Revolutionary Democracy: A Fitting Worldview for Economic & Political Development of Ethiopia




Adal Isaw

May 15, 2010


Almost all Ethiopian political parties except EPRDF adopt liberalism as their political ideology.  And these political parties are looking forward to put liberalism at work, if and when they’re endowed with the political power to do so.  Liberalism, they argue, is the ideology in need to build a middle-income democratic Ethiopia.  In contrast, EPRDF contends, that the arduous work to build a middle-income democratic Ethiopia will be nearly impossible; one, if and when it is based on a liberal worldview that favors the unfair and controlling economic and political interest of the Western world; and two, if and when it is based on economic and political philosophy that exaggerates the inalienable rights of a self-seeking individual.


The movement by the Western world to make liberalism appear more desirable than any other conceivable economic and political worldview has succeeded by default.  In other words, if ideological success is merely measured by the prevalence of a political and economic worldview, then liberalism has become the most successful modern ideology of our interconnected world.  With the collapse of the so called communist blocks of Eastern European countries, the dominance of liberalism has even become all the more thoroughgoing—so much so, a renowned American political scientist daringly claimed that ideological struggles, as we know them in the past, have come to an end.  Liberalism, Fukiyama affirmed, has triumphed.[1]


Disproving Fukiyama, the struggle between ideologies lives and in fact has become vibrant to a degree, even in Ethiopia—a country that barely entered the global ideological market—where used and a sort of newly formulated ideologies are spoken for sale.  As you’re reading this article, the Ethiopian people are still shopping from political parties eager to sell their ideologies in exchange for political power.  EPRDF is on one side selling its own sort of brand-new Ethiopian-born revolutionary democratic worldview, while the rest of the political parties are on the other side, selling a Euro-centric worldview of liberalism. 


What is liberalism or liberal outlook anyways?  And what makes revolutionary democracy a fitting worldview for economic and political development of Ethiopia?  Liberalism, according to Britannica Concise Encyclopedia is a “political and economic doctrine that emphasizes the rights and freedoms of the individual and the need to limit the powers of government.”  For over three hundred years, liberalism has been the most fundamental experience of Western political civilization.  And its fundamental credo is comprised of individualism, civil rights, private ownership, and pluralism.  Liberalism is inseparable from capitalism—an economic system that is known for having defined the Western and non-Western countries’ economic and political relations for centuries.  Strictly speaking, liberalism is also more than a Euro-centric political-economy; it is a way of life that the Western world wants to export to as many countries as it can—with or without the consent of a people at the receiving end.


The underlying ideas of liberalism were given formal articulation by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  Locke gave the most “eloquent” articulation of liberalism in his Second Treaties on Civil Government, published in 1690 but written earlier.  For Locke, the individual is at the center of an economic and political universe.  He is free, equal, and self-governing.  He has the right to his body and to his life.  And these rights to his body and to his life constitute the most inalienable form of property.[2] 


     Locke’s emphasis on individual rights goes even further asserting that property rights of the individual predate the state and that they’re absolutely immune from state interference.  In other words, according to Locke, any legitimate government is limited by individual rights of those it has been created to serve.  An important consequence of this very bold argument is that rights are always individual rights, and that the community, or society as a whole, has no rights what so ever.  Apart from the individual that comprise it, according to Locke, the community is simply an abstracted personification with no life, moral and political standing.[3]  This is the ideological underpin of liberalism that almost all Ethiopian political parties except EPRDF adhere to and it is very troubling.


A country that badly needs a collective effort for its political and economic development should not subscribe to impractical and hypothetical worldview of liberalism that demeans and rejects the collective rights of a people.  For Ethiopia—a country of diverse nations and nationalities, this type of unmitigated individualism is a recipe for disaster.  Ethiopia will not arduously work itself to become a democratic middle-income country, built on a society of self-seeking individuals, each pursuing disparate objectives of the mind, lacking a commonly desirable master plan of an Ethiopian purpose.


A society of self-seeking individuals, each pursuing disparate objectives of the mind, lacking a commonly held desirable plan, according to liberals is also the basis for the “undesigned” nature of a capitalist economic system.  For example, the Scottish liberal Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations argued that, the spontaneous actions of innumerable separate individuals each pursuing their personal benefit accreted to astonishingly efficient, prosperous and free forms of human association.[4] 

Smith’s aforementioned assertion is beyond paradoxical.  How is it possible for a selfish private vice of separate individuals transcend into a public virtue of kindly free forms of human association?  Had Smith’s assertions were true about the spontaneous actions of separate individuals, would America have 400 of its citizens spontaneously controlling 1.8 trillion dollars of its wealth?  Or, would America have six of its major banks spontaneously controlling 60% of its GNP?  These are the few from the many problems that liberalism continues to create unabated in our interconnected world.[5]


Indeed; liberalism comes with many daunting problems and it has been revised to a degree so that the problems that it keeps creating are ameliorated now and then through major policy implementations.  Wounded by the Great Depression, Keynesian economics and the New Deal, classical liberalism may not recover from its wounds, but it has surely given ways to variety of revisionist liberalism—welfare liberalism, utilitarianism and etc.  Nevertheless, revisionist liberalism does not stand to discredit property rights and individualism that classical liberalism argues for with passion, since individualism and property rights are principles that unify liberals of all varieties.   It is therefore up to the revolutionary democrats including this writer, to eloquently refute a liberal worldview that overemphasizes the rights of an individual and demeans the collective rights of a people, especially as it relates to property and ownership rights, for example of land.


The Ethiopian revolutionary democrats principled argument about land goes pretty much as follows: By virtue of being naturally immune from becoming a social product that one invests or works to create, land in Ethiopia is in its own singular class of an absolute social property. Land is also a natural given to all those who happen to reside on it, and from which the complete necessities of what life demands can be produced to benefit the great many of them. Succinctly put, Ethiopia’s land is not a social product and cannot be claimed as an absolute property by any individual anywhere anytime. In fact, even a given social product with a clear rightful owner cannot for that matter be claimed as an absolute property, by who ever happens to invest and work on it, and here is the reason why, revolutionary democrats argue.[6]


Consider a hermit inventor working alone in his garage without any assistance, on a project to invent a highly sophisticated braking system for a fast car. Can you imagine this inventor to be unaware of the vast quantity of social knowledge on a brake-system for fast cars? Of course not; this said hermit inventor would have no clue about creating a new braking system, had it not for all the accumulated social knowledge that he had received in the first place. Even what this hermit inventor discovers is, therefore, not a private creation. It is, in a fundamental sense a social product, and any absolute claim of ownership on the new braking system by the hermit inventor is thus groundless, making the idea of self-seeking, self-contained, atomized and hermit individuals creating property out of themselves, unconnected and unindebted to the greater society, quite absurd.[7]


As it has been the case for almost two decades, the creation of property and the kind of ownership right that should be ascribed to it is one of the issues that starkly differentiate the revolutionary democrats of Ethiopia from their liberal counterparts.  The EPRDF led government has been leasing land in manners that incorporates its agro-led economic development plan and the plan is working marvelously.  Ethiopia has registered double digit development figures year after year and it is now the fifth fastest growing economy in the entire world.[8]  This very fact should refute the liberal claim about how selling Ethiopia’s land creates incentive for business and leasing it curtails economic growth.  Leasing it for suitable years instead of buying land has not curtailed the interest of a prospective investor in Ethiopia and the evidence attests to this fact.  Billion dollars worth of investment is taking hold on leased land in Ethiopia and it is the uncontested fact.


Ethiopian liberals who advocate for scrapping the present land policy consider land much like any other property that an individual is entitled to own in absolute terms.  Their rationale mimics the rationale of John Locke and Adam Smith—the two renowned classical European liberals.  The Ethiopian liberals have merely adopted Locke’s and Smith’s argument on property, ownership and the role that an exaggerated individual has on creating wealth and prosperity.  In so doing, much like John Locke and Adam Smith, the Ethiopian liberals see the temple of political and economic development in the ideological spirit of the exaggerated individual.  And for this reason they stand to demean, reject, or second-guess the collective rights of a community, society, nations, nationalities or the Ethiopian people at large.


The contrast between Ethiopian liberals and the revolutionary democrats on how to develop Ethiopia into a middle income democratic country is substantive.   Nonetheless, the alternative worldview being expressed by revolutionary democrats is not at all against most of the tenets that liberal democracy and its market system have to offer.  Revolutionary democrats believe in the free association of individuals, and the coming to life of more than 90 disparate Ethiopian political parties attests to this fact that it is so.  They believe in free but reasonably restrained, revolutionized and modern efficient market system, and the advent of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange proves that it the case.  Most importantly, revolutionary democrats believe in democracy—“government of the people, by the people, for the people,” convinced in the ability of nations and nationalities of Ethiopia to self-govern themselves as they see it fit.  In fact, it is the revolutionary democrats that have given in practice the real, true and essential meaning of what democracy is. 


Democracy is the ultimate means to empower people more than it is the means to empower the individual to reign supreme over the collective shoulders of a people.  The rights of an individual should not at all tramp the collective rights of a people.  And for this reason, the revolutionary democrat’s worldview of Ethiopia incorporates only those tenets suitable to Ethiopia’s economic, political and social realities, with the focus to strengthen the collective democratic and economic rights of the Ethiopian people.  This is just a simple proposition as far as revolutionary democrats are concerned.  Ethiopia is a country of many nations and nationalities, and by virtue of this very fact, the rights of nations and nationalities should reign supreme in contrast to any unreasonable, superfluous and exaggerated individual rights.  Seen from this angle, democratization under Ethiopian context is therefore the summation of a political and an economic act to empower the nations and nationalities of Ethiopia, and it’s less of an act to bring God or Goddess out of a self-seeking Ethiopian soul. 


Revolutionary democracy rejects the philosophy of aggrandizing the individual as if he or she, by uncoordinated design, is the source of economic and political development.  Political and economic development is the result of a planned collective effort, not the result of a spontaneous interaction of self-seeking individuals.  For all these aforementioned reasons then, revolutionary democrats are cognizant of the fact that the arduous work to build a middle income democratic Ethiopia will be nearly impossible; one, if and when it is based on a liberal worldview that favors the unfair and controlling economic and political interest of the Western world; and two, if and when it is based on economic and political philosophy that exaggerates the inalienable rights of a self-seeking individual.





Today, the heightened need for serious public discourse on how to bring about sustainable development is being underscored by the predicament of millions of our people. It will not be easy for us not to be emotional when we see the numbing condition of our own people on TV; it may not be easy for us to calmly and collectively hear each others’ voice while our ears are readily listening to a disheartening tale of our own country.  It’s even harder for us to ponder back and relive our past history and remember the degree to which poverty, hunger and disease had bedeviled our people. Understandably so; it is so hard.

For a moment though, we have to swallow our anger and frustration so that a civil and fact-based discourse should take place setting aside our emotions. We have to stop agonizing over our wounded spirit and ask ourselves if our disheartened feeling is desirable to begin with. Our national pride should not be malleable; if it is, it might have not been as adamantine and as solid an Ethiopian national pride that many millions of us have deep at heart. 

We have to see poverty, hunger and disease for what they are with zeal and enthusiasm to defeat each of these bedeviling trios of humanity. No shame, wounded spirit and agony will help us take this fight to success. For a good fight, we should begin with the understanding that poverty, hunger and disease are the trios of our heightened national security concerns. However, any discourse should not in any way be inclined to overdramatize and stretch


Billions of people in the world are under siege by poverty and the appalling statistics bespeak unambiguously. The combined wealth of the world’s three richest individuals is greater than the total GNP of the 48 poorest countries. In other words, a quarter of all the world’s states have fewer riches than the three wealthiest persons in the entire world. The trend of wealth accumulation into few hands continues unabated and, not surprisingly, it is being accompanied by the increasing number of poverty stricken people. In what is an utter irony, the number of people without enough food, shelter and work is constantly growing while goods are more abundant than ever before. This unholy economic trend continues to define our interconnected world and the prospect of poverty, hunger and disease claiming ever increasing causalities will stay highly likely.

In general, our world taken as a whole is not at all poverty stricken; yet the trend is such that, it seems we have a seemingly resourceless planet devoid of life sustaining means. But facts reveal that basic needs of the worlds needy could have been meet had the world been a place for symmetric international economic system. According to UN, the basic needs for food, drinking water, education and medical care for the needy, can be paid for by a levy of less than 4 % on the accumulated wealth of the 225 largest fortunes. 

[1]  Francis Fukiyama, “The End of History?” The Public Interest, Summer 1989 and responses in Winter 1989 issue.  Also see his The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

[2]  See Peter Laslett, ed., Two Treaties of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960).

[3]  Margaret Thatcher of England is known for arguing tirelessly on behalf of this argument, the Republican Party’s reaction to Hillary Clinton “It takes a village to raise a child” was also based on denigrating the role of a community in raising a child.

[4]  Wealth of Nations, ed. Bruce Mazlish (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, Library of Liberal Arts, 1961) Book 4.

[5] See Who Rules America: Wealth, Income, and Power by G. Williams Domhoff, UCSB. For quick reference check out and play with numbers to see how frightening the divide in income has become.  See also Megabanks: The Banking Oligarchy That Controls Assets Equivalent To 60% Of America’s GDP by PrizonPlanet.

[6] For detailed explanation, see Ethiopia’s Land is not a Saleable Social Product, by Adal Isaw February 20, 2008, check archives of Aiga Forum or Ethio Hebre Zema

[7] For detailed explanation, see Ethiopia’s Land is not a Saleable Social Product by Adal Isaw February 20, 2008, check archives of Aiga Forum or Ethio Hebre Zema.


[8] See the new global economic forecast released by The Economist magazine for the year 2010.