2 The global context

From the end of World War II to roughly the mid-1970s, the capitalist-imperial order once more faced sustained challenges across the planet. As one after another of its hefty pillars shook, the era of self-determination, non-alignment and socialism bloomed. Victorious red revolutions in China, North Korea and North Vietnam, autonomy for India, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines, and nationalistic coups in Egypt and the Middle East heralded the termination of direct colonial rule across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Socialist Cuba unveiled a novel, practical path of hope for humanity. Right in the belly of the beast, African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, students, women’s movements, workers and cultural activists embarked on humane itineraries marked with protests, occupations, boycotts and even armed resistance. Europe witnessed a tumultuous upswing of left-wing student, worker, cultural and feminist movements.

The imperialist powers responded with characteristic brutality and artful deviousness, at home and abroad. Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X, Che Guevara and Oscar Romero (to name a few) were assassinated; ardent nationalists like Arbenz of Guatemala, Mossadegh of Iran, Allende of Chile and Nkrumah of Ghana were overthrown, a militarized massacre was instituted in Indonesia, and CIA-backed death squad regimes mushroomed – these were but some of their atrocious deeds. Such setbacks notwithstanding, on the whole, the march of ordinary folk across the planet for genuine justice and liberation grew in strength. The success of the Cuban revolution in 1959, the forced departure of France from Algeria, the ousting of the US from Vietnam in 1974, the ejection of Portugal from its colonies in Africa, the extirpation of the US-backed dictator of Nicaragua by the Sandinista and majority rule for Zimbabwe constituted some of the shining milestones of this righteous journey.

Mental liberation

Struggle in the street went hand in hand with endeavours to liberate the mind. Rigid modes of thought underpinning and rationalizing the status quo faced vibrant challenges in the media, literature and academia. From law and psychology to art, from sociology and economics to health, no discipline evaded critical inquiry. The 1960s saw a creative, expansive flowering of ideas in these fields. New avenues of mass and scholarly communication materialized. The visions of stellar radical thinkers of earlier eras not only gained renewed appeal but were also examined anew and qualitatively expanded. And it was a worldwide phenomenon.

Under the pioneering works of Frantz Fanon and CLR James, activist thinkers of Africa like Samir Amin, Dennis Brutus, Amilcar Cabral, Ruth First, Archie Mafeje, Bernard Magubane, Albert Memmi, Félix Moumié, Kwame Nkrumah, and Julius Nyerere crafted keen expositions analysing why the world was as it was, and charted potential directions for change. Elsewhere, in a similar vein, Ernesto Che Guevara, Josue De Castro, Oliver C Cox, Eduardo Galeano, Paulo Freire and Eric Williams (Latin America and the Caribbean); Paul Baran, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Michael Harrington, William Hinton, George L Jackson, Martin Luther King, Gabriel Kolko, James Petras, Paul Sweezy, Malcolm X and Howard Zinn (North America); Simone de Beauvoir, Charles Bettleheim, Aimé Césaire, Regis Debray, André Gunder Frank, Erich Fromm, Eric Hobsbawm, RD Laing, Oscar Lange, Ernest Mandel, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell (Europe and the UK); and Eqbal Ahmad, Tariq Ali, Waldon Bello, Ho Chin Minh, DD Kosambi, EMS Namboodiripad and Edward Said (Asia and the Middle East) formulated new vistas in humanistic and scientific ideas that germinated  from an internationalist ethic, consistent logic, and sound factual foundations.  Walter Rodney, with multinational roots in Guyana, the Caribbean and Africa, was a shining light in this stellar group.

Cultural arenas like music, songs, poetry, film, theatre, literature and fine art flowered along directions distinctly discordant with the Hollywood led escapist panorama. To name but a few of the literary stars of that era: Ayi Kwei Armah, James Baldwin, Nawal El-Saadawi, Nadime Gordimer, Nazim Hikmet, Ibrahim Hussein, Yashar Kamel, Alex LaGuma, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sembene Ousmane, José Saramago, Wole Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Pramoedya Ananta Toer entertained, enlightened and emboldened large intercontinental audiences with hopes dreams even as their surroundings retained much of the ugliness of the bygone days.

Within the discipline of history in particular, specific investigations under an interdisciplinary, socio-economic approach took greater hold. Micro-studies morphed into impressive regional and global narratives. Of the works in this genre, I have in mind JD Bernal’s four volume Science and Society (1954), DD Kosambi’s An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956), Gordon Childe’s What Happened in History (1960), Basil Davidson’s Africa: History of a Continent (1966), AG Frank’s Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (1967), Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (1974), Samir Amin’s Accumulation on a World Scale (1978) and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980).

Walter Rodney’s HEUA was an integral member of this lofty collection. An erudite, novel work of African history, it effectively critiqued the camouflaged liberal or explicitly pro-imperial narratives prevalent till then. It thoroughly countered the conservative slant on African history in the widely-used books like A Short History of Africa by Oliver and Fage. As a readable text, Rodney’s book was hailed by Pan-Africanists, progressive scholars, students, activists and freedom fighters. Though, for the local and Western reactionaries, in academia and outside, it was an object of spiteful vitriol. Its Marxist methodology, forthright style and uncompromising verdict engendered a sharp binary divide among social scientists and historians, including of the left. As noted earlier, it came to be the line for demarcating modern African historiography into two main periods.

Within a few years, it was a required or reference text for courses in African History, World History and African Studies at the undergraduate and graduate levels in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and North America. In Tanzania, it entered the high school history curriculum as well. Students, scholars and regular readers now obtained a more authentic version of the past of a regularly misrepresented continent. Directly and indirectly, it spawned a large body of research and writing in history and other social sciences that utilized a pan-Africanist, anti-imperial, Marxist orientation. Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society, to take one case, does not just reflect its influence in the title but more so in the conceptual framework utilized.

A rounded explication of the mammoth, complex blooming of the intellect of the 1960s requires a book by itself. But, what I have covered provides a fair idea of its scope. Those extensions of mental, moral and political horizons guided the youth and social movements in all lands towards progressive, anti-imperial activism, which in turn fertilized the world of radical ideas. In Africa and the Caribbean, this ferment signified the beginnings of mental decolonization of the post-colonial generation. No longer at ease with the appalling economic reality and hollow rhetoric of flag independence, they internalized the radical conceptions and began to stir.

By 1971, schools and colleges across Africa were in a state of turmoil. Hardly had the dust from the anti-colonial struggles settled, the seekers of a genuinely brighter future began to confront neo-colonialism as well as their conniving, inept, authoritarian local rulers. HEUA entered the scene at right time to further educate and propel the restless youth and progressive leaders of Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere towards an effective philosophy and strategy to confront imperialist domination and the internal subjugation of the masses.

As the Chinese youth held up the quotations of Chairman Mao, the progressive African and Caribbean youth thumbed through Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Nkrumah’s Neo-Colonialism: The Highest Stage of Imperialism, and Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa for knowledge, inspiration and guidance.

 

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

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