Book Reviews

A Thinker’s Imperative

Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964-2016  (Historical Materialism): Zeleke, Elleni Centime: 9781642593419: Books

A Review of Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964–2016 by Elleni Centime Zeleke, Haymarket Books 2020

Susan Dianne Brophy

Associate Professor, Department of Sociology & Legal Studies, St Jerome’s University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada


This review of Ethiopia in Theory retraces author Elleni Centime Zeleke’s dialectical method. Necessary to navigate the full range of what this book offers, it is this approach that allows her to bring the poetic to bear against the programmatic and deliver a transfixing study of knowledge production. Zeleke’s revolutionary critique of revolutionary practice centres Africa as a site of knowledge production, the result of which is a multifaceted account of recent Ethiopian history that offers lessons for all critical thinkers.


Ethiopia – state – revolution – knowledge production – social science – immanent critique

Elleni Centime Zeleke, (2020) Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964–2016,Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.

Released under the banner of the Historical Materialism Book Series, Elleni Centime Zeleke’sEthiopia in Theory stakes claims in various streams of Marxist scholarship. While it is the author’s prerogative to let the readers assess for themselves where in Marxist scholarship to situate this book, the signposts are plain to see in its dominant arc and supporting currents. The question then becomes: who is ignoring these signs? I offer this commentary to those who deem the work too niche for their purposes based on the title alone, but who otherwise seek to undertake or understand social change – the presumptive aims of all Marxist scholars. It is precisely because of that impulse to skip the book that you should not: the imperative that Zeleke advances applies most to those who believe themselves least in need of heeding it.

          This book displays the best of Marxist scholarship. In the first part of this review, I identify the prevalent Marxist streams and note Zeleke’s contributions to critical areas. In the second part, I deploy a dialectical method that complements Zeleke’s approach, and which allows me to extract the text’s most remarkable elements.Zeleke’s archival-based yet theoretically-informed interrogation of foundational concepts in Marxism and development studies alike makes this text formidable. Her interdisciplinary scope and methodological attentiveness together offer the reader an intellectual challenge that sets her book apart from other works readers may be familiar with, namely Fred Halliday and Maxine Molyneux’s The Ethiopian Revolution (Halliday and Molyneux 1981), Donald L. Donham’s Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution (Donham 1999), and Ian Scott Horst’s Like Ho Chi Minh! Like Che Guevara! The Revolutionary Left in Ethiopia, 1969–1979 (Horst 2020).

Part I: Situating

The image that first comes to mind in the opening paragraph of Ethiopia in Theory is that of the Angelus Novus, long associated with Walter Benjamin.Benjamin 1968. Committed to telling the tale of revolutionary storytelling (p. 1), Zeleke projects onto the subsequent chapters an analytical structure that is self-reflective and far-reaching, setting a course that helps her expose progressive aspirations as regressive in practice. This is the arc of the book. Once immersed in the particulars of recent Ethiopian history, the consequences of this positioning become clear for other fields of Marxist scholarship, namely what I refer to as ‘anticolonial studies’ and the so-called ‘transition debates’.


Zeleke’s contribution to Marxist scholarship is a revolutionary critique of revolutionary practice that centres Africa as a site of knowledge production; more precisely, she looks to recent Ethiopian history to draw lessons for all critical thinkers. In the first half of the book, Zeleke studies the writings by leaders of the student movement, gathering evidence of the futility of pursuing revolutionary ends within a social-scientific programme. She is determined to understand the past without letting it dominate the present in the service of an unknowable future, and Benjamin is her reference point for how to approach history without committing the same sins as the student leaders.

          In the first chapter she writes: ‘I take seriously Walter Benjamin’s idea that the future is a bit like a medusa – we cannot have an open future if we try to stare into it. It is better to spatialise history: explode the sediments (or here, the tapestry) of the past’ (p. 36). Zeleke elaborates on this in the sixth chapter, explaining how history treated as sediment ripe for purposeful excavation breeds conservatism, evinced by the rush to authenticity as the fount of truthmaking. Be it cultural traditions or revolutionary concepts, Zeleke insists that it is necessary to avoid fixing these abstractions as transhistorical ideals and instead understand ‘their genesis in social practice’ (p. 199). With references to the Frankfurt School throughout this chapter (pp. 188, 199, 249–51), this epistemological turn is anticipated in the subtitle of the book, Revolution and Knowledge Production, which promises a reckoning between the hubris of enlightened rationality and the materially constrained ‘ways of knowing ourselves’ (p. 192). This reckoning takes the form of an immanent critique – which I substantiate in the second part of the review – and shapes her contributions in other currents of Marxist scholarship.


With Ethiopia in Theory, Zeleke contributes a much-needed update on Marxist approaches to anticolonial studies. Afflicted to varying degrees by a romanticisation of the Non-Aligned Movement and the insidious Eurocentrism of settler-colonial studies, she raises the calibre of scholarship with a sharp historical-materialist eye. Zeleke’s willingness to indulge in the generative force of contradiction allows her to move past simplistic dichotomies such as internal/external, modern/traditional, core/periphery, and scientific/mythological (p. 83), but do so without dissolving the constitutive differences at work. These discreet adjustments are scattered throughout the text, although the best example is her use of the archives.

          ‘Dealing with African society’s historicity requires more than simply giving an account of what occurred on the continent; it also presupposes a critical delving into western history and the theories that claim to interpret it’ (p. 198). It is in this light that one must interpret both Zeleke’s archival findings and her motivation to undertake archival work in the first instance. More than a repository of artefacts and memories unique to a specific time and place, the journals of the student movement chronicle a dialogue between theory and practice. Provincializing Europe by Dipesh Chakrabarty helps Zeleke explain how the students’ epistemic practices domesticated external influences (p. 203), leaving in their wake journal entries that contain the sediments not only of Ethiopian realities and European ideals, but also of Ethiopian ideals and European realities.

          The problematic conflation of ‘anti-colonial answers with post-colonial questions’ (p. 25) is detailed in the first half of the book, where Zeleke studies the archival records to chart the adoption of European conceptions of nation-statehood in the anti-colonial nationalism of the Ethiopian student movement (p. 42). To embrace the nation-state and repurpose it for revolutionary ends, the anti-colonial nationalist exercises a ‘functionalist reading of culture’ (p. 82), a point that Zeleke makes with reference to Partha Chatterjee. With the broader arc of the text in mind, she pushes this assessment further: the students were not merely instrumentalising concepts as an intellectual pose – their adoptive and transformative acts were ‘actually connected to social processes in the world’ (pp. 83–4). Here, Zeleke’s anti-colonial approach shows how ‘becoming’ is variably beset and propelled by the conceptual pillars of developmentalism: state, progress, and modernity.

          What is interesting about Zeleke’s contribution on this front is not her exposure of the contingencies of anti-colonial thought, but rather her drive to understand how, why, and to what effect these contingencies are exploited and rationalised. For instance, she notes that in the citizen/urban versus tribal/rural divide that permeates the Ethiopian social, political, and economic landscapes, ‘race is veiled through a discourse of the city as modern or civilised’ (p. 231). The social-scientific rationalisations that simultaneously fetishise Africa (p. 200, n. 42) and champion modernity imbibe these contingencies of anti-colonial thought, which for Zeleke discloses the possibility that ‘state sovereignty is premised on being both anti-colonial and anti-black at the same time’ (p. 231). The terms of knowledge-production thus revealed, Zeleke raises the standards and stakes of studies situated at the crossroads of racism, colonialism, and capitalism, which shapes her contribution to the ‘transition debates’.

          For readers puzzled by the complexity of this book’s content, its main point is made obvious in the form. Zeleke centres Africa and the specifics of the Ethiopian student movement as the site of knowledge production and decentres that ‘lively debate’ on the ‘world-historical transition from feudalism to the capitalist mode of production’ (p. 209). Although this book is very much a commentary on transitions to capitalism, anyone exhausted by Eurocentrism might have a fleeting sense of relief upon realising that the name ‘Brenner’ does not appear until page 209.

          The arc of the book – emphasising the contingencies of social processes throughout history – leads Zeleke to reject the assumed linearity of the transition to capitalism. Instead, she draws from the debates, specifically from the contributions of Jairus Banaji and Henry Bernstein, an understanding that ‘customary social relations and the commodification of the peasant economy are not intrinsically opposed’, an opening she welcomes because of its potential for renewed inquiry (p. 222). While questioning the historical and explanatory necessity of a transhistorical concept of labour, she ponders whether it is possible to adhere to a vision of social progress while pursuing ‘a non-Eurocentric history of capitalist development’ (p. 243). She tests this hypothesis in her execution of an immanent critique, effectively situating herself, the student revolutionaries, and the tiller within a non-Eurocentric history of capitalism while also articulating a thinker’s imperative: the obligation to progress in the face of failure.

Part II: Moving

Ethiopia in Theory does not dwell for long on the common ground that exists between the author and the subjects of the text (p. 10); Zeleke’s ‘ghosts of the past’ are ‘not the same ones’ (p. 26) as the bygone student-movement leaders turned latter-day academics and politicians (p. 95). How she narrates this tension between familiarity and estrangement seems to anticipate the raw nerves of her readers, who are likely to have varied yet ardent ideas about this recent history. Zeleke’s attentiveness to this possibility may be why she appears willing to undertake this critique on ‘their’ (i.e. students’, academics’, and politicians’) terms, as if to quell the anxiety that inhibits immersion. Uninterested in passing judgement on the quality of the social-scientific outputs of the students and academics (pp. 11, 79, 98), she also agrees to take them at their word when the students claim to be ‘scientists’ (p. 98). Whether this overture is an act of condescension or concession is debatable. Either way, it is a trademark of immanent critique. As the methodological spine that connects what otherwise might be read as disparate theses, Zeleke’s execution of this immanent critique is brilliant – in part because of, not despite, its fallibilities.

          The tripartite structure of this portion of the review (Intent, Failure, and Obligation) is inspired by a quote from the end of the book: ‘Obligation for the critical theorist must come from what is immanent to human knowledge – which is a social self that struggles to shape society and as such is aware of the relation between rational intention and its (failed) realisation’ (p. 252). Organised to reflect the progressive logic of dialectical analysis, this is an attempt to follow the signposts that Zeleke provides her readers to assist their interpretation of her work. This structure is also an apt way to draw knowledge from the quote itself, which I return to at the end.


There is a hint of exasperation throughout Ethiopia in Theory. With her attention to historical detail propelled by a sense that an explanation is overdue, Zeleke records educational trajectories (pp. 100–1) and discloses pen names (see for example: pp. 106, 110, 122, 123), tracking the rising and fading tendencies of the student movement during the last decade of Haile Selassie’s rule and in the midst of a cresting cold war. As she peels back the layers, Zeleke confiscates the reasons that excuse evasiveness among student-movement leaders and academics-turned-politicians, leaving only the demand for an answer to a simple question: What do you have to say for yourself?

          That ideas-generating cadres have so little to say about the ideas themselves is at once a specific and a general problem. To keep in-check the suggestion that this is an incomparable shortcoming endemic to a given group of students, Zeleke moves nimbly across time, space, and analytical levels: from the local to the regional to the global and back; from the scramble to the Derg to the 1995 constitution and back; from the thesis to the antithesis to the synthesis and back. Fluidity of this degree is more than a methodological feat; it is also a commentary. To study the student movement is to understand it as in movement, which is to say that it is a study of the relation between theory and practice. Immediately this framing reveals what is at stake, calling forth charged ideas about how feudalism becomes capitalism, how peasants become proletarians, how the ancient state becomes a modern state, how colonial ideas become anti-colonial ideas, and how students become bureaucrats. That these ‘becomings’ could ever be thought of as settled – replete with fixed beginnings, endings, and meanings – is both absurd and assumed. How to ‘[tell] a story of how to tell the story of revolution in the Third World’ must then be, in a way, unbecoming (p. 1).

Zeleke communicates the book’s objectives with a measured dissection of the rationalised conformism that underpins social and professional politesse. By ‘measured’ I mean that instead of leading to an easy dismissal of supposedly co-opted minds, Zeleke’s suspicion of the students’ programmatic distortions of revolutionary ideas compels her to scrutinise how the students themselves are implicated in the solidifying of a hegemonic discourse. Reminiscent of the mode of inquiry common among the leading thinkers of the Frankfurt School, she does not gesture toward the need for more a comprehensive critique nor does she describe the criteria of such an undertaking – she performs it. Words become deeds.

          The fluidity of her analysis speaks to an antipathy toward fixedness or closure. Revolutionary ideas born of the intercourse between the external and the internal (p. 10), once shielded from interrogation, become blunt, ahistorical instruments, or ‘usable past’ (p. 147). The making of useful history is the methodology of social-science data collection: aggregation without synthesis; a situation without situatedness; a glib answer without a good question (p. 23). The truth of the utility of history – which developmentalists will mistake for the truth of history as such – hangs on the scientific replicability of this methodology. The objectivity that authorises this history as truth is sanctioned through self-referential processes that transform contingency into necessity.

          In narrating the contested history of uncontested ideas, Zeleke finds that it is the recourse to formalism that invites this closure (pp. 155, 239), offering false assurances of a knowable future (p. 148). The conceit involved in making a claim on the future is a measure of the deceit involved in, at the same time, declaring one’s allegiance to ‘revolutionary thought’ (p. 243). Instead of disputing the students’ insistence that they are ‘scientists’, therefore, Zeleke’s critique zeroes in on the linearity of scientific methodology as such. Whereas replicability of outcomes is a hallmark of scientific imperviousness (p. 13), she questions these processes of truthmaking as impossible claims on the knowability of the future, which comes at the expense of the past and in the service of the present.

          With recourse to an Amharic ballad called ‘Tizita’ (Memory) as well as two novels, How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu andBeneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste, Zeleke develops a frame of reference for what it means to relate to history outside of social-scientific capture. The past is made present in one’s memory as a longing: that loss is its own experiential content and feeling is its immediate form (p. 23). Loss is not something that can be vanquished but realising the ‘ethical presence of ghostly absence’ invites the possibility of freedom (pp. 34–5). The undecipherability of the past results in its absolute mystification when it is robbed of its situatedness or relation to immanent human activity. It is critical theory that helps Zeleke hone the ability to translate memory into human knowledge (p. 13).

          Dispossession tends to be the common theme across books grappling with the legacies of colonialism. But Zeleke writes about possession, specifically, what it means to be possessed by ‘ghostly absence’ (p. 35). Gone are the teleological pretensions of a knowable or even an inevitable future; gone too are cherished ways of understanding the past (p. 32). Faced with the reality of the unknowable future, the subterranean theme of this book is Zeleke’s quest for a method of remembering that is truthful in its aims and limits but that does not produce truth-claims on the past. While she avoids judgements on whether the students were good or bad Marxists, she brings into focus the imperatives of critical thought. In the process, she is tasking us all to think better, which is to do better. Her story is also our journey, compelling the readers who become implicated by their own interpretative acts.


Zeleke finds in the student journals ‘a profound sense that Ethiopia is not coeval with the rest of world’ (p. 102). The very contingencies that were the conditions of possibility for the student movement were seized upon, and in the journals’ pages the seeds for the 1974 rebellion were sown: modernisation was fated (p. 102), all that was necessary was ‘a clear-headed programme of social transformation’ (p. 109). The journals were venues for pronouncements and denouncements alike, where commitments to ‘revolutionary science’ transformed into intransigence (p. 92), then to wariness toward deviationists (p. 140), and eventually to an engendering of martial resolutions (pp. 91–2). Meanwhile, the gap between the programmatic impulses of the students and the needs of everyday people remained (p. 146).

          The journal Challenge is, for Zeleke, evidence of an educated class that becomes overtaken with concerns about its own place and regeneration (p. 109), rather than with an interrogation of the idea of modernisation as such. For this first generation of self-conscious modernists (p. 146), incrementalism as reasonable lapsed into stagism as inevitable, which enclosed Ethiopia in a procrustean (i.e. European) developmentalist trajectory (p. 243). The programme of transformation included institutional mechanisms to address the national question, policies that in practice meant denying pathways to meaningful political engagement to those deemed not sufficiently anti-feudalist. The national question was answered not through radical democracy as unfettered self-determination, but by the selective recognition of cultural differences that also functioned to flatten these differences (pp. 141, 136). As the fragmentation of landholdings presaged the fragmentation of class (pp. 142, 218), the extant mode of production remained while the class structure changed (p. 142), and rebellion became difficult to distinguish from retrenchment (p. 95).

          The failure, so to speak, of the students-turned-academics/politicians is their inattentiveness to that gap between their programme and actual needs. Exemplary in this regard is the 2002 survey included in the report, ‘Land Tenure and Agriculture: Development in Ethiopia’. A set of uniform questions were posed that assumed that respondents had in mind the same understanding of, inter alia, ‘private property or freehold’ (p. 157). Skewed questions were paired with a limited number of permissible responses, in some cases only a yes or no option, the data from which sufficing as a testimonial ‘that farmers are rational actors’ (p. 158). This outcome supports Zeleke’s earlier claim that, ‘For the social scientist, fortune-telling comes easily, since we have all become used to modelling the future as path-dependent’ (p. 38). To doubt such tactics amounts to a type of heresy: rejection of the scientific method is an affront to nature and reason, not to mention a pre-determined future the progression of which is both desirable and inevitable (p. 157).

          For Zeleke, this social-scientific method reveals a penchant for self-validation that has little relation to reality and ripens as a ‘refus[al] to examine the form itself’ (p. 238). Under the weight of this ossification of thought, old questions persisted well into the 2010s, such as, ‘How then can we give political expression to the needs of ordinary farmers throughout the country?’ Zeleke’s point in all of this is that the region ‘desperately needs new questions’ (p. 174), and while her own approach provides such an opening, it must overcome two paradoxes to do so.

          One paradox that runs through the first half of text is whether to take certain claims at face value. I have already referenced her decision to leave uncontested the students’ ‘self-description of themselves as “modern” and “scientific” thinkers’ (p. 98); what I did not note is a prior instance where she decries authors in the secondary literature for taking certain claims ‘at their word’ (p. 61). While the selective application of this special consideration may cause the reader to question the integrity of the methodological framing, the paradox is rectified by bringing two additional qualifiers into view. First, Zeleke takes the students’ self-description at face value only as a means of proving its absurdity; in other words, by taking it seriously and testing its limits, she shows that it should be questioned. Second, given the aim of taking the students’ self-description seriously as a means of submitting it to interrogation, the argument not to take the other claimants ‘at their word’ is consistent with her broader critical approach.

          Another paradox has to do with Zeleke’s treatment of the ‘state’. In the middle portion of the text, the author subjects her readers to at least seven different typologies of state: military, authoritarian, revolutionary, modern, nation, quasi-, and ancient. This is paradoxical because Zeleke criticises others for their lack of conceptual clarity (p. 74), not least the students in their journal articles (p. 55). Once again, this paradox can be defused if understood as an offshoot of how she undertakes the immanent critique. Against the programmatic ‘formal definitions’ of the students, Zeleke offers no fixed definition herself, but follows the students’ arguments in such a way that lays waste to their supposedly tidy definition of state (p. 155). Formalism, she shows, is not synonymous with conceptual clarity in practice.

          The overall effectiveness of this critical approach, however, may be undermined by a failure in the book’s structure. Zeleke claims that ‘African studies has been going through a crisis’ for the last fifty years (p. 192). Arguably, many among those she might consider most in need of this critical intervention may not read the second part of the book, where the ethical argument for this mode of interrogation culminates. Yet even if that is the case, it also proves Zeleke’s point: devotees to the programmatic approach cannot abide the unflinching accountability that she demands, and not reading the second part is an act of self-indictment. This structural ‘failure’ is the brilliance of her immanent critique.


The evidentiary case against positivism concludes at the end of the first part, and the theoretical argument for a critical approach makes up the second. ‘I try not to fall prey to a method that invites an endless play of meaning’ (p. 15), Zeleke explains in the book’s introduction, preparing the reader for an eventual ethical rapprochement. For her, it is not about the objective processes that lead to truthmaking nor is it a rejection of truth as such; instead, it is in the act of ‘truth-seeking’ that there is potential to bridge objectivism and relativism (p. 33).

          As much as Zeleke indulges in the thematic of mystification – with references to haunting and ghosts – it is neither as an empty signifier nor an absolute state. The mystification itself must always be understood as contingent (p. 243), and in this respect is a reminder that while knowledge is always historical and partial (p. 246) it is also irreducible to human causality (p. 201). One difficulty that results is the problem of constructing an argument for obligation without resorting to normativity born of assumed necessity.

          Aware of this hazard, Zeleke develops a theory of knowledge based on memoir. As an experience of the past ‘in the key of’ the present (pp. 26, 143), a memoir is the feeling (as form) of loss (as content). This deeply human experience escapes facile categorisation, and by extension, usurpation in the name of a knowable future. If unthinking productivity is the domain of ‘silent compulsion’ in capitalism,Marx 1977, p. 899. Zeleke sees in memoir the practice of negation as thoughtful counterproductivity. The negation is the negation of the folly that the future is knowable, and, in that respect, is the submission to the limits of human knowledge, or rather, the realisation of unrealisability. Memoir operates in this realm: a retelling with no control over its interpretation – a giving over of a version of oneself to make sense of oneself as a human, that is, in relation to ‘historically situated, embodied knowledge’ (p. 201). To realise unrealisability is to remain possessed by the contingencies that shape human knowledge, namely the gaps between subject and object as well as intention and outcome (p. 248).

          To push these overlapping spatial and temporal considerations further, it is worth exploring the ethical parameters that guide professional conservators or restorers. As temporary stewards of someone else’s creation, they have an obligation to truthful representation that they can never attain but to which they are beholden. Their intervention must be reversible and detectable, stipulations that make it impossible for them to claim the original vision as their own, discourage deceitful mimicry, and cement the contingency of their interventions in relation to the future.Lamarque 2016.

          Nineteenth-century social and art critic, John Ruskin, wrote of impossible permanence and the ‘lie’ of restoration: ‘Its evil day must come at last; but let it come declaredly and openly, and let no dishonouring and false substitute deprive it of the funeral offices of memory’.Ruskin 2011. Ruskin, a contemporary of Marx’s and a social reformer, delivered a 1870 lecture at Oxford that is said to have inspired Cecil Rhodes, who was then a student and would later become synonymous with the scramble for Africa.Notable today in the context of the toppling of statues, see for instance, ‘Taking Down Rhodes’s Statue Would Be A Futile Gesture’ (Financial Times 2016). Committed to the education of the labouring class and the labour of the educated class, Ruskin wrote: ‘the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity’.Ruskin 2009. This excursus concerning Ruskin ties together various threads from Zeleke’s book: memory, the scramble, Marx, and the corruption of critical thought. It also provides a chance to reflect on perhaps the least accounted-for and most at-risk of being overlooked aspect of Ethiopia in Theory, namely Zeleke’s collaboration with Loulou Cherinet.

          Ruskin was one of the earliest adopters of photography for the purposes of documenting decaying architecture. On its utility he wrote in 1846: ‘It is certainly the most marvellous invention of the century; given us, I think, just in time to save some evidence from the great public of wreckers’.Quoted in Davis 2015. Photography was a bane and a boon. It facilitated the labour of restoration that he also considered a lie; it was a ‘mechanistic’ memory aid that had documentary functionality but also froze the subject.Davis 2015. If deployed unthinkingly, it is an external object that produces truth-claims (or ‘Big Data’, p. 187) about the subject in a way that dissolves the obligation to make sense of the subject on its own terms, rather like the orthodoxy of the transition to capitalism as it was/is applied to Ethiopia, which Zeleke critiques in her book.

          The singular photograph can produce a relation of absolute mystification, but Zeleke and Cherinet do not pretend that history can be captured as a singularity. ‘[I]n these photos old and new dialogue with each other; the past is no longer silent, and any sense of a seamless transition between past and present is interrupted’, explains Zeleke, expressed even more succinctly when she describes the images of Addis Ababa as representing an ‘older modernity’ (pp. 187–8). Most radically, these images show the people in motion, and it is their movement that gives meaning to the images: ‘The everyday life of the uprooted continues: women still cook and prepare food; herders’ animals linger amidst new condominium-style housing developments’ (p. 187). At this stage it struck me that at no point in the book does Zeleke purport to speak for the people – a posture and tactic too commonly adopted by leftists, and often done instead of the labour of a trenchant (self-)critique. It is not until the reader sees the people in situ that it becomes possible to comprehend at a deeper level how the tiller haunts the student movement. Once again, Zeleke does not describe the critical thinker’s obligation as a social relation, she performs it.

          In Ethiopia in Theory, Zeleke exposes programmatic thinking as dehumanising, trapped in the impossible campaign to achieve the unrealisable. Acknowledgement of the impossibility of the identification between subject and object is the source of the critical thinker’s obligation. In practice, the obligation is to question every attempt at closing the gap between the subject and the object, be that through the ignorance of false objectivity or the treachery of restoration. To paraphrase and extend Zeleke’s conclusion, we are all social selves that labour to shape society; the point for critical theorists is not to do right by our failed realisations but be obliged to labour as truth-seekers.


Benjamin, Walter 1968, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, pp. 253–64, New York: Schocken Books.

Davis, Alan 2015, ‘Technology’, in The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin, edited by Francis O’Gorman, pp. 170–86, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, <>.

Donham, Donald L. 1999, Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Financial Times 2016, ‘Taking Down Rhodes’s Statue Would Be A Futile Gesture’, 13 January, available at: <>.

Halliday, Fred and Maxine Molyneux 1981, The Ethiopian Revolution, London: New Left Books.

Horst, Ian Scott 2020, Like Ho Chi Minh! Like Che Guevara! The Revolutionary Left in Ethiopia, 1969–1979, Paris: Foreign Languages Press.

Lamarque, Peter 2016, ‘Reflections on the Ethics and Aesthetics of Restoration and Conservation’, The British Journal of Aesthetics, 56, 3: 281–99, <>.

Marx, Karl 1977, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One, translated by Ben Fowkes, New York: Vintage Books.

Ruskin, John 2009, The Stones of Venice, Volume II, available at: <>, accessed 4 July 2020.

Ruskin, John 2011, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, available at: <>, accessed 4 July 2020.

Zeleke, Elleni Centime 2020, Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964–2016,Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.