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As African people most of us are brought up to believe many myths about ourselves. One of these is that we are poor because we never grew out of the dark ages. Another such myth is that we will always need European guidance because of our backwardness. Not only has there been a lot of research done within the last few decades disproving these myths but the constant forward and backward motions of various societies in the world proves that a new beginning is always “in the cards” when a forward-looking vision and a determined set of energies are released.
However, to be properly understood, all this must be put into historical perspective. This is what the author has done: starting from the early days of Egypt down to present day Southern Africa, he has analysed the long journey from development to underdevelopment and back towards development. The fact that European/North American domination has played such a large part in influencing the direction of this path, this manuscript is about both the history of African and European people as well as an economic analysis of foreign domination.
Given the extensive nature of this task the author has deliberately downplayed statistics as most of the empirical details stated are taken from the research work of reputable scholars, reference to which is constantly engendered, so that the reader could independently pursue the documentation of all aspects of the work.
Frederick Engels, the classical socialist philosopher, reflecting on the nature of scientific thinking stated:
“The analysis of nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects into definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organic bodies in their manifold forms, these are the fundamental conditions of the gigantic stride of our knowledge of Nature… But this method of work has also left us as legacy, the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from the connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constants, not as essential variables; in their death, not in their life.”[i]
Most of the facts and events have been documented in numerous scholarly writings. But one item of his concern is that most of these works have in one way or other fallen prey to Engels’s criticism, either on grounds of limited geography or of limited history (tackling only a short period). However, what is more usual for the more bourgeois–influenced scholars is to limit their scope to one or two of the arbitrarily imposed “disciplines” of Economics, Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, etc.
Of course, it is understandable that the two types of limitations (geography and history) are not made without reason, as no one person could hope to cover a broad enough scope in a detailed and rigorous manner especially within easily readable limits. However, the need of scientists especially when covering as important a topic as the development process, to produce a work covering the broadest possible perspective.
Given limited resources, the author has attempted to do just that – albeit in an introductory manner. It is his hope, however, that more people start viewing development as a broad, holistic process and not just a phenomenon limited in space and time to economics or even political-economy. In this regard, the annual compilation of The Human Development Index by the UNDP whereby countries worldwide are ranked, not merely by GDP per capita – as is usually cited in classical bourgeois economics – but by Life expectancy, Fertility and Under-five Mortality Rates, Combined School Enrolment, Adult Literacy Rate, Urbanisation, and (generally) by a Human Poverty Index. This approach can only be viewed as a step in the right direction.
An extra bonus for readers is that I have included quotes from a cross-section of classical scholars on the development process. Hence, readers can follow up on these references to further edify themselves.
[i] Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1892), 406.
Soon after its publication in 1972, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa gained global popularity among students, scholars, activists and people concerned with African affairs. His innovative application of the method of political economy transformed the paradigm for rendition of the continent’s past. Because it stridently took the traditional historians and the prevailing neo-colonial order to task, it was also pilloried by the defenders of the status quo. And, in these neoliberal times, mainstream scholars and pundits proclaim that it is no longer relevant for Africa.
In Walter Rodney: An Enduring Legacy, Karim Hirji makes a systematic case that, on the contrary, Rodney’s seminal work retains its singular value for understanding where Africa has come from, where it is going, and charting the path towards genuine development for its people. After giving a broad picture of Rodney and his times, Hirji examines in detail the criticisms levelled against his work, and conducts a focused review of modern day textbooks on African history. It is seen that most of the claims against Rodney lack a sound basis and that direct representations of his ideas are replete with distortions, unfair selectivity and political bias. Yet, the long term influence of Rodney on African history is unmistakable.
Hirji’s succinct, coherent defence of an intellectual giant who lived and died for humanity is an essential read for anyone with an interest in Africa and related regions.
You can read this book online for free.
Soon after its publication in 1972, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA) gained global popularity among progressive students, scholars and activists, and people concerned with African affairs. His innovative application of the method of political economy was a prime contributor to shifting the paradigm for rendition of the continent’s past as well as for visualizing its possible trajectory. Because it stridently took the traditional historians of Africa and the prevailing neo-colonial order to task, it was also vociferously criticized by the defenders of the status quo.
In these neoliberal times, its visibility has waned. Mainstream scholars and pundits from and outside of Africa proclaim that it is no longer a relevant work for Africa. In Walter Rodney: An Enduring Legacy, Karim Hirji makes a systematic case that, on the contrary, Rodney’s seminal work retains its singular value for understanding where Africa has come from, where it is going, and charting a path towards genuine development for the people of Africa.
Hirji considers Rodney in his unitary persona as a historian, theoretician and activist. He begins by outlining the publication history and contents of HEUA, and noting the comments it has drawn from varied quarters. This is followed by a depiction of the global context within which it saw the light of the day and the flowering of progressive thought and vision in those vibrant times. The retrogressive reversal, in thought and social reality, that has transpired since then is summed up next. An assessment of how HEUA has weathered this storm is also provided.
The next chapter presents a brief portrait of Rodney as a revolutionary, with the focus on his seven years at the University of Dar es Salaam. This is followed by an overview of the methodological framework utilized in HEUA.
These five chapters lay the foundation for the main substantive part of Hirji’s book. This part begins with a detailed evaluation of the criticisms that have been levelled at HEUA. Subsequently, by a review of eight textbooks of general African history in common use today is provided. The aim here is to assess the persistence, if any, of ideas of the type promoted by Rodney in such books and identify the manner in which HEUA is directly depicted therein. Do these books give an adequate and fair depiction of Rodney to modern day students?
The penultimate chapter argues for the continued relevance of Rodney and his seminal text for Africa (and the world) in this anti-people, pro-capital, pro-imperial neoliberal era. Hirji concludes with a lively account of his own interactions over six years with Walter Rodney. With the focus on the issue of building socialism in Tanzania, a key dimension in the evolution of Rodney’s thinking is described in a critical spirit. The fundamental question addressed is, in our often dark, demoralizing political environment, what do Rodney and his life have to teach us on the matter of navigating between hope and struggle?
The conclusion emerging from this book is that in the first place most of the criticisms of the content, style and practical value of HEUA lack merit. The representation of Rodney in mainstream books is as well replete with distortions, unfair selectivity and political bias.
Despite these misrepresentations, Rodney and his ideas retain their signal value for understanding African history, for engaging with its present day conditions, and for projecting distinctive future scenarios for the continent. Hirji’s succinct work is a consistent, coherent defence of an intellectual giant, an astute historian and a compassionate revolutionary who lived and died for humanity. It is an essential read for anyone with an interest in African history, and the fate of Africa and the regions that are historically related to it.
Walter Rodney: An Enduring Legacy
Karim F Hirji
1. The Book
2. The Global Context
3. A Grand Reversal
4. Rodney, the Revolutionary
5. Rodney and Historiography
6. Criticisms of the Book
7. Rodney in the Classroom
8. Contemporary Relevance
9. Hope and Struggle
Major Writings of Walter Rodney