Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960-1974

Messay Kebede, Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960-1974 (University of Rochester Press, 2008).

This book is an exemplary work of self-examination by a professor of philosophy who participated in the Ethiopian student movement at a formative moment. Messay Kebede draws from this existential fount and examines his subject by blending scholarly discpline with lived experience. The result is a work that provokes, fascinates, educates and informs the lay reader as well as the seasoned scholar.

Kebede presents the Ethiopian student movement –- whose leaders have either passed away or are part of the current Ethiopian regime –- as a paradigmatic example of a failed student revolution. He feels that he was at one stage complicit in the prevailing regime, but he is now one of its strongest critics. He considers that it used the student movement to come to power but is now eating its own children by assassination, incarceration and relentless surveillance of dissidents.

Kebede’s mission is to explain the notion of cultural dislocation and how it applies to the Ethiopian student movement. His thesis is eloquently summarized in the following passage:

In order to demonstrate the link between cultural dislocation and radicalization, the book analyzes the multifarious impact of Western education on Ethiopian youth. It shows how the internalization of Eurocentric concepts and its dissolving effect on traditional values and references produced a characteristic cultural crisis that fed on a rejectionist state of mind. (6)

During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, in 1973, students dissatisfied with feudal Ethiopia and, most particularly, with the material conditions of the Ethiopian peasantry, rebelled against the regime. “Land to the tiller” was their slogan; marches and protests, in the style of student movements in France and the United States, were their political practices. Marxism-Leninism, of the most dogmatic variety, became the organizing principle of their revolt.

Haile Selassie responded to the revolt by importing liberal ideas from the United States to reform the economy, schools, and universities. The students rejected these moves as bourgeois ideology, and preferred Soviet communism as the answer to Ethiopia’s ills. According to Kebede, both liberal ideology, which the Emperor imported, and Soviet Marxism, the students’ new God, are norms of the West, and foreign to Ethiopia’s position as the cradle of world civilization, with its own version of Christianity and its own traditional schools and political institutions, founded and organized by its monarchy.

Feudal Ethiopia drew its legitimacy from religion and the monarchy. Both the Christian schools and the monarchical institutions were displaced by the liberal ideology imposed by Haile Selassie as the route to modernity. Tradition was replaced by modernization. Kebede attributes the students’ response -– their uncritical importation of Marxism-Leninism –- to the corrosive impact of cultural colonialism. He dismisses the view that student revolutionaries were motivated by their sympathy for the poor, or that they thought the liberal reforms simply inadequate. For him, the pivot to understanding the psyche of the student elites was the displacement of traditional education by modern liberal education.

The traditional education that produced Zara Yacob, Ethiopia’s modernist philosopher, who advocated reason as the ultimate resolver of disputes,1 was wrongly replaced by Western education, which sealed Ethiopia’s future as a victim of the Eurocentric project of cultural colonization. Zara Yacob’s modernity, uninfluenced by that of the West, situated reason in the human heart, arguing that the heart itself is rational and could generate reason as the organizing principle of human action. Kebede offers a penetrating analysis of the process by which this tradition was displaced (chapters III-V).

On the other hand, he argues that it is precisely homegrown religious sentiments which made it possible for revolutionary students to be infatuated with Marxism-Leninism, which they viewed in messianic terms. The Marxist-Leninist Party became the Messiah leading the dormant Ethiopian masses, to whom the revolutionary leaders would bring consciousness from the outside. Kebede sees the uncritical internalization of Marxism-Leninism, in addition to liberal education, as having corroded Ethiopian culture.

I part company from Kebede on this issue, insofar as he appears to equate Marxism as such with its Soviet expression. I think that the open-ended Marxism of Antonio Gramsci would have gone a long way toward providing a culturally sensitive theory of revolution, relevant to Ethiopia.2 Neither the students nor Kebede himself make room for a form of Marxism which would not corrode but rather empower the Ethiopian condition.

Many students, according to Kebede, “dragged their feet in endorsing the Leninist solution to Ethiopia’s inequality” (176). There were serious disagreements among the students on the question of nationalities. The Marxist-Leninists argued for the self-determination of each ethnicity, while their adversaries upheld the notion of a single Ethiopia, a mosaic of ethnicities united by Ethiopianism. The advocates of Ethiopianism sought to solve problems by drawing on the internal resources of Ethiopian culture, for example, the role of Christianity and the mediation of Ethiopian elders. The advocates of Marxism-Leninism sought to resolve class inequalities and ethnic differences by a new Marxist consciousness. Kebede seems to side with the Ethiopianists and against the Marxist-Leninists, who he thinks contributed to the fragmentation of the Ethiopian nation.

This book shows that Ethiopians have our history, our own institutions, with which we can handle our affairs. Ethiopian modernity must be dug out of our country’s own past. This is where the Gramscian approach can help. The traditional institutions are drawn upon through a process of critical appropriation and transcendence. The symbolic role of the monarchy is harmless so long as ultimate power rests in an organized and active people.

I suggest to Kebede that there is much that Ethiopia could gain from a critical appropriation of Marxism, to the benefit of the country’s poor. I take this critical angle as a point of departure, as Ethiopia struggles to fashion its future.3

Reviewed by Teodros Kiros
Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Studies, Harvard University, and Berklee College of Music


1. See my discussion in Zara Yacob: A Seventeenth-Century Ethiopian Philosopher of the Heart (Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 2007).

2. See my discussion in Toward the Construction of a Theory of Political Action: Antonio Gramsci, Consciousness, Participation, and Hegemony (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985).

3. See my column “Which way Ethiopia: Monarchy or Participatory Democracy?” at http://www.tecolahagos.com/.

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