Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution (London: Verso, 1982).

Most Western commentators sharply criticize the current Ethiopian regime and the process that brought it to power. They argue that there has been no genuine revolution in Ethiopia, but rather a military coup followed by terror against civilian opponents, repression of the workers’ movement and refusal of self-determination to the national minorities. For critics on the right, such developments prove the turpitude of “Soviet surrogates.” For critics on the left, they show yet another military clique subverting a progressive mass movement.

The Ethiopian Revolution provides a straightforward and startling challenge to this standard interpretation. Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux do not deny the many shortcomings of the present regime, but they argue that it represents far more than a coup. It has carried out vast social change and has mobilized millions of people into political life for the first time. Such sweeping events inevitably escape neat formulas. The authors force us to look afresh at our tendency to reserve the term “revolution” for some mythical or unrealizable ideal. They argue convincingly that Ethiopia has seen one of the deepest and most authentic revolutions of recent times, and the “most profound social revolution in contemporary African history.”

Halliday and Molyneux identify the Ethiopian revolution as a rare instance of a class-based revolution in a post-colonial society. Most political movements in the Third World, by contrast, have been nationalist, bringing together all indigenous classes in the struggle against a foreign colonial power. Important as these movements are, they run up against narrow limits once the direct colonial presence has been eliminated. Class-based revolutions are more radical, holding out the possibility of deeper social transformation.

The book begins at this general level, with a remarkable theoretical chapter on Third World revolutions. The authors see the tradition of the French and Russian revolutions continuing in the revolutions of Mexico, China and Cuba. They argue that a new period of such Third World revolutions is now at hand, exemplified by developments in Iran, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Ethiopia. They do not presume that such revolutions will succeed in establishing, model new societies, but that these upheavals are decisively changing history. Even a skeptical reader will be impressed by the range of analysis, the theoretical clarity and the very broad historical vision represented here. This essay will certainly become an essential point of reference in the contemporary theory of revolution. A key element of the Halliday/Molyneux theoretical approach is their analysis of the special features of the prerevolutionary Ethiopian state and its counterparts elsewhere, features which determine the course of the revolutions that follow. These states are backward, absolutist structures, maintained by foreign aid or oil revenues long after they would otherwise have collapsed. Instead, they hang on for years, even as embryonic capitalism begins to develop. The new bourgeoisie remains weak, dependent on the state. The state loses its legitimacy among the workers and the peasants as its vast inefficiency, corruption, repression and social anachronisms become ever more apparent.

Halliday and Molyneux illustrate this theory in a chapter analyzing the fall of the Haile Selassie regime. Here we see the grotesque old emperor and his rotting state in the midst of unspeakable mass misery. Depicted in the Western press as a respectable and courageous patriarch, Selassie was in fact an almost ghoulish figure. His regime received more US aid than any in Africa, but he was content to line his own pockets. Over 400,000 Ethiopians died in the famine of the early 1970s and uncounted others were forced off the land as refugees. In the countryside, the landlords ruled with incredible brutality. In the cities, social life was stifled by repression, Coptic mysticism and imperial chicanery. By 1974, the students rebelled openly, civil servants refused to heed their masters, and mutiny shook the army.

The authors explicitly ask: To what extent did a mass movement develop, only to be cut short by military intervention? They show the limits of this view, which is held by most critics of the regime. There were no political parties, and the working class and peasantry remained relatively quiescent. The main thrust to overthrow the old regime came from students, civil servants and the army. In this alignment, the military group hardly had competitors as it reached for power. It became repressive later, for it ruled insecurely without an organized mass base. When a radical working class movement began to demand control of the factories, the regime moved to repress it.

Later chapters discuss the incredibly complex evolution of Ethiopia’s internal politics, including the radical social programs, the struggles within the regime, official efforts to establish a “vanguard” political party, and relations with the opposition parties and national minorities. The national movements, such as those in Eritrea and Ogaden, are discussed sympathetically, but without illusions. The authors support their right to self-determination, but they frankly speak of the splits, the questionable programs and the internal repression found in the movements. International questions, which are often oversimplified, are introduced here with similar nuances. Soviet politics in the Horn are made more comprehensible without being uncritically defended. In fact, Halliday and Molyneux show the negative effects of the Soviet presence at the level of ideology and practice, especially toward the national minorities and toward women.

The authors have assembled a vast and impressive detail in this work — surely a remarkable achievement given the paucity of sources. They are able to discuss such issues as property ownership, composition and education of the Derg, and ideological nuances within the opposition at a level of detail that will satisfy the most exacting of experts. Yet the authors never lose sight of broader issues. They draw the general reader deftly through the details of the analysis.

Some questions remain about the authors’ evidence in discussions about land reform. Since this reform is central to the revolution, given the relatively small urban sector, such evidence concerning rural developments is of great importance. Yet the Ethiopian countryside has been virtually inaccessible to Western observers since the revolution began. The information that does exist, as a close reading of the book makes clear, is relatively ambiguous. In some areas of the country, the regime appears to have successfully implanted reforms, while in other places the reforms have made slow headway against popular opposition. The absence of government control over considerable areas of the countryside further clouds the picture, as does the high level of force used to impose the reforms. Land reforms are notoriously easy to subvert, usually by emergent rich peasants, and such subversion is hard to identify in the short run by even very knowledgeable observers. Since the extent durability of the reforms cannot be established with certainty, there must remain an ambiguity about the depth of the Ethiopian revolution itself.

Another problem posed by the book similarly touches on the depth, authenticity and durability of the Ethiopian revolution. This is the problem of democracy. Here there is no dearth of evidence, and the authors make it perfectly clear: The regime has violated the most fundamental democratic norms, and it lacks a real mass base. They sharply criticize the bloody purges, the “red terror,” the repression of the opposition and the nationalities, but they nonetheless continue to be cautiously optimistic about this revolution, its global implications and its future course. They base their optimism on the vast and radical reforms and the extent to which the masses have begun to become subjects rather than objects of history. They are surely right in maintaining a broad historical perspective when assessing the course of such a vast social upheaval. However, as the course of events in Afghanistan and Iran show, revolutions which yield up a narrow and tyrannical regime do not hold out much hope for constructive social development. They may hold on to power, perhaps with some nominally progressive policies, but in reality they are historical dead ends, with counterrevolution always lurking around the corner. The Ethiopian revolution certainly runs this risk as well.

In their conclusion, Halliday and Molyneux concede that the future in Ethiopia is very uncertain. Whatever the outcome, Ethiopia’s struggle has been well-served by this remarkable study. The Ethiopian Revolution will be a standard reference on this subject and it will be widely read for its broader speculation about revolution in the contemporary Third World.

How to cite this article:

James Paul "Halliday and Molyneux, The Ethiopian Revolution," Middle East Report 106 (June 1982).
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