[PEN-L:14963] Ethiopian history and politics, part one: From the Solomonic dynasties to the Battle of Adwa

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Dec 26 13:50:48 MST 1999

By way of introducing these series of posts on Ethiopia, I must state at
the outset that they are offered not as definitive versions of what took
place historically, but more in the spirit of an open notebook. When there
are errors in fact or in interpretation, I humbly invite the Ethiopian
comrades of the Marxism list to point them out.

There are many reasons why it is important to deepen our understanding of
Ethiopian history and politics. To start off with, since it is of vital
importance for Marxism to be truly internationalist, I would hope that
comrades from advanced industrialized countries on the list make a
continuing effort to learn about countries like Ethiopia, because effective
solidarity can only be built on the basis of solid understanding.

While Ethiopia might not have the advanced technology or industrial prowess
of the United States or Great Britain, it *does* have a strategic role in
geopolitical terms. Its geographical location on the Horn of Africa has
forced it willy-nilly to be part of the world-system's periodic great
struggles, from Christianity versus Islam, to capitalism versus communism.
I would argue that in light of this, it is absolutely incumbent upon us to
understand conflicts in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia in these terms, since
they have drawn together religious and geopolitical conflicts in the guise
of apparently "senseless" civil wars.

Another important reason to study Ethiopia is that it was the site of a
powerful revolution in 1975 that was hijacked by the Derg. Just as American
Trotskyists have intense feelings about how their hopes were dashed by a
bureaucratic monster, so might Ethiopian Marxists. It is a credit to these
comrades that they have not given up hope on socialism. I suppose one of
the reasons that battle-scarred victims of American Trotskyism and the
Ethiopian revolution have not given up hope in socialism is that the
alternative seems so wretched. In an earlier generation, it was much easier
to believe in the superiority of democratic capitalism, as 1950s prosperity
led the NY intellectuals to take jobs with the State Department. Nowadays,
it is only jackals like David Horowitz or Eugene Genovese who try to
promote similar myths.

As was also pointed out in a Foreign Affairs article that I posted to the
list, Ethiopia today is in an alliance with other African states to try to
carve out a new economic and political reality after decades of wasteful
civil war and economic decline. Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Uganda's
Museveni are two of the main architects of this new policy and it would be
important to understand the political realities that inform their
decisions, including the historical past.

Finally, Ethiopia's history which culminates in the 1975 revolution poses
some very critical issues in Marxist theory, which revolve around the role
of feudalism. Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world that had
something resembling an authentic feudal system at the time of what
appeared to be an embryonic socialist revolution. Although Trotsky wrote
about combined and uneven development in the context of the theory of the
permanent revolution, he was writing more about a situation in which feudal
and capitalist property relations stood side-by-side. Ethiopia is somewhat
different. It attempted to move directly from feudalism to socialism and
the question of whether this led to its miseries under the Derg must be


Ethiopia has the distinction of being the only great African nation that
was organized around Christianity, although of a highly distinct character.
It must be understood that the world's great religions have emerged out of
commercial and financial exigencies. Just as Protestantism was catapulted
into existence through the power of peasant rebellions in Great Britain and
Germany, at an earlier time divisions between Islam and Christianity had
more to do with trade routes and commercial opportunity rather than

Furthermore, the religious component of the modern day Ethiopian state
shares with Israel mythological foundations in the Old Testament, as
distinct to the New Testament foundations of both Protestant and Catholic
states. The modern day Ethiopian state began to emerge in the 15th century
under the rubric of the Solomonic dynasties. Its foundational myths have
much more charm for me than the territorial aggrandizing myths of the
Zionist state, since they are based on Eros rather than war.

In the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon in order to
soak up some of his wisdom:

"When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation
to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. Arriving
at Jerusalem with a very great caravan--with camels carrying spices, large
quantities of gold, and precious stones--she came to Solomon and talked
with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her
questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her." (I Kings)

In the Ethiopian version, Solomon seduces her and she becomes impregnated
with Menelik I, the legendary founder of the Ethiopian state. Since the
Ethiopians become so enamored with Jewish wisdom in the presence of
Solomon, they decide to steal the Ark of the Covenant to bring it back with
them. Jehovah tells the Ethiopians that the larceny was okay with him. So
it's okay with me as well. In the PBS documentary on Africa, the boorish
Skip Gates keeps pressing modern day Ethiopians to show him their holy
relics like a tv talk show host asking guests to show the audience their

The most interesting thing about all these legends is that they reflect the
importance of Ethiopia in North African trade going back through the
millennia. If the Queen of Sheba actually traveled to Solomon's Kingdom, it
was probably to barter goods rather than sop up wisdom. From the biblical
era to the time of the emergence of the Solomonic dynasties in the 15th
century, Europe enjoyed no particular advantage over the rest of the world
and was merely one of a series of regional commercial centers that
interacted with other commercial centers through well-established trade
routes. It was only 1492 and the subsequent looting of the New World that
allowed Europe to leapfrog over every other regional center and
consequently destroy their economic viability as well.

During the heyday of the Solomonic dynasties, Ethiopia's economy was
connected to the regional network organized around the Red Sea and the Nile
valley. Within Ethiopia, slaves and gold were exchanged for coffee. The
market for Ethiopian beans grew considerably in the final quarter of the
17th century, as Yemen, a major trading partner, sought increasing amounts
to satisfy the habit in Europe. Ethiopia, like 20th century Colombia, thus
enjoyed a modicum of commercial success as it helped a gloomy Protestant
population with jolts to its central nervous system.

The Ethiopian empire emerged in a fashion quite similar to comparable
empires throughout the world which were also based on feudalism. In every
instance, one band develops superior war-making skills and conquers
less-endowed bands. In the New World, the Aztecs and Incas were the best
known empires while the Mughals and various Chinese dynasties developed in
the same fashion. Economically, these feudal kingdoms or empires were based
on what John Haldon calls the tributary mode of production, more about
which presently.

In the case of Ethiopia, the Amharic-speaking and Christian peoples of the
northern highlands became the dominant band or nationality. Like the Aztecs
and Incas, they were constantly battling to bring unruly subject peoples
under control--alas, a pattern that did not disappear after the country was
"liberated" by the Derg.

One of the better-known imperial subjects, besides the Eritreans, were the
Oromo based in the south, a Cushitic-speaking pastoralist people. Their
pastoral economy led to a loosely structured, egalitarian society led by
officials who were elected by village councils. When competition increased
for grazing land in the south, the Oromos retreated to the eastern plateaus
of Ethiopia where they were constantly beset by the emperor's troops.
During the 17th century, they managed to consolidate territory under their
control and held the central government at bay. According to Ethiopian monk
and historian Bahrey, their success was related to the elan of the socially
homogenous Oromo warriors, who took advantage of weaknesses in the feudal
hierarchies of their enemy, which lacked the internal resolve to mobilize
its resources completely. One must wonder if Ethiopia's difficulties today
in Eritrea and with other "lesser nationalities" is to some degree related
to earlier cultural and social patterns. Isn't it possible that the
revolutions that cleansed Ethiopia of both Haile Selassie and the Derg
retain certain of the feudal structures of the past, including chauvinism
toward lower-rank peoples?

A word must be said about my brethren, the Ethiopian Jews. Although we know
them today as the bedraggled Falashas who were stampeded out of Ethiopia
only to face open discrimination in Israel, there is ample evidence that
some played the role of esteemed "Court Jews" in a manner found in European
feudal kingdoms and principalities. Known as the Beta Israel, they were
concentrated in Gonder, the geographical stronghold of Ethiopia's imperial
dynasties. Since they were by definition outside the Christian power
structure, they were often recruited into the imperial guard and used in
particularly delicate or confidential situations. Both as technicians in
fields regarded as marginal by the Christians (stonecutting, paint making,
interior design) and as soldiers, they became an important component of
Gonderine society.

In Marx's day, it was commonplace to view feudalism as a particularly
European phenomenon. Since Marx was a product of his age, it is
understandable that he would express some of its limitations as well as
simultaneously transcending them. One of the key weaknesses in his approach
to non-European economic development was his reliance on the theory of the
Asiatic mode of production, which viewed non-European societies as
fundamentally lacking in the internal structures that would make capitalism
an eventual possibility.

The theory associated Oriental despotism in river-valley civilizations from
Egypt to China. Since artificial irrigation is a necessity in such
societies, it generated the need for vast state apparatuses that owned the
land and created workforces to build and maintain them. To his credit, Marx
only put forward such a theory on a tentative basis, while Engels openly
rejected it finally. It is based on the false notion that Asia and Africa
are arid. This, of course, begs the question whether environment in itself
can be a satisfactory explanation for the evolution of social and economic

Samir Amin was the first Marxist thinker to systematically critique the
Asiatic Mode of Production theory and put forward the alternative of a
"tributary" mode. Feudalism, in Amin's view, is seen as one variant on this
mode. John Haldon, in "The State and the Tributary Mode of Production",
suggests that the most logical definition of this mode is one that centers
on the extraction of surpluses from the direct producers either in the form
of tax or rent through "extra-economic" means. In other words, the state
itself is the appropriator. Haldon cites this passage from Vol. 3 of
Capital in order to establish the Marxist credentials of such an approach:

"It is furthermore evident that in all forms in which the direct laborer
remains the 'possessor' of the means of production and labor conditions
necessary for the production of his own means of subsistence, the property
relationship must simultaneously appear as a direct relationship of
lordship and servitude, so that the direct producer is not free; a lack of
freedom which may be reduced from serfdom with enforced labor TO A MERE
TRIBUTARY RELATIONSHIP." (Haldon's emphasis)

This certainly epitomizes the Ethiopian economy from the time of the advent
of the Solomonic dynasties to the modern era. Describing about the general
situation in 19th century Ethiopia, Harold Marcus writes:

"In the countryside, most individuals could claim but not own land, and
one's holdings depended on personal position, age, influence, soil
fertility, competing claims, and the political situation. If the guild
(fief) holder could contrive a genealogy adequate to acquire land on the
basis of descent, then some might lose part of their best plots. Moreover,
fief holders themselves had no security of office in the face of the
ever-changing politics of province and palace. Neither peasant nor
patrician was willing, therefore, to invest in or otherwise improve the
land. Indeed, during the age of princes, Ethiopian feudal lords were
unlikely to spark innovation, commission art and architecture, or build
with an eye to posterity."

It would be a mistake to think that this state of affairs could go on
forever. Every country that remained feudal by the 19th century found that
outside capitalist forces would create internal contradictions that would
shake these regimes. In a nutshell, facing increased hostility and
territorial ambitions from Europe, Ethiopia was forced to create a modern
army and transportation system to help deploy it. The costs associated with
such "improvements" could only come from increased "tribute" from the
serfs. So the Ethiopian peasantry was caught in a vise between imperialism
and the needs of its own possessing classes, which were inimical to
capitalism. As imperialism sought a foothold, the emperor mobilized the
people and the national treasure to withstand it.

In rare contradistinction to the rest of Africa, Ethiopia withstood
colonization. At the battle of Adwa in 1895, the emperor Menelik handed
Italy a major defeat. The colonists were victims of their own racist
mythology, who could not believe that the "savage" Africans were
battle-worthy. The defeat of the white man created a situation of
"cognitive dissonance" that could only be assuaged by convincing himself
that the Ethiopians were not really black! They wrote that the Ethiopians
were really Caucasians whose skin was darkened by exposure to the
equatorial sun. Marcus writes, "Whereas previously Ethiopians shared sloth,
ignorance, and degradation with their African brothers, they suddenly
became energetic, enlightened and progressive. The Orthodox church, often
reviled by visiting white clerics as debased and corrupt, now was seen as a
proper vehicle of the Holy Spirit and the true keeper of Ethiopia's
national spirit."

Unfortunately, Menelik's victory was only pyrrhic, since it effectively
sealed Ethiopia's status as a feudal society in a century where such a
status could neither deliver economic stability, even one defined in terms
of bondage, nor resist the continuing encroachments of the world capitalist
system. Haile Selassie's misbegotten while heroic efforts to contend with
these forces will be the subject of my next post.

Harold G. Marcus, "A History of Ethiopia", U. of Cal, 1986
John Haldon, "The State and the Tributary Mode of Production," Verso, 1993

A crumbling castle in Gonder, homeland of the Solomonic dynasties:

Emperor Menelik, victor over the Italian colonizers

Louis Proyect
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