On October 15, 1968, the government of Jamaica banned a 26-year-old history professor from reentering the island nation. Walter Rodney, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, was returning from the Black Writers’ Congress in Montreal. While abroad, he had spoken out against the Jamaican government’s economic policies, police brutality against black Jamaicans, and exclusion of US Black Power leaders.
What was dangerous about Rodney was not only his challenge to the Jamaican government but also that he represented, both within Jamaica and around the world, the possibility of a different kind of world economic order. Today, the Third World suffers because it is excluded from the rules and circuits of a global economy that has borne fruit for the First—or so we are told by leading commentators and scholars of international economics, development, and trade. Rodney recognized that the problem was never that countries like Jamaica were excluded from the global economy. It was that they were included but on extraordinarily unequal terms.
Looking back at the economic visions that inspired millions in the global South during and after decolonization can help us reassess the language we use to understand global inequality in our own day. These visions are discussed in two new works: historian Sara Lorenzini’s Global Development: A Cold War History and political theorist Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination. They are also a theme of Rodney’s own The Groundings with My Brothers, originally published in 1969 and reissued this year by Verso Books.
The era of decolonization and development explored by these three books—roughly the period between the Second World War and the mid-1970s—was defined in equal measure by the independence of over a hundred new states from European colonial rule and a widespread faith in state planning to stimulate economic growth and social development. Studying this era through Rodney’s eyes, especially, reveals the failings of viewing global inequality as the product of incomplete inclusion and unfulfilled promises.
Instead, focusing on the persistence of racialized hierarchy in the international order allows us to see why the global South remains vulnerable in our era of refugee crises, endless war, and climate collapse. The question has never been how to include postcolonial societies within a system that kept them out. It was always how to remake the system that kept them down.
Rodney’s Jamaica offers an interesting case study of the economic order that the Third World might have built, if it had not been so decisively prevented from doing so.
His being barred from returning to Jamaica, it seems, should have been the end of the affair. What could a young history professor really do? Rodney’s popularity outside the university walls, however, especially among the Rastafari movement, was a major reason for the ban. Consequently, it backfired. Protests sparked by the news of his expulsion spread from students to significant segments of the urban and rural working classes.
Spurred by the rapid and unexpected growth of the demonstrations, protesters expanded the scope of their demands. Ultimately, the new alliances forged during the “Rodney riots” among young people, middle-class intellectuals, and working-class Jamaicans helped set the stage for the rise to power of the People’s National Party, led by Michael Manley.
Manley’s election in 1972 and his party’s adoption of a platform of democratic socialism enabled significant gains over the course of the 1970s for Jamaica’s predominantly black working classes. Manley linked domestic reforms to his efforts, alongside leaders of many other postcolonial states, to enact a New International Economic Order. The NIEO was centered on diminishing the power of multinational corporations and improving the terms of trade for countries of the global South vis-à-vis those of the global North.
Although they did not agree on every point—and, notably, Manley never lifted the ban on Rodney’s return to Jamaica—the revolutionary Marxist scholar Rodney and the democratic socialist statesman Manley shared certain beliefs about the global political-economic order, beliefs sorely lacking in most mainstream discussions today.
The competing strains of liberation represented by Manley and Rodney are especially instructive for scholars today. That’s because the era of decolonization plays an important, if rarely acknowledged, role in the dominant narrative of international politics—a story told by those who celebrate the “liberal international order” and lament its supposed passing in the present.
Commentators who look back fondly on an imagined era before Trump and Brexit, characterized by respect for multilateral institutions as the guarantors of stable peace and capitalist prosperity, rarely mention decolonization. But their nostalgia depends on a specific reading of it. Decolonization, in their view, marked the moment when formal national sovereignty, the model of a developmental state, and the right to participate in the global economy were extended to the non-European world.
As we can see from the stories of Rodney and Manley, decolonization, in Jamaica and around the world, was not simply a story of how peoples once excluded from international society came to take their rightful place, alongside their former colonial rulers, on the world stage and at the United Nations.
In fact, postcolonial self-determination, as Getachew persuasively argues in Worldmaking after Empire, was not the belated fulfillment of a Euro-American legacy, an inheritance passed down from Westphalia to Woodrow Wilson. Instead, anti-colonial nationalists—such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria—understood their countries’ claims to national sovereignty as both contributing to and dependent on a restructuring of the international institutions that regulate the global economy. Like Manley, these leaders wanted their nations to have not just the political rights of free states but also the economic power of equal members of the global order.
A vote at the UN in 1960 revealed how sharply the interests of these states did not align with the status quo. When statesmen like Nkrumah and Azikiwe, along with their colleagues throughout the decolonizing world, enshrined a “right to self-determination” in international law (through UN General Assembly Resolution 1514), they did so without the support of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, South Africa, or Australia.
This is an inconvenient fact for those who (still) believe decolonization was simply the straightforward fulfillment of a Wilsonian vision. Leaders like Nkrumah and Azikiwe—who understood empire not as the denial of independent statehood but rather as a worldwide system of racialized labor exploitation—envisioned self-determination as the prerequisite to securing other human rights.
Anti-colonial nationalism thus produced a number of attempts to rewrite the rules of international institutions, new visions designed to counteract the underdevelopment that empire had wrought. Getachew emphasizes two visions in particular: the short-lived attempts to create federations in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean and the broader effort by postcolonial states to form a New International Economic Order.1
By providing a new genealogy of the NIEO—now a favorite topic among historians concerned with the roads not taken on the way to neoliberalism—centered on thinkers from the Black Atlantic, Getachew makes a subtle case that contemporary attempts at global redistribution of wealth and resources will have to confront the legacies of slavery and a racialized imperial system head-on. The answer lies not in simple transfers of cash but in a more substantial rethinking of how the institutions of the world economy are ordered.
To address the inequalities of the current age of “globalization” requires a vision that recognizes the enduring legacies of colonialism and the slave trade.
At the same time that postcolonial states were attempting to enhance their bargaining power on the world stage, European powers were presenting competing visions for how they might develop the lands and peoples they had once controlled. In the midst of the Cold War, as Lorenzini shows in Global Development: A Cold War History, the European Economic Community (EEC) sought to reassert Western Europe’s central place in world affairs. It did so by offering its own development aid to postcolonial nations as a “third way,” an option untainted by associations with either the United States or the Soviet Union.
Both before and after independence, for example, the EEC presented various schemes for a “Eurafrican” economic community, defined by trade preferences and development assistance. In the 1970s, EEC officials even sought to reconcile their interests with those of the proposed NIEO demanded by so many postcolonial nations.
But even when explicitly framed as fulfilling the aims of the NIEO, these EEC proposals actually fell far short. Without the NIEO’s sharp condemnation of multinationals or commitment to applying the UN General Assembly’s principle of “one state, one vote” to matters of international economic policy, the proposals did not promise the same thoroughgoing reconstruction of the world economy.
The complex international arena, Lorenzini makes clear, shaped anti-colonial leaders’ efforts to enact their economic programs. An especially important insight she offers is that the European states were coequal competitors with the Soviet Union and the United States, vying to provide foreign aid and dictate the structure of lending and transfers from the global North to the global South. This story is missing from many recent histories of development, and Lorenzini does a service by highlighting it.
Yet her narrative is limited in presenting the political and economic visions that emerged from the decolonizing world as mere imitations of earlier Euro-American ideas. Anti-colonial nationalism, in her account, stands as a straightforward adoption of the existing form of the nation-state. Whereas Getachew understands the NIEO as an ambitious attempt to rewrite the rules of the global economy to overcome the racialized hierarchy established by colonialism, Lorenzini argues that its goal was simply “integration within the capitalist system.”
Perhaps because the most ambitious projects of anti-colonial thinkers and statesmen never came to fruition, Lorenzini underestimates the potency and creativity of their imagination.
One of the most insightful of these thinkers was Walter Rodney, whose writings exemplify the ambition of the anti-colonial imagination that Lorenzini fails to reckon with.
The forced and exploitative integration of the Third World into the world capitalist economy was perhaps the central theme of Rodney’s writings. Most famously articulated in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, a 1972 classic of historical political economy, this theme also appears in The Groundings with My Brothers. Groundings consists of a collection of Rodney’s speeches, three of which he delivered at the Black Writers’ Congress in Montreal just before he was banned from Jamaica. The new edition includes informative commentaries by Rodney’s friends and family as well as contemporary scholars.
The six speeches collected in The Groundings with My Brothers are primarily concerned with two themes, both related to the question of how significant a transformation decolonization was and could be. The first theme is the myth of a harmonious, multiracial Jamaican society. The continuation of the racial and class hierarchies of colonial Jamaica after independence inspired Rodney to look to the US Black Power movement for inspiration. These ongoing domestic challenges were inseparable, in Rodney’s mind, from the place of Jamaica in the international economy, reinforcing his conviction that national independence was only the first step in a broader movement toward decolonization.
The second major theme, precolonial African history, had a more oblique connection to the politics of Rodney’s era. But his accounts of the early history of Ethiopia, the empires of Mali and Songhai, and the states of the West African Coast served crucial purposes in his radical project. His insistence that “ancient Africa was in the mainstream of human history” aimed not only to counteract myths of African barbarism but also to lay the groundwork for his theory of colonialism as a process of active underdevelopment, which he would expound upon at much greater length in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
More significantly, his belief in the importance of African history for Jamaican students and workers was part of an effort to orient Jamaica’s politics toward the African continent, and especially toward the African socialism of figures like Nkrumah and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. This goal was in some ways achieved in the government of Michael Manley in the 1970s, as Getachew shows, through his alliance with Nyerere and others in pursuit of the NIEO.
Rodney’s work, like that of many Marxists in the global South, was often critical of the assumptions undergirding the NIEO, particularly its silence on class inequalities within the states of the decolonizing world. In retrospect, however, the distance between the NIEO and its Marxist critics narrows in comparison to the gulf that separates these visions from the dominant strands in international economic debate today.
In the decades since the eclipse of the NIEO, advocates of neoliberal globalization have argued that the postcolonial world will achieve development through ever more rapid integration into global systems of trade and finance. And so, added to the existing liberal narrative of decolonization as inclusion in an international society of nation-states was a new narrative of incomplete inclusion in the world economy. Only by giving up certain prerogatives of national sovereignty, placing decisions about currency valuations, national budgets, and more in the hands of institutions like the International Monetary Fund, could postcolonial states reap the benefits of participating in a global economy still organized around the prerogatives of European and American capitalists.
To Walter Rodney, who was assassinated in Guyana, in 1980, at the beginning of the neoliberal era, this narrative would be deeply ironic. Colonialism and the slave trade long ago “globalized” the world. To address the inequalities of the current age of “globalization” requires a vision that recognizes their enduring legacies.
This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabriel. Getachew focuses in particular on the West Indian Federation, which lasted from 1958 to 1962 and included all of the former colonies of the British West Indies, as well as the effort by Kwame Nkrumah to forge a Union of African States after Ghana won its independence. ↩