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3: The appropriation of peasant surplus labour

If the modes of production that existed in precolonial Africa had, as we have seen, strong tendencies to stagnation or even regression (and these tendencies were accentuated by the slave trade), the African societies of that time that rested on these modes of production could not prevent the settlement of colonial invaders despite often very strong resistance. As they installed themselves so capitalism reduced these precapitalist modes of production to its domination.

In what form, and through what types of relations was this subordination secured? It should be recalled that the beginnings of the colonial era were preceded by the establishment of merchant capitalism along the African coasts in the form notably of trading posts. This merchant capital performed the role of a transmission belt marketing tropical products in the metropoles in order to supply the holders of industrial capital. In the metropoles themselves, the integration of industrial capital and finance capital was underway but was still just beginning.

Torn between its concern to secure protection for itself against African rulers and its fear of seeing the metropolis penetrate and administer the African continent directly - which might challenge its role and monopoly as middleman - this overseas merchant capital was soon overtaken by the competing interests of different European nations. Under the sway of more powerful industrial and finance capitalism in Europe, and anxious to carve out for themselves protected economic spaces overseas which would be exclusively reserved to them, the nations of Europe embarked on colonial conquests, each one trying to seize, control and administer as much territory as possible. In this way, European national industrial capital was able to ensure for itself sources of raw materials and outlets for its products, well sheltered from international competition. In the same way, it was thought that finance capital could hope for new investment possibilities for this capital.

But reality was very different. For much of the colonial era, industrial and finance capital played only an insignificant role in the exploitation of the African colonies. On this point Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch notes: Neither did the partition of tropical Africa, carried out with no major pre-existing economic motive, give rise to the development that might have been expected. Its exploitation was a late display of archaeo-imperialism. Until the Second World War the colonial trade economy there continued to be based on pillage.'1 This makes it possible to spell out the nature of the capitalism to which the precapitalist African social formations were subordinated: capitalism of an essentially merchant and archaic character with no concern to invest and even incapable of doing so, animated by the feverish desire to extract from African productive systems as much as possible, as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible.

It was the objectives, the means and the methods of this archaic capitalism, which were to play a leading role in the nature and scale of the changes that the pre-existing modes of production experienced, which were examined in the previous chapter.

If capitalism in general is preoccupied by the quest for profit, merchant capitalism was here concerned with the maximum appropriation of the surplus labour of African manpower. Its behaviour towards the relations of production already existing in these societies was a function of these concerns.

So long as the defeated aristocracies were disposed to co-operate so as to extract more from the surplus labour of the peasant masses, it did not seem necessary - indeed quite the opposite - to tamper with the pre-existing social hierarchies. Thus, when the traditional chiefs were agreeable, they were kept in office. Only the recalcitrant were exiled. To achieve greater efficiency in the exploitation of the peasant masses, a colonial administration was added on top of the African aristocracy.

Depending on the circumstances and the places, however, the modes of production sometimes suffered major changes, carried out of course by means of the harshest violence. This was what usually happened when capitalism deemed it in its interests: the lands of the peasants were seized; labour was removed from areas with a low productive potential to areas with a high potential; money was introduced in order to impose a certain type of production.

These phenomena did not all have the same importance everywhere. But they played their part in modifying some rules and customs of the traditional social formations:

1. The expropriation of the peasants led in some regions to the appearance of private ownership of land and hence destroyed, partly at least, its communal appropriation.

2. The forced removal of labour led in those areas where this had taken place to partial dislocation of the lineage.

3. The introduction of money for the payment of taxes, in particular, forced the traditional formations to enter commodity systems.

All that is reminiscent of the primitive accumulation of capital described by Marx in Capital and which relates to the period in the West in which capitalism was being consolidated on the ruins of feudalism. There are, however, considerable differences.

In the first place, except for the problem of the integration of the precolonial formations into the commodity system through the introduction of money, the two other phenomena mentioned above - the dispossession of the peasants and removal of labour - did not occur all over the continent, but here and there. Hence, the objective of capitalism here was not to dissolve traditional modes of production. So long as these could be useful to it, capitalism saw no need to do so. In the West, on the other hand, the objective of capitalism was in general the dissolution of the feudal system.

Another major difference relates to the means used. Whereas in the West the dispossession of the peasants and the constitution of a labour market in the service of capital were essentially achieved through the economic power of capitalism, in Africa the expropriation of the peasants and the removal of labour were achieved by means of brute force. In the last analysis, it can be said that colonial capitalism accommodated itself to the African socioeconomic formations when they served it well and sometimes altered them considerably when its interests so demanded.

Thus, according to the productive potential of the subject regions, it can be observed that the colonial system operated two broad types to establish its domination:

Colonies of settlement in which the colonial administration dispossessed the indigenous peasants of their lands to the benefit of European populations. This was the case in North Africa, notably in Algeria, and in much of southern and eastern Africa.

Colonies of exploitation in which the colonial administration made no particular effort to settle the land with white settlers, but rather sought to have the land worked by the peasants for the benefit of the metropolis. This was the case in much of Africa south of the Sahara.

While the forms of exploitation varied, the means used and the objective aimed at were quite similar. It involved using methods of force and forced labour to exploit the labour force massively while avoiding recourse to machines which, produced in the metropolis under the capitalist mode of production, were expensive and raised the costs of production.

The forms of exploitation in the settler colonies were more reminiscent of the forms of the primitive accumulation of capital which had developed in the centre at the beginning of the industrial era. These were the violent dispossession of the peasants, the granting of their lands to white settlers, the transformation of the dispossessed peasants into landless peasants obliged to work in the plantations acquired by the settlers, or in the mines where underground resources were abundant.

In the settler colonies of British-ruled southern Africa, the populations were driven back and concentrated on small poor lands thus constituting inexhaustible labour reserves. Since the conditions of production did not allow them the means to survive in these lands, these populations were reduced to working as wage labourers in the settlers' plantations or to being taken on as workers in the mines. Thus proletarianized, they constituted only a bastardized proletariat to the extent that the bosses in no way assured them the full conditions of the reproduction of their labour power: their conditions were very low wages, no social security, no old age pensions.

This manner of treating wage-earners was indeed typical of the whole colonial system in general. The costs of maintaining wage-earners were never wholly paid for by the system, wage-earners having no choice but to rely on the peasant, family-based economy to guarantee them a significant portion of the means of reproduction of the labour force placed at the service of capital. The wage was in fact simply a little topping-up, and through the wage-earners it was the peasantry who suffered an extra form of exploitation.

The enclosing of the peasants of southern Africa in reservation areas and the possibility for capital of obtaining however much cheap manpower it needed fully justified describing this part of the continent as the economy of the labour reserves.

Elsewhere, in tropical Africa, the establishment of white settlers on the land was rather limited. The colonial system organized the trading economy based on the production of tropical products in exchange for manufactured goods. But what should be emphasized is that this was not a free exchange. The peasants were not free to produce what they wanted, but only to produce what the colonizer wanted and on the conditions determined by him. For that every form of constraint was used.

In the beginning the colonial trading economy rested mainly on the products which could be found on the spot: palm products, timber, shea butter, jute, gum and other products of gathering. Groundnuts and cotton were developed later and were followed by the introduction of new crops previously unknown in much of Africa. Even in 1914, products of gathering still accounted for half the exports of French-ruled Africa. From this period the new products began to take over first place. Throughout the first period the most archaic means - which were also almost without cost - were used to ensure production.

The system of crops and forced labour which remained the general rule led to mediocre results at the level of production which remained unchanged or fell year by year despite the increased resort to force.

It was with the development of cash crops, which offered great possibilities for profits, and in order to increase yields that recourse was had to capital. Thus people began to buy the peasant's crop directly from the peasant, naturally at a price below its value. Compared to the conditions that had prevailed previously and which meant that the village chief was paid a fixed sum for the entire production of the village, this was already progress. The peasants generally saw none of this payment which the village chiefs and their entourage tended to appropriate.

The spread of the use of money and the increase of direct trade with the peasants led to the reduction of compulsory crops; this made it possible to relaunch production, especially of new crops. Thus in French West Africa coffee production rose from 60 tons in 1920-24 to 11,101 tons in 1935-39. Cocoa production rose from 2,586 tons in 1920-24 to 49,871 tons in 1935-39.2

While the colonial companies increasingly resigned themselves to purchasing from the peasants, producer prices remained excessively low. In 1925, for example, the colonial companies purchased a kilo of cottonseed from the producer at 1.25 F. and sold cotton lint at 12.50 F in the metropolis. If processing and equivalent quantities of cottonseed and cotton lint are taken into account, they were making at least a 300% profit. These companies deemed the price paid to the peasants too high, however, and persuaded the colonial administration to reduce the price; it fell to 0.60 F/kg. in 1933-34.

The development of the colonial trading economy which consisted in using small amounts of capital to remunerate the peasant producers was not accompanied by a parallel investment in machinery to improve production techniques.

At the level of cultivation of the land, ploughing, sowing, harvesting, maintenance work on the plantations, the initial processing of products (decortication, ginning), in short all the operations, were done manually. And this was in spite of the establishment of some settlers on plantation lands in countries which were not particularly suited to being settler colonies. On these settler lands the same archaic methods were employed by a labour force doing forced labour and later, paid labour. Until the post-war period, the only novelties to appear in the production of the colonial trading economy as compared to the precolonial period were related simply to the nature of the products, with the introduction of cash crops. The colonial trading economy thus relied entirely on the outright exploitation of the peasant labour force: from cultivation to initial processing, from the transport of products to the buying centres, to storing and loading, everything rested on physical labour.

During the same period, food was in increasingly short supply because of the decline of food crops in favour of export crops. The dramatic consequences involved a decline in population. Some regions became depopulated as a result of people fleeing to areas with a secure food supply. Sometimes it was the colonial administration that moved some peoples from regions with a poor agricultural export potential to regions where there were serious labour shortages.

Ultimately, until the post-war period, the colonial economy was simply an all-devouring pillage economy organized by the colonial companies and enterprises, and the demands of rapid accumulation had a much higher priority than any concern for rational exploitation. The more the super-profits realized in the colonies accumulated in the metropolis, the more the destructive practice of pillage developed.

In fact, the use of archaic and irrational methods in the exploitation of the resources of the colonies corresponded to the establishment of a capitalism that was itself backward and little developed. One-man enterprises with limited means were the most common form. In 1956, these were still responsible for 61% of the business in French West Africa, as against 39% for the private sector companies.

This type of capitalism could only survive in the colonies because, in the metropolis, capitalism was still more national than international in character.

The formation of an economically united Europe with common customs, the result of the growing internationalization of capital, especially industrial and finance capital, was to put an end to the reign of purely national companies in the centre. There necessarily ensued a review of the privileged and protected situations enjoyed by one-man enterprises in the colonies. With the growing internationalization of capitalism, larger financial means were made available to develop exports from the colonies. In the same way, the form of political domination was to be profoundly altered. Direct domination was gradually to give way to administrative autonomy.

Industrial and finance capital came increasingly to occupy the mining and industrial sector. The old colonial capitalism was more or less sacrificed and some economic positions were abandoned to local privileged strata living in the orbit of colonialism: planters, traders, officials in the administration. Thus, the process of forming an African bourgeoisie got underway. The birth of this bourgeoisie is linked to changes in capitalism which, in order to modernize these forms of exploitation of the colonies, needed class allies on the spot to launch the process of emancipating the colonies that was rendered necessary with the internationalization of capital. The contradictions between bourgeois fractions in the metropolis were exacerbated by this problem of emancipation. But the struggles waged by the colonized peoples themselves facilitated the triumph of the most modern and most powerful fractions of central capitalism, which were advocates of an emancipation which would inaugurate the neocolonial era and make possible large-scale exploitation at little cost (reduction in the costs of administration and the maintenance of order) to the colonial system.

These struggles against classic colonialism were led in the colonies by bourgeois or petty bourgeois fractions determined to strengthen their particular economic positions at the expense of small colonial enterprises, but in alliance with metropolitan big capital which also favoured modern forms of domination, leaving a considerable political and economic place to these local privileged strata.

These bourgeois and petty bourgeois fractions were active in a variety of areas. In plantation agriculture they waged a ferocious struggle against forced labour in order to secure labour on the same terms as the white settlers. The success achieved in this area enabled them to exploit cheap wage labour, generally in the plantations, the largest of which belonged to former traditional chiefs.

In seasonal savannah agriculture these privileged strata played above all the role of intermediaries between the peasant producers and the colonial companies, controlling in this way the collection and resale of peasant production and selling the peasants imported goods in return. This intermediary role enabled them to engage in large-scale speculation.

Among these privileged strata, there also figured prominently politically active intellectuals who were determined to give themselves an economic base by exploiting their positions in the neocolonial state apparatuses conceived as part of the new forms of domination prepared by big capital. These various social strata received their shares - crumbs, of course - of the surplus labour extorted from the peasant masses. They were to constitute the dependent bourgeoisies, appendages of big capital, and would be the dominant classes of the new states whose independence they would negotiate.

Thus, then, the manner in which independence was achieved - negotiation between, on the one hand, the most powerful fraction of metropolitan capitalism and, on the other hand, the African bourgeoisies and petty bourgeoisies which were consolidated through the exploitation of the peasants during the colonial period - broadly explains the way in which the domination of Africa, or more exactly the African masses, was considerably and rapidly increased after independence.

The fact is that the colonial system had become an obstacle to the development of the combined interests of the African privileged strata and Western big capital in an expansionist phase. With independence, imperialism removed all the barriers standing in the way of its expansion.

The intense struggles of the African masses were simply exploited for tactical ends by the African social classes and strata allied to imperialism to decide in favour of Western big capital. This capital had absolutely no desire to continue to bear the burden of colonial administration and take the risk of confrontation with the African masses which might lead to revolutions. And all this they did for and on behalf of the interests of a colonial capitalism that had become truly inappropriate in a world in which the imperialist monopolies were conquering all before them.

Thus the colonial system was rapidly liquidated in order to open up wider vistas for modern imperialism.

But far from bringing about an improvement in the conditions of existence of the essentially peasant African masses, this political change rather accelerated the crisis. This was so because the new African states, in accordance with the interests of the dominant classes, sought to go as far and as rapidly as possible to integrate their economies into the capitalist world market.

It is thus that, with the achievement of political independence, the extraversion of African economies was given a greater impulse.


1. C. Coquery-Vidrovitch in IDEP/Reproductions 1243: 'De l'impéralisme ancien a l'impéralisme moderne'.

2. Figures provided by C. Coquery-Vidrovitch in her study of Africa and the crisis of the 1930s; colloquium at the University of Paris VII, 9-10 April 1976.

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