The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Early 20th century Ethiopian political philosophy: theorizing a non-Western modernity

Sara Marzagora

Tuesday 15th October 2013

The first seminar in the 2013/14 African History Seminar Series organised by the History Department of The Faculty of Arts & Humanities, SOAS

The Wednesday seminars run from 5:00 - 6:30 pm in Room FG01, Faber Building, SOAS, 23-24 Russell Square (on the corner of Russell Sq and Thornhaugh St).

Open to the public, all welcome

Ethiopia retained its independence well into the 20th century, having successfully repelled an Italian invasion attempt in 1896 at Adwa. This gave Ethiopian intellectuals a unique philosophical possibility: to theorize an alternative development model to the one European powers had imposed throughout the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. Almost all Ethiopian intellectuals at the beginning of the 20th century seemed to believe that ‘modernity’ was not a prerogative of the West. Ethiopian nationalist discourse was drawn upon to reaffirm an ‘Ethiopian exceptionalism’: to early-20th century Ethiopian intellectuals, the country’s glorious cultural, religious and political tradition made possible to find a uniquely Ethiopian way to modernization, through which to obtain European-like levels of economic and social welfare. This progress would have to be achieved by carefully adopting certain valuable elements of Western society while preserving some traditional ones, thus creating a hybrid political model.

The hope that Ethiopia would become a great world power without losing its tradition suffered a terrible blow when Ethiopia proved unable to repel the second Italian invasion attempt in 1935 – and was ultimately shattered in 1974, when a Marxist-inspired military regime took power in the country. These two events made apparent that the Ethiopian state was grounded in a shaky and contradictory ideological and political foundation – and that the attempt to theorize and implement a non-Western modernity had ultimately failed.

By drawing on unpublished Amharic sources, the presentation traces the history of the reformist movement in early 20th century Ethiopian political philosophy, and analyses the reasons for its failure.

A full listing of the seminars in this series can be found on the SOAS website.



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