Elitism and Authoritarianism: A Rejoinder to Tesfaye Demmellash Messay Kebede

July 6th, 2012 Print Print Email Email

One of the reasons that prompts me to post this reply to Tesfaye Demmellash’s interesting article, “Toward Ethiopia’s Democratic Renewal: Dismantling Authoritarian Ethnicism” (see http://www.awrambatimes.com/?p=1736), is that the article he wrote in 1984, and which was published by Monthly Review under the title “On Marxism and Ethiopian Student Radicalism in North America,” was inspirational for my own study of the Ethiopian student movement. Since my study culminated in the publication of a book titled Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, I reasoned that one way of recognizing my debt was to make public my reactions to his article.

Let me begin by saying that I like the new article and agree with some of its views. Thus, I concur that the fixation on ethnic conflicts and its historical causes has become paralyzing to the extent of blocking forward movement. Also, the rejection of Meles regime in the name of what Tesfaye rightly call “defensive patriotic position” is not enough. The framing of an alternative vision that marries unity with equality and freedom for all Ethiopians and ethnic identities should be an essential component of the struggle against ethnonationalism and the hegemony of an ethnic group.

Where Tesfaye’s article becomes intriguing is when he raises two questions related to the rise of a brand of radicalism unintended by the Ethiopian student movement. While the latter incorporated the nationality question into the framework of class struggle, the TPLF went in the direction of “radical tribalism.” Tesfaye pins the deviation on the adoption of the Leninist-Stalinist doctrine. Tesfaye’s second question has to do with the contradictory outcome of the ideology of the TPLF, namely, that a movement born to protest against ethnic hegemony ended up by implementing the same hegemonic policy.
I break rank with Tesfaye when I ask the question of knowing whether it is sound to characterize the deviation and the contradiction as unintended developments of the student movement. That is why his appeal to “get over history” seems to me a bit hasty. Yes, we should leave the past as past, but only after we have understood it properly. The irony here is that we cannot get over past history unless we have a clear grasp of it. So long as we do not understand it, it will stick to us as an unconscious force, the very one reducing our attempt to change to be nothing more than a repetition of the past.

What this means is that the TPLF is a product of the radicalism of the student movement, and that the crucial issue is not so much its particular nature as the primary adoption by the pioneering movement, to wit, the Ethiopian student movement, of a radical and imported ideology. The shift from class struggle to ethnonationalism is not hard to understand if, going beyond the paraded goal of liberating the oppressed working people or ethnic groups, we grasp what they have in common.

I see no better way to point out the common inspiration than to agree with Tesfaye when, in his 1984 article, he typifies the student movement by its “over-eagerness to be a protagonist in revolutionary struggle on behalf of the masses rather than with them.” The categorization reveals the elitist inspiration of the student movement, the self-definition of the educated elite as a savior that brings change to the masses from above. We find the root of authoritarianism in this messianic vocation of the educated elite, since liberation from above never promotes a democratic outcome enabling the masses to acquire those rights necessary to defend their own interests.

The goal of achieving political ascendency through the control of state power and in the name of the downtrodden masses constitutes the substance of class struggle politics and ethnonationalism. In both cases, elites utilize highly populist and mobilizing ideologies to unseat entrenched rival elites. In effect, the source of ethnonationalist movements in Ethiopia is not the recently conquered southern part of the country, but the northern part of traditional Ethiopia characterized by the age-old rivalries between Amhara, Tigrean, and Eritrean elites. It springs to mind that scarcity of resources or underdevelopment drives elites toward an absolutist control the state, given that such a control allows the marginalization of competing elites.

The mismanagement of class mobilization by the Derg largely explains the final triumph of ethnonationalist movements in Tigray and Eritrea. Even so, the fact that both ethnonationalist movements installed authoritarian and repressive governments is neither an accident nor a deviation. It is a continuation of the inherited practice of empowering elites rather than the people under the guise of elites defining themselves as the champions of the exploited masses or suppressed nationalities. In other words, from Haile Selassie to the TPLF via the Derg, Ethiopia exhibits the same boring, but alas tragic, history of elites seizing power in the name of people reduced to the level of a tutee. These regimes are best characterized as colonial rules by indigenous elites.
The alternative vision that the article calls for cannot come about so long as we do not recognize that modern Ethiopian politics was, and still is, driven by elite conflicts. The working people as well as ethnic groups have been nothing more than instruments in the struggle of various elites for political supremacy, and this refers to the aristocracy and the military elite of the imperial regime, the Western-educated elite, the ethnicized elite groups, etc. How else could one explain the utterly disconcerting fact that, despite the various “changes” that Ethiopia has gone through, the working people as well as ethnic groups are as devoid of meaningful rights as they were under the “feudal regime”?

In blaming elite politics, I am not suggesting that elite conflicts should be excluded from politics, which would be to deny that politics itself is essentially about elites. It simply means that the struggle should be less about empowering new elites than of arming ordinary people with rights protecting them from elite hegemony or absolutism, regardless of the alluring ideologies by which authoritarianism is justified. As is the case in all working electoral democracies, only when ordinary people assume the right to become the arbitrator of elite conflicts instead of being a supplicant of elites can Ethiopians liberate themselves from the recurring nightmare of authoritarian and repressive governments.

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