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Reviewed by:
  • Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960-1974
  • Tibebe Eshete (bio)
Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960-1974, by Messay Kebede Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press, 2008; pp. 252. $75.00 cloth.

Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, a groundbreaking analysis of the history of the Ethiopian student movement, questions the nature of the radicalization of student politics in the 1960s and the 1970s. Messay focuses on the relationships between ideology, modernity, and the transformation of diffuse political and cultural radicalism into organized political activities that coalesced in the 1974 Revolution, an event in which he was an active participant. This reviewer's personal observations suggest that the Ethiopian generations of the 1940s and 1950s, anchored in traditional cultural value systems, imagined and hoped to see the emergence of a strong and proud nation, confidently striding toward the modern world. They did so against the backdrop of what Maimire Mennasemai has termed the "surplus history" of Ethiopia, a reference to the many elements of the nation's rich official culture.1 The 1960s and 1970s generations' visions for Ethiopia departed from this trend, looking instead for a more ideologically driven model to promote [End Page 149] change. Invoking Marxist ideals, this generation conferred a privileged position upon the educational elite, acknowledging them as the paragons of intellectual discourse. Lamentably, Marxism robbed them of a relevant scope of analysis and distorted their understandings of a complex history. Professor Messay's book documents how, in the end, this generation was also left bereft of moral and ontological sensitivity.

Messay convincingly demonstrates that the radicalization of Ethiopian students in the 1960s resulted from a sense of crisis borne of internally and externally induced development, in which "modernization" was a central concept. He correctly asserts that the youth's embrace of Marxism—as well as the uncritical and zealous application of Marxism to effect political reengineering—led Ethiopia astray. Significantly, he does so in a sober manner, avoiding the self-pity and anger of yesterday that is common to our generation. Instead, Messay ventures to chart profitable avenues in the study of Ethiopia's recent intellectual and political history by shifting the analysis from a grand metastructural narrative to a more grounded critical approach, one that incorporates cultural dimensions and the "agentic" factor through an in-depth profiling of radical modernization's chief architects. Messay's examination of the sociopolitical backgrounds of some of the movers and shakers of the radical political discourse of the 1960s comprises a novel and beneficial approach that provides a nuanced look into the psychosocial dynamics of political activism.

Messay has ably situated the radicalization of the youth in the contexts of trends of modernization and the various responses that modernization generated. While his emphasis is on the student movement, he adroitly attends to other youth-oriented movements that evolved in the same context, such as the Haymanot Abew, a reform movement within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the Pentecostal movement, which offered youth a new vehicle for expressing their faith and discursively articulating a moral critique of the establishment. More broadly, Messay's philosophical reflections encompass an analysis of Marxism as a global philosophy of social action that provided the generation not only with a radical element but also with a symbol of immortalization, an obsessive ideological purity, and a militant rectitude of a religious dimension. The issue of purity, which Messay raises explicitly at one point (113) and discusses elsewhere, characterizes the politico-religious tradition that [End Page 150] nurtured the students. His reference to this transposed phenomenon as a surrogate religion is highly apt.

Messay employs certain notions as interpretive frames to assist the reader. For instance, terms like "guilt and atonement" refer to undue student commitment to a version of nationalism that included messianic elements to compensate for a sense of betrayal and abandonment. Similarly, "revolutionary atheism" alludes to the decline of religious values in the context of Marxism's seductive power (120), and "generational consciousness" captures the altered mood and evolving mindset shared by the youth. These conceptual tools, thoughtfully applied to the Ethiopian setting, lend coherence to diffuse ideas.

The book nonetheless should have offered a critical analysis...


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pp. 149-153
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