Prof. Bahru Zewde
Society, state and history

Addis Ababa University Press

Review by BT Costantinos, PhD

March 06 2009

Bahru as a public intellectual:

Prof Bahru’s recently published “collected essays” -- Society, State and History, segmented into historiography, ethno-history and language, economic history and political economy, intellectual and social history, political and military history, political violence and environmental and urban history, reminds us of the prevailing intellectual movement of the Renaissance - humanism, a philosophical underpinning that humans are rational beings and emphasising the dignity and worth of the individual, an emphasis that was central to Renaissance developments in many areas.

Another manifestation of the naive realist approach in Africa is the simple equation of partisan or government elaboration of social and political ideology (for example, the concept of "national selfdetermination, including and up to secession" espoused first by the students movement of Haile Sellasse University and by the current thinking in the transition process in Ethiopia) with the production of ideas, values and goals in civil society. Here, our attention and thought are diverted from the critical destination between, on the one hand, a system of abstract political theory categories as a construct of an explicit rationalisation, a formal conceptualisation and design, and, on the other hand broad and diverse domains of ideology and purposefulness in the plenitude of social experience. We are discouraged from acknowledging the distance and tension between these two spheres of democratisation.

Instead, one is led to believe that ideological construction in one sphere is reducible to ideological construction in the other. As the statements: "the constitution must be a creation of the citizenry ..." and "... law should come from the populace rather than palace" suggest, for example, the form of a putative attribution of authorial agency in the making of a democratic constitution to an organisationally underdeveloped, democratically inexperienced and largely, to a civil society that has been deliberately rendered illiterate.

Closely connected with this of naïve realism in existing perspectives of history of conflicts, development and democracy in Africa is the common assumption that the proliferation of social organisations is in and of itself an index of change, transformation, development and democratisation; and that polity will subjectively support such an evolution. The assumption seems plausible. After all, what is more obvious in democratic projects than the goal of increasing the number of social institution's that will build stronger civil societies and that in turn spawns favourable conditions for change and development. Nevertheless, the growing number and diversity of social organisations mean that they have very incompatible political and professional attitudes, norms, visions and capabilities and differing levels of commitment; with own inclinations, concerns and motivations, which polities and societies must take into account.

Bahru’s chapters on ethno-history, economic history, political economy, intellectual, social, political and military history, political violence and environmental and urban history underpin the underlying paradigms of the Renaissance, where humanists stressed the general responsibilities of citizenship and social leadership: an obligation to participate in the political life of the community, signifying change and underscoring continuity; and reflecting the foundations of the new environment for an African version of the Renaissance. The essential contribution of these chapters to our era is not just concerned with the past, but its flexibility and openness to all the possibilities of current events in the continent.

Testimony to living history vs. revolutionary ideology

Such is a case accentuated for change so profoundly articulated that it brings out the complexity of historical and incumbent social change in its uncertain terms, with few unifying features beyond a common belief that humanity and society could be improved through a new kind of education based on a study of African classics. No wonder, early philosophers were concerned with judgments of taste - objects were judged exquisite when they satisfy a disinterested desire. Art, history, literature, etc., should give the same disinterested satisfaction as natural beauty. Paradoxically, these can accomplish one thing nature cannot – they can offer ugliness and beauty in one object: that the human spirit finds congenial to the exercise of spiritual and intellectual freedom.

The post-Cold War move to self-determination in Africa is not one of simply changing or improving the position and status of ‘nationalities’, but the radical transformation of the values, traditions and institutions of the state itself in their historic and contemporary forms. It is wrestling at once with the question of the self-determination of ethnic communities for which raging conflicts are still going on in the continent and the vision our unity based on equality connected with it.

Should it then follow that history must give way to ideology as a basis of our unity? Must our national sentiments and instincts be replaced by nationalist, specifically avant-garde argument and justification? As political parties and groups reject history and tradition in favour of a form of contemporary nationalism based on the global themes of ‘liberation’, ‘democracy’ and ‘socialism’; shouldn’t ordinary citizens fear that, in this light, the issues that the nations pose and seek to settle may be seen more as a feature of a pre-cooked ideology than a historical feature of Africa. When all that is constitutive of its historic identity and unity is subject to rejection and deconstruction, how does Africa become a subject of democratic change, people ask?

This claim of reductionism in approach to Africa’s tradition along with the naivë rationalist criticism that goes with it; is predicated on the polarity that it draws between historically cemented and sedimented values, sentiments and symbols of the tradition, on the one hand, and contemporary ideas and projects of national self- determination, on the other. It is based on a dualism of living history and avant-garde revolutionary ideology. This polarisation is indefensible in its assumption that the two forms of Africa’s experiences are mutually exclusive.

Bahru’s uniquely clear portrayal of the polarity between historical and ideological bases of social harmony can serve the critical purpose of evaluating our traditional values and assumptions against the categories and models of modern, libertarian nationalism, and of correcting the limitations of those values. Bahru’s words can help to emphasise the important point that our collective memory and experience as a nation should not constitute a drag on our present capacity for change and development. But this is not possible so long as these construe, as they do, the relation between historical and ideological bases of Africanness in simple opposition terms and attempt to limit national consciousness entirely to the present.

The problem with the portrayal of African tradition as a problem for democratic change, then, is that certain processes, implicitly or explicitly, prevent the tradition from entering into meaningful ‘dialogue’ with contemporary politics. But Africa has folklore, legends and narratives through which its people invest in history with meaning and value. Some feel that they have been subjected to ‘materialist’ criticism from the perspective of ‘scientific’ standards of historical knowledge and truth; as if they were simply epistemological categories. On the other end of the historical-ideological polarity between nationalism in Africa, the politics in currency both at home and among the Diaspora is where heavy emphasis is placed on the differences of communities rather than what they share in common and their unifying historical edifices.

This emphasis or over-emphasis really, is the other side of the equally exaggerated, overlyscripted identification of our tradition with oppression of nationalities, in the phrase used by the student movement, ‘a prison of nations’ -- hence, the avant-garde demand for us to be ‘born again’, and ‘born different’. To paraphrase, Jurgen Habermas, indeed, the difference between political struggle for freedom and crime against humanity (in Africa) becomes clear during the change of regimes, in which guerrilla combatants and ‘terrorists’ such as in Rwanda and Burundi, and in the latest edition, Somalia, become the elite rulers of the ‘Africa Renaissance’.

As Society, State and History posits, human history in particular exists beyond the worlds of experience in currency, and that judgmental satisfaction is achieved by contemplating historical notes for their own sakes, as a means of escaping the painful world of daily experience. As tragic as life is for many Africans and indeed Ethiopians, the letters penned by Bahru should not preclude acceptance of the heart-rending with joyous affirmation, the full realisation of which is our past history, what we learn from it and how we plan to use it transform society and polity.

I thank you all for your attention…