Tigrai [i] : Enver’s little known admirers
Probably the most successful of fraternal organisations allied with the Hoxhaist wing of the 1980s anti-revisionist movement was the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigrai (MLLT) who were at the core of the TPLF.
Following the military coup of 1974, a faction of the military under Mengistu Haile Mariam began to seek closer ties to the Soviet Union. Through a series of purges , first of military opponents, and from mid-1977 through 1978, acting on requests from Soviet advisors to rid the country of Chinese and Maoist influence, Mengistu turned other left factions, in a terror killing many thousands more, especially student and youth activists. At the same time undercut the civilian left’s popularity through the military junta’s appeals to Ethiopian patriotism. The national liberation struggles in Eritrea and Tigari were against the Ethiopian state headed by Mengistu, supported by massive numbers of Cuban troops, as well as advisors from the Soviet Union, East Germany and South Yemen. Mengistu’s largely military-based state communist party, the Workers Party of Ethiopia, was formed in 1984. Mengistu was overthrown in 1991 by a coalition of military forces dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
In the 1970s there was a network of solidary support from the ML organisations for the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) against the pro-Soviet Ethiopian Derg military regime; it was mainly the national sections of the Worldwide Union of Ethiopian Students (WWUES) that drew attention; the Tigrayan struggle did not appear as frequently on the radar of activists. There was established in the early 1980’s the expatriate organisation, Union of Tigray In Europe.
Although the TPLF, as its name indicates, was a nationalist front encompassing
different social classes, the leadership and the leading elements – later known as Merih Baeta – were disciples of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse-tung. They believed that a socialist revolution would transform Ethiopian society and that rights to self-determination would be respected. Initially, the TPLF leadership considered embracing the Chinese model of a ‘New Democratic’ revolution. This New Democracy led by a communist party was propagated by the TPLF until the beginning of the 1980s.
“At the beginning of 1980 comrade Enver Hoxha’s latest writings managed to find their way to the TPLF. It was a very important event in the history of the development of the (ML) core. Mao Tse-Tung’s thought which hitherto, had been taken as a development of Marxism-Leninism by the Core was mercilessly exposed in comrade Enver Hoxha’s book, Imperialism and Revolution, and set the whole Core reading and re-reading this book.
The so-called three-world’s theory was the easiest of all Mao’s anti-Marxist slanders to dispel and was immediately repudiated by the Core.”
On the question of Mao Tse-Tung’s thought in general the core decided to handle it with care and profundity. It was decided to re=research the Marxist classics, to critically study Mao Tse-Tung’s thought and all the defense that Maoists could bring in its defense in view of Comrade Hoxha’s book.”[ii]
The left-oriented TPLF leadership with its eclectic views of socialism that had been leading the movement. The self-described Marxist-Leninist core had begun shaping up only after the formation of the organizing commission in early 1983. It was consolidated at a founding congress held 12 to 25 July 1985.
On 25 July 1985 the MLLT was formally set up ‘…after over 10 years of struggle and preparation’. Although the MLLT’s first chairman was Abbay Tsehaye, the chief ideologue and architect of the party was Meles Zenawi, future Prime Minister of Ethiopia and leader of the ruling TPLF/EPRDF. Looking at the ideological course the TPLF navigated, the whole objective of the TPLF leadership was essentially to defeat the Derg military regime and embark on ‘a national democratic revolution [to] pave the way for a planned socialist economy free of exploitation of man by man, in the interest of the masses’ (Manifesto of TPLF, February 1976: 25-27).
At the founding Congress behind the long podium were large portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin dominating the entire hall. The communist force of the [TPLF sponsored] Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM) and some ten other pro-Albanian Marxist-Leninist communist parties from Europe and the Americas were invited to the founding congress. Tamrat Layne, then Meles’s comrade-in-arms, led the EPDM delegation. While the German ML party sent a Mr. Kafka as a one-man delegation, the other nine ML parties sent messages of solidarity read out at congress.
The MLLT publically emerged appealing to a (universalist) Marxist-socialist ideology but at the same time claiming a solution for Tigrai (that is ‘secession’) instead of for Ethiopia as a whole. There were still adjustments and concealments that the party leaders had to make to gain the West’s support and still maintain their old ideology. Meles Zenawi later argued that the TPLF’s Marxist principles had been hidden so that the anti-Marxist western community, where relief aid came from, would not know about them. The TPLF thus failed to develop a strong relationship with its strategic allies, namely Marxist-Leninist parties worldwide, because it did not approach them openly. Meles Zenawi called this opportunism and classified it as a mistake of ‘pragmatism’.
The TPLF’s reorientation of Marxism-Leninism from the Chinese to the Albanian interpretation, in the work of Aregawi Berhe (2008), was described as:
“also the making of Meles after he read a journal sent by the Union of Tigraians in North America (UTNA). The Albanian conviction regarding the ‘Three Worlds’ theory put the Soviet Union and the United States of America on the same footing as the ‘First World’ countries, but considered the former to be more aggressive and dangerous than the latter.
For Meles and his supporters, the Stalinist revolutionary line and the Albanian
version of socialism were truly Marxist-Leninist. The Chinese path, which had embraced the national bourgeoisie as a strategic ally in its new democratic revolution, was discarded as a ‘revisionist system capitulating to the bourgeois order’. The MLLT was to be constructed on these ideological foundations.”
In May 1984, in a self-assessment of its activities, MLLT stated:
“Proletarian internationalism can only, mean to follow the correct Marxist-Leninist line and wage the revolution accordingly in one’s own country and support this with every means possible throughout the world. Therefore there can be no question of proletarian internationalism without a correct Marxist-Leninist Line.
At this time, such line is the line define by the Party of Labour of Albania and other sisterly Marxist-Leninist parties and groups. That line is the foundation of proletarian internationalism throughout the world. The attitude towards that line is the demarcation line between genuine proletarian internationalism and phoney internationalism.”[iii]
Despite this professed allegiance the MLLT were not listed among the fraternal foreign delegations and guests who took part in the 9th Congress of the Party of Labour of Albania in November 1986.
[i] This section’s account draws heavily upon the work of:
Aregawi Berhe (2008) A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (1975-1991): revolt, ideology and mobilisation in Ethiopia. Vrijte Universiteit: Amsterdam
Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line, the section on Anti-Revisionism in Ethiopia https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ethiopia/index.htm
Tefera Negash Gebregziabher (2019) Ideology and Power in TPLF’S Ethiopia: A Historic Reversal in the Making? African Affairs, Volume 118, Issue 472, July 2019, Pages 463–484,
Posted at Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line