- The 1974 Ethiopian Revolution at 40:Social, Economic, and Political Legacies
In November 2014, the International Institute of Social History (IISH), in cooperation with the African Studies Centre at Leiden, hosted a conference in Amsterdam titled “Ethiopian Revolution at 40: Interpreting Social Effects and Historical Meaning,” to reflect on a key moment in the modern history of Ethiopia. The conference brought together many scholars, participants, and witnesses, and this special issue is based on a selection of the presentations given.1 The overthrow of Ethiopia’s imperial regime was a seminal event in the global history of revolutions. The anniversary offered an occasion to interpret and take stock of the social effects and meaning of the revolution. In addition, over the past year, the IISH’s Africa Desk has assembled a sizable collection of periodicals, booklets, and other documents relevant to that period.2
Academic and nonacademic interest in the Ethiopian revolution is undergoing a revival, as witnessed by the recent publication of a number of Amharic- and English-language books on the subject.3 In general, however, scholarship on the Ethiopian revolution stops short of offering any interpretation of the meaning of the revolution beyond its immediate [End Page 1] causes and effects. So far, there has been little in the way of exploring the revolution as a process that goes beyond the era of the purportedly Marxist military regime known as the Derg (1974–91). The conference sought to fill some gaps by offering historical interpretations of the lasting social effects and significance of the Ethiopian revolution from multiple perspectives. The assumption is that social dynamics set in motion by the revolution are still in operation in postsocialist Ethiopia and may continue to generate novel social outcomes in the future. The central research questions that authors addressed at the Amsterdam conference were the following: what have been the lasting social effects of the revolution? What impact has the revolution had on different social relations and social classes?
The Unfolding Events
The Ethiopian Revolution occurred at a particularly negative economic conjuncture. The news images of the 1973–74 drought in the Northern regions and the appalling conditions of the peasantry revealed how exploitative the imperial or “feudal” economic system was. It also showed that the imperial system was unfit or unwilling to improve the living conditions of the masses or bring about any sort of progress in the country. Emperor Haile Selassie, “the modernising autocrat” backed by Western countries—the United States, France, and Great Britain in primis—considered himself as a liberator of Ethiopia from Italian Fascist occupation, which ended in 1941. However, the reality was quite different from the rhetoric of imperial power. Haile Selassie did not liberate Ethiopians from the Fascists; it was rather those who remained to fight in the country against Mussolini’s ruthless armies that did so. Indeed, Haile Selassie incarnated the oppressiveness in which Ethiopians found themselves on the eve of the revolution.
On 12 January 1974, Ethiopian soldiers led a rebellion against their officers in Negelle Borena, an event considered by many, though not by all, as the beginning of the Ethiopian Revolution which later brought Major Mengistu Haile Mariam to power. In the view of many of our contributors, the military junta headed by Mengistu misappropriated the radical discourse of students who had returned from Europe and America, aiming to fight against feudalism and backwardness in Ethiopia. The students’ [End Page 2] revolutionary and Marxist-Leninist views were grounded on complex reasoning, some of which is described in the article by Elleni Centime Zeleke, which looks at the Ethiopian Revolution though the lens of social science theory. The students’ diagnosis of the country’s social ills required a level of knowledge—of economics and philosophy—that the military simply did not have. The military limited itself to arrogating to itself some of the students’ jargon and adopting some reforms that were inspired by the most radical elements of the anti-imperial movement. The situation would change later on when the Derg regime turned toward the Soviet bloc for assistance and began to follow the policy diktats of the various advisers sent by brotherly socialist countries, as the...