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Reflections on Revolutions


Reflections on Revolutions

By Aesop


I was pleasantly surprised by the election debates in Tigrai. The parties introduced their political programs with clarity. Their concern for Tigrai was evident. Their critiques were civil. The commission assigned capable moderators. The moderators allocated sufficient time. They organized the discussion around pressing agendas affecting the people. Those who scoffed at Tigreans as, inter alia, aliens to democracy are, once again, proven wrong. The day before yesterday, they preached Tigrai’s revolutionaries were rats. Yesterday, they thought Tigrai’s growth initiative, including GERD, was a sham. I guess King David was right when he said: “The stone which the builder refused has become the capstone” (Psalm 118:22).

Just like Tigrai, its detractors will also live to see another day. They will wake up hoping Tigrai will fall into a post-election crisis. They will pray for Tigrai’s political parties to reject election results. They will keep their fingers crossed for parties to mobilize their supporters against election results. They will beg the universe to show them Tigrai’s police suppressing violent protests. Contrary to Birtukan’s 2005 Kinijit, Tigreans expect all parties to accept election outcomes gracefully. All parties who participated in this election are champions of Tigrai. Why? Because they offered Tigreans alternative paths to a brighter future when others offered them betrayals, sanctions, and threats of war. Tigrai’s parties are shining stars hanging in the dark sky of dictatorship reigning over Ethiopia.

There seems to be some confusion regarding the term “revolution” in Tigrai these days. The critical camp associates the term with radicalism, bloodletting, and failure. This stems from the historical trauma Tigreans suffer in the hands of a regime claiming to be a revolutionary, i.e. the Derg (1974-1991). This overall revulsion towards anything revolution, in turn, created the apologist camp. This camp champions a revolution but avoids owning it- lest it provokes the critical camp. It struggles to explain why the essential nature of a developmental state is that of a revolutionary. There are also confusions in defining the concept. Some refer to the English dictionary and conclude its an attempt to overthrow a government. Others look at the Tigrigna meaning and argue it stands for resistance. These confusions may be attributed to what psychologists termed: availability heuristic. This is cognitive bias whereby people make decisions by solely relying on the information they could easily retrieve from memory.

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The scholarly definition of revolution helps overcome this availability heuristics. Most scholars understand revolution as a mass mobilization (formal or informal) intended to replace existing political, economic, and social institutions with new ones in a short period of time. But what are institutions? Institutions are a set of man-made (hence, changeable) constraints, i.e., values, norms, procedures, etc., that dictate human interaction. Institutions establish rules of the game for a society.

Hence, a radical institutional change distinguishes revolutions from a random protests orrebellions. For example, EPRDF’s 1991 victory was revolutionary because it replaced the assimilationist, somewhat communist, and one-party system institutions of the Derg with a federalist, somewhat capitalist, and multiparty state system. The constraints on how people interacted (socially, economically, and politically) under Derg radically differed from the rules under EPRDF. This makes the EPRDF a revolutionary organization.

Now, what makes EPRDF’s developmental state model revolutionary? A developmental state is one of the three historical paths that nations pursued to attain modernity, i.e. to become an industrialized society. In some nations, elites opposed to an existing regime linked up with the masses to affect a revolution (institutional transformation) from below. These are social revolutions. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia of 1917 is a case in point. In other nations, incumbent elites affected revolution from above, thereby transforming the social, economic, and political interaction among people. These are elite revolutions.

Notable elite revolutions took place in Japan (under Meiji) and Germany (under Prussia). Modern examples include countries like Taiwan and South Korea. The incumbent elites in those countries transformed the culture (from traditional to modern) and livelihood (from agrarian to industrial) of their societies in short span of time. Hence, they were revolutionary elites. Similarly, the EPRDF accelerated the economic and social development of Ethiopia by deliberately transforming its institutions from above. This makes the TPLF (the only surviving member of the EPRDF) a revolutionary party.

TPLF/EPRDF is not the only revolutionary that manifested in the Ethiopian history. For example, Tewodros was a revolutionary because he ended the era of the princes by subduing local princes using a centralized army he died trying to modernize. Yohannes was a revolutionary too. He decentralized power and, for the first time, showed Ethiopians they could prevail over foreign powers in the diplomatic and military arenas. But Menilek was the most revolutionary of all. Menilek established the most centralized empire which outlived him. His grandfather’s Menz dynasty furnished the ground by acculturating the Shewa and Wallo Oromos prior to Menilek’s ascent. Menilek relied on this coalition and unleashed brute force to expropriate wealth from the greater South. After he became an emperor, Menilek established modern bureaucratic institutions to undermine the authority of local rulers. He also coopted disenfranchised elites by arranging strategic intermarriages.

Haile Selassie was not a revolutionary. He merely ushered Menilek’s revolution into the 20th Century by instituting modernization. By contrast, Derg 1.0 was a semi-revolutionary because it replaced feudalism with a pseudo-socialist order by introducing land reform and mass literacy campaigns while retaining Menilek’s assimilationist project. EPRDF, led by TPLF,overturned Menilek’s revolution by decentralizing power, empowering ethnic centers of power, and implementing the developmental state model as a new path to economic transformation. Derg 2.0 (2018-Present) is also a revolutionary regime. Derg 2.0 is doing its best to replace the political, economic, and social institutions that EPRDF established with a presidential, neoliberal, and assimilationist order. Whether Derg 2.0’s revolution will either succeed or abort is an event we shall witness together. 

Having clarified the concept of revolution, I will dissect its key elements for further clarification. The outcome of revolution is are transformed social, political, and economic institutions. But these may not be the necessary intention of revolutionaries. Historically, revolutionaries prioritized between among political, economic, and social transformations. Some sacrifice themselves for the fatherland. Others fight for the poor. And still, others stand against tyranny.

The English (17th Century) and American (18th Century) revolutionaries fought against tyranny. So, they prioritized liberty. These revolutions introduced novel concepts like checks and balances, federalism, and bill of rights. The French revolution (1789), on the other hand, added equality and fraternity to agenda. As the French revolution spread across Europe, revolutionary thinkers split between the equality and fraternity advocates.

Revolutionaries who prioritized equality above all else introduced communism. Those who stressed on fraternity brought forth nationalism. And those who opted for liberty championed liberal democracies. The three groups of revolutionaries, i.e. variants of liberals, communists, and nationalists, continue to fight for world domination to this day. There has been a resurgence of religious (e.g. Islamic, Hindu, etc.) and a hybrid (e.g. multiclass, state-capitalism, green-parties, etc.) revolutions. But these tend to blend within the three generic types over time.

The tripod framework of revolution (liberty, equality, and fraternity) helps us appreciate the difference between the political parties running for election in Tigrai. It also helps us understand why parties that analyze events in terms of national pride and interest fail to understand parties who interpret events in terms of productive and equitable economic relations. The framework also clarifies why certain discontented parties call upon liberty, i.e. an interest to replace what they deem“tyranny” with liberty.

In conclusion, most revolutions in history had three goals. These are: liberty, equality, and fraternity. These goals are neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive. However, revolutionaries tend to order these goals into a sequence of prioritization. This difference in taste explains the underlying cause for contention among revolutionaries worldwide. Hence, people should avoid hasty judgement. Parties that do not match our preconceived political paradigm do not necessarily lack ideologies. We just need to take them seriously.

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