Writing on roape.net in November 2020, I look at the making of Walter Rodney’s classic text. 

In 1972 Walter Rodney published his masterpiece How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Rodney’s book took a similar approach to Eduardo Galeano’s 1971 classic, examining four hundred years of European intervention and occupation in Africa. In this blogpost, Leo Zeilig looks at the context and approach Rodney took in his 1972 book. 

By Leo Zeilig

Walter Rodney was incredibly prolific in the early 1970s. Over a period of barely five years, he wrote on tourism, articles on socialism and development, scholarly papers on slavery, and also developed courses, organised fieldwork, and worked on extensive lecture notes on the Russian revolution for a course (which has become a posthumous book). Rodney was also a father of three children – Asha, Patricia and Rodney’s third and last child, was born in Tanzania in 1971. In this period, Rodney’s crowning achievement was a synthesis of years of historical reading and research in his mighty How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA), which he finished at the end of 1971 and was published the following year.

Even before the publication of HEUA he was being solicited for contributions to journals and special issues on themes related to ‘underdevelopment.’ On 5 November 1969, for example, Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff wrote to him asking for a contribution to a Monthly Review special issue marking the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth. Other writers and Marxists had also been approached – including Louis Althusser, Amilcar Cabral, Eldridge Cleaver, Eduardo Hughes Galeano, Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Mandel. Rodney responded quickly and submitted the paper, ‘The Imperialist Partition of Africa’, and Sweezy wrote to him on 2 February to express his thanks for the ‘very  interesting and useful contribution’, and to inform him that he sent, as Rodney requested, the $50 honorarium to FRELIMO, the leading liberation movement in Mozambique in Rodney’s name.

Rodney was working at the university in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania during the years of the radical projects of President Julius Nyerere.  His habit was to work collaboratively with his friends and activists, sharing and discussing  with comrades. Rodney emphasized the importance of this approach in the preface of HEUA when, after acknowledging ‘Karim Hirji and Henry Mapolu’ – who were both student-activists at the time – for having  ‘read the manuscript in a spirit of constructive criticism’ he continued, ‘But, contrary, to the fashion in most prefaces, I will not add that “all mistakes and shortcomings are entirely my responsibility.” This is sheer bourgeois subjectivism. Responsibility in matters of these sorts is always collective, especially with regard to the remedying of shortcomings. The purpose has been to try and reach Africans who wish to explore further the nature of their exploitation, rather than to satisfy the “standards” set by our oppressors and their spokesmen in the academic world.’[1]

Intellectual work always involves periods of intense concentration and solitude, but in Dar es Salaam in the early 1970s the political environment was profoundly collaborative. This is a far cry from the conveyer-belt of privatised misery which is intellectual and scholarly production today.

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