The Quest for Socialist Utopia

​Bahru Zewde's "The Quest for Socialist Utopia: The Ethiopian Student Movement c. 1960-1974" (2014) is brilliant. It is detailed, and may be of interest to a narrow audience as a result. However, this exploration of the student movement – leading up to the overthrow of the Imperial Regime in 1974 – is extremely well done, and is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the historical roots of contemporary issues in Ethiopia.

Bahru admirably accomplished his task of "present a more comprehensive and analytical narrative, placing the movement within first its global and then its national contexts. Taking into account both the external and internal components of the Ethiopian student movement" (p. 9). While, at the same time, the book does not set out to defend or vilify any specific group or person. Rather, Bahru argues, "the student movement, the Ethiopian included, has to be viewed not as a philosophical issue but as a historical phenomenon. As such, it has to be understood within the context of its time, not judged from the vantage point of the present" (p. 9.

What was the movement all about? Ending oppression: "There is general consensus that the driving force behind the Ethiopian student movement was rejection of oppression in all its forms. The protests and demonstrations that started to peak after 1965 were directed against one manifestation or another of that oppression. The 'Land to the Tiller' demonstration of 1965 had its objective economic and social equity in the exploitation of the country's most important social and economic asset – land. In 1966, students rose in defence of the poor who were herded in shelters that were considered sub-human. The 1967 demonstration was in protests against the curtailment of the freedom of expression and assembly. The nation-wide protests of 1969, under the slogan of 'Education for All' drew attention to the increasing constraints placed on the poor sectors of society in educating their children" (p. 187).

It was, given the circumstances, a highly influential and effective movement. "For about a decade and a half in the middle of the past century, Ethiopian students made a decisive and fateful intervention in the national affairs of their country", writes Bahru (p. 263). But, the author also wonders how ended up where it did: "there is general consensus that the seventeen-year tenure of the Darg was one of almost unmitigated gloom. The only redeeming feature of that tenure was the land reform proclamation of 1975, which could be said to have been a resounding response both to the passionate calls of the reforming intellectuals of the early twentieth century to alleviate the lot of the tribute-paying peasant (the gabbar) and the slogan of the 'Land to the Tiller' articulated by the students in 1965 (p. 263-264). The author does not only recount the events, but reflects upon them and their significance. For example, he suggests that the radical Marxist ideals with militant adherents were not new in form, but rather a "transmutation of the religious orthodoxy of the classical tradition" and the "Marxist-Leninist writings provided a ready-made justification for such militant opposition" (p. 138). On the future, this eminent Ethiopian scholar, writes: "The country has to come to grips with and move beyond this legacy if it is to have any hope of redemption. At the same time, however, we have to understand that the students did what they did in all genuineness and sincerity. They had not hidden agenda. They were driven by what has driven youth everywhere and throughout the ages – the quest for social justice and equitable development" (p. 280).

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