This book is about a book, a book which was the 20th century’s most important book on African history. I talk of Walter Rodney’s preeminent, paradigm-shifting text, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA). The primary theme developed in these pages is that HEUA is as relevant for Africa and beyond today, as it was when it came out 45 years ago. Its importance for understanding the continent’s past and present trajectories, and the myriad of grave socio-economic problems it faces has not diminished. It is as well pivotal for formulating a viable strategy to confront these problems and embark on the path to genuine development for its people. And as we examine various aspects of his book, the life of the author is also brought into the picture, though to a secondary degree.
The voices that dominate the modern social and political landscape, though, hold otherwise: As with scores of progressive intellectuals and activists of the past, the prevailing ideology functions to relegate Rodney into the deepest, almost unreachable, ravines of memory. A person who once was widely known is now a nonentity, a stranger to the youth in Africa and the Caribbean. And when they encounter him in the classroom, it is through secondary sources that distort both what he actually wrote and his framework of historical analysis.
In addition, there is a conscious, concerted effort from some quarters to make the case that even if Rodney’s ideas were pertinent for the colonial and early post-colonial African conditions, they do not hold water today. They say that it is not an external entity but Africa’s power hungry and corrupt leaders who are underdeveloping the continent today.
These misguided views are based on viewing society through disjoint compartments of politics, culture, social affairs and economics. They paint a shallow picture of the relationship between the internal and the external, between economics and politics, and between growth and development. And, they derive from not appreciating the structural and class nature of the phenomenon we call ‘underdevelopment.’ Their flaws rest on a fundamental ideological bias: that private enterprise and ‘donor assistance’ constitute the indispensable saviours of Africa.
On the other hand, an integrated, dynamic, dialectical perspective of the type deployed by Rodney allows us to formulate an empirically sound and coherent picture of Africa, past and present, and chart a viable, self-guided path out of the maladies it faces. Hence I place heavy emphasis on the method of analysing history and society employed in HEUA.
To develop an appreciation for Rodney’s method, I begin by introducing HEUA, and recounting its initial impact. I then portray in general terms the global scene of that era. This leads to an overview of the waves of mental liberation unleashed by progressive movements and intellectuals as a part of the struggle to change an unjust societal reality. Walter Rodney was a key figure in that process.
Yet, in the decades that followed, these phenomenal achievements were subjected to an almost total reversal. Works of many prominent progressives were erased from popular and academic memory as if the entire episode had been a dream. But a few hardy ones stood their ground. HEUA ranks among them.
After delving into these matters, I focus on Walter Rodney. He was not an arm chair academic but a revolutionary in the true sense of the word. And he had a decisive impact on the methodology of conceptualizing African history. Going further, I list and respond to the main criticisms of HEUA that have been expressed over time. And this leads me to ask: How do the current students of African history encounter Rodney? To answer this query, I critically review the representations of HEUA in major textbooks on the general history of Africa.
In the final two chapters, I sum up my case for the enduring relevance of Rodney and HEUA, and describe my personal interactions with this towering specimen of humanity. My observations become a springboard that leads me to ponder: In his wake and spirit, where do we, as African patriots, go from here?
Walter Rodney lived and died for the people. Other progressive intellectuals/activists of that era made similar sacrifices. They have left us a priceless legacy. The new generation needs to critically engage with them, to learn from their struggles, achievements and errors. I hope this book will propel that on-going but presently slow-moving process forward.