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On marxism and Ethiopian student radicalism in North America.

The ideals and aims which motivate radical third world student movements generally reflect broader popular aspirations for political and socioeconomic change. Such movement are political in the sense that, going beyond narrow educational goals and sectional concerns, they champion the interests and struggles of oppressed classes and nations. Indeed, in underdeveloped societies where classes tend to be weakly grounded in forces and relations of production, and as such lack adequate material and ideological capacities to act as autonomous agents of socioeconomic change in the sense originally theorized by Marx, progressive student movements and other "unconventional" carriers of revolutionary consciousness and practice acquire special political importance.

But exactly what is the nature and political significance of leftist third world student movements, and what do such movements perceive their role and basic task in social change to be? The purpose of this article is to make a modest contribution to an understanding of issues and problems that this question suggests.

To that end, I shall examine critically the experience of a particular group of militant third world student intelligentsia, namely, that of the Ethiopian Student Union in North America (ESUNA). ESUNA's origins go back to the late 1950s, but it became politically active only from 1965 on. During the period from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, ESUNA played an important role in the ideological struggle against feudalism and imperialism in Ethiopia. It did so both as an integral part of a progressive movement of Ethiopian students and intellectuals at home and abroad as well as a Marxist union in its own right.

However, the fact that ESUNA is now politically dormant, indeed for all practical purposes defunct, raises the questions: How successful were ESUNA intelligentsia in grasping Marxist theory and using it to formulate a radical political project for the Ethiopian Student Movement in North America? And what were some of the problems with ESUNA's attempt to politicize and radicalize its aims, discourses, and practices through Marxism? The answers to these questions lie in part in the way in which the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) as a whole emerged as a militant opposition to Haile Selassie's autocratic regime from the mid-1960s on. We began, therefore, with a brief account of the emergence and radicalization of the ESM.

The Rise of the ESM as an Oppositional Social Force

The genesis of the ESM as an opposition to autocratic rule in Ethiopia can be traced back to 1960 when in December of that year "students of the University College of Addis Ababa became the only organized group to extend public support to the abortive coup staged against Haile Selassie." But the year 1965 was the critical turning point in the emergence of radical student opposition to autocracy in Ethiopia. In February of that year university students in Addis Ababa took to the streets and engaged in a public demonstration under the slogan "land to the tiller," thereby boldly confronting the feudal Ethiopia polity with a revolutionary demand for land redistribution.

The 1965 demonstration was a historic event in the growth of the ESM in that it ushered in a new era of student political consciousness and radicalism abroad as well as at home. Sparked by the militant slogan "land to the tiller," and in solidarily with their sister unions at home, the heretofore politically inactive Ethiopian Student Association in North America (ESANA) and the Union of Ethiopian Students in Europe (ESUE) held their thirteenth and fifth Congresses, respectively, in that same year. From these congresses emerged, in the words of ESANA, "a new definition of principles and a new course of action," a determination in short "to liquidate the [Ethiopian] feudal system ... and throw our lot with the oppressed masses of Ethiopia."

As the 1960s wore on, the militancy of students opposition to Haile Selassie's autocratic rule grew in spite of state repression. Students focused their protest on a wide range of issues, from concrete socioeconomic matters which had a direct bearing on the livelihood of workers and the poor in Addis Ababa to the military presence and cultural hegemony of U.S. imperialism in Ethiopia. Student agitation took various forms, including "organizing rallies and panel discussions, and ... publishing a militant paper, Tagel (Struggle), class boycotts, strikes, and street demonstrations. The latter often entailed skirmishes, and occasionally more deadly encounters, with state security forces. Using these and other forms of protest, and undaunted by government crackdowns, the ESM continued to express its opposition to the ancient regime well into the early 1970s.

When in February 1974 revolution broke out in Ethiopia and the broad masses themselves--workers, taxi drivers, teachers, the lower and middle ranks of the armed forces, and other oppressed social strata--took matters of emancipatory struggle into their own hands, students enthusiastically fought along with them. But the militant studentry was not content with fighting for sectional interests and short-term objectives. Rather, it demanded nothing less than the radical transformation of the Ethiopian social order as a whole. Going beyond agitating against Haile Selassie's tottering monarchy, it called into question monarchic rule as such in Ethiopia. It is worth nothing in this regard that the failure of Prime Minister Endalkachew, a representative of the more bourgeoisified fraction of the artistocratic class who came to power following the outbreak of the February Revolution, to consolidate his rule and thereby enable the ancient regime to reform its way out of the political crisis was in no small measure due to the unrelenting pressure that was brought to bear on it by radical student opposition.

Marxism and the ESM

Exactly when it was first introduced into the Ethiopian Student Movement cannot be readily ascertained, but by the late 1960s Marxism had gained an influential position within the movement both at home and abroad. Marxist thinking easily lent itself to the highly oppositional, antifeudal, and anti-imperialist orientation that Ethiopian student activism assumed from the mid-1960s on. The disenchantment of Ethiopian youth with their country's backward feudal tradition, and their keen awareness that that tradition was sustained by contemporary capitalism-cum-imperialism, naturally led them to entertain Marxist ideas and formulas of change. Marxism apealed to the Ethiopian student intelligentsia not only because it contained a radical critique of both capitalism and feudalism, but also because it offered them, as no other indigenous or foreign intellectual tradition could, a different structural model of national development and an alternative conception of the good society.

Thanks in part to the Westernized institutional environment of the Addis Ababa University, which afforded the ESM a relatively privileged arena within a feudal society in which liberal and radical ideas could be entertained and acted out, the ESM was able to develop through Marxism a working model of progressive political discourse and practice. This model was in sharp contrast to the unprincipled and untheoretical politics of palace intrigue, paternalism, and feudal bravado that was characteristic of Haile Selassie's autocratic rule.

But the fact that the ESM had no organic links to broader social forces in Ethiopia, especially prior to the February Revolution of 1974, that far from forging such links was only thinking and acting Marxism on behalf of the masses, meant that the movement's Marxist world outlook was a product of little more than pure intellectual construction and socialization. Thus, while Ethiopian student activists took ostensibly radical Marxist positions on such crucial issues as the national question and class struggle in Ethiopia, they tended to do so in a sweeping global and abstract from which was not grounded in the historically specific contradictions, political traditions, and cultural practices of Ethiopian society. Content with being "radical" in the easy formal theoretical sense of faithfully replicating the classic statements of Marx, Lenin, and their followers on proletarian internationalism, militant Ethiopian student intelligentsia saw little need to independently theorize from a Marxist perspective how and the extent to which social conflicts in Ethiopia fit into global class struggles. In large measure because its evaluation of Ethiopian political tradition was so negative and rejectionist, the ESM vaguard could neither adequately grasp that tradition nor critically interrogate orthodox Marxism itself in the light of the concrete historical experience of the Ethiopian nation. It is not surprising therefore that notwithstanding the ostensible commitment of the ESM to Marxist ideas, concepts, and practices, Marxist theorizing within the movement was limited by formalism and abstract radicalism. The following excerpt from an editorial entitled "Purge of Feudal Legacy" which appeared in the November 17, 1969, issue of Struggle, the militant paper of the University Students Union of Addis Ababa (USUAA), is indicative of this theoretical shortcoming of the Marxism of the ESM:

In our Ethiopian context, the true revolutionary is one who has shattered all sentimental and ideological ties with feudal Ethiopia ... our rallying points are not a common history, a feudal boundary ... religious institutions, regional, ethnic [and] linguistic affiliations, but the cause of the oppressed classes, who are the ultimate makers of history. That is why we are international, because the masses have no nation.

USUAA's sweeping, onesidedly global Marxist radicalism as well as the ultra-leftist conception of the true Ethiopian revolutionary which came out of it was not shared by all progressive students within the ESM abroad. Ideological disputes arose within the ESM in Europe and North America in the late 1960s between "an older generation of students who had gone abroad in the early and middle 1960s...[and] a younger generation, who traveled later in the decade and were more immediately influenced by the radicalization of the students in Addis Ababa itself." Since it is not possible here to go into a detailed discussion of the substantive issues which became the focus of contention within the movement, it must suffice to note that the more doctrinaire Marxist ideological line that the younger generation subscribed to, particularly vis-a-vis the national question in Ethiopia, was both theoretically and politically unacceptable to the older members of the ESM abroad.

With respect to the ESM in North America in particular, the ultimate outcome of ideological conflict was the split of ESUNA in 1971, and the complete displacement of the ESUNA old guard by a younger generation of students. Following the split, the more strident version of the Marxism of ESUAA that the latter group brought with it to North America in the late 1960s and early 1970s gained a dominant position within a reconstituted ESUNA. With this overview of the growth and radicalization of the ESM as background, we may now turn to a discussion of some of the problems in ESUNA's Marxism and political activism.

Marxism and ESUNA's Ambigious Ideological Self-Image

Following its reconstitution in 1971, ESUNA did not offcially proclaim Marxism as its ideology. In theory, the union was supposed to be a "mass movement" of progressive Ethiopian students and intellectuals in North America in which all anti-feudal and anti-imperialist ideas, including bourgeois ideas, were allowed to contend. In actuality, however, the full range of ESUNA's doctrinal activities--from the substantive content of the literature it put out in its name to the conceptual categories it employed in its description and analysis of Ethiopian society--evinced an unmistakable preoccupation with the letter as well as the spirit of Marxism. A good portion of its organizational effort, moreover, was directed at discovering and attacking what it considered to be "bourgeois intellectuals," "reformists," and other undesirable elements both within it ranks and in the Ethiopian community at large in North America.

The question therefore arises: Why the incongruence between ESUNA's professed "liberal" ideological posture on the one hand, and its actual "Marxist" behavior on the other?

In part, ESUNA's dual ideological orientation was an outcome of the inability of its vanguard to adequately clarify--in both theory and practice--the relationship that should obtain between ideological struggle and practical struggle, or, more specifically, between the political activism of Ethiopian students in North America and real political struggle in Ethiopia. For to support the cause of revolution in ethiopia from far away in study groups and congresses in the safety of college campuses in North America is one thing, while to be a revolutionary in Ethiopia itself and risk life and limb for the cause is another. But the undifferentiated nature of ESUNA's concept of "struggle" was not simply a reflection of intellectual inadequacy or confusion within ESUNA. More fundamentally, I think, the problem had to do with the nature of the task Marxism was called upon to perform for ESUNA and the manner in which it was expeted to perform it.

ESUNA came to Marxism not only, or even primarily, in search of a radical conceptual tool with which to analyze and criticize Ethiopian social reality objectively, but also to constitute itself as a revolutionary subject or protagonist in the strugle against feudalism and imperialism. ESUNA intelligentsia believed in the power of Marxist ideas to transform social consciousness and practice, and strove to make Marxism guide their thoughts, discourse, and practice. Thus Marxism, as understood by the ESUNA vanguard and popularized by it within the union, controlled, to use Kellner's words, "the limits of discourse, by setting the political agenda, by defining the issues and terms of debate, and by excluding oppositional ideas." Since they placed a premium on doctrinal purity and organizational unit ESUNA radicals were concerned to avoid contamination with what they perceived to be non-Marxist ideas and practices.

But at the same time ESUNA militants sought to build and lead a broad mass-based movement of all progressive Ethiopian students and intellectuals in North America. This aim implied that a more inclusive ideological basis had to be created than Marxism alone could provide, one that would make possible the participation of Ethiopian youth of different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and varying levels of intellectual capacity and political commitment. As the ESUNA leadership itself correctly recognized, this underlying ideological tension created an "identity crisis" for the ESM in North America. Was the movement a "mass organization" of all progressive and patriotic Ethiopian students in North America, or was it, in fact, a Marxist political party of sorts dedicated first and foremost to the cause of "proletarian" revolution in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the world?

ESUNA made a number of attempts in the course of the early 1970s to clarify the issues involved and dispel confusion within its ranks about the political role and tasks of the ESM in North America. But no satisfactory resolution of the problem was forthcoming. The ESUNA leadership "resolved" the contradictory ideological self-image of the union by simply denying that ESUNA was a Marxist organization, arguing that unlike a working class party a student body such as ESUNA could not make commitment to Marxism the basis of its unity. This denial, which was a reflection of the need felt by ESUNA radicals to create a mass base for ESUNA by appealing to non-Marxist as well as Marxist Ethiopian youth, was a disingenuous attempt to "hide" Marxism, as it were, behind the veil of a popular negative consciousness of antifeudalism and anti-imperialism. But there was never any doubt that ESUNA was nothing less than dogmatic in its commitment to Marxism as it understood it.

ESUNA's Marxist Political Discourse and Practice

At the root of ESUNA's "identity crisis" was the concrete problem of how to go beyond abstract Marxist opposition to feudalism and imperialism and define, in practical as well as theoretical terms, its political aims, tasks, and methods of struggle. In other words, how could they connect with the emancipatory struggles of oppressed classes and nationalities in Ethiopia while operating as a student movement in North America?

Recognition of the practical fact of its location far away from the Ethiopian masses no doubt lay behind ESUNA's formulation of the view--which gained increasing currency from the year 1971 on--that its primary objective was to remold and raise the social consciousness of its own members through Marxism. But concern for consciousness-raising also unerlay the moral obligation felt by many members of ESUNA, most of whom were of middle-class background, to sever all their bourgeois social ties and reforge their class loyalties in line with the interests of the oppressed masses in Ethiopia. It also attested to the fact that, apart from their eagerness to participate in revolutionary praxis through Marxism, ESUNA members were motivated by a intellectual aspiration to disengage themselves from their feudal national tradition and link up with a progressive world culture of enlightenment, democracy, and socialism.

As conducted within ESUNA, radical political discourse and practice directed at remolding and raising social consciousness largely involved the collective and programmatic "study" of Marxism. But it was not a passive, merely scholarly, activity confined to reading and expounding Marxist texts. It also entailed acting out one's rationally acquired consciousness in practice by engaging in various forms of ideological struggle. These included the devaluation of familial and affective ties in interpersonal relations in favor of doctrinal fellowship and comradery based on common commitment to revolutionary causes, exchanging information, views, agitational literature, and material and moral support with the ESM at home, discovering and attacking "enemies" of the Ethiopian masses within the Ethiopian community in North America while affirming solidarity with other progressive groups perceived to be "friends," and staging public demonstrations against American and Soviet superpower maneuvers in and around Ethiopia.

These multifaceted forms of political activism gave ESUNA members more than the vicarious gratification of taking part in the real struggle against feudalism and imperialism in Ethiopia. They were based on the awareness that ideological struggle is an important aspect of class struggle, and that revolutionary theory and practice are mutually activating and reinforcing. In fostering nondiscursive as well as discursive forms of ideological struggle, ESUNA Marxists seemed to recognize that the field on which social consciousness works in both symbolic and concrete, experiential and ideational, and normative as well as cognitive.

What ESUNA militants did not adequately recognize, however, was that as Marxists they were engaged, to use Ted Benton's formulation, in "two quite distinct, though related, types of discourse, which are in turn interwoven with two distinct types of social practice." There is, to use Benton's words further, first, scientific discourse, governed by rules, procedures and values such that concept-formation and correction is subordinated to the priority of achieving objective knowledge of the relationships, processes and transformations of its objects; second, the discourses of tactical and strategic debate, contestation, legitimation and persuasion. Among the costs of conflating the first type of discourse into the second is that practical debate in and about politics is thereby deprived of a source of clarification, and a major resource for its advancement, and degenerates into the mere articulation of pipe-dreams. Among the costs of the reverse conflation is the pseudo-scientific legitimation of tyranny.

The two types of discourse and practice that Benton notes here were virtually indistinguishable in ESUNA's Marxism, with all that this implied for ESUNA's capacity to clarify "practical debate in and about politics" within the ESM in North America from a Marxist theoretical perspective. Because ESUNA militants were so categorical in their rejection of their country's "feudal" political tradition, and so immediately committed to the ideal of the intellectual as revolutionary, ideological struggle aimed at forging alternative political identities, values, symbols, and practices had prior claim over concerns of scientific theory as such in their Marxism. Indeed, ESUNA's preoccupation with the ideological reconstruction and validation of its own political identity and praxis through Marxism meant the reduction of Marxist theoretical discourse within the union to the articulation of simplified truths, radical phrases emptied of conceptual content, agitational slogans, and action programs. On the whole ESUNA Marxists were really hack theorists given to grossly partisan polemical appropriation and oversimplification of Marxist ideas and concepts. They were inspired neither by Marxist theory in the strict sense nor by considerations of practical problems of revolutionary social and cultural change in Ethiopia. ESUNA's Marxism emphasized instead the ideological purity and political militancy of the ESM as such, even if that meant, as it did, the avoidance of critical dialogue with and about Marxism itself.

The stress on doctrinal purity and unity within ESUNA in fact entailed the application of methods of scriptural exegesis to Marxist texts, based on the belief that there is only one correct interpretation of the writings of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and their followers, and that that interpretation is spontaneously given by the texts themselves. And the defense of true Marxism so understood, that is, as Holy Writ, from "reformist" and "revisionist" heretics became a central ideological concern of the ESUNA faithful. Literal reading and defense of Marxist texts in turn helped cement the "proletarian" ideological self-image of ESUNA, even while obstructing an intellectually active inquiring engagement with the Marxist tradition, with a resulting production of a version of Marxist theory which was fundamentally antitheoretical.

The upshot of this was that Marxist discourse as conducted within ESUNA could not transcend the limits of both formalism and idealism, and that the political aims and practices of the ESM in North America were denied the benefit of critical appraisal, clarification, and correction as only Marxist theory could have given them. Hence the inability of ESUNA militants to self-critically and systematically scrutinize the nature, conditions, possibilities, and limits of their racial rhetoric and politics in North America and the relation of these to real political struggles in Ethiopia. In its zeal to keep up and "integrate" itself with what it correctly saw as the tidal wave of mass struggles in Ethiopia following the outbreak of the February 1974 Revolution, ESUNA so totally and uncritically identified itself with the particular fortunes of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP), that when EPRP was crushed in the late 1970s by the post-revolutionary Ethiopian state, ESUNA's credibility and viability suffered an equally fatal blow. The union had over-enthusiastically welcomed the emergence of EPRP in 1975 as "a guarantee of our victory over our enemies."

In sum, ESUNA no doubt played a leading role in the radicalization of the consciousness of Ethiopian youth in North America and Ethiopia, and thereby advanced Marxist thinking in and about Ethiopia. Moreover, many of the progressive ideas that ESUNA advocated and fought for, most notably the demand for land redistribution, were translated into concrete policies and programs in post-revolutionary Ethiopia, although they were implemented in ways and under circumstances that ESUNA Marxists did not theoretically expect or like.

Admittedly, the sheer fact of geographical isolation from Ethiopian conditions placed an objective constraint on ESUNA's capacity to overcome sectarian Marxist radicalism and acquire a truly practical revolutionary consciousness. But if the Marxism of USUAA in the late 1960s and that of EPRP in the late 1970s (both of which directly influenced ESUNA's ultra-leftist radicalism) are any guide, ESUNA's isolation from The Ethiopian masses was not so much geographical as it was sociopolitical, cultural, and intellectual. As Halliday and Molyneux have noted, "the lack of experience of practical mass work, and the failure to combine a socialist intellectual commitment with a concrete appreciation of the specific features of Ethiopian society or the political traditions of the country" was a basic shortcoming of the Ethiopian left at home as well as abroad. ESUNA shared with EPRP a marked impatience with ideological mass work and an over-eagerness to be a protagonist in revolutionary struggle on behalf of the masses rather than with them.

But there was one crucial difference between the experience of the Ethiopian left at home and that of its counterpart in North America, namely, while many members of EPRP paid dearly with their lives for theoretical and strategic mistakes made by their short-lived party, ESUNA's theoretical shortcomings, which were not unlike those of EPRP, did not have deadly material consequences for ESUNA militants, the vast majority of whom opted to stay put in North America while the Ethiopian revolution ran its course.

By way of conclusion, I should like to make a few general observations regarding the sense in which ESUNA's political activism can be said to fall within a broader pattern of radical student movements in underdeveloped societies. As with student circles in such diverse historical-cultural settins as late nineteenth-century Russia, early twentieth-century China, and contemporary Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the Ethiopian Student Movement, of which ESUNA was an integral part, provided the initial spark behind the radicalization of petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, workers, and peasants. Lacking a secure base in a developed system of forces and relations of production, potential ruling classes in third world social formations seem to be forever short of material and ideological resources necessary to exercise hegemony, as opposed to mere domination, over society. The broad masses in the third world on the other hand have not been very successful in producing their own "organic intellectuals," able to formulate for them an adequate conception of the fundamental causes and conditions of their domination and strategies for their emancipation. These structural and cultural conditions in the third world allow student intelligentsia to constitute themselves as a significant, if only occasional, contender for moral, intellectual, and political leadership of the masses. Student intelligentsia claim ideological leadership of society often both in collision with and in collusion with other "unconventional" agents of socialist consciousness and practice, particularly members of the armed forces.

The Ethiopian case of student political activism also suggests that radical third world student movements emerge and assert themselves only in certain critical periods of transition in the histories of underdeveloped nations. They help societies move through difficult times of crisis and change, but once a new sociopolitical order is more or less established and the excitement of change is superseded, they tend to lose their ethic of rebellion and become deradicalized and depoliticized. Nonetheless, many of the progressive ideas and values that radical third world student movements work out and fight for are accepted by social forces and movements beyond student circles.
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Author:Demmellash, Tesfaye
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Feb 1, 1984
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