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Correspondence on the nature of the Eritrean government

(from Communist Voice #27, September 2001)


* Introduction: Can on support proletarian independence while upholding the right to self-determination? by Frank, Seattle

* Reply to an American "Marxist-Leninist", the author of "Denounce the Ethiopian Chauvinism" by Thomas Mountain

*Frank replies concerning the class situation in Eritrea

Introduction to the correspondence:

Can one support proletarian independence
while upholding the right to self-determination?

by Frank, Seattle

. Vol. 6, #3 and Vol. 7 #1 of Communist Voice carried a two-part article on the 1999-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean war. This was one of the more bitter conflicts of recent times, and although an OAU/UN-brokered peace agreement is now in place, a lasting peace is still not assured. The Eritrean people won their right to decide whether or not to separate from their former Ethiopian colonial masters in 1991. In 1993 they overwhelmingly voted to do so. But the 1999-2000 conflict was driven by the Ethiopian government's thirst to reverse the right of the Eritrean people to remain free. And it killed many scores of thousands of people during the war, laid waste to major areas of Eritrea during its May-June 2000 offensive, etc. , in order to achieve this purely chauvinist aim.

. Part I of the article dwelt on the fact that the right of nations to self-determination (or, in Eritrea's case, to decide for themselves whether of not to remain independent) remains an important issue on the Horn of Africa and in today's world. It pointed out that the present governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia stem from liberation fronts, and discussed what can be expected from such organizations if they gain power when led by petty-bourgeois and/or bourgeois forces. And it stressed that the working class should struggle to lead democratic movements itself. Part II dealt with some of the questions surrounding the outbreak of the war, the culpability of the U. S. and other major imperialist powers in it, etc. It also developed as a main theme the crucial issue of the Ethiopian and Eritrean workers needing to develop politics and organization independent of the bourgeoisie, and of the traditional nationalist illusions in Eritrea. This last theme has gotten one of our readers upset.

. As author of "The right to self-determination and the Ethiopian-Eritrean war" I received several comments from readers. Among them was a note from Thomas Mountain, a member of the U. S. -Eritrean Friendship Association. Mountain's views conform to one of the negative tendencies in today's left: to subordinate the working masses to the rule of the local bourgeoisie in the name of opposing U. S. interference, bullying and denial of the rights of nations to self-determination. But since he says he's "ready for revolution" this causes some tension in what is in reality a common reformist or even liberal position.

. At the beginning of our exchanges Mountain confined himself to accusing me of not doing "much homework" because I "failed to mention the role of the Western world in funding the invasion of Eritrea to the tune of over $2 billion" (emphasis added). In later letters he shifted to admitting the $2 billion was only a rough estimate, and not of direct U. S. funding of the invasion, but of funds the Ethiopian government had come up with through such methods as diverting Western famine-relief money. (1)

. Well my article had pointed out that the Ethiopian government had used "loans and diverted famine-relief funds" to pay for military hardware. It had also said that "the ruling powers of the West and Russia and eastern Europe were guilty of helping to prepare and prolong the blood-bath"; that "the dominant imperialist powers appeased the Ethiopian government and continued to arm it when it was clearly preparing a war of revenge"; that the Ethiopian government "understood well enough that large Ethiopia was considered important by the strategic planners of the imperialist countries whereas smaller (and perhaps not so trustworthy) Eritrea was considered expendable", and that "it knew it could invade its neighbor and suffer few major consequences from the rich and powerful countries"; that the U. S. facilitators had been "repeatedly going along with (and objectively siding with) the many ruses the Ethiopian government put forward for not agreeing to a cease-fire" during the build-up for the invasion; etc. ; etc. So Mountain's criticism seemed a little strange. True, I hadn't mentioned any of the figures being tossed around in the press on how much aid-money the Ethiopian government was diverting, but instead concentrated on what I thought was the more important thing: to analyze the political/strategic maneuvering of U. S. imperialism with the regimes in the region, including analyzing the nature of the Ethiopian and Eritrean regimes. Further letters from Mountain revealed that it was the latter which really upset him, not that I didn't use some rough figure for Ethiopian war-spending.

. More letters between Mountain and CVO members showed he's a wild defender of Eritrea's ruling party (the EPLF/PFDJ). He tries to explain the U. S. appeasement of the Ethiopian aggressors simply on the basis of the Eritrean government being a black role model which the white-supremacist CIA wanted to wipe out. To do this he has to ignore a wealth of facts showing that the dominant imperialist powers--the U. S. , World Bank, etc. --had formed an alliance with the Eritrean regime in the 90s. He also makes preposterous claims regarding this government, and not just to us. At Dehai. com he says to the world that Eritrea (which he calls "the light of Africa") "has chosen self-reliance over dependency" and "has said no to the World Bank and the IMF". And to me he makes such claims as that "Eritrean society is the most democratic society. . . in the world, if not in all history"!

. But I had had the audacity to point out in my article and in my letters to him that this was a capitalist regime "tied to imperialism by a thousand threads". I commented on some of the ways it restricted democracy for the masses. And I argued that the Eritrean working class had to reject the politics of the EPLF/PFDJ and build a class movement independent of the bourgeoisie and the traditional nationalist illusions. Mountain's response was to accuse me of slandering the great and good EPLF/PFDJ, and to say that I must have white-supremacist blinders on because I don't agree with his assessment of the motivations of the U. S. vis-a-vis the Eritrean government. Eventually he stopped writing.

. Thomas Mountain signed some of his letters to us with the phrase "ready for revolution". Yet his standpoint is to support one of the exploitative and oppressive regimes of the present imperialist world order. (Of course this regime may be less exploitative and oppressive than some others, but that's only a relative question, not one of principle. ) This is a "choose the lesser evil" standpoint and essentially the same as that of the reformist forces dominating today's mass movements. But a revolutionary standpoint is not to search for a lesser evil, but to support the people and not their oppressors. If this is truly in one's heart then it will force one to struggle for theoretical clarity on such questions as the class nature of the Eritrean regime, the methods by which it suppresses mass democracy, and how to support a nation's right to self-determination without trailing behind bourgeois forces who may presently lead a national movement. By opposing such a revolutionary undertaking in his letters Mountain reveals that his "revolution" is only an opportunistic phrase used to justify reformist politics.

. In the months since Thomas Mountain stopped writing there have been new developments in Eritrea which further undermine his outlandish claim that Eritrean society is the most democratic society in the world, "if not all history". These include (1) the unprecedented public criticism of the regime which came in the form of an "Open Letter" by 15 senior members of the EPLF/PFDJ, including two government ministers and an army general, (2) a denunciation of the regime's "Special Courts" by the main author of the Eritrean constitution (Breket Habte Selassie), (3) the resignation of the ambassador to Scandinavia (Hebret Berhe), (4) an article by Tekie Fezzehatzion placed on the Internet.

. Now all of these people are thoroughly bourgeois in their outlook. They glorify bourgeois democracy and slough over that it's a screen behind which the capitalists exercise class dictatorship over the masses. But even they are protesting that the Afwerki regime is becoming increasingly undemocratic even according to their narrow and restricted concept of democracy. In particular they protest that the EPLF/PFDJ leaders have been sitting on the constitution for 4 years without implementing it, and they call for the rule of law. So far none of them has made any public moves toward forming a political party in defense of the constitution, or a liberal party, although that may come about. If it does the Eritrean workers and other toilers should not become its tail. Instead they should take advantage of the splits and in-fighting in the ruling class to push forward their class demands, including democratic demands, and to build a proletarian political trend. (And in this regard, we should note that none of the new critics of the EPLF/PFDJ has even hinted to the masses that they should mount any kind of actions in defense of democratic rights. For all their distaste for the regime's dictatorial ways it seems they fear the outbreak of mass struggles more than they fear the regime. )

. Lastly, Tekie Fezzehatzion badly mauls more of Thomas Mountain's "theories" in his recent letter, i.e. , that there is no corruption in Ethiopia, no class differentiation taking place, etc. Fezzehatzion spends several pages dealing with these issues, although he limits himself to dealing with government officials, civil servants and Army people. Some short quotations will give the reader a flavor of what he says:

. "Unless one has been asleep the last several years, one can't help but notice a most jarring phenomenon that has engulfed post-independence Eritrea: a small privileged class, living off the public sector, is coming out of the shadows. " He says, given the EPLF/PFDJ's "serve the people"-type slogans that this is "hard to swallow"; and continues: "But there is class differentiation, not necessarily based on merit but rather on the monopolization of political power. No way of getting around this unpleasant fact. All one has to do is look around.
. "Everyday sights include, government officials or Army officers who ferry their family members in government-owned vehicles, lets say, to a family outing in Massawa and would not stop to pick up a Warsay hitch-hiker, perhaps walking to his military post. And in the midst of a severe housing shortage, the same officials have moved into Government owned villas and apartment buildings but paying under-market rent, which in itself is a hidden salary subsidy of hundreds, or more, of untaxed Nakfa per month. .  .  . "

. Tekie Fezzehatzion wrote well in defence of Eritrea's right to remain independent during last year's war. And his current proposals on what should be done in the country are moderate. Yet the typical response of diehard defenders of the EPLF/PFDJ to such words as these is to start a calumny that the writer is a "traitor" to the country, part of an Ethiopian fifth column, etc. Hardly a democratic method of discussion.

. The correspondence between Mountain and myself is fairly repetitive. Therefore only the two letters which best illustrate the opposing positions are reprinted. Thomas Mountain's letter appears in full. My reply has a deletion made in order to shorten it.

Reply to an American "Marxist-Leninist", the
author of "Denounce the Ethiopian Chauvinism"

by Thomas Mountain

. To be honest with you, I find your work full of slanders of the Eritrean leadership, and as such of the Eritrean people who identify so completely with their leaders. . I will keep my request simple. One, provide me with one fabrication by the EPLF or the government of Eritrea, in the form of an official press release. Two, provide me with one reputable report on how the "peasants" of Eritrea are anything other than extremely supportive of their government. I don't mean that they have no criticism of the leadership, just in anyway seriously dissatisfied. Three, provide me with one credible report that any national minority is in anyway seriously dissatisfied with the Eritrean leadership. My point is that the Eritrean leadership is scrupulously honest, leading the struggle to liberate the "peasants" and at the cutting edge of the national question. All of these things would be completely impossible for any sort of "bourgeois" organization. If you cannot provide me with evidence to counter my points, than what evidence do you have, besides grumblings from Eritreans in the diaspora.

. I have encouraged you to go to Eritrea because your writing is completely at odds with the reality on the ground in Eritrea. You really don't know what you are talking about. The masses of the Eritrean people wholeheartedly support their government (I am not saying they don't have criticisms) and this is verified by all of the objective observers one speaks to. The masses of Eritrean people are the best organized and Eritrean society is the most democratic society (in terms of how the people really decide and support what goes on in their communities) in the world, if not in all history.

. When you speak of "socialism" I must request a definition for the word has many meanings. For myself, I define it as the common people working in common for the common good, led by a leadership dedicated to the primary task of what is best for the masses of people. If you would go to Eritrea you could see for yourself that this is the case. I am not talking about the diaspora, upon which you have based your slanders, but on what is going on in the front lines, where the revolution is really being waged by the masses of the Eritrean people. You owe the cutting edge of the international struggle an apology. You are welcome to your opinion and have many correct observations. Of course you fail to mention that without the $ of the EU and the USA Ethiopia would have not been able to invade Eritrea. You also fail to explain how it is that of all the diasporan communities in the world, the Eritrean people outside of Eritrea support their government so overwhelmingly, to the tune of many hundreds of millions of dollars in voluntary contributions annually, with out which it is unlikely that Eritrea would still be in existence. How do you explain this if the Eritrean "bourgeois" is in control, unless the masses of the Eritrean people are to stupid to understand that their hard earned money is being "misused" in some way. No corruption in a bourgeois-controlled society? Even the western aid agencies admit there is no corruption in Eritrea. How do you explain this? Next are you going to tell me how the jails are full of critics of the government?

. Last but not least, you seem oblivious to the dominance of white supremacy in the society we live in and how a black role model like Eritrea is such a threat to all that this evil system is based on. If Eritrea can build the fastest growing, most democratic and free society in Africa with out western aid, why can't the rest of the world do so. If this isn't a threat to white supremacy than what is. What else could explain how the west "allowed" (it begs credulity to think that the CIA would not have had to approve the diversion of many hundreds of millions of US $ to arms purchases by the TPLF regime) so much of their money to be used to invade Eritrea if they didn't approve. What reason for the west's approval can you come up with, without denying white supremacy was involved, consciously or unconsciously. Again, come to Eritrea, if necessary we could help you with the airfare, and see for your self, first hand, talk to the peasants, the workers, the women, the warsai, than go ahead and tell the world what you saw, first hand.

Frank replies concerning the class situation in Eritrea


Dear Thomas,

. I'm sorry for taking so long to get back to you. Your latest letter raised a few things I wanted to think about for awhile before writing. I've also been busy with other things.


. (1) Although I'm not sure of it, it seems that by placing quotation marks around terms like bourgeoisie, peasants, etc. , you may mocking any attempt to deal with Eritrean society scientifically. But to really understand this society one must of course look at it scientifically. And fundamentally this involves looking at its class structure and how it's evolving. Yet after seemingly mocking a class approach you turn around to challenge my views on the EPLF/PFDJ by asking how a bourgeois government could act in the ways you list. In other words you uphold that the political representatives of definite social classes should act in a way reflecting the interests of the class they represent, and you define these for how a bourgeois government should act. This is a scientific approach. The problem is that I don't think you understand how the (now) political representatives of a formerly oppressed but now rising bourgeoisie actually act in certain conditions. This leads you into a blind alley on the question of what class the Eritrean government represents. I say it represents the bourgeoisie; you say no it doesn't, but give no analysis on which class(es) it does represent then. Instead you rely on concepts of how a bourgeois government can act which are false (it can't be relatively free of corruption, can't liberate the peasantry, can't fight hard to defend national independence, can't resolve the national question more or less democratically, etc. ) To gain a correct conception one must use a scientific approach to study what is really taking place, and to study the history of other national-democratic revolutions.

. (2) You've charged me with not doing my home-work, said my writing is "at odds with the reality on the ground", etc, and you contrast this to your observations and study of Eritrean society from the inside. The latter have led you to the truth of the matter: the Eritrean bourgeoisie is not in control, etc. And you say that if I went to Eritrea I would see this for myself. But then you assert that "the Eritrean people are the best organized and Eritrean society is the most democratic society .  .  . in the world, if not all history"! How did you arrive at that conclusion? Surely by not visiting every country in the world. Nor do you have a time machine with which to travel back to visit past civilizations. You arrived at by studying various countries from abroad (and I doubt if it was nearly all countries). Either that or you're just making a wild assertion.

. (3) You raise the issue of white supremacy in the context of analyzing the cause of the war, particularly the U. S. role in it. Since this is a little different question than those I want to deal with below I'll deal with it as a preliminary also.

. The U. S. imperialist ruling class is certainly white-supremacist. And you want to argue that white supremacy was involved, "consciously or unconsciously", in the U. S. support for the Ethiopian regime. I don't deny this pretty nebulous statement, but I don't think it's an adequate explanation for the actions of the U. S. government either. (And it doesn't explain at all why the U. S. government opposed the national movements in the former Yugoslavia, or sided with Russia against the national liberation movement of the Chechen people. ) The article takes the position that there's more to it: like Ethiopia being the "prize" on the Horn of Africa in terms of a potential market for export of goods and capital, source of cheap labor, etc. (still things which are some ways down the road), and, more immediately, in terms of being the military powerhouse in the region if it doesn't fracture into several states.

. In this regard U. S. imperialism lost a lot when Haile Selassie was overthrown and the Derg settled on forming an alliance with the U. S. S. R. It's been forced to maneuver (and especially since its adventure in Somalia ended in such fiasco that more direct interventions on the Horn are politically difficult). After the overthrow of the Derg Ethiopia once again became the obvious choice for the role of enforcer of U. S. imperialist interests in the region. There really was no other choice. The problem was to develop an alliance with the regime, establish the respective prerogatives within the alliance, etc.

. Meanwhile, despite what you say regarding the C. I. A. wanting to wipe out Eritrea because it stood as a positive example in the world, a black role model, etc, the facts are that the U. S. government adopted a friendly policy toward the Eritrean government too (as did the IMF, World Bank, etc. ). This doesn't mean that it liked doing this. The article points out that it opposed Eritrean independence right up to the bitter end. It also says that when the war developed the Eritrean regime was considered "expendable". But the U. S. did adopt a friendly policy. To it the main enemy in the region is Sudan, not Eritrea. That's why it rigged up the so-called "Christian alliance" of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Rwanda against Sudan. It's one of the reasons that prior to the war the U. S. was helping train and rearm both Eritrea and Ethiopia--along with Israel, Italy and other imperialist states. It's also one of the reasons for Clinton's praising President Afwerki and Prime Minister Zenawi as examples of Africa's brave new generation of leaders (I forget his exact wording). Furthermore, as you may have noticed, since the war's end the EPLF leaders have met at least twice with high-level American military delegations. According to a Visafric report (January 17) one of these meetings involved discussions between Isaias and U. S. General Tony Frank. They reached an agreement to reactivate the programs suspended during the war.

. So I think the war upset the U. S. strategic planning in the region and it was forced to make adjustments. In the article I formulated these as appeasing or objectively siding with Ethiopia for the reasons discussed. I took this approach because all evidence pointed to the Ethiopian government being the prime mover in the war. Fall-out from a later event, the split in the TPLF leadership, seems to confirm this. Some of those who are talking are saying that an issue which gave rise to bitter disagreement was whether continuing the war would result in loss of foreign aid. This obviously has to be taken with a grain of salt, but it is in line with the other evidence.

. Your research showing that the U. S. (the C. I. A. ) approved of the diversion of up to $2 billion to arms purchases by the Zenawi regime does not at all conflict with my analysis. It's more evidence backing it up. But your argument that the U. S. did this based on its desire to eliminate a black role model like Eritrea ignores this analysis. I think that leads one to blindness regarding the actual maneuvering of our imperialist enemy (which is certainly white-supremacist). I'll take up some specific assertions in your argumentation which I think are in error below. (2)

The essential point

. Eritrea is a capitalist country. This can't be skirted but your letter skirts it. More, Eritrean capitalism has been recently liberated from feudalism and colonialism through an uncompromising war. This tends to give it similarities to capitalism which has been recently liberated through similar struggles in other countries: vigor, growth, confidence. The Eritrean government presides over this capitalist system getting organized and has developed a strategy for its development. Rather than unearthing some previous reading I've done on its strategy I'll just turn to some things I currently have on hand:

. First, a speech by the President of Asmara University at a USAID-sponsored forum at the University:

. The President whole-heartedly supports the government. He describes its economic policy as being "pragmatic support for a liberal market economy". He describes the macro-economic policy as being swift transition to a market economy, introduction of a liberal trade policy, central role for the private sector as the engine to growth, organizing human resources.

. Second, an interview given by the Eritrean ambassador to Ethiopia (Ato Girma) shortly before the war:

. Question: "Why did Eritrea choose an export-oriented economic policy?"

. Ato Girma: "We designed the policy with the phenomenon of globalization in mind. International investors want to put their money in countries [i. e. , exploit them--Fk. ] which follow liberal economic policies and where conditions and facilities are conducive to investment activity. Eritrea has a great deal of economic potential and its strategic geographical location is an additional asset. We believe these endowments would help attract foreign capital to Eritrea. "

. Is there any wonder why I speculated in Part I that the evolution in the thinking of the EPLF "may have taken it back toward the more open capitalist model of the West and included even its neo-liberal ideas"? At any rate, it's pretty clear that such imperialist-run institutions as the World Bank didn't consider Eritrea a pariah. The Regional Director of the World Bank, for example, was on Eritrean radio in August 1998 saying the following: "Eritrea is in the top 5% of nations that enjoy excellent relations with the World Bank". He also noted the "progress toward the private sector". Moreover, in a quite praising news release this year "our own" USAID wrote this: "Eritrea recently took the initiative to host a consultative group type meeting with donors in Asmara which the World Bank viewed as a sea-change. In the spirit of building partnerships with donors, the Eritrean government presented its National Economic Policy Framework Paper (NEPFP) for the next three years. No other African country has taken this kind of initiative in drafting a NEPFP for World Bank and IMF comment. .  .  . "

A subsidiary point

. In your letter to me you say that Eritrea is building the fastest growing, most democratic and free society in Africa "without western aid". This is truly "at odds with the reality on the ground".

. In January 1994 Eritrea was declared eligible for IMF loans and it joined that organization in July the same year. In November 1997 it received a $30. 3 million credit from the World Bank for port rehabilitation (40 year maturity, 10 year grace period, 0. 75% service charge). In November 2000 it got a $90 million credit for a broad range of projects from the World Bank (40 year maturity, 10 year grace). Before the war one imperialist institution listed Eritrean foreign debt as being $76 million and its 1997 economic aid as being $123 million. In 1999 the Eritrean USAID budget was $11. 7 million, in 2000 $23. 2 million. On May 16 this year the U. S. government gave the Eritrean government a $10 million loan to buy food with (1% interest, 30 year maturity). And of course the western-dominated U. N. , the E. U. , as well as many individual western governments have given it aid too. A lot of this has been food aid in the past year. But food aid is economic aid too. It frees up the government to spend more on capitalist development, military hardware, etc.

. This aid may not be great in comparison to other countries but one must also keep in mind that Eritrea is a small country. It's real, and the Eritrean government very actively seeks more of it. I can't comprehend how you can deny its existence. The issue with it is not to pass moralistic judgements on the Eritrean [government] receiving aid from the West (none of which is gratis) but to study its ramifications on the economy, the class structure, the degree of dependency developing, etc.

. And what about aid from the East (mainly the Arab states, many of which have extremely reactionary regimes)? Should this be separated off from western aid? In a certain sense it should be, that is it helps in seeing how the country lines up in the present capitalist economic blocs. But in the sense of studying the ramifications of the aid on the Eritrean economy, class structure, etc., it [the distinction between aid from the Arab states and Western aid - CV] has no value.

As sure as the sun rises

. Eritrean capitalists have been around for some time, particularly since the 1940s. Within the womb of the national liberation war capitalism continued to grow. The eventual EPLF policies in organizing small productive enterprises, light industry, etc. helped prepare conditions for its birth. With liberation this formerly oppressed capitalism burst forth in all its glory. Of course Eritrea is a poor country, mainly agrarian, and it had been ravaged by Ethiopian colonial troops. Thus a western visitor might exclaim: "What capitalism? These farmers are just subsisting!" Etc. But capital is a social relation, not an amount of money. In the countryside production was going on for a market. There was hired labor. Peasants exploited their families in the fields to produce for the market, etc. There were also state-owned and private manufacturing enterprises increasing their wealth through the exploitation of the workers' labor-power. The Commercial Bank of Eritrea was increasing its assets and making first-time loans to new businesses (to the tune of 192. 5 million nakfa in 1998). Certainly there remained many subsistence farmers or herders, but capitalism was the ascending economy which could only increasingly draw them into it (maybe first to sell a few hides for money, etc. )

. In the early 90s most of Africa was in a deep depression. Eritrea had a large market next door which badly needed its products and services however. It was also starting out with almost nothing. Thus before the war it could show growth rates as high as 7 or 8 per cent.

. You make a point about this in an earlier letter so I'll say a little more about it. Such a growth rate was phenomenal in Africa in the '90s. But at other times in Africa it was not that rare of a thing. Nor is it particularly noteworthy when compared to the growth of other countries recently emerged from an anti-colonial struggle, nor in comparison to the growth rate of a number of Asian countries in the 80s and 90s, particularly China. More, as we know, growth rates of capitalist economies don't just go on and on. Crises inevitably develop and economies can even shrink.

. This brings us to the other side of the story.

. Capitalist development in Eritrea must bring with it further class-polarization of society. The differentiation of the peasantry between rich and poor will accelerate with the latter migrating to cities and towns in search of a way to live. The struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat will increasingly become the struggle around which everything else revolves. On the one hand there will be riches gotten through the exploitation of the masses and on the other there will be mind-numbing toil, misery and ruin. This is a lesson of the history of capitalist development in all countries. (These days even the political representatives of capital are being forced to speak to it a lot as the neo-liberal agenda gets pushed onto everyone. Time and again the speakers at the "Summit of the Americas", for example, were forced to admit that capitalist development was bringing mass impoverishment and ruin with it ).

. Now the quotes from Eritrean government officials and supporters, World Bank officials, etc. , given above make it appear as if the Eritrean regime is just wholesale swallowing the imperialists' neo-liberal agenda. I think this appearance may be a little deceptive. Eritrean capital has national economic and political interests to defend. Thus it may resist various demands regarding privatization, for example. In the countryside it may struggle to further develop co-operative forms of organization among the peasants and so on. Other regimes in very poor countries do this. Papua New Guinea is a good example. There, unlike in Eritrea, independence was achieved through a thoroughly accomodationist arrangement with the former colonial masters. And the government officials are notoriously corrupt. Yet they set up and encourage co-operatives among the farming people nonetheless. They know that a straight out neo-liberal policy will cause rebelliousness among the mass of peasants who are rapidly impoverished by it, forced to migrate to the towns and city, etc. Instead they opt for co-operative forms through which to develop agricultural production. But the rub is that the co-operatives are producing for the market (domestic and regional). They're in competition with each other and with international agribusiness on it. Thus within the co-operatives class distinctions grow as a managerial elite develops which works to sweat more labor out of the majority in the fields, conduct the business of the co-operative etc. Market competition forces this. It also results in some co-operatives growing relatively rich while others are forced into dissolution (their members either going back to subsistence agriculture or migrating to Port Moresby). The Mexican experience with ejidos is similar. (A study of this project is on our web site and I would very much encourage you to read it. )

. Naturally, a government usually combines various banking and pricing policies with its support for co-operatives (or collectives, communes, or ejidos--the name doesn't concern us in this case) but these too can only slow the differentiation of the peasantry between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. As long as capitalism exists its underlying laws are going to find a way to assert themselves.

. I would like to continue on this some more.

. One of your "proofs" that the Eritrean government is not bourgeois is that it's "leading the struggle to liberate the 'peasants'". You neither explain how this is or what you mean by liberation. Thus I can only make some general comments. First among these is that helping liberate the peasantry from archaic methods and relations of production through support of peasant associations, low-interest loans, etc. , is quite typical of governments representing rising bourgeoisies. It's been done many times before. As a result of this support the national market gets expanded as the peasantry in more and more drawn into the modern capitalist orbit. This is a giant step forward for masses who live by tilling and herding. Yet it also poses new historical problems as a rural bourgeoisie and proletariat develop. I don't know what the policies of the Eritrean government are. It may be following one that aids very poor peasants and tries to prevent too great of gulf between rich and poor in the countryside from developing. But that wouldn't prove it wasn't bourgeois either.


. As you saw in Part I of my article I don't think the economic and political prerequisites exist in Eritrea for a socialist revolution. Socialism is going to come through the development of capitalism. But this does not mean that the workers and other oppressed and exploited people should lie down before the policies and politics of those who grow wealthy by exploiting their labor power. The very opposite. Through resisting exploitation and fighting for social demands the toilers will not only develop class consciousness and organization (one of the prerequisites of a socialist revolution) but may also force industrial development (another prerequisite).

. The stress in Part II is on the need for independent proletarian politics. The EPLF doesn't have these, doesn't even say it has them. It's a "people's" party fighting for the national interests of the Eritrean bourgeoisie. Sometimes these interests really do coincide with the interests of the people and last year's resistance to the Ethiopian aggression may be the best example (literacy and healthcare campaigns are another). But at other times they do not. The best example of this is the regime's fight to keep the national political discussion within a nationalist framework. Within such a framework the demands of the workers and other toilers are inevitably measured up against "national interests" and sacrificed on its altar. So far the class struggle within the country has been on a very low level but capitalist development means that it's lurking in the wings nonetheless.

. In neither part of the article did I call for the EPLF/PFDJ's overthrow. Let the ELF and EIJ reactionaries rave on about that. In my view the workers should struggle to develop their movement peacefully and legally to the extent that's allowed. True enough, for there to be a socialist transformation the working class must raise itself to becoming the ruling class. But that remains a question of the future.

. You've defined socialism as "the common people working for the common good, led by a leadership dedicated to the primary task of what is best for the masses of people". (And you imply that this is what is occurring in Eritrea. ) This is a "safe" definition in that it avoids class terminology and any hints about class struggle under socialism; more, "what is best for the masses of people" can mean most anything. As it stands Adam Smith and other early bourgeois political economists no doubt could mistake it for their idealized version of capitalism. So could many dedicated EPLF members today.

. As far as proletarian, or Marxist, socialism is concerned the first step in the transition to socialism has to be the working class becoming the ruling class. This ushers in new historical period of class struggle to attain a classless society. In it, if the working class is able to unite the masses of other exploited and oppressed people (particularly the poorer peasants in Eritrea) to the extent that the old bourgeoisie is completely beaten down and destroyed as a class there is still no guarantee that the elimination of commodity production (socialism) will be achieved. A new bourgeoisie can arise based on private interests in the state ministries and productive enterprises (as happened in the Soviet Union). Thus a fierce struggle must continue through which the liberated toilers build the organizational strength and consciousness through which to plan and operate the economy as a whole, without a market, money, etc. But according to the Marxist conception even then a struggle must be waged against the remnants of the old order (the separation of mental and manual labor, etc. ) Only through the success of these struggles can communism be achieved.

. Although nationalizations or a developing state sector of the economy do not mean a country is socialist at all, Eritrea is at present moving in an opposite direction. The working class is not the ruling class, and is not going to be for a long time. You write that Eritrea is the most democratic society in the world "in terms of how the people really decide and support what goes on in their communities". But what about in the country, and in its economy as a whole? Those are the key questions concerning democracy and socialism. In my view your definition of socialism is just an idealization of the capitalist order being built in the country. By its nature this system is going to restrict the people's ability to really decide anything. But in doing so it will also be preparing conditions for its own overthrow.

Some particular points

. -- Of course the Eritrean regime is popular! I've never doubted this. (3) Only a decade ago those in charge led a profound national liberation war to victory. This released the pent-up forces of capitalist production, the most fundamental of which is the people. Thus the culture has flourished and real Renaissance men and women have come up to struggle to move the country forward (from within the EPLF/EPRDF and without). Moreover, the government has taken numerous measures to meet the demands of the people for healthcare, education, food, etc. Yet much of this could also be said about other governments formed by the leaders of liberating revolutions. I think, for example, that the Cuban government remained quite popular a decade after the 1959 smashing of the Batista regime. But (and this is the point) we can't throw popularity up against attempts to understand what is now going on within a society, and suggestions as to what the path leading forward should be. I think your letter does this.

. Furthermore, when you talk of the Eritrean people "identify(ing) so completely with their leaders" etc. , you qualify it by saying sure they have some criticisms but that they're not seriously dissatisfied. But what are the criticisms? What are the dissatisfactions? Revolutionaries want to know these things so we can get to the economic and political roots of them. I would therefore very much like to hear from you on the particulars of the criticisms of the Eritrean government you hear when you visit there.

. --You want me to provide you with "one fabrication by the EPLF or the government of Eritrea, in the form of an official press release".

. Well, after a long search I might come up with something. But if I remember correctly the official releases during the war (the only ones I've paid much attention to) tended to tell the truth. The Eritrean government had little to lie about. (Of course the government's keeping the border dispute secret was an "everything's rosy" kind of lying to the people but that's not what you're asking for. ) I think, however, that going on a long search would be chasing a red herring. Whether the Eritrean government has lied about this or that takes us away from the essential question of how the workers and other toilers should deal with the capitalist development going on before their eyes.

. No doubt the Eritrean government is filled with many sincere and dedicated people. .  .  .

. -- You want me to provide you with "one credible report that any national minority is in any way seriously dissatisfied with the Eritrean leadership".

. Well, in a sidebar to the article which I didn't think was necessary to send to the Eritrean web sites (but which can be read on the CVO web site) I wrote the following: "It too [Eritrea-- Fk. ] is peopled by several nationalities, but not having the history of oppressor and oppressed domestic nationalities which Ethiopia does, the relations between them are quite different. " That's true. It's also vague. To make it less vague I would have to know a lot more than I do on the situation. For example, the Afars people live in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. There are several Afars-nationalist organizations. Some want to federate their homeland to Ethiopia, some want to federate it with Eritrea, some want a homeland of their own, some are satisfied with the status quo. (And, interestingly enough, the origins of one of the last serious border disputes before the war was what started out as co-operation between the Eritrean authorities and the Ethiopian armed forces in suppressing an Afars group. ) I don't know how much popular strength any of these organizations have. Nor have I looked at their programs, much less their practices. Nevertheless I think it's accurate to say there is an Afars national question and that it's not just going to melt away with capitalist development. Capitalist development is only pushing it forward. If the EPLF/PFDJ is able to resolve it democratically so much the better. That serves the interests of all of the workers and other oppressed people in the region. I wouldn't be overly optimistic however.

. -- I've read reports by western bourgeois agencies commenting on the lack of corruption in Eritrea. (They really don't say "no corruption" as you do. ) I believe them. Their writers also probably miss things because corruption doesn't always starkly stand out. It can involve such questions as what schools one's children get to attend, who gets a telephone or electricity or a computer, etc. And it usually starts with small "payoffs" like these. But even though I believe there's relatively little corruption in Eritrea it doesn't mean I conclude the regime doesn't represent the bourgeoisie. In fact there's a certain logic to the argument that the capitalist themselves would oppose blatant corruption out of their class interests.

. Writing at a time when capitalism was much younger in the world Adam Smith himself extolled the glories of sacrifice for the capitalists' common interests. Indeed, when the capitalist class was rising in the West its best representatives selflessly fought against the rotten, corrupt and dying feudal order. The same was true in Asia more than a century later--look at the ideas and practice of a representative of bourgeois democracy like Sun Yat-sen: sincerity, self-sacrifice, heroism. Logic would say that the rising bourgeoisie on the Horn of Africa too would go through its heroic stage. It would also say that the Eritrean bourgeoisie which has only begun to really form itself into a class through a great war against national oppression would continue to see the value of self-sacrifice for the common class interest. This would be reflected in the government as well. More, when national capital has been released by other liberating revolutions in the past half century, as in Cuba, the leaders lived modestly for a long time, campaigned against corruption, etc.

. -- No, next I'm not going to tell you the Eritrean jails are full of critics of the regime. Please.

Well, I've gone on and on in response to your letter. I hope it causes you to think about and look into some of the issues I've raised. If it does then I'll be very happy. I would also be quite happy to hear from you again. So with those thoughts in mind I send you .  .  .  

Warm regards,


Notes to the above articles:

(1) In a letter sent on May 8 Mountain asked how was it that "the U. S. 'allowed' many hundreds of millions of $ (actually our research has estimated over $2 billion spent on the invasion of Eritrea by Ethiopia, based on recently admitted casualty figures Ethiopia suffered in their defeated invasion attempt and its resulting confirmation of the size the Ethiopian army would have to be to absorb those kinds of losses, as well as reports over the last two years on the amount and kinds of arms purchased by Ethiopia) to be diverted to arms purchases if they didn't support the invasion of Eritrea?" (Return to text)

(2) The African-American cultural-nationalists have for a long time popularized the notion that Marxism-Leninism is a white-supremacist ideology. (Most notorious in this regard was Ron Karenga in the early 1970s. ) But they didn't do this from the angle of defending another ideology which more fiercely confronted and worked to overthrow the system which fosters white supremacy to prop itself up with; rather, they did it in order to stop the motion among the black masses to look into Marxist theory and build revolutionary organization. They actually sought accommodation with U. S. imperialism in the form of cultural- nationalist niches within the system. Nevertheless this idea gained more currency than it otherwise would have because what were widely (but mistakenly) viewed as being Marxist-Leninist leaders (the leaders of the Soviet Union, the CPUSA and other American revisionists, etc. ) were heavily infected with white supremacy. (The latter fact didn't stop the revisionists from conciliating cultural nationalism however. Nor did it stop the cultural nationalists from allying with revisionism against Marxist revolutionism. )

. This said, I note that you maintain a version of this idea in your May 8 letter to Joseph Green when you write "as a 'Marxist- Leninist' you hold the traditional viewpoint that usually fails to take into consideration white supremacy". Indeed "Marxism-Leninism" does fail to take into consideration white supremacy, and worse! But Marxism-Leninism does not. This is one of the dividing lines between the two political trends, trends which are irreconcilably opposed to each other. (Text)

(3) This should be understood in a relative sense. --Fk. (Text)

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Last changed on October 15, 2001.