To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
September 8, 2015
RE: Imagination vs reality

From the history of
Ethiopian resistance to Italian occupation

(The sad story of Leon Trotsky and Haile Selassie - part 2)

In April 1936, Trotsky envisioned that Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, might strike “a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole” and this “would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples”. (1) Things were somewhat different in the real world, rather than Trotsky’s imagination. But Trotsky never reexamined his views in light of the experience of the Ethiopian people’s struggle. Nor has the Trotskyist movement in the 79 years since 1936.

If we want to know how to fight against oppression, we need to study the history of the various struggles. Trotsky, however, taught his followers to follow certain mechanical rules no matter what experience said, and this is one of the worst parts of his legacy. Moreover, his lack of concern for the actual course of the Ethiopian struggle manifests a certain scorn for the peoples of the Horn of Africa.

Below is a brief overview of the actual course of Ethiopian resistance to Italian invasion and occupation:

* Haile Selassie ruled in an absolutist fashion over the Ethiopian Empire. This was an expansionist empire which oppressed a number of subject peoples. This would have an important effect on the course of the war and in the post-war years.

* The Second Italo-Ethiopian war began with an Italian invasion in October 1935.

* The Italian army made use of a substantial number of troops from other parts of Africa that they had colonized: Eritrea, Italian Somaliland, and Libya.

* The Italian invaders had greatly superior weaponry, but faced heavy opposition as they pushed into Ethiopia. At the end of 1935, in order to help stop the Ethiopian “Christmas offensive”, the Italians began to make use of poison gas. They would use it extensively against both troops and entire villages; there were also mass shootings of civilians.

* If the “Christmas offensive” had been successful, Ethiopian troops would pushed into Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. It would have been good to push the Italians out of their colonies, but there is no question that Selassie would have proceeded to annex these areas against their will.

* As the Ethiopian army suffered repeated defeats and lost territory, resistance developed behind Italian lines. One writer claims that “While conventional battles were raging in central and southeastern Ethiopia, Tigray, the first province to be occupied in northern Ethiopia, became the first battleground for the Patriots. They operated in small groups, not far from their respective localities. ... They were engaged in activities such as the ambushing of enemy troops to acquire arms and other war materials, snowballing huge rocks off mountains and cliffs when enemy convoys passed, disrupting the enemy’s communication systems by kidnapping their messengers and later cutting telephone lines, setting fire to anything under enemy control such as offices and fuel or ammunition depots by firing from long range, and harassing and killing enemy collaborators.” (2) This resistance continued even as the conventional resistance by Selassie’s armies collapsed.

* The bulk of the Ethiopian army was defeated by May 1936, with one last general holding out until December; although the Ethiopian government did not surrender, the war is conventionally said to have ended in May (the month after Trotsky’s statement). The League of Nations ended war sanctions against Italy in July, 1936.

* Selassie fled Ethiopia on May 2, 1936, about a week and a half after Trotsky imagined that he would lead an anti-imperialist upsurge against Italian aggression and all world imperialism. He took refuge in England not just because of Italian pressure, but from fear of the Oromo people, one of the oppressed peoples in Ethiopia. (3) Selassie fled as the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, was about to fall. He could have retreated with his remaining troops away from the Italians, but would have had to pass through territory inhabited by the Oromo. A short time after he fled, Mussolini declared victory and the bourgeois world took the war in Ethiopia to be over.

* Resistance continued, and Italy was never able to fully occupy Ethiopia. But the struggle now took on the form of a partisan or guerrilla war, mainly carried out by the Patriots. It was a forerunner of the partisan wars and resistance movements that would arise in occupied Europe.

* Selassie's flight spread discontent with his absolutist regime. The defeat of the Ethiopian army, despite heroic efforts by its soldiers against superior weaponry and poison gas, caused Ethiopians to wonder why this had taken place. And Selassie’s absence resulted in disunity and disorientation among the remaining personnel of the Ethiopian regime. Thus, while Selassie appealed to the League of Nations and the British government, the resistance inside the country spread independently of his direction. Moreover, while the Patriots were not a revolutionary movement, they did not want to see the reestablishment of the former Ethiopian absolutism: they wanted to see reforms.

* The Ethiopian Empire's oppression of various subject peoples played a bad part in the years of Italian occupation, as it had played in the Second Italo-Ethiopian war itself. The Italians made use of divide and conquer tactics, and sought to utilize the hatred and fears caused by past Ethiopian expansionism. As far as I know, Selassie never attempted to placate the subject nationalities with promises of reform. Instead the Ethiopian army had castrated a number of captured Eritreans, and Selassie never gave up expansionist territorial ambitions. By comparison, the partisans in Yugoslavia in World War II pledged to respect the national rights of the various nationalities (with the unfortunate exception of the rights of the Albanian Kosovars); this was crucial for the success of the partisan war.

* Most bourgeois governments around the world recognized Italian rule over Ethiopia, either directly or tacitly. Britain, seeking an alliance with Mussolini’s Italy, was among those countries.

* Fascist Italy declared war on Britain and France in June 1940. Britain would then launch an East Africa campaign which would, by the end of 1941, throw Italy out of all its colonial possessions in the Horn of Africa and expand British colonial control.

* Trotsky was savagely murdered in August 1940, but this survey will continue on after that time. Trotsky died, but his theories remained, and have to be judged in the light of subsequent events as well as those in his lifetime.

* With the help of the East Africa Campaign, Selassie would return to Ethiopia in 1941. British troops, along with a contingent of Ethiopians loyal to Selassie and organized outside the country with the help of the British, and the Patriots inside Ethiopia, threw the Italian occupiers out. It was an important victory to end the Italian occupation. But Selassie’s absolutist rule was preserved, and the challenge posed by the Patriots was overcome. Thus the “victory of the Negus” (in Trotsky's phrase) --that is, restoring his absolute rule--was not a blow to imperialism, but in accord with British imperialist plans. This result would have terrible results for Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea in the post-war years.

* When Selassie returned, he was immediately concerned to prevent reform and preserve absolutist rule. He reorganized the country to maximize his power, and this quickly provoked several revolts. The most notable was the Woyane uprising in Tigray in 1943; it was suppressed with the help of the British air force. Here, too, what happened in Ethiopia was a forerunner of events later in Europe: other partisan movements also had their dreams of social progress suppressed by the Allies.

* In 1950, Ethiopia took control over its neighbor Eritrea under the guise of creating a federation with it. Thus Selassie succeeded in his efforts to replace British rule over Eritrea with Ethiopian rule. In 1962, Ethiopia dissolved the federation with Eritrea and openly annexed it. Thus the Ethiopian Empire continued on its expansionist course, and this paved the way for years and years of more war, more blood, more tragedy: the Eritrean War of Independence would last three decades.

* Around 1958, Selassie finally decided to take part in the general anti-colonial movement in Africa. He obtained a good deal of influence among newly-independent states, and when the Organization of African Unity was formed, its headquarters were located in Addis Ababa. But far from this giving a powerful impulse to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements, Selassie's main efforts were to restrain hostility to Western imperialism and to prevent condemnation of Ethiopia's oppression of subject nationalities. Indeed, he was one of the moving forces behind the tragic idea that the right to self-determination should not apply to the affairs of independent African states.

* Haile Selassie’s dictatorial rule was overthrown by the Ethiopian people in 1974, thus ending the Empire. But the Empire’s legacy of national oppression and absolutism continued to plague the following governments. For example, the new government, the Dergue, would not grant the right to self-determination to Eritrea, and the Eritrean War of Independence would rage on to 1991, outlasting not only the Empire, but the Dergue as well.

Is this history really what one would expect from Trotsky’s glorification of the “very progressive role” that a dictator could play in history, and his insistence that the working class “had the duty of making a choice between two dictators”, Mussolini or Selassie? It was right to back Ethiopia against Italian invasion and occupation, but it was wrong to glorify Haile Selassie.

In part 3, I will discuss what a better stand would have been.


(1) ”On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo”, April 22, 1936.

(2) Aregawi Berhe, ”Revisiting resistance in Italian-occupied Ethiopia: The Patriots’ Movement (1936-1941) and the redefinition of post-war Ethiopia”.

(3) The Oromo people may be called the Galla in earlier literature. <>

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Posted on September 25, 2015