Walter Rodney (March 23, 1942 to June 13, 1980) was a prominent Guyanese historian and political activist. Rodney’s most influential book was How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, published in 1972.
In it he described an Africa that had been consciously exploited by European imperialists, leading directly to the modern underdevelopment of most of the continent. The book became enormously influential as well as controversial.
Later years and Assassination
In 1974 Rodney returned to Guyana from Tanzania he was due to take a position as a professor at the University of Guyana however the Guyanese government prevented his appointment. He became increasingly active in politics, forming the Working People’s Alliance against the PNC government. In 1979 he was arrested and charged with arson after two government offices were burned.
In 1980, Rodney was killed by a bomb in his car while running for office in Guyanese elections. Rodney was survived by his wife, Pat, and three children. Walter’s brother, Donald, who was injured in the explosion, said that a sergeant in the Guyana Defence Force named Gregory Smith had planted the bomb that killed Rodney. Smith fled to French Guiana after the killing, where he died in 2002.
The book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, is now available online.
In this book Rodney presented a new way of thinking about Africa’s so-called “underdevelopment.” The question was “why are some areas of the world rich and others poor?” There have been reasons why many people are taught this—the common belief is that successful countries had better inventions, more adventurous explorers, greater natural resources, geographical advantages, better climate, less corruption, or just good fortune.
The implication was that the western nations mostly deserved their status as did the less successful ones. Africa’s underdevelopment was thus to a large extent Africa’s fault. Of course, a generous impulse might lead us to help those less fortunate to develop and share the goods of the world, maybe not to achieve full equality, but at least enough to meet their minimal needs.
Rodney challenges that entire view. He describes an Africa that is more developed than Europe in many ways except military conquest. When Europe fails to compete on even terms with Africa and Asia it turns to war and colonization to take by force what it cannot achieve through fair trade. Africa is then consciously exploited by European imperialists, leading directly to the modern underdevelopment of most of the continent. Thus, “underdeveloped” is an active verb, with an agent who does the underdeveloping; it’s not just a descriptive adjective.
Rodney’s thesis was highly influential. James M. Blaut’s works, The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History (Guilford, 1993) and 1492: The Debate on Colonialism, Eurocentrism, and History (Africa Research & Publications, 1993) extends the basic thesis, with more detailed economic analyses.
Other writers have criticized aspects of Rodney’s work, but the general idea seems even more salient in an era of neocolonialism. For example, Haiti today struggles under a crushing external debt. Nearly half of that was incurred under the Duvaliers, puppet dictators of the US. The Duvaliers stole the resources of the Haitian people, then assumed debts that oppress their children and grandchildren. Debt service, a burden essentially imposed by the US, makes economic growth nearly impossible. Yet commonplace accounts would say that “they” (the Haitian people) can’t manage finances, don’t know how to protect their natural resources, have a corrupt economy, lack creativity or initiative, or otherwise are to blame for their fate.
For many countries in Africa, for Haiti, and for other colonized areas, the forcible appropriating of indigenous human and natural resources means underdeveloping those areas. When we turn “underdevelop” into a past participle, “underdeveloped,” we make it easy to forget how that happened. Rodney puts it this way:
The question as to who, and what, is responsible for African underdevelopment can be answered at two levels. Firstly, 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. Secondly, one has to deal with those who manipulated 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 the 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.
Rodney’s account of Africa, written 37 years ago, is still relevant for Africa today. But it extends to other international regions and even to communities within so-called “developed” countries. When we see, and label, communities as underdeveloped, low-resource, impoverished, disadvantaged, economically depressed, troubled, or marginalized, we follow the lead of the 1965 Moynihan report, which described a “tangle of pathology,” locating problems within the community with causes in the distant past.
We should ask not only how these communities compare to privileged ones, or even what useful things we might do to help them. We need to look first at the structures and mechanisms of power that caused these conditions in the first place, and now, continue to maintain them. This means turning from the conceit that underdevelopment just happens, that an appropriate and full response is to “give” to those less fortunate. It requires collaborative struggle in which all participants are willing to examine the roots of oppression and to engage in the practice of freedom..
Rodney traveled every corner of Africa with many of his activities being financed by leader Muammar Gaddafi who was assassinated by similar imperialist powers that were behind Rodney’s death.