The contribution of psychological and social factors to the success of the Eritrean Revolution: A brief theoretical analysis.

By Tesfay Aradom Ph.D.

January, 2020


A salient issue that has not been given serious consideration when evaluating the centrality the PFDJ1 (People’s Front for Democracy and Justice) in Eritrean modern history is its irreversible and profound impact on the psychological and social fabric of the Eritrean society. Invariably, when evaluating its political and military accomplishments, there is a temptation to attribute them primarily to the correctness and clarity of its political ideology. The plausibility of this argument notwithstanding, it is also reasonable to conclude that, within the PFDJ, we have witnessed the evolution of a social justice oriented culture which pervaded the communities within its control and guided the actions, attitudes and outlook of its members. So, exclusive focus on its political ideology, does not enable one to fully appreciate the pervasive and deep impact of its progressive values and reformist ideology on the development of a cohesive national identity. Hitherto unprecedented in Eritrean history, this protracted socio-political process produced a radical psychological and social transformation both at the individual and collective levels. Gradually, the manifestations of such a transformation became evident among the population despite challenging and dynamic socio-political contexts.

Hence, to provide a context within which to analyze and fully appreciate the critical role of PFDJ’s culture on the, political, social and military trajectory of the independence movement, an attempt will first be made to define culture and underscore the dimensions relevant to the discussion to be undertaken. It will be followed by a brief description and explanation of what would one call PFDJ’s collectivist culture. Finally, a brief analysis of its psychological and social dimensions and a discussion of its role in shaping the communities and society at large will be provided.

What is culture ?

Culture, as a construct, has been defined in a plethora of ways and has been a central focus in everyday discourse. For the purpose of this discussion, a definition that is relevant to understanding its socio-psychological dimensions will be adopted. According to Avruch (1998) culture is defines as “ a set of attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviors shared by a group of people and transmitted across generations”. In this context, sharing implies the degree to which individuals hold the same values, attitudes, beliefs, norms, or behaviors as the collective. What is also implied here is the sharing of some fundamentally important cognitive and emotional dimensions such as ideas, attitudes, motivations, values, ideology and beliefs among members of the group.

Additionally, the above definition of culture relegates physical characteristics, tasks associated with overt human behavior and observable attributes such as facial morphology, skin color to secondary importance. What it attempts to do is grapple with the problem of the locus of culture. While it has generated a spirited debate among social scientists, the consensus tries to avoid a dichotomous resolution. In other words, an attempt is made to recognize the dialectical relationship between its objective and subjective dimensions of culture. While culture is manifested through laws, art, books, courts and archived material, it also resides within the individual ( Avruch, 1998). These cultural elements are produced by humans at the species level and acquired and subsequently internalized by individual human beings.

It is important to point out here that the preoccupation with the internal dimensions of culture is in the realm of psychology and as such focuses on cognitive and affective dimensions. So it is important to underscore that some cultural representations are deeply internalized and invested with emotion and instigate behavior by making connections to desirable and socially responsible goals and end states, whereas some are only superficially internalized and evolve only to a level of cultural cliché. The more deeply internalized and affectively loaded the more certain that cultural representations will motivate and guide individual and collective actions. This also accounts for the psychogenic and socio-genic distribution of culture. For example, two individuals and disparate groups exposed to same cultural representations can have different levels of internalization and psycho-social reactions.

Therefore, it is important to point out here that the notion that culture is devoid of internal contradictions and paradoxes and that it can be reified independent of human actors is incorrect. It would lead to the erroneous conceptualization of culture as uniformly affecting the cognitive, affective and behavioral dimensions of its members’ lives both at the individual and group levels.

As a dynamic socio-psychological construct produced by humans to guide their behavior within a particular socio-political setting, culture has been central to the development of a dialectical relationship between its elements and human activity both at the individual and collective levels. A profound appreciation of this relationship is essential to avoid the gradual attenuation of its strength and its influence among its members.

PFDJ’s Collectivist Culture

Markus and Kitiyama (1991); Matsumoto (1994) have employed the individualism to collectivism continuum to explain cultural variability of socialization among communities. It refers to the degree to which a culture encourages and facilitates the needs, whishes, desires and values of an autonomous and unique self over those of families, communities and society in general. An objective assessment of the socio-political situation that prevailed under the PFDJ controlled areas would lead one to conclude that the dominant and pervasive culture during the struggle for independence, as conceptualized and practiced incrementally by the PFDJ, was collectivist. Such a culture, through a protracted process, played a critical role in shaping a collectivist sense of self and identity among its members and the communities under its influence both inside and outside the country. Because a sense of self is fundamentally a product of a dynamic interaction between the individual and his or her socio-cultural context (Sampson, 1989), it is safe to assume that the praxis of PFDJ’s culture affected the emotional, cognitive, behavioral and motivational developmental dimensions of its members both inside and outside of its organizational reach. One can safely assume that the evolution of a collectivist sense of self was critically important and integral to how its members and communities viewed their role and that of others in the socio-political transformation taking place within the Eritrea society. The collectivist construct of the self in which the individual is viewed as organically connected to others emphasizes the fundamental connectedness of human beings. Forging caring and positive interpersonal and social relationships, despite the challenging military and social conditions, was perceived as a salient factor not only for self-definition but also for the personal fulfillment of social and national obligations. This is consistent with the argument that “the maintenance of healthy and secure relationships is among the most important values within African culture” (Degruy, 2017, p. 100). In other words, social and personal behaviors and motivations were guided by the perceived or real expectations of family and communities members’ sense of obligation to others and duty to society and the struggle. Individual needs, within the context of group identity, were subsumed to the needs of the community within the context of national priorities. Hence, the collectivist culture made a significant contribution to the transcendence of ethno-linguistic and regional affiliations and gradual adoption of a view that the whole, the nation, is greater than the sum of its parts. Through persistent adherence to collectivist practices, beliefs and values an effective and coherent “whole out of a bunch of dissimilar parts” was created (McAdams, 2018, p.29).

Similarly, as the motivation to excel became socially oriented, the interpersonal, social and national contexts served as fundamental guides for the individual motivation to achieve a healthy emotional state and productive cognitive and social functioning. It is noteworthy that those individuals who were psychologically and emotionally divorced from the collectivist cultural milieu, placed themselves at a higher risk for an intellectual as well as emotional crisis. This underscores the argument made by Markus and Kitiyama (1991) that the sense of self-worth and efficacy are inextricably linked to the degree to which one is connected to the social context.

Needless to say, PFDJ’s reformist and socio-politically transformative values were not totally alien to the Eritrean society. The unprecedented vigor and efficiency with which it pursued, disseminated and practiced them have to be viewed and analyzed within the framework of a historically egalitarian culture that prevailed the Eritrean society (Ministry FitHi, 2011); (Solomon, 2012). Guided by this collectivist culture and equipped with the knowledge of the individual and collective competencies needed for the realization of what Harari (2017) calls the “imagined reality”, the PFDJ’s primary goal was, through a persistent and concerted effort, to ascertain the gradual transformation of children, youth and adults into productive and socially responsible individuals. This protracted socialization process is, according to Clausen (1968), a mechanism to pass on traditions, values and norms and the behavioral skills required by individuals to play their expected roles in society. It is, thus, the mechanism by which socio-culturally constructed cognitive and socio-emotional characteristics are transmitted across generations. The transmission occurred through the guidance of the socialization agents represented by the various institutions operating in the liberated areas. For example, the PFDJ made a conscious and concerted effort to keep the nuclear and extended family, the most important socialization agents, intact even under extremely difficult military and social conditions. Additionally, the schools and civic organizations within the liberated zones played a vital and effective role. As such, they made an invaluable contribution to the collective psychological, emotional, social and moral development of adults and youth.

To underscore the relative advantage of the collective conceptualization of the self (Compton, 2005) offers a highly perceptive observation,

“A new vision of human beings has been emerging from psychological research. According to these newer perspectives, socialization and the ability to live in groups are highly adaptable traits (Buss, 2000). Newer psychological thinking views the ability to interact peaceably in social groups as a trait that would actually enhance the evolutionary advantage of the species. That is, as the human race developed, those people who could live together in groups would have an advantage over those who could not. Therefore, they would be more likely to survive and pass on their genetic material to their children “ (p. 8).


A critical factor relative to the conceptualization and successful praxis of PFDJ’s collectivist culture, was and continues to be the guidance provided by a democratic, social justice oriented group of leaders who had the foresight to create a movement that would evolve into a highly disciplined, adaptive, pragmatic and effective organization. It is noteworthy that the leadership led by example. Not only did it plan, implement and guide the daily and more general political, social and military activities, it also consistently modelled the behaviors and attitudes that it sought to inculcate among the fighters and civilians under its influence in order to achieve the national objectives.

Having provided a perspective and a conceptual framework within which to understand the profound influence of PFDJ’s culture on all the dimensions of the lives of its members and the communities under its influence, perhaps it is appropriate to make a brief analysis of the socio and psychogenic impact of PFDJ’s collectivist culture. Such an analysis would highlight the legacy that enabled it to achieve its goals in a sustainable manner.

It is reasonable to argue that the collectivist culture espoused by the EPLF and effectively disseminated and practiced through its socialization agents, was a significant contributing factor to its political, social, military and diplomatic achievements during the pre and post liberation period. Therein one might find the secret to its success. Notwithstanding the persistent and seemingly insurmountable military, diplomatic odds against an enemy that was the beneficiary of immense unconditional financial, military and diplomatic support from the international community, the PFDJ was able to conduct a protracted, resilient and successful resistance with meagre material resources and numerically inferior human resources. It succeeded in keeping the Eritrean people focused and galvanized around the “ imagined reality “ of an independent Eritrea and determined to realize it at all costs, including making the ultimate sacrifice. One might argue that these achievements, given the overwhelming odds, were unprecedented in modern African history. In other words, the PFDJ, through a commendable effort, was able to foster and sustain a social and psychological climate in which a significant segment of the population from diverse social, ethnic and religious backgrounds evolved into a movement that shared and adopted similar beliefs, values and goals. Collectively and individually these groups persevered in transforming themselves, their physical and social environment and ultimately their society for the benefit of the revolution and the nation.

In this context, it is also important to point out, that the collectivist culture contributed towards the fulfillment of the physiological and security needs of the individuals involved in the movement. Despite the obvious severe lack of material and human resources, the movement managed to provide the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing as well as a sense of security and safety. To the population in general and children and youth in particular, the fulfillment of these critically important needs contributed to the pervasive sense of stability and predictability throughout the liberated areas which, in turn, became a source of hope and perseverance for all Eritreans in the Diaspora.

Similarly, the collectivist culture created and fostered a social milieu that adequately met the emotional and psychological needs of the individuals within its influence. The infinite amount of love, genuine affection toward one another, sense of belongingness and mutual trust and absence of egocentricity and greed that were palpable among its members were inimitable. The important role that these important emotional experiences played in helping individuals persevere and develop a healthy mental perspective about life and their struggle cannot be underscored enough. Additionally, for the vast majority of the people in the movement, the prevailing culture was conducive to the fulfillment of their needs for high self-esteem, competence, productivity and autonomy. Within the context of a work ethic that extolled discipline and unleashed their potential for innovation and creativity, individuals were able to achieve their intellectual and professional objectives, acquire new skills and gain new knowledge primarily for the benefit of the struggle and the people which they felt an integral part of. Others were encouraged to perfect or improve on skills and knowledge they already possessed.

Another salient dimension of this culture, its motto of self-reliance, had profound psychological and social implications. Both at the individual and collective levels it made a critical contribution to the development and preservation of what (Rotter, 1966) calls an “internal locus of control” orientation towards life in general and specific life events in particular. This type orientation helped individuals and social groups to play an active and productive role in their lives and take responsibility for their destiny. Specifically, it enabled them to identify and make a correct assessment of their subjective and objective conditions; take the initiative to change and improve their physical, political and military situations; place greater value on their own skills to achieve their goals and, as a result, become less susceptible to negative influence and manipulation by others.

Culturally marginalized social groups such as women and members of the lower social strata were gradually emancipated from traditionally oppressive economic and socially systems and enabled to realize their full potential. The positive long-term impact of such emancipation on the affective, cognitive and social life of these social groups engendered an immeasurable psychological benefit. Needless to say, the social, political and military benefits the independence movement gained from this active and politically conscious, but previously marginalized, groups was invaluable


The pervasive influence of PFDJ’s culture as a catalyst for an individual and collective socio-political and psychological transformation is a reality that deserves close attention and a profound appreciation. We should guard ourselves against the reductionist propensity to divorce its inclusive collectivist culture from its socio-political and military achievements.

The brief article attempted to underscore the critically important role that PFDJ’s collectivist culture played in engendering radical psychological, emotional and social transformation among its members and communities under its influence both inside Eritrea and in the Diaspora. It is a modest attempt to help the reader focus his/her attention on the psycho-social dimensions of the movement’s work and experience. It argues that a significant contributing factor to its impressive, exemplary and unprecedented political, social, economic and military successes, during the pre as well as post liberation period, is its transformative collectivist culture. Additionally, it tried to identify the potential social and political challenges that can occur if a timely and effective socialization program and enculturation program is not developed and continually evaluated and monitored.

PFDJ’s collectivist and inclusive culture entered into and maintained a dialectical relationship with its political ideology. To some degree, the latter became a manifestation of the former. Hence, to preserve the pervasive influence of its political ideology and succeed in its political mobilization, the PFDJ had to continually cultivate and nurture its progressive ideology. The need to make a concerted, conscious and aggressive effort to disseminate it among the population in general and the youth in particular cannot be underscored enough. The PFDJ is an organization that consists of members who have been psychologically, emotionally and socially transformed by its collectivist culture and motivated into action by its social justice oriented political ideology.


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1 Formerly the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front)