The oddities of ‘Revolutionary Democracy’

Why Ethiopia’s ruling party needs to redefine its leading ideology if it wants its dream of building a developmental state to succeed

Nolawi Melakedingel, Special to Addis Standard

An ideological buzzword dominating the diction of Ethiopia’s politics by both those defending and admonishing the ruling party, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is none other than two mystifying words: ‘revolutionary democracy.’ Unable to explain what it is for a lukewarm electorate or its foreign backers, EPRDF has confused, most ironically, its own machinery on why a mixture of revolution and democracy is needed to put a developmental model of governance in the country. If the essence and applicability of a developmental state model has generated its great deal of controversy in the political economy debate, ‘revolutionary democracy’ would have triggered an even bigger and intractable divide; only if it was understood.

Why ‘revolutionary democracy’, the third ideological sequel in three decades of TPLF/EPRDF’s life, remains perilously ambiguous appears to have grown from a lack of solid literature or any critique written about it. Making the issue more relevant is the fact that the developmental state model is now interchangeably used with ‘revolutionary democracy’ as an ‘evolution of ideologies’ in the last ten years.

 Marxist-Leninist-Maoist and all that

It can be fairly said that the widespread consensus on what ‘revolutionary democracy’ entails is limited to a mild brew of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist communist ideology that also incorporates traits of Stalinism with unusual set of liberalism ideals such as free market and institutions, election and multi party democracy.  To understand what it means as a blend of these communist and liberal ideals, it is only appropriate to see what these movements separately mean in real terms.

Maoism generally refers to the brand of communism adopted by Mao Zedong that combined his reflections of communism from the 1920s to his death in 1976. It’s basically Marxism with distinct material roots fitting China’s historical situations and the unique set of challenges that caused its under-development.

Though Maoism is regarded as a direct descendant of bolshevism of the early 20th century Russia, its local colors were focused on a revolutionary method of mass mobilizing the large rural poor into a collective state-led economic recovery as opposed to Lenin’s interpretation of Marxism that explicates an urban working class driven by revolution for social, economic and political change.

While Marxism-Leninism takes the urban working class as the main force to galvanize a socialist revolution, Mao focused on ‘revolutionary mass mobilization’ of the vast rural poor farmers as the main benefactor of a revolution under a lone vanguard party that controls all politics and owns the economy. The cornerstone of Maoism, its advocates say, was a strong sense of a self reliant, nationalist and distinctly anti-western communism that deviates from the roots of Marxism-Leninism. Mao exploited popular sentiments and embraced what was infamously described as ‘‘anti-intellectualism’’ that successfully enforced his public agenda by purging all sings of intellectual and critical thinking. His detest for a growth model that would see leadership by a technocratic elite led him to favor a change rather driven by revolutionary enthusiasm and mass struggle.

Maoism never really cared about entertaining ideological debates for the sake of political inclusiveness. And its proponent (unlike his Marxist-Leninist roots) recognized that for his revolution to take root through dominance of the communist party, the potential of the vast rural farmers whom he famously described as “poor and blank but endowed with inherent strength and violence’’ was needed. The recognition says everything about how he envisaged purifying the revolution and building a nation through unflinching obedience.

Considering that Maoism was an ideological addition to its predecessors, political historians refer to what is termed as ‘Marxist-Leninist-Maoist’ doctrine to portray socialist authoritarian dictatorships in today’s world.

Stalinism, while being a recursive outgrowth of Leninism, is almost always associated with leaders who are in favor of tightly centralized power and an instinctive desire to control every aspect of life. It includes an extensive use of propaganda to establish a personality cult around a dictatorship as well as subversive and unapologetic use of state power to stifle political difference.

Similar to Stalinism, Maoism embraced a highly centralized, top-down approach of development as opposed to democratic communism. A strong army that protects the party, serves the leader and the revolutionary state is critical in nation building (as opposed to protecting the constitution), as espoused in Maoist socialism.


The oddities of ‘Revolutionary democracy’ 

The big question now is where would our ‘revolutionary democracy’, a derivative of part Leninism, Marxism, Maoism, Stalinist authoritarianism and liberalism, stand on redefining itself and the country it leads. Clearly, it is lost in between intangible translations taken from almost everything that comes to mind about ideologies. How it is understood by those who claim to understand it is a simple locally customized doctrine that stands in firm opposition to “liberalism’’, the western political and economic governance the party sees as scandalous.

In essence, the notion of ‘revolutionary democracy’ appears to arise from sheer loathing of the capitalist-liberal ideology and a romantic attachment to Lenin’s revolutionary theory that condemns the ‘‘parliamentary bourgeois democracy’’ in favor of a vanguard party that respects ‘‘democratic centralism’’ as some form of democracy.

Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi may very well have internalized the nuances of ‘revolutionary democracy’ in terms of its absolute necessity for the developmental model to work. He vigorously pushed for an operational structure of the ideology and spent time convincing his wary western backers of his flexibility to changing realities. But again explanations from him or his aides were neither systematically related to nor deductible from a clearly stated background about the motivations and the relevance of the doctrine for Ethiopia’s current and future strategic interests.

In all fairness to the party, those who daringly simplify the differences between ‘revolutionary democracy’ and the out-of-favor liberal democracy in Ethiopia might be mindlessly weakening the debate than fostering any substantive discourse. Trying to see, instead, how ‘revolutionary democracy’ found a way to function with liberal institutions while unleashing its overtly authoritarian rules might help explain why it outlived its critics’ expectations.

Not forgetting ‘revolutionary democracy’ as a pervasive and effective yet out-dated alternative to the ‘‘ill-fit and unsustainable liberal democracy’’, it is undeniable that EPRDF’s economic results owe their little success to the liberal economic reforms pushed into results by a powerful state. And a big part of why there has been a clear lack of serious ideological debate against ‘revolutionary democracy’ may reasonably be due to a consistently well-performing economy applauded by many of the influential western institutions.

The dichotomy between the two modes of governance in Ethiopia is increasingly blurry for a good reason. The economic performances are pointedly incremental and successful in giving access to millions of rural poor to lift themselves out of poverty. On the other hand, the suffocating nature of ‘revolutionary democracy’ is irking a wary electorate and exposing the doctrine’s deficiencies to address good governance, constitutional and federalism reforms.

A strange factor in the narrative is that the liberal reforms in the form of institutions and free market on one hand, and the heavy handed, clique-based, unaccountable and opaque ‘revolutionary democracy’ on the other have ironically  enabled each other to survive within the party so far. But as demands for political inclusiveness grow louder, clarity and willingness to change will have to be delivered by the party, not because it is used to respecting responsiveness but it has to survive the tides of time and stay relevant for its own sake.

That is precisely why the current lack of consensus against the entrenched confusion of ideologies will be the major headache for the party if the developmental state model is to pick up momentum from wider domestic political camps and garner a meaningful legitimacy. Frankly, the developmental state model does not have a serious problem of acceptance at home and abroad. Anyone who understands the set of poverty ridden, weak economy and complex political frictions could see that strong developmental state that engenders this dynamics to bring faster and sustained change is appropriate. And no wonder it is accepted, though tacitly, by the west simply for the comparatively higher value the late Meles gave the west for their massive aid money.

 Make or break

The developmental state model is, and must be, here to stay. The worry would better be about how a confused political mindset may render it ineffective.

What has worked so far – aside the hit-or-miss and incoherent interpretations of an ideology rooted in Maoist communism – will certainly not go a long way in responding to the basic political demands. Sooner or later EPRDF will have to choose to embrace a developmental model with practical democratic approaches     (similar to, say,  Japan, Korea and Thailand) and learn that for a developmental state to work and take credit for, authoritarianism, let alone a confused brew of communist schools, is not a precondition. The other choice would be continuing to gamble with ‘revolutionary democracy’ whose democratic credentials are too thin to recognize and its revolutionary zeal constrained in a world that is fast becoming difficult to govern.

It is equally important to distinguish that the stakes in the developmental state experiment hinges on its ability to deliver on the pledges of better life, more opportunities and economic freedom. ‘Revolutionary democracy’, its very nature combined with its fondness for making enemies at home, may stifle the coming into fruition of a good part of these pledges.

For the resilient EPRDF confronting the dangerous ambiguities surrounding its own ideology and moving towards the fourth ideological sequel, and not, as it stands now, dwarfed by the intellect of its late leader, would mark a huge and positive milestone.

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