The Thinking and Objective of Polarizing Politics – Messay Kebede

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By Prof. Mesay Kebede

Ever since rudiments of dialectical thinking grabbed the imagination of Ethiopia’s educated youngsters and elites, essentially as a result of the global prestige of the Marxist class analysis of society in the 60s and early 70s, modern Ethiopian politics has shifted toward polarizing trends that have been perilous to the unity and economic development of the country. The trouble is that the questionable nature of the Marxist-Leninist concepts of class and class struggle stood out only after the total failures of socialist experiences in the former Soviet Union and its satellites. The concepts had to be disproved by facts developing over decades for them to lose their grip on the mind of educated people, especially in third world countries. Unfortunately, what was unleashed by the concepts has developed a life of its own, thereby reviving the thinking even if it has lost its original purpose.

In hindsight, it now appears that common sense could have been enough to prevent us from engaging in the path of polarizing thinking. The link is quite obvious between the state of mind of the generation of the 60s and 70s and the politics they advocated. Indeed, the notion of contradiction between classes stemming from irreconcilable, antagonistic interests, polarized our vision of society, thereby nurturing radicalism. To the extent that class struggle means that one class excludes other classes, it rules out a policy of compromise based on the common good, since the notion of common good is viewed as illusory and counter to the course of societal progress. By contrast, one activates the real forces governing history if one adopts an exclusive form of thinking: just as class interests are incompatible, so too should the politics of change be as uncompromising as the interests. This means radicalism and revolution.

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Be it noted that ethnic politics is just a derivation of class antagonism. Just as classes are viewed as opposites, ethnic groups are construed as contradictory in their aspiration and interests. This explains why the transition from Marxism to ethnocentrism has been so easy for so many educated elites: once you adopt the view of society as torn between contradictory and irreconcilable class interests, the presence of different and socially unequal ethnic groups becomes a breeding ground for ethnic polarizations. Unravelling the secret of radical politics, Amartya Sen finds that the main ingredient is the advocacy of “single-dimensional categorization of human beings.” The attribution of one single overriding identity to people is how they become alien and hostile to each other. The assumption of a single identity means that one cannot be Oromo or Somali and Ethiopian at the same time. What is more, ethnic divisions look even more radical and revolutionary than Marxist radicalization because it goes to the extent of questioning the political unity of the country. What could better show one’s unreserved commitment to polarizing politics than to espouse a secessionist objective?

To explain the loss of the common sense I talked about, it is enough to recall that youngsters in the 60s and 70s learned Marxism mostly from Soviet and Chinese pamphlets. For Marxism, the pamphlets said, everything is contradictory: contradiction is the structure and the driving force of all things. Night is opposed to day, cold to hot, north to south, positive to negative, life to death, etc. Let us focus on night and day: to constitute these two moments as opposites, I must obviously ignore intermediary states and retain only extremes. This is to say that opposition is a construct involving abstract thinking, that is, the discarding of the movement of day as a series of transitory states without ever reaching the extreme level of contradiction, of mutual exclusiveness for the reason that there is no such a thing as extreme, pure night.


It is the same in society: where Marxism sees clearly contrasted classes, the reality of social life exhibits not so much closed groups as an array in which individuals impinge on each other. The rigid classification by which classes are construed as opposites ignores the reality of intermediaries that presents society as a range of differentiations rather than polarizations. To constitute classes as antagonistic, I must put aside the many-sided overlappings by which one group touches on other groups, thereby forming a chain of differentiations rather than exclusive and hostile poles. For instance, no person in Ethiopia is solely a member of a class or an ethnic group: he/she is a Christian or a Muslim, a parent, a member of a particular profession, a native of a certain ethnic group, an Ethiopian, an African, etc. What this means is that the perception of rigid oppositions in what constitutes a multifaceted chain is exactly the product of a construct for the obvious purpose of political mobilization under the exclusive control of a totalitarian leadership.

I am not saying that the attempt to unify and mobilized people around some shared interests is a bad thing. Rather, we must understand it for what it really is, namely, a mental construction forged by elites in the struggle for the control of power. We must never lose sight of the fact that it is an abstraction that serves a definite purpose and that the concrete reality is a mixture, an infringement of various interests. Great national politics consists in harmonizing the diversity of social life rather than polarizing groups. Again, Sen gets it right when he writes: “The world is made much more incendiary by the advocacy and popularity of group, which combines haziness of vision with increased scope for the exploitation of that haze by the champions of violence.”

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The failure of modern Ethiopia, failure that took an alarming trend with the Derg and a frankly dangerous one with the Woyanne rule, originates from the stubborn attempt of one group to exclude and dominate other groups, on the grounds that the society is composed of antagonistic interests. Willy-nilly, such a politics cannot offer anything other than endless repression, erection of social blockages, and exasperation of hostilities, thereby endangering unity and blocking the development of the country.

Suppose that you consider society more as an array of overlapping interests rather than a field torn by irreconcilable interests. The role of politics will strongly resemble that of an orchestra conductor: just as the conductor harmonizes various instruments into an integrated totality, so too politics attentive to overlapping groups blends various interests into one diversified and mutually supportive unity. Polarizing politics silences all the other instruments in favor of one instrument; harmonizing politics allows all instruments to play but in an integrating fashion, by which they become mutually supportive and achieve a richer unity. This harmonizing politics is none other than democracy.

Recall Mao Tse-tung’s slogan, “let a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend.” It announced the temporary suspension of the communist repression and a vision of social development correcting polarization in favor of pluralism. Unfortunately or predictably, Mao very soon returned to his previous vision of “let one flower bloom, one school of thought dominate,” which was a return to the notion of antagonistic interests, as a response to mounting criticisms against the communist party. Nothing could better show the real goal of polarizing politics, namely, the exclusive control of power.


  1. [[..This harmonizing politics is none other than democracy…]]

    While alive, Meles would have demanded to know how Prof. Messay would define “democracy” and seek a feasible path to it? He would’ve also argued, what meaning did “democracy” have in a context of abject poverty or political chaos?

    I would ask, who is going to control the “ethnic demagogues” from demanding to break away now?

    Development and a strong state are prerequisites for human rights, and Ethiopia needs to establish these first. :idea:

  2. get off. I have read you several times. And you do not measure up to the prestige of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a great country and she needs the greatest thinkers. Not the petty ones of no sorts. Once untrusted, never agin. Do not be a middle grounds wishy-washy. Identify your position, or dilly-dallying sucks you in before you go anywhere. Got it.
    Stay away!!!! Please

  3. I do not even take the minimum pain to read this article. Have read the writer quite a few times before, and should I spend my precious time for nothing but reading a lengthy article with no position to argue for or against? Answer. NO.

  4. Dawi,
    Are you sure you read the article and understand it? The article seem focused on what causes polarization and how we can overcome it. You seem to visualize a potential view or response of a deceased person who knows only polarization as a means for political domination, not governance-everyone need to have a fair, if not equal, chance.

  5. I think this is a paper of seriously questionable quality because it glossed over Ethiopia’s complex and deep rooted political problems.

    Why do I say this? It begins with a political persuation and its resulting behaviour of a given Ethiopian generation at a given time and and closes with a projection that the present political environment in the country as an outcome of persuation and behaviour of the said generation.

    It does not give even a brief reference to foreign experience with a backing of somekind of theory about this outlandish claim of succession of political persuation and behaviour.

    The assertion of the writer seems ” political perspectives of the 1960s and 1970s that relied on class analysis, class contradictions, class struggle and the defeat of one class by another as its desired outcome is the cause and effect of polarized politics in the country today.”

    If the above presents the writer’s idea, the issue of foreign experience and backing of known theory aside, the question is is there really “polarized poltics” in the country? If it exists, between (or among) whom? How does the said polarization relate to the politics of the 1960s and 1970s?

    As to me, the writer simply assumes that the country is undergoing “polarized politcs” without answering some or all of the above questions. He just assumes and wants everybody to assume the same like him. I find his assumption simplistic without an iota of effort to substantiate it. MAybe another paper is in order.

    I know from the writer’s previous writnings and speeches that he resents the persistence of elites of certain nations in their push for the respect of the collective rights. His presnt writing suggests that if they hold a different opinion from his on the national question, their position is “polarizing”. According to him, since the eleties belong to the 1960s and 70s generation they are Marxist – Leninists . So, it goes without saying, they must have been infected with conflic theory from which they have not extricated themselves to this day. They are thinking in terms of “us and them”. Downright silly.

    If 1960s and 70s generation is still infected with conflict theory of which Marxism – Leninism is the dominat one, how come the writer who was a follower of it (even teaching it and practically living it) liberated himself from it while others failed to do so? Is self aggrandizement the attempt here by calling others “unreformable” conflictualists?

    My understanding is that though Marxists – Leninists wrote, talked and tried to put it into practice, nationalism has nothing to do with their main political tenet based on class analysis, class contradictions, class struggle and the defeat of one class by another. In fact, the accusation that’s leveled against nationalismis its failure to take class seriously.

    Superficially, conflic theory and nationalism show similarities in the sense that the two see relations in terms of “us and them”, but to characterize them as one or even successor of one another appears over simplification of the issue. In fact, the theoretical framework of nationalismis the opposite of conflict theory which is structural functionalism. The latter addresses society as a whole in terms of the function of its constituent elements such as customs, traditions, and institutions and norms. It advances consensus than conflict.

    I think there is sternly plain difference of approaches and views among Ethiopians on certain issues (such as national question) but I don’t see polarization. To this extent, Ethiopian politics is no different from politics elsewhere in the world.

    The bad thing about characterizing Ethiopian politics as polarization is to suggest that it can only be solved by defeating one by the other. Think of national question with this polarizing view in mind. I think it should’t be seen the way the writer puts it forward.

    Differences in approaches and views on a certain political issue can be discussed and if the underlying interest is to address a particular problem (including national question) in good faith to mend fence, it is not insurmontable.


  6. To my understanding this is the best analysis
    on polarizing politics . Its a thoughtful article .
    I thanks and admire you courage and inclined to
    know this hard fact .

  7. For Abyssinians any question of freedom they can not agree with is called hate politics or polarization. I am afraid there is no chance for a peaceful solution as long as the Abyssinians continue to think they own the country and they can dictate whatever political space that serves their narrow interest. This time it is the Tigres who dictate the politics of the country and the world knows it is not any different from the past. But this time the oppressed people of the South are saying enough is enough and that is what is causing the panic.

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