Ghebremichael Woldeselassie ghebremichael at
Sun Dec 26 07:24:08 MST 1999

A few points Louis, about the exceptional position of Ethiopia as an
anachronism, an independent entity until the 1930s and an imperial state in
its own right.

The heartland of first the Axumite and then the Amhara states is one of
unique geography - a high deeply dissected plateau at an average elevation
above 2400 metres, rising to 4000, surrounded by a gigantic escarpment,
especially on the side above the Red Sea.  Communications are very different
from elsewhere, as there are no passable river valleys leading to the
plateau, and most of the roads wind up the escarpment then to follow narrow
ridges.  It is defensible by even a small and poorly armed force, as the
Eritreans recently proved in the north when they held out against the Derg
for 15 years with a tenth of the forces and poorly equipped fighters.
Knowledge of the terrain is vital, and any force that is not can easily be
outflanked and surrounded.  That is what happened to the Italians at Adwa -
they were trapped in a basin surrounded by hills, which the lie of the land
led them into after an arduous march to get there - they did not arrive
unannounced, giving time for the feudal lords to unite and muster a large
force.  It is also a land with little surface water in the dry season.

Legends of "King Solomon's mines" for gold long made the area a pretty
prize, but until quite recently the only substantial gold mining was in the
south, remote from the coast (now there has been a gold rush in Tigray and
Eritrea).  However, the area is not one suited to profitable
capital-intensive agriculture that formed a major attraction in some
colonies.  Of course, coffee (from the Kaffi province) originated here and
in the Yemen, but offers few immediate profits.  The staple grain, t'eff, is
a unique species to the plateau, and has no trade outside of the country.
Although it is now becoming clear that our country has mineral wealth - base
metals and iron ore, plus potash and phosphates - it has no fuels suited to
industrialization.  Deforestation is a witness to this because of still
universal use of charcoal as a fuel.  In terms of the 19th century
colonization period, Ethiopia could never have been a jewel in any empire's
crown, and this lack of strategic resources played a primary role in its
isolation and the lack of incentive for capitalization, other than in import
substitution and internal trade.

Impregnability and cultural isolation played a part in shaping an arrogance
among the highland people, particular their rulers.  Increased population
and land degradation forced first a shift southwards in the plateau from
Axum, then Gondar towards modern Addis Ababa, and then into the lowlands of
the south and south-east, where full feudal land relations were imposed -
Lords were created by imperial gift of newly conquered land, the local
people becoming serfs, while a more clan-like system with some communal land
tenure existed in the highlands, particular in the north.

As we wrote earlier, the working class is a new thing - entirely created,
rather than evolving from artisanal craftsmen, as in India for example.
This emerged first in Eritrea after Italian colonization.  A word about
that.  Apart from marble and gold (extracted by primitive methods, that were
laughed at by the military engineers of the British mandate from 1942-52)
Eritrea contributed little to the Italian empire.  It was a settler colony
with a comfortable and lazy living for those Italians who migrated there and
set up small farms.  Such industry as did develop in both Ethiopia and
Eritrea was small scale - no profound socialization of labour from which
strong trade unions might easily emerge, particularly when labour is drawn
from a peasant or serf base.

This history means that both the attraction of finance capital to set up
some kind of Tiger of the Horn hi-tech economy (the dream of both PFDJ and
EPRDF) and ours of socialism are illusory in the limited context of the Horn
region.  The current war is an indication of the former - a sort of
schoolchild economic slight of hand based on manipulation of internal
currencies that soon came to grief with a collapsing and extremely fluid
global capital market.  Building socialism - cutting loose from debt,
markets, surplus labour and capital - depends to the greatest degree on
alliances with advanced working class.  Of course, some intermediate means
of avoiding the looming catastrophe of this war and failed rains, and
economic collapse is needed.  It has to focus, we believe, on communal
relations exchanging use-values, with overtures to advanced workers who
might themselves find it impossible to live except by breaking economically
from capital.  Our fate lies very much with the workers of South Africa and
perhaps Egypt, and ultimately with those of Europe.  We have to start from
the immediate needs of people here, yet try to weld them to those elsewhere.
  There is no chance that capital can form some kind of intermediary that
will make people's lives easier to bear.  Ethiopia, in common with the
majority of Sub-Saharan Africa is abandoned by capital to its fate - swept
under the carpet except for some strategic significance.  That is why you
hear nothing of our nearly half-million permanent refugees, the slaughter of
the war, as you heard nothing, except in 1984-5, of the misery of the people
under the Derg.

We thank you Comrade Louis for taking an interest in Ethiopia's long
history, but remind you that it was one of arrested development for 3
millennia.  Even now the methods of agriculture are pre-Roman - not even
steel ploughshares or any significant irrigation - and energy based on
charcoal and tallow lamps for the majority.  It is the past, and while it
can help understand something of the present it holds no road to the future.
  Likewise the history of most of Africa.  The future does demand the
highest conquests of science applied to our situation - capital cannot bring
that, but the workers and engineers from your 'First and Second World' can.
We have nothing in the meantime to offer by way of exchange-value, unless
you like hot pepper and incense, from the Eritreans a little salt and
prickly pears!  As for our gold, then as Lenin said, it would be a fitting
memorial to both capital and the slaughtered of war to build public
lavatories from it!  It is warm to the bottom and easily cleaned.  Oh, there
is one other thing; just a slogan from our Eritrean comrades -  "Never Kneel


>From: Louis Proyect <lnp3 at>
>Reply-To: marxism at
>To: marxism at
>Subject: Re: Nation
>Date: Sat, 25 Dec 1999 13:37:53 -0500
> >A century later, Africa, lacking strong governments, was also partitioned
> >without war among the states of Europe.  Furthermore, the partition of
> >Poland profoundly altered the balance of power in Europe.  Western
> >European powers, such as France and England began championing the cause
>Polish resistance
> >and nationalism for geopolitical reasons.
>With one notable exception: Ethiopia. The Italians were attempting to
>colonize Ethiopia in a manner similar to the French, Belgians, Germans and
>British had accomplished. Since racism prevented them from understanding
>not only how skilled the Ethiopian soldiers were, they were mauled at the
>Battle of Adwa in 1895 when Emperor Menelik destroyed the Italian
>expeditionary forces. This victory left Ethopia in a fairly unique position
>among third world nations. Only Ethiopia, Japan, Afghanistan, Persia, and
>Thailand enjoyed anomalous statuses as independent nations in the
>imperialist world order.
>Ethiopia's victory had profound effects on Italy and was one of the main
>factors leading to a fascist movement, which sought vindication against an
>underachieving would-be imperialist state. "Who lost Ethiopia" became a
>slogan for the Italian ultraright as much as "Who lost China" became a
>slogan for McCarthyism. (Speaking of this, John Paton Davies, one of the
>major China experts in the State Department who was redbaited out of office
>by McCarthy, died the other day.)
>This leads me to another open question about Ethiopian politics. Is it
>possible that the victory over Italian colonialism effectively blocked the
>introduction of capitalist property relations? Since the Ethiopian ruling
>class showed no interest in moving toward indigenous capitalism, as would
>take place in Japan during the Meiji restoration, wouldn't the persistence
>of feudal property relations well into the mid-20th century give the final
>revolutionary upsurge against the 'ancien regime' a distinct character? In
>the general absence of wage labor, how feasible is the construction of
>Louis Proyect
>Marxism mailing list:

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