Monday, November 29

Politburo Knows Best III - Revolutionary Democracy

21st Century Maoism - CDs on sale now in Addis Ababa, Pyongyang and Havana
(Images are from a Fark photoshop contest.)


A mantra is a sacred verbal formula repeated in prayer, meditation, or incantation, such as an invocation of a god, a magic spell, or a syllable or portion of scripture containing mystical potentialities. Mantras are usually associated with Hinduism. However, Ethiopia's revolutionary mantras and their associated spiritual beliefs are now in their third decade as the central element of Ethiopian governance - their effect has not had the spiritual uplift of any great religion.

intro to revolutionary democracy

In 2001 several Western Embassies pooled resources to translate a nearly 700 page volume titled 'Revolutionary Democracy' from Amharic to English. It was supposed to be the key to understanding Ethiopian governance and the completion of the transormation from decades of disastrous Marxist theories and practice towards a market capitalistic economy.

According to the report from the July 28, 2001 Indian Ocean Newsletter (registration required) the book was "not to be taken literally because it is mainly for internal use; it is an idealogical weapon against the dissidents of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF)". The TPLF is the core of the ruling party the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front - EPRDF.

Whatever it purpose, that volume was all anyone had to grab onto in an attempt to understand what was going on in the Gibee. 'Gibee' is the familiar name for the compound in central Addis Ababa that has been the seat of all executive power for well over a century. The embassies desperately needed the translation becauses just asking questions or observing policy as is routine in most other countries simply was not an option. Much of the confusion was purposeful because secrecy, unforgiving often vicious reactions to criticism, eternal intrigue, manipulation, suspicion and an utter lack of transparency had become vital elements of government.

Those characteristics were vital for a guerilla struggle but inappropriate for enterprising civilian rule. Gibee-ology, then became a cousin of the Kremlinology that generations of Western analysts assiduously practiced to study the equally inscrutable Soviet government. As we shall see, figuring out what revolutionary democracy could possible mean is ultimately as rewarding as the arcane studies done by Kremlinologists who filled thousands of volumes on detailed studies of which end of Lenin's tomb one commissar or another politburo member stood on May Day as opposed to the celebration of the October Revolution.

so ... what is revolutionary democracy?

The Ethiopian government's view of revolutionary democracy is translated here by the German Federal Foreign Office
the official doctrine remains the vague concept of "revolutionary democracy", which is regarded as an alternative to the "liberal democracy" practised by western industrialized states, for which the country is supposedly not yet ready.
The comparison offered from the Gibee conveniently sets standards that are both geographically distant and temporally decades or generations away for fulfilment. It then further corrupts the concept of democracy with the escape clause of the term revolutionary. Liberal democracy is a human achievement that has spread far beyond the West and does not require industrialization to achieve. From India to Botswana to Nicaragua many countries have democratic systems that are clearly recognizable as such by any rational observer.

Basically, democracy is a simple concept and one easily separated from other, far less pleasant, forms of government - people do not have to live in Switzerland, New Zealand or Japan to benefit from it. The appraisal of a political system is very much like telling the difference between a nude and a dirty picture - folks just plain know it when they see it. The word democracy may be abused but few are fooled by its imitations.

Translating the manifesto of Ethiopian revolutionary democracy or reading it in its original Amharic did little to dispel confusion about policy - one Ethiopian critic from banking circles in Fortune (via Ethioguide) noted a lack of definition of the very concept of the term revolutionary democracy in the new volume and wondered
whether it could be a new concept or some rendition of Marxist-Leninist thinking. "People familiar with Marxism-Leninism may guess, but guessing cannot replace the intention of the authors of the document."
The document identifies Ethiopia's businesspersons in two categories - the first class comprising "those who create value" and the second ones who are classified as "rent collectors - businessmen who through legal or illegal means suck the wealth created by others as well as the country's natural resource".
Serving up the leftover mantras of Marxist-Leninism makes as little sense today as it did a century ago when Russians became the first unfortunates with this type of talk forced on them. Actually, it is not supposed to make sense.

The reader may want to try a few questions from this quiz, Marxist Jeopardy, about the basics of Marxism. No one was actually meant to understand it at all beyond its value as a holy text. It is based on no objective reality - just a thin tissue of made up theories and statements that mantra like repetition somehow solidifies in the unquestioning mind. People often have the mistaken assumption that there is inherent value in something that is difficult to understand.

That is usually not the case - nothing is more valuable than basic human common sense especially in the face of an all encompassing theory with messianic qualities that always brings suffering in its wake. The reader should also take this quiz, The Holocausts of Communism Test, and understand the real reality underlying those confusing words.

Marxist-Leninist jargon provides a form of faux intellectualism and a thin veneer of supposed good intentions that protects the speaker, listener and the policies that follow from ever coming to terms with reality and humanity. Rather, it is reality and humanity that must be changed to fit ideology. The ideology is its own self sustaining echo chamber whose ultimate purpose is power for a few.

In the case of Marxism and its descendant, Ethiopian revolutionary democracy, there is obfuscation and confusion to serve a political end. Political debate becomes a theological activity requiring a class of high priests to understand it. Both are divorced from any actual real world experience beyond their utility in justifying the continuing rule of the priestly class. Politics and economic activity are thus not only denied the people in practice but language itself puts democracy even beyond the understanding of mere mortals.

In this Reporter interview a foreign observer of Ethiopia responds to this question:

So you feel at ease with the Marxist side of EPRDF like Revolutionary Democracy.
I'm sure there are some because after all the people who set up the TPLF were students who thought Marxism is a good idea. Well, you may find a few people left in the world now who think that Marxism is a good idea. I don't think anybody with much intelligence in the EPRDF would be much interested in being a Marxist now.
Well, what do you think about Revolutionary Democracy? What about other policies and strategies?
Well, I'm not quite sure what Revolutionary Democracy is. Nobody has really explained it to me. It's an interesting term, but it's like a lot of other terms like that. The essentials of democracy anywhere are open society, rule of law and market economy, flexible economy, so that when you have disagreements, problems you can settle them without going to extremes. And democracy means respect for human rights.

come on, seriously ... what is revolutionary democracy?

An Ethiopian academic, also in the Reporter, makes an attempt to address that question
Yeah. Revolutionary democracy is a sort of borrowed ideology from Mao Tse Tung's New Democracy. This latter, as most of us, including the leaders of the TPLF, used to understand, was a political project for building socialism, especially to build a bridge for a socialist revolution - the so-called transition from pre-capitalist society to a socialist society. Now, by a magic I could not understand, the TPLF is using that type of ideology for building what is called white capitalism. So that's their problem. They are using an ideology created to build socialism, twisted it and are trying to build with it what is called crude capitalism.
As the reader may guess by now no one knows what revolutionary democracy is but the hints available are not reassuring that it is not a one way trip into a ditch.
Central to Mao's theory of the state was what he called "New Democracy." The New Democracy involved a graduated series of congresses from the local to the national level, but its cornerstone was centralization. Mao himself referred to "New Democracy" as "democratic centralism." Democratic centralism is an essence a dictatorship—"a dictatorship of all revolutionary classes," in Mao's words—power would be concentrated in the hands of a few in order to guarantee that all class interests are represented. In other words, the centralization of authority was meant to guarantee that all levels of society are represented rather than the interests of the majority, which is the case in a "bourgeois" democracy.

Economically, New Democracy involved the nationalization of banks and industry as well as the redistribution of land from wealthy landowners to the poor peasants. When Mao came to power over mainland China in 1949, he renamed New Democracy to the People's Democratic Dictatorship. The principle behind the People's Democratic Dictatorship was to guarantee that reactionary or counter-revolutionary voices would not have a say in government or have the ability to sway the opinions of the people. The centralization of authority, as outlined above, would guarantee that the will of the people would be carried out by the government.
This sounds like the sales job previously attempted on the German government on the varieties of democracy to excuse the continuing disenfranchisemnt of Ethiopians. Let us substitute the words 'liberal democracy' for 'bourgeois democracy' and follow this logic along its natural path.
As Lenin described it, democratic centralism consisted of "freedom of discussion and criticism, unity of action". The democratic aspect of this methodology describes the freedom of members of the political party to discuss and debate matters of policy and direction; but once the decision by the party was made (by majority vote), all members were expected to follow that decision unquestioningly. This latter aspect represented the centralism.
The reader should suspect that a majority vote within a revolutionary party might have vanishingly little to do with the people's will and their interests and far more to do with the interests of the party and its leaders with total power.Here is a description of Lenin's dictatorship of the proletariat, the ultimate form of revolutionary democracy his form of democracy
The scientific concept, dictatorship, means neither more nor less than unlimited power resting directly on force, not limited by anything, not restrained by any laws or any absolute rules. Nothing else but that.
For a more comprehensive listing of the many undemocratic perversions of the term democracy here are relevant excerpts from the relevant holy texts. The reader is not alone for thinking all of it seems just plain silly. What matters most is that an increasingly small revolutionary vanguard gets to decide and describe what the will of the people is and what democracy is. It should come as no shock that a few at the top of the revoutionary food chain stand to benefit the most from their role of interpreters of the holy texts. Marxist-Leninism was designed to serve that few as the native inhumanity and logic of power enshrined in its holy texts have been handed down through the generations from dictator to dictator, from cadre to cadre and from opportunist to opportunist.

As ugly as the revolutionary democratic path of vicious logic and policy has been historically it does have its absurd moments of tragi-comedy: at the time the revolutionary tome was being translated one of the government parties had this to say about it
Upholding the principles of revolutionary democracy could be significant in ensuring the independence of the judiciary, strengthening unity and tackling threats posed to the well being of the nation, cadres and members of the Harari national league said.

At the conclusion of a five day discussion held under the title, "the question of democracy in Ethiopia" the participants said on Monday that revolutionary democracy was the only development strategy that could fit for the objective reality in the country.

In the absence of accumulated capital, advanced technology and skilled manpower it would be difficult to adopt the principles of liberal democracy, they said.

The principles of revolutionary democracy could effectively address the basic needs of the Ethiopian people by stumping out the bane of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power, the members said.

They said revolutionary democracy could also encourage the direct participation of the people in the nation building process.

Upholding the principles of equality based on diversity and establishing harmonious relationships among the peoples of Ethiopia were the corner stones to speed up economic development, the members indicated.

They also vowed to fight narrow nationalism, chauvinism and corruption, which they described as the major threat to the whole of the country.
All that is missing from the above description of revolutionary democracy is its ability to remove stubborn grass stains from clothes, to end global warming and to master the space-time continuum. Of course, like the formula for Coca Cola, the secret formula for revolutionary democratic miracles can not be revealed so one just have to believe and repeat mantras like those above. Nothing short of paradise on earth is being promised!

Such statements certainly read like a parody of a revolutionary movement or an equally amusing and absurd post-modern analysis of any subject. This glossary of ideologically-correct insults for enemies of the people is also in the same comic vein - but given the time or place using them wrongly could represent a death sentence for the unwary.

no one really knows what revolutionary democracy is right?

Silly as all this may seem it can not be amusing to the 70 million Ethiopians whose lives are determined by it - right now. It is all meant to be taken quite seriously and can not herald a transformation to any recognizable form of democracy or market economy. When this ersatz political program was defined it was ten years after the fall of Mengistu's Marxism, twelve years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, ten years after the dissolution of the USSR and almost a quarter of a century after the abandonment of Maoism in China.

Imagine an impassioned group of Red Guard cadres during the Cultural Revolution posessed by the spirit of Mao through his Little Red Book and you will have a clear idea of the dearth of imagination and the lack of engagement with reality that such 'revolutionary' language represents. After the utter failure of his Great Leap Forward at the cost of tens of millions of lives, Mao's power and status were reduced within the Chinese Communist Party. The Cultural Revolution with all of its nonsensical slogans and millions of victims was Mao's revenge against the 'reactionaries'. It was used to create a 'permanent revolution' of ongoing orchestrated tumult directed against all potential and even imaginary enemies.

From one season to the next, any changes or essentially illogical policies and meaningless slogans and mantras only mattered because anyone valuing their life or position had to keep up very closely with the party line. In societies where mantras define government it does not matter what is being said or what anything means. The chants and slogans take on a life of their own and indeed by simple mind dulling repetition and the jealous exclusion of other thoughts a government can manage to obliterate all rational thought. The ultimate result of the divorce of language from reality is familiar to readers of the novel of a bleak totalitarian future by George Orwell, 1984, where 'Newspeak', the official language has as its sole purpose
the specific needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism, while making all other methods of thought impossible. When Oldspeak has become obsolete, the last link with the past will have been destroyed. The vocabulary of Newspeak has been built by inventing new words, eliminating old words, and stripping existing words of their finer shades of meaning.
In Ethiopia the results of these 21st century mantras will ultimately be as continuingly harmful in terms of lives and time wasted. All of this serves only the purpose of knowingly retarding the development of any possible advanced political or economic system and civil society that could threaten the interests of the ruling class. Make no mistake, this new revolution is also meant to be permanent.

In response to abundant criticism on the obvious ideological underpinnings of revolutionary democracy in Ethiopia a government official
described as 'inappropriate and grave mistake' the attempt by some groups to liken revolutionary democracy with communism" and "defended Ethiopia's policy of public ownership of land, saying that the system was in the best interest of the Ethiopian peasantry, who constitutes by far the largest population."
This obligatory and hopeless defense was mounted not mounted just in response to criticism of revolutionary rhetoric but rather the whole array of laws and policies that are central to governance since 1974. The Ethiopian Constitution today states just as the Constitution of Mengistu's dicatorship did that there can be no private ownership of land. The national land tenure system continues to see peasants in particular, as modern day serfs of the state. The attendant loss of any economic viability and of basic human rights that such a system guarantees is obvious to everyone concerned, especially those who will gain the most from it.

revolutionary democracy across time and space

Versions of revolutionary democracy have appeared worldwide - it is not a novel concept. Unfortunately, all of the countries past and present where the term has gained currency in any of its forms have been the unwilling hosts of a rather unpleasant set of ideologies and governments that were necessarily accompanied by the lack of human and democratic rights and of course by stunningly poor economic performance. Below we will take a short tour of such times and places.

Recently the term was also mutated to the advantage of the Nicaraguan Marxist dictatorship and joined the litany of formulaic Marxist mantras that heralded the usual disastrous results of absent human rights and economic failure. Remember that the second the Sandanistas were forced to have a real democratic election they were thrown out of power. The blather will be sadly familiar
The Sandinista cause was supported by three major beliefs, “the three legs of the stool of Nicaraguan revolutionary democracy” . The first, political democracy, meant that the Sandinistas supported a republican form of government, based on elections with universal suffrage. The second, participatory democracy, meant active citizen participation in government organizations, task forces, etc. Finally the third, economic equality, meant a communistic economy and complete equalization of wealth, incorporating both Marxist and socialist ideas. These three ideals together form a very interesting combination. Whereas in Russia Lenin and Stalin had focused primarily on economic equality, and “forgotten” Marx’s rule by the workers, the Sandinistas held a much better potential of representation of "Applied Marxism".
During the end of the First World War and in the midst of the Russian Civil War Trotsky pulled revolutionary democracy out of his bag of tricks to justify whatever could keep the Bolsheviks in power. Again the usual silly language is used in the service of tyranny
Our own Menshevik, social-revolutionary pacifism, despite the difference in outward conditions, played in its own way exactly the same part. The resolution on war, which was adopted by a majority of the All-Russian Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils, is founded not only on the common pacifist prejudices concerning war, but also on the characteristics of an imperialistic war. The Congress declared that the "first and most important task of revolutionary democracy" was the speedy ending of war. But all these assumptions are only directed towards a single end : so long as the international efforts of democracy have failed to make an end of war, so long must Russian revolutionary democracy demand with all its strength that the Red Army shall be prepared to fight whether defensive or offensive.
Here is some more useless verbiage on that fallen saint of Marxism, Trotsky. and some others that remain forever holy
Marx, Engels and Lenin (and to a considerable degree Trotsky) were revolutionary democrats who fully grasped the necessity of the working class taking the lead against every instance of oppression, every democratic deficit, every act of bureaucratic arbitrariness. In their day Marx and Engels not only chided their followers in Germany for not taking up the fight for a democratic republic against the kaiser state, but raised the perspective in the monarchist British Isles of a federal republic. Lenin approvingly cites this in State and revolution.
According to the Australian left revolutionary democracy is working wonders in Cuban education. Wonder which country is really more democratic? Wonder how many Australian refugees want to escape to Cuba? Don't bother to ask such questions that have to do with actual non-delusional or halucinatory reality, just recognize more of the same
Cuban school students demonstrate an ability to generalise and to place themselves in the “big picture”, at the same time confidently understanding the role they have to play as individuals in a revolutionary democracy. This is directly at odds with the individualistic and self-centred outlook the Australian education system inculcates into young people.
Last but far from least is the newest adherent of Revolutionary Democracy giving the eldest one this dubious blessing in this Pravda piece "Cuba and Venezuela to unit[e] Latin American states to confront the growing imperial aggression of the USA." Yes, that headline really was written in 2005 so Ethiopia is not the only country stuck in a time warp of dated radicalism although its people do suffer more. The article quotes Caudillo Chavez on the subject of democracy:
People have asked me how I can support Fidel if he's a dictator ... But Cuba doesn't have a dictatorship - it's a revolutionary democracy.
That is certainly welcome news to Cubans who were under the impression that forty six years of Castro's one man rule (one of the richest men on planet earth) was against their will.

Thus, Ethiopian revolutionary democracy is firmly rooted in a nearly century old living tradition of dictatorship and engineeered poverty that is dressed up in the increasingly absurd catechism of Marxist jibberish.

Ethiopian 'Newspeak' is certainly Orwellian in intent and result. According to George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Doublethink means
the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. ... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
Accepting the logic of current governance would have all believe that 'love is hate; and 'peace is war' because no revolution will ever be allowed to challenge the current one and there certainly is no real democracy in store for Ethiopia.

why not abandon revolution once and for all?

The problem with political mantras is that they are only needed to defend failure - success seldom needs cheerleaders. Capitalism needs no awaj or gimgemas to function (Amharic for proclamation and self confession / criticism sessions, respectively) - it just exists as a product of human nature and existing productive, not promised social and economic evolution. While it may be described in holy texts of its own, those texts came after the fact and are firmly in touch with reality. Wealth and poverty, dollars and cents, birr and centimes, hunger and plenty even happiness and despair are universal bits of reality that capitalism and liberal democracy have always balanced far better than any permutation of the left.

If modern history has shown us anything it is that the revolutionary solutions for the problems of development or indeed of human life have never worked and do not have prospects of ever working anywhere. China was crippled by revolution and after World War II did not recover and regain the level of international trade it had enjoyed in the 1920s until almost seventy years later - after Deng abandoned Maoism. It did so with sound agricultural and land policies - not just with prettified words and bold proclamations of intent. For example, how many foreign companies will ever invest in a country that prattles on about revolutionary democracy and that doesn’t respect the most basic economic rights such as ownership of private property?

What imaginable virtue is there in following a policy whose history guarantees failure and ruin when capitalism has worked so well? In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx said that
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.
Why shouldn't Ethiopia finally have a chance at the same good old fashioned Capitalist exploitation that made its Western aid donors so rich to begin with. This sacrifice would be worth it if only so the mass of wealth thus produced would eventually benefit revolutionary democracy when it showed up to nationalize it all and renew its zealous commitment to poverty and suffering. After all, Ethiopia should not skip the capitalist stage of history between feudalism and even hybrid socialism. Marx, the savior would certainly disapprove of using revolutionary democracy to travel back in time.

It seems that the greatest virtue and value of any opposition to this government and its revolutionary policies is precisely that it does not have a mantra, ideology or a set of delusions that has long been proven wrong by a history of millions of human lives ruined and decades lost not only in the world but right here in Ethiopia. For now simply not being a revolutionary democratic government that stubbornly redirects the country toward every ditch and pothole that the rest of humanity adroitly avoids should be enough to get the opposition elected in any fair system.

Unfortunately, the chances that the current government will let itself be voted out of power, regardless of the popular will, is less than zero. The actual mechanism of state control and stage management of elections for the benefit of foreign observers will be the subject of Politburo Knows Best IV.

In the end all anyone really needs to know about revolutionary democracy and the current prospects for democracy and human rights in Ethiopia is simply that Politburo Knows Best ... for everyone ... forever and ever. All the nonsensical mantras and slogans serve the purpose of control - that is the central lesson of Gibee-ology. Don't be surprised if the coming year offers several more wonderful and tailored to the moment, facets and definitions of revolutionary democracy.

Revolutionary Democracy remains the basis of politburo rule after 'election' 2005 and the series of massacres against protesting students and other citizens. An evaluation had this to say
Meles is a capitalist on the outside, a Marxist on the inside, which is why they are in a state of disarray," says one analyst. Former TPLF members concur. When Mr Meles promoted his idea of revolutionary democracy, "I never understood it myself, even though I was in the party," says one.
Since about the time this post was published there has (to our count anyway) been only one mention of Revolutionary Democracy (in English at least) by the government. These days it seems as though the government is willing all to forget that Revolutionary Democracy ever existed or it seems like there is shame associated with the memory.

The party is still the Ethiopian Revolutionary Democratic Front and part of the partys' press machine is still called Revolutionary Democracy, sure - but to any observer using English it would seem that the whole business had been shed like a snake sheds its skin.

The politburo and their herd of cadres may have abandoned their raison d'etre verbally but not in spirit. Picture, dear reader, the twisted logic of the ruling ideology, its roots in Leninist-Maoist 'Democratic Centralism' and the unforgiving discipline of this vanguard permanent revolutionary party.

Verbally forsaking Revolutionary Democracy in exigent circumstances thus becomes a noteworthy victory for Revolutionary Democratic discipline. All the while the actual practice of Revolutionary Democracy remains intact but it has simply been realized that it is no longer a public relations plus when cash bearing donor nations might actually try to figure out what it means.

This is all in the spirit of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Soviet International Socialism and German National Socialism were bitter enemies until Stalin and Hitler agreed to divide Poland, the Baltic states and the Balkans between them. By the next day every Socialist / Communist on earth became an unyielding opponent of world capitalism against the suddenly blameless German Reich - depending on geography this was under punishment of death.

The tragic experiences that humanity has had with rulers and their justifications was noted long ago by Voltaire a long time ago when he said
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

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