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Socialismes en Afrique

Françoise Blum
Héloïse Kiriakou
Martin Mourre
et al.

Première partie : doctrines et corpus. 2 : en marge du pouvoir : contestations

Marxism in Ethiopia: Initial Notes and Puzzles

Samuel Andreas Admasie et Demessie Fantaye

Texte intégral

1Beginning in the 1960s, Marxism gained an eager audience and following in Ethiopia in a spectacularly sudden manner when it evolved from a fringe ideology to the “common sense” ideology of a generation of students, the ideational force behind a political assault on the imperial state, the official state ideology of a military dictatorship and the organizational basis for a plethora of political and military organizations. The speed with which Marxism came to be adopted by actors across the board within this short span of time and the success it enjoyed in mobilizing the masses to political action was only matched by the speed by which it was dropped. Both these aspects of the process call for an explanation, as does the way it split among groups employing a similar language but espousing radically different visions of the future—including how different strands of international Marxism were adopted to signify these differences. While Marxism may have been espoused by certain actors for instrumental motives—as its sudden disappearance would seem to indicate—there must nevertheless be reasons why it proved to be relatively attractive to these actors.

2This paper consists of notes on the emergence of Marxism in Ethiopia, the process by which it gained social roots, its peculiarities, its reversal and the factors that conditioned the whole process, the aim being that they should serve as a point of departure for a discussion on a materialist interpretation of the meaning of the arrival of Marxism in Ethiopia. This is especially important at a point in time when idealistic and voluntaristic interpretations have become dominant.

  • 1 See, for instance, Bahru Zewde (2014: 137–138), who echoes Messay Kebede’s contention that the stud (...)

3The 1974 revolution continues to attract attention. Works on it run the gamut from academic writings to memoirs by former activists to novels, short stories, and films. A single thread that runs through all of them is a continuous onslaught against Marxism-Leninism and the legacy of the revolution. One aspect is the critique from the standpoint of postcolonial theory inflected by post-structuralism, which views the programmatic crux of the Ethiopian student movement as having been defined by “Eurocentrism” and an inappropriate application of Marxist-Leninist categories to the Ethiopian context (Teshale Tibebu 2008; Messay Kebede 1999, 2011). Another school of thought views the activists of the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) as sincere but “immature” idealists whose adherence to Marxism-Leninism led to their own destruction and to disaster for the country.1

  • 2 A discussion on the implausible notion that the politics of the recent ruling party somehow reflect (...)

4On one level, this interpretation of the Ethiopian revolution and its programmatic content dovetails with the broader international ideological assault on Marxism-Leninism and the legacy of 1917 and 1949 (Fitzpatrick 2017; Ball 2006). What is striking about the multi-pronged offensive against Marxism-Leninism in Ethiopia, however, is that it is occurring in a context defined by the disappearance of Marxism-Leninism in the Ethiopian context.2 This offensive has completely overtaken the historical and scientific study of the Ethiopian revolution, and has rendered a balanced and objective interpretation almost impossible. An ironic, subtle interpretation of the phenomenon might view it as an unconscious reaction to recent socio-economic transformations in Ethiopia and the inherent opportunities for a renewed Marxist agenda in the country.


5Conventional views see post-liberation imperial Ethiopia undergoing a process of sustained change and modernization that was abruptly interrupted by the revolution. According to this reading, a contingent event, 1974, upset and upended what could have been a process of gradual transformation into some vague idyllic end state (Messay Kebede 2008; Andargachew Tiruneh 1993).

  • 3 It is also pertinent to point out that World Bank estimates of the contribution of the industrial s (...)

6Under the imperial regime, Ethiopia was in the process of a socio-economic transformation that resulted in the country becoming further and more deeply integrated into the global capitalist system, but in a subordinate position. In the period between 1941 and 1974, in an economy dominated by an agrarian sector characterized by pre-capitalist production relations, a first incipient industrialization process was under way. For instance, one estimate calculates the contribution of the manufacturing sector to GDP as 2.6 percent in 1964/65, 3.5 percent in 1968/69, and 4.4 percent in 1973/74 (Abraham Tekeste 2003).3 Urbanization also proceeded apace in the period from 1941 to 1974, with the urban population growth rate ranging from a low of 9 percent in towns such as Harrar to higher levels of 65.5 percent for larger cities such as Addis Ababa (Assefa Damte 1993: 109–110).

7On the eve of the revolution, the agrarian sector also saw extensive investment in capital-intensive, large-scale commercial agriculture specializing in the production of cash crops, which received official encouragement under the Second Five Year Plan (1962–1966).

  • 4 The applicability of the term “feudalism” to describe not only the superstructure but also producti (...)
  • 5 One example will suffice to provide insight into the scope of landlessness on the eve of the revolu (...)

8A superficial overview obscures more than it reveals, however, the modernization process unleashed by the imperial regime was beset with contradictions and anachronisms that worsened over time. The transition, such as it was, never completely transcended the super-structural elements and pre-capitalist (or semi-feudal) relations of production that characterized large areas of rural Ethiopia.4 Agricultural growth and productivity stagnated, not least due to the surplus extraction to which small peasant production was subjected and the inequitable patterns of land ownership, which were at their most exploitative and glaring in the southern provinces of Ethiopia. The incremental penetration of large-scale commercial agriculture, a tendency towards the concentration of land holdings, expanding absentee landlordism and the transfer of crown lands to investors and to aristocrats, officials, and military officials, in the form of land grants, led to the dispossession of peasant smallholders and the emergence of a landless rural workforce.5 The growing commoditization of peasant production also accentuated differences within the peasant class. The imperial regime’s attention to smallholder agriculture, as reflected in expenditure and budgetary outlays, was negligible compared to its spending on defense and security, industry, and the education sector.

9The extent of industrialization and the pace of urbanization concealed the insoluble contradictions of dependent industrialization. On the eve of the revolution, the industrial sector provided employment to only 57,320 workers. Industrialization during the imperial era also exhibited a number of salient features: the dominance of light industries and the dualistic structure and dominance of foreign capital, coupled with a focus on the domestic market. While the rapid rate of urban population growth is undeniable, it is also clear that industrialization did not keep pace with urbanization, and a substantial proportion of the expanding urban population consisted of unemployed youth and lumpen-proletariat, which was to have fateful consequences for the struggle between the military regime and the civilian leftist movements after the overthrow of the imperial regime.

10The façade of modernity reflected in the expanding bureaucracy and judiciary, a modern police and military apparatus, a bicameral legislature and the revised 1955 constitution co-existed uneasily with bastions of aristocratic privilege in the form of outsized representation in the Senate, the Crown Council, and positions of command in the military. The landowning aristocracy retained substantial administrative power, especially in the Abyssinian provinces, and more pertinently was able to block even the most innocuous reformist attempts at restraining the more exploitative features of landlordism. The extreme concentration and personalization of authority in the person of the Emperor rendered decision-making inefficient. This was to have fateful consequences in times of crisis.

11There were marked differences and class structures in rural Ethiopia, where emerging social tensions increasingly reflected class-based contradictions. In fact, it would not be stretching the point to argue that apart from the settler colonies in the Southern cone, rural Ethiopia in the years before the revolution was on its way to becoming most polarized in class terms. Several works on this phase of Ethiopian politics and its economy describe the processes of the expansion and intrusion of commodity production in the market by small peasant producers, coupled with the expansion of mechanization and large-scale commercial farming (Stahl 1973; Kidane Mengisteab 1984). These processes accelerated differences within rural Ethiopia, led to the increased displacement of tenant farmers, and facilitated more efficient surplus extraction by landlords (Stahl 1973: 35–50; Kidane Mengisteab 1984: 118–120).

  • 6 The work by Kahsay Abraha (2013), an activist who later joined the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary (...)
  • 7 While only peripherally focusing on the years before the revolution, Getie Gelaye’s (2000) work on (...)

12An expanding oeuvre of works on the Ethiopian revolution consists of memoirs and organizational histories written by participants in and witnesses of the events in question. The overwhelming majority are in Amharic and published by local publishing companies. While a conclusive review of these works is beyond the scope of this article, it is critical to underline that they have shed light on a range of hitherto obscure aspects of the revolution and its attendant dynamics. Several works by former activists attest to the polarization of the political opposition to the imperial order, especially in Addis Ababa, and the growing resonance of the slogans and ideas used by the ESM in the years just before 1974 (Taklo Teshome 2016; Nesibu Sebhat 2014). A book by a former high-ranking member of the military regime and a member of the Derg, which was extensively reviewed and discussed in Ethiopia, also points to the growing expansion of unrest and the radicalization of the popular opposition to the imperial state immediately before 1974 (Fikreselassie Wegderes 2014). These works also highlight the fact that the expansion of class-based antagonism to the imperial order was not confined to Addis Ababa, but was also a rural and provincial phenomenon.6 In a related vein, several works also point to the emergence of class consciousness and antagonism to the exploiting classes.7

13However, class differentiation and formation in rural Ethiopia proceeded slowly, with the processes accelerating in the decade before 1974. Desite the expanding numbers of landless peasants and the intensification of forms of surplus extraction burdening smallholder peasants, rural Ethiopia did not possess a historical tradition of peasant rebellion like Russia, China, or feudal Europe. Moreover, the emergence of a landless rural workforce in the Ethiopian countryside was not matched by the emergence of an equivalent industrial working class in urban Ethiopia. The incremental, gradual nature of differentiation and class formation, the influence of religion and the inculcation of a tradition of subservience to aristocratic and imperial privilege and authority dampened the potential for a class-based rural challenge to the imperial state. It was inevitable in the immediate to short term that other emerging classes and strata such as the petty bourgeoisie would emerge as the main sources of challenge to the prevailing social order. Radicalism and the swing towards a Marxist-Leninist program would always be constrained primarily by the considerable development of contradictions within the Ethiopian social formation, the reality of a petty bourgeois adaptation and the failure to develop a proletarian base for Marxism-Leninism.

The Ethiopian Student Movement

14The Ethiopian student movement and its adaptation and popularization of Marxism have been discussed in much detail, and it is not our aim to elaborate here on a story that has been well told elsewhere (Balsvik 1985; Kiflu Tadesse 1993; Bahru Zewde 2010, 2014). However, a few notes are required. To begin with, a number of factors imprinted themselves on the development of Marxism within the student movement. An important starting point is the social environment from which the student movement emerged and the one in which it operated. Emerging within a society that was in the midst of a protracted transition from a pre-capitalist to a capitalist mode of production, the students—often from relatively privileged backgrounds—realized that only a decisive break with the past could bring progressive change. Another important foundational aspect is the period during which Marxism was adopted by the Ethiopian Student Movement. In the mid- to late 1960s, Marxism was being taken up by student and youth radicals across the world in different forms, and this obviously affected the Ethiopian student radicals too. A third important factor was the state’s response, which has been elaborated on by Balsvik (1985).

15By the late 1960s, Marxism had become adopted as the “common sense” framework of the ESM. The type of Marxism that was embraced was of a Leninist nature, and drew much of its inspiration from the thoughts of Mao Zedong. Other major influences came from the New Left and from the experiences of the Cuban, Algerian, and Vietnamese revolutions, ignoring the very real contradictions and the Great Polemic that had opened up in the International Communist Movement. Right from the outset, therefore, a curious ambivalence came to characterize Ethiopian Marxism, in that it did not generally adopt a decisive stance on the cardinal issue of the time in the International Communist Movement: that between the Khrushchevite revisionism of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the anti-revisionism of the Chinese Communist Party.

  • 8 The EPRP’s eventual adoption of the pro-Chinese position was most explicit—see, for example, its st (...)

16By the early 1970s, the ESM had crystallized around separate political-organizational nodes. The major political parties that developed out of these nodes inherited these two interrelated traits. Neither the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) nor the All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON) took a decisive stand on the Great Polemic or the Sino-Soviet split, and both organizations wavered on the question throughout the early years of the revolution. It was only with the eventual all-out enmity between these parties and the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC), combined with the Soviet embrace of the PMAC, that they came to declare their rejection of the Soviet revisionist position,8 but by this time, the reversal of fortunes experienced by both organizations meant that it was largely symbolic.

  • 9 Depending on the normative position, one might also state that it was between opportunism and adven (...)

17It has been claimed that the division between the two major parties originated within different age groups of the militants and around their geographical location or ethnicity. Although there may be some divisions along these lines, none can be described as the primary justification. Rather, it must be attributed to the outlook of the movements, and it is probably best described as a difference in terms of greater and lesser degrees of pragmatism and radicalism, 9 which assumed different manifestations at different times. While MEISON was skeptical of the revolutionary qualities of the masses and preferred a guarded incrementalist strategy, the EPRP embraced the upsurge as a truly revolutionary one that only lacked the leadership of the proletarian party. It was these considerations, too, that led MEISON to adopt a relatively sympathetic stance towards the PMAC and later to collaborate with it, and caused the EPRP to reject it—meaning, eventually, that while the former embarked on an essentially reformist trajectory, the latter embarked on a frontal assault on the state.

The 1974 revolution: official adoption and decline

18In February 1974, Addis Ababa erupted in a spontaneous rebellion against imperial rule. Taxi drivers, students, teachers, workers, and Muslims and Orthodox lower clergy all took to the streets to voice specific and general demands. Meanwhile, soldiers in the outlying regions arrested high-ranking officers in a protest over living conditions. It would be spurious to assume, as some scholars have, that the corporate demands promoted by the various categories of rebels implied a narrow corporate outlook (Ottaway, Ottaway 1978). The fact that no organization existed that was able to channel popular frustrations into a coherent program should not be taken to mean that these frustrations only encompassed the protesters’ immediate environment. On the contrary, the demands of taxi drivers, workers, students, teachers, and soldiers were directed right at the heart of the state, and that such demands should be directed in this manner was by its very nature an unprecedented act of political rebellion, operating far outside the hitherto established boundaries of acceptable collective action.

19Organized expressions were soon to enter the fray. In their formative stages, neither the EPRP nor MEISON was able to shoulder the task of administering the coup de grâce to the tottering imperial regime. Instead, it fell on a hastily organized body of low-ranking officers— the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army, or simply, in Amharic, the Derg—to seize the opportunity presented by the appearance of a political vacuum.

20The evolution of the ideological orientation of the Derg and its adoption of an “official Marxism” occurred through a number of steps, from the “Ethiopia First” slogan to the propagation of a vaguely defined “Ethiopian socialism” in December 1974. Steps such as a land reform decree that entirely abolished landlordism and the nationalization of urban land and major enterprises reflected the growing radicalization of the Derg. In April 1976, with the adoption of the Program of the National Democratic Revolution (PNDR), which was drafted by MEISON’s leaders, the Derg adopted an explicitly Marxist-Leninist stance. It was pushed further to the left by the incessant pressures of the urban mass movement. Owing to the activities of the militant left, Marxism came to take deep roots in the urban masses prior to its adoption by the Derg. Negussay Ayele—himself a Derg loyalist—made this clear when he stated that “it is not the Derg or any one group of bourgeois revolutionaries that made the revolution, in my view, but the revolution which made the Derg what it is” (1983: 43).

21The “official Marxism” adopted by the Derg was, however, a peculiar mix of rhetorical dogmatism, ideological eclecticism, revisionism and opportunistic application. At the outset, the PNDR adopted an ambiguous tone. Written in a language that starkly evoked Mao Zedong’s theory of New Democracy (Mao 1939, 1940), the program was characterized by a theoretical somersault and a resulting void at the center of it. Roughly speaking, in a New Democratic revolution, the Communist Party substitutes for the proletariat, which in turn substitutes for the bourgeoisie in carrying out a new type of bourgeois revolution, whereas in the case of Ethiopia, a party like this was lacking. The PNDR set the scene for a new democratic revolution without proletarian leadership, but this was a contradiction in terms, and a theoretical impossibility.

  • 10 The Ethiopian Communist Party (ECP) was established in July-August 1976. It was a small group that (...)

22A number of miniscule Marxist-Leninist groupings also emerged in the period after 1974, such as the Wezader League (the Wez League), the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Organization (MALERD), the Ethiopian Oppressed People’s Revolutionary Organization (ECHAAT), and later the Ethiopian Communist Party. With the exception of the Ethiopian Communist Party, these organizations all joined MEISON in aligning with the military junta.10

23The period of MEISON influence was the radical high tide of the revolution. The system was assaulted, and an attempt was made—rhetorically speaking, at least—to rein in the influence of the bureaucracy. Despite these measures and the rhetoric, state practices were highly bureaucratized and repressive towards any independent mass movement, even in their most radical phase. Official flirtations with China indicated an anti-revisionist outlook among sections of the leadership (Aleme Eshete 1988: 412–413), but this was to change with the “Soviet turn” of mid-1977.

24The purge within the Derg in February 1977, the Somali invasion in the summer of 1977, the provision of Soviet and satellite support to counter the invasion and stabilize the regime, and the break with and purge of MEISON at around the same time all contributed to the “Soviet turn.” The turn implied on the one hand an international realignment and the full induction of Ethiopia into the Soviet camp, and on the other a swerve towards the right in domestic policies, including a re-embrace of the bureaucracy, the institution of the unrivalled primacy of the military, the regimentalization of social life, and the intensification of surplus extraction.

  • 11 The ridicule is usually aimed at EPRP, which labelled the Derg as fascist, and it is sometimes clai (...)

25It was a lifeless dogmatic application of modern revisionism that survived the Ethiopian revolution in terms of official Marxism, which combined jingoism with proto-fascist grandstanding, involving appeals to sacrifices for “the motherland,” demands for “discipline” among the workforce, the fetishization of the state and national territory, and evocations of blood and soil. The labelling of Derg by its opponents as social fascists has been ridiculed,11 but it remains a plausible characterization. The regime exhibited traits of an open terrorist dictatorship. What is certain is that in its struggle with the civilian left, categories and individuals that had hitherto never been associated with the left rallied to its side. Reactionaries came to hoist the red flag as the Derg adopted a bureaucratic, chauvinist and jingoist brand of Marxism in the aftermath of the Somali invasion, one that emphasized order, national sacrifice, and discipline. As they did so, they embarked on a campaign of mass terror that was primarily directed against Marxist revolutionaries, and in this sense the practice of terror combined with ideological and programmatic appropriation to destroy the first Marxist mass movement in Ethiopia.

26The Derg officially discarded Marxism in the dawn of the 1990s once its appropriation had served its purposes, which were to outflank the opposition and garner international support. That did not prevent it from collapsing in 1991, however.


  • 12 “The party of the laboring class […] follows Marxism-Leninism” (CELU 1975).

27A number of authors have interpreted the sudden retreat of Marxism in Ethiopia to mean that it had always only enjoyed a superficial level of support among a small section of the populace (Messay Kebede 2011): “shallow roots,” in the words of Gebru Tareke (2009: 338), and “shallow,” “ostentatious,” and lacking historical depth according to Teshale Tibebu (2008: 362). In fact, this has become the dominant interpretation. It does not hold up well to historical scrutiny, however. Teshale Tibebu (2008: 353) inadvertently turns the question on its head by asking “why were there so many Marxist organizations in a country whose Marxism was [authors’ note: allegedly and intellectually] so skin deep?” The answer can be deduced from the question, for not only was Marxism particularly well-suited to explaining the class relationships prevailing in Ethiopia (Addis Hiwet 1975, 1976, 1984; Markakis, Nega Ayele 1978), but also, as a guide to political action, Marxism in Ethiopia did in fact enjoy great, if relatively short-lived, popular resonance. This can be demonstrated on two levels: the first is the explicit embrace of Marxism12 among major sections of the working people of Ethiopia, while the second is the embrace in praxis of the class struggle among even larger sections.

28To illustrate the former, one might refer to the manner in which the Ethiopian labor movement came to adopt an explicitly Marxist line. Since it did so in direct and forceful opposition to the Derg, it can hardly be explained with reference to state coercion or opportunism. The September 1975 resolutions passed by the Confederations of Ethiopian Labor Unions (CELU 1975) testify to this. They championed the revolutionizing of industrial relations in the overthrow of managerial authority in the nationalized workplaces and the institution of worker control, a rejection of state capitalism and an end to state interference and repression in the autonomous and revolutionary labor movement. If, as has been claimed by the Derg and its apologists, this is only taken to reflect the allegation that the CELU had been “infiltrated” by the EPRP, it should be noted that the elected representatives of no fewer than 106 basic unions signed the resolution. Moreover, the CELU archives contain a multitude of notes of protest formulated in Marxist terms from the basic unions that were radicalized in the workplace struggles that exploded from 1975 through 1977. The illustrations are too plentiful to cover exhaustively here, but as an example, in September 1976, an open letter bearing the seals of some twenty unions was sent to the PMAC vociferously protesting against its repressive rule, while advocating a New Democratic revolution and the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship (Various unions 1976). The labor movement was not, therefore, an outcome of the external manipulation of agency-less workers, but an expression of a collective—a class—that conceived and articulated its own revolutionary interest.

  • 13 In December 1974, the PMAC/Derg proclaimed a “Zemacha” (Amharic word for campaign) that involved te (...)

29As indicated above, however, wage workers were not the only class category whose class struggle practices corresponded to a Marxist understanding of them. With regard to the peasantry, land reform, in combination with the presence of “Zemach”13 students, disseminated understandings and released energies that went far beyond the confined space assigned to the popular masses by the Derg. Again, there are plenty of examples. In Jimma and Soddo, peasants ranging in the several tens of thousands and influenced by zemach students engaged in open and violent confrontations—a class war, judging by the level of reported casualties—with landlords and urban property owners (Lefort 1983: 113–144; Ottaway, Ottaway 1978). Class confrontations in rural Ethiopia was not confined to the south, however. In Wollo, Dessalegn Rahmato (2009: 156) writes, there was an “aggressive confrontation” including numerous “violent and bloody clashes all over the province between tenants and poor peasants on the one hand, and landowners and rich peasants on the other in the two years following the revolution.” The struggles in the agrarian economy may not have been articulated in as unambiguous Marxist language as they were in the wage-earning sectors of the economy, but the practice certainly corresponded to Marxist understandings of the conduct of a class struggle.

Regionalist/ethno-nationalist Marxism

30The theme of the national question and national oppression in imperial and post-imperial Ethiopia was articulated from within a Marxist-Leninist standpoint in an article by Wallelign Mekonnen that appeared in 1969 (Wallelign Mekonnen 1969). Wallelign Mekonnen’s schematic analysis of the national question and national oppression focused on the Amhara-Abyssinian ruling class and the Orthodox Church’s domination and marginalization of non-Abyssinian and non-Orthodox-Christian peoples in Ethiopia. The resolution of the national question was tied to the overthrow of the imperial order and acquisition of the right to self-determination, including the right to secession. There was an implicit assumption that a resolution of the national question would fit within a federal structure based on the same model as the federations in the former USSR and Yugoslavia. This analysis and the resolution of the national question became the consensus within the ESM.

31While the Derg was busy caricaturing Marxism while dismantling actual Marxist-influenced mass movements, the ideas that had animated the movement took root in a somewhat different environment. Among the regionally and ethnically defined armed movements that had originated in Eritrea but had mushroomed throughout the empire in the years around the revolution, Marxism—in various forms—had come to be adopted across the board. In the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), a self-avowed “Marxist” Labor Party had come to play a dominant role by the mid-1970s, and a splinter group from the ELF, the leftist Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), had emerged, with a supposedly Marxist-Leninist vanguard party—the Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party—at its core.

32It was the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that was most spectacularly committed to a form of Marxism-Leninism, however—at least as far as its program was concerned—and it came to have the greatest impact on the broader social formation within which it operated. Initially adopting an eclectic, broad-based leftism and a fierce ethno-regional nationalism, it moderated the nationalist aspects of its program over the years while also adopting a hard-line type of Hoxhaism. Although it insisted on “waging class struggle and national struggle inseparably” (TPLF 1983), it was made clear that the prime focus was on the national aspect, and class was almost exclusively qualified in national terms. In this way, for instance, the “Amhara bourgeoisie” came to represent an “external” enemy, while little effort was made to elaborate on “internal” exploitative relations. In practice, the nationalism of its political line led the TPLF to clash with other leftist forces, and it expelled the EPRP from Tigray in a series of clashes in the late 1970s resulting from an unwillingness to recognize the EPRP’s right to operate in the region.

  • 14 The Communist Party of Germany/Marxist-Leninist (in German, Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands/Marx (...)

33By the mid-1980s, however, the vaguely leftist rhetoric gave way to a more explicit Marxist-Leninist version. A group of high-ranking officials, led by the organizers of the TPLF’s political school, took advantage of its central position in the organization to oust the former leadership of the front and to establish a vanguard party. This party—the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT)—adopted a hard Hoxhaite line and aligned itself internationally with the Hoxhaite current and the German Hoxhaite party KPD/ML.14 As its close adherence to Hoxhaism came to replace its broad leftist eclecticism, its relations with the EPLF suffered for several years. During those years, however, its relations with an organizational offshoot of the EPRP—the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM), which was miniscule in size and willing to accept the political primacy and line of the TPLF—improved to the point where it was possible to establish a strategic alliance. The EPDM also had a Hoxhaite vanguard nucleus within its ranks, and as the two organizations established the joint Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) in the late 1980s, the respective vanguard parties established a nationwide Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. By this time, however, victory was imminent, as the Derg teetered on the brink of collapse, and political pragmatism—in the sense of progressively toning down the Marxist rhetoric, an international alignment with the United States, the renouncement of Marxism and the adoption of a program of private capitalist development—was to overtake ideological rigidity.

34The downfall of the military regime in 1991 and the rise to power of the EPRDF shortly thereafter ushered in a federal constitution and politico-administrative structure. A substantial number of academic considerations and a critical focus on the federal system have either interpreted it as a cynical instrumental tactic on the part of the EPRDF or sought to question federalism in Ethiopia by ascribing it to the so-called “Stalinist” legacy of the ESM and the movements that emerged out of it (Vaughan 2003; Abbink 2011).

35Despite its subsequent evolution and the discernible tendencies of capitulation, it was nevertheless a movement that was programmatically committed to Marxism-Leninism that overthrew the Derg. In fact, it may be argued that on the cusp of victory, the ideological eclecticism that had plagued Ethiopian Marxism was overcome—for better or for worse—by one of the movements originating from the ESM. Ironically, this movement was one that had initially shown only the weakest of commitments to Marxist praxis, and equally ironically it occurred precisely before this movement—which was the very last to do so—renounced Marxism altogether.

Sideshow: academic Marxism

  • 15 In his seminal article on new developments in Ethiopian historiography, Triulzi (2002) highlights t (...)

36Marxism in Ethiopia did not only grow out of the universities as a political movement; it also enjoyed a brief spell of popularity within academia. Traditional scholarship on Ethiopia was increasingly being questioned by Marxian-influenced analyses that challenged core assumptions about the Ethiopian state, society, and history. This was the case as much among Ethiopianist scholars from abroad as it was within from Ethiopia itself. A number of scholars fruitfully employed Marxian categories to develop in-depth analyses that changed the prevailing understanding of the nature and trajectory of Ethiopian social formation. The contemporary dominant understandings of the process of Ethiopian state formation and national inequalities are very much underpinned by the influence of Marxist categories.15

37Despite the fact that Marxism in Ethiopia emerged from the universities and had a very powerful constituency inside them, it is striking how little remains of Marxist scholarship in and on the country. Curiously, nothing resembling even the weakest form of an “academic left” remains in Ethiopia, despite the fact that academia is dominated by former participants in the ESM. Only a minority have continued to use Marxian categories and analyses. Among the few scholars who have continued to do so in recent times are Gebru Mersha and Fouad Makki (Fouad Makki 2014; Gebru Mersha 1995). The overwhelming majority of academics with a past in the Ethiopian Student Movement have undergone a radical volte-face when it comes to both their intellectual and political alignment.


38We have mentioned a number of peculiarities pertaining to the manner in which Marxism developed in Ethiopia above, and we will touch on a few of these points here.

39A first peculiarity pertains to the broad appeal of Marxism-Leninism as it developed in Ethiopia. Not only was it adopted by an essentially chauvinist-nationalist military government seeking legitimization, but it was also taken up by a plethora of political organizations with extensive mass appeal.

40A second is the political-ideological eclecticism—in practice as well as theory—that was central to almost all the organizations that emerged within the revolutionary movement. The eclecticism of the political practices the movements developed was also related to this: the multinational Marxist-Leninist parties combined insurrection and reformism with relatively belated attempts at an armed struggle, while it was left to the ethno-nationalist movements to embark on a strategy of a protracted armed struggle.

41Finally, while it is by no means strange that Marxism should have developed from universities in an under-developed economy, the spectacular appeal Marxism enjoyed on Ethiopian campuses must be contrasted with the almost complete eradication it has suffered since. The same can also be said of Marxism in political life in Ethiopia in general.

Conclusion: Ethiopian Marxism and the materiality of ideology

  • 16 This does not refer to soldiers in the service of the PMAC—which reflects adherence to command, and (...)

42The specific social-economic configuration that preceded the Ethiopian revolution provided the most fertile possible ground for the application of Marxism as both an explanatory framework and a political-ideological framework for addressing the contradictions and logjams that emerged from this configuration. For these very reasons—which included the absence of proletarian social forces and the primacy of Marxism’s explanatory aspects—the universities became its most conducive breeding ground. Because the broader socio-economic configuration was subject to a number of obstacles and contradictions, however, the redemptive ideas initially propagated by students attracted a broad-based mass of natural allies. Exceptionally, this included large numbers of soldiers.16 More importantly, however, it also included large numbers of peasants, workers, and slum-dwellers and the petty bourgeois categories whose path to elevation had been blocked by a stagnant economy and an archaic political superstructure that was unable to accommodate either pressures for reform or careerist ambitions. When combined, these factors may explain the emergence of Marxism as a political and intellectual paradigm in Ethiopia in the 1970s, but they also, to some extent, explain its abrupt disappearance.

43The fact that the petty bourgeois categories were always at the head of the movements that developed—whether inside the military government, the ESM, civilian multinational organizations, or ethno-nationalist organizations—meant that they were open to eclecticism, wavering, and eventually—with barely any resistance—capitulation. There were no major challenges, battle lines, or defections in any of the political movements as they decided to drop Marxism-Leninism, and they all did so in the decade between 1981 and 1991, starting with the EPRP, then the WPE, and finally the MLLT/TPLF/EPRDF. The first Marxist wave in Ethiopia receded as fast and spectacularly as it had arrived.

  • 17 See Neil Davidson (2014), who illustrates a number of cases in which Marxism has been used as the i (...)

44The first Marxist moment in Ethiopia was essentially pre-proletarian, in that the proletariat was neither a sizeable social force nor in command of the movement. “Marxism” thus served diverging material and ideological aims that were quite radically removed from its proletarian origin, and once those aims had been served, it was rapidly dropped. This is not uncommon,17 nor does it mean that that Marxism did not play a massive role—even an emancipatory one when it came to releasing the peasantry from landlordism—in delivering a republican order in Ethiopia and unlocking the potential for socio-economic modernization and capitalist development. What it does mean is that the first Marxist moment in Ethiopia never really bore with it the possibility of emancipating the proletariat and of establishing a social formation based on non-exploitative relations.

  • 18 According to Arriola and Lyons (2016: 79), the EPRDF’s adherence to “revolutionary democracy” and t (...)
  • 19 See Bach (2011) for a discussion on this. If, as Bach argues, revolutionary democracy is defined ne (...)

45In recent years, the conventional practice has become to read the EPRDF’s policies and practices—including its ideological commitment to a vaguely defined revolutionary/developmental democracy and to the construction of a better defined “developmental state”—from an allegedly “Marxist” standpoint located in its past.18 This is unfortunate, as neither the theory of the developmental state nor the EPRDF’s practice in constructing it remotely correspond to Marxist categories or tasks. While for Marxists the state is a class category submerged in the class society that institutes it, for theoreticians of the developmental state it is an autonomous force. It is for this reason that a treatise on the industrial policy of the developmental state in contemporary Ethiopia written by a senior official of the EPRDF can include references to “labor” only as a factor of production, and policy as an independent variable (Arkebe Oqubay 2015). Chang (2013) has explained how this blind spot and outright negation of Marxist theory is prevalent in developmental state theory in general, all but demolishing the basis for the comparison. It is somewhat more difficult to put forward arguments either in support or in rebuttal of the claim of continuity in terms of “revolutionary democracy,” but only because the lack of a plausible and meaningful definition of the latter has rendered it an empty vessel, one that has no independent value aside from the cargo it holds.19 And it is by examining this cargo, in the form of the policy and practice of nurturing new exploitative relations and an emergent ruling class under the protective embrace of the state, that the identification of Ethiopian developmental statism and “revolutionary democracy” with Marxism becomes most obviously false.

46In recent history, however, there has been a sizeable growth of proletarian categories and an entrenchment of new exploitative class relations, as signified by rapid GDP growth accompanied by declining real wages. This indicates that the social terrain that is currently developing is more conducive to a radical anti-exploitative class project, that if the idea of a materiality of ideology is taken seriously, the conditions are maturing for a second coming of Marxism in Ethiopia. There certainly exists a deep well of historical experience to draw from, should this become viable.


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1 See, for instance, Bahru Zewde (2014: 137–138), who echoes Messay Kebede’s contention that the student activists’ espousal of Marxism-Leninism was dogmatic and rooted in a Manichean world view derived from Orthodox Christianity. In her memoirs, Hiwot Teferra (2011: 355–356) also refers to her growing disillusionment with Marxism-Leninism and what she views as its role in leading student activists and the country to disaster.

2 A discussion on the implausible notion that the politics of the recent ruling party somehow reflect a lingering influence of Marxism is addressed below.

3 It is also pertinent to point out that World Bank estimates of the contribution of the industrial sector to GDP in this period are higher on the eve of the revolution, at 11.1 percent (ibid).

4 The applicability of the term “feudalism” to describe not only the superstructure but also production methods in Abyssinia (regions of northern Ethiopia) has generated an extensive academic debate that is beyond the scope of this study (Eshetu Chole 1971; Crummey 1980; Teshale Tibebu 1995).

5 One example will suffice to provide insight into the scope of landlessness on the eve of the revolution in rural Ethiopia: even a right-wing academic such as Mesfin Woldemariam estimated that in the years before the revolution, 39 percent of peasants could be classified as landless (Mesfin Woldemariam 1991; Yigremew Adal 2002).

6 The work by Kahsay Abraha (2013), an activist who later joined the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Army (EPRA) the armed wing of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), shows how in Adigrat, Tigray, in the years before the revolution, there was an emerging consciousness that linked the marginalization of Tigray province and peasant landlessness and poverty. According to the author, this was also accompanied by an intensification of the antagonisms on the part of landowning aristocrats and merchants towards poor peasants. This emerging radical consciousness was also mediated by the influence of pamphlets produced by both the ESM and the Eritrean movements.

7 While only peripherally focusing on the years before the revolution, Getie Gelaye’s (2000) work on the oral history of Amhara peasants in East Gojjam shows how the celebratory oral poetry of the peasants regarding the proclamation of land reforms was immersed in the language and tones of an outright class-based antagonism towards landlords and the rural aristocracy.

8 The EPRP’s eventual adoption of the pro-Chinese position was most explicit—see, for example, its statement condemning Vietnamese aggression against Democratic Kampuchea (EPRP/FC 1979)—but both parties had come to condemn Soviet social imperialism by that point [see MEISON (1989) for a discussion on this point]. The similarities in the sequence of these processes underline the interlinked problems of eclecticism, instrumentalism, and opportunism as it affected both of the two largest Marxist-Leninist movements to varying degrees.

9 Depending on the normative position, one might also state that it was between opportunism and adventurism. See Valdelin (1978), for instance, for an account that emphasizes this more negative interpretation.

10 The Ethiopian Communist Party (ECP) was established in July-August 1976. It was a small group that was opposed to both the military regime and its allies and also took a different line from the EPRP. It was viewed as an enemy by the regime, its civilian allies and the EPRP. The ECP was the first party to emerge from the ESM that officially espoused a Hoxhaite line. It was eventually crushed by the repression unleashed by the Derg (Assefa Endeshaw, 2014).

11 The ridicule is usually aimed at EPRP, which labelled the Derg as fascist, and it is sometimes claimed that this was one of the reasons behind its demise. The TPLF also consistently called the Derg fascist, however, and it does not seem to have prevented it from effectively fighting the Derg.

12 “The party of the laboring class […] follows Marxism-Leninism” (CELU 1975).

13 In December 1974, the PMAC/Derg proclaimed a “Zemacha” (Amharic word for campaign) that involved tens of thousands of students from high schools and tertiary education institutions traveling to and living in rural Ethiopia to raise awareness of the rural inhabitants and facilitate the implementation of the reforms instituted by the new regime. The students who participated in the campaign were referred to as Zemach. The Left opposition to the Derg and many of the Zemach viewed the campaign as a ploy by the military regime to remove educated leftist youth from Addis Ababa and other towns, to minimize potential political opposition.

14 The Communist Party of Germany/Marxist-Leninist (in German, Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands/Marxisten-Leninisten, KPD/ML ).

15 In his seminal article on new developments in Ethiopian historiography, Triulzi (2002) highlights the fact that a more political economy-infused historiography has become prominent, which he attributes to the influence of Marxian methodology and categories. Alessandro also partly attributes the prominence of works addressing Ethiopian history and historiography from the perspectives of non-Abyssinian national groups to the impact of the Marxism-Leninism of the ESM. In a related, albeit distinct, vein, Teshale Tibebu (1995) also refers to the emergence of what he terms “radical left historiography” in Ethiopia, although issue might be taken with some of the authors he subsumes under this category.

16 This does not refer to soldiers in the service of the PMAC—which reflects adherence to command, and possibly also to the nationalistic or chauvinistic ideas that proliferate among military categories—as much as to those who expressed radical opposition to the PMAC’s bureaucratic rule. They include members of the Air Force and the Engineering Corps, two entities that were subject to PMAC repression. Several officers also defected from the armed forces to join the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Army, and later on the Ethiopian Democratic Officers’ Revolutionary Movement, a former EPRDF constituent movement.

17 See Neil Davidson (2014), who illustrates a number of cases in which Marxism has been used as the ideological garb for bourgeois modernist projects. One only needs to look at contemporary Chinese employment of “official Marxism” to see this process in action.

18 According to Arriola and Lyons (2016: 79), the EPRDF’s adherence to “revolutionary democracy” and the construction of a “developmental state” reflects the Marxist-Maoist ideological training of the regime’s founding leaders. Aalen (2014: 193) claims that “the ideological thinking behind the EPRDF’s developmental state can be traced to the party’s Marxist-Leninist tradition.” Similar statements, albeit less explicit or direct, can be found throughout the contemporary literature on Ethiopian political economy and development.

19 See Bach (2011) for a discussion on this. If, as Bach argues, revolutionary democracy is defined negatively in opposition to liberalism and neoliberalism and around the notion of “collective rights” imbued in national categories, then it is obviously not a Marxist category, whatever its etymology. However, Bach (2011: 657) also makes the argument that “revolutionary democracy is a malleable concept,” thereby capturing its essential feature.

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