10 Oct Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting Walter Rodney
In a wide-ranging defence of the legacy of Walter Rodney, Cecil Gutzmore takes on Chinedu Chukwudinma’s critique of Rodney’s work. Theoretical rigour and principled arguments are essentials in Marxism, but Gutzmore sees little evidence of these in Chukwudinma’s blogpost.
By Cecil Gutzmore
Chinedu Chukwudinma’s ‘critique’ of Walter Rodney is poorly applied, poorly argued and misguided. Despite claiming a ‘deeper understanding’ than the review by Andy Higginbottom of Verso Books’ reissue of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (2018), Chukwudinma conveys misunderstanding of and misrepresents Rodney’s output.
It would of course be extraordinary were it to be the case that, even of so accomplished a Marxist and revolutionary Pan-Afrikanist as was Walter Rodney, his considerable political-intellectual output turned out to be completely error-free. Or that, decades after his 1980 assassination by US imperialism operating through Guyanese neo-colonial forces, no such errors could be identified and be the welcome subject of serious discussion. Theoretical rigour and principled, sound argument are essentials of the business of building with and on Walter’s considerable achievements. Yet little of these are visible in Chukwudinma’s blogpost.
Rodney’s praxis combined critical adherence to Marxism with challenging its more narrowly ‘class’-bound version. He developed with considerable care such concepts as capitalism-imperialism, colonialism, settler-colonialism, neo-colonialism; he addressed the specific mechanisms of imperialist exploitation – treating foreign direct investment (FDI) as principal amongst these – and racially structured modes of exploitation and oppression. These concepts matter profoundly in dealing with all parts of Rodney’s output and any serious critique of it.
Chukwudinma’s lack of rigour looms large. His blog can be read as consisting of three parts. An opening in which Walter Rodney is praised for the achievement within Afrikan historiography of dispatching with some clearly outdated, grievously Eurocentric Western academic historians. Rodney is also praised for ‘restor[ing] the dignity of African people and highlight[ing] the weight and significance of their contribution to history.’ Matters change in the second and third parts, where Chukwudinma seeks to prove that in (a) Afrikan colonial and neo-colonial historiography and (b) Marxist political-economy, Walter Rodney is in fundamental error. Were Chukwudinma’s arguments proven it would represent the dismantling of Rodney’s justly acclaimed theoretical achievements. No such result is achieved by Chukwudinma, except perhaps to the satisfaction of the particular brand of ‘Marxist’ left sectarianism that has provided him with his arguments.
The single point in Chukwudinma’s favour is that he does not misquote Walter Rodney. This, however, he totally undermines by his use of a plethora of methodologically and theoretically dubious procedures. These include: (a) questionably attributing Rodney’s work to that of certain ‘dependency theorists’; (b) systematically attributing their alleged positions to ‘Rodney’; (c) erecting a straw man/figmental ‘Rodney’ as the object of his largely misplaced and misdirected criticisms (d) even when actually quoting Rodney, he undermines his own criticisms by careless and unjustified conflation of key concepts, (e) using inapplicable or even absurd counter-examples, (f) oversights in relation to both Rodney’s concepts and supposed counter-evidence while (g) misleadingly deploying World Bank and International Labour Organisation (ILO) sourced statistical data but ignoring material from other sources that bear more profoundly on the issues at stake.
Afrika’s Industrialisation Blocked?
Within the second and third parts of his blogpost, an outright assault on Walter Rodney’s output as a Marxist African historian and political-economist, Chukwudinma says that in HEUA:
Walter Rodney adopted dependency theory’s central idea that imperialism condemns poor nations to stagnation, as he wrote: “Whenever internal forces seemed to push in the direction of African industrialisation, they were deliberately blocked by the colonial governments acting on behalf of the metropolitan industrialist.” (Emphasis added)
He speaks further of ‘Rodney’s views that British colonialism always stifled industrialisation and failed to create a powerful working class.’ (Emphasis added)
Chukwudinma conflates the major concepts ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’ to obvious ill-effect. The claim contained in Rodney’s actual words is neither original to him, nor was it discovered by the ‘dependency theorists’ Chukwundinma mentions. Since Rodney is speaking accurately about the well-documented workings of colonialism in Afrika, it is difficult to imagine from where would be conjured-up valid evidence effectively to refute his claims regarding colonialism’s anti-industrialisation practices in that continent (and in his own region of origin, the Caribbean). Rodney’s quoted claim also holds for other geographical areas. British colonialism was, after all, the system that notoriously ‘de-industrialised’ India after 1763.
By denying a key reality of the history of British (Afrikan) colonialism, Chukwudinma gives himself an unsolvabl difficulty. In attempting to overcome this he simply mobilises wholly misleading ‘counter examples’: Hong Kong and South Africa are used for this purpose. He clearly has little understanding of how exceptions work and casually interpolates ‘always’ into ‘Rodney’s’ position. The counterexamples used to exemplify colonies that ‘industrialised’ under British rule prove nothing against Rodney.
Hong Kong, which is not part of Afrika, was never a typical British colony. Even though light-industrial production occurred there before the British surrendered the colony back to China in 1997, it hardly forms an example of the manufacturing industrial social formation that is at the core of Rodney’s claim.
Only very serious oversight of how the actual formation of extractivist settler-colonialism was constituted could allow Chukwudinma to bring forward South Afrika to exemplify an ‘industrialised’ British colony that invalidates Rodney’s claim. South Afrika was industrialised under the rule of the British colonial state and capitalist interests, not in manufacturing but in mining and its auxiliary industries, as Rodney well knew. How could capitalism-imperialism, in its settler-colonial form in Southern Afrika, have assumed its extractivist character without the organised proletarianisation of Afrikan labour having first used land-grabs, taxation and other oppressive machinery against Afrikan males to drive them from ‘traditional’ productive activity on their land? Where exactly in his output did Walter Rodney exclude this ‘historically necessary’ mode of racist industrialising extractivism? Afrikan workers, that strawman Rodney is falsely said by Chukwudinma to have excluded from his history of colonialism in Afrika, were the key social force in the self-liberation process.
Furthermore Rodney recognised that apartheid intensified the processes of proletarianisation and urbanisation that – together with ‘hostelisation’ – produced the South Afrikan proletariat that is still super-oppressed and super-exploited at the hand of the ‘economically empowered’ neo-colonial class-fraction. South Afrika did aid and abet its neighbour and near satellite, Rhodesia, during the latter’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) when the Smith regime engaged in some sanctions-busting ‘autarkic industrialisation’. In others words, certain British ex-colonies (South Africa/UDI Rhodesia) in particular circumstances had specific kinds of ‘industrialisation’. Nowhere in his work does Rodney imply the non-actuality of this occurrence.
Even in the Afrikan colonies where British colonialism followed Rodney’s documented course of anti-industrialisation almost to the letter, small Afrikan colonial proletariats emerged in the contexts of transport systems, mining and the like.
Rodney, dependency theory and neo-colonialism
Chukwudinma’s attribution to Rodney of views said to belong to ‘dependency theory’ is, to say the least, problematic. Thus:
He [Rodney] believed that underdevelopment would continue even after Africa[n] nations achieved their independence. Rodney, like other dependency theorists, called upon intellectuals to break with capitalism and adopt state-directed socialist planned economies.
However, Rodney’s solution proved unrealistic as African attempts to mirror the Soviet Union’s model of self-reliant development ended in failure by the early 1980s.
These remarks necessarily flow from Chukwudinma’s poor knowledge of neo-colonialism. Regrettably, it is a concept also known in too limited a manner by too many European thinkers, especially ‘Marxist’ left sectarians. A significant part of Rodney’s praxis involved both making a contribution – alongside the likes of Nkrumah, Fanon, Nabudare and Samir Amin – to that concept’s theoretical development and engaging in serious practical, revolutionary opposition to the class-fraction running neo-colonialism directly against the interest of the Afrikan masses and shamelessly on behalf of capitalism-imperialism. Rodney stands in the tradition of theorists on Afrika who did not merely accept top-down state-directed socialism but who offered a critique and resistance to new African ruling class. Readers wishing to grasp Walter Rodney’s approach to the disastrously failing efforts of the Afrikan neo-colonial leadership class-fraction will do well to read his paper written for the 1974 Sixth Pan-Afrikan Congress, which confounds Chukwudinma’s quite misleading remarks.
Rarely were attempts at development in Afrika based on the Soviet model. Nor were there any Cuba’s amongst the Afrikan neo-colonies. Cuba itself broke from the neo-colonial condition imposed on it by the USA, with its late-1950s revolution. Ghana certainly did not make any serious attempt to use the Soviet or Cuban models: much of Nkrumah’s advice came from Nicolas Kallog and Thomas Balogh (who also advised the 1960s British Labour Party); and from Sir Arthur Lewis, whose developmental model focused on the proportion of a social formation’s gross national product that had to be under the control of the state in order to achieve ‘take off.’
Chukwudinma makes a meal of neo-colonial Algeria’s attempt at ‘industrialisation’, using this as another counterexample against his strawman Rodney’s claim that imperialism prevented neo-colonial industrialisation. The Algerian economic instance proves nothing against Rodney. ‘Oil wealth’ offered a certain promise that neo-colonies have sought to use developmentally in myriad ways, with varying and limited degrees of success. The fall in oil and gas prices, mentioned by Chukwudinma, was but one of many obstacles faced.
Colonial exploitation of the Afrikan peasantry
Chukwudzinma is careless when he treats the dishonest purchasing practices of the colonial merchant stratum as more important than the colonial state marketing boards which he does not trouble to mention when he remarks:
The peasant/merchant relationship is different because it’s that of seller and buyer. The merchant may well cheat the peasant by buying the crops at a low price but this nonetheless represents a transfer of already produced value, which the peasantry created by employing their own labour power.
Chukwudzinma is uncomprehending of how Afrikan peasant family labour fails to show up in the market prices of commodities but is nonetheless super-exploited. The same is true regarding the place of the ‘agro-proletariat’ in the labour market in both Afrika and the Caribbean.
Chukwudinma’s Assault on Walter Rodney’s Marxist Political-Economy
This turns on Chukwudinma discovery of a ‘crucial point where Rodney’s African nationalism overshadowed his Marxism’ enabling the astonishing, anti-Rodney, non-Marxist conclusion that ’Africa’s problem was not the hyper-exploitation of African labour but rather the relatively small importance imperialism gave to African labour.’ This confronts Walter on issues central to Marxist political-economy and precisely – along with the historiography of Afrika, Guyana and the Russian Revolution – the terrain of Rodney’s profound expertise.
Is there really just one ‘Marxism’ that knows ‘African nationalism’ to be a unitary political-ideological position with a supposed anti-proletarian class content, to which that ‘Marxism’ knows itself to be ever and always superior? This sails inseparably close to an insulting lack of awareness that there are serious Black/Afrikan Marxists – Walter Rodney was one – working to continue the development of Marxism through Revolutionary Pan-Afrikanism and vice versa in a manner parallel to work being conducted on and within Marxism by serious feminists.
There is an objective crisis now engulfing Marxism that undermines its position founded on a class analysis-based awareness of its own superiority over all other positions and certainly to ‘Afrikan nationalism’. Awareness of this crisis and of the work of Afrikans such as Rodney would produce both greater humility and generate the need urgently to be participants in the search for the well-theorised practical revolutionary successes now in such disturbingly short supply in the international class struggle.
Revolutionary Pan-Afrikanism is itself a doubly challenged victim in praxis; both because its best thinkers have drawn exhaustively upon Marxism, and because revolutionary Pan-Afrikanism is subject to a related crisis of its own. The very forces of capitalism-imperialism that now claim a ‘victory’ over socialism in the international class struggle have imposed neo-colonialism on the Afrikan masses. In addition, these forces have deepened oppression and exploitation that characterise the conditions of existence for Afrikans living in the metropoles after two decades of spectacular Afrikan mass struggle. The neo-colonial outcome has been brought about in the aftermath of the apparent victory of the Afrikan anti-colonial – sometimes armed – ‘revolution’. There is justification in neither Marxism nor in any of the several ‘Marxisms’ of the left sectarian parties/tendencies/groups that populate both the West and the ‘Third World’ for a superior attitude to ‘African nationalism’ that imbues Chukwudinma’s post.
What the perhaps unwary or ill-informed could mistake for an effective critique of Walter Rodney directed at one of his two areas of particular expertise, namely Marxist political-economy, is in fact again directed at Chukwudinma’s own strawman, at his figmental ‘Rodney’ construct:
The crucial point where Rodney’s African nationalism overshadowed his Marxism was in his belief that European workers materially benefit from the colonial exploitation of African workers and peasants … that African workers and peasant were exploited at higher rates than their European counterparts. The low wages paid to African workers guaranteed that higher amounts of surplus value was (sic) extracted from their labour, as Rodney wrote in HEUA: “A Scottish or German coalminer who could earn virtually in an hour what an Enugu miner was paid for a six day week.” For Rodney, the Western ruling class could use part of the enormous surplus extracted from African toilers to offer European workers material benefits in the form of increased wages, welfare reform and better working conditions. It could thus bribe the European proletariat and deter them from initiating revolutions. Rodney concludes that colonialism was in the interest of all classes in the West and white workers were natural allies of the capitalist class in their support for the racist colonial project. …“So long as African workers remain colonised, they had to think of themselves firstly as African workers, rather than members of an international proletariat. This was entirely in accordance with the reality.”
At issue here are undoubtedly important matters: the comparative levels and modes of labour and resource exploitation as between workers, resources and territories in the imperialist West and those in the ‘Third World’ (Afrika particularly); the political-ideological impact and effects of all this; the question of whether and to what extent the European/Metropolitan working classes benefited from and were politically-ideologically ‘bought off’ by their ruling class?
How, other than by engaging actively in struggle against imperialism in its racist-colonial manifestation could colonised Afrikan workers and peasants have concretely expressed their membership of the ‘international proletariat?’ Where in his work does Walter Rodney ever say that ‘white workers’ were the ‘natural allies of the capitalist class?’ And, should he have, he would have been incorrect!
Brutal colonising, enslaving, pillage and other gruesome practices of external primary/primitive accumulation created and enforced the conditions on which all classes within the Western capitalist metropoles were socio-economically elevated and this was later maintained. The benefits themselves were experienced at every socially defined level from monarchy to the chimney-sweep. Rodney drew attention to some of the relevant source-literature via ‘further reading’ entries.
Those at the bottom of the UK social formation who did not venture to the further reaches of empire but remained at home in their ‘place’ also benefited from that empire. This is neither to imply nor to say there was no gruesome poverty in the metropoles. However, members of the working class obtained employment in the factories that ‘added value’ to the raw materials lifted from the colonies. They made the manufactures sold in those protected markets of empire and the like. They manned the docks. They peopled all the structures that made the distributive department of the capitalist economy theorised by Karl Marx. They were sometimes famously progressive, as in the instance of Lancashire cotton workers of the 1860s and sometimes they supported the ideas or personnel of the likes of Sir Oswald Mosley and Enoch Powell. They ripped jobs – and sometimes lives – from Afrikan fellow workers in the seaport towns in 1920s and 1930s Great Britain. They engaged in ‘race riots’ and the like after both World Wars I and II in which Afrikans sometimes lost lives. A currently ‘militant’ trade union formation, the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), in Britain has racist conduct of some of these specific and particular kinds in its 1920s and 1930s past.
Commitment to serious proletarian class politics and to the interest of the White and Afrikan/Black working class and peasantry has to allow an opening towards the integrating of these class- and race-historical truths into proletarian history and is a necessary part of enriching Marxism where class, race and gender are awarded their correct place. There is no basis of flirting with the romanticisation of the proletariat whether of Afrika or the metropoles and denial that the European working class received real benefits from their location at the centre of colonial and neo-colonial imperialism is one type of dangerous illusion.
Another important facet factor involves the troubled relationship between industrial and finance capital and is clearly visible in the instance of the United Kingdom in recent decades. The British working class lost out as British finance capital (The City) largely shunned investment in domestic manufacturing industry in the process lowering employment and wage levels nationally. As a consequence, the massive returns from British direct overseas capital investment and other finance-capitalist operations are precisely what corrected that ‘trade-gap’ and kept the UK economy viable, thus preserving the relatively high conditions of existence enjoyed by all classes in the UK, including the classes exploited in the middle and at the bottom. Little of this important and as yet un-ended story surfaces in any substantive manner in Martin Legassick, Chris Harman or Alex Callinicos as reported in Chukwudinma’s blog.
Chukwudinma points to the problem of whether and how the undeniable benefits of imperialist exploitation are distributed in the metropoles. Were these benefits received by parts of the working class? Did they succeed in ‘buying off’ of particular fractions of that class creating a counter-revolutionary ‘labour aristocracy’, as Rodney (and Lenin) writes? Finally, to what extent has this process played in the historically largely absent working class revolutionary movements in the heartlands of capitalism-imperialism? Clearly complex matters!
Summarising swathes of twentieth century history, for reasons of space, it is clear that whenever the system declared itself under threat the ruling classes in the metropoles used violent methods – they mobilised middle class ‘gang’ formations, military means and fascism – to defeat the working class. These processes involved much more than any ‘bought off’ section of workers alone.
On the related matter of comparing productivity levels, of wage disparities and comparative scales of super-/exploitation between African miners in South Afrika and those similarly employed in say Australia or metropolitan Scotland more needs to be said. Can this differential be addressed solely as a function of the racist dimension of capitalist-imperialist exploitation? Rodney did not say that this racist dimension could be identified as the sole determining factor.
Walter Rodney laid out in HEUA a Marxist political-economy-derived analysis of the main mechanisms of imperialist exploitation of Afrika, principal amongst which is capitalist foreign direct investment (FDI). He wrote:
More far-reaching than just trade is the actual ownership of the means of production in one country by the citizens of another. When citizens of Europe own the land and the mines of Africa, this is the most direct way of sucking the African continent. Under colonialism the ownership was complete and backed by military domination. Today in many African countries the foreign ownership is still present although the armies and the flags of the foreign powers have been removed. So long as foreigners own land, mines, factories, banks, insurance companies, means of transportation, newspapers, power stations, etc then for so long will the wealth of Africa flow outwards into the hands of those elements. In other words, in the absence of direct political control, foreign investment ensures that the natural resources and labour of Africa produce economic value which is lost to the continent.
Not only does Chukwudinma reveal himself as unaware of and/or confused about Rodney’s valid Marxist conceptual apparatus, but he also presents Martin Legassick’s views against Rodney as if their strength is such as necessarily to close the argument in Legassick’s favour. In fact the latter’s profound seeming reference to the ‘constant transformation of productive forces’ is actually too abstract to impart or clarify very much at all. Recourse is also had by Chukwudinma to a conclusion that relies wholly on, uncritically used World Bank (WB) and International Labour Organisation (ILO)-derived data.
Those, like Rodney, familiar with Karl Marx’s work are aware that the latter theorised the issue of labour productivity in terms of how living labour (as waged labour power, but also possibly peasant labour) and dead/accumulated labour (capital) combine in the labour-process of production. Naturally, and of course under certain circumstances, capitalist productive forces are in transformation.
That Chukwudinma is content to explain key disparities in social conditions, economic accumulation and conditions of existence between workers in the metropoles and Afrika primarily in terms of the amounts of capitalist FDI is alarmingly indicated in his far-reaching, wholly Eurocentric and erroneous conclusion that: ‘Africa’s problem was not the hyper-exploitation of African labour but rather the relatively small importance imperialism gave to African labour.’
That conclusion is truly extraordinary, and it cannot be understood other than as a crystallisation of ‘Marxist’, left-sectarian Eurocentrism. Claiming the relatively limited delivery of FDI to Afrika as the presumed cause of Afrika’s ‘underdevelopment’ amounts to nothing less than a denial of Afrikan labour (peasant and worker) and resource super-exploitation under neo-colonialism. The story of the scale of capitalist exploitation from Afrika in the multiple forms of profits paid out as dividends, as profits held as accumulated cash-capital, locked up in company and resource values, and in myriad other forms does not make its way into Chukwudinma’s account. He appears to have no conception of the extent to which the even comparatively small alleged flow of FDI into Afrika is not original capital investment at all, but the re-investment of a minuscule portion of previously extracted capital, grown at compound interest. This is an issue informatively explored by Arghiri Emmanuel as long ago as the early 1970s when the focus was on the late 19th– early 20th century period and where the views of such pivotal figures as Hobson and Lenin were the object of analysis.
Chukwudinma does not engage with the issue of why the combination in production of living labour (labour power) and accumulated/dead labour (capital) in Afrika involves so little capital input without diminishing the monumental scale and profitability of the resulting extractive output from that process. No attention is paid to what dictates the allegedly all-important ‘productive forces’ not needing to be in ‘constant transformation’ when set in motion in Afrika. Nor does he engage with such matters as labour-intensive deep mining vs open cast capital-intensive forms. Also ignored are the objective difference between direct foreign capitalist investment into Afrikan (and perhaps other) neo-colonies and the exchange of manufacturing investment and commercial capitals between the metropolitan centres. Some of the latter is nothing more than the storage of capital for tax-avoidances purposes in advantageous locations.
Nor does Chukwudzinma engage with the nature of capitalist motivation in the re-/location of industrial production to say China/East Asian ‘Tigers’ as opposed to Afrika. The nature of the neo-colonial handling of taxation policies and amortisation practices in Afrika, as Rodney argued powerfully, has the effect of almost immediately (within as little as two to three years) transforming FDI into the mechanism of protracted and massive extractive super-exploitation. In other words, the persistence of the colonial machinery of exploitation in combination with deadly neo-colonial ones objectively operate to produce an outcome in which not only is no actual capital transferred to Afrika but allegedly beneficial FDI is, on the contrary, precisely the major and essential mechanism that enables super-exploitation of Afrikan neo-colonies to take place.
While Chukwudinma’s blogpost ignored this and arrives at conclusions in contradiction to it, fortunately others are seeking a more objective understanding of the relationship between neo-colonial Afrika and the system of capitalism-imperialism. They are contesting politically and legally imperialism’s practices of super-exploitation conducted in combination with massive environmental degradation, assaults of the health of Afrikans while outright murder is resorted to as something of a terrorising practice and not an option exercised in extremis.
Oversights and errors within Chikwudinma’s ‘analysis’ underpin his conclusion that are the direct opposite of objective reality. Capitalism-imperialism manages its operation of super-exploitation in Afrika through precisely the combination of surviving colonial and neo-colonial mechanisms of exploitation that Walter Rodney identified and discussed. A key achievement of Walter Rodney lay precisely in the quality of his analysis of the modalities by which since the late 19th century metropolitan capitalist exploitation of Africa has depended on the extraction of capital from the latter via the mechanism of exploitation that foreign direct capitalist investment primarily is.
Few historians or political economists have an understanding of these matters that matches Walter Rodney’s. That and the other seriously revolutionary facets of his praxis explain why his life was ripped from him so soon, and why Chukwudinma’s baseless assault on Rodney’s political-intellectual achievement borders on the politically deplorable!
Cecil Gutzmore, formerly a lecturer at the University of West Indies, is a political activist, researcher, writer and pan-Afrikanist.
 See E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution (Abacus, 1988); Walton Look Lai, Indentured Labour, Caribbean Sugar: Chinese and Indian Migrant to the British West Indies 1838-1918 (John Hopkins UP, 2004); S. Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India, (Hurst, 2018); J. Wilson, India Conquered: the British Raj and the Chaos of Empire (Simon and Schuster, 2017).
 See R. Frucht, ‘A Caribbean Social Type: Neither “Peasant” nor ‘Proletarian”’ in Social and Economic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 3 September 1967, pp. 295-300
 W. Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (Tanzania Publishing House and Bogle L’Ouverture, 1972) pp. 362-3
 W. Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa p. 27
 See H. Moody (ed) The Keys. ‘Britain’s Coloured Seamen’ by Chris Jones , Vol. V July-September 1937, p. 17; in much greater detail see The Key’s Vol.3 No. 2 Oct- December 1935, pp. 15 -24
 A. Emmanuel, ‘White-settler Colonialism and the Myth of Investment Imperialism’, New Left Review, Vol. 1 No. 73, May-June 1972, 35-57. This piece by Emmanuel is itself problematic in that it’s reading of white settler colonialism is as questionable as is its approach to neo-colonialism.
 Readers should read the campaigning – including legal campaigning – work of Foil Vedenta that embraces several Afrikan neo-colonies as well as the Indian sub-continental territories and War on Want’s The New Colonialism: Britain’s scramble for Africa’s energy and mineral resources (2016).