Wednesday, March 23, 2016

8 Study Questions on the Ethiopian Revolution

Popular demonstration during the February 1974 Ethiopian Revolution; photo from the Italian Communist newspaper L'Unita

I have finally immersed myself in enough readings to start identifying issues and asking questions. I thought it would be useful to organize my thoughts into the following “questions,” identifying themes and patterns for further reading, thought, analysis, and ultimately, writing. I am neither a trained historian nor academic, but as someone who has been a leftist activist for a large portion of my adult life I find a surprising depth of relevance in the story of the Ethiopian revolution to themes which continue to confront any movement for revolutionary change.

It's extraordinary to find this exciting, heartbreaking, fascinating history told not a century after the fact but with the immediacy of eyewitness observation from participants in living memory. And in a leftist culture dominated by Eurocentrism and the increasingly arcane minutiae of early 20th-century Europe, it's refreshing to find this relevance and inspiration hiding in plain sight in the relatively recent history of sub-Saharan Africa.

Some of these questions are intended to be provocative. As I have written before, I do not consider myself an impartial observer but a partisan of actual liberatory socialist revolution. After my initial research I find my initial loyalties to the EPRP “side” fundamentally unchallenged, but I think there are some hard issues that shouldn't be ignored. My investigation has definitely revealed some sad chapters and difficult questions that I think it would be dishonest not to address. Some of these questions I obviously have preliminary opinions on.

Read my original statement of intent about this blog here.
Follow my reading list here (A work in progress).
(A short key to abbreviations for the unfamiliar appears at the end of this document)


1. Ethiopia before and during its 1970s revolution bore a stark resemblance to a telescoped version of Tsarist Russia and the Russian revolution. Unlike the rest of Africa, the failure of colonialism to subjugate most of Ethiopia for an extended period left a highly organized indigenous feudal empire intact, containing the growing seeds of capitalist development in a starkly evident class society where both an urban proletariat and a rural peasantry were suddenly becoming self-aware. The revolution snowballed during the lives of one young generation, forcing that generation to invent political praxis for itself in a country with very little political tradition. Suddenly exposure to the global Marxist-Leninist left and the civil rights/Black power movements in the US blossomed into the need to make life-or-death strategical decisions. The EPRP, organized clandestinely and abroad in 1972 and formally revealed in 1975 is said to be Ethiopia's first political party of any sort. Ethiopian revolutionaries reached out to China, to the Palestinian resistance, to the socialist countries of the Soviet bloc, and to Arab nationalist regimes for assistance, receiving guns, training, books...and heavy introduction to the internal contradictions of the world's socialist movements. But in the Ethiopian February revolution, it was as though Kerensky himself remained at the helm, simultaneously hijacking and repressing the revolution to prevent an Ethiopian October. What does the ultimate failure of the revolution teach us about the application of lessons of classical Bolshevism and other communist trends? Was this the last possible revolution of this classical type?

2. The Western left’s not-yet-successful reliance on strategies for socialism involving the development of mass, essentially reformist workers parties has been historically counterposed in practice variously by those influenced by Maoism (in favor of people’s war and rural armed struggle); by those in a Soviet orbit (in favor of military bonapartism and ex post facto development of mass organizations); and by anarchists/autonomists (in favor of urban insurrection or autonomous parallel development). The EPRP —attacked as “anarchists” by their enemies, though adhering to Marxism-Leninism — found success as a mass, clandestine urban party, yet sought unsuccessfully to become a guerrilla movement. The EPRP deeply influenced mass organizations like trade unions (CELU, teachers), the Zemacha campaign (mass literacy movement), student groups (especially in the diaspora); organized clandestine fractions in the military (Oppressed Soldiers Organization), inside the Derg, inside Kebeles (formal community centers), inside the police, an underground revolutionary trade union (ELAMA), an underground youth organization (EPRYL), and urban and rural military units. It published several regular underground journals with mass national distribution and readership and participated where possible in public discussions in the legally sanctioned press. What does the EPRP’s experience of organizational models and strategies teach us?

3. Thousands and thousands of young revolutionaries died at the hands of the Derg regime and its leftist allies, and targeted assassinations by the EPRP took many lives. Did the EPRP's insistence on armed struggle provoke the “Red Terror” or was it the correct response to particularly vicious repression? The EPRP vacillated between calling the Derg and its civilian leftist allies “fascists” and pondering overtures of unity with those forces. Was there ever a basis for unity? Was the Derg “fascist”?  What is the verdict on the lethal sectarianism of the Ethiopian left: EPRP vs. Meison/POMOA, EPRP vs. anja (factions). What are the historical verdicts on the cases of Fikre Merid, Getachew Maru and Berhanemeskel Reda; Senay Likke and Haile Fida; Tesfaye Debessay?

4. The competitive EPRP and Meison originated organically in the Ethiopian left/student movement, especially in the diaspora, and found favor in segments of the urban proletariat and petit-bourgeoisie. Yet both were outflanked by Colonel Mengistu, who seems to have had no history on the left before the February 1974 revolution. Mass action drove the revolution while political power was confined to a relatively small collection of players inside the government and later the military. The relationships between (and inside) the Derg, the government, the military, and the civilian left were far more complex than revealed at first glance. How did the Derg successfully coopt the revolution and check the civilian left? Where did Mengistu's ideology come from? Mengistu seems to have followed scripts first from Meison/POMOA and later the Soviet bloc, launching legitimate (if incomplete) revolutionary reforms like literacy and land redistribution, while consolidating his personal power through repeated purges and coups inside the ruling body. LeFort says his mobilization of the lumpen and declassed peasantry was the key to his social base outside the military. The one reform he resisted, and what might be considered the primary demand of the EPRP, was popular democracy. In a country where most of the competitors for power claimed to be for socialism, what does this battle over democracy suggest? Here the Maoist doctrine of “New Democracy” found itself in direct contradiction to “National Democratic Revolution.” How was EPRP's call for revolutionary popular democracy against what it saw as the repeating phenomenon of the African military dictator different than counterrevolutionary democracy movements in other socialist countries? In an ongoing revolutionary situation, who or what is the State? How did the class struggle actually combine and unfold in the revolution? (Peasantry, Proletariat, Urban Petit-bourgeoisie, Rural landowning class, Feudal class/Royalty/Comprador Bourgeoisie, Lumpen Proletariat, National Bourgeoisie). (Side note: ponder Nicaragua where an assortment of civilian left groups maintained shifting levels of opposition and critical support to the post-revolutionary Sandinista regime in the 1980s).

5. If politics were underdeveloped in Ethiopia, nationalism was not. Ethiopia resisted Italian invasion twice, losing its self rule only for the period of 1936-1942. Ethiopia’s revolution was deeply connected to the struggles of national minorities. Like Russia, Ethiopia is a country of diverse national identities historically dominated by a single ethnic group. Rene LeFort calls Eritrea (and the relationship of Eritrea to Ethiopia is up for discussion) the “crucible” of the Ethiopian revolution, citing a more developed political tradition in colonial Eritrea and noting the dominance of ethnic Eritreans in the general Ethiopian radical milieu. Wallelign Mekonnen’s groundbreaking paper on the national question is virtually the founding document of the Ethiopian civilian left (and Wallelign's death in a 1972 airplane hijacking is a portent of future tragedy). EPRP attempted to negotiate this minefield, and yet ultimately found itself at odds with TPLF and EPLF, despite endorsing Eritrean independence. Today’s Ethiopian federalism, widely seen as the oppression of the whole nation by the Tigrayan minority ethnic group, makes nobody happy: unrest involving national minorities like the Oromo people is today again dominating headlines. Upon the overthrow of the Derg, newly independent Eritrea promptly found itself at war with its long-term allies in the former TPLF. What are the lessons here regarding self determination, multi-ethnic states, and the relationship of political to ethnic conflicts? Is there any conflict between the consciousness of national liberation and the consciousness of socialism?

6. Ironically, the avowedly socialist Derg remained military supplied by the United States for its first two years in power. After it eliminated the civilian left, the Derg thoroughly coopted socialism in a statist model a la Eastern Europe, only to abandon socialism as the Soviet Union floundered, on the eve of itself being displaced, in the very late 1980s. The Derg was overthrown by the TPLF, the core of which was the cadre of MLLT, which upon assuming power in turn abandoned Marxism-Leninism and allied with the United States. Though some argue little continuity with the classic EPRP suppressed by the Derg remains, today's EPRP factions have officially renounced socialism. EPLF-ruled independent Eritrea is ranked (at least by its enemies) as among the most repressive states on the planet. The “People's Republic” of China is developing a massively predatory relationship with Ethiopian industry and agriculture. What are the legacy and prospects of three failed attempts at socialist power for the liberatory project promised by socialism to the future of Ethiopia? By 1978, the two main wings of the civilian left now both in opposition to the Derg (as well as to each other), and the ruling Derg itself, all used the iconic hammer and sickle as their symbol. Addis Ababa's massive Lenin statue, built by a regime that arguably had little in common with Lenin's actual ideology, was pulled down by crowds in 1991 celebrating legitimate liberation from tyranny. Is the well poisoned?

7. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that imperialism has wreaked havoc on the Horn of Africa for well over a century. Did Italian imperialism import class consciousness and post-feudal political consciousness via Eritrea? The Ethiopian royalty earned respect for its resistance to Italian imperialism in both the 1890s and the 1930s, and used that reputation to attempt to outflank “African socialism” as a pro-American pole in continental politics during the independence wave of the 1950s and 1960s. The royalty's domestic reputation began to fail only in the late 1960s, collapsing in the wake of famine in the early 1970s. US imperialism and the Soviet Union abruptly swapped sides between Ethiopia and Somalia in 1976-1977; and then the US switched sides again after the fall of both the Ethiopian and Somali regimes in the early 1990s, turning Somalia into a collection of failed states, ethnic enclaves, and bases for reactionary Islamic fundamentalists, and turning Ethiopia into a proxy for regional US military power. Chinese capital (imperialism?) appears a significant motor force in Ethiopia today. Cuba’s intervention in Ethiopia against Somali invasion was decisive, yet not extended to the Eritrean front, eventually resulting in Eritrean secession. Leftist opposition groups in Ethiopia in the 1970s found themselves in the middle of a hot battle in the Cold War, ideologically challenged by being targeted by both imperialism and the Soviet bloc. What are the prospects for independent national struggle in a world dominated by neocolonialism, imperialism, social imperialism, and neoliberalism?

8. Many people, unfortunately, in my opinion, including far too many leftists, view history as the progression of actions of great (or terrible) men. To look at the Ethiopian Revolution as merely the story of Mengistu Hailemariam is I think to make a serious misjudgment of how history happens, of how, in this case, the Ethiopian revolution unfolded. He was a key figure, for sure, and certainly for a moment triumphant, and more than a little villainous. But what Marxism teaches us about the people being the motor force of history, this is actually true: What the focus on Mengistu reveals to me, at least, are all the ideological weaknesses of what I would call revisionism (and let me say here clearly that I reject out of hand the term “Stalinist”): the post-war Soviet top-down method of socialism by directive, military force, and the willful wishful thinking of too small a political minority. This unfolded repeatedly (and ultimately unsuccessfully and often tragically) in the third world: South Yemen, Afghanistan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, etc. It's true that 20th-century socialism was ultimately politically outgunned by Western imperialism, but I think that the broadly-defined pro-Soviet project of state socialism also collapsed worldwide under the weight of its own contradictions. (Ironically given what, in my opinion, is socialist Cuba's problematic role in Ethiopia, I think the survival of Cuban socialism into the 21st century is in fact a positive counter example of how important mass popular support for a revolution actually is). It seems that EPRP's leaders were too busy living their moment of history in a fiery flash to deliver ideological or theoretical innovation at their high watermark, at least from the perspective of my initial investigations, and without knowledge of Amharic. Few survived to have the benefit of hindsight. Survivors writing today have focused on righting the historical record, or apologizing for their actions, or preserving the memory of what was lost: most seem pretty adamant in their ideological renunciation of the old EPRP's values. So the final questions are left to us, observers from a geographic and historical distance: Is there an overarching lesson from the Ethiopian revolution for the revolutionary project as a whole? What would actual revolutionary democracy look like? How, next time, do the good guys win?

I would be interested to exchange ideas with anyone who has studied this revolution.

EPRP: Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party
Meison: All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement
POMOA: Provisional Office of Mass Organization Affairs
TPLF: Tigray People's Liberation Front
EPLF: Eritrean People's Liberation Front
MLLT: Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray
CELU: Confederation of Ethiopian Labor Unions
Derg: Amharic for “committee,” a group of military officers who seized power in 1974

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