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Remembering the Martyred Revolution

The Revolutionary Left in Ethiopia

Ian Scott Horst
Like Ho Chi Minh! Like Che Guevara! The Revolutionary Left in Ethiopia, 1969-1979
Foreign Language Press, Paris, 2020. 502 pp., $10.00

In both the popular imagination and the memory of the left, the 1960s are remembered as a time of revolution. The Vietnam War showed that imperialism was not invincible and could be defeated on the battlefield. Che Guevara inspired millions by putting his principles into practice. From Paris to Berkeley to Tokyo, protesters marched in the streets to fight injustice and demand a new world. However, as the Brooklyn-based revolutionary activist Ian Scott Horst reminds us in his new work, Like Ho Chi Minh! Like Che Guevara! it was only in Ethiopia that these desires led to an actual revolution: “In a very real way, the Ethiopian revolution was the only actual revolution produced by the wave of youth radicalization that swept Europe and North America in the 1960s. For all the red banners temporarily raised in Paris or Chicago, it was in Addis Ababa that they actually took root.” (15) It is precisely the goal of this well-researched and accessible work to tell the Ethiopian Revolution’s heroic, tragic, and largely unknown story.

The Counter-Narrative

The standard narrative of the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974 and the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie is that it was a spontaneous event. After a committee of junior military officers, popularly known as the Derg came to power and carried out a “revolution from above” until their overthrow in 1991. Considering the repression and famine that accompanied the Derg’s rule, the Ethiopian Revolution is largely recalled as a cautionary tale on the evils of communism. However, this is not exactly what occurred: “The true story is of a mass movement, fueled by dedicated cadres of avowed revolutionaries, whose work was hijacked and ultimately beheaded by the military. It’s not a demonstration of the failure of socialism, but of those who misuse the liberatory ideals of socialism in the service of something else.” (11-12) It is that counter-narrative that this book seeks to tell.

By the early 1960s, revolutionaries started organizing. The movement got its start on Ethiopian campuses and abroad amidst the backdrop of international student activism and revolutionary ferment of the era. Indeed, one of the anthems of the movement was Fano Tesemara that contained the lyrics “Like Ho Chi Minh, Like Che Guevara, Oh guerrilla, rise to arms. Oh guerrilla, rise to arms.” (19) Student papers were filled with debates on Marxism-Leninism, the national question, democracy, and the role of women. It is one of the great strengths of this work, that Horst lets the participants speak for themselves: “If people are the motive force in world history, let us retell the story from the point of view of those people who dared to attempt revolution under extraordinary circumstances of sacrifice and solidarity.” (2)

The students’ commitment was not mere posturing. There were martyrs such as Tilahun Gizaw, who assassinated by the government in 1969. The ensuing crackdown led to exile, murder, and imprisonment of activists. The revolutionaries understood that this represented an escalation of the struggle and that a crisis was brewing for the ancien régime. If they were to prevail, then students needed to prepare for the inevitable confrontation by transforming themselves into revolutionary cadre.

Out of this milieu, two organizations would coalesce. Although existing in other guises earlier, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party or EPRP was founded in 1975. The EPRP was Maoist-oriented, numbering thousands of members with a periphery of tens of thousands with a base in the labor and student movements. This made the EPRP one of the biggest communist parties in Africa. The other group was the All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement or Meison, who had similar perspective, but they eventually allied with the Derg.

Eventually, the revolution erupted in February 1974 as mass mobilizations of workers, soldiers and students took to the streets. Horst describes the atmosphere of the revolution as follows:

“In the modern world, mass movements come and go. Upsurge disrupt and yet dissipate. Civil unrest returns to civil complacency. Tyrants quake, yet stare down their opponents and survive. But sometimes, the perfect storm of conjuncture arrives, and everything changes. The impossible becomes probable, the unexpected becomes real life, and foundations once thought to be made of stone collapse like wet cardboard; timeworn institutions implode, and the people arise, as though shaking off slumber. A few well-aimed blows, and a centuries-old colossus is no more.” (115-116)

In the fog of revolution, the Derg seized power in Ethiopia. In September 1974, the Derg removed the Emperor from power and proclaimed Ethiopia to be a “Socialist Republic” modelled on the Soviet Bloc. In the following years, the Derg abolished feudal land ownership and spread literacy, but they did not institute either democracy or socialism in Ethiopia: “In truth there was no revolution from above. Despite all the hammers and sickles and Lenin portraits it could muster, the Derg was administering a state of bureaucratic capitalism while riding a crest of popular upheaval. The central task of revolution remained: the popular seizure of power and the creation of revolutionary democracy. The Derg was an obstacle in that task.” (238)

Armed Struggle

Dominating the movement was the question of armed struggle. In chapter four, Horst goes into the debates surrounding armed struggle and their relation to wider revolutionary strategy. One of the highlights of this chapter is the non-dogmatic discussion of the merits of the different strategies proposed by Che Guevara and Mao Zedong.

While Guevara was hailed as an icon by the student revolutionaries, his focoist strategy was premised on being “deliberately isolated from local communities and their struggles, that would create a state of disorder that might be exploited in order to collapse the existing order. Unfortunately… such small flashpoints were easily extinguished militarily, and the theory’s explicit disengagement from mass struggles was at worst a recipe for defeat and at best a prescription for ideological elitism.” (108) To the EPRP, focoism appeared as a dead end strategy that didn’t involve the people themselves in the armed struggle.

The EPRP saw Maoist people’s war as offering a different example where the “revolution’s social transformation could only be the work of the awakened masses of people themselves and not directed by proclamation or force of arms.” (159) The goal would not be the creation of flashpoints but creating a political base to contend for power. This certainly gave the EPRP a clear strategy and vision, but they were woefully unprepared for the scale of repression that was coming.

“Red Terror”

In February 1977, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam staged a coup d’état inside the Derg, eliminating his rivals. However, Mengistu’s power was not secure since the revolutionary left remained active and growing. During the intervening years, the EPRP organized revolutionary trade unions and built a mass base inside the working class. The EPRP’s bottom-up socialism of mass participation made them natural enemies of the Derg.

Shortly after the coup, Mengistu with support from Meison unleashed the misnamed “Red Terror” against the EPRP and the civilian left. Horst’s work is filled with many accounts of the torture, imprisonment, and murder that EPRP militants endured at the hands of the military. It is not easy reading. The terror consumed tens of thousands with the Derg eventually turning on Meison as well. In the bloodbath, the EPRP’s leadership was decimated and the organization fled into the countryside to survive. Despite the EPRP’s resilience and bravery, their strategy zig-zagged from urban terror to people’s war. In the end, a combination of Derg repression and their own blunders cost the EPRP a great deal of support.

At the same time, Mengistu allied with the Soviet Union and the Derg feted Fidel Castro in Ethiopia. It must have been a cruel irony for the EPRP to see Che Guevara’s comrade-in-arms hailing a military regime that murdered revolutionaries who upheld the example of the Argentine guerrilla. In fact, the EPRP was denied solidarity when they needed it most from either Cuba or China. With notable exceptions, the western left also shamefully justified the socialist bonafides of Mengistu. As Horst notes:

Once the Ethiopian Revolution’s Kornilov had been papered over as its Lenin, it was downhill from there. It really is quite remarkable how poorly so much of the Western world’s left responded to the Ethiopian revolution, attaching themselves to shallow understandings of important developments, tossing around convenient revisionist concepts like ‘socialism from above,’ and thoroughly washing its hands of a generation of comrades. (481)

One of the important lessons of the Ethiopian Revolution for the present is the need for the revolutionary left to understand the true meaning of international solidarity. Leftists should remember that their solidarity lies with the oppressed and exploited in their struggles for a better world, not with jack-booted strongmen whose rhetoric makes a mockery of socialism. The Ethiopian Revolution reminds us of the dangers of identifying socialism with what it is not. If we get the meaning of socialism wrong, then the price can be remarkably high.

Price of Failure

In spite of famine, terror, and economic calamity, the Derg managed to hold onto power until it was unceremoniously overthrown in 1991. Very few in Ethiopia regretted its fall. In contemporary Ethiopia, socialism is now equated with military dictatorship and impoverishment. However, as the history of the Ethiopian Revolution reminds us, that outcome was not preordained. The EPRP understood that the rule of the working class itself was at the center of the socialist vision. Unfortunately, the revolution was highjacked by ambitious and opportunist men who emptied socialism of its emancipatory content.

This review can only scratch the surface of this book. There are many debates that gripped the Ethiopian left crossing its pages such as the relation of national liberation to socialism, the role of imperialism, and the nature of fascism. All the questions discussed in this book make this more than a work of history, but a work informing revolutionary struggles of today. As the example of the EPRP reminds us, courage and dedication are not enough to realize socialism, but a revolutionary strategy is needed.

Like Ho Chi Minh! Like Che Guevara! is a book that deserves a wide audience for its rigorous research and fierce partisanship. It is a worthy tribute to the martyred revolutionaries of Ethiopia.

Foreign Language Press

A final few words on Horst’s publisher, Foreign Language Press, which is Maoist press based in Paris. Despite their small size, FLP’s library contains a mix of older and newer works that are priced manageably and the shipping is equally affordable. While my personal politics are far from Maoism, I think that FLP is a wonderful example of how leftist publishers should operate to spread leftist literature.

Doug Enaa Greene is an independent Marxist historian and writer living in the greater Boston area.

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