Walter Rodney's legacy: by Angela Davis
When Walter Rodney was assassinated in 1980 at the young age of thirty-eight, he had already accomplished what few scholars achieve during careers that extend considerably longer than his. The field of African history would never be the same after the publication of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. At the same time, this meticulously researched analysis of the abiding repercussions of European colonialism on the continent of Africa has radicalized approaches to anti-racist activism throughout the world. In fact, the term “scholar-activist” acquires its most vigorous meaning when it is employed to capture the generative passion that links Walter Rodney’s research to his determination to rid the planet of all of the outgrowths of colonialism and slavery. Almost forty years after his death, we certainly need such brilliant examples of what it means to be a resolute intellectual who recognizes that the ultimate significance of knowledge is its capacity to transform our social worlds.
We have learned from Walter Rodney, and those before and after him who have critically engaged with Marxism while developing historical analyses of colonialism and slavery, that challenging capitalism’s deeply entrenched suppositions about human nature and progress is one of the most important tasks of theorists and activists who set out to dismantle structures and ideologies of racism. In refuting the argument that Africa’s subordination to Europe emanated from a natural propensity toward stagnation, Rodney also repudiates the ideological assumption that external intervention alone would be capable of provoking progress on the continent. Although colonization officially lasted only seventy years or so, which, as Rodney points out, was a relatively short period, it was during this period that colossal changes took place both in the capitalist world (i.e., in Europe and the United States) as well as in the emergent socialist world (especially in Russia and China). “To mark time,” he insists, “or even to move slowly while others leap ahead is virtually equivalent to going backward”. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney painstakingly argues that imperialism and the various processes that bolstered colonialism created impenetrable structural blockades to economic, and thus also, political and social progress on the continent. At the same time his argument is not meant to absolve Africans of the “ultimate responsibility for development”.
I feel extremely privileged to have been able to meet Walter Rodney during my first trip to the African continent in 1973. I mention this visit to Dar es Salaam because it took place shortly after the original publication of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and because I witnessed firsthand for a brief period of time the revolutionary urgency generated within the scholarly and activist circles surrounding him. Not only did I have the opportunity to witness lectures and discussions he organized at the University of Dar es Salaam on the relation between African Liberation and global contestations to capitalism, but I also visited the training camps of the MPLA, where I met Agostinho Neto and the military cadre fighting the Portuguese Army. Walter Rodney’s analyses reflected both a sober, well-reasoned historical investigation, shaped by Marxist categories and critiques, and a deep sense of the historical conjuncture defined by global revolutionary upheavals, especially by African Liberation struggles at that time.
Because he was such a methodical scholar, he did not ignore gender issues, even though he wrote without the benefit of the feminist vocabularies and frameworks of analysis that were later developed. Others have pointed out that he would have no doubt given greater emphasis to these questions had he been active at a later time. Nonetheless, at several strategic junctures in the text, Rodney addresses the role of gender, and he is careful to point out that under colonialism, African women’s “social, religious, constitutional, and political privileges and rights disappeared while the economic exploitation continued and was often intensified”. He emphasizes that the impact of colonialism on labor in Africa redefined men’s work as “modern,” while constituting women’s work as “traditional” or “backward.” “Therefore, the deterioration in the status of women’s work was bound up with the consequent loss of the right to set indigenous standards of what work had merit and what did not”.
At the time that How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was published, Black activism—at least in the United States—was influenced not only by cultural nationalist notions of intrinsic female inferiority, often fallaciously attributed to African cultural practices, but also by officially sponsored attributions of a matriarchal—in other words, defective—family structure to US Black communities (e.g. the 1965 Moynihan Report). This book was an important tool for those of us who were intent on contesting such essentialist notions of gender within Black radical movements of that era.
If Walter Rodney’s scholarly and activist contributions exemplified what was most demanded at that particular historical moment—he was assassinated because he believed in the real possibility of radical political change, including in Guyana, his natal land—his ideas are even more valuable today at a time when capitalism has so forcibly asserted its permanency, and when once existing organized opposing forces (not only the socialist community of nations, but also the non-aligned nations) have been virtually eliminated. Those of us who refuse to concede that global capitalism represents the planet’s best future and that Africa and the former third world are destined to remain forever ensconced in the poverty of “underdevelopment” are confronted with this crucial question: how can we encourage radical critiques of capitalism as integral to struggles against racism as we also advance the recognition that we cannot envision the dismantling of capitalism as long as the structures of racism remain intact? In this sense, it is up to us to follow, expand upon, and deepen Walter Rodney’s legacy.
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is an ambitious masterwork of political economy, detailing the impact of slavery and colonialism on the history of international capitalism. In this classic book, Rodney makes the unflinching case that African “mal-development” is not a natural feature of geography, but a direct product of imperial extraction from the continent, a practice that continues up into the present. Meticulously researched, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa remains a relevant study for understanding the so-called “great divergence” between Africa and Europe, just as it remains a prescient resource for grasping the multiplication of global inequality today.
In this new edition, Angela Davis offers a striking foreword to the book, exploring its lasting contributions to a revolutionary and feminist practice of anti-imperialism.