Historically, as well as logically, “development” precedes “underdevelopment”: the condition of the one was to a large extent the creation of the other. Whatever the importance of continental distinctions in social structure and civilization in the medieval period, it is clear that the steady expansion overseas of post-Renaissance Europe not merely discovered, but created a “new world”. The violent penetration and rupture of traditional pre-capitalist societies, and the subjugation of the economic life of the greater part of the world to the profit impulse of the Western bourgeoisie constituted the fundamental reality of the 16th–20th centuries, irreparably separating them from what had gone before. The various forms of European intervention themselves provoked the complex of dislocations and contradictions which we term under-development and which are original to this epoch, qualitatively different from the backwardness of the civilizations contemporary with feudal western Europe. Consciousness of this fact today throughout the Third World is a phenomenon of the utmost importance, a capital moment in the struggle for decolonization and the achievement of an authentic national existence.

The fundamental disequilibrium, common to all under-developed countries, is that between a “capitalist” exchange sector possessing almost the totality of wealth and amenities yet involving only a fraction of the population, and a “traditional” sector in stagnation and disarray, characterized by a racing demography, archaic techniques, absence of capital and chronic underemployment. This disintegration and absence of a wide monetary circuit was tolerated only because it served the limited interests of an alein capitalism, and because (in many cases) a local minority was able to consolidate its social domination and economic privileges upon the perpetuation of this statute. Privileged and dominant elites were no new phenomenon in these traditional societies, but domination and privilege assumed original and acute forms once integrated into a world system of capitalist exploitation. Economic, social and cultural dislocation without the possibility of re-integration was the consequence: collapse of traditional communal structures following upon expropriations and the brutal establishment of capitalist and semi-capitalist relations; decay of the traditional artisanate in face of industrial competition; elaboration of multiple forms of debt enslavement; reinforcement of chiefly and semi-feudal powers; creation of a ramifying network of parasitic commercial activities; the speculative concentration of capital and amenities in the advanced sector; erection of a modern technical apparatus (communications, army and gendarmerie) to further this order.

The nationalist and post-colonial regimes of today inherit this dual economy and socio-cultural debris. The culmination of the anti-colonial and liberation struggle merely confronts them with their misery. The situation demands of nationalist leaders great determination and resourcefulness, and of socialists in advanced countries a difficult and critical solidarity. In particular, it is urgently necessary to develop a general theory of decolonization if Western socialists are to grasp the significance of the present conjuncture and the possibilities it offers. Our positions must be principled but nuanced, neither excommunicating newly independent nations “until they have carried out their social revolution” nor relapsing into an ameliorative “technicism” or an arithmetical charity which can often merely serve neocolonial projects, perpetuating the strategic and economic interests of advanced capitalism.

René Dumont, agronomist and socialist, has consistently and lucidly confronted these responsibilities. His latest book L’Afrique Noire est mal partie (“Black Africa has started badly”)footnote1 is a major contribution to a socialist theory of rural transformation in under-developed areas. The book has a two-fold ambition and utility. A rigorous and clearly articulated structure enables Dumont to resume the geographic and historical determinants of present agrarian patterns; he then outlines the indispensable conditions of development and identifies the crucial dangers today. As the title suggests, the defaults and errors which are already sabotaging programmes of rural recovery and national construction in many African countries provide a central theme which gives the book its special importance in any general study of decolonization. Dumont also however puts forward a wide variety of practical proposals for improvement ranging from a viable programme of microhydraulics to a radical overhaul of the educational structures inherited from colonial rule. L’Afrique Noire est mal partie is thus a direct intervention by a European Socialist aimed at relevant government officials, advisers, administrators and militants in Africa. The book covers French-speaking Africa from Dakar to Tananarive: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Haute Volta, Togo, Dahomey, Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Cameroun, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-leopoldville, Ruanda, Burundi and Malagasy. Reference is also made to Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Uganda, but predominantly Dumont is dealing with the condition of former French Africafootnote2. For this reason the book is unlikely to be translated.

Shattered by the slave-trade (the haemorrhage of productive forces) and colonial primitive accumulation, tropical Africa in the words of the FAO mission “now exhibits in an extreme form all of the characteristics of under-development”footnote3. Among colonial zones it received the least inflow of capital. Thus, the traditional economy, despite its archaic techniques and backward social and political forms it projected, remain relatively undisturbed (or where disrupted underwent recidivism), a dead weight of subsistence cultivation and pastoralism. Further, this agrarian civilization was for the most part itself exceedingly primitive if we compare it with, for example, pre-revolutionary Chinafootnote4. Characterized by an extensive, shifting culture in the savannahs, by collecting and hunting in the forests, by divorce between livestock and cultural regimes and reliance on natural fertilization, this rural economy is only ecologically viable at a low population density. Under-employment and under-nourishment are acute. This system is in fact already regressing under the joint impact of demographic growth (2%–2.5%) and the advance of commercialized industrial crops. Reliable figuresfootnote5 for the production of industrial crops and foodstuffs during the decade 1950–60 indicate this commercialization and the correlated lack of improvement in nutritional standards: in Nigeria, industrial crops increased 7.2% per annum to foodcrops 3.8%; in Cameroun the figures were 6% and 2%; in Ghana 3.7% and 2.9%. This cash production takes two forms—“pure” plantation production (mainly foreign ownership) and the marketing of surplus by peasant farmers who still grow primarily for subsistence. Obviously the objective of any rural development programme is to increase this commercial production while improving nutritional levels.

This raises a first general question, however: the perspective of development. Dumont adopts a clear and explicit position on priorities. No country is assigned by destiny an “agricultural vocation”. In a world market characterized by falling agricultural commodity prices only industrialization can provide “the essential lever of long-term economic decolonization”. Moreover, the domination of commercial over industrial capital, typical of ex-colonialisation, can only be overcome in this way. Having said this, rural renovation, while not a higher priority, is a task of greater immediacy. Humanly, because this is still a predominantly rural world whose population is inefficiently employed, increasing swiftly, living on a defective diet with minimal income (the average per capita income of most African countries is well below $100 per annum and is much lower in the rural sector). Economically, because this rural poverty is the essential block to industrialization. Agricultural expansion is triply necessary to industrialization: to purchase capital goods imports; to supply raw materials for industrial processing; and to create the internal market for manufactured products. Only an overall plan can adjudicate between these human and economic needs, between present consumption and investments for the future. With these principles in mind, we can turn to the central themes of the book.

The crucial fact in the tropical countries of former French Africa is the coincidence of an aberrant and inhuman social structure with under-development itself: polarization of resources and opportunities, social and cultural fracture and extreme irrationality mark the whole system. This fragmented and exploitative order is supported by the inertia of the exploited and the economic political and cultural coercion exercised by deputies, chiefs, usurers, religious authorities. This duality of inertia and coercion assumes different forms in various historico-cultural contexts but it is universally evident that any economic breakthrough must also be radical social and cultural transformation, a multiform revolution. Thus, a dramatic increase in rural productivity and earnings is a revolutionary goal, which can not be effected by purely bureaucratic means. It involves a mobilization of hitherto depressed and latent productive forces. Dumont’s honesty and intelligence are fully engaged in the confrontation of this problem. He sketches out what might be termed a theory of African exploitation, which has one extraordinary merit: it shows how the gaining of political independence may itself accentuate economic polarization and cultural disintegration.