Date: Sun, 26 Dec 1999 22:58:48 -0600 (CST)
Subject: Ethiopian history and politics, part one: From the Solomonic dynasties to the Battle of Adwa
Organization: Columbia University
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
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 addressed.
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 soul-searching.
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 tattoos.
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
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 systems.
Samir Amin was the first Marxist thinker to systematically critique
the Asiatic Mode of Production theory and put forward the alternative
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
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.
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
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
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
Africans were battle-worthy. The defeat of the white man created a
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,
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
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
The State and the Tributary Mode of Production, Verso,
A crumbling castle in Gonder, homeland of the Solomonic dynasties: http://www.marxmail.org/gonder_castle.jpg
Emperor Menelik, victor over the Italian colonizers http://www.marxmail.org/melelik.jpg