Walter Rodney
Original publication:

The Imperialist Partition of Africa (1970)

28 minutes | English | Black Liberation

All references are to Lenin’s Imperialism unless otherwise noted. [1]

Lenin very rarely mentioned Africa in his writings on colonialism, but inferences about Africa can be drawn from Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and other works. Most bourgeois writers on the partition of Africa make snide remarks on the Leninist explanation of imperialism. Because they have already established a near monopoly of what is written on the subject, it is necessary to frame this analysis as a refutation of common misconceptions. Furthermore — as is so often the case with the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin — many hostile criticisms are based on sheer ignorance of the texts. Thus the reader must bear with frequent quotations.

Lenin is generally said to have professed an “economic” theory of imperialism. This gives rise to the criticism that his theory was one-sided, because Europeans carved up Africa for several reasons — economic, political, social-humanitarian, psychological, etc. Of course Marxism does not concern itself solely with some so-called “economic” aspect of society. It is a world-view which perceives the presence of multiple variants within the complexity of human society, and seeks to unravel their relationship with reference to the material conditions of existence. Lenin did not have to spell out this elementary Marxist position in everything he wrote. His essay on imperialism dealt with the question of the expansion of the capitalist economy. The non-economic dimensions were known to exist, and were regarded as secondary. Lenin made two passing references on this point:

  1. The capitalists divide the world, not out of any particular malice, but because the degree of concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to obtain profits. And they divide it “in proportion to capital,” “in proportion to strength,” because there cannot be any other method of division under commodity production and capitalism. But strength varies with the degree of economic and political development. In order to understand what is taking place, it is necessary to know what questions are settled by the changes in strength. The question as to whether these changes are “purely” economic or non-economic (e.g., military) is a secondary one, which cannot in the least affect fundamental views on the latest epoch of capitalism. [2]

  2. The non-economic superstructure which grows up on the basis of finance capital, its politics and its ideology, stimulates the striving for colonial conquest. [3]

We do need to be informed as to how changes in the politico-military balance of power and European national aspirations for domination stimulated the striving for colonies in Africa. Such factors were not outside Lenin’s field of awareness, and exploiting them at length does not in the slightest invalidate his thesis. For example, such facts as that the French are hung up on “prestige,” or that changes take place in the so-called “balance of power” have to be related to the political economy of Europe. They did not arise out of thin air. They were products of the development of monopoly capitalism within the boundaries of several European nation states. The elaboration of this argument would carry us deeper into the European past, which is outside the scope of this brief analysis. The more pertinent question is: How far and in what ways did monopoly capital impinge on Africa during the period of the notorious scramble?

A great deal of trouble has been taken to show that little capital was invested in Africa prior to the first worldwide capitalist war. Western Europe invested far more in Eastern Europe, the United States, Latin America, and Asia than it did in Africa. This is a contradiction of Lenin only for those who have not read Lenin. Lenin’s examples of investment by monopolies outside of the capitalist epicenters are situated in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. He cited Russia, Romania, Turkey, and Argentina most forcefully as countries on the receiving end of investment and exploitation.

Only Britain, with a large number of old and new colonies, was exporting a significant proportion of its capital to its political colonies in the early part of this century. France was investing mainly in Russia, and Germany divided its interests between Eastern Europe and the Americas.

Lenin quoted the geographer Supan to the effect that the characteristic feature of the late nineteenth century was the division of Africa and Polynesia. He then added that “Mr. Supan’s conclusion must be carried further, and we must say that the characteristic feature of this period is the final partition of the globe, not in the sense that a new partition is impossible; on the contrary, new partitions are possible and inevitable, but in the sense that the colonial policy of the capitalist countries has completed the seizure of the unoccupied territories on our planet.” [4] Lenin’s emphasis on “completed” is significant, because it places the scramble for Africa within the context of a single process emanating from Europe and spreading across the whole world. Its intensity was not the same at all points. Huge amounts of capital were not initially invested in Africa, but Africa could not escape the inexorable process of expansion, domination, and partition which had its roots in monopoly capital.

Lenin took pains to show that the division of the world among capitalist monopolies and the nation-states in which they were encrusted was not a policy option which could just as well have been replaced by more enlightened thinking. He emphasized the internal logic which made international partitioning inseparable from the nature of monopoly capital in that epoch. Africa was the great unknown continent. Europeans dreamed of its great potential. Certain remarks of Lenin are particularly apt in this regard:

Finance capital is not only interested in the already known sources of raw materials, … because present-day technical development is extremely rapid. … Hence the inevitable striving of finance capital to extend its economic territory and even its territory in general. In the same way that the trusts capitalize their property by estimating it at two or three times its value, taking into account its “potential” (and not present) returns, and the further results of monopoly, so finance capital strives to seize the largest possible amount of land of all kinds and in any place it can, and by any means, counting on the possibilities of finding raw materials there and fearing to be left behind in the insensate struggle for the last available scraps of undivided territory. [5]

It took a considerable time before imperialist powers made efforts to invest large amounts of capital in Africa as a whole. In the case of France, significant capital investment in Africa is a post-Second World War phenomenon. Lenin had noted that the possibility of exporting capital to backward countries was created by those countries having been drawn previously into international capitalist intercourse, thereby creating elementary conditions (such as the start of railway and port construction) for further and more intensified involvement. The necessary infrastructure was emerging in Eastern Europe, the Americas, and parts of Asia; but this occurred scarcely anywhere in Africa during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Lenin, like Marx before him, recognized the tremendous contribution made by Africa to the accumulation of capital during the epoch of the slave trade. The fact that he did not deal with Africa at any length in the context of imperialism was not an oversight, for in that epoch Africa was marginal to the development of capitalism.

An understanding of this has frequently been obscured by a tendency to caricature Lenin’s theory of imperialism to mean the division of the world into political colonies. Since Africa was the classic example of political partition, it would then follow that Africa was the continent in which monopoly was principally interested. Lenin spoke first and foremost about the “struggle for economic territory.” Imperialist nations sometimes found it possible and necessary to transform their economic territories into political colonies, so as to reinforce exploitation and protect their capitalists front foreign competition. As Lenin put it: “Colonial possession alone gives complete guarantee of success to the monopolies against all the risks of struggle with competitors, including the risk that the latter will defend themselves by means of a law establishing a state monopoly.” [6] Nevertheless, monopoly capital often settled for spheres of economic interest which retained varying degrees of political independence.

Monopoly capital had a small representation on the African continent relative to its presence in Asia and America, but it appeared in sufficient force to precipitate the ruthless scramble for Africa. It must be borne in mind that such capital as was invested in Africa was concentrated in two key areas: South Africa and Egypt, with the Congo, the Maghreb, and Nigeria as other decisive points. Looking at East Africa, one bourgeois historian (Koebner) remarked that “the Imperial British East African Company was certainly not a galaxy of big capitalist interests.” [7] This was meant as a neat aside which would put down the Leninist interpretation, and it is actually factually accurate though woefully out of focus. Lenin’s position did not imply that every part of Africa was bulging with surplus capital brought in by big European monopolies. It is not necessary, for example, to seek a specific reason why Europeans wanted the region that is now the Central African Republic. It is enough to know that monopoly capital was interested in a few parts of the continent where potential was to some extent verified. In squabbling for those areas, Europeans also saw fit to apportion among themselves the great unknown expanses — especially since nobody wanted to miss a share, not even Spain or Italy.

The main elements of the epoch of Cecil Rhodes in Southern Africa are too well known to require attention here. All the ingredients about which Lenin spoke were clearly present. There were Rhodes and De Beers representing monopoly capital; there were gold and diamonds and the possibility of extensive railroad development; there was Anglo-German competition; and there was the spectacle of both the Boers and the Africans being subjected to and incorporated into the far-flung empire of capital. The Egyptian scene is equally well-known, the Suez canal being symbolic of the great ambitions of European finance capital. Disraeli was nothing but a front man for the Rothschilds, who later utilized their political influence to bring about the conquest of Egypt. [8] Besides, British capitalists interested in India had good reason for wanting to oust the French and colonize Egypt and the Sudan.

In Egypt, Britain and France invested capital directly in the Canal and indirectly in other sectors through loans. The French were very keen on loan capital, as Lenin observed, when he said that “French imperialism might be termed usury imperialism.” [9] This was well exemplified in the Maghreb. French occupation of Tunisia was achieved through a policy of financial loans at extravagant rates to an equally extravagant Bey of Tunis, who still existed in the feudal atmosphere of the Crusades, and who proved easy prey for the manipulations of European financiers. Britain and Italy were also in on the deal, but France shut them out by an armed attack on Tunis in 1881 — expressively termed a Coup de Bourse. The Sultan of Morocco was caught in the same bag when in 1904 he negotiated a loan of 62.5 million francs from French banks, pledging 60 percent of the nation’s customs revenue as security.

Algeria was an exception, though not a very important one from an analytic viewpoint. Its coastlands had fallen prey to French greed since 1830, and so the beginning of its colonization was not part of the general imperialist expansion. However, from the 1880s interest in Algeria was stimulated by France’s new offensive in Africa, and the Maghreb in particular. When Lenin referred to Portugal as a British colony, he indicated that this was true long before the heyday of imperialism, but that it had assumed new significance in the epoch of partition. His remarks in that context are quite appropriate to the Algerian-French relationship. “Relations of this kind,” said Lenin, “have always existed between big and little states. But during the period of capitalist imperialism they become a general system, they form part of the process of ‘dividing the world’; they become a link in the chain of operations of world finance capital.” [10] In Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, military force was applied in the interests of finance as well as to keep the Mediterranean plains free for European settlers. This question of finding room for Europe’s “surplus population” was one to which Lenin gave prominence, taking his cue from the pronouncements of imperialists like Cecil Rhodes. In practice, it was not an important theme in the imperialist take-over of the African continent, the Maghreb being one of the few areas where it was applicable.

South of the Sahara and north of the Transvaal lies the vast mass of black Africa, which was so blithely cut up by the robber statesmen who sat together in Berlin in 1884. Setting apart Egypt and South Africa as “exceptional” capital-receiving countries in nineteenth-century Africa cleared the way for mystifying the partition of the rest of the continent by talking about explorers and missionaries bringing civilization to the natives. Yet, in some ways it can be said that nowhere is the universality of the Leninist formulation better vindicated than in these lands where capitalism had previously unleashed slave trading from the East and West Coasts. “Under the old capitalism, when free competition prevailed, the export of goods was the most typical feature,” said Lenin. “Under modern capitalism, when monopolies prevail, the export of capital has become the typical feature.” [11] A glance at the evidence would show that this changeover was sharply effected in tropical Africa. During the epoch of the slave trade, Europeans carried goods to Africa and exchanged them for human beings, who were thus transformed into saleable commodities. When Europe became interested in the raw materials of the continent, capital was sent to transform Africans into workers and peasants producing for the capitalist market.

The Congo has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first as well as one of the last African countries in which slaving took place. By the nineteenth century someone living in the Congo basin could be seized and sent westward to the Atlantic or eastward to the Indian Ocean. Imperialist Europe had to stamp out the slave trade where it still survived; the new necessity was for African labour to be harnessed by European capital so as to export raw materials like rubber and cotton. Enter Livingstone, Stanley, and King Leopold, backed by the Belgian franc and white missionaries who preached the redeeming value of work which produced what capitalism required.

It is a mere illusion to present the Congo as the property of one man (King Leopold) and to discuss its colonisation in terms of personal fancy. It was because several nations were bent on exploiting the Congo that it was left under the nominal administration of the ruler of a small state. Britain was itself interested only in a guarantee of trade and not in sovereignty over the country. Britain first tried for a treaty with Portugal which would have given the Congo to the Portuguese, while allowing British merchants to enjoy extensive privileges. Later Britain fell in line with France and Germany in support of Leopold’s creation of a “Congo Free State” — free in the sense that there should be no restrictions on trade and investment by capitalists of all countries. There was a great humanitarian outcry against the atrocities committed by Europeans in the Congo under Leopold’s regime, but the international commission which studied the situation was more interested in the fact that Leopold had violated the agreements on free trade. In 1906, as Leopold’s personal rule drew to an end, he felt obliged to offer four huge concessions to British, French, and American capitalists. That was the point at which Union Minière and Forminière came into being, and the Congo took the first step toward becoming the cockpit of international monopoly capital.

The Congo was atypical. Elsewhere in Africa, the principal European capitalist nations seized economic territory and ran up their own flags to prove the point. Sometimes, the flagpoles seem to have been stuck in the ground without rhyme or reason. Why little Gambia inside Senegal’s belly? Why German Togo and French Dahomey closeted between the British colonies of Gold Coast and Nigeria? The only explanation (and one highlighted by Lenin) is the European search for raw materials — particularly for edible oils and fats which were obtainable in West Africa from the oil palm and the peanut. It was in order to maintain investments which encouraged the growing of peanuts that British capitalists clung to Gambia; while Togo and Dahomey were “protectorates” established by Germany and France to protect their interests in palm oil.

The German involvement in the palm-oil trade and its acquisition of Togo constitute a small episode which illumines one of Lenin’s principal arguments concerning the way that Germany was fast outstripping Britain and France in the phase of monopoly capital. Germany had a major interest in the West African oil palm because its expanding industries and railways had need for more lubricants, its proletariat offered a large market for cheap cooking oils, its advanced mixed-farming sector utilized palm-kernel cake as stock feed, its steamships had established direct lines with West (and East) Africa, and Hamburg was the only place in Europe with the machinery for crushing palm kernels. The consequence of all this was that Germany received a much larger share of the “economic territory” of West Africa than is apparent, by encroaching into territory politically controlled by Britain and France. By 1885, German firms (backed by the Disconto Bank) had secured over half of the palm kernel exports of the British protectorate of Lagos, and one third of the palm oil. More than three quarters of the palm kernels exported from British West Africa went to Germany up to 1914. Besides, the acquisition of the small colony of Togo (and the other German colonies) was a notable achievement in that German economic power had to overcome the long historical headstart established by Britain and France, whose presence in West Africa dated from the period of the slave trade.

Not all companies engaged in palm-oil trade were monopoly concerns. On the contrary, the commerce got underway in the early nineteenth century with a large number of small entrepreneurs who were known as “palm-oil ruffians” and whose activities constituted a phase of violent free enterprise. But by the time of the partition, the Niger riser had a single giant firm, the Royal Niger Chartered Company, which was the first colonial government of Northern Nigeria, just as Rhodes’s more notorious British South African Company was entrusted with the destiny of South Africa’s peoples. The way the RNCC subsumed and consumed competitors by mergers, cut prices, and other means fits neatly into the classic pattern analyzed by Lenin. Its charter (granted in 1886) ended in 1897, but it continued as the Niger Company until 1911 when it was taken under the wing of Lever Brothers. A large part of Nigerian production was therefore destined to fall under the control of the African capitalist octopus, the United Africa Company, which in turn was a subsidiary of (Anglo-Dutch) Unilever.

Lenin had spoken of monopoly in the sense of the dominance of one or two firms within a particular branch of industry in a given capitalist economy. In the economic partition and repartition of Africa, new dimensions of monopoly appeared. Firstly, some European firms established dominance over colonial trade — a much more diffuse category than, say, the steel, oil, or chemical industries which were the objects of Lenin’s attention. Thus the UAC appeared in all British colonies and in the Congo, Dahomey, Upper Volta, Chad, and the Carnations, handling whatever raw materials happened to be staple in those territories. Secondly, the UAC in most cases extended — its tentacles over all facets of a given colonial economy — from shipping to the distribution of razor blades in its own retail shops. Similarly, French colonial monopolies such as CFAO, SCOA, and Madagascar Import-Export were actively engaged in concessionaire agricultural activity as well as handling most of the imports and exports. No monopoly, however great, could have such complete control over a metropolitan capitalist economy.

It must be reiterated that Lenin had little to say that was explicitly concerned with Africa. From that it follows that while his insights provide an immediate point of departure for an analysis of the imperialist partition of Africa, one should not expect to find all the answers in his writings. For that matter, Lenin did not pose a very significant question: Why did imperialism appear in Africa in the form of political partition? This omission is one reason why bourgeois writers have got away with blurring the distinction between imperialism and the political partition of Africa. The two things are not interchangeable. Imperialism derived from the expansion of the capitalist economy, while partition was determined by (a) the nature of African social formations, (b) the element of racism within the capitalist superstructure, and (c) the opposition of Africans to European incursion.

In some cases, imperialism was prepared to allow countries their political independence (as in Latin America and the Balkans), while in others European intervention in tax collection and the setting up of spheres of commercial interest (as in China), gravely impaired political independence but did not abolish it altogether. In Latin America and Eastern Europe, there were social classes which were playing a role within capitalist production long before the imperialist epoch. These countries were easily incorporated by imperialism, provided that nothing was done to openly deprive them of the attributes of national sovereignty, for they had a bourgeoisie which had participated in national revolutions. In nineteenth-century China, there existed a bureaucratic feudal class and the beginnings of a national bourgeoisie, both of which could be used as instruments of foreign capital. The bureaucratic feudalists in particular were rapidly transformed into compradors serving imperialism. Most of Africa in this period was pre-feudal in its social relations, and Europeans therefore found it necessary to introduce their own personnel and to set up their own governments.

However, there were a few Africans with the necessary social experience who could have functioned independently within the colonial framework. In Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria, an African educated elite was in the process of formation ever since the end of the eighteenth century, and was quite prominent by the time colonial government was instituted. The coming of colonialism involved the deliberate destruction of this black elite because of the racism spawned in the earlier phase of capitalist expansion when genocide in Latin America and the enslavement of Africans had to be given pseudo-scientific and obscurantist philosophical justification.

South Africa was another laboratory in which the white racist virus was cultivated; and while capitalism subordinated the quasi-feudal economy of the Boers, it was found useful to further entrench racism as a prop to the brutal exploitation of the labour of the black peoples of Southern Africa. As a part of the capitalist superstructure, racism was so powerful that Europeans could scarcely bear the thought of politically independent Ethiopia and Liberia on the African continent, despite the fact that both of those states had become enmeshed in the international capitalist system.

Africa had no revolutionary nationalist traditions which would have clashed with colonialist ambitions. Nevertheless, there was widespread resistance to the imposition of colonial rule, because people spontaneously defended their way of life against aliens. In one instance — that of Ethiopia — European force was inadequate, and the Ethiopians trounced the Italians at Dogali in 1887 and more decisively at Adowa in 1896, thus guaranteeing their political independence. On the other hand, Britain suffered some setbacks in Egypt and the Sudan, and used those as stepping stones to political power. It is quite true that British statesmen did not envisage political rule over Egypt when British capital was first invested in the Suez Canal. The embryonic Egyptian nationalist movement under Colonel Urabi and the Sudanese victory over Generals Hicks and Gordon were undoubtedly events which forced Britain to exercise political domination over Egypt and the Sudan. From the events in Egypt some bourgeois writers have drawn the mindless conclusion that it was the Egyptian nationalist revolt rather than finance capital which explains the presence of British imperialism in that part of Africa. Clearly, the nationalist manifestation was a response to British imperialism, which (with its French counterpart) had already taken possession of Egypt as an economic territory. For Lenin, the division of economic territory was the central factor, and the correctness of that position is powerfully evident today in Africa when imperialism has almost completely changed its form of political partition, the better to pursue the substance of economic exploitation.

[1] V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). [web] 

[2] Ch. 5. 

[3] Ch. 6. 

[4] Ch. 6. 

[5] Ch. 6. 

[6] Ch. 6. 

[7] Richard Koebner, “The Concept of Economic Imperialism” (1949), The Economic History Review. [web] 

[8] The “Suez” section of Benjamin Disraeli’s Wikipedia article covers this relationship in some detail. [web] 

[9] Ch. 4. 

[10] Ch. 6. 

[11] Ch. 4.