Combating tribal-authoritarian elitism: a response to Messay Kebede’s rejoinder |
By Tesfaye Demmelash (Ph.D.) | July 23, 2012
Messay Kebede’s “Elitism and Authoritarianism: A Rejoinder to Tesfaye Demmellash” is one of several gratifying responses to a recent article of mine which appeared on Awramba Times and Ethiomedia websites. The article dealt with the problem of deconstructing authoritarian state ethnicism in Ethiopia toward that country’s democratic transformation. Since Messay’s rejoinder was offered publicly, I thought I would respond to it likewise.
First, let me say that Messay is very kind in noting that “On Marxism and Ethiopian Student Radicalism in North America,” an article I published in the Monthly Review in 1984 inspired him to embark on his own more involved work on the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM), a major effort which resulted in the publication of his book, Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia. As a scholar and Ethiopian patriot, Messay has been actively engaged over the years in the study of problems of revolution and modernization in Ethiopia, subjects that are of keen interest to me as well, and on which I am currently undertaking research.
Let me now respond to his rejoinder to my recent article. I agree with Messay that the TPLF is “a product of the radicalism of the student movement,” as are, I might add, the OLF and other essentially identity-based “revolutionary” parties and fronts in Ethiopia, past and present. I explicitly state in my article that “…identity politics has from the beginning been connected in thought and practice to the broader Ethiopian revolutionary project.” I also concur with Messay that the defect of narrow power-mongering partisan elites which substitute themselves for whole “nationalities,” “nations,” and “peoples” is commonly shared by both exclusively tribal “radical” fronts like the TPLF and multi-ethnic revolutionary groups, notably the EPRP in its heyday.
Recognition of these facts does not, however, require us to ignore or suppress significant differences between, on one side, the tribal insularity and separatism of TPLF nationalism and, on the other, the multi-ethnic, and even transnational progressivism of the ESM or the EPRP. I still think the former is better understood, at least in part, as an unintended consequence or byproduct rather than a direct and deliberate creation of the ESM. I don’t share Messay’s emphasis here on the difference of his view from mine. The divergence is not worth quibbling over as long as we are in agreement on the basic point that, be it in effect or in intent, the ideological and political ground for Woyane “radical” tribalism was prepared by the ESM. Not passive recipients of this opportunity, the Woyanes have cleverly used the political terms and categories which have constituted the basic vocabulary of Ethiopian revolutionary language to encode and institutionalize their own tribal meanings and values.
Closing Political Accounts with History
I should mention that I sense a misreading of my plea for “getting over history” in Messay’s response to my article. He characterizes the plea as “hasty,” noting that “we should leave the past as past but only after we have understood it properly…” I want to make three quick points here. First, in urging leaders and partisans of ethnonationalism in Ethiopia to get over history, I was not conveying impatience with the legitimate aspirations of ethnic and cultural minorities in the country to freedom, autonomy, and democracy. Nor was I overlooking the need to understand and redress historical injustices and inequalities. I do acknowledge in my article the importance of righting past wrongs even as we struggle to go beyond the historical realities of Ethiopian nation-state formation.
But, second, if we trace the beginnings of revolutionary politics in Ethiopia to the mid-1960s, we have now endured nearly half a century of more or less ethnocentric “radical” criticism and devaluation of the Ethiopian experience, a relentless assault on our national tradition pioneered by a crazed ultra-left faction that came to dominate the ESM, an offensive carried on subsequently by such political parties as the EPRP, EPLF, OLF, and TPLF.
The antipathy toward Ethiopian nationhood has entailed an interminable negative obsession among certain separatist elite factions in particular ethnic communities with the nation’s distant and more recent past. And in this obsessive state, such narrow factions have grossly caricatured Ethiopia as the sum of its problems and limitations, nothing more. I don’t believe calling for an end to this decades-long “revolutionary” fixation as I do in my article can be characterized as “hasty” at all. Far from it. If anything, it is long overdue. It is simply high time Ethiopia stood up for her rights, as one nation, one people, diversity and all, and with no apologies to unreconstructed separatist tribal elites.
Third, it is not clear to me what Messay means when he says “we should leave the past as past, but only after we have understood it properly…” What constitutes a “proper” understanding of history in this case? What do we need to know about our past that we don’t already know? Is the inability of practitioners of “radical” identity politics to get over their politically paralyzing fixation on the historical realities of Ethiopian nation-state formation an outcome simply of their “improper” or limited understanding of these realities? Messay does not say. But what he has in mind here might be in a way related to an idea I proposed in another article a few years ago, one that I still hold.
The idea is that, as we continue to strive toward the illusive goals of freedom and democracy for all Ethiopians after three decades of struggle, it may be necessary to look back and survey the troubled and troubling road of radical modernism we have traveled as a nation, to take stock of the gains and losses we have registered through the Revolution, the political false starts, dead ends, and reversal of progressive values we have suffered for over a generation. I imagine such a critical yet constructive generational review of the Ethiopian revolutionary experience may be seen as an integral part of a “proper understanding” of our recent national past. More importantly, I believe we need to undertake a grand review of the kind I am proposing as a condition of settling our political accounts with history once and for all and articulating an alternative forward-looking national vision, thereby paving a better, more democratic political path ahead.
Elitism: Missing Distinctions
I take issue with Messay’s reference to “elite politics” or simply “elites.” He expresses understandable discontent with “the empowering of elites rather than people” in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary Ethiopia, a phenomenon, he notes, which has commonly marked the reigns of Emperor Haile Selassie, the Derg, and the Woyanes. These claims invite several questioning observations. I will focus here on what I consider to be a basic limitation of Messay’s use of the term “elites.” Namely, that he employs the term as a generic notion that obscures enormous variation in political substance and style that characterizes actual regimes and elites in different historical, cultural, and national contexts.
We don’t gain a whole lot of politically productive analytical and critical insights by railing against elitism in general. As Messay would acknowledge, elites are constitutive and regulative groups within all complex societies, reflective of underlying social stratification and organization. Politics centrally involves the activities and rule of elites – as leaders of revolutions, drafters of national constitutions and laws, and organizers and managers of society, polity, and economy. There is generally an elite-mass nexus at work, a connection of one kind or another between leading or governing strata and ordinary citizens or people.
So elitism has been a national problem in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the world not in and of itself or in the abstract, but in the particular political forms it has taken and in the way it has or has not functioned. The devil is in the variants of elitism, not in elite politics as such. While I identify morally with Messay’s call for “empowering people rather than elites,” I find this summons a nonstarter conceptually and in practice. Elite empowerment does not, by definition, exclude popular-national rule and democracy. Nor does conceiving “elites” simply in contradistinction to “people” have much strategic and practical meaning in actual political life and struggle.
To be blunt, then, elites are necessary, but not necessarily bad. Leading and governing strata can be more or less sectarian, dictatorial or conservative, but also more or less popular, democratic and liberal. In pressing his case against successive, commonly authoritarian and power-hogging Ethiopian ruling strata, Messay simply overlooks significant differences of political substance and form among regimes.
In this connection, I find questionable Messay’s resort to the term, “colonial,” to describe varied indigenous ruling groups in Ethiopia, lumping together the reigns of Emperor Haile Selassie, the Derg, and the TPLF. It is a rather unfortunate use of the term that plays into the hands of partisans of separatist ethnonationalist orthodoxy. The terminal point of a centuries-old system of imperial statehood in Ethiopia, Haile Selassie’s reign in particular was emblematic of native Ethiopian national tradition. Whatever their political flaws and imperfections, and they had plenty, the multi-ethnic ruling elites of Emperor Haile Selassie’s era cannot be characterized as colonial in any meaningful or generally accepted sense of the term. Their rule was surely authoritarian and not representative of ordinary Ethiopian citizens, but they simply cannot have colonized their own native land and people.
We can pretty much say the same thing about Derg and TPLF ruling strata, though with much less certainty and conviction when it comes to the Woyane political elite. Admittedly, as inheritors of a flawed revolutionary project conceived by the ESM against Ethiopian nationhood as such, these regimes have practiced their so-called progressive politics largely in a way alien and inimical to our national tradition, engaging in wholesale devaluation and rejection of it. In varying forms and degrees, the revolutionary regimes of the Derg and the TPLF can be said to have adopted toward the tradition and the Ethiopian people the hostility and dominating attitude of a foreign occupying force.
This is particularly true of the Tigre elites in power in Ethiopia today, led by (the apparently dying) Meles Zenawi. Still, for all their narrow tribalism and deep-seated animus toward Ethiopian solidarity, Woyane Tigres remain indigenous to Ethiopia. They are not an alien invading power, though they have behaved like one. As “revolutionaries” and ethnonationalists, they may have alienated themselves from Ethiopia, but their native Tigray remains at the core of the historic and contemporary Ethiopian polity. The Woyanes have surely employed a colonial-like strategy of divide-and-rule in imposing their minority tribal regime over vast ethnic majorities in the country, but this does not make their regime a colonial one in the strict sense.
Can we Help Ethiopia Make a Democratic Turn?
Finally, I share Messay’s discontent with Ethiopian national affairs “…still [being] driven by elite conflicts” in which the Ethiopian people are reduced to “nothing more than instruments” or captive constituencies of disparate authoritarian-tribal parties. But what is to be done to end this sorry state of the nation and help Ethiopia make a lasting democratic turn? This is the fundamental question progressive and patriotic Ethiopians face today as they struggle against the Woyane regime. But it seems the question does not weigh heavily on the nation’s intellectuals who seek to help bring about the sorely needed change. It has yet to become a subject of sustained debate and discussion among them.
Messay does not focus on it in his rejoinder to my article. He merely issues a moral injunction that “the struggle should be less about empowering new elites than of arming ordinary people with rights…” There is no hint here – theoretical or practical – as to how this worthy goal might be politically pursued and realized. So the problem remains: What does effectively changing our national predicament for the better require or involve in political thought, strategy, and practice? Posing this question openly for ongoing discussion and debate is a challenge for us; and finding answers for it is even more so. But it is a question we can no longer avoid.
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