The Global Social Divide: Revisiting How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2018); 416 pages; ISBN 978-178873188 (paperback)

• June 2020

When it first appeared in 1972, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA) broke new ground through its analysis of not only what underdevelopment is but how underdevelopment is constructed and why it persists. The book is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s, which is why it has gone through more than forty printings. Angela Davis aptly captures its continued relevance in the foreword to the latest edition. She discusses Rodney’s scholar-activism as potentially acquiring “vigorous meaning” for students and activists today, if they, burdened with the onslaught of neoliberal political-economy, are able “to capture the generative passion that links [the] research to [Rodney’s] determination to rid the planet of all of the outgrowths of colonialism and slavery” (ix). This review speaks to what Davis calls “the impenetrable structural blockades to . . . progress” created by colonialism and slavery that are outlined in Rodney’s work (x). To understand the current global social divide is not a simple task because the gap between those who have access to wealth and those who do not has exploded since the 1970s. Rodney lays the blame for the growth and persistence of this gap at the doorstep of the world capitalist system, both mercantilist and free market, as the primary agency of the condition of “underdevelopment.” To understand the divide between the conditions of “developed” and “underdeveloped,” he invites us to relate this to the historical divergence that occurred through the nexus between the expansion of international trade, the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, and global capitalism. While the book explains the factors that led to the underdevelopment of Africa and how European development must be understood through structural changes in the African economy and African society, the clarity it brings to the discussion is Rodney’s fundamental understanding of how and why the colonial world suffered in ways similar to Africa.  

HEUA clarifies the structural divide, something social justice activists should be cognizant of as we work toward finding possibilities to create better and more equal societies. Through empirical evidence, Rodney invites us to locate the main historical problematic that produces structural inequality. He clarifies that underdevelopment is not related to backwardness, as European scholarship presents; it is connected to the methodologies of control developed by capitalists and their local lackeys—that is, the ways in which means of control over productive resources came to reside with class forces that since the fifteenth century have been able to colonize local production and international trade. This fortified the expansion of capital through continuous accumulation and led to the eventual fruition of capitalism as a system of world domination. He thus identifies capitalism as the culprit that produces the global divide.

HEUA posits that development and its counterpoint, underdevelopment, have to do with who or which class is able to access, harness, and control the added value from raw material production and who or which class is able to use added/surplus value to produce exploitative structures in society, a determination that produces development, on the one hand, and underdevelopment, on the other. The value of Rodney’s scholarship is the unmistakable connection between exploitative social relations in the construction of development and underdevelopment. HEUA roots the construction of underdevelopment in the nature of the economic structure. The continuous process of expansion of underdevelopment in Africa was possible in the first place because of the involvement and participation of African colluders/capitalists who utilized African resources and knowledge systems to aid colonial capital in the so-called impenetrable structural blockades in and around the fifteenth century. We cannot gloss over the role of local colluders/capitalists in the imperialist and globalization processes. In that early period, the stage was being set for the full fruition of the world division of labor that ensued over the next five hundred years and that has led to the current global divide between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.

HEUA pushes us to see how the growth of the global divide is located in the social, economic, political, and cultural relations that are spawned as local communities, regions, and peoples are drawn/incorporated into the global-capitalist system through the nexus of international trade and conquest. A key example is the marginalization of the early African textile industry, one of the most enduring aspects of the birth of this early global divide detailed in HEUA. Although African communities had long been producing their own clothing, what developed after 1500 was the push to increase exports of raw cotton. The consequence, then, was an increase in imports of finished cotton products, which negatively impacted the possibilities for growth in technological productive forces at the local level. This simple fact of the early economy of international trade helps us shape our understanding of underdevelopment through wealth transfer. In this process African societies lost what economists refer to as “value added,” a term used to explain the value added to a raw material after it is processed and returned to the consumer as a finished product. Underdevelopment is characterized by unequal relations constructed through the market that divide the world between (majority/low-wage labor) areas producing low-value products, like raw materials, and (minority) areas producing high-value products. Essentially, the capitalist system is about wealth transfer: the product from labor in a raw-material-producing area is not as valued as the product from labor in a processing zone. HEUA explains underdevelopment as an economic, and thus a structural, issue.

HEUA also clarifies that African society was developed only to the point at which the European ideation system, which was guided by individual property relations, was introduced. The European system overtook and replaced communal property relations and laid the basis for a transfer of wealth: the everyday toil of people in Africa and the colonized world now built European cities and the capitalist system. Rodney would have wanted us to imagine a world without the conquest of Africans, indigenous Americans, and Asians and their knowledge systems, which through the Atlantic slave trade and the expansion of production in the Americas was not only responsible for the fruition of the capitalist system but laid the foundation for the enduring global divide. 

The book also importantly links underdevelopment of productive resources on the African continent to the Atlantic slave trade, which deepened the process because it removed “millions of youth and young adults” from the society (120). HEUA connects the removal of African youth as chattel (providing labor in the Americas to fortify the expansion of capitalism) to the quickening of underdevelopment of Africa. By bringing clarity to whether the Atlantic slave trade was carried out for economic or racial reasons, the book also situates the origins of racism as an outgrowth of the economy: “Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons. European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited.” He adds that “having become utterly dependent on African [enslaved] labor” to expand wealth generation in the Americas, the Europeans “found it necessary to rationalize that exploitation in racist terms.” The racial divide became encapsulated in the economic divide, and the “oppression of African people on purely racial grounds . . . became indistinguishable from oppression for economic reasons” (103). HEUA thus calls us to pause to meaningfully consider which came first.

Rodney’s use of the words of C. L. R. James—“The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics . . . but to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental” (104)—lends some clarity to the quintessential race/class problematic of today’s world.1 Rodney battled with this connection in all his writings. As a people’s historian he drew a clear distinction among Africans and people of color as to who were the oppressors and who were the oppressed. His call was to all oppressed peoples to understand the source of their oppression and to take steps to free themselves. Where oppressors of people of color were concerned, he did not draw a dividing line between white and Black oppressors but instead linked local and foreign sources of oppression as a system. As a Guyanese of African heritage Rodney also highlighted the relations between those Guyanese (peoples of all colors) who sided with and supported oppression and those who were oppressed. Until his assassination in 1980, he worked tirelessly to construct a multiracial front to confront the oppressors and challenge them to bring about transformation.

HEUA offers knowledge and ideas as tools of freedom to present and future generations. It is a teaching tool, and Rodney expects us to continue to educate to produce class consciousness across racial boundaries, since without multiracial class consciousness, transformation is not possible. His work calls on students to deconstruct the interpretation attached to the “racist trend in European scholarship . . . that underdevelopment is somehow ordained by God” (25). In a 1978 lecture at Binghamton University, Rodney pointed out that the task of present and future generations is to rewrite, reanalyze, and reinterpret history.2 He is clear that history was written and produced by the ruling class as a cultural tool of domination, and he branded this “a cultural and psychological crisis,” a problem that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonized world must address before they can move forward  (26). That HEUA sets some tasks for this generation and beyond is part of its continued relevence. It is a call to action. It asks us to recognize how “in our times, development has to mean advance which liquidates present privileged groups with their corresponding underprivileged groups” (18).



Wazir Mohamed was a colleague of Walter Rodney’s in the struggle for a multiracial Guyana. He was a member of the Working People’s Alliance for twenty-five years and rose to the rank of co-leader before leaving Guyana in 2000 to pursue graduate studies in Binghamton, New York. He is currently an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University East in Richmond. His interests include the intersection of Atlantic slavery—particularly the rise of slavery in the age of abolition, and the second slavery in Cuba, Brazil, and the United States—with the persistence of ethnic divisions and marginalization of the descendants of slaves in the African diaspora of the Caribbean and the Americas.


1. Rodney quotes C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1963), 283.

2. See Walter Rodney, “Plantation Society in Guyana,” Review 4, no. 4 (1981): 643–66.


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