Ethiopia and Socialist Theory: The Blood on the Wall

Ken Tarbuck was a member of several different Trotskyist groups in the until the early 1970s. He went to Ethiopia to work as a university lecturer in 1977 and published this analysis in 1992.

Submitted by Mike Harman on April 10, 2018

Mengistu Haile Mariam was a bloody militarist and nationalist dictator; how is it then that for a period in the 1970s he was hailed as some sort of socialist by many on the left? That indeed is the puzzle and I hope to indicate in this essay the type of confusion which led to this predicament.

The fall of the military regime of Mengistu in Ethiopia which had effectively ruled the country since 1974 poses a number of extremely important questions for socialists, both at the level of theory and in practical activity. The regime in Ethiopia had been a self-proclaimed ‘socialist government’ which had attracted considerable support among the left in the capitalist countries during the 1970s. It was touted as being a regime worthy of support, since it was alleged to have had a socialist orientation, whatever that may mean. Moreover, on a broader canvas the revolution of 1974 in Ethiopia presented some very sharp questions of theory about the role of the state in society, its class nature and its functions. Above all it presented the problem of the nature of a regime in a society that was manifestly underdeveloped from a capitalist and industrial point of view, which allegedly was in a transition to socialism.

The present essay is written on the basis of notes made for a talk given in London on 4 October 1992. This was the first time that I had publicly spoken about Ethiopia since my return from that country in the early 1980s. The reason for my reticence up to that point was that I did not wish to implicate any of those people who had been associated with me whilst I was in the country. The fall of the Mengistu regime has allowed me to speak freely for the first time.

Ethiopia may seem to be a remote country, mainly known in the mass media for its continued famines, but its revolution of 1974 poses questions of near-universal significance for socialists as we near the start of the twenty-first century. It may well be that we shall need to revise some long-held ideas once we have examined the facts of the situation and cast aside some preconceived formulae. To understand the revolution of 1974 it is first of all necessary to establish a few facts about the history of Ethiopia. It is there that I shall begin.

I: The Historical Background and the Imperial Regime

Ethiopia has a very long history of civilisation, going back to the Pharonic period in Egypt. It was known to the Egyptians as the land of Kush, and Eritrea was Punt. The peoples seem to have come over from the Arabian peninsula in prehistoric times. There was a large and thriving kingdom centred on Aksum for many centuries, and which converted to Christianity around the third century. The decline only set in after the arrival of Islam, in the eighth century, on the coastal area and in Sudan. This effectively cut off Ethiopia from the outside world, driving the native peoples into the highland plateau. However, there is a rich cultural heritage, written, art, music. The Coptic church still uses the ancient language of Geez and its script. In this respect Ethiopia was very different from most of the African peoples conquered by the European imperialist states.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries some contact was made from Western Europe. Probably the most important development was the import of guns, since this enabled the Shoan aristocracy/monarchy to establish military superiority over their neighbours. The historic empire had maintained itself in five provinces: Tigre, Gondar, Welo, Gojam and Shoa. In 1855 Theodore became king and consolidated his empire, restoring the power of the monarch, which had been in decline. John assumed the throne in 1872 and began the conquest of the South. Menelik came to the throne in 1889 and he was the one who made major conquests in the South, establishing the southern borders of modern Ethiopia. The last conquest was made in 1898. He established a new capital, Addis Ababa, thus moving the centre of the empire from the North to the South of the old kingdom. The dynasty set up at that time was from the Shoan aristocracy, and was considered by the Tigre ruling families as being upstarts. This was to have consequences right down to 1974.

When Menelik died in 1913, the heir was only 13 years old. Ras (Prince) Tafad was appointed joint co-regent with the dowager empress. In 1930, having disposed of the young emperor, Ras Tafari assumed the crown as Haile Selassie.

The social, economic and political structure of the empire was feudal, although admittedly of a particular kind. Although there were certain differences in landowning forms between the older and newer parts of the empire, essentially the form of surplus appropriation by the ruling class was feudal in character. However, in the newly-conquered territories, the Shoan/Amharic conquerors were installed as the feudal lords, so that often class and nationality went together (rather like England after the Norman conquest).

Moreover, because of the very low level of surplus, the extractions of the landlords were very rapacious, rarely less than 50 per cent, often as much as 75 per cent of the produce. Even in very good years the peasants were permanently hungry and undernourished.

In the North, because land allotments were divided equally between sons, the holdings tended to get smaller and smaller. Particularly after 1945, some very rudimentary health measures were introduced thereby allowing the population to rise steadily. This meant that there was large-scale deforestation (fuel needs), and hence land erosion. This reinforced the cyclical pattern of famines due to rain failures. In the South, where tenants only held their land on short leases, there was absolutely no incentive for the peasants to improve their holdings, nor for the landlords to invest, since there was an abundant labour force begging for land. Alongside this there were large tracts of land lying idle, owned by the emperor and landlords. The emperor needed this land to make grants to his supporters, this being the main way of ensuring loyalty. The landlords also needed fallow land, to put pressure on the landless peasants seeking leases. One of the consequences of this was again a tendency for the land actually in use to deteriorate.

There had been a very short interregnum between 1935 and 1941 when the Italians had occupied the country. The British defeated the Italian army as a part of the strategic drive in that part of the world during the Second World War. Haile Selassie rode back to power with the support of British bayonets, but not without opposition from some of the aristocrats of the North. Since 1945 Haile Selassie had been attempting to create a modern state to help enforce his will against the local aristocratic families. Above all he had created a modern unified army, an education system and administrative structure for collecting taxes. However, he never completely established himself as the sole power, in some provinces he never succeeded in imposing his own governors, they always came from the local élite. Thus there was often the appearance of some modernity superimposed upon the reality of feudal power. We can therefore say that Haile Selassie was attempting to establish an absolutist state, but right up to 1974 had not completely succeeded.

Since 1945 there had begun to develop a small industrial sector, but this was hardly sustainable since there was no real money economy for the vast majority of the population. Even in 1974 there were only approximately 55,000 workers in industry, but about 100,000 white-collar workers in banking, commerce, the state and education. This in a population of some 30 to 35 million (or recent estimates, 50 to 55 million). Industry, such as it was, was concentrated in textiles, brewing, soft drinks (Coca Cola!) and construction. There was almost no bourgeoisie, since even those industrial developments that had taken place were dominated by foreign investors and the royal family and aristocrats. In Addis Ababa it was estimated that approximately half the population (of half to one million) was made up of plebeians or lumpen-proletarians, having no permanent or regular jobs.

So, the overwhelming make-up of the class structure was until 1974 peasants and feudal lords, with an extremely small working class, and some new social groups, for example, capitalists (extremely small), petty-bourgeois (white-collar employees), the army and in Addis Ababa a growing group of unemployed university graduates, plus a rapidly growing lumpen-proletariat.

II: The Revolution of 1974

The crisis of the regime in 1974 was caused by a combination of factors, many of which had been present before.

- Famine, which had raged in Wolo during 1973 but was kept hidden from the world and the rest of Ethiopia.

- Protests in the army about pay and food.

- Protests in Addis about rising prices.

- A strike of trade unions for higher pay and better negotiating rights.

- Student unrest.

- Escalating fighting in Eritrea.

Let us look at these in a little more detail.

Famines had been endemic for many years, indeed centuries, in Ethiopia. But the Wolo one of 1973 was enormously aggravated by the soil erosion, lack of government aid, and landlord demands (even during the famine the landlords were demanding their rents). In the event it escalated from a disaster to a catastrophe, causing the deaths of between 100,000 and 200,000 people.

There had been protests before in the army about pay and conditions. But this time it spread from one part of the army to most of it, thus preventing the emperor from crushing one part with another. The protests grew into strikes, committees were formed to coordinate units, etc. Many of the junior officers were involved, and many of these had been overseas for training, thus showing them what modern societies were like. In the process they picked up many political ideas, and these were fed into the turmoil. It was a combination of these factors with the defeats in Eritrea that sparked off the army unrest.

This was the period of the oil crisis and prices explosion. This filtered into Ethiopia and the government tried to enforce a 50 per cent increase in petrol prices, causing the taxi drivers to go on strike. Taxis were an essential part of transport in Addis, since they were used rather like minibuses rather than conventional taxis. This sparked off demonstrations, which the police at first fired upon but then allowed to happen since they became larger and larger and uncontrollable.

These events coincided with a general strike of trade unions, the first (and up to now the last) such strike in the history of Ethiopia. This for the first time brought together industrial and white-collar workers in a joint struggle for higher pay and better trade-union rights. This was forced upon the trade-union leaders by the rank and file. Up to this point the trade unions had been fairly tame, since they had been ‘assisted’ in their formation by the US trade-union movement, which as we know was often a cover for the CIA.

Student unrest had happened before but had been swiftly dealt with either by the police or army, in a quite brutal way with batons and bullets as the first resort. Students were not only those still at high school or university, but all those who had graduated and not found employment and maintained contact with the campuses. Among these latter were many who had been abroad for post-graduate work and had picked up many advanced political ideas, socialist and Marxist ones. The students this time were able to join in the mass demonstrations, instead of remaining isolated, and feed into them ideas, slogans, rudimentary organisation, etc.

Eritrea: a war of national liberation had already been going for 13 years and had been an enormous drain on the resources of the state. The army had suffered some bad defeats and this caused morale to decline. The war had become a running sore in society and now was thrusting itself forward demanding urgent attention. It was an enormous burden upon an impoverished treasury, hence the delays often encountered in payments to the army.
In years gone by Haile Selassie had been able to cope with any one or two of these outbursts, but coming all together they proved to be the climacteric of his reign. He was very old by then, well into his eighties but no one was sure of his exact age, and was only able to deal lucidly with business for a few hours a day. Since he was the sole authority for making decisions this meant that the crisis could not be dealt with speedily or efficiently. And even then, on the threshold of its downfall, the feudal aristocracy attempted to intrigue against the power of the emperor. Above all the unrest in the army was the final cause of his downfall.

However, the army, even the coordinating committee that eventually emerged, played a very contradictory role. Early in the period of unrest the air force had displayed a very radical stance but the army had suppressed its main base in the initial stages of the revolution in 1974. Similarly, on occasions the army intervened to suppress demonstrations in the capital, but not always, it was a creeping coup. It was as though the army leaders used a ‘stop-go’ method of allowing popular pressure to express itself when it needed to force the hand of the Court.

However, during 1974 the army gradually assumed all the functions of government, and step by step stripped Haile Selassie of all his power. In this sense the revolution was a gradual one, not conducted in one fell swoop but over a period of months.

III: The Derg Assumes Power

It was only after the event that it became clear that right from the start of the events there had been a very determined group of junior and middle-rank officers who had manipulated the soldiers’ committees, shaping them, directing them. Through a whole series of army/government committees, starting with those set up by Haile Selassie at the beginning of the year, right through to the army’s own committees there had been an inner committee which had a very clear idea of what it wanted. The overthrow of Haile Selassie was finally brought about by the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) with his deposition late in the year.

But then the Derg emerged as the final power behind all these events. When the provisional military government had been announced there had been protests and demonstrations in the capital, but these had been ruthlessly suppressed by the military. Indeed the Derg’s assumption of power had been the occasion of a veritable bloodbath of the high officials of the old regime, in one fell swoop 60 high military and state officials had been executed, and these were followed by many, many more. One of the first to go was the first chairman of the PMAC, his house was surrounded by tanks in the middle of the night and without warning reduced to rubble with him underneath. All of these deaths and imprisonments could be said to be of those from the old ruling élite. But at the same time the Derg proceeded to eliminate all other groups supporting the revolution. Students were some of the first, when they protested at the imposition of a military government many were arrested, some were shot out of hand. The whole leadership of the trade unions were imprisoned and new appointees put in place. Thus there was what can only be described as a counter-revolution within the revolution.

However, at no point did the Derg make any compromise with the old ruling class. It systematically destroyed the cadre of that class to prevent any possibility of a rallying, and then destroyed its basis of power.

IV: Socialist Ethiopia? Ethiopia Tikdem: A Nationalist Regime

Roughly translated Tikdem means First, so Ethiopia Tikdem means Ethiopia First. And this was the slogan under which the Derg ran its revolution. This meant that it was committed to maintaining the old borders and retaining a unitary state based on Addis. This meant, in turn, that it was dedicated to maintaining the dominance of the Shoan/Amhara ethnic grouping. Its socialist measures were land to the tiller and the nationalisation of the largest industrial units, leaving small industry and trade to the private sector. It also came to an agreement with the church. Although the church lost most of its lands, it was not touched in any other way. But at no time was there any attempt to create popular organs of control. In Addis there were created local committees – Kebeles – but these rapidly became organs of the state, that is, the Derg.

The overturn in the countryside came after the fall of the regime in the capital and was initiated from the centre. The Derg closed the university and high schools in Addis and sent the students to the countryside to help spark off the land reform. Thus with one move they destroyed the power base of the old élite and got rid of a group from the capital who might make trouble whilst they consolidated power. The overturn in the countryside was swift, complete and bloody. Once the peasants understood that the army, far from suppressing them, was actually encouraging them to act against the landlords, they acted with great speed and brutality. The landlords were often hunted down and butchered; given the generations of bloody exploitation that the feudal lords had dealt out it was hardly surprising that their own comeuppance would be bloody. From all the evidence available so far, it would seem that the anti-feudal revolution in Ethiopia was the most complete in history.

The regime that emerged from the revolution in 1974 was a self-proclaimed socialist one. It had certainly expropriated what tiny bourgeoisie there had been. It most certainly carried through a complete and thorough anti-feudal revolution. But at the same time it had repressed and suppressed all other points of political independence. It had repressed the working class and the students. It had imposed a military dictatorship of a most brutal and bloody kind. The one force that attempted to challenge it, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), had been hunted down and systematically wiped out. The EPRP had started a campaign of terror via bombs and bullets, but the Derg not only answered in kind but on an enormously enlarged scale. This was the period known as the Red Terror, officially called that, which claimed an estimated 55,000 victims in Addis alone. During that time students, workers, intellectuals of all kinds, were rounded up and slaughtered. Sometimes the security forces would descend on an institution and line up everyone and pick out victims and shoot them on the spot, the army would then take the bodies away in trucks (collecting a burial fee from the family).

The EPRP was finally eliminated when the army literally cordoned off the whole of Addis Ababa and searched every house. Usually houses occupied by foreigners were exempted from searches, this time they were not, only those with diplomatic immunity escaped. This search went on for several days and the whole population was confined to their houses during this time. Those people who were positively identified as being members of the EPRP were shot on the spot, the other were taken for interrogation. Those lucky enough to survive arrest did not emerge from prison unless they were thoroughly broken. Of course during this search some remnants of the old ruling class were brought to light; they too were dispatched.

For a very brief spell during 1974 the press and radio had been free of censorship, this was re-imposed. All meetings, social gatherings, etc., had to have permission to be held. A curfew was in force from 10 p.m. to dawn. This regime had obviously had a plan of campaign right from the start to eliminate all real, potential or imagined centres of resistance to its power and was prepared to wade through blood to attain this. Even members of the Derg itself did not escape, since this too was purged on several occasions before Mengistu emerged as the first amongst equals.

V: War with Somalia and Soviet/Cuban Intervention

During the turmoil ‘Socialist’ Somalia attempted to regain the Ogaden, which had been conquered by Menelik. This resulted in a war during 1977, which meant that the Derg was fighting on three fronts, i) against internal opponents, ii) against Eritrea and iii) in the Ogaden. The US had been the closest ally of the old regime and would not supply the Derg’s regime with weapons or munitions, and thus lost its place as the dominant foreign power.

Thus it was only in 1977, three years after the revolution, that the USSR intervened. It supplied a brigade of Cuban troops, air force personnel and planes, plus huge amounts of war matériel. Ethiopia had to pay for much of this aid with its hard-earned export revenue, and spent an estimated 17 billion dollars on arms. Very little other kind of aid was sent to the county from the ‘socialist’ countries, except a few education specialists. Eventually, because of this military assistance the Ethiopians won their war against Somalia, but at an enormous cost of life because of the use of ill-trained conscripts, only numbers and greater fire-power saved the day in the Ogaden. But this was not the case in Eritrea.

VI: The Personal and the Political

I went to Ethiopia in 1978 as an Assistant Professor in the Economics Department of Addis Ababa University. Not knowing, I might add, much of what I have outlined above. If I had known I might have hesitated before entering such a situation.

My very first impression of the country was at the airport. My baggage was searched by a very attractive female customs officer, who carefully noted the serial numbers on my typewriter and tape recorder, smiling the most dazzling smile whilst she did this. Behind her stood a soldier, wearing jungle greens and (as I later discovered) the yellow goggles of the Flame Brigade (Mengistu’s élite force) toting a sub-machine gun and totally unsmiling. The contrast was quite dramatic.

Despite promises I was not met at the airport, so had to make my own way to the university. I was very tired after a 14-hour flight and wearing a heavy suit, so I was as hot as hell in the sub-tropical temperature. I was ushered into the University Vice-President’s office, he stood up to extend his hand to me and as he did his coat fell open, revealing a 0.38 Smith & Wesson on his left hip. This small cameo encapsulated most of what I was to experience during my stay. Firstly, the unfailing courtesy and friendliness of Ethiopians in everyday exchanges. Secondly, almost nothing ever happened on time and promises quickly given were quickly forgotten by bureaucrats. Thirdly, behind the smiles hovered guns and menace.

Let me now detail a few things that are relevant to understanding the situation. First, my annual salary was 19,800 Bir, the annual per capita income for the whole country was 184 Bir. My monthly salary 1650 Bir, average monthly wage in Addis 30 Bir. Therefore my monthly salary was 55 times greater than the average wage in the capital. The hotel bill for my room only 240 Bir per month, remittance home 495 Bir, left in my pocket 915 Bir. The point I am making here is that although I had a relatively lowly position in the bureaucracy, my standard of living was far beyond the average person’s in Addis. I stress Addis, since wages were higher there than in other parts of the country. This will indicate the huge gulf between the mass of the population and the bureaucracy.

I taught three groups of students for Political Economy and Philosophy. These ranged from 250 to 300. I was allotted six teaching periods of 1.5 hours. Most lasted two hours or more. These were compulsory subjects which had been introduced on the advice of Soviet instructors. I also taught some evening classes for part-timers.

The semester I had arrived the intake into the university had been doubled at a stroke. But without any increase in student accommodation. This meant that students were sleeping as many as 10 to a room and queuing for an hour each meal time. There had also been a new policy adopted of quotas for intakes from various areas. This was to ensure that rural students were allocated a fair proportion of places. However, this also meant that students who would have normally qualified from Addis were excluded, leading to considerable discontent. Because all the high schools and the university had been closed down for a year during the rural campaign, it meant that the 1978 intake of students had rather poor English. The official teaching language was English because of the large number of languages spoken in the country (approximately 40). Therefore teaching became even more difficult than usual. This was an extremely important issue for the students, since they had to pass the first semester exams to proceed to further courses. If they failed they were thrown out of the university. This meant that there were attempts to put pressure on the staff, by some students, to ensure a pass in the first semester exams.

When I had first arrived I had been rather taken aback by the presence of armed guards in the university, not only on the gates but patrolling the grounds and even appearing at the back of lecture halls. I had assumed that these guards were connected with the Red Terror, they were but not wholly, a part of their job was to protect the university staff from students! Lectures were rather like public meetings, the numbers being so large. These lectures were absolutely crucial to the students, since they were the only means of obtaining the information they needed for their courses. The nearest approximation to student seminars or tutorials as known in British universities were the impromptu but regular sessions of questions and answers I held on the steps outside the lecture hall when the official lectures had finished: I was then usually surrounded by anything up to 20 or more students all eager to continue the dialogue. This meant that my teaching periods which were officially scheduled to last an hour and a half could go on for anything up to two and half hours. Such was the desperation to learn, particularly by those wishing to escape the grinding poverty of rural life.

There were no text-books available, first- and second-year students were not allowed into library stacks. This meant that they had to know what books to look for in the index and hope that the one or two volumes had not been taken out. Such was the poverty of most of the students that even when text-books were available for sale they were unable to buy them.

Now I want to mention some of the general conditions in Addis Ababa, as I observed them. The city itself was full of great contrasts. On the one hand there was the Addis Hilton Hotel which was like any other Hilton hotel, it had all the usual standards of comfort and service that its clients expected. Standing in the shadow of the Hilton were the more usual dwellings of the majority of the city, that is, baked mud houses with corrugated tin roofs, with perhaps one electric light, no running water or sanitation. There were many modern buildings throughout the city, mainly government ministries, banks, hotels, shops, cafés, etc., these stood along the main highways but behind them stood the traditional dwellings, it was rather like the Potemkin villages of old Russia. There were very few hard roads, only the main highways were paved, once one left these the roads became tracks. The highways were usually dual carriageways with grass growing on the central reservation, on which goats and sheep grazed. The animals were appreciably smaller than those I was used to seeing in Britain, and the same applied to cattle slaughtered for meat.

Beggars infested nearly all public areas of the city, many of them small children. Equally these places were frequented by hordes of petty traders. These traders would hold packets of cigarettes offering to sell them singly, a sure indication of the generalised poverty both of sellers and buyers. About half the population dressed in traditional Ethiopian garb, usually barefooted, whilst the other half dressed in European-style clothes with some sort of footwear. In one of the big squares of the city there was a large traffic roundabout, the centre of which was grassed; one saw the incongruous sight of modern traffic roaring around the square and in the centre was a flock of sheep being tended by a barefooted shepherd standing leaning on his staff. But the shepherd was no romantic figure, packs of wild dogs, infected with rabies, roamed the streets at night.

I lived in a modern hotel, but even there sanitation was poor and one never drank any of the local water – bottled water was an absolute necessity for health reasons, otherwise one risked infection from amoebic parasites. Across the road was a bus shelter and every night there was a tussle between beggars for the privilege of sleeping on the seat, the contrast with my own relative comfort was stark.

The most all-pervading sight and experience of Addis Ababa was that of armed guards everywhere. I have already mentioned their presence at the university, but every building used by the public had armed guards (several at each door), hotels, large shops, banks, restaurants, all government buildings, etc. Everyone was searched as they entered these buildings. In fact it was some weeks before the guards at my hotel stopped searching me, even though they saw me every day! Many people carried weapons, these were people who had permits to do so, and were referred to as ‘cadres’. These ‘cadres’ were supposed to be those most likely to be the target for assassination attempts, hence the weapons. It was a little unnerving, however, to be in a public bar having a drink and to notice someone sitting on a bar stool with a revolver strapped to their waist!

The secret police were all pervasive. They were not so secret either. One could usually spot ‘security’, as they were referred to, by their sharp suits and perennial sun-glasses. They could stop anyone anywhere, and ask for identification papers, where you were going, etc. It became a part of life to be stopped for questioning almost at every turn and often searched for weapons. But one never actually got used to it. There was, of course, the 10pm to dawn curfew. At night armed soldiers patrolled the streets. Occasionally one would hear gun shots, sometimes single, sometimes volleys, and one could spot dark patches on the road some mornings that were not oil leaks or holes in walls that had not been there the night before. Telephones were tapped as a matter of routine.

It soon became clear that certain subjects were taboo as far as my colleagues at the university were concerned. One did not discuss the terror, the Derg, Mengistu, the situation in Eritrea, and most certainly not the EPRP. However, as we got to know each other one could gather information by allusions, nod, winks, etc. But it was done very cautiously, after all none of us was sure which members of staff worked for ‘security’. However, there was one way of knowing what was permissible for conversation, that was the government daily newspaper. The paper was printed in English and Amharic six days a week. If something appeared in the paper it was safe to talk about it! The downside of this for me was that there was a column printed every Tuesday by someone whose job it appeared to be to warn people about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’: this was full of warnings about ‘Trotskyite troublemakers’, ‘counter-revolutionary wreckers’ and other choice phrases. I must admit that sometimes I felt the back of my neck prickling when I read some of the stuff, it sounded like something straight from Pravda circa 1937–38, and I hadn’t got an exit visa stamped in my passport.

There were a number of Russian and Polish instructors at the university, and there was quite a contrast between them. The Russians lived in a special compound with their families and kept very much to themselves, hardly ever mixing with the Ethiopian or other staff. Their method of teaching was quite revealing about conditions in the Soviet Union. There each lecture had to be written up in advance and a typed text produced, which was then approved by the head of the department. No deviation from the text was allowed. The instructors had brought the same methods with them to Ethiopia, which was not necessary, but old habits die hard. The result was that their lectures were actually merely the reading of a text. The fact that the English of these instructors was quite poor coupled with the poor English of the students meant that communication was often a problem. The Russians actively discouraged questions by the students, and their answers to any tended to be a repetition of paragraphs of their text.

The Poles were quite different, they were much more relaxed, their English quite good, and actually gave lectures, not merely reading texts. They were also quite happy to answer questions. Moreover the Polish instructors socialised extensively with the rest of the staff. The result of all this was that the Russian instructors were not at all popular, either with staff or students. The only Russian in Addis who seemed to mingle with the locals was the Pravda correspondent, but then everyone knew he was the local KGB man! I began to break down the reticence of one of the younger Russian instructors towards the end of my stay. This began when he noticed a copy of Imperialism and the Accumulation of Capital by Luxemburg and Bukharin on my desk, which I had edited in 1972. He showed an interest in the book, telling me he only knew of both authors by way of the criticisms levelled against them in text-books in the Soviet Union. He was very pleased when I gave him a copy and pointed him in the direction of other such works both in the library and the local bookshops. He never actually ventured any opinion about the book, other than to say it was ‘interesting’, but I think I knew what he meant!

This brings me to another peculiarity of the situation in Addis, the university library and the bookshops. In the university library and in the bookshops one could find books by Trotsky, Sweezy, Baran, Mandel, Deutscher, etc. All of these authors had been banned during the regime of the emperor, so it was clear that almost as soon as the old regime fell, and during the period before Soviet ‘aid’ arrived, there had been an outburst of book importing of all these authors and ‘security’ had not been organised to purge them from the bookshelves. Along with these imports from Western countries there were all the usual works of Marx, Engels and Lenin printed in the Soviet Union being sold at quite modest local prices. It has been estimated that the Mengistu regime spent approximately 17 billion dollars on armaments from the Soviet Bloc, whilst the aid sent in non-military items amounted to 50 million dollars. This then was the benefits of Ethiopian ‘socialism’, huge amounts of weaponry and big fat volumes of Marx, neither of which did much for the vast majority of the population.

One particularly bizarre ceremony were the drives of Mengistu through the city from the imperial palace, where he had his headquarters, to various government buildings. The first intimation one would have was the wailing of the sirens of the police motorcycle outriders. The drill then was that everyone stopped walking, turned to face the roadway and held their hands in front of them. By which time several large jeep-like vehicles would flash past, these had members of the Flame Brigade in them with very large calibre machine-guns mounted on them. Then several large black limousines with curtains at the windows charged past, any of which had Mengistu in. These were followed by more military vehicles and finally a few police outriders. Only when the last motorcycles had gone by and the sirens could only be heard faintly would people begin moving again. I had been told about this circus and what to do almost as soon as I had arrived. The reason for this was that the guards with Mengistu were very trigger-happy and any sudden movement in the crowd could result in a burst of machine-gun fire.

Like nearly all dictators Mengistu loved to give speeches to captive audiences. The result was that mass demonstrations were a regular part of life, all ending up in Revolution Square where ‘The Chairman’ would expound the latest line. These demonstrations were freely attended and spontaneous, except that there was a fine levied by the local committee if you didn’t attend! Needless to say the masses turned out in great numbers.

It was clear that the level of poverty was appalling (see the appendix for some details). Fear was evident among nearly all Ethiopians. I had to consider just what were the actual prospects for this society from a materialist point of view.

This was one of the most important experiences of my life, it made me think very hard and deep about the conditions for the achievement of socialism. It made me review nearly all of my previous positions on Russia, etc. For the first time I was brought face to face with the actual conditions of Third World countries. It brought me face to face with the victims of state political terror. It brought me face to face with the violence of a genuine revolution. I had to think very hard about the support blithely given in the metropolitan countries for such regimes by the left.

When people begin to sweat and their hands shake when they mention certain topics, you know you are in the presence of real fear. I was in no danger, most of those around me were. The worst that would have befallen me had I fallen out of favour would have been being put on a flight back to England.

During the whole of my stay in Addis Ababa I only ever had one relatively free conversation with any Ethiopian. This was arranged by way of going out for an evening meal in a crowded restaurant where there was music being played, and thus we were able to sit and smile, talking about some of the appalling things that had gone on and were still going on. I did not repeat this, since I made it a policy not to socialise with my Ethiopian colleagues except in groups and usually at the university. I did not attempt to maintain contact with anyone when I left, letters from abroad were routinely opened and in any case the mere contact could have been sufficient to compromise the recipient of my letters.

VII: Socialist Rhetoric – Bureaucratic Nationalist Practice

What are we to make of this revolution? The Derg’s regime was finally overthrown in 1992, after many years of protracted and bloody war. The elements which carried through this overthrow converged from at least three different points of the compass, but with one alleged aim. The aim was the restoration of democracy and freedom for the national groupings of the old empire. But who can doubt that the Ethiopia of 1992 is quite radically different from that of 1973–74?

I have pointed out that there was a real and thoroughgoing revolution during 1974. The old emergent absolutist regime was overthrown, the feudal class that had battened upon the country for centuries was swept aside, often into grave in the literal sense. National unity was proclaimed, although ethnically there was no nation, only a collection of nations which had been cobbled together by a conquering élite. Even democracy was preached, but never carried out. All of these things would have stamped this as a semblance of a bourgeois revolution, except what bourgeoisie there was was also expropriated. So we seem to have a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie.

Socialism was proclaimed as the aim of the revolution. However, socialism is supposed to be the aim and work of the working class, when it is not merely a ‘class in itself’ but a ‘class for itself’. But the working class hardly existed. And what there was was suppressed along with practically the whole of society.

Which class benefited most from the revolution? The obvious answer is the peasants. They were freed from the brutal extractions of the landlords and had land given to them. Can we call it a peasant revolution? Not in any way. The revolution had taken place in the centre and then had deliberately unleashed the overthrow of the feudal class in the countryside when it had power in its grasp. The peasants made a revolution, but only by following the lead from the towns. It is true that the peasant revolution once it was unleashed was practically uncontrollable, it was not manipulated or held within bounds. Therefore one could not say that the revolution was driven by the peasants. It is true that they supplied the muscle power in the countryside and in the towns, but not the guiding ideas or organisational forms.

Who then did supply the guiding ideas and organisational forms for the revolution in Ethiopia? The answer to that question is much more difficult in terms of class analysis within Ethiopia. All of the main class actors in classical Marxist terms were absent from the seat of power during the revolution.

The most powerful class in Ethiopia up to 1974 was without doubt the feudal aristocracy, and this was in contest with the feudalist absolutist state of the Solomonic dynasty that Haile Selassie personified. The main class conflict was between the aristocracy and the absolutist state on one side and on the other the peasantry. That is to say that the dispute between Haile Selassie’s state and the aristocracy was about who would have the most power and the biggest share of the surplus, but it was not about how that surplus was to be generated and extracted.

The dispute between a nascent bourgeoisie and a feudal class is precisely about how to generate the surplus and how to extract it, they represent different historic forms of exploitation. This dispute had hardly been put on the agenda up to 1974 in Ethiopia.

The dispute between the Ethiopian absolutist state and the feudal class had been niggling away for many years. But having been largely disarmed, the feudal class could only maintain its power with the aid of the state, that is, the army. In 1974 this feudal aristocracy plotted against Haile Selassie because it thought that the army would always ‘come right in the end’. Neither the court nor the aristocracy understood that all the wheeler-dealing and concessions that were given through 1974 was to a group intent on smashing the whole social structure and not just scheming to get a better deal for itself within the existing social relations. Because the Derg did not reveal either itself or its full intentions immediately, each concession and change was seen by the court and feudalists as part of an age-old process of bargaining for a share of the loot. Each of the changes that the Derg introduced before it deposed Haile Selassie was made in the name of the emperor, seemingly by a loyal army intent of protecting him. Eventually it was too late for either faction of the old élite to do anything to save itself. The decisive reason for this was that in the army there was by then no group willing or able to move to defend the old order. But was all this a class struggle? If it was, which class did the Derg represent?

We can rule out the working class. This class hardly knew of itself as a class in itself, and having put its head above the parapet in its general strike was promptly shot down again, not to revive until 1992.

The bourgeoisie? It hardly existed, and at no time during the revolution can it have been said to have formulated any demands of its own or appeared as an actor in the events of 1974.

The lumpen-proletariat? This grouping only appeared briefly in the early days of the revolution, having no demands of its own, no ideology, no organisation. It was always used by other groups or classes for their own ends.

The petty-bourgeoisie? Like the working class it hardly existed as a class, it was more of an emerging social group. The only people from this grouping who had ideas and organisational form did not act as members of the petty-bourgeoisie but as surrogates for others.

The students? They certainly came from the petty-bourgeois, but actually constituted a separate grouping with its own identity. The main expression of the students was the EPRP, and as we have seen this group was hunted down and killed without mercy.

The only social body that can truly be said to have been the driving force of the revolution was the state, with a commanding section of the army as its spearhead.

Can it be argued that the grouping within the state acted for outside forces? Not in the least. It was not prepared to bend before the US, and was certainly not the tool of any other capitalist regime. The Soviet Union? Again emphatically no. It was three years after the revolution before the Soviet Union appeared on the scene and then its aid was only accepted on Ethiopian terms. It is true that some of the trappings of the Soviet state was adopted, that is, the Marxist-Leninist phraseology, but this was a thin veneer over strident Ethiopian nationalism. In the end we have to seek the social forces behind the Ethiopian revolution within the country.

It is true that according to what has been accepted as classical Marxist theory the state has no interests of its own, and that it represents a class within society.

The only analogy I can think of in history is that of Napoleon III, who Marx said rested on the French peasants. But this was in the context of a firmly-established bourgeois society. And the Bonapartist state balanced between the interests of the peasants and the bourgeoisie. There was no such society in Ethiopia. The state was an absolutist feudalist one. This leads me to conclude on this point that what has passed for a Marxist definition of the state needs refining, and that a state machine can indeed develop interests of its own, that do indeed go against the ruling class of a society. And in this instance the state won. It won because there was a crisis of regime for the old ruling élite and the state for a short time espoused the cause of an oppressed class. And whilst the revolution did not wholly free this oppressed class in political terms, it certainly did so in economic terms, only for the state to demand its due when it was once more firmly in the saddle.

From what I have said so far I do not want to imply that I in any way supported this regime. It is true that it carried out the tasks of a bourgeois revolution, but in a particularly brutal and bloody way. These tasks could have been carried out without the Red Terror directed against the urban population, and in fact it could have been carried out without a great deal of bloodshed.

However, the reason for the bloodshed did not wholly lie on the side of the Derg. The EPRP was a grouping heavily influenced by Maoist ideas and launched its own terror campaign which gave the Derg an excuse for its own Red Terror. This grouping fervently believed that it could introduce socialism in Ethiopia and the Derg certainly claimed this also.

None of the major actors in these events was prepared to acknowledge that socialism was an impossibility in Ethiopia. Each laid claim to a vision that was unobtainable. Ethiopian society was socially, economically, culturally and politically totally unfitted for the introduction of a socialist society. Given the overwhelming preponderance of capitalist relations on a world scale and the existence of horribly malformed society that arose on the bones of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the only road open to Ethiopia was the introduction of a bourgeois/capitalist form of society. The EPRP would have rejected such an idea out of hand, the Derg did in words but in practice prevaricated.

Lastly I want to say a few words about the support given to the Derg’s regime by some socialists in Western Europe. They helped to feed the illusions of the EPRP and similar groupings in Ethiopia and elsewhere by their own confusion about the world we live in and its readiness for socialism. At every conceivable opportunity there has been a rush to support the most vile and bloody regimes because they have claimed to be socialist. All those who did this have helped further to tarnish the image and prospects of socialism in the advanced capitalist countries by making socialism appear as something repulsive and oppressive. The next time such a regime appears on the world stage I suggest that some of our intellectuals go and live there for a time, as I did, then they will see that the red on the wall is not the Red Flag of socialism but the blood of socialist victims and the odour is not the scent of roses but the smell of fear. Perhaps when they have done this they will be a little less ready to support any little dictator that comes along singing the Internationale.

December 1992

Appendix 1: Reading, In Order of Quality
René Lefort, Ethiopia: An Heretical Revolution? (Zed Press, London 1983). This is by far the most comprehensive and thought-provoking of the works that I have read on this topic. Much of its corroborates in fine detail what I was able to ascertain from my personal experiences.

Ryszard Kapuściński, The Emperor (Picador, London 1982). This work is especially illuminating on the Byzantine quality of the court and on the ideology of those who surrounded Haile Selassie and cunning of the Derg in dealing with him.

John Markakis and Nega Ayele, Class and Revolution in Ethiopia (Spokesman, Nottingham 1978).

Addis Hiwet, Ethiopia: From Autocracy to Revolution (Review of Political Economy, 1975). Both this work and the one above are valuable from the point of view of being written by Ethiopians, but because they were written comparatively early could not make an analysis of Mengistu’s regime.

Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, The Revolution in Ethiopia (Verso, London 1981). Mainly notable for its discussion of the bizarre notion of ‘states with a socialist orientation’, nevertheless quite good on many of the facts.

Raúl Valdés Vivó, Ethiopia: The Unknown Revolution (Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, Havana 1977). This is a creepy apologia for Mengistu, coming from that bastion of freedom Cuba.

Appendix 2: Ethiopia: Some Basic Facts Circa 1973–74
Population: About 30 to 35 million, of whom:


7.8 million


6.8 million


3.6 million


0.9 million


0.8 million


0.8 million

All these figures are ‘guesstimates’.

Population growth rate estimated to be 2.5 to 3.0 per cent per annum. Nearly 50 per cent of the population is under 15 years old. Population density varies from one inhabitant per square kilometre to more than 200.

Land Area: 1.25 million square kilometres. The central mountainous plateau covers two-thirds of the country. Mountains rise to 4000 metres. The central plateau is the most densely populated and fertile area.

Agriculture: Approximately 90 per cent of the population is engaged in agriculture. This covers 10.0 to 10.5 million hectares, the average hold 1.5 hectares. Agriculture contributes more than half the GNP. Main crops: teff, maize, sorghum, barley, wheat and coffee. Coffee is an important export crop, accounting for 75 per cent of exports. Livestock: cattle – 28 million, sheep – 12 million, goats – 11 million.

Industry: Contributes 16.5 per cent of GNP, of which one-third is construction, one-third small handicrafts. One-third are small workshops employing 10 or fewer people. Numbers employed in manufacturing industry in 1971: 51,312.

Transport: 8,000 km all-weather roads. 800 km of railway line, connecting Addis with coast. Two ports, Assab (with oil refinery) and Massawa.

Gross National Product: Estimated 5.5 billion Bir in 1976, that is, about 2.64 billion US Dollars. Annual income per capita: 184 Bir or 88 US Dollars.

Education (before revolution):

Enrolment rates urban:

boys 52.0 per cent;

girls 16.0 per cent.

Enrolment rates rural:

boys 9.5 per cent;

girls 0.5 per cent.

Enrolment rates average:

boys 13.0 per cent;

girls 6.0 per cent.

One university, founded in 1960; one agricultural college.

Illiteracy Rate: 90 to 95 percent.

Health: One doctor per 75,000 people, half in the capital Addis Ababa.

Average life expectancy: 35–40 years.

Republished from