|How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Walter Rodney 1973
Some Questions on Development
‘In contrast with the surging growth of the countries in our socialist camp and the development taking place, albeit much more slowly, in the majority of the capitalist countries, is the unquestionable fact that a large proportion of the so-called underdeveloped countries are in total stagnation, and that in some of them the rate of economic growth is lower than that of population increase.
‘These characteristics are not fortuitous; they correspond strictly to the nature of the capitalist system in full expansion, which transfers to the dependent countries the most abusive and barefaced forms of exploitation. It must be clearly understood that the only way to solve the questions now besetting mankind is to eliminate completely the exploitation of dependent countries by developed capitalist countries, with all the consequences that this implies.’
Che Guevara, 1964.
1. 1 What is Development?
Development in human society is a many-sided process. At the level of the individual, it implies increased skill and capacity, greater freedom, creativity, self-discipline, responsibility and material well-being. Some of these are virtually moral categories and are difficult to evaluate – depending as they do on the age in which one lives, one’s class origins, and one’s personal code of what is right and what is wrong. However, what is indisputable is that the achievement of any of those aspects of personal development is very much tied in with the state of the society as a whole. From earliest times, man found it convenient and necessary to come together in groups to hunt and for the sake of survival. The relations which develop within any given social group are crucial to an understanding of the society as a whole: Freedom, responsibility, skill, etc. have real meaning only in terms of the relations of men in society.
Of course, each social group comes into contact with others. The relations between individuals in any two societies are regulated by the form of the two societies. Their respective political structures are important because the ruling elements within each group are the ones that begin to dialogue, trade or fight, as the case may be. At the level of social groups, therefore, development implies an increasing capacity to regulate both internal and external relationships. Much of human history has been a fight for survival against natural hazards and against real and imagined human enemies. Development in the past has always meant the increase in the ability to guard the independence of the social group and indeed to infringe upon the freedom of others - something that often came about irrespective of the will of the persons within the societies involved.
Men are not the only beings which operate in groups, but the human species embarked upon a unique line of development because man had the capacity to make and use tools. The very act of making tools was a stimulus to increasing rationality rather than the consequence of a fully matured intellect. In historical terms, man the worker was every bit as important as man the thinker, because the work with tools liberated men from sheer physical necessity, so that he could impose himself upon other more powerful species and upon nature itself. The tools with which men work and the manner in which they organise their labour are both important indices of social development.
More often than not, the term ‘development’ is used in an exclusive economic sense – the justification being that the type of economy is itself an index of other social features. What then is economic development? A society develops economically as its members increase jointly their capacity for dealing with the environment. This capacity for dealing with the environment is dependent on the extent to which they understand the laws of nature (science), on the extent to which they put that understanding into practice by devising tools (technology), and on the manner in which work is organised. Taking a long-term view, it can be said that there has been constant economic development within human society since the origins of man, because man has multiplied enormously his capacity to win a living from nature. The magnitude of man’s achievement is best understood by reflecting on the early history of human society and noting firstly, the progress from crude stone tools to the use of metals; secondly, the changeover from hunting and gathering wild fruit to the domestication of animals and the growing of food crops; and thirdly, the improvement in the character of work from being an individualistic activity towards an activity which assumes a social character through the participation of many.
Every people have shown a capacity for independently increasing their ability to live a more satisfactory life through exploiting the resources of nature. Every continent independently participated in the early epochs of the extension of man’s control over his environment – which means in effect that every continent can point to a period of economic development. Africa, being the original home of man, was a major participant in the processes in which human groups displayed an ever increasing capacity to extract a living from the natural environment. Indeed, in the early period, Africa was the focus of the physical development of man as such, as distinct from other living beings.
Development was universal because the conditions leading each economic expansion were universal. Everywhere, man was faced with the task of survival by meeting fundamental material needs; and better tools were a consequence of the interplay between human beings and nature as part of the struggle for survival. Of course, human history is not a record of advances and nothing else. There were periods in every part of the world when there were temporary setbacks and actual reduction of the capacity to produce basic necessities and other services for the population. But the overall tendency was towards increased production, and at given points of time the increase in the quantity of goods was associated with a change in the quality or character of society. This will be shown later with reference to Africa, but to indicate the universal application of the principle of quantitative/qualitative change an example will be drawn from China.
Early man in China lived at the mercy of nature, and slowly discovered such basic things as the fact that fire can be man-made and that seeds of some grasses could be planted in the soil to meet food requirements. Those discoveries helped inhabitants of China to have simple farming communities using stone tools and producing enough for bare subsistence. That was achieved several thousand years before the birth of Christ or the flight of the Prophet Muhammad. The goods produced at that stage were divided more equally among the members of society, who lived and worked in families. By the time of the T'ang dynasty of the 7th century A.D., China had expanded its economic capacity not only to grow more food but also to manufacture a wide variety of items such as silks, porcelain, ships and scientific devices. This of course represented a quantitative increase in the goods produced, and it was inter-related with qualitative changes in Chinese society. By the later date, there was a political state, where before there were only self-government units. Instead of every family and every. individual performing the tasks of agriculturalists, house-builders, tailors, etc., there had arisen specialization of function. Most of the population still tilled the land, but there were skilled artisans who made silk and porcelain, bureaucrats who administered the state and Buddhist and Confucian religious philosophers who specialized in trying to explain those things that lay outside of immediate understanding.
Specialization and division of labour led to more production as well as inequality in distribution. A small section of Chinese society came to take a large disproportionate share of the proceeds of human labour, and that was the section which did least to actually generate wealth by working in agriculture or industry. They could afford to do so because grave inequalties had emerged in the ownership of the basic means of production, which was the land. Family land became smaller as far as most peasants were concerned, and a minority took over the greater portion of the land. Those changes in land tenure were part and parcel of development in its broadest sense. That is why development cannot be seen purely as an economic affair, but rather as an overall social process which is dependent upon the outcome of man’s efforts to deal with his natural environment.
Through careful study, it is possible to comprehend some of the very complicated links between the changes in the economic base and changes in the rest of the superstructure of the society – including the sphere of ideology and social beliefs. The changeover from communalism in Asia and Europe led for instance to codes of behaviour peculiar to feudalism. The conduct of the European knights in armour had much in common with that of the Japanese Samurai or warriors. They developed notions of so-called ‘chivalry’ – conduct becoming a gentleman knight on horseback; while in contrast had to learn extreme humility, deference and obsequiousness – symbolised by doffing his cap and standing bare-headed before his superiors. In Africa, too, it was to be found that the rise of the state and superior classes led to the practice whereby common subjects prostrated themselves in the presence of the monarchs and aristocrats. When the point had been reached, it became clear that the rough equality of the family had given way to a new state of society.
In the natural sciences, it is well known that in many instances quantitative change becomes qualitative after a certain period. The common example is the way that water can absorb heat (a quantitative process) until at 100° C it changes to steam (a qualitative change of form). Similarly, in human society it has always been the case that the expansion of the economy leads eventually to a change in the form of social relations. Karl Marx, writing in the 19th century, was the first writer to appreciate this, and he distinguished within European history several stages of development. The first major stage following after simple bands of hunters was Communalism where property was collectively owned, work was done in common, and goods were shared out equally. The second was Slavery, caused by the extension of domineering elements within the family and by some groups being overwhelmed by others. Slaves did a variety of tasks, but their main job was to produce food. The next was Feudalism where agriculture remained the principal means of making a livelihood, but the land which was necessary for that purpose was in the hands of the few, and they took the lion’s share of the wealth. The workers on the land (now called Serfs) were no longer the personal property of the masters, but they were tied to the land of a particular manor or estate. When the manor changed hands, the serfs had to remain there and provide goods for the landlord – just keeping enough to feed themselves. Just as the child of a slave was a slave, so the children of serfs were also serfs. Then came Capitalism, under which the greatest wealth in the society was produced not in agriculture but by machines – in factories and in mines. Like the preceding phase of feudalism, capitalism was characterised by the concentration in a few hands of ownership of the means of producing wealth and by unequal distribution of the products of human labour. The few who dominated were the bourgeoisie who had originated in the merchants and craftsmen of the feudal epoch, and who rose to be industrialists and financiers. Meanwhile, the serfs were declared legally free to leave the land and to go in search of employment in capitalist enterprises. Their labour thereby became a commodity – something to be bought and sold.
It was predicted that there would be a further stage – that of Socialism – in which the principle of economic would be restored, as in communalism. In the present century, the phase of Socialism has indeed emerged in some countries. Economically, each succeeding stage represented development in the strict sense that there was increased capacity to control the material environment and thereby to create more goods and services for the community. The greater quantity of goods and services were based on greatest skills and human inventiveness. Man was liberated in the sense of having more opportunities to display and develop his talents. Whether man uplifted himself in a moral sense is open to dispute. The advance in production increased the range of powers which sections of society had over other sections, and it multiplied the violence which was part of the competition for survival and growth among social groups. It is not at all clear that a soldier serving capitalism in the last World War was less ‘primitive’ in the elemental sense of the word than a soldier serving in one of Japan’s feudal armies in the 16th century, or for that matter a hunter living in the first phase of human organisation in the forests of Brazil. Nevertheless, we do know that in those three respective epochs hunting band, feudalism, capitalism-the quality of life improved. It became less hazardous and less uncertain, and members of society potentially had greater choice over their destinies. All of that is involved when the word ‘development’ is used.
In the history of those societies which have passed through several modes of production, the opportunity is presented of seeing how quantitative changes give rise ultimately to an entirety different society. The key feature is that at given junctures the social relations in the society were no longer effective in promoting advance. Indeed, they began to act as brakes on the productive forces and therefore had to be discarded. Take for instance the epoch of slavery in Europe. However morally indefensible slavery may have been, it did serve for a while to open up the mines and agricultural plantations in large parts of Europe and notably within the Roman Empire. But then those peasants who remained free had their labour depressed and under-utilised because of the presence of slaves. The slaves were not disposed to work at any tasks requiring skills, so the technological evolution of society threatened to come to a halt. Furthermore, the slaves were restless, and slave revolts were expensive to put down. The landowners, seeing their estates going to ruin, decided that it would be best to grant the legal freedom for which slaves were clamouring. and to keep exploiting the labour of these free serfs by ensuring that they had no lands to plough other than those of the landlords. Thereby, a new set of social relations – that of landlord and serf – replaced the old relations of slave master and slave.
In some instances. the changeover to a new mode was accompanied by violence at a critical point. This occurred when the ruling classes involved were being threatened with removal by the process of change. The feudal landlords remained in power for centuries during which the merchant and manufacturing interest grew wealthy and sought to achieve power and social pre-eminence. When classes are so well-defined, their consciousness is at a high level. Both the landlord class and the capitalists recognised what was at stake. The former fought to hold on to the social relations which no longer corresponded to the new technology of machine production and the organisation of work by means of purchasing labour power. The capitalists flung themselves into Revolutions in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries to break the old relations of production.
The notions of revolution and class consciousness must be borne in mind when it comes to examining the situation of the modern worker and peasant classes in Africa. However, for the greater part of Africa’s history, the existing classes have been incompletely crystallized and the changes have been gradual rather than revolutionary. What is probably of more relevance for early African development is the principle that development over the world’s territories has always been uneven.
While all societies have experienced development, it is equally true that the rate of development differed from continent to continent, and within each continent different parts increased their command over nature at different rates. Inside Africa, Egypt was capable of producing wealth in abundance twenty-five centuries ago, because of mastery of many scientific natural laws and their invention of technology to irrigate, grow food, and extract minerals from the subsoil. At that time, hunting with bows and even wooden clubs was what people depended on for survival in most parts of the African continent-and in various other places such as the British Isles.
One of the most difficult questions to answer is exactly why different peoples developed at different rates when left on their own. Part of the answer lies in the environment in which human groups evolved and part of it lies in the ‘superstructure’ of human society. That is to say, as human beings battled with the material environment, they created forms of social relations, forms of government, patterns of behaviour and systems of belief which together constituted the superstructure-which was never exactly the same in any two societies. Each element in the superstructure interacted with other elements in the superstructure as well as with the material base. For instance, the political and religious patterns affected each other and were often intertwined. The religious belief that a certain forest was sacred was the kind of element in the superstructure that affected economic activity, since that forest would not be cleared for cultivation. While in the final analysis the breakthrough to a new stage of human development is dependent upon man’s technical capacity to deal with the environment, it is also to be borne in mind that peculiarities in the superstructure of any giv en society have a marked impact on the rate of development.
Many observers have been puzzled by the fact that China never became capitalist. It entered the feudal phase of development virtually 1,000 years before the birth of Christ; it had developed many aspects of technology; and it had many craftsmen and artisans. Yet the mode of production was never transformed to one where machines were the main means of producing wealth and where the owners of capital would be the dominant class. The explanation is very complex, but in general terms the main differences between feudal Europe and feudal China lay in the superstructure – i.e. in the body of beliefs, motivations and socio-political institutions which derived from the material base but in turn affected it. In China, religious, educational and bureaucratic qualifications were of utmost importance, and government was in the hands of state officials rather than being run by the landlords on their own feudal estates. Besides, there were greater egalitarian tendencies in Chinese land distribution than in European land distribution, and the Chinese state owned a great deal of land. The consequence was that the landowners had greater powers as bureaucrats than as men of property, and they used that to keep social relations in the same mould. It would have been impossible for them to have done that indefinitely, but they slowed down the movement of history. In Europe, the elements of change were not stifled by the weight of a state bureaucracy.
As soon as the first capitalists appeared in European society, an incentive was created for further development through the attitude of this class. Never before in any human society had a group of people seen themselves consciously functioning in order to make the maximum profit out of production. To fulfill their objective of acquiring more and more capital, capitalists took a greater interest in the laws of science which could be harnessed in the form of machinery to work and make profit on their behalf. At the political level, capitalism was also responsible for most of the features which today are referred to as ‘Western Democracy’. In abolishing feudalism, the capitalists insisted on parliaments, constitutions, freedom of the press, etc. These too can be considered as development. However the peasants and workers of Europe (and eventually the inhabitants of the whole world) paid a huge price so that the capitalists could make their profits from the human labour that always lies behind the machines. That contradicts other facets of development, especially viewed from the standpoint of those who suffered and still suffer to make capitalist achievements possible. This latter group are the majority of mankind. To advance, they must overthrow capitalism; and that is why at the moment capitalism stands in the path of further human social development. To put it another way, the social (class) relations of capitalism are now outmoded, just as slave and feudal relations became outmoded in their time.
There was a period when the capitalist system increased the well-being of significant numbers of people as a by-product of seeking out profits for a few, but today the quest for profits comes into sharp conflict with people’s demands that their material and social needs should be fulfilled. The capitalist or bourgeois class is no longer capable of guiding the uninhibited development of science and technology again because these objectives now clash with the profit motive. Capitalism has proved incapable of transcending fundamental weaknesses such as underutilization of productive capacity, the persistence of a permanent sector of unemployed, and periodic economic crises related to the concept of ‘market’ – which is concerned with people’s ability to pay rather than their need for commodities. Capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the U.S.A. Above all, capitalism has intensified its own political contradictions in trying to subjugate nations and continents outside of Europe, so that workers and peasants in every part of the globe have become self-conscious and are determined to take their destiny into their own hands. Such a determination is also an integral part of the process of development.
It can be offered as a generalization that all phases of development are temporary or transient and are destined sooner or later to give way to something else. It is particularly important to stress this with reference to capitalism because the capitalist epoch is not quite over and those who live at a particular point in time often fail to see that their way of life is in the process of transformation and elimination. Indeed, it is one of the functions of those who justify capitalism (bourgeois writers) to try and pretend that capitalism is here to stay. A glance at the remarkable advance of Socialism over the last fifty-odd years will show that the apologists for capitalism are spokesmen of a social system that is rapidly expiring.
The fact that capitalism today is still around alongside of socialism should warn us that the modes of production cannot simply be viewed as a question of successive stages. Uneven development has always ensured that societies have come into contact when they were at different levels – for example, one that was communal and one that was capitalist.
When two societies of different sorts come into prolonged and effective contact, the rate and character of change taking place in both is seriously affected to the extent that entirely new patterns are created. Two general rules can be observed to apply in such cases. Firstly, the weaker of the two societies (i.e., the one with less economic capacity) is bound to be adversely affected-and the bigger the gap between the two societies concerned the more detrimental are the consequences. For example, when European capitalism came into contact with the indigenous hunting societies of America and the Caribbean, the latter were virtually exterminated. Secondly, assuming that the weaker society does survive, then ultimately it can resume its own independent development only if it proceeds to a level higher than that of the economy which had previously dominated it. The concrete instances of the operation of this second rule are found in the experience of the Soviet Union, China and Korea.
China and Korea were both at a stage approximating to feudalism when they were colonised by the capitalist powers of Europe and Japan. Russia was never legally colonised, but while in the feudal stage and before its own indigenous capitalism could get very far, the Russian economy was subjugated by the more mature capitalism of Western Europe. In all three cases, it took a socialist revolution to break the domination of capitalism, and only the rapid tempo of socialist development could make amends for the period of subjugation when growth was misdirected and retarded. Indeed, as far as the two biggest socialist states are concerned (the Soviet Union and China), socialist development has already catapulted them beyond states such as Britain and France, which have been following the capitalist path for centuries.
Up to the end of the 1950s (the point at which this study terminates), Russia, China, Korea and certain nations in Eastern Europe were the only countries which had decisively broken with capitalism and imperialism. Imperialism is itself a phase of capitalist development in which Western European capitalist countries, the U.S.A., and Japan established political, economic, military and cultural hegemony over other parts of the world which were initially at a lower level and therefore could not resist domination. Imperialism was in effect the extended capitalist system, which for many years embraced the whole world – one part being the exploiters and the other the exploited, one part being dominated and the other acting as overlords, one part making policy and the other being dependent.
Socialism has advanced on imperialism’s weakest flanks – in the sector that is exploited, oppressed and reduced to dependency. In Asia and eastern Europe, socialism released the nationalist energies of colonised peoples; it turned the goal of production away from the money market and towards the satisfaction of human needs; it has eradicated bottlenecks such as permanent unemployment and periodic crises; and it has realised some of the promise implicit in Western or bourgeois democracy by providing the equality of economic condition which is necessary before one can make use of political equality and equality before the law.
Socialism has re-instated the economic equality of communalism, but communalism fell apart because of low economic productivity and scarcity. Socialism aims at and has significantly achieved the creation of plenty, so that the principle of egalitarian distribution becomes consistent with the satisfaction of the wants of all members of society.
One of the most crucial factors leading to more rapid and consistent expansion of economic capacity under Socialism has been the implementation of planned development. Most of the historical processes so far described relate to involuntary and unplanned development. No one planned that at a given stage human beings should cease using stone axes and use iron implements instead; and (to come to more recent times) while individual capitalist firms plan their own expansion, their system is not geared to over-all planning of the economy and the society. The capitalist state intervened only fitfully and partially to supervise capitalist development. The Socialist state has as its prime function the control of the economy on behalf of the working classes. The latter -i.e., workers and peasants – have now become the most dynamic force in world history and human development.
To conclude this brief introduction to the extremely complex problem of social development, it is useful to recognise how inadequate are the explanations of that phenomenon which are provided by bourgeois scholars. They very seldom try to grapple with the issue in its totality, but rather concentrate attention narrowly on ‘economic development’. As defined by the average bourgeois economist, development becomes simply a matter of the combination of given ‘factors of production’ : namely land, population, capital, technology, specialisation and large-scale production. Those factors are indeed relevant, as is implied in the analysis so far; but omissions from the list of what bourgeois scholars think relevant are really overwhelming. No mention is made of the exploitation of the majority which underlay all development prior to Socialism. No mention is made of the social relations of production or of classes. No mention is made of the way that the factors and relations of production combine to form a distinctive system or mode of production, varying from one historical epoch to another. No mention is made of imperialism as a logical phase of capitalism.
In contrast, any approach which tries to base itself on Socialist and revolutionary principles must certainly introduce into the discussion at the earliest possible point the concepts of class, imperialism, and Socialism, as well as the concepts of the workers and oppressed peoples. Each new concept bristles with its own complications, and it is not to be imagined that the mere resort to certain terminology is the answer to anything. However, one has at least to recognise the full human, historical and social dimensions of development, before it is feasible to consider ‘underdevelopment’ or the strategies for escaping from underdevelopment.