7 Rodney in the classroom

With the general expunging of anti-capitalist texts from education, the use of HEUA in courses in African history in universities of Africa, Europe and the Americas has waned considerably. Once upon a time, all undergraduates at the University of Dar es Salaam were exposed to it. Today, a student at the same institution can attain a bachelor’s degree in history without having read it from cover to cover. At best, students learn about its contents in a second-hand manner.

This gives rise several concerns: Is HEUA still referenced in the general textbooks on African history? Do they incorporate aspects of the political-economy strand of historiography? Do they provide an adequate and fair picture of Rodney’s contribution to African history?

Quite a few general African history books, new and revised versions, are currently available. Books with an avowedly Afrocentric orientation are few, and those with a Marxist framework are a rarity. Most books derive from the nationalistic, Africanist approach. But these do not have a uniform methodology. Their sub-strands emanate from the key factors they utilize to explain historical change. These factors include the environment, population, economy, culture, gender, ethnic relations, governance, religion and socio-political relations.

For the purpose of getting a handle on the queries posed above, I selected eight books with a continental horizon that are in use in African history classes today:

  1. Asante MK (2007) The History of Africa (new edition), Routledge, New York.
  2. Collins RO and Burns JM (2007) A History of Sub-Saharan Africa, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
  3. Freund B (1998) The Making of Contemporary Africa: The Development of African Society since 1800 (second edition), Palgrave Macmillan, UK.
  4. Iliffe J (2007) Africans: The History of a Continent (second edition), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
  5. Laumann D (2012) Colonial Africa: 1884–1994 (African World Histories), Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. Reader J (1999) Africa: A Biography of the Continent, Vintage, New York.
  7. Reid RJ (2012) A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present (second edition), Wiley-Blackwell, New York.
  8. Shillington K (2012) History of Africa (third edition), Palgrave-MacMillan, New York.

I begin by listing the references to Rodney and his two main works, HEUA and History of the Upper Guinea Coast (HUGC), in the text, text notes, references and recommended readings, and the Index. The result is tabulated below (note: Other(s) = Work(s) of Rodney other than HEUA or HUGC).

Book References Text & Notes Index
Asante (2007) HEUA Rodney (1) Rodney (1)
Collins and Burns (2007) HEUA + Other HEUA (3) Rodney (3)
Freund B (1998) HEUA + Others HEUA (2) Rodney (2)
Iliffe (2007) HEUA HEUA (1) None
Laumann (2012) HEUA HEUA (3) Rodney (2)
Reader (1999) HEUA + HUGC HEUA (3) None
Reid (2012) None None None
Shillington (2012) None HEUA (3) HEUA (2)

Rodney has an explicit presence in seven of these eight textbooks. At first glance, we thus get the impression that his ideas continue to be conveyed, in one form or another, to students of African history. An in-depth look, however, reveals that the reality is much more convoluted. This is best seen by examining the books one at a time.

Asante (2007)

In this premier work espousing the Afrocentric approach to African history, there is but a single reference to Walter Rodney. The book is dedicated to eight ‘Fathers of African History.’ Ali Mazrui is listed here but Rodney, whose writings had posed and disseminated a monumental challenge to the Eurocentric version of African history, is not.

Further, the sole reference to Rodney is not in his capacity as a historian but as an organizer of the Sixth Pan African Congress. And it is hardly a positive reference. Reading between the lines, we gather that by inciting ‘an unfortunate fight over ideologies,’ Rodney was partly responsible for the paucity of accomplishments at this historic gathering (pp 304-5).

Asante provides a partial and distorted version of what transpired at the Congress. With no explication of the contentious issues, Rodney comes out as a pesky Marxist who, by raising tangential matters like the international class struggle, prevented well-meaning African patriots from uniting based on a common agenda. Asante, yet, is silent about the tendency of many African scholars of that era to side with the West in the sharp divide created by the Cold War. He does not say that Rodney’s critique was directed at scholars like Ali Mazrui who stood, at that time, in the way of the flowering of a nonaligned, independent, progressive African scholarship in history and the social sciences. Rodney held that to unite based on tenets that did not challenge neo-colonialism would harm the people of Africa. That was the crucial lesson he strove to inculcate at the Congress, and it remains as relevant today as it was then.

Asante (2007), for its part, aims to counter Eurocentrism by providing thematic centrality to the complex historic experience of Africa, and by stressing the ignored notion of African agency.

Declarations are one thing, and contents, quite another. Despite isolated mentions of relevant facts, the book fails to give a modicum of a picture of the extensive interventions – political, military, economic and cultural — by the US, UK  and France in post-colonial Africa. These actions decisively reduced the ability of Africa to stand on its own feet. There is only a limited coverage of the numerous grassroots struggles mounted by students, peasants, workers, and small shopkeepers to counter internal and neo-colonial injustice. The idea of giving agency to African people in this book is essentially a narration of the deeds of the elites. The history of Tanzania, thus, is reduced mainly to the actions of one person. Overall, the book focuses on culture and politics but is weak and inconsistent on economic aspects, internal and external.

The last chapter appears promising at the outset. Entitled ‘Towards a United States of Africa without compromise’, it deals with political unity, economic development, health, and other issues. The highlight is on the role played by Africa’s current leaders in achieving the desirable goals. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi is praised for his unifying agenda. African intellectuals and Africans in diaspora are posited as the central players in this effort. The former group includes cultural and political patriots and a few prominent Marxists. We encounter radical words like imperialism, continental marginalization, external agenda, dependency, economic self-reliance, etc., sprinkled here and there. And the book ends with a proposed preamble for the constitution of the United States of Africa that any well-meaning African would take to heart.

Yet, it is hollow talk. The current African reality is not frankly displayed. That virtually all of the present day leaders of Africa, both the named and unnamed, have surrendered the economic resources and even setting the priorities for their nations to multinational firms, external ‘donors’ and short-sighted, avaricious local tycoons; that they have turned their nations into places of stupendous inequality and political chicanery, that they have overseen the entrenchment of intellectual and cultural narrow mindedness and dependency, that they have created an atmosphere of grotesque donor-worship and widespread, unbridled corruption; such harsh truths are glossed over in this book. Agency is a dance among the esteemed elites; the common person is but a spectator.

In contrast, Rodney, with his bold, uncompromising and consistent stand against all entities blocking Africa’s right to self-determination on social, economic, and political fronts, remains head and shoulder above Asante (2007) as the champion of genuine African agency.

Asante’s book was written to uncover and elucidate the set of thematic principles governing African history. Yet, by the time you reach the last page, you scratch your head and wonder what they actually are and what their rationale is. The thing you can say is that whatever they are, they are quite compatible with the neo-liberal economic agenda and hollow democracy championed by the Western nations.

 Collins and Burns (2007)

HEUA is listed in two chapter-wise Further Readings, and HUGC is listed in one. A quote from Rodney explains the nature of the colonial labor and cash crop policies (pp 314-5).

The basis thesis of the chapter, headed the Colonial Legacy, reflects the thesis of HEUA: ‘European pressure distorted African economic growth and led to the underdevelopment of the continent.’ Furthermore, this thesis is also explicitly debated over two pages (311-2). Among the books under review, this book gives the fairest acknowledgement to Rodney and has the most accurate assessment of his impact on African history.

The reason these authors give for regarding HEUA as a highly important work is particularly striking, as it is none other than the abject failure of the development policies adopted across Africa after Independence. They recognize the persistence of the features of underdevelopment as defined by Rodney as the main explanation for those failures. They also summarize in a reasonable manner Rodney’s systemic arguments against the stand of the scholars who claim that colonialism was of some benefit to Africa as well. His relevance to modern day political activism in and about Africa is also pointed out.

In accordance with the approach of HEUA, Collins and Burns (2007) pay due attention to economic factors, illustrate their distortive impact, and connect economic issues with the socio-political trends in the African nations. At several places, the role of Western imperialism in blocking progress in Africa is highlighted.

Nonetheless, the book is afflicted with a grave anomaly. The first four chapters of Part IV reflect the above delineated Rodney-oriented spirit. The fifth chapter, the final chapter, however, makes a total turnaround, both in substance and method.

Once the book reaches the era of neo-liberal globalization, the notions of dependency and imperialism are cast aside. The explanatory factors and possible solutions to Africa’s predicament come to reflect the spirit of neo-liberalism. The established imperialists are mysteriously reborn as democratically oriented, ‘less ideologically driven donors’ concerned with poverty reduction, good governance, beneficial market driven policies and the like (p 383). Without explanation or supportive facts, Rodney’s basic thesis is turned up-side down.

At one point, Collins and Burns (2007) show discomfort with the style of HEUA, calling it ‘polemical’ and ‘inflammatory’ but concede that it did raise the popularity of the book. Despite the initial similarities with Rodney’s approach, this book does not declare its own framework in a clear fashion at any point. Rodney’s systemic, long-term framework is not embraced explicitly. Such critical shortcomings permit the authors not only to make an unexpected flip-flop at the end but also to change their tune into a contrarily emotive one. Thus, they represent ‘Mali under Modibo Keita …. [as] an economic satellite of the East European countries’ (p 362). This is but a half-truth. Yet, it is taken, without good evidence, as an uncontroversial statement. But, to say, in the style and spirit of Rodney, that Congo under Mobutu and Liberia under Tubman were US neo-colonies, would be using emotive terms, engaging in conspiracy theories, or promoting communist propaganda.

It is a time honored tradition to regard a statement, however polemical or inflammatory, to be objective and of scholarly expression provided it is in line with the mainstream vision of society.

Freund (1998)

This book, the only of the eight books to explicitly and almost consistently adopt a Marxist approach to historical analysis, has two entries for Rodney in the Index. The Annotated Bibliography, presented in a chapter by chapter manner, lists papers of Rodney published in scholarly journals. But HUGC does not appear in there.

Freund (1998), though, casts Walter Rodney in an entirely different light. According to him, Rodney was not a Marxist. This is mainly because for him the notion of dependency championed by Rodney is not a Marxist but a vague, nationalistic idea. It promotes a catch-all, fixed view that underplays the dynamism of capitalism noted by Marx, avoids internal class analysis, marginalizes the variations in the economic and social patterns and class contradictions, and so on. Due to such flaws, Freund finds the development of underdevelopment theory not to have a sound basis and not Marxist in character (p 11).

In essence thereby, he deems Rodney but a radical nationalist. To quote him in full:

In 1972, the Guyanese Walter Rodney, himself one of the most critical and far-ranging of Africanists, published How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Although, as the title indicates, Rodney’s polemic was continental (and by implication, radical), and he betrayed much of the influence of the earlier idealist and romantic Afro-American nationalist understanding of Africa, his book represented a powerful and effective break with the positivism of the Africanists (p 10).

Radical yes; Marxist, surely not. Rodney’s decisive influence on African historiography in terms of the consideration of economic factors and on adopting a long-term, systemic framework is not acknowledged either. For his part, Freund (1998) locates his calling within Basil Davidson’s project to ‘present the essential unity of Africa with the people of the rest of the world’ but ‘in a materialist context’ (p 13).

Freund (1998) thereupon brings to the fore a far-ranging body of credible work ignored by almost all historians of today to construct a remarkably dynamic picture of Africa, rooted in class and economic analysis, over the recent two-hundred-year period. Yet, it is interesting to note that his evidence in large measure lends support to the thesis that imperial dependency, while changing in form, constituted a key feature of that historic process. Rather than being mutually exclusive entities, external economic relations and internal class contradictions affect each other in a complementary or contentious, namely dialectical, manner at varied historic junctures.

Freund’s criticism of Rodney is off the mark. First, HUGC, Rodney’s doctoral thesis derived book, reveals his awareness of the importance of internal social stratification. He traces the complex evolution of the main communities of Upper Guinea Coast, depicts their social, cultural, political and economic features in a lively, integrated manner, elucidates in a colorful style their interactions with the initial bands of European traders, and so on. Overall, we are regaled with a vibrant historic tapestry of social change that takes both internal and external forces and social relations into account.

Second, Freund (1998) does not recognize a key difference between HUGC and HEUA. Even as the latter has a wider continental scope, its thematic scope, as specified by the title, is a limited one. While HUGC is a general history of a specific region, HEUA is not a general history of Africa. It is more akin to an economic history of Africa.

Yet, despite that difference in focus, HEUA does not, as noted earlier, ignore pertinent societal analysis. It does not invoke the development of underdevelopment model in a mechanistic fashion. Where relevant, he employs an integrated analysis in which the structures of economic and political domination generated by external forces interacted with local class formation to change the reality on the ground. That emerges, for example, in his description of colonial education. Rodney observes that while that the education system was established to serve the needs of colonial administration and economy, over time, it also produced the grave-diggers of colonial rule. It created a social stratum that rose above the masses, yet, that stratum later mobilized the masses first to reform and then to eliminate colonial rule. While specific aspects of Rodney’s analysis of dependency and class relations can be improved, expanded or corrected in terms what is known now, his general approach stands securely in place. As noted in the last chapter, Rodney pays adequate attention to internal and external social and class relations in HEUA but, for the sake of retaining focus, does not give sufficient coverage to internal and external social and class struggles. Freund does not seem to have read the book well.

The issue of the character of social divisions produced by imperial domination has divided the Marxist community. Is there a ruling class within such nations? High economic dependency coexists with a comprador, subservient local ruling entity while loosening of such bonds denotes the rise of a more nationalistic, autonomous group of capitalists at the helm of the local state. However, as the post-colonial nations in Africa and Asia demonstrate, it is not a mutually exclusive situation; elements of both are always present, though one may dominate over the other as the form and nature of external domination changes. The presence of intermediary economic classes (European settlers, Asian or Lebanese merchants) with non-indigenous roots, at least at the outset, produces more complex relationships in the colonial as well as post-colonial times. In Tanzania, for example, the first three decades of Independence within a state-capitalist, nominally socialist formation, the local ruling class was a nationalistic entity and stood in contradiction with the mainly Asian commercial bourgeoisie. After the onset of full scale neo-liberalism in the 1990s, a comprador, multi-ethnic class connected to state institutions and increasingly subservient to US imperialism, has assumed the reins of power. While growth in several areas of the economy is evident, the bonds of dependency together with internal inequalities and social misery have intensified too.

After posing the question about the existence of ruling classes in Africa, Freund (1998) declares they have a national bourgeoisie character and they should not be seen as undifferentiated groups of compradors.

[Countries] such as Kenya ought to be seen primarily as developing capitalist states with the indigenous ruling class, its foreign allies notwithstanding, in fundamental contradiction to the masses rather than an undifferentiated ‘neo-colonialism’ or ‘imperialism’ represented locally by a thin stratum of agents or stooges (p 212).

By posing the question simplistically, Freund (1998) sets up a ‘strawman’ so as to strike it down with ease. His declared affinity to Tanzania notwithstanding, he fails to refer to the rich, extended debate on this and related issues at the University of Dar es Salaam during the 1970s. Rodney was a key participant in the debates. His stand, evolving over time, was nuanced, not simplistic. See Rodney (1972b;1973;1980a), Shivji (2012), and related papers in the student Marxist journal Cheche that was renamed after 1970 as MajiMaji.

Like any science, Marxism is a dynamic discipline. Issues of contention arise now and then. Varied views on the ideas of dependency and ruling class form a part of the Marxist tradition. By dismissing those with whom he disagrees, Freund (1998) exhibits unwarranted intellectual hubris. And his stand has many holes too. For, by him, Mathieu Kerekou was a ‘Marxist dictator’ (p 262) but Rodney was not a Marxist.

Freund’s model of the reality is binary one: either class relations or economic structures; either extraction of surplus value or unequal exchange; either total dependency or full autonomy; with no interplay between the two poles, and no room for dynamic evolution as a result of that interplay. Eventually, his one-sided stand and the concomitant neglect of external forces and dependency become his undoing. We find that the closer we are to the present era, the more diffuse and un-Marxist his class and economic analyses become, and the closer his views approach the dominant neoliberal ideology.

Thereby, the grotesque role played by the US in undermining economic progress and human rights in Africa after 1960 is minimally exposed. The clearly deleterious effects of liberalization, privatization and foreign investments are barely shown. Instead, he resorts to the hollow rhetoric of democracy and freedom to explain the socio-political events. Thus, we find declarations like:

If the American embassy in Nairobi had become the linchpin in the drive for democratisation in Kenya, its willingness to endorse the re-election of Moi in 1992 marked the end of the drive (p 262).

Since when can an arrogant imperial power known for brutal, unilateral invasions, fomenting death squad regimes, military dictatorships and, at best, demonstration democracies, ever be deemed a promoter of democracy? What of the Marxist notions of state power and bourgeois democracy? To firmly support a dictator at one time and reject him at another, to promote ‘democracy’ at one point in time, and reject it soon afterwards — such contradictory actions have for long characterized the US policy across the globe (Epstein 2015).

In the final pages of this book we find a mixture of potent criticism of aspects of neoliberal globalization as well as capitulation to its recipes. This occurs in relation to matters like liberalization, privatization, NGOs led development, the role of World Bank and IMF, US interventions in Africa, and many more. Mal-developments in education and health are not well addressed.

With Freund’s positing an indigenous ruling class, we expect he would bring to the fore the multitude of working class, student, professional struggles and peasant uprisings that have occurred across Africa in the recent years. He would also address the internal divisions and massive destabilization in these societies in terms of class analysis. He would highlight the wholesale looting of public coffers by the local oligarchs and corrupt political strata and the emergence of multi-millionaire dominated electoral processes. We expect an explication of the trends in modern African economies through the Marxist notions of accumulation and surplus value extraction.

He does no such thing. Apparently envisioning the blooming of a vibrant and democratic society with the help of the international donors, he casts aside his Marxist method, and seeks the saving grace for Africa in the realms of culture, sports and related activities.

In fact, out of hard times, creativity and originality are also being born, and Africa’s integration with, and influence on, our contemporary world deepens (p 267).

Afrocentric scholars reject Rodney because of his Marxism, an ideology of foreign origin. The Marxist disavows him for his (Afrocentric) black nationalism Yet, ultimately, the Marxist holds hands with staunch anti-Marxist Afrocentric historians to dance for the imperial neoliberals and the local bourgeoisie. On the other hand, Rodney, castigated by them as one who ignored local struggles and the common people, sacrifices his life in a rough, down to earth struggle against an alliance of the local and imperial bourgeois classes in his homeland. Yet, this duality appears as a paradox only if one views theory and praxis as disjoint activities.

Iliffe (2007)

The index of this widely used text by an eminent Cambridge historian who once taught at the University of Dar es Salaam has no entry related to Rodney. It does quote HEUA to describe the colonial taxation policy (p 205 and p 324) but HEUA is not listed in any of its extensive lists of material for further reading.

Iliffe demarcates three post-1950s strand of African historiography: the anti-colonial/nation-building strand, the economic/underdevelopment strand and the recent environmental/social issues focused strand. His book, he declares, integrates important features of all the three strands, and pays particular attention to demographic issues. It is noteworthy that while Marxist historians earn the pejorative label ‘disillusioned,’ those of his camp of conventional historians are depicted in a neutral fashion. The historians who don the Afrocentric perspective are not recognized as a noteworthy group.

The influence of HEUA on African history has become so ingrained that even a traditionalist like Iliffe cannot evade it. Like other conventional historians now, his book too pays reasonable attention, at least up to the end of the colonial period, to economic issues, and does it in a somewhat decent manner. Other than that, he consistently ignores the insights of the underdevelopment strand. Rodney, its principal theorist, is barely heeded. Overall, one can say Iliffe’s text is based on a framework that is plainly opposed to Rodney’s. This is most evident in his account of the post-colonial era.

Here are a few points in that respect: Terms such as underdevelopment, imperialism, dependency and neo-colonialism do not grace the index but neo-liberal concepts like structural adjustment, poverty reduction and New Economic Policy for African Development (NEPAD) do. While the term underdevelopment appears in two places in the text, no distinction is made between economic growth and economic development. The World Bank is brought in at a couple of places in connection with the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s but the discussion lacks insight or depth. That it was the World Bank policies in Africa since Independence that contributed to their high indebtedness and economic travails of that decade is ignored.

The most striking demonstration of the pro-imperial, neo-liberal bias of Iliffe (2007) is the deletion from African history of the plethora events and outcomes that put the West in a negative light, especially in the post-colonial era. The USA, a nation that played a decisive but detrimental role in African affairs, is absent from the Index and practically absent in the text as well.

More can be said, but what has been stated suffices to illustrate the existence of a camouflaged bias against ideas like class and economic analysis, dependency and neo-colonialism in this text. This not only casts doubt on Iliffe’s initial assertion of using insights from all three strands, but because he fails to provide any justification for ignoring such ideas, his stand cannot be deemed a scholarly one. Is it that prominent historians at prestigious institutions lack the conceptual wherewithal to confront Rodney head on? Moreover, the extensive list of political-economy related references for African in Freund (1998) and which are ignored by Iliffe (2007) provides a good indication of the extent of bias of omission (against leftist works, even those based on in-depth research) present in Iliffe (2007) and similar texts.

And by the time the reader reaches the last page of this venerated text, he or she will not have a picture of how the author has selected the tenets from the three strands of African historiography to formulate his own integrated framework of historic analysis. The grandiose declaration at the outset remains just that – a declaration without substance.

John Iliffe was housed in the same department at the University of Dar es Salaam as Walter Rodney. They were contemporaries for several years. And Iliffe was not a scholar who confined himself libraries and archives. Among radical students, he had the reputation of a staunchly anti-Marxist academic. His research seminars were characterized by hot exchanges with the leftist students.

Persistent curricular reform pursued by progressive academics like Lionel Cliffe, Sol Piciotto, Walter Rodney, John Saul, Tamas Szentes and others over a five-year period resulted in an influential pedagogic innovation at the university. This was in the form of an interdisciplinary course, Development Studies, that was taught from a political economy perspective. Undergraduate students in all the departments were required to take it or an equivalent course. The main aim of the course was to impart a well-documented overall perspective on the nation and the world, past, present and prospective futures, to all students, be they in medicine, physics, engineering, law or another field. It was not meant to supplant specialized disciplines like history, sociology or economics but complement them. This pioneering course was later emulated by universities in Africa and beyond.

Yet the process of establishing and sustaining it was an uphill battle. It was stridently opposed by specialty oriented conservative academics, local and foreign. Even as it was designed to follow required standards and was taught eminent scholars, they claimed that it would dilute the standards. One person in the forefront of this ideologically driven opposition was John Iliffe. In 1970, a group of seven reactionary academics signed a petition to the university authorities whose recommendations included abolishing the Department of Development Studies and effectively nullifying the novel aspects of the course. The only non-Tanzanian signatory was John Iliffe. The petition was strongly condemned in a statement issued by progressive students, and fortunately, was not adopted by the university senate.

Bias during colonial rule was clear and explicit. In the neo-colonial and neo-liberal times, it is subtle and covert. Ideological anchoring towards the status quo can confound the conceptual horizons of a scholar as effectively as it does that of a person in the street.

Laumann (2012)

 This, the slimmest of the eight texts under review, lists Rodney twice in the index. The introduction declares HEUA a ‘classic [Marxist] work’ and ‘a popular and powerful survey’ that was ‘extremely influential’ in its time. Laumann credits it with challenging the ‘traditional interpretations of colonialism’ and pointing ‘the way to new areas of study for historians’ (p xvi). Despite this laudatory start, in the penultimate paragraph of his book, Rodney is branded essentially as a scholar with a lop-sided, rigid outlook. Laumann proceeds to pitch his tent with the balance-sheet (good-versus-bad) based, allegedly nuanced and objective, approach to colonial history. This approach has risen in popularity among Africa oriented scholars of these post-socialist times (p 82).

Laumann’s eventual capitulation comes as a surprise. For, despite its brevity, his book packs a good Marxist oriented punch, and is replete with concepts Rodney popularized.  Instead of equating imperialism with colonialism, he defines it as ‘the process of one group of people extending its economic, political, or social power over other peoples’ (p xi). Opening the first chapter — on economics — with the Leninist definition of imperialism, Laumann categorically states that the ‘central assumption’ of the chapter is that ‘economic motives and factors were the key driving forces for the European conquest of Africa’ (p 1). Marxist notions like comprador class, merchant class, and neo-colonialism appear in the book as well.

The final chapter on the modern era focuses on economics, and draws, à la Rodney, upon the Marxian notion of neo-colonialism. Quotes from African scholars elaborate its deleterious effects. Yet, just at the end, rather than call for deeper study of neo-colonialism and its social effects, Laumann, just like others, lands squarely in the lap of neo-liberalism.

As before, the central flaw is that he does not explicitly posit a coherent, interdisciplinary framework for historic analysis. Despite mentioning the various approaches to African history at the outset, his own approach is nowhere specified with any degree of clarity. The topic at hand affects how he visualizes history; consequently, his framework seems to vary from chapter to chapter. That fluidity enables him to easily make a total about face at the end. The sole rationale for that reversal is an out-of-context quote from HEUA that, taken on its own, makes Rodney look like a purely emotive historian.

An ultimate declaration of preference for the good-versus-bad approach makes his book politically more palatable. It avoids vexing queries from established historians. One does not then need to inquire: if the basic factors underlying colonial rule were economic, and since those economic objectives were pursued in a consistently ruthless manner, could not it be that all this talk about democracy, good governance and partnership in development from the West is a mask for an equally nefarious neo-colonialism? His approach permits the imperialists to be reborn as altruistic benefactors who make mistakes but whose intent is noble. The principal responsibility for the daunting problems besieging Africa is shifted exclusively onto its corrupt rulers. This smooth transition from Marxism-Leninism to rationalization of neo-liberalism is a good indicator of the convoluted state of progressive African historiography today.

Reader (1999)

 In this 800-page volume from a seasoned British journalist, both HEUA and HUGC are listed in the references, though Rodney does not appear in the Index. HEUA appears thrice in the text notes; once in relation to existence of class distinctions in pre-colonial Africa (p 297) and twice in connection with education and the formation of a privileged elite during the colonial era, and its consequences (p 627).

Simultaneously a popular and an academic work, it aims to rectify the portrayal of a ‘woefully misunderstood and misused’ continent (p x) as it decries ‘the whiff of prejudice … detectable in some quarters even at the end of the twentieth century’ (p 238). Overall, the book does a fairly satisfactory job, presenting an adequate picture of Africa at least into the early colonial period. It is also strong in presenting details about the economy and economic relations until that era, a reflection of the long-term influence of Rodney and his fellow Marxists.

In several places, Reader (1999) adopts a thunderous anti-Western tone in a Rodney like spirit. For example, the revealing chapter entitled ‘Harnessed to Europe’ ends:

Were it not for the importunities of Europe, Africa might have enlarged upon its indigenous talents and found an independent route to the present one that was inspired by resolution from within rather than examples from outside. The moment passed, however, during the fifteenth century and cannot be retrieved. Since then the history of Africa has been the story of an ancient continent and its inhabitants trying to accommodate the concerns of modern humans whose ancestors left the cradle-land 100,000 years ago (see Chapter 10), and who came back 500 years ago, behaving as if they owned the place (p 368).

Nonetheless, the coverage of Africa from the 1950s onwards is a major disappointment. The presentation is lop-sided, replete with not just whiffs but wholesale prejudices of mainstream Western journalism on Africa. Significant matters about the economy are ignored or distorted. The interdisciplinary perspective is ditched in its entirety. As the multiplicity of problems – political instability, military coups, authoritarianism, internal strife, etc. – are highlighted, the crucial role played by the US and other Western powers in blocking economic progress, rule of law, and real democracy across Africa is swept under the rug. It is forgotten that these powers continue to behave, to this day, as if they own the place. Instead, the terminology and tone of benevolent neo-liberalism are employed to diagnose existing problems and point to a better future for Africa.

Once again, the absence of an explicit, consistent framework for historical analysis in the book makes such a flip-flop not a surprise.

Reid (2012)

This is the only book that, among all under review, has no reference to Rodney or his work in any shape or form. After critiquing the derogatory colonial works on African history, Reid attends to the corrective nationalistic approach that bloomed after Independence. In the Introduction, he says that the University of Dar es Salaam was a key center in that endeavor. Yet his Further Reading list contains only one of the many stellar works produced at that university. Instead, the list is dominated by the culturally oriented Afrocentric titles. Major non-Marxist historians are also set side.

The contents of this book, though, are at variance with these omissions. The author starts with the issue of formation of multi-faceted identities and lays out the themes of the book. Among them are economic affairs and economic domination by the West. And this is how economic issues are dealt with at numerous places. The Index of this book has more entries relating development and underdevelopment than any of the other books under review. Further, the usage of these ideas is consistent with HEUA. There is reasonable coverage of labor related issues, and terms like neo-colonialism and Western neo-imperialism are employed occasionally.

Having said that, Reid’s work lacks a consistently deployed, coherent analytic framework. Possibly, it is the most deficient among the books under review in that respect. Superficial and skewed discussions of health and education in Africa are oddly followed by a perceptive take on the difference between economic growth and economic development. Many critical comments on the role of the US in Africa are given, yet the role played by President Bill Clinton in Africa is narrated in a decidedly selective, biased and misleading style.

Explicitly and implicitly, different sections of the book portray Rodney’s perspective in different lights, favorable and unfavorable. The ideas he championed and those he staunchly opposed exist in a harmonious manner in these pages. 

Shillington (2012)

The two entries for Rodney in the Index refer to HEUA at a place in the text where it is called a ‘highly influential’ work. The Africanist works by Diop (1974) and Asante (2007) earn the label influential’ yet ‘controversial.’   Shillington states in the Introduction that his exposition draws upon elements of the Africanist approach and the Marxist approach.

To cap his presentation, Shillington gives a list of 231 sources for further reading. It covers almost the totality of all the literature cited in the book, and is divided according to categories like general history, methodology, specific themes, periods and regions.

Diop (1974), Asante (2007) and another Afrocentric book appear in this list under works of methodology or influential works that challenged the Eurocentric vision. Rodney, surprisingly, is not listed in these sections or anywhere else. Despite the high praise given at the outset, a full citation for HEUA does not appear anywhere in Shillington (2012).

Yet the impact of HEUA is evident throughout his book. As with many present-day historians of Africa, Shillington’s exposition of pre-European contact history integrates the dimensions of environment, economy, social stratification, political order and culture in a manner that comes close to a Marxist approach. Economic and environmental factors are accorded a major role in social dynamics. Shillington goes further than many to retain that approach well into the slave trade, colonial and post-colonial eras. The primary motivation for colonial rule, for example, is stated as economic – resources and markets. His characterization of colonial education is in Rodney-like terms:

Basically, colonial governments were only interested in training a small elite to fill the lower rungs of the administrative service. They saw mass education as a danger to be avoided (pp 372-3).

Particularly, Shillington credits Rodney for bringing the crucial issue of adverse terms of trade to the forefront (p 447, yet missed in the Index). Many details of continued deleterious Western economic interventions in post-Independent Africa are noted. The term ‘neo-colonialism’ appears in several places, and the so-called globalization is aptly portrayed as neo-colonialism in new clothes (p 451).

Yet, with Shillington as well, the closer one comes to the present day, the more eclectic the approach. The familiar virus of proximity corrodes his critical stance. The varied dimensions of society are no longer as coherently linked. The final four chapters that come up to the 2010s contain valid, critical observations on external economic interference and domination. But matters of politics and society appear in a form that gives the impression of purely localized strife and problems.

For Shillington, bold declarations like globalization is a new form of neo-colonialism are fluid declarations. They do not inform his approach in a consistent manner. Unlike Rodney, he does not posit imperialism as a global economic system that continues to generate the structures of dependency and domination in distinctive and dynamic forms. He fails to explain the phenomenon of underdevelopment and does not make the crucial distinction between economic growth and economic development. The perfidious role played by the US in post-colonial Africa is only partly brought up. Much more is hidden from view. In the spirit of Western neo-liberal ideology, China is disparaged for being oblivious to democratic progress in Africa, whilst the West is depicted as the promoter of freedom and good governance.


Western presence in Africa over a five-hundred-year period created an underdeveloped continent while the transfer of wealth from Africa helped the rise of a developed West. This well documented message of HEUA made the historians of Africa pay attention to the Marxist method and many universities used it as a textbook for African studies courses.

Today, the presence of HEUA in the classroom has diminished greatly. Students now encounter Rodney and HEUA mainly from other books. My survey of eight prominent works used in teaching African history leads to the following conclusions about how the students encounter Rodney and his principal work:

  1. The influence of the Marxist approach to African history, of which the HEUA was the supreme work, undeniably persists to this day. Issues about the economy, the deleterious impact of the economic relations with the West and the strong effects of economic factors on social and political change, issues that were controversial in the sixties, have now become acceptable and are generally present in the texts being used teach African history.
  2. Yet, such books generally lack a coherent and explicitly formulated framework for historical analysis and rarely delineate the primary explanatory factors. The framework and factors often change from chapter to chapter. Obscurity often overpowers illumination.
  3. The economic perspective students encounter in such books will not be systematic or consistent. The closer one gets to the present era, the firmer will the alignment with the dominant neo-liberal mode of thought to be.
  4. Despite the paradigm shifting contribution of the Marxist school to the study of African history, students will rarely find a fair depiction or acknowledgement of that contribution. Rodney, the principal spokesman of that school, is accorded similar treatment.
  5. If any direct references to Rodney or HEUA are made, they will tend to be ambivalent or distorted. He or his book may be praised at the start but then assiduously ignored or grossly misrepresented in the later pages. Some books portray him as an emotive activist, with a rigid approach to African history.
  6. Such verdicts on Rodney or his ideas will not derive from a detailed, scholarly analysis. Often, they will be based on taking one or two sentences from HEUA out of context to make him appear the opposite of what he stood for.  Such unfounded verdicts on Rodney come from historians of all variety, Afrocentric, nationalistic, Marxist, environmentally-oriented, post-colonial historians, or adherents of other styles of history.

Admittedly, these conclusions derive from a limited sample of books that was selected in a subjective fashion. However, because the books span a broad spectrum of approaches to African history, I conjecture that they will hold up in a wider survey as well.

The depth of the bias against a first-rate historian who was at the same time a revolutionary activist within the present day academic community is loud and clear. That he effectively challenged their prejudices and injected activism into the conservative, staid environments of university history departments does not sit well with establishment historians. They remain captive to the stultified, flawed but professionally and politically palatable ideas of neo-liberalism. Whatever their professed approach to history, they ultimately succumb to the pro-Western lore of free markets, liberalization, entrepreneurship, donor assistance, and democracy as the sole way for Africa to progress. Despite their claims of objectivity, these historians have no qualms in setting aside the volumes of evidence that points to the opposite conclusion.

The principal lesson from this survey is that for a student seeking to learn about Rodney and his ideas, there is no shortcut. He or she has to read HEUA. The continued significance of its ideas for the analysis and understanding of the current state of African nations and their potential future trajectories, make it strongly advisable for him or her to seriously study this book.

Furthermore, combining that with reading Rodney’s History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1540 to 1800 will produce a greater appreciation of his historical acumen. This book is a rich, multi-faceted depiction of the complexities – in terms of culture, customs, economy, politics, social stratification, ruling institutions, relations between local ethnic groupings and interactions with traders, visitors and colonizers from Europe – in a period from around the initial European contact to before the onset of full European incursion into a particular region of Africa. It puts to rest charges against Rodney that he only dealt with external factors, that he had a rigid, deterministic framework, that he did not consider internal class factors, that he denied agency to the people of Africa, etc.

Reading the two books together makes it clear that the negative charges placed against Rodney and HEUA stem in large measure from political bias and superficial perusal rather than from scholarly, historiographical investigations.


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

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