted economics into a profoundly humanistic discipline. In comparison, modern bourgeois economics, driven by arcane mathematical models whose meaning even the experts cannot explain and whose practical and predictive utility is strongly in doubt, is founded on amoral, elitist, profit-loss propositions that are fast driving the human race towards a global catastrophe. Rodney, to his credit, adopted the economic theory based on logic, fact and humanistic morality.
Those who judge the Marxist method simply based on documents produced by ossified political parties have an axe to grind. Taking a broader look, it is evident that this method is versatile enough to accurately capture the essence together with the specificities of diverse, complex social and economic realities. Far from being a rigid method, it has ample latitude for linking facts to interpretation in a diversity of ways.
The dominant bourgeois ideology functions to confound and conceal the economic reality of capitalism and imperialism. An attempt to bring it into the open, especially when it also deals with the immediate past and the present situation, encounters a barrage of shrill charges from multiple influential quarters, academic, media based and political. And no matter how often the charges are shown to be without a foundation, they are repeated ad nauseam as gospel truth. HEUA has regularly been a prime target of such an unfounded, politically motivated tendency.
Another oft aired criticism of HEUA is that it explains all the slave trade and post-slave trade era transformations in Africa by attaching the principal, if not the sole, importance to external forces and actors.
It is true that HEUA takes capitalism as an international system and views imperialism as basically an economically driven phenomenon. Though it notes the associated political, military, cultural and social components as well. The structures of external dependency established in the dominated nations and the resultant class structure constitute the pillars of imperial domination. Evolving over time, they facilitate extraction of the economic surplus from the dominated nation to the dominant nation, from lower classes to the upper classes, and underpin other forms of domination.
Imperialism fosters underdevelopment. But that does not imply absence of economic expansion. It denotes the institution of processes and rules that organically link the local economy and society to entities and forces operating in external economies. Economic growth is not identical to economic development. The latter is not feasible without weakening the structures of dependency. Yet, the situation is not always static or one-sided. At some historic junctures, external dependency notwithstanding, internal factors and struggles play a critical, and at times, a decisive role in efforts to transform the local social and economic conditions.
Rodney accords central importance to imperialism as the driver of the stupendous transformation in Africa in the past five centuries in the light of the extensive evidence he has marshalled. Currently, most historians accept his stand, at least as far as the end of the colonial era. Additional evidence from recent research shows that his thesis still remains as, if not more, valid.
Major differences arise when that thesis is extended to the post-colonial period. In that case, it is vigorously opposed by influential African and Western scholars. As if by a miracle, Western nations stand in a different relation to Africa today. They are no longer exploiters but aid givers and development guiders. There is economic malfeasance, for sure. But it is rare, and is due to some unscrupulous companies. It is not systemic in nature. The thesis of economic imperialism is not only factually flawed but also amounts to finding external scapegoats for Africa’s present day maladies. They argue that it is time to stop pointing fingers at others and recognize that Africans, especially the corrupt, tyrannical leaders, bear the main responsibility for the state of turmoil and blocked progress in Africa. They point out that words like imperialism are conveniently used by autocrats like Mugabe to justify their failures.
Underdevelopment, in that view, is seen primarily as a state of mind. Africa remains backward because of lack of political will, local initiative, creativity and sustained effort. It is held that things can turn around dramatically if African people get their act together, hold their leaders to account, and embrace the spirit of entrepreneurship (Abdulazeez 2014; Mills 2011). Western nations have showered Africa with millions of dollars of assistance in education, health and social services. But the greedy leaders have squandered or stashed away the bounty given in good faith. Hence it remains a continent mired in destitution, conflict and despair. The key prescriptions for progress from the reigning school of thought include economic liberalization, promotion of local and foreign private investments, partnership between the private and public sectors, expanding exports, efficient utilization of foreign aid and a rapid expansion of the education sector. The high levels of GDP growth experienced by many African nations in the recent years are taken as indicators of the validity of this neoliberal strategy.
Yet, such voices are hardly new; they were heard in the early days of the Independence era too. Coming from influential quarters like the World Bank and the IMF, what they said was faithfully followed, within the specificities of the time, by most African nations. But it was this economic strategy that in large measure led to where Africa finds itself today. While a few elites within and beyond the continent benefitted immensely, the masses remained mired in endemic poverty. Whole regions and nations were destabilized at the core, and ripped apart by the violent convulsions whose roots lay in the economic and political brutality from above, grinding misery, unbearable pain, and frustrations that persisted for decades. Not a single nation in Africa, even one which had formed a political alliance with the socialist block, adopted a firm policy of disengagement from international capitalism. None sought to dismantle the structures of dependency. None took more than a few superficial measures to orient the economy onto a socialist path. These were the prerequisites for genuine development declared by Rodney. All thereby became mired in deep indebtedness to the West, and spiraled into catastrophic crises. That fate of post-Independence Africa does not negate Rodney’s theory of structural dependency. Rather, it reveals the predictive power of the theory (Danaher 1994).
Rodney divided the then politically independent nations of Africa into two basic categories; a majority including Kenya and Nigeria that were ensconced within the neo-colonial orbit and a few like Tanzania that had declared a policy intended to discard the shackles of dependency. The University of Dar es Salaam was the canter of a vibrant debate on the theory and practice of the national policy of Socialism and Self-Reliance adopted in 1967. Innovative investigations and astute socio-economic analysis by radical Tanzanian and expatriate scholars like Issa Shivji, Henry Mapolu, Justinian Rweyemamu, Adhu Awiti, Michela von Freyhold, Andrew Coulson and others indicated that despite impressive declarations of promoting self-reliance, Tanzania went on to adopt World bank supported policies that enhanced dependency rather than weaken it. The policy of Ujamma (cooperative socialism) came, in practice, to signify the establishment of a dependent, neo-colonial form of state capitalism rather than socialism.
Rodney was a key participant in this debate. But, at the outset, he did not concur with this viewpoint. In conjunction with scholars like John Saul, CLR James, and Lionel Cliffe, he felt that all was not lost. There was room for hope. However, after engaging with the local reality at the student, media, school and village levels, Rodney’s viewpoint evolved while that of most arm-chair leftist academics tended to remain static. By the mid-1970s, he had recognized that the rhetoric socialism masked the reality of neo-colonial dependency being implemented by a petty bourgeois bureaucracy. The point is that he was both a Marxist scholar and a committed activist, continually enhancing his perspective through study and struggle (Hirji 2011;2013; Shivji 2012). (see also Chapter 9).
Today, he would remind us that those entities who once openly backed dictators and robbers in Africa, whose companies exploited Africa’s mineral and other resources to the last ounce without producing any long-term benefits for Africa, the same actors are reborn as promoters and funders of welfare, human rights and good governance for the people of Africa. He would note that the picture of Africa rising painted by such sources is a fairy tale, a distorted half-truth. Scores of studies document the continued exploitation of African economies by external actors; that what is extracted from Africa far exceeds what is brought in by aid, investments, etc.; that the terms of trade for Africa remain adverse; that African economies are dangerously captive to unstable external market forces; that it is mostly the local elite, wealthy business class and foreign investors who reap the whirlwind; that excessive economic inequality and complete lack of accountability are the norm; that state resources are regularly diverted to serve local elites and foreign entities; and so on.
Ample documentation of how neo-liberal policies operate in Africa today exists. The nature of their impact on the economic, political and social fronts is also known. Suffice to say that Africa is undergoing, in a new form, the very process of development of underdevelopment exposed by Rodney. Dependency and servitude on all fronts are on the upswing. More and more, the outside powers call the shots, right to the micro level; and even militarily, Africa is coming under the purview of the US. More billionaires are born in Africa than ever before, yet the levels of poverty and childhood malnutrition remain stubbornly high. The growth and social progress seen are temporary and of the superficial kind. A few years of export driven economic euphoria are followed by business closures, a major burden of national debt and mass unemployment in the formal and informal sectors of the economy. The cases of South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda illustrate this tendency. Once heralded as leaders in development, they now face mounting economic crises (Burgis 2015).
In comparison to Rodney’s era, the particulars have changed. The presence of China makes the picture more complex. Yet, his structural elucidation of the African condition retains its validity and relevance. And so does his method of historic analysis.
Today, he would tell us to abandon the binary local-external viewpoint and realize that it is the alliance between the locally dominant economic class, local political elite, imperial states and multinational firms that lie at the root of Africa’s predicament. Neo-liberalism, he would proclaim, is the highest stage of neo-colonialism.
When talking of economic imperialism, establishment pundits, scholars and media usually make one exception. As far as Chinese investments and assistance in Africa are concerned, they find no compunction in applying that idea. China is castigated in an automatic manner of harboring imperial designs. Unfortunately, most African scholars repeat that ideologically driven tirade as well.
The actions of China in Africa do have imperialistic aspects. But that is not the issue here. I am simply pointing out a blatant double standard. It has also to be kept in mind that China operates within the confines of a global capitalist system instituted by Western powers, whose rules are enforced by agencies they dominate, and which is ultimately protected by the US military with its over 1,000 bases spread across the globe (Burgis 2015; Editor 2015; Foster 2006; Vine 2015; Wolf 2014).
Denial of agency
The charge of converting the history of Africa into a process solely determined by, and for the exclusive interest of, external forces engendered a complementary, frequently aired complaint against HEUA: that it denies agency to the people of Africa; that it portrays them as incapable of making their own history; and that their valiant actions and remarkable achievements in countering the external forces are seriously downplayed if not ignored altogether. It is hence alleged that Rodney converted Africans into pawns of external parties and economic forces.
I reflect upon the substance and implications of this serious accusation at three distinct levels: personal, strategic and historiographical.
Rodney was an activist and a revolutionary par excellence. Grounding with his brothers and radical scholarship got him expelled from Jamaica. In Tanzania, he worked closely with the radical students at the University of Dar es Salaam; was intimately involved in the struggles to convert the orientation of the course curricula from a bourgeois one into a socialist one; lived and worked in Ujamaa (cooperative villages); regularly spoke on socio-political topics in secondary schools and colleges; supported in words and deeds, the African, Palestinian, African-American and Vietnamese struggles; wrote articles on burning issues of the day in the popular media and gave public lectures at the university campus on a frequent basis. Denounced by Western embassies, he now and then also landed in trouble with the university and state authorities. At home in Guyana, he became a full-time revolutionary and was in the collective leadership of the Working Peoples Alliance, a radical political movement whose aim was to replace the exploitative neo-colonial order with a just and racially harmonious society. And he was killed in the trenches.
Consequently, Rodney embodied, in flesh, blood and spirit, the very idea of historic agency. He did not wait for automatic forces, economic or otherwise, to initiate societal transformation. Instead, he mobilized and worked for a better future for Africa, the Caribbean and humanity. On the personal level, the charge of denial of agency levied against Rodney is a patently absurd charge.
It is one thing to fight for change, but quite another to have an effective strategy to bring it about. Radicalism flounders if it is not grounded in a strategy that takes into account the major forces blocking change, and has a valid perspective for long term transformation. The fate of the recent Arab Spring uprisings testifies to that proposition. Those popular movements did not take Western imperialism, the class nature of state power and the economic dimension into account. Not surprisingly, in a short while, the nation minus the former dictator either landed into a condition of utter chaos, or returned to the same or worse form of the neoliberal quagmire.
Rodney’s investigations into history aimed to unearth the forces blocking change and those that would propel the change in the desired direction. By aiming to provide the people with effective theoretical tools for their struggles, he was not only cognizant as to the primacy of their agency but also desired to enhance the possibility of successful outcomes in their struggles. As he put it:
[E]very African has the responsibility to understand the [imperialist] system and work for its overthrow (HEUA, p 28).
Thus, on the political and strategic fronts, calling Rodney a denier of agency is a meaningless charge.
On the historiographical level, the question of agency pertains to writing of history that fully accounts for the actions of all the strata of society that figure in that process, both in times of stability and times of major change. For colonial Africa, we can divide the actions of the colonized people into four main phases: (i) resistance against the imposition and expansion of rule by the imperial forces; (ii) adapting to an established colonial order; (iii) acting at the individual and group levels to improve life conditions but within the confines of the colonial order; and (iv) mobilizing and acting on a nationwide basis to banish colonial rule. The stratagem of divide and rule, and historic relations between different communities in the colony implied that all communities did not react uniformly. Some cooperated with the rulers, others stridently opposed them. This lent complexity to the question of elucidating agency.
Let us explore the issue through his own words. In the first place:
Africans everywhere fought against alien political rule, and had to be subdued by superior force (HEUA, p 141).
Consequently, a new order emerged in Africa:
[U]nder colonialism, power lay in the hands of the colonialists. …. Colonialism was a negation of freedom from the viewpoint of the colonized (HEUA, p 223).
Nonetheless, the people of Africa did not lapse into passivity, resigned to the overwhelming power exercised by their rulers.
Within any social system, the oppressed find some room to maneuver through their own initiative (HEUA, p 223).
Giving several instances of this type of efforts in colonial Africa, he marvels at
the tremendous vigour displayed by Africans in mastering the principles of the system that had mastered them (HEUA, 263).
Nonetheless, such struggles for improvement within the colonial order were not the end of the game for the people. They eventually embarked on the path to full self-determination. As Rodney aptly expresses it:
True historical initiative by a whole people or by individuals requires that they have the power to decide the direction in which they want to move (HEUA, pp 222—222).
Upon observing the successful outcomes of these struggles, Rodney counters the views of those who claim that Independence was granted to Africa on a silver platter.
It should be emphasized that the choice that Africa should be free was not made by the colonial powers but by the people of Africa (HEUA, p 259).
Political independence, though a crucial, essential step in the struggle for liberation came with basic limitations. The shackles of imperial domination, especially on the economic front, largely persisted. Rodney thus points towards continued struggle by the people of Africa. Taking the example of Cameroon, he ends his book by recognizing and advocating
the element of conscious activity that signifies the ability to make history by grappling with the heritage of objective material conditions and social relations. (HEUA, p 280).
It is abundantly evident that Rodney is cognizant of the centrality of popular agency in African history and of the need to express it clear terms. Across the pages of HEUA, he gives instances of all the four levels of agency under colonial rule and notes their contradictory features. The matter is brought into prominence at the end of the book when he analyses the role of education during colonialism.
However, what Rodney can be taken to task for is not covering the issue of resistance in greater depth anywhere in the book. For example, it lacks details about the nature and course of anti-colonial movements and struggles in different parts of Africa.
But there was specific reason for that. Rodney did not set out to write a general history of Africa. Rather, he wanted an inexpensive, accessible, short work to explain in plain English what the title of the book stated. HEUA was written at a time when the economic reality of colonial domination was an almost taboo topic in the general African history texts. He managed to bring the issue to the forefront to an extent that in a few years it became an unavoidable thing to mention, even for the mainstream historians.
The charge of short changing agency on the historiographical front is thus a charge that stems from ignoring the aims of the author. It does not reflect a methodological limitation on his part. Those who make that claim seem to have read his book in a distinctively superficial manner. And despite the limitation of illustrations about popular struggles, given the thousands of students, activists and people he educated and inspired into action, he practically enhanced agency in a major way.
One other point about denial of agency is often overlooked. It seems logical that whenever one posits an extraneous force as a driving force of history, one, to an extent, reduces human agency from history. For example, some modern historians assert that environmental factors have been the main determinants of African history. Why are they not accused of denying agency to the people? Why are they not critiqued for reducing Africans to be blind victims of environmental forces?
Additionally, the question of agency is a two-way affair. In the period he covers, there were contradictions between classes, political groups and nations within Europe that affected the nature and course of European interventions in Africa. It was not a matter of a monolithic Europe, led by automatic laws of capitalist development, driven to impose hegemony over a monolithic Africa. Yet, Rodney covers the intra-European contradictions to an even smaller degree. One wonders why those who brand him a denier of agency to the people of Africa do not as well brand him a denier of agency to the people of Europe.
Furthermore, those who uphold the notion African agency surprisingly have little compunction in surrendering the fate of Africa today into the hands of external entities – the foreign ‘donors’, investors and banks. They are treated as the indispensable saviors of the unstable, badly governed nations of Africa. Rodney, however, would expose them as the exploiters of Africa who bear a major responsibility for its current problems. Hence the difference lies not so much in the relative emphasis placed on external entities but in how they are perceived—benefactors or bandits?
The final point is that social struggles derive from the social relations. On the latter issue, it is hard to fault Rodney. At all the stages of the historic process he writes on, he takes into account the relations between the existent or evolving groups and classes in society, in Africa and Europe, and addresses their interconnections. Open a page at random in his book and you will likely find a relevant example. While HEUA lacks details on social struggles, it does adequately depict the social relations connected with the development of underdevelopment.
Academic writing for any discipline is expected to use the discipline-specific terminology, and be, as well as appear to be, unbiased. It is expected to avoid emotive phrases, exaggeration and prejudicial terms. Works of history correspondingly must be scientific expositions that reflect dispassionate objectivity. That is the traditional academic lore.
At first sight, in HEUA, Rodney seems to have dispensed with these norms. It is thereby castigated as a polemical, unscholarly work. For example, instead of denoting the Africans who sided with the colonizers in neutral terms – say, internal facilitators of colonial rule — he calls them stooges, a pejorative label. Collins and Burns (2007) reflect the mainstream view as they denigrate the book for its ‘polemical’ and ‘inflammatory’ tone. It is implied that the presence of such features calls the author’s objectivity into question.
Yet, we note a double standard here. Mainstream American historians have no qualms about calling their country folk who supported the British in the war for independence turncoats. But such a label used in the African context, particularly when it is directed against Western powers or interests, suddenly becomes a no-no.
At the root of this criticism lies the key issue of the relationship between style and substance. The case of research papers published in prominent medical journals in the US and UK over the past two decades provides a valuable insight into that issue. Editorial rules require that the layout of these papers follow a standard structure, and avoid emotive, colorful, or subjective terminology. Only hard facts, scientific methodology and logical interpretations are allowed. An anonymous system of peer-review guards against the violation of these hallowed rules.
Yet, despite apparent adherence to such standards, these journals have been repeatedly embroiled in scandals involving publication of biased, unethical, substance-wise and methodologically deficient, and yes, plainly fraudulent research. Senior professors and researchers from leading US, British, European and Asian universities featured as the authors of these flawed papers. Research funded by drug and medical companies had a higher probability of being tainted with such bias. The recommendations stemming from them had higher risks of inflicting harm on patients. It was only due to a series of lawsuits, and efforts of whistle blowers and astute investigators that the ugly truth began to come to light. Many journals have reacted to the scandals by adopting strict rules about registration of health studies at the outset, declaration of conflict of interest, instilling transparency in research, data sharing, data reanalysis, and so on. Yet, one or the other scandal of this form continues to surface now and then. Of the hundreds of work dealing with this topic, see Angell (2005), Chan et al (2004), DeAngelis (2000;2006), Editorial (2004;2006), Hirji (2009), Hirji and Premji (2011), Kassirer (2000), Lewis (2010); Mayer (2005) and Moore (1995).
An objective type of writing style is far from a guarantee against egregious one-sidedness. By resorting to effusive, scientifically sounding terminology, protocol deviations, data selectivity, unnecessarily complex techniques of analysis and a convoluted, minimally informative style of presentation, modern day researchers have mastered the art of slanting research conclusions in a desired direction. But, on the surface, the style seems objective and neutral. Intense competition for research funding, diminished academic autonomy, the publish-or-perish culture, corporate inroads into the academia and computerization have enhanced such practices. Having a strongly worded writing style in this environment is among the least of the concerns.
One should not conflate style with substance. The merits of a non-fiction book should be assessed based on its methodology, inner logic, and content, not just the style. At times, a conclusion based on valid research may, and rightfully so, be expressed in terms carrying moral undertones. Whistle-blowers and academics who uncover egregious violations of human welfare, and activists who stand up to unjust authorities often express indignation over what they have found. On the other hand, one should doubt the commitment to the truth on the part of the scholars who look the other way, and proceed with business as usual in such ethically compelling circumstances.
Walter Rodney wrote about a continent that had been misrepresented, devalued, and denigrated for centuries. Those portrayals had justified the subjugation and exploitation of its people. So, he did not mince words when characterizing that reality. If anything, he deserves praise for breaking the silence, and jarring the conscience of his colleagues.
Furthermore, what is deemed polemical depends on your point of view. Many Africa oriented scholars took the label ‘underdeveloped’ to be a demeaning label. It seemed to imply that Africans were incapable on their own of attaining development. Hence, they preferred the positive descriptor ‘developing country’ for an African nation.
Why did Rodney employ that negative descriptor? And if he had wanted to sensationalize the issues why not use titles and words like How the White Man Plundered Africa, or How Europe Brutalized (Conned, Duped, Murdered) Africans and Fleeced (Denuded, Mangled, Pillaged, Razed, Vandalized) Their Economy and Society, etc. Labels like impoverished, fleeced, leeched, pauperized or ransacked dispersed within the pages of the book would have enhanced its polemical flavour and increased its grassroots popularity.
Yet, Rodney almost monotonously stuck to one sedate descriptor. Why? In his parlance, underdevelopment was not a vague, vilifying term. It was a carefully formulated socio-economic concept underpinned by a large body of analytic works. HEUA begins with a detailed explanation of this and related terms. As employed there, underdevelopment is neither an emotive nor a polemical adjective.
What the establishment academics dub polemical and what they do not reflects ideologically driven double standards. Consider, for example, the discussion of proliferation of intensely violent conflicts in Africa in the recent decades given in Reid (2012). Among the most important causes stated is the ‘massive influx … of automatic weapons, and in particular the increasingly ubiquitous AK-47’ (p 333). Only the Eastern-Bloc nations are explicitly mentioned here. While establishment historians take a statement of this sort as a neutrally framed, objective statement of fact, in reality it is anything but. Persistent repetition in the Western media has made it appear so. But an investigation of the militarization of Africa reveals it to be a biased declaration. Media bias entrenches and elicits an emotive response: Yes, the communists were the primary, if not the sole, source of violence in Africa in those days. In singing this song, the systematic, regular and massive support given by the US and other Western nations to military dictatorships, military coups against civilian governments, right wing rebel groups, Apartheid and colonial regimes, and terrorist fighters is pushed under the rug. Objectively speaking, statements of the type quoted above are emotive, polemical statements that reflect at best a half truth.
If you dislike the message, shoot the messenger: this ancient practice is gaining momentum in these neo-liberal times. Writers of anti-corporate, anti-establishment, anti-imperial books are called on the carpet not for what have written, but for how they have expressed themselves. They are accused of violating the rules of civility and harmonious discourse. Their chances of promotion and tenure diminish; some face expulsion. Angela Davis was sanctioned at the University of California on similar spurious grounds (Scott 2015). The question of style is an effective tool to silence alternative voices.
Instead of critiquing what he actually wrote and engaging with Marxist historiography, Rodney’s detractors take exception to particular terms or phrases. It leads to the claim that his book is biased and sensationalistic. But this claim too is devoid of merit.
Scholarship and activism
The traditional academic stand projects an ideal historian as a dispassionate investigator of societal change. Setting aside prejudice, politics, exaggeration and distortion, he or she focuses on uncovering and relating facts, just the facts. Activists of varied persuasions may infer socio-political messages from those facts. That, however, is not the business of the historian. In particular, he/she should desist from injecting politics and agitation into the academy.
Colin and Burns (2007) state that HEUA was written to ‘raise public awareness’ about the colonial and on-going exploitation of Africa (p 310). The implication is that by mixing activism with scholarship, Rodney diluted its scholarly worth and turned it into a propaganda document.
But that judgement derives from a misrepresentation of the actuality of historical research and writing. No history text is just a neutral collection of facts. Explicitly or implicitly, each historical work is propelled by a theory, is infused with values, and incorporates a socio-economic perspective. These entities are embedded within it through varied mechanisms, subtle or overt. The research process is as well tainted by these factors.
As summarized by Mamdani (2012), the historian Yusuf Bala Usman has well captured the essence of the linkage between history and objectivity:
It is … impossible to reconstruct history without having specific categories, conception and assumption. What is suggested here is that unless this is done consciously one becomes a conceptual prisoner of certain types of primary sources without being aware of it. Bala Usman quoted in Mamdani (2012), p 91.
Renditions of the past project judgements of the present and the future. And they do so from the perspective and interests of specific social groups, social systems or nations. A work claiming to be purely objective camouflages an implicit endorsement of the existing social order. It depicts the dominant social values and norms as natural, sacrosanct, unchangeable entities, and is suffused with unscientific notions that people take for granted in the same way as they do the air they are breathing. The next chapter has specific instances of this phenomenon: All the eight mainstream books reviewed there are shown to be ultimately biased towards the currently prevailing neoliberal ideology.
The difference between Marxist and other historians is thereby not in the presence of values, premises and social orientation but in their nature. Marxists declare their theory and values openly; others hide behind an artificial shroud of scholarly impartiality. Every historian is an activist; the question is whether one is a pro-status quo activist, or an activist who questions the foundation of the existing social order (Swai 1981;1982: Zinn 1990).
Rodney was the second type of activist. He did not artificially separate scholarship and activism or effusively claim to be above society. Instead, in a mark of his intellectual integrity, he openly declared the theory, ethics and orientation he espoused. Nonetheless, as he sought to inspire and mobilize for the liberation of Africa, he did not compromise his methodological rigor or short change facts.
Some mainstream historians practice plainly unethical activism openly. In the Cold War era, many US historians were funded by the CIA or the US military. Presently, several Africa oriented US historians and their African colleagues obtain research funds from AFRICOM, the US military command for Africa (for example, see the Minerva Project shown at http://minerva.dtic.mil). Others practice pro-establishment activism by ignoring or minimizing the injustice and outrageous deeds perpetrated by ‘their side’ but disproportionately highlighting those of the ‘other side.’ Silence becomes a tacit endorsement of injustice, an unethical brand of activism.
Activism is also associated with how one interprets the idea of agency. Many mainstream historians, including Afrocentric historians for whom it is the key point, interpret it at the level of policy makers and the political elite, especially when one deals with the post-Independence era. They direct their gaze at existent political structures, corporate board rooms, wealthy foundations, NGOs and official institutions. They seek reforms, but within the system. On the other hand, Rodney, as the totality of his life and writings show, interpreted the idea at the level of the masses. His main goal, in the academia and beyond, was to empower ordinary people to enable them to determine their own destiny. Were he alive today, he would be exposing the exploitative reality of neoliberalism, and castigating imperialists and their local stooges in public forums. He would tell us not to place reliance of externally funded NGOs and human rights organizations but to develop grassroots mass movements. And he would not just tell us, he would be deeply immersed in those struggles and be a leading activist organizing for fundamental social change as well. That is the key reason why establishment historians judge him harshly and unfairly. By showing solidarity with the masses instead of the elites, he exposed their self-serving biases and put them to shame.
And that is why they subject him to a double standard. Take John Iliffe, a top-of-the-ladder historian. He begins his widely used text, Africans: The History of a Continent, by stating that Africa’s ‘contemporary problems [and] situation’ constitute the ‘purpose’ and ‘organizing theme’ of the book (Iliffe 2007). Grandiose declarations to influence some change in society is a common practice. It is a form of activism. But when Rodney makes such a declaration, he is pilloried to no end.
On the one hand, he is branded a denier of agency, and on the other, he is blamed for being a political activist, that is, a practitioner of agency in its clearest form. But one needs to judge him from his own plainly expressed views. Talking of his overall perspective on underdevelopment, he tells us:
None of these remarks are intended to remove the ultimate responsibility for development on the shoulders Africans (HEUA, p 29).
Black nationalism and pseudo-Marxism
Interestingly, Rodney has faced strong criticism from left-wing circles too. Their main gripe is that HEUA so much underplays internal class relations and struggles that it cannot be deemed a work of Marxist political economy. The rhetoric of the book, it is said, is more in line with racially oriented black nationalism than with a socialistic outlook.
The philosophy of a genuine scholar evolves over the course of his or her life. Initially, Walter Rodney emerged in a milieu in which nationalism of a racial variety was popular among the anti-colonial activists. He was concurrently also mentored by eminent Marxists like CLR James. His philosophical evolution was characterized by tension between these ideas. His involvement in the struggles on the ground, and theoretical studies came to affect which of them would ultimately prevail.
When Rodney landed at the University of Dar es Salaam, he faced these tendencies during his interactions with the radical students and lecturers, his work with the African liberation movements, his forays into university politics, and his practical and ideological-level involvements in Tanzania’s policy of Socialism and Self-Reliance. These activities and his own theoretical endeavors decisively drew him steadily towards Marxism and away from a race or nationality based outlook.
By the time he wrote HEUA, he had adopted Marxism as his primary world outlook. The theoretical framework explained in Chapter 1 leaves us in no doubt about that. And throughout the book, his invective is directed not at persons, races or nationalities. His target is a social-economic system and the forces it nurtures. While his terminology is forthright, he does not blame entire races or nationalities. When necessary, he does not hesitate to criticize African social groups. But the basis of the criticism is the role played in facilitating colonial domination, and not any other feature. The essence of his view on race is given thus:
Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons. European miners and planters enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labour power could be exploited. .. Then, having become utterly dependent on African labour, Europeans at home and abroad found it necessary to rationalize that exploitation in racist terms as well. Oppression follows exploitation, so as to guarantee the latter. Oppression of African people on purely racial grounds accompanied, strengthened and became indistinguishable from oppression for economic reasons (HEUA, pp 88–89).
As Rodney posits the primacy of economics, he reminds us that racism has a momentum of its own, eventually making it a potent, independent force in society. This historically valid perspective is not appreciated by those who view issues in disjoint binary terms like race or class, race or economics, Marxism or nationalism.
Rodney’s intellectual evolution continued all along. He actively participated in the vibrant debate on the characterization of the socialist policy being implemented in Tanzania. The campus community of radicals had major divisions on this issue. At the outset, he had an optimistic, nationalistic form of stand. Later, taking cognition of the reality of state capitalism, he became more critical. Yet, the views he expressed were all within the Marxist, socialist framework (see Chapter 9 for further details).
The tendency to ascribe racial types of motivation to Rodney persists. In part, that is due to the differences he had over issues like curriculum reform with the progressive European and North American academics at the university. Rodney was more aware of the local sensitivity towards external meddling in local affairs. At times, such sensitivity masked a retrogressive, anti-socialistic line. But as an outsider himself, he had to strike a balance. He respected the right of Tanzanians to chart their own future, and resented the know-all scholars from the West who tended to prescribe their own pet programs without contextual considerations. On occasion, he sided with the local staff even as other progressive colleagues felt that it was a questionable stand. Labelling Rodney as a racially biased person stems to a large degree from the continued circulation of stories about such incidents.
In his popular writings, Rodney wrote in a fiercely forthright style. It is easy to quote them selectively to show that he was a racist. For example, in Chapter 6 of The Groundings with My Brothers, he writes ‘… all white people are enemies until proved otherwise…’ Taken by itself, this line leads to one conclusion. But if you read what follows as well: ‘all white people are enemies until proved otherwise and this applies to black intellectuals, all of us are enemies to the people until we prove otherwise,’ you see that for Rodney blackness and whiteness are not biologic entities but sociologic constructs emerging from a racist colonial system (Rodney 2014, p 58). When he talks of white racism in HEUA, he is describing a concrete historical phenomenon whereby the alleged cultural, intellectual and moral superiority of Europeans was used to enslave, colonize, demean and brutalize Africans.
It is wholly incorrect label Rodney a racist. He treated humans as humans. At the personal, professional or political level, he was a firm anti-racist.
There are also Marxists who question his Marxism but on other grounds. They say he did not comprehend the nature and import of internal class divisions and struggles. Instead, he adopted the dependency theory framework that is too economistic and structural.
As noted earlier, Rodney was cognizant of the importance of internal class relations and social struggles. He dealt with the former in an adequate manner and but did not go into details about the latter in HEUA. This was because he did not set out to write a broad history of Africa. He had a specific focus, which was to explicate in clear terms a crucial dimension of that history that had been grossly hidden and distorted until then.
The purist Marxists brand anything that does not follow what they deem the true Marxist line as anti-Marxist. With a narrow conceptual horizon, they are unaware that Marxism is not a monolithic intellectual entity. Like any field of science, it has extensive room for debate. It is not a religion. A single, correct Marxist line does not exist. Those who seek to banish Rodney from the community of Marxists on such grounds only display their shallow understanding of Marxism.
This criticism can be seen as the obverse of the charge that he denied agency to the people of Africa. What has been said above on the question of agency also applies here. This issue is further addressed in the next chapter.
The woman question
Modern day feminists would critique Rodney for failing to recognize the central role of women in African history, their subjugation in pre-European contact and subsequent periods, and the role they played in the liberation struggles.
Yet, he does lay down his basic position on these issues. In the colonial context, for example, he indicates:
The colonialists in Africa occasionally paid lip service to women’s education and emancipation, but objectively there was deterioration in the status of women owing to colonial rule (HEUA, p 226).
This statement arises in a one-page discussion of the dual nature – traditional, familial and colonially derived – of women’s oppression. In the final chapter, he gives details on the few educational opportunities available to African women under colonialism. He notes that educational avenues open for them, especially beyond the primary level, were fewer than the pitiful avenues available to African men.
Rodney does not elaborate on the role of women in confronting imperial rule for the same reason as why he does not give a detailed picture of anti-imperialist struggles in general, the varied character African political movements, the role of different ethnicities, the importance of cultural tools, etc. While noting his basic positions on such matters, he remains focused on the central theme of his book, namely, elucidating with clarity and in unimpeachable terms, the development of underdevelopment in Africa.
Rodney was a firm supporter of women’s liberation. Yet, he would also critique the present-day promoters of women’s rights in Africa for their high degree of reliance on funding from Western sources and pursuing agendas that remains squarely within the confines of the neo-liberal order, an order that imposes mighty barriers against autonomous, significant progress for the people of Africa, including the women of Africa.
While the History of the Upper Guinea Coast is a strikingly original work in terms of factual contents and method, the novelty of HEUA lies in how Rodney synthesized a large body of existing work within the political economy framework. He ventured further than any earlier attempt to produce a comprehensive narrative that was simultaneously consistent and persuasive. He highlighted known but hitherto neglected material, reinterpreted what was written earlier and enjoined apparently disparate facts and issues. A good example is his astute presentation of the multi-faceted nature of education under colonial rule.
However, since HEUA was written, an extensive volume of research on African history — archival, excavation-based, oral and genetic — has been done. Examining the book from the current vantage point would surely reveal deficiencies and errors of fact that need to be rectified. For example, there have been contentions about the accuracy of the volume of slave traffic given in the book. Some researchers claimed it was too high while others said it was in the right ball park range. Other socio-economic data covering the colonial period may need rectification as well.
On the other hand, a growing body on newly unearthed findings reveals that the brutality, calculated deviousness and economic depredations of the colonial rulers went further than what Rodney depicts. This applies to the actions of Belgium in the Congo, the British in Kenya, the Germans in Botswana, the French in Algeria and elsewhere and, notoriously, of the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique. Even in a trust territory like Tanganyika, the British blatantly violated the UN requirements to prepare the territory for independence and tried, through pugnacious tactics, to maintain an Apartheid-like societal situation and control for as long as practicable and politically feasible. For elucidation see Anderson (2013), Cobain (2012), Elkins (2005), Grandin (2011), Hochschild (1999), Klein (2008), Lindqvist (1997), Mukerjee (2011), Perkins (2006), Prashad (2007), Wolf (2014) and Wright and Reilly (2011).
A crucial observation made in HEUA was that colonial massacres formed a backdrop for, and were effectively, training grounds for fascist genocides in Europe. This thesis was investigated systematically and given solid credence by Lindqvist (1997).
Taking such recent findings into account, Rodney could rewrite without a modicum of doubt precisely what he had done earlier: ‘The only good thing about colonialism was when it ended.’ I posit that the findings of modern historic research, more than anything else, reveal the depth of his historic insight.
Were he alive, Rodney would have brought out an expanded, corrected edition of his book. Yet, and what is important, his framework for approaching history and his primary conclusions would not only remain essentially the same as before but could be presented with greater confidence.
It has now been clearly established that as the day of Independence drew closer, colonial powers went to great lengths to hide the reality of their rule. It was a centrally directed, massive and systematic exercise to destroy or transfer to the home country literally tons of official documents. This was complemented by doctoring the files left in place in such a way as to paint colonial rule as a benign and benevolent process (Cobain 2016; Jack 2016).
Yet, colonial rule was a horrifyingly brutal and consciously rapacious enterprise, a crime against humanity. The same holds for the American actions in Africa in that era. But these misdeeds were hidden from the future generations with the complicity of the major media and venerated scholars from those nations. Rodney was aware of the biased and incomplete nature of the official documents and the mainstream narratives. In the light of what has come to surface of recent, it is not he but the plethora of so-called objective historians who almost blindly relied on the official story and gave us a distorted version of African history who need to go back to the drawing board and produce significantly revised versions of their books and papers. And they, who perpetually bemoan Stalinist censorship of the past, have to be on the forefront of the movement for full disclosure of the true story of colonial rule in Africa, much of which remains hidden in imperial vaults.
An overall verdict
The above discussion of the charges that have been levelled against HEUA leads me to draw the following conclusions:
- The charge that it converts African history into a rigid deterministic process arising from external economic relations, and so denies agency to the people of Africa, has no validity. It is an ideologically driven claim without a substantive basis.
- The charge that it is a work of political propaganda, of the Marxist or black nationalistic variety, and thus lacking in scholarly worth is also a charge without credibility.
- The charge that it is written in an emotive, polemical style can only arise upon a failure to understand the well-defined, empirically grounded and consistently deployed terminology used in the book.
- While the book pays due attention to internal social and class relations, it is wanting in terms of depiction of internal social, class, anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles. But that is because it was not meant to portray the general history of Africa. It had a specific focus. This deficiency does not reflect a methodological flaw or an oversight on the part of the author.
- The voluminous research in African history that has done since its publication has brought forth new material that will help correct some errors of fact and interpretation in the book. However, a large portion of the new material confirms, not negates, the basic thesis of HEUA. Such errors are inevitable for any long-standing work, however accurate it may have been deemed in the past.
Walter Rodney was certainly not the first historian to apply the Marxist method to unravel the history of Africa. But he was the most influential one. His approach to history was not that of an accountant producing a balance sheet. Instead, he adopted a systemic method that sought to unveil, within an interdisciplinary perspective, the short and long term dynamics of societal change in Africa. It did not blame races, nations or religions but looked for explanations within the framework of an evolving global capitalist system, the tentacles it had spread in Africa, and the consequences for the people.
The dominant bourgeois ideology functions to confound and conceal the economic reality of capitalism and imperialism. An attempt to bring it into the open encounters a barrage of shrill charges from influential quarters, academic, media based and political. And no matter how often the charges are shown to be without a foundation, they are repeated ad nauseam as gospel truth. That is a major reason why HEUA has been a prime target of such an unfounded, politically motivated tendency. In sum, most of the charges against HEUA are automatic, politically motivated criticisms.
Notwithstanding the tirades of the apologists of neo-liberalism, it retains its worth as a paradigm shifting work of history that seamlessly enjoins sound scholarship with astute activism. Its methodology is as indispensable today as it was at the time it came out. Written in an inspirational style, it brims with deep historic and projective insights. This prescient work remains a sturdy guide in the struggles for progressive social transformation in Africa and beyond.
The conclusions I state here are supported by the findings of the survey of eight classroom texts on the history of Africa given in Chapter 7. The long-term influence of the political economy based approach of HEUA in such texts is hard to miss. At least into the colonial era, most of them now accord due weight to economic issues and the deleterious aspects of external economic linkages. Nevertheless, they rarely directly acknowledge that influence, and when they explicitly refer to Rodney or his works, they do so in a biased and distorted manner.
A fuller understanding of Rodney’s historical method and insights requires reading HEUA as well as his History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1540 to 1800. Proceeding through both these books, the reader may reflect on the criticisms noted above, and draw his or her own conclusions. A comparison with the responses I have given will constitute an illuminating pedagogic journey.