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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A History Not Told: American Slavery & Capitalism

What is the half of the story we've not been told about slavery? Baptist explains that "America's first generation of professional historians were justifying the exclusions of Jim Crow and disenfranchisement by telling a story about the nation's past of slavery and civil war that seemed to confirm, for many white Americans, that white supremacy was just and necessary. Above all, the historians of a reunified white nation insisted that slavery was a premodern institution that was not committed to profit-seeking" (p. xviii). Historians "of Woodrow Wilson's generation imprinted the stamp of academic research on the idea that slavery was separate from the great economic and social transformations" (p. xix). The half not told, is how integral slavery was the rise of American power, and how it was driven by capitalism. However, the "idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth." (p. xxiii-xxiv). The "the expansion of slavery in both geography and intensity was what made American capitalism" (p. 421).

This is the argument made by Edward E. Baptist in "The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism" (2014). The book is just well researched and extremely well written. The author uses narrative to bring to life statistics and uses the art of storytelling to convey this history in meaningful and powerful ways. A book this well researched, and this length (522 pages), is impossible to justly summarize in a short post. I am hopeful this peak into the book will inspire readers to pick it up. A highly recommended read.

Baptist draws on a wealth of historical records in telling the story of how slavery and financial capitalism became the "driving force in an emerging national economic system that benefited elites and other up and down the Atlantic coast as well as throughout the backcountry" (p. 33). It is a story about how an economic system push for the expansion of slavery, and how a much broader population benefited from that – be they financiers far distanced from plantations or those engaged in the international trade of cotton. It is a story that challenges us to think about how injustice is not just by the one with the whip, but those who enable that system, benefit from it, and support its continuation. It also connects acts of oppression to the driving force of capitalist expansion – as indigenous peoples' lands were confiscated by the government, , including those for which they held title, "in order to launch expanded cotton-and-slavery-induced booms" (p. 227). Investors and bankers played an enabling role from afar; "People who have money want to lend it if they can make still more money doing so, especially if they can feel certain about repayment. Lending to the South's cotton economy was an investment not just in the world's most widely traded commodity, but also in a set of producers who had shown a consistent ability to increase their productivity and revenue" (p. 245). He writes:

  • "For seventy years, southern and northern economic and political elites – and many average white citizens – had cooperated to extract profit and power from the forced movement and exploitation of enslaved people's bodies and minds. Always, the proslavery forces had made the rest of the United States choose between profitable expansion of the slave country or economic slowdown. Between slavery and disunion. Between supporting a party turned into a colonized host for viral proslavery dogma, or defeat in national elections. Between bills for expanding slavery into Kansas, or passing up the opportunity to build a transcontinental railroad" (p. 385).

As a story about slavery, this book is also about the brutalities – how torture was used as a factor of production. "For many southwestern whites, shipping was a gateway form of violence that led to bizarrely creative levels of sadism. In the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you can find at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture: carpenters' tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in 'stress positions,' burning, even waterboarding. And descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds." (p. 141). Even in moments of hope, such as the emergence of anti-slavery actions, the reality was less than hopeful. Baptist shows that freeing slaves and advocating for the abolishment of slavery was not "because of a belief in black equality" but to strengthen the political might of northern elites in response to the political bullying of southern politicians.

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Visiting Fellowships 2017/18 Shanghai University

The Center for the History of Global Development, Shanghai University, invites applications for fellowships for visiting scholars working on projects related to the history of policies, concepts, practices or debates related to socio-economic development on local, national, regional or global levels. The Center for the History of Global Development is a new research focus established at the College of Liberal Arts at Shanghai University. Through conferences, workshops, publications and discussion panels, the Center seeks to contribute to interdisciplinary scholarly debates on the repercussions of "development" as a phenomenon which has shaped much of recent global history while remaining conceptually vague or contradictory.

"Development," in its most basic form, is understood as the idea that socio-economic conditions would and should improve and that specific policies should be employed to bring about such improvements. Beyond this core, development has been a highly contested concept, whose constructed character has repeatedly been emphasized. Critics point to international structures created in the name of development which have often reflected power inequalities and have served the interests of those that put them in place while doing little to improve living conditions of those at whom they were allegedly addressed. Other scholars identify perceived successes of development, measured in social indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality, gender equality or literacy, which contradict a simplistic notion of continued failure. Different evaluations of the outcome of development tie into different interpretations of what exactly the concept does – or should – mean. Over time, Western modernization theories have been complemented by alternative concepts such as the basic needs approach, Amartya Sen's view of "development as freedom" or Herman Daly's insistence on "development" as a strictly qualitative notion, to be distinguished from economic growth. In addition, the idea of "sustainable development", and, more recently, Southern concepts such as "Buen Vivir" or "Ubuntu," have also gained traction, each with its own package of contested meanings.

Despite this lack of precision, "development" continues to be widely used, including in categories such as "developed" or "least developed" countries, and for many people, particularly in low-income countries, "development" remains a powerful and seemingly self-evident goal. Apparently, the idea of some form of socio-economic improvement as a goal of public or private actions has resonated with societies in many parts of the world, though not necessarily with identical meanings. Meanwhile, definitions of what constituted "successes" or "failures" are similarly far from clear, and perspectives vary along with changing attitudes in public and in academia as well as with evolving evidence regarding the long-term repercussions of various forms of development.

The Center of the History of Global Development welcome applications from researchers who are taking innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to any aspects of this topic, ideally looking at ways in which the histories of different times and different places intersected. As pivotal sectors in which developmental practices have become effective, projects addressing economic, health and/or environmental aspects and their interactions are particularly welcome.

Fellows can benefit from an international academic environment and from a stimulating setting in one of the most rapidly "developing" cities of the world.

Fellows are expected to share their questions and the results of their work through lectures, both about their specific research project and about topics in their field of expertise (approximately one lecture per month). They are also expected to generally participate in the academic life of the College of Liberal Arts at Shanghai University and to cite Shanghai University in all publications to which their fellowship stay has contributed. Fellowships are open to post-doctoral and senior scholars. Preference is given to projects at an advanced state, whose outcome and publication potential is already becoming clear.

Fellowship applications can be for periods of three or six months, taken between 1 March 2017 and 28 February 2018.

The fellowship includes:

Free accommodation, subsidized meals
A monthly stipend of 7,000 RMB for post-docs and 12,000 for senior scholars.
Office space and secretariat assistance
Applications should include:

A project proposal of no more than 3,000 – 4,000 words, explaining the research question, relevance, work program, and expected outcome of the project
A cv
A list of proposed lectures
The deadline is 1 December 2016. For further information, contact Prof. Iris Borowy at borowyiris@i.shu.edu.cn or Prof. Yong-an Zhang at zhangyongan@shu.edu.cn.

Contact Info:
Prof. Iris Borowy
College of Liberal Arts, Shanghai University
99 Shangda Road, Shanghai 200444
China
Contact Email:
borowyiris@i.shu.edu.cn

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Research Fellows: Makerere Institute of Social Research (Uganda)

Makerere University invites applications for One (1) Senior Research Fellow and Two (2) Research Fellow positions in the fields of:

  • Political Economy: Agrarian studies; Economic Theory and History; Late Industrialization and International Political Economy.
  • History, with a specialization in Pre-Colonial African and Indian Ocean History and/or Historiography and Historical Methods.
  • Political Theory: Modern and pre-modern, Western and non-western comparative.
  • Literary and Cultural Studies: World and African Literature; Social and Cultural Anthropology; Post-colonial studies.
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Logan Cochrane

logan.cochrane@gmail.com

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