Stewart investigates role of assimilationist education in rise of leftist rebel groups

February 22, 2023

What explains the emergence of leftist rebel groups during the Cold War? In a new paper in the European Journal of International Relations, associate professor Megan Stewart dives into this question, addressing the rise of leftist rebel groups in countries that became independent after WWII. 

“In this context, I argue that leftist rebel groups were more likely to emerge where empires enforced assimilationist education programs terminating in the metropole,” of the imperial state of the colony, Stewart writes. “This is because some colonized persons in assimilatory language programs often held expectations for social advancement within the imperial system, but these expectations were quickly dashed upon arrival to the imperial metropole.”

Stewart backs up her theory using a comparison of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). Because Ethiopia changed its education policies in Eritrea, it presents the perfect case study for investigating the origins of the two groups — one exposed to assimilatory education, the other not.

“I find that individuals who were not part of an assimilatory language program did not form a leftist rebel group, though they had access to leftist ideas,” Stewart says. “Many of the leaders of the leftist EPLF, however, were part of Ethiopia’s assimilatory language program and completed some or all of their tertiary degree in the metropole.”

During the Cold War in countries that became independent after WWII, assimilatory language programs in the imperial metropole were key to the creation of leftist rebel groups. These programs brought colonized, educated people to the metropole, hoping to gain social mobility. However, once colonized people arrived, they faced economic, social, and political discrimination at the hands of the imperial state and individuals, making them relatively more susceptible to radical ideas. 

“At this period in time, educated colonized persons in the metropole could have gravitated to extreme ideologies related to religion, ethnicity or nationality, all of which could have been tied to colonized status,” Stewart argues. Instead, they turned to leftist ideas.

“Educated, colonized individuals easily encountered radical leftist ideas in the imperial metropoles where they were living,” Stewart writes. “Second, the content of leftist ideas were compatible with the grievances and experiences of colonized individuals.”

Further, leftist activists were easily available at the universities that educated colonized individuals attended, making it easy for them to join radical leftist groups and learn about anti-state activity and connections.

“What ultimately emerged was a group of educated, colonized individuals, with strong horizontal ties, consensus around a leftist ideology, robust connections to leftist activists, and experience in anti-stat agitation,” Stewart says. “What emerged was a leftist vanguard.”

This framework is exactly how the EPLF came to be, differing greatly from the ELF’s origins. And, while the ELF had leftist ideas available through the support of China, they ultimately rejected them, showing the significance of assimilatory education in the emergence of leftist rebel groups.

“Thus, during the Cold War and among colonized and recently decolonized countries, assimilatory education programs terminating in the imperial metropole incubated leftist vanguard which made the formation of leftist rebel groups more likely,” Stewart concludes. 

Read the entirety of Stewart’s paper, “Foundations of the Vanguard: the origins of leftist rebel groups,” in the European Journal of International Relations.