The New Trajectory of Totalitarian Thinking

By; Mustafa Omar 17th January 2013

The tyranny of Ideology

In an absorbing book “The Devil in History” Romanian-American political scientist Vladimir Ismaneau embarks on acomparative analysis of two seemingly contradictory ideologies of the 20thcentury – Communism (far left) and Fascism (far right) – and finds striking similarity between these systems of political totalitarianism.

With polymathic virtuosity, Ismaneau illuminates communism’s close affinity with fascism by examining the “intellectual origins, political passions, radicalism, utopian ideals, and the visions of salvation and revolution” these two radical movements espoused and pursued.

Communism and fascism share a dogmatic vision of social re-engineering to be achieved through a “scientific” political formula. Communism’s ultimate destiny was the attainment of the dictatorship of the proletariat which supposedly emancipates mankind from all forms of exploitation. Fascism envisioned an epoch of racial purity (Hitler) or national splendor (Mussolini). Both ideologies dehumanized their adversaries. Both are founded on the premise that certain groups or ideas must be deservedly excluded or obliterated. In Bolshevik Russia, functionaries of the Tsarist regime, the clergy and rich people were categorized as “byvshie liudi” (the former people) and were excluded from the “new” Socialist order. Stalin killed 20 million people in the name of Communism. Nazi Germany systematically slaughtered or deported Jews and other “subhuman” races.

These two most conspicuous totalitarian philosophies of the 20th century had lots of similarities but also differences. For instance, while in Communism, the dictatorship of the party is enthroned through revolution, in Fascism, a “charismatic and visionary leader” who is elected by voting consensus is the source of all ideas and guidance.

Ismaneau scrutinizes the two systems’ “absolute commitment to ideology” and illustrates how the pursuit of a draconian political formula – which would take mankind to a promised land of justice and purity – paved the way for all forms of totalitarian thinking in the 20th century; how it led to “a frenzy of genocide, thought control and a complete annihilation of the concept of the individual”; and how it justified the orgy of violence that resulted in the deaths of millions of human beings. The author denounces the “nihilistic principles of human subjugation and conditioning” pursued by communists and fascists in the name of attaining “presumably pure and purifying goals”, and concludes with a poignant refrain: “no ideological commitment, no matter how absorbing, should ever prevail over the sanctity of human life”.

Ismaneau did not extend his analysis to the mayhem Capitalism which sired imperialism, colonialism and militarism inflicted on humanity for two millennia. After all, foisting evil on humankind in the ostensible pursuit of good and promotion of higher ideals is not exclusive to fascism or communism. Throughout the history of mankind, mindless tyrants, self-styled revolutionaries, and religious and political zealots used myriad of ideologies and belief systems as vindicating motifs and mobilizing planks to unleash wars, to rob, to pillage, to enslave, to oppress, to exterminate real or perceived adversaries. Predatory Capitalism actuated slavery. Colonialism underwrote French genocide against Algerians and the dehumanization of indigenous populations in conquered lands. Colossal crimes against humanity were committed in Chile, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, Africa – to name but few – in the last fifty years alone by presumably redemptive ideologies.

Utopia – the dangerous ingredient

Vaclav Havel defined ideology as something that offers human beings “the illusion of identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.” Ideologies have potent hypnotizing power. Ideologues therefore are invariably astigmatic – which means they have a distorted vision of reality.

All Ideologies also have the propensity to turn deadly, but as Steven Pinker argues in the “Better Angels of Our Nature” some are more predisposed to generate violence and misery than others. One of the things that make ideologies dangerous is the “prospect of utopia”. Ideologies that propagate visions of pleasure and plenty can be described as messianic ideologies. “Since utopias are infinitely good” Pinker denotes, they sanction the-end-justifies-the-means mentality. For the utopia of these messianic doctrines to be attained, all obstacles must be eliminated at all cost. Messianic ideologies cannot function without “enemies”. Most often, these ideologies identify the main source of societal ills as a “definable group” or thought, which becomes the “enemy”.

The import of these points will become evident as we go into the thrust of this article.

Having provided a general background on the dangers of messianic ideologies and the commonalities in their foundational premises, modus operandi and vision, this article will trace the origins of Revolutionary Democracy – as practiced in present-day Ethiopia – to past totalitarian projects, and argues that Revolutionary Democracy is not a new thinking but a synthesis of old ideologies and systems – Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, Capitalism, Liberalism, etc. – renovated and re-marketed to rationalize flagrant totalitarianism. The article asserts that there is no logical or empirical evidence to support the putative link between revolutionary democracy and recent economic development in Ethiopia. It further argues that the ongoing national debate on the type of ideology Ethiopia should adopt is worthless and irrelevant and posits that the debate should have been about values not nebulous ideologies.

The false national debate

In the last two decades, the national debate in academic circles in Ethiopia focused on the merits and demerits of Revolutionary Democracy – espoused by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – and the globally hegemonic Liberal Democracy. The debate replicates the partisan divide in the country and has rarely been dispassionate.

Without extending the parameters of this debate any further, it is useful to give a brief description of the core tenets of revolutionary democracy and Liberal Democracy before delving into the central theme of my argument.

Revolutionary Democracy prioritizes group rights over individual rights, advocates for strong, interventionist government and the presence of a dominant political party that stays in power for a period long enough to facilitate socio-economic transformation. The distinctive attributes of a Liberal Democracy include free and fair elections, economic freedom, genuine separation of the powers of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, human rights, a multiparty system, the rule of law, freedom of speech, free trade and the protection of private property.

The relevance of a particular ideology to a given country context and the pros and cons of competing ideologies can be endlessly debated. However, these debates often produce little more than scholastic perorations. They rarely create consensus or yield outright winner. Each side argues from a position of blind conviction and because there are enough ambiguities and variations within each ideology, the argument becomes circular, tedious, and messy. This makes debates on ideologies pointless.

A more useful format could have been adopted. First, a set of values that must guide the practical application of contending ideologies would be agreed on. Next, the extent to which these mutually agreed moral axioms are adhered to in the implementation of the relevant ideological theories would be evaluated. For instance, freedom of speech and thought, rule of law, respect for human rights and civil liberties could have been identified as the guiding set of values. These universal moral principles enhance the collective welfare of humanity. Any ideology that upholds these ethical principles has a higher chance of preventing violence. Conversely, any ideology that prevaricates on or openly denigrates these values has a higher likelihood of leading to violence. These guiding values and their practical implementation should inform what is good for Ethiopia over and above feeble ideologies.

Therefore, firstly, the national debate ought to have been whether these ethical principles are respected in EPRDF’s Ethiopia.

Secondly, the efficacy and primacy of revolutionary democracy doctrine must be examined against its own practice, not against presumed failures and shortcomings of liberal ideology or professed future returns of economic development.

Thirdly, Ethiopia registered rapid economic growth in the last ten years. The ruling party must be lauded and credited for the effective utilization of foreign aid and for adopting sound economic policies such as agricultural-development-led-industrialization (ADLI) and state-sponsored micro-enterprise development initiatives. Researching the causative or correlative relationship between development and revolutionary democracy is beyond the purview of this article. But the putative linkage between the two factors should have been subjected to logical and empirical interrogation.  It is a causative fallacy to argue that because B follows A, A is the reason for B.  Sadly, proponents of revolutionary democracy in Ethiopia frequently engage in this fallacy; and it seems they have been granted a free pass for long.

It is logical to suggest that recent economic development in Ethiopia has more to do with the injection of foreign aid into the economy and less with revolutionary democracy sloganeeringFor example,without foreign aid, even such sensible economic policies as ADLI, micro-enterprise development, and safety-net programmes that address chronic food insecurity in Ethiopia, may not have amounted to much. Economic ideas are fine, but to get to fruition, they need funds.

Is the main cause of the present economic growth and infrastructural development in Ethiopia foreign aid or ideology? Would social, economic and infrastructural transformation have been achieved without the massive foreign development assistance that averaged between USD 2 to 3 billion annually in the last decade? Would the “mixed economy” model – which is paraphrased to “Developmental State paradigm” in EPRDF political grammar – have brought about meaningful economic returns without sustained Western funding?

Only a proper research could establish the existence or absence of a relationship between revolutionary democracy and economic development in Ethiopia, but these questions must be asked.

Parenthetically, the EPRDF regime which owes its survival to the billions of dollars of aid it gets from the West ironically accuses opposition parties as lackeys of the West. It attacks liberalism day and night but beseeches liberal economies for more aid.  How and why it gets away with all these contradictions should have been probed.

Perhaps most crucially, why a supposedly superior and rescuing doctrine as revolutionary democracy mortally fears, criminalizes, harasses and banishes contending ideas should have been at the heart of the national debate.

Revolutionary Democracy: the Utopia and Dogma

There is more to the prefix “revolutionary” in Revolutionary Democracy than a mere appellation. It is the strand that ties revolutionary democracy to Communism and in some ways to Fascism. Deflected by miasmic comparisons of the scale of the damages caused by these ideologies, we should not exonerate revolutionary democracy simply because it has not inflicted as much pain as the two other totalitarian ideas. We need to look at the utopia and the dogma inherent in revolutionary democracy, which makes it as dangerous as any other messianic ideology.

The vision of EPRDF’s revolutionary democracy is a “new and prosperous Ethiopia” where the rights of nations and nationalities are “fully respected”. Granted, some visions are benign and more realistic than others.  Granted, it is unfair to equate the achievable vision of an economically better-off and politically inclusive Ethiopia to communism’s romantic pursuit of a proletarian dictatorship and Fascism’s search for racial purity and ultranationalist grandeur. Yet, Communism, Fascism and Revolutionary Democracy all have one thing in common: “absolute commitment to ideology”.

The similarity becomes clearer when dogma creeps into this commitment. EPRDF believes that it is the sole owner of the ideas that can steer Ethiopia towards the nirvana of an inclusive, prosperous and peaceful country. It is not this absolute belief in the righteousness of its own doctrine that makes EPRDF and revolutionary democracy dangerous. It is its stubborn resolve to destroy rival ideas by all means possible that makes it as dangerous as the systems that pursue seemingly more sinister utopias. John Gray – Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics – says that “in politics, the other face of radical evil is an inhuman vision of radical goodness”. Revolutionary Democracy personified by EPRDF arrests and executes political opponents, harasses dissenting ideas, strips Ethiopians of all political rights and civil liberties for the good vision of “a prosperous Ethiopia”. At best, it is a vision of radical goodness which becomes an inhuman vision because it justifies the evil of oppression.

Revolutionary Democracy at work

Ernest W. Lefever contends that the defeat of Communism and Fascism has not eliminated the return of totalitarian thinking and temptations. He was remarkably prescient when he warned that “out of the rubble of failed systems, the chaos of defeat, and the agony of alienated peoples, a new totalitarian savior could again arise proclaiming a new utopia”.

In the foregoing sections, we have seen how totalitarian ideologies crave adversaries and feed on scapegoats. Examples from recent Ethiopian political history would help to crystallize this notion.

In 1974, Emperor Haile-Selassie’s 44 years reign ended. Revolutionary Ethiopians rocked the foundations of the monarchy but the coup de grace was served by a military junta led by Colonel Mengistu Haile-Mariam.  The junta ordained a Marixist ideology – the precursor to today’s “revolutionary democracy”. In fact, “revolution” and “democracy” became the junta’s catchwords. The DERG – as the junta would later call itself – terrorized the Ethiopian people for 17 years, unleashing waves of violence under different pretexts.

First, it declared a class war on “Imperialists, the bourgeoisie and semi-bourgeoisie”. Next came the turn of own ideological allies – The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (alias MEISON) – who started to embrace a different interpretation of Marxism. Then, Eritrean and Tigrayan nationalists started an armed struggle against the DERG and the junta morphed into a defender of “Ethiopian unity” and turned its gun on Tigrayans and Eritreans.

In 1991, Mengistu’s regime collapsed.  The triumphant Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) arrived as the “new savior”. Revolutionary Democracy quickly found its enemy. TPLF picked Amharas – who immediately became Ethiopia’s “byvshie liudi” (former people) – as its focal enemy. TPLF unleashed an unremitting vitriolic propaganda against Amharas and Unionist Ethiopians. Adjectives with accusatory undertones such as “chauvinists” and “Neftagna” (armed settlers) permeated the new political vocabulary. Amhara’s were summarily categorized as beneficiaries of the old systems. They were identified as the source of all societal ills in Ethiopia. In Oromia – Bedano (Harar) and Arbagugu (Arsi) – Amhara civilians were butchered. TPLF did not commit these crimes; but the massacres were the macabre fruits of sustained TPLF anti-Amhara propaganda.

The Amhara’s were targeted mainly because they were the most vocal opponents of the secession of Eritrea. There is another theory which paints the witch-hunt against Amharas as a mere extension of historical power struggle between the two Semitic nationalities in Northern Ethiopia. The advent of ethnic-nationalism and TPLF’s iron hand dealt a decisive blow to Amhara and centralist fight back.

The Amhara “threat” was quickly neutralized, but the next enemy did not take long to emerge. The Oromos – the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia – demanded their “rightful place” in the new political arrangement. TPLF found its second enemy, which it destroyed with astounding efficiency. Documentary “evidences” showing “narrow” Oromo “extremists” slaughtering Amhara settlers in Bedano, Arba-gugu and other areas started to surface. Evidences, that never bothered TPLF before it fell out with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)! The atrocities were real. Extremist Oromos allegedly carried out the massacres. TPLF is culpable though, because it was the main instigator of hate against Amharas.

The third enemy of TPLF would turn out to be its alter ego Sha’bia (EPLF) – the ruling party in Eritrea and TPLF’s erstwhile ally and mentor. The May 1998 to June 2000 Ethio-Eritrean war was not a war of choice for TPLF.  Eritrea started the war. Nonetheless, the TPLF found yet another scapegoat to continue internal political repression.  The war also gave the TPLF a breathing space as most Ethiopians postponed their anger against the regime and stood by the TPLF-led government in a show of remarkable patriotism.

In 2005, buoyed by the support it received from the Ethiopian people during the war, TPLF/EPRDF opened up the political arena and granted opposition parties some space for competition. It would prove to be a turning point for democracy in Ethiopia. The consensus is that the EPRDF lost that election to the opposition. The biggest winner was the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) – alias Kinijit in Amharic. The CUD competed on a political agenda that emphasized “national unity” and opposed ethnic federalism. The success of the CUD shocked EPRDF to the core.

To EPRDF, not only did the CUD triumph represent the revival of the detested “Amharas”, it awakened it to the grim reality that it can never win a free and fair elections. TPLF’s coalition partners in the EPRDF – ANDM (Amhara), Oromo (OPDM), SEPDM (Southern region) – were all routed in their respective regions because the nations and nationalities they purported to represent veritably saw them as veritable puppets of the TPLF.

EPRDF firmly closed whatever little political space that existed.  So much so, that in the 2010 elections, it “won” all but one of the 547 seats in the House of Representatives (the Parliament). Today, EPRDF members and supporters control all State and religious institutions at the Federal level and in Amhara, Oromia, Tigray, and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ (SNNP) region. The Judiciary, Security sector, and economy are firmly in the hands of EPRDF. Satellite parties allied to EPRDF rule the so-called “developing’ regions – Somali, Afar, Benishangul, Harari, and Gambella.

More recently, “anti-terrorism” accorded EPRDF a new scapegoat. Centralist political parties are branded relics of the past. Ethno-nationalists who embraced ethnic federalism but advocate for a genuine implementation of the project are labeled “terrorists” and are outlawed. Serious opposition parties are banned from operating inside the country and operate in exile. Opposition parties inside the country can issue statements through foreign media or by organizing subdued events but they cannot freely mobilize the grassroots. Elections are meaningless because the National Election Board (NEBE) is a functionary of the ruling party/government.

Revolutionary Democracy has a dual attribute. Like Communism, EPRDF and its satellite parties control government at federal and regional levels, which makes the party and the government one and the same. Like Fascism, all ideas in revolutionary democracy emanate from its “magnetic” leader Meles Zenawi. Up until and even after his death, he was and continues to be credited as the originator of all ideas that ERPDF implements; particularly, the ones that worked.

This is the anatomy of a Revolutionary Democracy.


Debating the goodness or badness of one or another ideology is pointless. No ideology has a silver bullet that would take humanity to a worldly paradise. There are enough ambiguities in the theories of every ideology. Even if the theories of one ideology are found more relevant to a given context, it means nothing unless the practice matches the theory. Practice often deviates from theory in totalitarian ideologies.

But more importantly, arguing over ideologies is the thing of the past. If the 20th century was the era of ideology, the 21stcentury is the age of values. Freedom and justice which are innate human desires matter to humanity more than erratic ideologies, because these enduring values are the only institutions can minimize the occurrence of violence. Ideologies by their nature do not avert violence, they fuel it.

If we have to embrace ideologies, we should embrace only those that accept – in theory and practice – the inviolability of the sanctity of human life. The quality and relevance of a doctrine must be judged against this singular moral principle. An ideology that stifles freedom of speech, suspends human rights and imposes an arbitrary application of law is an anathema to human progress and a recipe for violence.

Today, in Ethiopia, systematic and gross violations of human rights are committed. There is no independent judiciary to uphold the rule of law. The regime arbitrarily applies rules of natural justice and the rule of law, thereby turning the avenue of society into a scary chamber where injustice is domesticated. Plighted by politically correct thinking, the EPRDF stifles freedom of thought and freedom of expression. The regime is bent on crushing individual thinking and browbeating the Ethiopian nation into accepting that an idea could only be valid if it came from “the correct” group, which in this case happens to be the top echelons of EPRDF.

EPRD’s revolutionary democracy has all the hallmarks of a messianic ideology with its utopia, dogma and concomitant violence. It is not a new ideology by any stretch of imagination. It is a revised trajectory of totalitarian thinking presented as a redeeming doctrine, and has a lot in common with past totalitarian schemes. George Steiner’s decisive contention in the “Grammars of Creation” comes to mind. “We have no more beginnings”. How true!

Equally, Liberal Democracy is not a perfect system. Some of its core postulates such as the relationship between elections and citizen participation in resource allocation and political decision-making and the validity of some of its core economic propositions have been criticized since its earliest days by Marxists, socialists, left-wing anarchists, empiricists, and proponents of “direct” democracy. However, the consensus is that while not a perfect system, Liberal Democracy reduces political uncertainty and instability by providing the public with regular chances to change those in power without changing the legal basis for government.

At any rate, the deficiencies of Liberalism cannot expiate the sins of revolutionary democracy.

Intellectuals who are enamored with the “good intellect and intentions” of Meles Zenawi and rationalize his appalling human rights records are guilty of either willful ignorance or disagree with Professor John Gray’s dauntingly erudite reminder: “radical evil can come from the pursuit of progress”.