The 1970s saw a paradigm shift in much social science writing on Africa. Drawing on the work of Latin American neo-Marxists who posited a "dependency theory" of underdevelopment, Africanists, of whom Guyanese academic Rodney became one of the best known with this book, abandoned the notion that infusions of "modernization" were the answer to Africa's backwardness. Instead they embraced the premise that the capitalist world system was a zero-sum game in which the strong enriched themselves at the expense of the weak. Thus, under development in the precapitalist Third World -- in technological, industrial, educational, military, and organizational terms -- was interpreted less as a residual condition than as a byproduct of exploitation by First World capitalism. Rodney's book, which highlighted the debilitating effects of the slave trade and other depredations, lacks the academic rigor of writings by neo-Marxist Africanists such as Giovanni Arrighi, Colin Leys, Charles van Onselen, and Colin Bundy. However, the sweep of Rodney's historical interpretation secured a popular audience that more narrowly focused works did not enjoy.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.