Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Celebrate Red October: "Socialism without democracy is unthinkable"

EPRA fighters in a base area, late 1970s
November 7, 2017 in the Gregorian Calendar marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 (where the Julian calendar was observed). Despite its eventual defeat, the Russian Revolution ushered in an era where the old systems of oppression and exploitation were fundamentally and fiercely challenged as models for the organization of society. It marked the first successful attempt by socialist revolutionaries to overthrow capitalism and replace it with the rule of the common people. It was a watershed moment in human history, and capitalism and imperialism spent the rest of the twentieth century trying to reverse its successes. As a timely series of articles commissioned by the African American Intellectual History Society for its Black Perspectives feature on the Russian Revolution and the African Diaspora explains, the Russian Revolution came even to inspire a generation of revolutionaries around the world: and Ethiopia was no exception. As students of the Ethiopian revolution know, this was a complicated legacy, and during the Derg time, both pro- and anti-regime forces would claim the same socialist legacy as their own. In my opinion, however, any claim to inherit the spirit of the Russian Revolution by the military regime was entirely illegitimate.

To mark this occasion and provide some clarity, I am transcribing and republishing an article on the meaning of socialism from Abyot, information bulletin of the Foreign Committee of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party, that in turn translates and summarizes an article from the EPRP’s clandestine journal Democracia. This article appears in the Feb.–March 1979 issue (Vol. 4, No. 2) of Abyot. I have re-typed this article and errors of transcription are my own; I’ve made a handful of small spelling and punctuation corrections for legibility. I assume the cited Democracia article is translated to English from the original Amharic by the Abyot editors.

In today’s post-Soviet era, many of these arguments about how the Soviet Union came to betray the original vision and intent of Lenin and the Bolsheviks seem somewhat distant, but in fact they should inform any sober assessment of the continued relevance of socialism to the still-necessary liberation of the world’s peoples. —ISH


DEMOCRACIA Exposes the ‘Socialism’ of Social-Imperialism

In its Volume 5, No. 4 issue, Democracia, organ of the EPRP, exposes the ‘socialism’ of social-imperialism.

For the broad masses, says Democracia, there is no socialism without democracy and there is no democracy without socialism. Democracy is necessary and useful for the construction of a socialist society. However, social-imperialists and revisionists, presenting themselves as examples are trying to show that ‘socialist construction’ is possible with the absence of any sort of democratic and human rights. That is not all. They have gone to the extent of trying to show how “socialism” can be built under fascism. Exposing their true colours, however, they have shown that democratic and human rights erode socialism, and that socialism and democracy are mutually exclusive.

EPRP’s position, continues Democracia, on the relation between socialism and democracy is diametrically opposed to the position of the social-imperialists and revisionists. At a time when all sorts of anti-socialists are professing about socialism, we have found it necessary to explain in short the principal charateristics which scientific socialism differs from all the ‘socialisms’ of the anti-socialists.

Socialism, says Democracia, is a system which arms the proletariat and broad masses with broad democracy. Socialism is a system which is based on the power and supremacy of the proletariat. Socialism is a system in which the proletariat and broad masses organize themselves in many forms to be able to administer themselves. Socialism is a system in which the proletariat and broad masses acquire more democracy, welfare and development than the capitalist system in the political economic and cultural fields. In the Soviet Union, however, the party which still works in the name of the proletariat is trampling the proletariat and broad masses underfoot and deprives them their democratic rights. It has kept the proletariat aside from political power. It has concentrated all the power in its hands and has become an anti-socialist party of few bureaucrats which defends their bourgeois interests.

Thus continues Democracia, the first socialist country has been turned to be a social-imperialist country. As a bad example and through its practices, policies and influence it has and is still challenging, opposing and fighting against the purity, expansion, development and triumph of socialism. Putting the parties in Eastern Europe, Cuba, Mongolia and Vietnam, who are in power, under control; the Soviet Union has also had these parties establish an anti-democratic and anti-people rule.

The dictatorial rulers of the Soviet Union, says Democracia, have and are still attempting to present the rules of their anti-people and anti-socialist puppets in a number of countries as ‘socialist’. In contradistinction to the struggle of the masses for democracy and socialism, the Soviet rulers have presented the anti-people rule of their puppets as ‘socialist’ in an attempt to prolong the life of the reactionary system and destroy the peoples’ resistance. Hasn’t the demagogue Mengistu’s fascist regime calling itself ‘socialist’ also called the proletariat, broad masses and the proletarian party counterrevolutionaries?

For the social-imperialists and fascists, continues Democracia, socialism means a system of which a regime of handful few dictators has the control of the masses and when the people do not have any control of the government. For them, socialism is being against democracy, anti-proletarian, anti-people and which combines the reactionary superstructure and practices which enables them to maintain their fascist and exploitative rule. The difference between the socialism we are fighting for and the ‘socialism’ of the social-imperialists and fascists is as wide as heaven and earth. To us socialism is a system in which the proletariat and broad masses hold state power; in which they take part in all responsible positions, in which the right of the people to call or change the officials of the government elected locally or at a country-wide level is guaranteed, in which there is a proletarian- led regime that stood for the broad masses of the people.

For the social-imperialists and fascists, ‘socialism’ means depriving the proletariat and broad masses of the people their democratic and human rights; depriving them the right to free speech, press and assembly; and depriving them the freedom of movement in their own country. ‘Socialism’ for the social-imperialists and fascists is a system in which the masses are subjected to constant repression, harassment, torture and execution until they bow to silence. For us, socialism is the exact opposite of this. Socialism without democracy is unthinkable. Socialist democracy is different from and superior to bourgeois democracy both in breadth and form. Socialism is not only a system in which the proletariat and broad masses have the right to free speech, press and assembly and organization; but also the right to sound out their opinions or protests against their regime or any organization without restrictions. Under socialism the masses also have the right to take a different position and make it public, the right to protest. Socialism cannot be a system in which a democracy narrower than bourgeois democracy reigns.

A system in which the proletariat and broad masses do not directly take part in the excercise of power, says Democracia, cannot be socialist. There is no socialism if the proletariat and broad masses do not take part in decisions of government affairs and if they do not administer themselves in a democratic system. Socialism is not democracy for the ruling class and government officials and dictatorship over the masses as it is like in the Soviet Union and its allies. Socialism cannot be a system in which those who oppose are imprisoned, kept in concentration camps, tortured, executed and where the freedom of speech of the masses is abolished.

Under socialism political power is in the hands of the proletariat and broad masses. Thus the existence of the special and highest form of organization of the proletariat, its weapon of struggle and leader, the proletarian party, is indispensable. Without its party the proletariat cannot seize political power. For us, however, a proletarian party is not something that the masses would worship and follow blindly because it claims to be one. It should be one which the masses support and have confidence on due to the correctness of its political positions, the struggle it conducts, its method of work and the day-to-day activity it performs. A proletarian party cannot replace the proletariat to make the revolution. It cannot be commanding and know-all against the proletariat and peasantry once it seizes political power. It is the proletariat and broad masses who are the creators and the driving force of the locomotives of history. This is true under socialism too. The guarantee of the existence of a genuine proletarian party, its source of power and legal base are the masses. The right of the proletariat and broad masses to control their party, to criticize the party, to express their views before any important decision is taken, to oppose or support or to take part in decisions is guaranteed. Socialism does not mean where a party isolated from the masses imposes its dictatorship over the masses as it is in the Soviet Union.

For the social-imperialists, socialism means when few self-proclaimed “geniuses” control state power isolating the party members, suppressing inner-party democracy and speak on behalf of the members of the party. It means where few (or one) individuals become autocrats worshiped and feared like gods. For us socialism means where party members discuss and decide on important decisions, where the leadership is everytime elected, where the party works on the basis of collective responsibility and leadership, where a genuine party which do not have mini-gods seize state power.

For the social-imperialists and fascists socialism is where a policy of chauvinism reigns supreme in the name of ’unity and indivisibility,’ the right of oppressed nations is trampled under the rule of the gun and where national oppression is maintained in many forms.

For us, socialism is a system in which the equality of and right of nations to self-determination is guaranteed; in which the languages, culture existence are respected, in which oppression nations use their own language as the medium of instruction; where there are no national privileges; where unity and assimilation is created on the basis of voluntariness and equality; where proletarian internationalism flourishes; and which is free of chauvinism and narrow national mindedness.

For the social-imperialists, socialism means depriving the political and organizational rights of other political organizations and putting them under their tutelage. It means to claim the right of invading other countries, exploiting peoples, controlling other goverments and abolishing their state sovereignity.

Socialism is democracy, equality and respect of people and countries, brotherhood and proletarian internationalism, justice and peace. What social-imperialism practices is the invasion of Czechoslovakia, dispatching mercenaries to put down national liberation movements of other countries. As an imperialist power, it also competes and contend or collude and agree with other imperialist powers for the plunder and division of the world.

+ + + +


  1. Greetings from Australia.

    Am a huge fan of your blog, always find myself looking through it during periods of intense procrastination.

    Your blog has created a desire on my part to create a blog relating to the Eritrean struggle for independence, particularly relating to the ELF (Eritrean Liberation Front).

    Nevertheless, I come to you with an interesting document which you may or may not have read and which may or may not be of interest to you. It is predominantly an evaluation by the EPRP of the TPLF when the former was already entrenched in the guerrilla struggle. It provides an insight into how the EPRP viewed the TPLF as well as its relationship with both it, and other organizations in the field of struggle. The evaluation of key TPLF personnel is quite funny also.


    Hope it's of some use, or at least an interesting read.

  2. Hey thank you very much for this! I think I had heard of this document before. I really appreciate you sharing it. Have you read Ayalew Yimam's "Yankee Go Home"? He spent quite a bit of time with the ELF trying to join EPRA in the late 1970s. It's a sort of harrowing and disappointing story but there is interesting stuff about ELF in there.

  3. No worries mate.

    I'll definitely take a look at that text.

    Weirdly enough, the EPRP and the ELF did collaborate to quite a significant extent. The latter had a disappointing habit of extending support to organisations regardless of their specific composition, something which explains their support, for a time, of the EDU. But on the EPRP, I'm aware that the two collaborated heavily in urban operations. Two operations which immediately come to mind are the attack on the Sendafa Police College, which allowed the EPRP to stock up on some much needed weapons, and the 'appropriation' of much needed funds from the Ethiopian Commercial Bank. There were also some bombings in Addis Ababa, but it's difficult to say conclusively that they were the result of the collaboration between the ELF and the EPRP, I suspect that the former was exclusively responsible for those bombings.

    There was also the infamous attempt on Mengistu Haile Mariam's life. In fact it was a ELF combatant by the name of Goitom Lebasi who led the EPRP unit tasked with ending the life of Haile Mariam. And they were almost successful. Haile Mariam was shot but faked his death. Unfortunately, those responsible for confirming the kill failed in their duties, with Haile Mariam being left to live.

    Lastly, the ELF actually provided a sanctuary for the EPRP, after the initial expulsion of its forces from the north of Ethiopia. They were given a base of sorts in the village of Haikota in the western lowlands of Eritrea.

    I'm sort of rambling so I'll leave it at that.

    1. Thanks much for the info! In the document you posted I was surprised to see that TPLF had such an ambivalent relationship with EDU early on.

  4. That probably stemmed from the extreme nationalistic sentiments of the Tigrayan peasantry, a group which had a tendency towards reducing the conflict in Ethiopia to being one between the oppressed Tigrayan people and the dominant Amhara people.

    It’s one of the reasons why the EPRP struggled to gain any foothold in the region. It was unfortunate that an organisation which was multi-ethnic both in composition and in form decided to launch its armed struggle in a region where such sentiments were anathema to the peasantry. Read the sub-section TPLF’s agitation against EPRP to see how the latter played on those sentiments. In short, the EPRP were viewed as an organisation for the urban, petty-bourgeois, intellectual dilettante, an organisation unsuited to dealing with the harsh conditions which characterise guerrilla struggle. It also goes without saying that the EPRP was viewed as an organisation for the Amhara, which only compounded the issue.

    Going back to my point, there was a belief, at least initially, amongst the Tigrayan peasantry that since both the EDU and the TPLF were the ‘sons of Tigray’, unity was both possible and something that both organisations should strive for. In their view, unity would enable the people of Tigray to face the common enemy, the Amhara.

    Something else which is interesting to note is that despite the differing origins of the respective organisations, they both drew support from the poorer peasantry. In all likelihood though, the peasants who joined the EDU were either the retinue of lords or were attracted by promises of loot and so on. Keeping in mind the fact that the EDU was, at least for a time, stronger than the TPLF, the latter must have viewed an allegiance with the EDU as providing tangible benefits, namely access to the poorer peasantry, especially in light of its relative weakness at the time.

    Thus, in contrast to what the EPRP thought of the allegiance, it was purely tactical from the TPLF's POV.

  5. I'd recommend reading John Young's Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia: The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, 1975-1991 as well as Aregawi Berhe's A Political History of the Tigray People's Liberation Front. Read them with a grain of salt.

    On an unrelated note I'd also HIGHLY recommend reading Paul Kelemen's A Critique of the Ethiopian Revolution if you haven't done so already, but I suspect you have.

    1. I really appreciate all your comments. In my research I've sort of set TPLF outside the narrative of the revolutionary left in Ethiopia, and everything you're mentioning seems like that's been the right cal. The Paul Keleman had previously escaped me, but at a quick scan it looks pretty interesting. It's good to read stuff that has come to some similar analysis points that I have.

      Do you have any insight (or original materials) on the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray and the relationship of the TPLF core to "Hoxhaism"? Given the history of the Ethiopian left it seems very inorganic, and I wonder what your perspective on that is. Do these works address that?

  6. 'Some Stands of the Marxist - Leninist Core in the Tigray People's Liberation Front, T.P.L.F May 1984'


    John Young's work does provide quite a relatively balanced overview of the MLLT. I'd recommend looking at the second half of chapter 6, The Politics of Tigrayan Nationalism. Aregawi Berhe's thesis however is where the real meat is. Bear in mind he was a key leader of the TPLF who was ultimately usurped as a consequence of the machinations of the MLLT. Chapter 8: Capture of a Movement: the Role of the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigrai (MLLT) provides a comprehensive insight.

    I'd probably agree with your view the the MLLT was inorganic. Maybe I'm being overly cynical but looking at the Eritrean field and the respective 'secret' parties within both the EPLF and the ELF and their respective functions, I'd argue that such parties were merely bodies for advancement within the context of the broader front. I struggle to see what purpose they serve other than the one I've outlined. For example, it is widely known and restated by Berhe that Zenawi was an opportunistic coward who found his niche when given the role of organising the MLLT. It gave him the ideal opportunity to cultivate his own power base, something which he used to great effect.

    The MLLT, or what would end up being the core, held contradictory positions on a variety of questions. For instance, as you'll read, the likes of Zenawi were initially proponents of secession but upon the formation of the MLLT they saw the "principal objective of the League" as being "the formation of a unitary multinational Marxist-Leninist party of Ethiopia". How does that differ from the EPRP? Not only that, how can a league within an organisation known as the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front seriously aspire to the vanguard role in the struggles of the Ethiopian masses? They attempt to resolve this by cultivating like-minded parties in their satellite organisations, such as the EMLF in the EPDM but that doesn't get them any closer to the above mentioned goal.

    1. Work has prevented me from reading this doc yet and responding to you but thank you once again!

  7. I just wanted to commend you for the extraordinary content you've put together on this blog.

    As a son of former EPRP revolutionaries, it is nearly impossible to get information of this quality and reliability through personal recollections of their time in the struggle.

    Being a self-confessed monarchist, I don't share your (or my parents') politics, but I commend you for the clear effort you've put into assessing the events as they occurred. You claim not to be neutral, but I assure you that what you've assembled here is as close to a neutral reading of the history of the EPRP as I have ever come across.

    Anyways, keep up the good work! You are helping educate an entire generation of Ethiopians abroad not only on their national history, but their family histories as well.

    I would only ask that you place a PayPal button or other online donation service on the site so that we readers can compensate you for your efforts. Land to the tiller and all that :)

    1. Thanks very much for your kind words, friend. I don't need donations right now, but you can buy my book when it finally comes out!

    2. I'll be first in line.

      Thanks again for your hard work!