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The World Turned Upside Down: Rodney’s 1972 masterpiece

ActivismThe World Turned Upside Down: Rodney’s 1972 masterpiece

In 1972 Walter Rodney published his masterpiece How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Rodney’s book took a similar approach to Eduardo Galeano’s 1971 classic, examining four hundred years of European intervention and occupation in Africa. In this blogpost, Leo Zeilig looks at the context and approach Rodney took in his 1972 book. 

By Leo Zeilig

Walter Rodney was incredibly prolific in the early 1970s. Over a period of barely five years, he wrote on tourism, articles on socialism and development, scholarly papers on slavery, and also developed courses, organised fieldwork, and worked on extensive lecture notes on the Russian revolution for a course (which has become a posthumous book). Rodney was also a father of three children – Asha, Patricia and Rodney’s third and last child, was born in Tanzania in 1971. In this period, Rodney’s crowning achievement was a synthesis of years of historical reading and research in his mighty How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA), which he finished at the end of 1971 and was published the following year.

Even before the publication of HEUA he was being solicited for contributions to journals and special issues on themes related to ‘underdevelopment.’ On 5 November 1969, for example, Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff wrote to him asking for a contribution to a Monthly Review special issue marking the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth. Other writers and Marxists had also been approached – including Louis Althusser, Amilcar Cabral, Eldridge Cleaver, Eduardo Hughes Galeano, Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Mandel. Rodney responded quickly and submitted the paper, ‘The Imperialist Partition of Africa’, and Sweezy wrote to him on 2 February to express his thanks for the ‘very  interesting and useful contribution’, and to inform him that he sent, as Rodney requested, the $50 honorarium to FRELIMO, the leading liberation movement in Mozambique in Rodney’s name.

Rodney was working at the university in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania during the years of the radical projects of President Julius Nyerere.  His habit was to work collaboratively with his friends and activists, sharing and discussing  with comrades. Rodney emphasized the importance of this approach in the preface of HEUA when, after acknowledging ‘Karim Hirji and Henry Mapolu’ – who were both student-activists at the time – for having  ‘read the manuscript in a spirit of constructive criticism’ he continued, ‘But, contrary, to the fashion in most prefaces, I will not add that “all mistakes and shortcomings are entirely my responsibility.” This is sheer bourgeois subjectivism. Responsibility in matters of these sorts is always collective, especially with regard to the remedying of shortcomings. The purpose has been to try and reach Africans who wish to explore further the nature of their exploitation, rather than to satisfy the “standards” set by our oppressors and their spokesmen in the academic world.’[1]

Intellectual work always involves periods of intense concentration and solitude, but in Dar es Salaam in the early 1970s the political environment was profoundly collaborative. This is a far cry from the conveyer-belt of privatised misery which is intellectual and scholarly production today.

Rodney’s 1972 book is notable for its exceptionally accessible style, as it was written with a bright Tanzanian and African secondary school student in mind. In the end the book would be read by a generation in Africa and around the world, and to them, African politics and history would never be the same. Rodney had spent years in preparation for undertaking HEUA. His historical research in London, the heart of the beast, where this ‘unmaking’ of Africa, the bloody pillage of people, wealth and history, had one of its most important bases, and then in the most radical country in newly independent Africa – Tanzania, where history and socialism were being forged. Rodney had been reading and researching HEUA for more than a decade. His intellectual and activist mission was to correct the lies of official history, or, as Galeano described his own undertaking, ‘to tell a non-specialized public about certain facts that official history, history as told by conquerors, hides or lies about’, and to give back to the continent and its people a proper account of how Africa had become ‘underdeveloped’, poor and dependent. [2]

A revolution in a book

One of the striking features about Rodney’s text is its sheer audacity. The book is a breathless journey across the continent, over a period of five hundred years – moving effortlessly from country to country, region to region, providing both nuanced analysis and general overview. The idea of such a volume and confidence to undertake and complete it, could have only come from someone of Rodney’s intellectual strength and self-assurance. He was a young man when he started the book, writing the book in his late twenties – the book was published just before his thirtieth birthday.

Explicitly written for a general audience, Rodney ditched the normal protocol of cluttering the text with footnotes and extensive references. The book was a full-frontal assault on the academic training he had received, the closely guarded protocols of scholarly life – peer-review, referencing, deference to ‘authoritative’ scholarship and, most importantly, the purge of radical political content. Rodney had these elements of his learning explicitly in his crosshairs to, in his words, ‘defeat … attack … and to circumvent’.[3] The book was also an attempt to step out of a form of writing and research that was ‘only accessible to certain kinds of people’.[4]

As Rodney explained about HEUA in 1975, ‘this text was designed to operate outside of the university. It might get into the university, yes. I hoped it would. But it was designed to operate from outside in the sense that it would not to be sponsored by the people who considered themselves, and whom many others considered to the ones at that time who had the last word … on African history and African studies. The aim of this publication was to reach our own people without having it mediate by the bourgeois institutions of learning’.[5] As it turned out, the book was a thunderclap that shook the academic establishment.

The text is free of academic ‘burdens and protocols’, but includes at the end of each chapter ‘Brief Guides to Reading’ with engaging introductions to what is available. At the end of chapter five, on ‘Africa’s Contribution to the Capitalist Development of Europe – The Colonial Period’, Rodney notes that ‘here again, few scholars have treated capitalism and imperialism as an integral system involving the transfer of surplus and other benefits from colonies to metropoles …thus, European or white American Marxists who expose the rapacious nature of modern capitalism within their own countries have not generally integrated this with the exploitation of Africa, Asia and Latin America …’[6]

Rodney’s normal practice was to exercise extreme ‘discipline’ when it came to his scholarly work, to leave absolutely no space to be attacked for sloppy scholarship, or for failing to undertake rigorous study of the topic. Issa Shivji, at one time Rodney’s PhD student, describes a revealing incident: ‘Once I went to him and said, “Walter, comrade, I am fed-up, this business of writing this PhD, quoting this and quoting that and having footnotes, is exhausting. Stopping us from doing the work we want to do.” He said, “No comrade, this is important, this bourgeois discipline is important.”’ It was not uncommon to hear this kind of statement from Rodney – it had been his training in Georgetown, Kingston and London. “We have to be doubly competent, twice as good as the bourgeois scholars”, he told his comrades, “to beat them.”[7] This is what serious Marxist scholarship was, a blood-stained war against a highly trained and hardened enemy – as Rodney’s assassination in Guyana on 13 June 1980 attests. [8]

Yet HEUA was an entirely different project. His journal articles and historical scholarship required these exacting standards, to confront the enemy on the battlefield of bourgeois academia, but now a different audience was intended for HEUA. This volume formed part of his activist contribution – like his 1969 book, Groundings with My Brothers, it was a serious book written for a general audience and, consequently, the format and style had to be different. Rodney was adamant about this. On receiving the ‘readers comments’ for the manuscript of HEUA, Rodney declared to his friend and Tanzanian publisher, Walter Bgoya, “I am not going to make any changes, I have not written an academic book … to hell with these fellows who want to see footnotes and references.”[9]

The book is clear about the theoretical approach he was using, and states this categorically early on – in the first chapter, Rodney details Marx’s method, stating that the 19th century writer, ‘distinguished with European history several stages of development’.[10] He proceeds to describe a certain type of Marxism – common at the time, and still frequently attributed to Marxism – as proceeding stage by stage to socialism (communism), through ‘simple bands of hunters with Communalism’ to slavery, feudalism and capitalism, a system of economic and social organisation, that concentrates ‘in a few hands of ownership of the means of producing wealth and .. unequal distribution of the products of human labor’.[11] Even Marx complained about people taking a series of stages that he had posited tentatively for Western Europe and making them into a universal sequence.  Rodney refused any false solace; development is not linear, China he tells us early on ‘entered the feudal phase of development virtually 1000 years before the birth of Christ.’

Using China as a model for development, Rodney shows that society does not always advance to an ‘economic’ tune – development is not a forward march based on purely economic principles. The growth of beliefs, practices and institutions in China – in what Marxists describe as the ‘superstructure’ set on the economic organisation or ‘base’ of society – profoundly ‘affect’ a society’s development. ‘In China, religious, educational and bureaucratic qualifications were of utmost importance’.[12]

Ama Ata Aidoo is a Ghanaian author, poet, playwright and academic; in this vintage footage she speaks about the European pillage of Africa (1987). 

Out of capitalism Marx predicted socialism would emerge, based on a principle of economic equality and from it, eventually, a modern, technologically advanced communism would also develop. Though Rodney adds the vital component of ‘uneven development’ to a Marxist approach. Marx had presented a version of development based on European society, seeing revolution and class consciousness evolving from the contradictions embedded in class society – the collective organisation of production in advanced capitalism, yet private control of production. Rodney writes, ‘What is probably of more relevance for early African development is the principle that development over the world’s territories has always been uneven’.[13]

This unevenness cautions us against seeing development as a simple process of ‘successive stages’. Capitalism is intrinsically international – a world system – and as a consequence it intensifies the unevenness at the centre of human development. ‘Uneven development has always insured that societies have come into contact when they were at different levels – for example, one that was communal and one that was capitalist’.[14] This provokes further development, new forms of social organisation (as well as crisis). Such an ‘uneven capitalism’ inevitably diverges from the model of European development described by Marx in the 1850s and 1860s, Rodney explains.

Contrary to frequent accusations, HEUA could not be further from an orthodox book of either Marxism, or dependency theory. Rodney was writing against the enormous weight of establishment historians, and critics of Marxism; he managed to do this without turning his book into a turgid critique. For Rodney, Marxism is a universal theory, and the complex and diverse elements of Africa’s pre-colonial and colonial history can be explained within a Marxist perspective, but the question of development must be undertaken with the correct historical approach. Rodney was not defending Marxism in a theoretical polemic but with historical research. His work was a challenge to a stubborn faith in progress found in many Marxist accounts.

Rodney wrote an entirely new history of the continent, one that profoundly muddles the ‘stages’ of history. Africa before the arrival of Europeans was a complicated mix of societies and cultures, classes and conflict. Most accounts of those who first visited the continent from Portugal, or Holland, or England, saw in West and East Africa, development which was comparable to the societies they had recently left. Rodney cites a Dutch visitor to the city of Benin who remarked, ‘The town seems to be very great. When you enter into it, you go into a great broad street … which seems to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes street in Amsterdam… The king’s palace is a collection of buildings which occupy as much space as the town of Harlem, and which is enclosed with walls. There are numerous apartments for the Prince’s ministers and fine galleries, most of which are as big as those on the Exchange at Amsterdam’.[15] Yet no sooner do we have this comparison then Rodney reminds us against the ‘self-delusion’ that all things between Benin and Holland were equal. Through centuries of slaughtering each other, Europeans had honed the means of destruction to a much higher degree than their African counterparts, and, as history has shown, had few compunctions about using them.

Reception and impact

Quickly Rodney’s life became shaped by the book’s publication – if he was already a well-known, outspoken and sharp-witted socialist, now he became the famous author of a book that challenged the historical record, debunked racist myths and challenged a global economic system. Files of correspondence in the Atlanta archive, the Walter Rodney Papers, provide an eloquent testimony of the astonishing reception the book received: letters, notes and appeals to Rodney for further copies, from his readers, in Nigeria, Tanzania, the United States and the Caribbean.

Early in 1973 Rodney received   an airmail letter from José Dominguez. Dominguez, who was from Argentina and living in London, explained that he was a South American who had also just read HEUA, ‘for which I congratulate you and I am very grateful for the information and analysis that your book provides.’  He stated that the problems and struggles of the Africans ‘are either disregarded or silenced by the press of my country …  I must say that I have found your book quite by chance. Aside from a wish to congratulate you, I would like also to ask you to get in touch with a publisher in some Spanish speaking country … we are almost 300 hundred million Spanish speaking people, and what you say in your book, and how you at it, is of great importance for us all. Therefore, there should be a Spanish translation as soon as possible. Our comrades will be grateful for it’.[16] Like Eduardo Galeano’s book published just a year before, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, changed a debate, inspired activists and continues to be a vital resource today for all those searching for another world.

I am enormously grateful for the comments and suggestions on an earlier draft by Brian M. Napoletano and Ray Bush. Some of these observations have found their way directly into the text.

Leo Zeilig is editor of roape.net. Please contact roape.net if you want to contribute or have an idea for a blogpost website.editor@roape.net.


[1] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Pambazuka Press, 2012) pp. xi-xii

[2] Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America (Monthly Review Press, 1997) p. 559 [This page number from the electronic edition]

[3] Walter Rodney, Walter Rodney Speaks (Africa World Press, 1990) p. 26

[4] Walter Rodney Speaks, p. 26

[5] Walter Rodney Speaks, p. 26

[6] How Europe, p. 201

[7] Interview, 30 November 2018

[8] There is an important contrast between the Northern perception of the academic as privileged and insulated from political strife and the Southern reality of the radical scholar who risks more than just a salary when sticking her neck out to ‘speak truth to power’. However, as Brian M. Napoletano writes, ‘which is not to say that all of us radical scholars here in the South necessarily put ourselves in danger, of course, or that scholars in the North do not face reprisals for their writing.’

[9] Cited by Issa Shivji, interview, 30 November 2018

[10] How Europe, p. 6

[11] How Europe, p.7. Much of this attitude still exists today, for example, Doreen Massey, who, despite being regarded as a sort of post-modernist Marxist, repeatedly criticised Marxism as a stagist interpretation of space and history. Indeed, it is rare to read a post-modernist critique of Marxism that does not bring up stagism.

[12] How Europe, p.9

[13] How Europe, p.8

[14] How Europe, p.11

[15] How Europe, p.69

[16] Walter Rodney Papers, Box 2, Folder 93



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