20 Quotes From “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”

Devyn Springer
Feb 28, 2018 · 12 min read

Quotes from revolutionary thinker, activist and historian Walter Rodney’s 1972 “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”

  • “Pervasive and vicious racism was present in imperialism as a variant independent of the economic rationality that initially gave birth to racism. It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labor. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule.
  • “In a way, underdevelopment is a paradox. Many parts of the world that are naturally rich are actually poor and parts that are not so well off in wealth of soil and sub-soil are enjoying the highest standards of living. When the capitalists from the developed parts of the world try to explain this paradox, they often make it sound as though there is something “God given” about the situation. One bourgeois economist, in a book on development, accepted that the comparative statistics of the world today show a gap that is much larger than it was before. By his own admission, the gap between the developed and the underdeveloped countries has increased by at least 15 to 20 times over the last 150 years. However, the bourgeois economist in question does not give a historical explanation, nor does he consider that there is a relationship of exploitation which allowed capitalist parasites to grow fat and impoverished the dependencies.
  • “During the colonial period, the forms of political subordination in Africa were obvious. There were governors, colonial officials, and police. In politically independent African states, the metropolitan capitalists have to insure favorable political decisions by remote control. So they set up their political puppets in many parts of Africa, who shamelessly agree to compromise with the vicious apartheid regime of South Africa when their masters tell them to do so. The revolutionary writer, Frantz Fanon, has dealt scorchingly and at length with the question of the minority in Africa which serves as the transmission line between the metropolitan capitalists and the dependencies in Africa. The importance of this group cannot be underestimated. The presence of a group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment. Any diagnosis of underdevelopment in Africa will reveal not just low per capita income and protein deficiencies, but also the gentlemen who dance in Abidjan, Accra, and Kinshasa when music is played in Paris, London, and New York.”
  • “White racist notions are so deep-rooted within capitalist society that the failure of African agriculture to advance was put down to the inherent inferiority of the African. It would be much truer to say that it was due to the white intruders, although the basic explanation is to be found not in the personal ill-will of the colonialists or in their racial origin, but rather in the organized viciousness of the capitalist/colonialist system.”
  • “As part of the hypocrisy of colonialism, it became fashionable to speak of how Europe brought Africa into the twentieth century. This assertion has implications in the socio-economic and political spheres, and it can be shown to be false not in some but in all respects. So often it is said that colonialism modernized Africa by introducing the dynamic features of capitalism, such as private property in land, private ownership of the other means of production, and money relations. Here it is essential to distinguish between capitalist elements and capitalism as a total social system. Colonialism introduced some elements of capitalism into Africa. In general terms, where communalism came into contact with the money economy, the latter imposed itself. Cash-crop farming and wage labor led away from the extended family as the basis of production and distribution. One South African saying put forward that “the white man has no kin, his kin is money.” That is a profound revelation of the difference between capitalist and pre-capitalist societies; and when capitalism came into contact with the still largely communal African societies, it introduced money relations at the expense of kinship ties. However, colonialism did not transform Africa into a capitalist society comparable to the metropoles. Had it done that, one might have complained of the brutalities and inequalities of capitalism, but it could not then have been said that colonialism failed to advance Africa along the path of human historical development.”
  • “It is fairly obvious that capitalists do not set out to create other capitalists, who would be rivals. On the contrary, the tendency of capitalism in Europe from the very beginning was one of competition, elimination, and monopoly. Therefore, when the imperialist stage was reached, the metropolitan capitalists had no intention of allowing rivals to arise in the dependencies. However, in spite of what the metropoles wanted, some local capitalists did emerge in Asia and Latin America. Africa is a significant exception in the sense that, compared with other colonized peoples, far fewer Africans had access even to the middle rungs of the bourgeois ladder in terms of capital for investment.”
  • “The interpretation that underdevelopment is somehow ordained by God is emphasized because of the racist trend in European scholarship. It is in line with racist prejudice to say openly or to imply that their countries are more developed because their people are innately superior, and that the responsibility for the economic backwardness of Africa lies in the generic backwardness of the race of black Africans. An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonized world have gone through a cultural and psychological crisis and have accepted, at least partially, the European version of things. That means that the African himself has doubts about his capacity to transform and develop his natural environment. With such doubts, he even challenges those of his brothers who say that Africa can and will develop through the efforts of its own people. If we can determine when underdevelopment came about, it would dismiss the lingering suspicion that it is racially or otherwise predetermined and that we can do little about it.”
  • “The question as to who, and what, is responsible for African underdevelopment can be answered at two levels: First, the answer is that the operation of the imperialist system bears major responsibility for African economic retardation by draining African wealth and by making it impossible to develop more rapidly the resources of the continent. Second, one has to deal with those who manipulate the system and those who are either agents or unwitting accomplices of the said system. The capitalists of Western Europe were the ones who actively extended their exploitation from inside Europe to cover the whole of Africa. In recent times, they were joined, and to some extent replaced, by capitalists from the United States; and for many years now even the workers of those metropolitan countries have benefited from the exploitation and underdevelopment of Africa. None of these remarks are intended to remove the ultimate responsibility for development from the shoulders of Africans. Not only are there African accomplices inside the imperialist system, but every African has a responsibility to understand the system and work for its overthrow.”
Image via Josh MacPhee
  • “It can further be argued that by the nineteenth century white racism had become so institutionalized in the capitalist world (and notably in the U.S.A.) that it sometimes ranked above the maximization of profit as a motive for oppressing black people… In the short run, European racism seemed to have done Europeans no harm, and they used those erroneous ideas to justify their further domination of non-European peoples in the colonial epoch. But the international proliferation of bigoted and unscientific racist ideas was bound to have its negative consequences in the long run. When Europeans put millions of their brothers (Jews) into ovens under the Nazis, the chickens were coming home to roost. Such behavior inside of “democratic” Europe was not as strange as it is sometimes made out to be. There was always a contradiction between the elaboration of democratic ideas inside Europe and the elaboration of authoritarian and thuggish practices by Europeans with respect to Africans. When the French Revolution was made in the name of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” it did not extend to black Africans who were enslaved by France in the West Indies and the Indian Ocean. Indeed, France fought against the efforts of those people to emancipate themselves, and the leaders of their bourgeois revolution said plainly that they did not make it on behalf of black humanity.”
  • “Fascism is a deformity of capitalism. It heightens the imperialist tendency towards domination which is inherent in capitalism, and it safeguards the principle of private property. At the same time, fascism immeasurably strengthens the institutional racism already bred by capitalism, whether it be against Jews (as in Hitler’s case) or against African peoples (as in the ideology of Portugal’s Salazar and the leaders of South Africa). Fascism reverses the political gains of the bourgeois democratic system such as free elections, equality before the law, parliaments; and it also extols authoritarianism and the reactionary union of the church with the state. In Portugal and Spain, it was the Catholic church — in South Africa, it was the Dutch Reformed church.”
  • “Fascism was a monster born of capitalist parents. Fascism came as the end-product of centuries of capitalist bestiality, exploitation, domination, and racism — mainly exercised outside Europe. It is highly significant that many settlers and colonial officials displayed a leaning towards fascism. Apartheid in South Africa is nothing but fascism. It was gaining roots from the early period of white colonization in the seventeenth century, and particularly after the mining industry brought South Africa fully into the capitalist orbit in the nineteenth century. Another example of the fascist potential of colonialism was seen when France was overrun by Nazi Germany in 1940. The French fascists collaborated with Hitler to establish what was called the Vichy regime in France, and the French white settlers in Africa supported the Vichy regime. A more striking instance to the same effect was the fascist ideology developed by the white settlers in Algeria, who not only opposed independence for Algeria under Algerian rule, but they also strove to bring down the more progressive or liberal governments of metropolitan France.”
  • “In some districts, capitalism brought about technological backwardness in agriculture. On the reserves of Southern Africa, far too many Africans were crowded onto inadequate land, and were forced to engage in intensive farming, using techniques that were suitable only to shifting cultivation. In practice, that was a form of technical retrogression, because the land yielded less and less and became destroyed in the process. Wherever Africans were hampered in their use of their ancestral lands on a wide-ranging shifting basis, the same negative effect was to be found.
  • “Ever since the mid-nineteenth century, Marx had predicted class collision would come in the form of revolution in which workers would emerge victorious. The capitalists were terribly afraid of that possibility, knowing full well that they themselves had seized power from the feudal landlord class by means of revolution. However, imperialism introduced a new factor into this situation — one that deferred the confrontation between workers and capitalists in the metropoles.”
  • “Besides, where the government was reluctant to build schools or to subsidize missionaries to do so with African taxes, there was an even greater incentive to handle educational matters directly. […]The [Muslim] religion was also a stimulator of educational advance during the colonial period. In North Africa, Muslims often found it necessary to channel their efforts into schools other than those built by the colonialists. The Society of Reformist Ulema in Algeria started a large primary school program in 1936. By 1955, its primary schools catered to 45,000 Algerian children; and, from 1947, the Society also ran a large secondary school. Similarly, in Tunisia, popular initiative financed modern Koranic primary schools, providing places for 35,000 children — equivalent to one out of four going to primary school. In Morocco, the Muslem schools that were established by popular effort possessed the unusual feature of aiming at women’s emancipation by having a high percentage of girls — far higher than government schools. The French colonial administration deliberately kept mention of such schools out of their official reports, and they tried to keep their existence hidden from visitors.”
  • “It is sometimes said that Kwame Nkrumah organized the illiterates in the Convention People’s Party. That was a disrespectful charge made by other conservative educated Ghanaians, who thought that Nkrumah was going too far too fast. In reality, the shock troops in Nkrumah’s youth brigade were not illiterate. They had been to primary school, and could read the manifestos and the literature of the African nationalist revolution. But, they were extremely disaffected because (among other things) they were relative latecomers on the educational scene in Gold Coast, and there was no room in the restricted African establishment of the cocoa monoculture. Colonial powers aimed at giving a certain amount of education to keep colonialism functioning; Africans by various means required more education at the lower level than their “allowance,” and this was one of the factors which brought about deep crisis, and forced the British to consider the idea of withdrawing their colonial apparatus from Gold Coast. The timetable for independence was also sped up against the will of the British. As is well known, the regaining of independence in Ghana was not just a local affair, but one that was highly significant for Africa as a whole; and it therefore highlights the importance of at least one of the educational contradictions in bringing about political independence in Africa.”
  • “Political instability is manifesting itself in Africa as a chronic symptom of the underdevelopment of political life within the imperialist context. Military coups have followed one after the other, usually meaning nothing to the mass of the people, and sometimes representing a reactionary reversal of the efforts at national liberation. This trend was well exemplified in Latin American history, so that its appearance in neo-colonial South Vietnam or in neo-colonial Africa is not at all surprising. If economic power is centered outside national African boundaries, then political and military power in any real sense is also centered outside until, and unless, the masses of peasants and workers are mobilized to offer an alternative to the system of sham political independence. All of those features are ramifications of underdevelopment and of the exploitation of the imperialist system. In most analyses of this question, they are either left out entirely or the whole concept of imperialism and neo-colonialism is dismissed as mere rhetoric — especially by “academics” who claim to be removed from “politics.” During the remainder of this study, a great deal of detail will be presented to indicate the grim reality behind the so-called slogans of capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, and the like.”
  • “The moment that the topic of the pre-European African past is raised, many individuals are concerned for various reasons to know about the existence of African “civilizations.” Mainly, this stems from a desire to make comparisons with European “civilizations.” This is not the context in which to evaluate the so-called civilizations of Europe. It is enough to note the behavior of European capitalists from the epoch of slavery through colonialism, fascism, and genocidal wars in Asia and Africa. Such barbarism causes suspicion to attach to the use of the word “civilization” to describe Western Europe and North America. As far as Africa is concerned during the period of early development, it is preferable to speak in terms of “cultures” rather than civilizations.”
  • “Colonialism was not merely a system of exploitation, but one whose essential purpose was to repatriate the profits to the so-called mother country. From an African viewpoint, that amounted to consistent expatriation of surplus produced by African labor out of African resources. It meant the development of Europe as part of the same dialectical process in which Africa was underdeveloped.
  • “Scholars often distinguish between groups in Africa which had states and those which were “stateless.” Sometimes, the word “stateless” is carelessly or even abusively used; but it does describe those peoples who had no machinery of government coercion and no concept of a political unit wider than the family or the village. After all, if there is no class stratification in a society, it follows that there is no state, because the state arose as an instrument to be used by a particular class to control the rest of society in its own interests. Generally speaking, one can consider the stateless societies as among the older forms of socio-political organization in Africa, while the large states represented an evolution away from communalism — sometimes to the point of feudalism.
  • “It is also true that very often a captive was sold and resold as he made his way from the interior to the port of embarkation — and that too was a form of trade. However, on the whole, the process by which captives were obtained on African soil was not trade at all. It was through warfare, trickery, banditry, and kidnaping. When one tries to measure the effect of European slave trading on the African continent, it is essential to realize that one is measuring the effect of social violence rather than trade in any normal sense of the word.”
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