In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Response to Messay Kebede’s Rejoinder
  • Bahru Zewde (bio)

Radicalism, Quest, cultural dislocation, radicalization, global context, “Land to the Tiller”, national question

The genesis of the above rejoinder is apparently a critical review of the literature on the Ethiopian student movement that is presented in the introductory chapter of Quest for Socialist Utopia (hereafter, Quest). Such a critical review is standard practice in scholarly works. Rather inexplicably, Messay has interpreted the relatively extended review of his Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation (hereafter, Radicalism) as “virulent polemical attacks.”1 This has evidently given him a license to launch a polemical tirade against Quest. He even goes to the extent of alleging that I have been critical of his book because I believed he was “nostalgic for the imperial regime.” If he can be blamed for any nostalgia, it is probably for traditional Christian education; indeed, Radicalism might well be interpreted as an attempt to exorcise the Marxist-Leninist demons of one’s past—or “the spell of Marxism,” as its author prefers to call it.2

The review in Quest was not the first critical review of Radicalism. Far more critical reviews of it have appeared since its publication. It does not help to take solace in the concluding paragraphs of critical reviews, as Messay does in the case of Reid’s review. All of us who are in the habit of writing scholarly reviews are cognizant of the courtesy of the gracious gesture at the end of even the most critical review. Indeed, it is a measure [End Page 187] of Radicalism’s divorce from reality that few of those who were actively engaged in the Ethiopian student movement have been able to recognize themselves in their portrayal therein. I gave Radicalism extended coverage in my literature review precisely because I found its conclusions so much at variance with my own findings. Rather than give a structured response to the reservations expressed in the literature review, Messay has chosen to debunk the entire Quest, going to the extent of alleging that it “does not release new facts.”

A Recap of the Critique

In Quest, I raised three fundamental objections to the premises and conclusions of Radicalism. The first is its underestimation of the structural causes that gave rise to the radicalism of the student movement. True, as pointed out in the rejoinder, chapter 9 of Radicalism is entitled “Objective Causes of the Radicalization of Students and Intellectuals.” But it is quite telling that the first section of that chapter is entitled “Insufficiency of the Structural Approach.” One would have expected such an assertion in the conclusion rather than at the beginning, after the author has taken some trouble to delineate those “objective causes.”

As it stands, Radicalism fails to highlight at least two major structural problems of the imperial regime that gave rise to the radical student movement: its autocratic and centric character and its failure to introduce any meaningful land reform. Indeed, these were failings that provoked not only radical but also liberal opposition. The regime’s autocratic character triggered attempts even from within the ruling establishment to change it. These ranged from the plot led by Bitwaddad Negash Bezabeh in 1951 to establish a republic (Quest, 53–54) to the abortive 1960 coup of the Neway brothers. That coup in turn generated concerned appeals to the emperor to reform by members of the nobility who had read the writing on the wall (Quest, 63–66).It was the failure of these liberal recommendations for reform that made the radical option inevitable.

The imperial regime was not only autocratic but also centric. There is no better illustration of this fact than its intolerance of the federal arrangement whereby Eritrea was united with Ethiopia. That, as we know, was the genesis of the Eritrean liberation movement, which had such an [End Page 188] important influence on the framing of the national question in the student movement. Anybody who has read Quest carefully will realize that I have taken strong exception to the solution to the national question that was finally adopted by the student movement in 1971.3 That such a question existed is an indubitable fact to any good...


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