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  • The Ethiopian Student Movement:A Rejoinder to Bahru Zewde’s The Quest for Socialist Utopia
  • Messay Kebede (bio)

Ethiopian Student Movement, Revolution, Radicalization, Haile Selassie, the Derg

Bahru’s book presents a historical account of the Ethiopian student movement from its inception to the crucial split into rival political parties shortly before the eruption of the revolution and the rise of the Derg. Though the account does not release new facts, it gives a detailed picture of the main events, circumstances, and actors that shaped the movement. The book narrates the important moments in chronological order and analyzes their contributions to the process of radicalization. One of Bahru’s conspicuous suppositions is that radicalization should be seen “as a process rather than as a sudden development.”1 This supposition enables him to weigh the inputs of external and internal factors on the radicalization process.

The book is not content with a historical account of the movement; it also briefly criticizes other authors, Ethiopian as well as foreign, who have written on the same subject. While most of the works mentioned are criticized for historical inaccuracies and a lack of primary sources, my book on the same subject, Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960–1974,2 is singled out by virulent polemical attacks denouncing inaccuracies and shortage of primary sources. Even the entire work is rebuffed on [End Page 175] the ground that it is based on fallacious and malicious premises designed to discredit the student movement. Going beyond the characterization of my book as “dismissive,” Bahru removes my right—as a philosopher—to write on the issue because in his view the student movement “has to be viewed not as a philosophical issue but as a historical phenomenon.”3 He also looks for support in reviews of my book that were critical, but ignores those, significantly more numerous, that applauded the book for its theoretical inputs and original approach. Interestingly, Bahru refers to Richard Reid’s review as one critical appraisal but fails to mention the highly positive assessments permeating the review. The proof is Reid’s conclusion, which reads as follows:

Overall, this is a thoughtful, provocative and insightful book, essential reading for anyone interested in Ethiopia during the revolutionary years of the 1960s and 1970s, and the era of political radicalisation in Africa and Asia more broadly. This is a book which grapples with such fundamental themes as elitism, modernity, education and development, intertwining them and offering new perspectives on how revolution, broadly defined, goes awry, despite best intentions.4

My intention is not to defend the right of philosophers to theorize on social movements and changes; nor is it to defend the value of my work against Bahru’s attacks. Rather, I want to show that his criticisms of my book are either contradictory or express an inability to analyze from a level surpassing mere narration. In thus exposing the theoretical poverty of Bahru’s book, as well as the inconsistency of his project of shielding the student movement from criticism, I will explicate how and why Bahru intentionally misreads my book. I add that what Bahru calls “dismissive” is actually my intent to show the tragic nature of the Ethiopian student movement. Doubtless, the students had the good intention of correcting glaring injustices and modernizing their country, but they did it in such a way that it blew up in their faces and they themselves became the first victims. As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” To expose this reversal—which Bahru occasionally recognizes in speaking of “tragic consequences”—is not dismissive.5 What needs to be explained is why Bahru is dead set on criticizing me even when I agree with his own views. [End Page 176]

Even as Bahru stigmatizes my book for being inimical to the student movement, his own dedication to the movement reads as follows: “To the Youth of Ethiopia who assumed a burden incommensurate with their intellectual resources and their country’s political assets and paid dearly for it.”6 The dedication does no more than echo the customary view of the then emperor and ruling class ascribing the movement to infantile...


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pp. 175-185
Launched on MUSE
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