Revolution from Above

Colin Legum

The first and only time I have been inside Boodle’s was early in 1972, when I was bidden (I choose the word with some care) for a confidential tête-à-tête with an Ethiopian in whose high caste Evelyn Waugh would have rejoiced. Ras Asrata Kassa – as noble in physique and physiognomy as in his birth – had recently been dismissed as Governor-General of Eritrea, but he still retained his position as chairman of Ethiopia’s Crown Council. While this was notionally one of the three most influential positions in the country, all real power in Haile Selassie’s empire derived solely from the Emperor’s authority. The ras confessed to me the weakness of his own position, and spoke of his deep fear that his cousin the Emperor was leading Ethiopia to its ruin. Although he was on the eve of his 80th birthday, Haile Selassie had stopped his ears to any suggestion from his Crown Council that he should arrange for the surrender of any power in his own lifetime, and stubbornly refused to arrange for a peaceful succession. ‘I’m afraid,’ said the chairman of the Crown Council, ‘that the Emperor’s egomania has developed in him the attitude of après moi le deluge.’

Asrata Kassa was not a leader with whom I had seen eye to eye in the past, especially over the tough attitude he had adopted to students after the abortive 1960 coup, which, had it succeeded – as it so nearly did – would probably have saved Ethiopia from much of the agony it subsequently had to endure. While not unaware of the strong element of personal ambition in the ras’s make-up, I was nevertheless impressed by his undoubted patriotism and by the common sense of the service he proposed I might render as a journalist with a particular interest in, and affection for, Ethiopia.

The ras explained that his country had reached a critical point in its history. The war in Eritrea had already been lost, and he doubted whether it was still possible to reconcile the embittered Eritreans. The last chance of saving his country from disaster was to persuade the Emperor to announce plans on his 80th birthday for the succession through the Crown Prince, and for a genuinely independent Cabinet deriving its authority from an elected parliament. The only possible hope of getting the Emperor to do so was to mobilise pressure in influential Western circles to persuade the paranoid old ruler to prepare for the post-imperial age which was close at hand.

The idea was that I should approach the Emperor with a set of carefully-prepared questions which would reflect not only Ethiopian concerns but also those of the old man’s Western friends, whose opinions he valued. I rehearsed my questions with a cross-section of Ethiopians – members of the royal family, conservatives and radicals. My interview was a total failure. To every question about the succession Haile Selassie replied with oblique, fatalistic references to ‘the hand of Destiny which has determined my fate and will determine that of my successor’.

When I reported the results of my interview to Asrata Kassa, his immediate response was: ‘I’m afraid that all is lost.’ And, indeed, it was. Less than a year later, a mutiny broke out in the Army, and although it was a small affair, the Emperor suddenly found he was unable to count on the loyalty of many of his officers, or indeed on any but a small number of impotent courtiers and landowners. The ramshackle empire collapsed like a pack of cards. Ras Asrata Kassa was among the 70 noblemen and courtiers who were taken out and shot by the soldiers.

And so Ethiopia stumbled, by accident, from what had started as an army mutiny into a full-blooded revolution – but with no trained revolutionaries to give it direction. The only group capable of assuming the leadership was the ad hoc committee established by mutinous soldiers, the Derg. It took almost two years of near-chaos, widespread killing and purges within the Army before a revolutionary élite finally emerged under the chairmanship of Lieutenant Mengistu Haile Mariam, which was able to establish some measure of control and to prevent the old empire from breaking up into half a dozen different parts. But this they were able to do only by enlisting the support of the Soviet Union as their strategic ally.

Two large questions still remain unclear: the precise relationship between the Russians and Mengistu’s cadre of revolutionaries; and the future direction of the revolution itself. The two questions are closely related.

Although the Russians choose to explain their massive involvement in Ethiopia as merely the fulfilment of their ‘responsibilities to the international working-class in its struggle against imperialism’, their real interest is, understandably, to win reliable allies in the Third World in their own struggle to establish a new balance of world power. They argue that the need to change the balance in favour of ‘Socialist nations’ is in the interests of the Third World itself. Moscow has learned some hard lessons in the last three decades from its dealings with Third World countries, the most notable of which is that while the leaders of new states stand ready to accept foreign aid from whichever quarter might suit their immediate purposes, they do not feel bound to stay allied with their benefactors – whether of the West or of the East – should their own interests dictate a change of ally. (Vide Sadat’s Egypt, Numeiry’s Sudan, Sekou Touré’s Guinea and Siyyad Barre’s Somalia.)

As Mohammed Heykal presciently explained in 1978 in Sphinx or Commissar, the Soviet leadership has come to understand that it cannot rely for long on bourgeois nationalist or military leaders. In countries where they have important political/strategic interests they now seek to encourage the development of structured Marxist political systems similar to those in Eastern Europe. And while even such regimes may not be entirely reliable, at least they are less liable to sudden changes because of the overthrow of a regime or the changing interests of a particular leader; and even when this does happen (as in Afghanistan), the Soviets then at least have a pretext for intervening directly to resist ‘counter-revolutionary’ forces.

The consolidation of a Marxist revolution in Ethiopia – a large country, rich in resources and people, politically influential in the continent and strategically important in the Red Sea area – would greatly extend the range of Soviet influence and power: more especially since South Yemen, across the narrow waist of water from Ethiopia, is already well on the way towards consolidating the first Marxist regime in the Arab world. But while the prize is obviously great, it is not an easy one to secure. Not only does Ethiopia possess a longstanding xenophobic tradition, but the makeup of its society – divided into half a dozen national groups as well as being sharply differentiated into classes – is one of the most intriguingly complex in the Third World.

Only a full-blooded revolution of the kind experienced by Russia itself can possibly transform Ethiopia’s largely pre-modern society, and while the country has already gone some way towards achieving revolutionary change (in particular, by altering the pattern of land ownership in the south and in destroying the former ruling class), it is still a long, long way from succeeding in carrying out a root-and-branch transformation of Ethiopian society. As the Polish journalist Jacek Kalawinski told listeners on Warsaw Radio: ‘Despite what has taken place in Ethiopia – the suffering in the rural areas, the suffering of the intelligentsia, of those who live in the towns, the various shortages, the consequences of political conflict – despite all that, the slow emergence from the many centuries of backwardness, which we find it impossible to conceive, has begun. How many more years all this will last, I do not know.’ Nevertheless, Soviet and other East European commentators are confidently asserting that ‘one of the greatest revolutions of the second half of the 20th century, and surely the biggest and most profound social revolution in the African continent, began in September 1974.’ This view is broadly shared by the two New Left authors of The Ethiopian Revolution, though they remain sceptical about the final outcome of the revolution and sensibly aware of its present shortcomings: ‘The post-revolutionary order has established neither full equality between social groups nor equality between nationalities, and it has not set up anything that might be termed a democratic political order. Yet such failings are not unique to the Ethiopian revolution: they should not obscure the import of what has occurred in Ethiopia, a socio-political transformation of a depth rare in the contemporary Third World.’

Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime has travelled a long way in the last five years towards centralising political power and building up the largest army in black Africa, but it has so far failed to make any real progress toward solving the national and regional problems of post-imperial Ethiopia: yet without this there is no possible way of consolidating the Marxist revolution to which Mengistu claims to remain dedicated. Meanwhile his regime is able to maintain its revolutionary power only through the exercise of massive repression on a scale not known even during the worst excesses of the ancien régime.

The Ethiopian revolutionaries are not only up against the determined forces of national resistance of the Eritreans and the Somalis in the Ogaden: though less well publicised, there is also considerable armed and civil resistance from the different Oromo centres as well as the Tigreans, Wollegians and others. The popular demand is for a post-imperial constitutional dispensation that will not only ensure the removal of Amhara and, more specifically, Shoan domination but will also allow for national or regional autonomy within a federal framework. If the circle around Mengistu had paid more attention to Stalin’s writings on the national question, as they have been urged to do by their Soviet mentors, they might possibly be nearer than they are to fastening a Marxist system on a reluctant country.

However, as Halliday and Molyneux are at pains to point out, conflict between a revolutionary central government and ethnic or regional forces is common in modern social upheavals, as indeed it was in earlier bourgeois revolutions. The French Revolution was strongly centripetal; Cromwell ruthlessly repressed Irish dissent; in the 20th century the Russian and Chinese Revolutions combined the overthrow of established political systems with a reassertion of central control over minority areas. (There is, incidentally, an interesting historical parallel between Georgia at the time of the Russian Revolution and Eritrea today. Both regions threw up separatist movements which enjoyed great popular support and were led by Marxists, yet neither managed to find a point of accommodation with the revolutionary centre.) Halliday and Molyneux are particularly illuminating in their discussion of the character and role of nationalism in contemporary revolutions:

The explosion of the nationalities issue in post-revolutionary Iran and Afghanistan suggests that ethnic divisions may well be a major facet of contemporary Third World social upheavals. The linguistic mosaics that underlie India and Pakistan, and many countries of Africa, indicate that the potential for even greater conflicts exist there ... Misinterpretation of the character of nationalism, at the centre and in the regions, can lead not merely to the misinterpretation of revolutions; it may also lead to the neglect or partial distortion of one of the central issues of the post-colonial world. For the nationalism of the developing countries is increasingly directed not against the colonial powers of the imperial age, but against other countries and ethnic groups within the Third World itself. This is evident in the growing oppression of minorities in Third World countries, and in the growing number of wars between Third World states, of which that between Ethiopia and Somalia is only one. Yet the increasing intra-Third World character of contemporary nationalism is also evident from the pattern of political change in the revolutionary states themselves: indeed, it is in this regard that one of the starkest and most negative features of the revolutions of the 1970s can be identified. Far from leading to greater emancipation from oppression to a greater tolerance, some revolutions have instead led to new outbreaks of repression and racism among these Third World peoples.

Halliday and Molyneux also succeed admirably in clarifying – often in an unexpectedly unorthodox way – current theories about the nature of the revolutionary process in the Third World. Their examination of Ellen Trimberger’s model of ‘revolution from above’ is sympathetic but critical. They conclude that events in Ethiopia vindicate her theory while posing certain problems for it. Thus they argue that ‘revolution from above’ is not so much an alternative as an extension, or fulfilment, of a mass movement from below where the latter, for a variety of reasons, is unable to go beyond the stage of creating an atmosphere of national dissidence and the ability to overthrow the established regime.

In the case of Ethiopia, the greater degree of revolutionary pressure from below correlates with other empirical divergences: deeper reforms put through by the military, accompanied by greater repression. These the authors see as mutually reinforcing aspects of the same process. It was not the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ or ‘moderate’ opposition, but the extreme Left (however one chooses to define the term) and the nationality movements that contributed to creating the revolutionary crisis that faced the military regime. The nationality movements were themselves often under strong Marxist leadership, and so not easily dismissed as ‘counter-revolutionaries’.

Indeed, the irony of the Ethiopian revolution is that ‘this most radical of revolutions from above’ owed the revolutionary transformation of its leadership to the crisis of Ethiopian society (the nationalities issue) and to the forces of the movement for change. In order to overcome these forces, competing as they were for power, the military rulers – though themselves not initially avowed socialists – took over the Marxist cloak and crushed them with great ferocity. In this way they sought to establish their own credentials as ‘true Marxists’ and to make themselves, at least superficially, more attractive to their new allies in the Soviet bloc.

The Mengistu regime’s new international alignment would appear to favour their attempt to transform Ethiopia into a Marxist state, but this is not necessarily the case. Halliday and Molyneux argue, I believe correctly, that the type of social order encouraged by Moscow cannot be accepted as a full model for socialism in a country with Ethiopia’s political and economic needs. At best, it would involve creating in Ethiopia a society exhibiting some of the features of socialism: it would have the economic features of that mode of production. But it would also exhibit political deformations, such as denial of appropriate freedoms to both the working class and the peasantry, and to the nationalities. Moreover, as the authors argue, a process involving major economic and social transformations in Ethiopia would depend on substantial foreign aid: yet aid of this kind is simply not available from the Soviet bloc, which is already facing difficulties in meeting existing commitments to its Third World allies. Ethiopia would therefore be forced to turn to the West and to multinational agencies for support (as they have already done), which could easily result in distorting a socialist socio-economic programme. Since the reasons for the Derg’s alliance with the USSR owe much to temporary factors, the result might be the adoption of a less clearly aligned international position or possibly, as in the case of many other Third World countries, a swing away from an openly anti-Western orientation.

Soviet and other Marxist ideologists have evolved a succession of theories to deal with the problems of Third World societies engaged in transition to socialism. The earlier theory of ‘the non-capitalist path of development’ formulated in the 1950s gave place in the 1970s to a more refined version of the theory of ‘states of socialist orientation’. According to this theory, ‘the main and decisive condition for the successful development of these countries is the fundamental change in the world balance of forces in favour of socialism.’ This theory plays down the importance of class struggle, while emphasising the need for state control and expropriation of foreign capital. But nationalisation and expropriation, without adequate controls from below, usually leads, not to socialism, but to the development of nationalist capitalism – a common phenomenon in the Third World and elsewhere. Meanwhile what is supposed to happen to the countries of ‘socialist orientation’ pending the hoped-for international changes in favour of the socialist world? It is rather like Lenin urging the working-class to refuse to temporise with reforms (such as might be gained through trade unions) while waiting for the world revolution to occur.

As Halliday and Molyneux point out, if the Soviet Union’s ability to provide an alternative to the capitalist world is ‘the main and decisive condition’ for the successful development of the non-capitalist countries, then, economically, this condition is a long way from being met. In terms of economic competition and assistance to the Third World, the balance of forces is still in favour of the advanced capitalist countries, now assisted by the rise of new capitalist financial or industrial powers in the Third World itself. Many of the radical nationalist forces in the Third World have come to see that their only hope of transforming their own societies is by changing their international alliances. The authors conclude that it remains to be seen whether Africa’s first major social revolution will follow a similar path.

While enthusiastic about recommending The Ethiopian Revolution for its fresh and stimulating insights into the process of contemporary social revolutions, I have a number of serious reservations about its perspective on events, both before and after the fall of Haile Selassie. The selectivity of the authors’ approach is shown by their failure to include in their bibliography (and, presumably, in their reading) a number of the more significant books written about the old empire, though a number of less important works are listed. For example, Christopher Clapham’s Haile Selassie’s Government, perhaps the most penetrating examination of how the old empire was ruled, is omitted; there is no reference to Richard Greenfield’s Ethiopia, which provides the best documentation of the 1960 coup and the events which led up to it. (The authors, incidentally, are singularly uninformed about the growth of Communist Party cells in Addis Ababa before the revolution, and about the pre-revolutionary splits among the young Marxists). No less surprising is the failure to mention any of Professor Richard Pankhurst’s works, notably his Economic History of Ethiopia.

A number of rather blatant prejudices stand in the way of accurate analysis and explanation. For example, throughout the book, the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) is pejoratively referred to as ‘conservative’. The EDU was, in fact, a united front of radicals and conservatives, a coalition of disparate forces which produced the tensions that helped to destroy it. Little understanding, or feeling, is shown for the powerful emotional force of Somali nationalism, without which it is hardly possible to provide a satisfactory explanation of Mogadishu’s intervention in the Ogaden. Nor is the rise of Eritrean nationalism – one of the most remarkable liberation movements in the Third World – adequately, or, in my view, correctly described.

A particular weakness of the book is the discussion of the role of international forces before, during and after the collapse of the old empire. Israel’s role is mentioned, but not properly understood; Libya’s role is ignored; the United States and ‘conservative’ Arab states are treated with fashionable prejudice, which helps to obscure a number of important facts.

I am not sure how much sense will be made by readers not closely familiar with Ethiopia of the arid cataloguing and telescoping of developments during and after the Emperor’s overthrow. The dry bones of Ethiopian society (not all necessarily in their right position) stand out starkly like camel skeletons in the Namib desert, but where are the flesh and blood and muscle: the tragedy and contradictions of the Asrata Kassas; the disillusionment of princely socialists like Michael Imrou; the martyred young Communist opponents who fought so hard to topple the Emperor; the disappointed generals, like Iyassu Mengesha, who stood out against their ruler; the tyrants thrown up in the kebelles? Because the authors are so dismissive of ‘descriptive writing’, they have overlooked, or not taken sufficient account of, the paradoxes and contradictions within Ethiopian society, its contemporary revolution and the pattern of international involvement in its affairs. Nevertheless, I would not wish to discourage anybody from reading Halliday and Molyneux’s outstanding contribution to our understanding of contemporary social revolutions, even though readers should not expect to get an entirely comprehensible, or altogether accurate, picture of the recent history of that fabulous country.