by Messay Kebede
Ever since rudiments of dialectical thinking grabbed the imagination of Ethiopia’s educated youngsters and elites, essentially as a result of the global prestige of the Marxist class analysis of society in the 60s and early 70s, modern Ethiopian politics has shifted toward polarizing trends that have been perilous to the unity and economic development of the country. The trouble is that the questionable nature of the Marxist-Leninist concepts of class and class struggle stood out only after the total failures of socialist experiences in the former Soviet Union and its satellites. The concepts had to be disproved by facts developing over decades for them to lose their grip on the mind of educated people, especially in third world countries. Unfortunately, what was unleashed by the concepts has developed a life of its own, thereby reviving the thinking even if it has lost its original purpose.
In hindsight, it now appears that common sense could have been enough to prevent us from engaging in the path of polarizing thinking. The link is quite obvious between the state of mind of the generation of the 60s and 70s and the politics they advocated. Indeed, the notion of contradiction between classes stemming from irreconcilable, antagonistic interests, polarized our vision of society, thereby nurturing radicalism. To the extent that class struggle means that one class excludes other classes, it rules out a policy of compromise based on the common good, since the notion of common good is viewed as illusory and counter to the course of societal progress. By contrast, one activates the real forces governing history if one adopts an exclusive form of thinking: just as class interests are incompatible, so too should the politics of change be as uncompromising as the interests. This means radicalism and revolution.
Be it noted that ethnic politics is just a derivation of class antagonism. Just as classes are viewed as opposites, ethnic groups are construed as contradictory in their aspiration and interests. This explains why the transition from Marxism to ethnocentrism has been so easy for so many educated elites: once you adopt the view of society as torn between contradictory and irreconcilable class interests, the presence of different and socially unequal ethnic groups becomes a breeding ground for ethnic polarizations. Unravelling the secret of radical politics, Amartya Sen finds that the main ingredient is the advocacy of “single-dimensional categorization of human beings.” The attribution of one single overriding identity to people is how they become alien and hostile to each other. The assumption of a single identity means that one cannot be Oromo or Somali and Ethiopian at the same time. What is more, ethnic divisions look even more radical and revolutionary than Marxist radicalization because it goes to the extent of questioning the political unity of the country. What could better show one’s unreserved commitment to polarizing politics than to espouse a secessionist objective?
To explain the loss of the common sense I talked about, it is enough to recall that youngsters in the 60s and 70s learned Marxism mostly from Soviet and Chinese pamphlets. For Marxism, the pamphlets said, everything is contradictory: contradiction is the structure and the driving force of all things. Night is opposed to day, cold to hot, north to south, positive to negative, life to death, etc. Let us focus on night and day: to constitute these two moments as opposites, I must obviously ignore intermediary states and retain only extremes. This is to say that opposition is a construct involving abstract thinking, that is, the discarding of the movement of day as a series of transitory states without ever reaching the extreme level of contradiction, of mutual exclusiveness for the reason that there is no such a thing as extreme, pure night.
It is the same in society: where Marxism sees clearly contrasted classes, the reality of social life exhibits not so much closed groups as an array in which individuals impinge on each other. The rigid classification by which classes are construed as opposites ignores the reality of intermediaries that presents society as a range of differentiations rather than polarizations. To constitute classes as antagonistic, I must put aside the many-sided overlappings by which one group touches on other groups, thereby forming a chain of differentiations rather than exclusive and hostile poles. For instance, no person in Ethiopia is solely a member of a class or an ethnic group: he/she is a Christian or a Muslim, a parent, a member of a particular profession, a native of a certain ethnic group, an Ethiopian, an African, etc. What this means is that the perception of rigid oppositions in what constitutes a multifaceted chain is exactly the product of a construct for the obvious purpose of political mobilization under the exclusive control of a totalitarian leadership.
I am not saying that the attempt to unify and mobilized people around some shared interests is a bad thing. Rather, we must understand it for what it really is, namely, a mental construction forged by elites in the struggle for the control of power. We must never lose sight of the fact that it is an abstraction that serves a definite purpose and that the concrete reality is a mixture, an infringement of various interests. Great national politics consists in harmonizing the diversity of social life rather than polarizing groups. Again, Sen gets it right when he writes: “The world is made much more incendiary by the advocacy and popularity of group, which combines haziness of vision with increased scope for the exploitation of that haze by the champions of violence.”
The failure of modern Ethiopia, failure that took an alarming trend with the Derg and a frankly dangerous one with the Woyanne rule, originates from the stubborn attempt of one group to exclude and dominate other groups, on the grounds that the society is composed of antagonistic interests. Willy-nilly, such a politics cannot offer anything other than endless repression, erection of social blockages, and exasperation of hostilities, thereby endangering unity and blocking the development of the country.
Suppose that you consider society more as an array of overlapping interests rather than a field torn by irreconcilable interests. The role of politics will strongly resemble that of an orchestra conductor: just as the conductor harmonizes various instruments into an integrated totality, so too politics attentive to overlapping groups blends various interests into one diversified and mutually supportive unity. Polarizing politics silences all the other instruments in favor of one instrument; harmonizing politics allows all instruments to play but in an integrating fashion, by which they become mutually supportive and achieve a richer unity. This harmonizing politics is none other than democracy.
Recall Mao Tse-tung’s slogan, “let a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend.” It announced the temporary suspension of the communist repression and a vision of social development correcting polarization in favor of pluralism. Unfortunately or predictably, Mao very soon returned to his previous vision of “let one flower bloom, one school of thought dominate,” which was a return to the notion of antagonistic interests, as a response to mounting criticisms against the communist party. Nothing could better show the real goal of polarizing politics, namely, the exclusive control of power.