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Response to Review no. 758

Let me begin by thanking Professor Richard Reid for his generous comments about my book. The review denotes a close and qualified reading by a scholar who obviously is very familiar with Ethiopian problems. Accordingly, his appreciative words are for me welcome testimonies confirming that my approach does provide some fresh insight into a complex phenomenon. In particular, I am happy that Reid emphasizes the central idea of the book, namely, the causal link between misguided education, cultural alienation, and radicalism. I am also pleased that he values the role of Ethiopia’s messianic legacy in making Marxism attractive to the educated elite.

That said, I would have liked Reid to be more appreciative of the philosophical dimension of the book for the simple reason that my main thesis originates from the central debate of philosophy, that is, from the issue of primacy of objective factors versus primacy of subjective factors. The emphasis on the decisive role of culture is inseparable from a philosophical position advocating that ideas, beliefs, and values are crucial determinants of human behaviour. Studies abound that derive the radicalization of students from Haile Selassie’s failed socio-economic policies; the originality of my approach says that these adverse objective conditions can explain discontent, not the resolution to turn the society upside down. The latter requires a fundamental cultural disconnection, and hence supports the philosophical school arguing that subjectivity matters.

It is true that the book does not follow the traditional presentation of a philosophical treatise; instead, it adopts an interdisciplinary approach by using abundantly relevant works of historians, sociologists, psychologists, etc. My belief is that my ‘numerous wanderings into philosophy and theory’ should not so much irritate readers as convince them that life is too complicated to be grasped from the perspective of a single discipline.

Reid regrets that I overwhelmingly painted the student body as ‘a monolithic bloc’. However, the first chapter of the book is a detailed account of how radical students triumphed over the group of students that favoured reformism. Likewise, in various places it is indicated that Haile Selassie’s refusal of necessary reforms heavily contributed to the defeat of the reformist camp. The final triumph of the radical group is precisely what constitutes the particularity of the Ethiopian case, in light of the parallel I make with other countries where students remained divided between different ideological beliefs. What this means is that the ‘monolithic’ appearance was a process, an outcome of various factors: it defined a unique case that is not intelligible if one privileges the impact of structural factors.

These comments are not intended to throw cold water on Reid’s review, which, as already indicated, correctly underlines important aspects of the book; they simply call attention to the fact that one important condition of a thorough understanding of the book is not to lose sight of its philosophical perspective.