5 Rodney and historiography

The standard works on African history produced during the colonial era fell along two main strands. The pro-imperial, plainly racist, strand depicted Africa prior to the arrival of the Europeans as a bleak continent populated by uncivilized tribes engaged in primitive modes of living and continual local conflict. It was claimed that Africa, particularly the sub-Saharan areas, had had no machinery of the state to speak of. Hence the outsiders were doing its people a favor by imposing a sense of order, civility and material progress onto their lives.

The other, the liberal, Africanist strand, conceded that Africa had, on its own, made some strides towards a civilized way of life. But the continent now needed assistance from Europe to become a modernized place. It also conceded that the colonial powers had not always behaved in a just or decent manner towards the people of African. But the past was the past. A partnership based on harmony and mutual interests of both the parties was now advisable and essential for Africa to progress.

Both strands reflected the visions and interests of the respective colonial powers as they both accepted that colonial rule had to continue, at least for the foreseeable future. As the struggles for independence matured across Africa, these versions of its history faced mounting criticisms. Sympathetic scholars not only brought out more accurate versions of African history prior to the arrival of the white man but the oppressive and unjust facets of colonialism were more fully detailed as well.

The anti-colonial African historiography itself had two main strands. One, the Afrocentric strand, focused on highlighting the situation in Africa prior to the landing of the Europeans. The glorious empires and kingdoms of the past were emphasized and projected as the basis for a return to true African values and practices. The lesson from that strand was that the future for Africa lay in the resumption of its long interrupted trajectory of autonomous evolution on the social, political and cultural fronts.

The nation-building strand also highlighted the injustices of colonial rule. But it did not advocate a total break with this era. Claiming that colonial rule had generated some beneficial outcomes for the indigenous people, principally in education, health, the system of justice, transport, and the economy, it advocated that African nations should not discard such gains. Instead, they should extend them to wider segments of their populations. Reforming the laws and practices that had earlier restricted the benefits to a minority was on the agenda. In this task, Europe would partner with Africa to help it develop the economy, modernize social institutions and democratize the governance structures.

As more and more African nations attained political independence, it was the nation-building strand that dominated the historical and political circles.

The picture painted of the past by the Afrocentric and the nation-building historians was circumscribed by their orientation and premises. A key sector minimally touched in their discourses was the economy. And when it was, it was done in ways that presented a partial picture of the reality. Not that these two strands of histories were monolithic. Within each, a range of views, some more progressive than others, were present.

In the meantime, a third strand had been evolving in the background. Barely visible in the colonial era, it gathered steam particularly after the mid-1960s. By then it had become apparent that the pledges by Europe and the US of mutually beneficial partnerships with Africa were distinctively false and abundantly hypocritical. Political independence did not imply economic autonomy or progress. The global powers continued to dominate Africa in trade, investment and finance. They basically decided the what, how and when of African economic activities. As in the past, these economies would primarily serve the demands of external economies. Internal benefits would be restricted mostly to the elite strata but the vast majority of the inhabitants would continue to endure grinding poverty and misery.

This socio-political disjunction between high expectations and decidedly limited outcomes for the masses provided a fertile ground for the political economy based Marxist strand of African history to thrive. By according primary attention to economic factors, it demonstrated with a mountain of facts and figures that since the initial contact, Europe had conducted itself in single-minded, exceedingly exploitative ways towards Africa. Since the economic structures established during the colonial days changed but to a minor extent after Independence, development on the economic and social fronts was also constrained and unequal. Marxist and socialist economists and historians like Samir Amin, CLR James, Eric Williams and Jack Woddis unearthed volumes of evidence showing how diverse mechanisms of such exploitative linkages operated in different nations and at different times. This new scholarship was not restricted to history but was an integral aspect of the radicalization of social sciences and general thought in the 1960s.

Walter Rodney’s framework for conceptualizing history derived from the tenets of Marxist political economy. He began with the monumental foundation laid by Karl Marx and Fredreich Engels that was subsequently extended to cover the phase of monopoly capitalism and imperialism by VI Lenin. On top of that, he was influenced, to one degree or another, by left leaning theorists like Samir Amin, Paul Baran, Oliver Cox, Frantz Fanon, AG Frank, P Jalee, CLR James, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and T Szentes. Yet, he was no mechanical borrower of ideas. Always a critical scholar, his theoretical framework evolved over time as he engaged in ideological and practical struggles with comrades and adversaries.

Rodney’s theoretical framework matured towards a unique blend of classical Marxism, modern conceptualization of theories of imperialism and principled Pan-Africanism. In my summaries of the chapters of HEUA, I provided an introduction to Rodney’s conceptual framework. Now, cognizant of the possibility of oversimplification once again, I am drawn to list, in an abbreviated form, the ten primary tenets that underscored his framework for historical analysis:

  1. Human labor (physical and mental, skilled and unskilled) is the sole source of value (wealth) in human society. What the economists call capital is but congealed or accumulated labor. Hence, to say that money makes more money, or that taxpayers and donors fund the development budget is to utter a surface level half-truth. Ultimately, all revenue streams in society arise from the expenditure, somewhere, of human labor.
  2. Human society functions in a dynamically integrated manner. While a degree of specialized scrutiny is essential for understanding this process, it is ultimately inadequate and misleading to view society purely in terms of autonomous segments like the economy, politics, culture, history, race, gender, ethnicity, and so on.
  3. Human society is perpetually in a state of flux. Societal change, gradual (quantitative) or transformative (qualitative), is not a uniformly or similarly paced process everywhere. Uneven development and variation are the norm.
  4. Social class, defined in terms of ownership and/or control of wealth, the means of generating it, and the avenues for appropriating it, is the primary unit of analysis for understanding how modern human societies function. The tensions and cohesiveness between social classes paradoxically constitute both the primary factors for stability as well as the basic drivers of long term change.
  5. Social change is a dialectical process. Frequently, aspects of the superstructure (a collective term for societal sectors like politics, state institutions, law, culture, education and the media) decisively affect the nature, direction and duration of the transformation experienced by human society.
  6. Over the past two millennia, sub-Saharan African societies became increasingly divided into social classes.
  7. Over the past five centuries, the capitalist system that evolved in the West became a unified global system with two main interrelated parts: the dominant (developed, industrialized, wealthy, imperialist) nations and the dominated (underdeveloped, primary production based, poor, subjugated) nations.
  8. Since the European contacts of the 15th century, African societies have increasingly operated under the rubric of the capitalist system. But external powers ensured that the features of capitalism they acquired restricted them to be dependent, exploited entities within that system. Colonial policies, rules and actions were, on an on-going basis, designed to prevent the emergence of mature and autonomous capitalist economies in Africa.
  9. Class relations in Africa in the present era are internal (national) and external (transnational) in scope. Failure to take either component adequately into account produces a flawed picture of the African socio-economic-political-cultural reality, past or present.
  10. Genuine development for African nations requires the masses take control of state power, begin to disengage from the global capitalist system, adopt socialism and use the economic surplus they produce for their own benefit.

Rodney’s approach posits capitalism as a global system that transcends national boundaries. The system is propelled by conflicts and cohesiveness between the economic classes within and across these boundaries. Imperialism is primarily an economic phenomenon but it also has sturdy political, military, and cultural pillars. It encompasses direct (colonial) and indirect (neo-colonial) domination. Intricate and pervasive structures of dependency are the prime mechanisms that facilitate the extraction of economic surplus from the dominated nations to the dominant ones, from the subjugated classes to the ruling classes.

Imperial rule generates underdevelopment. That, however, does not mean that no expansion of economic activities occurs. To the contrary, a new railway line may be built; the output of cotton, sisal and gold may expand rapidly; and the value of exports and imports may increase too. These economic activities are initially stimulated by imposing unfair taxes on the local population to force them to seek employment or grow export crops. The coercive measures are relaxed as the entrenchment of dependency makes the process self-perpetuating. The wages of the plantation workers or the buying price for cotton from the farmers condemn their families to a life of poverty and ill health. The local economy serves external economies and the benefits accrue mostly imperial companies and external capitalists. The evolution of such structural dependence goes hand in hand with the establishment of political, social and cultural institutions that reinforce and complement it.

Rodney thus demarcates the idea of economic growth from economic development. Though the long-term task is primarily an economic one, he acknowledges that socio-political factors will play a critical role in initiating and propelling the struggle in the transition period. His framework for viewing the past logically paved the way for a critique of the World Bank inspired post-colonial policies that mainly promoted expansion of the very types of economic activities established in the colonial era. The ‘aid’ and loans from outside constitute but a small portion of the wealth extracted from Africa by the imperial entities. Rodney’s analysis implies that the strategy of internally-oriented, integrated economic development is the sole avenue for emancipation of African nations. The Postscript by AM Babu succinctly lays down the main elements of such a strategy, and complements the main text.

For a decent introduction to Marxist thought, see D’Amato (2006).


The enduring relevance of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Copyright © 2017 by Karim F Hirji. All Rights Reserved.

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