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TRANSCRIPT: The roots and consequences of African underdevelopment, Walter Rodney, 1979

Originally published: Black Agenda Report on May 31, 2023 by Editors, The Black Agenda Review (more by Black Agenda Report)  | (Posted Jun 05, 2023)

From May 10 to 12, 1979, the Center for Afro-American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (CAAS) hosted a symposium titled The Political Economy of the Black World. The symposium was organized by CAAS director and linguistic anthropologist Claudia Mitchell-Kernan with political scientist and CAAS associate faculty member Pierre-Michel Fontaine. It was an important if somehow forgotten intervention into the still-developing discipline of Black Studies, demonstrating the politically urgent energies and theoretically rigorous approaches of the nascent discipline, while showcasing the vibrancy of CAAS under Mitchell-Kernan’s direction.

Over two long days audience members heard from a quite remarkable congregation of historians, anthropologists, political scientists, and economists, their presentations roaming across the United States, Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Central America, and southern Africa. In addition to Mitchell-Kernan and Fountaine, presenters included Robert S. Browne, founder of the Black Economic Research Center and the Review of Black Political Economy, Brazilian activist and scholar Lélia Gonzalez, Cuban critic Lourdes Casal, plantation theorist George Beckford, Panamanian sociologist Roy Simon Bryce-Laporte, and African American political scientists Linda Faye Williams and Marguerite Ross Barnett. St. Clair Drake gave a stunning closing address that took in five hundred years of Black history.

Walter Rodney was one of the presenters at the symposium. He gave a short, thoughtful talk on the Roots and Consequences of African Underdevelopment. Rodney’s talk built on his classic study How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, musing on how theories of underdevelopment had developed, as it were, over the recent past, especially when it came to understanding the core-periphery metaphor and the nature of classes in Africa.

It was Rodney’s second visit to Los Angeles and to UCLA. It would also be his last. After returning to Guyana that summer, he was charged with arson and arrested by the Forbes Burnham government. A year later, on 13 June 1980, Rodney was assassinated in Georgetown.

Memorial services for Rodney were held in Los Angeles and a symposium in his honor was hosted at UCLA in January, 1981. The proceedings from the symposium by CAAS as Walter Rodney: Revolutionary and Scholar a Tribute, edited by Pierre-Michel Fontaine and historian Edward “Ned” Alpers. In honor of Walter Rodney, and to mark the great work of CAAS and its director Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, we reproduce the transcript of Rodney’s 1979 talk at UCLA below.

The Roots and Consequences of African Underdevelopment

Dr. Walter Rodney

[I would like] to orient my remarks in a way that encompasses [the previous papers], but unfortunately the date is so different, and perhaps the frames of references we have to use are so different, that I must simply see mine as a third and different component looking at the African world, looking at the African environment itself, and concentrate in the time at our disposal on a resume of where we stand in terms of the literature, the analysis, and the efforts which have been made around the aspects of development that record here the roots and consequences of African economic development.

To begin with, a very brief account of the state of the literature. I would suggest that there were two principal phases. The first, in which the parameters of the discussion of African underdevelopment held to the theories which are well-known relating to the development of Africa, the proposition that colonialism had to some measure developed Africa and that Africa so long as it remained within the framework of international capital had a potential for development and/or modernization as it was called. I don’t feel that there is any need to elaborate on that early phase, because it has passed from the scene quite rapidly. It has been exposed as ahistorical, as mechanical and static. One of the ways is measuring and confirming how rapidly this position has passed is to notice that many scholars who at one time had one foot–or perhaps both feet–firmly planted in the camp of modernization have themselves made the transition towards the new parameters of underdevelopment and dependency. I am unaware of any scholars who have taken the backward leap from looking at dependency and underdevelopment, imagining somehow that there is a development potential within the international capitalist system as far as Africa is concerned.

So while it may be true that there are still exemplars of the old order, and while undoubtedly the institutions in this country and elsewhere may be unduly heavily represented by the exemplars of the old order, I think that it is still reasonable to say that at this stage it is really not worth the effort to make the basic argument to suggest that Africa was being underdeveloped, that what we find in Africa is underdevelopment rather than development. I fear that if there are those amongst us who like to hear that argument we will have to find another context. I myself have forgotten how to make that argument, it seems a while since I have had to deal with that.

Instead, we may look at the second phase, which is the phase in which persons of varying ideological persuasions, although Marxists are in the majority, or sometimes those who are called New Marxists, persons of varying ideological persuasions, have said by and large we accept that Africa and a number of other so-called Third World countries were locked within the international capitalist system in such a way that what was created was a continual process of domination, dependency, and growing inequality, each one reinforcing the other. That would be generally accepted by a large number of scholars and then they would proceed to engage in a series of debates within this camp, sometimes quite violent debates, which might suggest that they are fundamentally opposing positions.

Essentially, the new arguments have a great deal to do with the way in which dependency should be precisely defined, admitting at the very beginning the use of the term was and probably still is fairly loose, and there is no real agreement on making it precise. And more than that, the precision may vary from continent to continent, from example to example, as we begin to enrich our understanding of the various empirical situations.

Beyond the definition of problems a number of scholars in Latin America, as well as in Africa, have been concerned with the extent to which this dependency paradigm is first of all historical, but secondly of value for predictive purposes or for further analytical purposes in resolving the actual problem of contemporary underdeveloped states, because there is to some extent a weakness built into the scholarship in which even though many of us have sought to transcend the original descriptive elements of underdevelopment, it probably still remains true that some of the descriptions that remains implicit in the very terminology which is employed, a term such as underdevelopment, for example, is probably best substituted by dependent development, so that one understands that it does encompass a certain movement, that it is part of the development of capitalism on a world scale, although the development has very specific characteristics within which we can locate what has previously and what is still called underdevelopment.

More important, and more contemporary, are the disagreements that have to do with trying to determine whether within underdevelopment we should place the emphasis on functions related to trade, or functions related to production. A great deal of the debate about unequal trade, unequal exchange, for instance, is placed within this framework. And to go further, particularly in certain circles, where left-wing scholars sit to discuss and to critique the works of others who have tried to put forward some general formulations, it is queried whether it is even useful to maintain the now-commonplace distinction between the periphery and the core, the metropole and the colonial or neo-colonial peripheral zone.

A further area of continuing discussion is the significance to be attached to the emergence of class forces on the African continent, to what extent do these class forces and their emergence make a difference to understanding not merely of the state of underdevelopment, but more important the direction of change on the African continent. I would like to concentrate attention on really only two of these questions, though I believe that they are interrelated, questions concerning whether or not it is still valid and useful to maintain the distinction between periphery and core, and secondly what evaluation should be placed on the emergence of class forces in Africa today.

In the first instance, the critique of what I may loosely call the theory of the center-periphery, or core-periphery, seems to me to be ill-directed. Undoubtedly there are weaknesses in establishing a very static framework between center and periphery, but I doubt whether any of the main contributors to the understanding of modern underdevelopment have really ever said that there is a single core and a single periphery. I believe that there has always been a sense in which persons had to conceptualize, and have had to move to a greater degree of abstraction than is the reality. The reality being that there are peripheries and peripheries, there is a hierarchy within the periphery, if you like, and there are changes within the core countries. This has, I believe, been accepted by most theoreticians on the subject, and indeed it is only by accepting that possibility of hierarchization and change within the peripheral countries themselves that we can see historically the possibility of a peripheral country becoming a poor country, a very rare possibility, which has only been realized in the case of the United States itself under very special historical circumstances. But nevertheless, it is a historical precedent which forces a number of scholars to look more carefully at what would be called the intermediate states on a world scale. Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Iran, India, and possibly African countries such as the UAR, Nigeria, Libya, Algeria, may begin at a certain stage to qualify for intermediate status.

One of the reasons why for my own part I would want to reaffirm that the center-core formulation still remains vital to an understanding of the roots and consequences of African development is that there has been no change in the decision-making centers of the international system. Whatever other shifts and nuances may have come into being, it remains true that the decision-making centers are still the same, and that when one correlates this not only with the economic benefits derived from those centers, but with a series of other non-tangibles–and the non-tangibles were referred to at the very beginning of the conference by the chairman who introduced the first speaker [economist Robert S. Browne ]–when we look at a certain number of intangibles over and above the material benefits derived by the center, it seems to me that we will find another confirmation that the center- or core-periphery hypothesis is still a viable and meaningful one. To illustrate, Europe, and ultimately North America, bore a relationship to Africa through which the social relations of capitalism as they were developing in Europe and North America were aiming to reproduce themselves the better within Europe and North America. This is one of the contentions that I would like to throw out for your consideration. In other words, let us ignore for a moment the transfer of profits in a sort of quantitative sense from Africa to Europe, or from the Caribbean to Europe, from the Caribbean to North America, and let us concentrate on what seems to me to be an observed historical fact, that the social classes dominant in Europe and North America used their external pressure to consolidate their own social dominance within their own society. I will give three instances of this, one of which involves both Africa and the Caribbean in the period when the plantation system was being founded.

Reflecting upon the emergence of the plantation system and its significance in the seventeenth century, I believe that there is far more to it than the mere so-called primitive accumulation of capital. It was part of a process through which emergent capitalist forces in Europe imposed their domination over competing classes, the main competing class being the feudal land-owning class. It was part of a process by which the towns imposed a domination on the countryside within Europe, imposing that domination by virtue of the fact that they called in the New World to redress the balance in the Old. Whatever had been the difficulties of their class struggle in Western Europe at the time, whatever may have been the constraints which would have held back the development of capitalist forces in Western Europe, when they turned to the New World they were not simply getting capital, nor simply getting a material advantage, but that material advantage translated into social terms, the establishment of the domination of capitalist social relations in Western Europe itself.

To make a quick leap historically, two centuries thereafter, at the end of the nineteenth century, modern imperialist capital began its sweep. Monopoly capital exercised a domination over what was previously considered entrepreneurial, competitive capital. At that particular point in time, again our analysis, and I think that this is being self-critical, has tended in the past perhaps to concentrate on the ways in which imperialism gained specific advantages within this process of underdeveloping Africa. They gained surplus, they gained new markets, they gained new raw material, etc., This has been well-documented, and this has been taken almost for granted within the analysis. I would say more than that. It seems to me that what they were also doing was insuring that in the sharpening contradiction between capital and labor in the metropoles, the nature of class struggle in Europe and the domination of capital over labor would be reinforced again by drawing upon the rest of the world from which Europe expected surplus to be generated by African labor operating inside the African continent itself.

Many years ago I came across a quotation from Cecil Rhodes. It is often quoted, in fact it was quoted by Lenin, and it’s quoted by a number of persons, but, for my own part, I do not believe I saw the significance of the quotation in the early years. It is one in which Rhodes says he is going to the East End of London, and he sees poverty. And more than poverty, he sees the anger of the English working class. He sees the desperation of the English working class, and he says, “If we do not engage in colonial and imperial ventures, the English working class are going to deal very seriously with us here in England.” It was a class question that the nature of the contradiction has sharpened within the protracted crisis of capitalism, which is now well-documented as taking place over the last three decades of the nineteenth century, in which the periods of slump clearly overwhelm the small peaks of boom in the economy. There was a protracted crisis in agriculture and industry, and the way out of that, a way that preserved the hegemony of the capitalist class, was the extension of capitalist relations to the rest of the world.

Now of course it was not purely voluntaristic. There is a dialectical process, a technological process, which made this possible. It is not merely that the capitalist classes wished, and the wish became a reality. They had a technological capacity at that time to extend their control. But the search for extension of control, the process upon the developing Africa, involved the recreation, if you like, the stabilization, of capitalist relations inside of Europe.

I say that, and you may think that this is merely the past, but I believe we are living in precisely the same epoch today. It is always easier to see it in historical perspective with hindsight, but it is often so difficult to look around when one is involved and immersed in the same process. But I believe that today we are once more looking at an intensive phase in which your American capital is seeking to reinforce and to stabilize its hegemony in class terms inside of America, inside of Europe, by bringing into being a further intensification of exploitation and domination over the so-called Third World. It is time to look at the way in which this so-called crisis, the recession, and more so the inflation and stagnation, the currency crisis, have been effectively exported to the Third World, so that whatever may be the degree of crisis in a country such as Britain–and there was and still is a real crisis–whatever the blows that the capitalist class has to bring to bear against the British and American working class, it can in part maintain that process of reconstituting labor in some form or fashion within the state and within the overall political economy because it has an out. The out is in fact the Third World. Increasingly, Africa is playing a role in this regard.

To my mind therefore it would be a serious error of judgment to imagine that the international capitalist system functions in a way in which it is not necessary to make the distinction between center and periphery, because that distinction to my mind seems vital to an understanding of the way in which the system operates. There is definitely that continuation of the power of decision making in the center, a power which is used in a class-conscious sense, particularly as capitalism and those who run the system acquire a greater consciousness of their own objectives. This is not a theory of conspiracy in history, it is an admission or a recognition that social classes gain a greater consciousness of the meaning of their own activity the longer that a system functions. Capitalism has been around long enough for us not to be so naive as to imagine that they are not clear in the pursuit of their own class interests, and they are doing so at the global level.

Something like the multi-national corporations, which again have been cited in so much of the literature quite correctly as the dominant form of exploitation, seems nevertheless in some ways to be misapprehended. Because to me the real threat from a Third World perspective, the deeper meaning of the multinational corporation, is not merely that it transfers values from the Third World to the center, not merely as an exploitative mechanism, but the way in which it continually reinforces a certain integration, a certain international integration, with the center located of course in the metropolitan world. Because what is a multi-national? Essentially by integrating resources from a whole variety of territories, Third World as well as metropolitan, it has a capacity to control the destiny, not merely the economic destiny, but the well-being in the broadest sense of the word of so many of the peoples of Africa and the world at large. And I think that it may be well to focus on this aspect much more than we have done in the past.

Besides, there are areas in which , apart from the economic base, one may see the operation of what we may call laws or tendencies, certainly the right of institutions which are quantitatively different in the metropole as compared with the periphery, that is to say, the countries of Africa. One notes for instance the presence of the state and operation of the state starting in the colonial period. “The colonial state came as close as possible to pure violence,” says one of Fanon’s most perceptive contributions. The colonial state really comprised the police barracks. We don’t have to get a very sophisticated theory of the state, including… functionalism and … functions and so on to explain the colonial state. We just have to look for the police stations and military barracks. It was a very crude form of state, where [the] rich intervened very directly in economic process. Very directly coercion was extended so that very many of the relations of production were not “economic” or market-determined. They had the immediate power of the coercive apparatus brought to bear. That is, of course, not only true of Africa, it is true of indentured labor in the Caribbean, but it was certainly true of Africa throughout the colonial period. Bearing this in mind, then, I am saying, in spite of the constraints of having to move very quickly, for those who are familiar with the way in which the debate is going I believe that to a large extent that seeks to deny the reality of the center-periphery formulation is rather ill-directed.

And now the second of the major issues under discussion, the question of class forces. Again, sometimes, the question is posed to my mind too simplistically to advance our understanding of the reality. You get, for instance, people saying, is the issue really that of internal class conflict, or is it that of the contradiction between the emerging African nation-states and international capital? I think that is a false dichotomy. I don’t think that we really want to see either/or–it is either that it is internal to Africa, and that is determined; or it is a question of contradiction between Africa and Europe. To my mind from the very beginning there were two levels of the problem, and that at the beginning perhaps when Europe imposed itself the external contradiction was clearly very dominant. However, as the system evolved, it also developed a capacity to localize itself, to reproduce itself within the environment of Africa, which meant, willy-nilly, that capitalism produced classes and strata of a particular configuration necessary for the reproduction of capital and the export of surplus. And what we have to do it seems to me is to look at the peculiar characteristics of the social forces which today as a consequence of underdevelopment guarantee the reproduction of capital in Africa, and ultimately the reproduction of capital on a world scale. I stress the peculiar characteristic not because one is imbued in any sense with looking for the unique in Africa, but because undoubtedly some of the discussion has been stymied by the a priori assumptions that once we are using the language of class which came from another context, it would automatically be relevant in Africa, or to the African continent. And then of course those who would not like to see the parameters of class used at all, will then react to that and say we told you in the first place that we should never be talking about class, that’s a European thing, we don’t have any of that in Africa, we are all brothers, and I own 15,000 acres and you don’t own any, but we still belong to the same family. It can’t end up without other kinds of mystification. I am saying that we can search for specificity in regard to class development and a number of studies are doing precisely that.

As to my own contribution in this particular context I would like briefly to point [to] some aspects of class development which appear to me important not just because one wants to analyze them academically, but because I feel that they are politically important, and that the dimension that we cannot afford to ignore political implications, because otherwise we may end up by trying to achieve formulations to break underdevelopment, and then we ask ourselves how do these relate in practice, how do we translate this on the ground, and we find ourselves totally bemused, frustrated, because it is impossible to produce no matter how beautiful and advanced the development plan if you produce it and offer to certain African states, given their […] class structure, they cannot and will not utilize these plans. So I want to speak very briefly in the last minutes about the political dimensions involved with respect to both the middle strata, as they are sometimes called emergent petit bourgeoisie, and the working classes.

It seems to me that what is sometimes called the national bourgeoisie–I think incorrectly, more often the national petit bourgeoisie in Africa – is itself a pretty weak class. They grow up as weak intermediaries. They are often self-employed. They are certainly lacking in any tremendous social power. Capital in Africa, as far as it is in the hands of Africans, does not really wield a tremendous amount of social power. And I feel that lack of that social power which in Europe would guarantee “the normal functioning of capital”–because you have to go to the workplace and offer your labor for sale–in Africa you do not have to go and work necessarily for the national petit bourgeoisie, so they must find a number of other mechanism for extracting surplus from the mass of the population. And since they have inherited the colonial state, this pure police state, they use precisely that apparatus as the principal mechanism for capital accumulation both on their own behalf and of course for export. I again must be forced to leave this as a very broad statement rather than one which is properly argued, but I think that if we see the lack of a social power base, because capital has not within Africa or must Third World countries reached that state where the relations, which after all are very important, between the owners of capital and the seller of labor are such that the owner of capital can command the seller of labor by virtue of the fact that he is an employer. This is hardly the case in Africa. What is left then is for this class to search for alternatives. The alternative most readily at hand is the mechanism of the state as state in its many facets, to be used as a means of accumulation against the very rampant authoritarianism from one end of the continent to another.

As for the working classes and their particular position, with hindsight at any rate look at the processes of the underdevelopment of Africa, and look particularly at its consequences, we may well determine that the most important aspect of underdevelopment was the underdevelopment of the working class. The underdevelopment of the productive forces in general, and the working class is a salient [element] within these productive forces. One looks from one end of the continent to another, recognizes the incomplete crystallization of a working class, recognizing the transitory nature, the migratory nature, of the working class, sees the way in which there is a continual shift between the working class and the rural subsistence activities, see what proves to be politically crucial, the weakness in the organization of the working class, including even the trade unions, which are by and large controlled by the petit bourgeoisie in Africa. What I would say is that if we are going to try to deal not just with the roots and consequences of underdevelopment, but obviously if we are orienting ourselves towards forms of solution, we have to consider at what point can there be an incisive break with the old pattern, where do we intervene in this whole seemingly unbreakable pattern of underdevelopment. And I would suggest that the point of intervention is not economic or psychological or cultural, it is social in the sense of looking for those social forces whose material interests coincide with the kinds of development plans which one is proposing, and indeed it involves bringing the said social forces into the making of the said development plan.

But before running ahead to that phase which would seem to be the future, it is still sufficient at this juncture to emphasize that the development possibilities must place politics first, as it were. We may perhaps have been caught in an incorrect attitude when we think that other things have come first. Politics must come first because unless one can identify within the African continent–particularly north of the zone that is right in combat in the south of South Africa–if we are going to think of the ways in which the actual mechanism for transformation in Africa, it can only be done by people. It can only be done by social forces, and too much of this discussion has been abstract. It has not sought to relate and to locate these co-called solutions within some particular social classes to see whether the possibilities of organization of these social classes, and to derive the development thrust from the organization of the serf classes whose interest coincide with the liberation of Africa. That perhaps is trying to say a great deal, just as my brother [Leslie Manigat recounted] so many years of Haitian history in X number of minutes. But it seems to me that we are caught within this trap in which there is still the illusion both on the left and on the right. ON the right there is the illusion that Africa is developing, and those who know the reality know that this is proved to be false. And on the left, perhaps we, if we want to be self-critical, there is a tendency to fall back into what ultimately becomes a curious kind of intellectualizing which seems to imagine that that is what comes first, that that will resolve problems, and that we ourselves have failed to link with an actuality, and to recognize that the next development in development theory is not going to come because somebody sits in some particular place and suddenly shouts Eureka! because it has come into his or her head. It will come because the people of Africa have opened up new possibilities for development. And those of us who monitor the situation, whether it be in southern Africa or elsewhere, are quite convinced about the capacity of the African people to open up these possibilities.

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