Towards a Full Understanding of Walter Rodney – A reply to Andy Higginbottom
Discussing the extraordinary work of the Guyanese activist and historian Walter Rodney, Chinedu Chukwudinma describes how Rodney’s work remains a priceless weapon of theory and history that restores the dignity of African people. However, this blogpost takes issue with Andy Higginbottom’s review of Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa on roape.net and argues that Rodney’s version of dependency theory presents a flawed analysis of imperialism.
By Chinedu Chukwudinma
Andy Higginbottom has written a brilliant, and engaging review of Walter Rodney’s masterpiece How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. He describes how Rodney challenged the intellectuals and institutions that trivialised the disastrous impact of capitalism on Africa such as historian John D Fage and J.K Fieldhouse. I agree with Higginbottom’s argument that Rodney sets the record straight on historiographical debates concerning the destructive impact of the slave trade and the material benefits of colonialism for the European ruling class.
Rodney uses Karl Marx’s historical materialism to demonstrate that African society had a vibrant and independent process of development before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. He argued that the slave trade and colonialism thwarted this development by first kidnapping African labour and later exploiting it to extract raw materials. This theft of wealth not only impoverished Africa but also played a crucial role in Europe’s industrial development.
Even today, there is still a need to refute the bourgeois narratives that treats African underdevelopment as an intrinsic feature of Africa and its people. One must look at when the former French President Nicholas Sarkozy addressed a Senegalese audience in Dakar in 2007 and declared: ‘The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history.’ His position was that for centuries the African peasant lived an idyllic life isolated from adventure and progress. Against this racism, Rodney’s work is a priceless weapon of theory and history that restores the dignity of African people and highlights the weight and significance of their contribution to history.
This blogpost focuses on the debate that Andy Higginbottom described as ‘the intersection of race and class, the position of the African working poor and the nature of their exploitation under the European colonial regimes’ (see Higginbottom’s original blogpost here). This discussion is also crucial for understanding how imperialism continues to damage Africa after colonialism. I take issue with Higginbottom’s embrace of Rodney’s version of dependency theory and argue that the theory presents a flawed analysis of imperialism. I also defend the work of Marxist Martin Legassick, who Higginbottom dismissed as Eurocentric, and argue he was right to point out that Rodney was wrong to claim that African workers were more exploited European ones.
What’s wrong with dependency theory
In the 1960s, dependency theory emerged as the dominant left-wing explanation for the failure of many Third World nations to develop industries. Its leading proponents Andre Gunder Frank and Paul Baran held that rich countries in the north amassed capital by exploiting and transferring the resources of the Global South. They saw development in the centre and underdevelopment in the periphery as opposite sides of the same coin. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HUEA), Walter Rodney adopted dependency theory’s central idea that imperialism condemned 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 industrialists.’  He believed that underdevelopment would continue even after Africa nations achieved their independence. Rodney like other dependency theorists called on 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. In the case of Algeria, after 1965 dictator Houari Boumediene nationalised hydrocarbon companies and redirected oil and gas exports to build local industries such as car, steel and electricity plants. But the global recession of the 1980s led to the decline of Algerian export-revenues and hampered Boumediene’s state led-development forcing his successor to open Algeria to free trade.
In 2003 Chris Harman contended that dependency theory relies on the mistaken assumption that Western states are always interested in preventing industrialisation in their colonies. The case of the British colony of Hong Kong, which through the production of manufactured products for export from the 1960s demonstrates Harman’s point. South Africa remained a notable exception that contradicts Rodney’s views that British colonialism always stifled industrialisation and failed to create a powerful working class. The emergence of industry in South Africa created one of the strongest labour movements in the world that was key to the defeated of apartheid.
Rodney’s concession to Africa nationalism
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. Rodney argued that under colonialism the 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 extracted from their labour, as Rodney wrote in HEUA: ‘A Scottish or German coalminer who could virtually earn in an hour what the Enugu miner was paid for a six-day week.’ For Rodney, the Western ruling class could use part of the enormous surplus value extracted from African toilers to offer European workers material benefits in the form of increased wages, welfare reforms 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.
Rodney may have been right to celebrate the key role played by Ahmed Sékou Touré in the establishment of independent trade unions in Guinea as a break from the pro-colonial patronage of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). But he overplays his hand when declaring that the move was justified because the main conflict was between the colonised and the colonising nation: ‘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.’ The danger of Rodney’s version of Africa nationalism was proven by the fact that Sékou Touré crushed independent working-class organisations in Guinea following independence.
The condition of the peasantry
Rodney’s belief that independent peasants constituted an exploited class is also erroneous. The relationship between the wage earner and the capitalist is by no means the same as between the peasant and the merchant capitalist. The wages that the capitalist pays to workers represents the amount of value they created for their own reproduction of labour-power in the working day. The capitalist then uses the worker’s labour-power for free to produce extra or surplus value during the remaining part of that day. The peasant does not sell her labour-power to the capitalist and therefore the extraction of extra value is completely absent from the scenario. 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.
However, Rodney was absolutely right to show how peasants suffered at the hand of trading companies who offered miserable prices, imposed colonial taxation and crippling debt. Yet, these horrors relate to the oppression of the peasantry not their exploitation and Rodney confuses these notions (which have very different meanings in Marx’s political economy).
Imperialism and the exploitation of Africa workers
Rodney was wrong to argue that European workers do not have an interest in fighting colonialism and racism because they benefit from imperialism. His argument takes inspiration from the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s theory of the ‘labour aristocracy’, which located reformism in the economic interest of a very small section of well-off workers. The bourgeoisie bribed these workers with extra profits of imperialism obtained ‘over and above’ those taken from workers at home. He also draws from dependency theorists who claimed that workers in the Third World are the source of the West’s wealth because they increasingly bore the burden of most of the worlds’ exploitation. This explains why Rodney came to the formulation that all people of the Global North receive material benefits from the extraction of wealth created by toilers in the Global South.
However, both theories were mistaken. Rodney failed to appreciate that imperialism had not always elevated the standards of the Western working class. On the contrary the economic competition between capitals protected by their national state provoked two world wars in the 20th century. The misery of the First World War was ended by the biggest wave of workers’ revolution in Europe. Lenin’s theory disregarded the fact that skilled metal workers—so-called ‘labour aristocrats’—formed the vanguard that led these upheavals from Petrograd to Glasgow in this period of revolutionary struggle. The cause of reformism was not the higher living standards of a section of workers but was found within the contradictory consciousness of the working class, wavering between acceptance of capitalist ideology and collective action against exploitation.
Rodney focuses on the difference in wage levels between African and European workers to prove that the former was more exploited for the benefit of the latter. However, a real understanding of who is more exploited cannot be achieved by comparing income figures. As the radical theorist Alex Callinicos explains Marx’s theory of exploitation examines the ‘relationship between the wages that workers receive representing the value of their labour power and the amounts of surplus value they produced for their employers.’ If a high-income Scottish miner creates, relative to his earnings, a larger amount of surplus value than his lower paid Nigerian counterpart, he’s more exploited.
The first reason why Rodney’s argument does not hold true, even when using comparable categories, is because he fails to account for the differentials in productivity. The higher wages for Western workers reflects their higher productivity and they have a greater cost for their reproduction than African workers. Western workers therefore tend to be more exploited because their larger output (or productivity) means that their capitalist employers extract more surplus value. Along those lines, Martin Legassick’s criticism of Rodney stressed that capitalist accumulation was not simply a transfer of surpluses from Africa to Europe. On the contrary, it relies on the constant transformation of productive forces, which enhances Western workers’ productivity, wages and their exploitation. This contention has nothing to with a Eurocentric analysis or a one-sided reading of Marx, as Higginbottom suggested.
Secondly, Rodney’s affirmation that African workers are more exploited than Western ones does not match the patterns of capital investment between rich and poor countries. The World Bank figures showed that two-thirds of all Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) went to developed countries of North America, Europe and Japan between 1965 and 1983. The remaining third went to a small number of industrialising countries of East Asia and Latin America such as South Korea and Brazil. These figures indicated that the Western capitalist class sought higher profits by investing in their own advanced economies where workers were skilled and productive. Africa had through colonialism and after independence figured as a marginal recipient of FDI and this condition worsened in the aftermath of the global crisis in the late 1970s. In 1995, for example, FDI to Africa amounted to a mere US$55 billion whilst FDI flows to developed countries stood at US$2047 billion. In that same year the International Labour Organisation figures for African employment stated the Africa workers accounted for just five per cent of the world’s 270 million workers. Africa’s problem was not the hyper-exploitation of African labour but rather the relatively small importance imperialism gave to African labour.
In the 21st century, Rodney’s understanding that imperialism prevents industrialisation in the Global South appears to be obsolete as larger amounts of foreign direct investment are being poured into Africa than ever before in the context of intensified imperialist competition between the United States and China. Although war, lack of infrastructure and de-industrialisation remain present on the continent as the legacy of colonialism and structural adjustment programmes, there’s another side to story. Africa has also experienced the growth of new urban centres, ports, infrastructure and jobs. These developments suggest that the capitalist class continues to create their antithesis in the form of an expanding working class.
Contrary to what Rodney argued in his 1972 book, the workers movement in Africa has the same interest in breaking with capitalism as their comrades in the West. In recent months, Algerian revolutionaries expressed their vocal support for the gilets jaunes (‘yellow vest’) movement against the government of the French president Emmanuel Macron. In turn, Algerian flags emerged on the Paris protests hence opening up the possibility for real international workers solidarity.
Chinedu Chukwudinma is a socialist activist and writer based in London. He writes on African politics, popular struggles and the history of working class resistance on the continent.
Featured Photograph: ‘Walter Rodney Papers’ at the Robert W. Woodruff Library Archive, Atlanta University Center.
 Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Dakar, Codesria, 2012, p. 217
 See Walter Rodney, 2012, p.150
 Legassick, Martin (1976) ‘Perspectives on African “Underdevelopment”’ The Journal of African History, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 437