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close this bookMaldevelopment - Anatomy of a Global Failure (UNU, 1990, 246 pages)
close this folder3. The crisis of state
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentNation-state and the ideology of nation in crisis'
View the documentEthnicity: myth and reality
View the documentThe cultural dimension of development in Africa and the third world
View the documentThe cultural dimension: the example of the crisis in the arab world today - the end of the Nahda?7
View the documentNew forms of the social movement
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Ethnicity: myth and reality

The ethnic group, no more then 'race' or any other 'non-reality' invented for the purposes is not the basis of social organization of the pre-capitalist worlds.

As variety was the rule here, it is essential to find some criteria of classification to assist an understanding of history. In this area the criteria of development of the forces of production and the character of the corresponding relations of production provide, in the last analysis, the only sensible solution. We suggest a distinction between two basic modes of production: the primitive-communal and tribute-paying modes. The former correspond to the long transition from virtually unknown primitive existence to the great states of the pre-capitalist classes. The tribute-paying mode defines the societies of pre-capitalist societies. On this view the slave-owning particularity is eliminated, for reasons we shall not go into here; even if we replace the 'two paths' ("Western and Asiatic) - or the three, four or five inspired by more or less dogmatic interpretations of Marx's Grundrisse - by a distinction between a complete tribute-paying mode and its incomplete peripheral forms.

This fundamental analysis is not, however, enough, and to take account of actual history it is necessary to define the series of complex social formations that make up the pre-capitalist political societies. In this analysis the role of 'long-distance trade' is essential since, before capitalism it was practically the only way of integrating into a whole, however loosely, the disparate elementary societies. In the complete tribute-paying societies, with statist centralization of surplus is initiated political and exchange activity sufficiently intense to influence the conditions of production and eventually stimulate progress.

The rediscovery of this articulation between production and centralization (or absence thereof) of surplus - long-distance trade - is recent, at least in Marxist circles. But as happens all too often we have gone from one extreme to the other. In the past the thesis of 'primacy of production' was supported, and was a pretext for ignoring long-distance trade and its role in politics. Now, suddenly, as Marxist modes take hold, interest in analysing the productive base is lost and reserved for exchange and political and warfare organization. From Marx we move on to Pirenne, who wrote of nothing else.4

In the reconstruction of pre-capitalist societies, analysis of their character, their dynamic (on the basis of their contradictions), their interaction, or their complications, it is rediscovered now that the ethnic group had no essential place.

There are in fact 'peoples', the most general of terms that does not imply any a priori precise qualification. These peoples are organized in spaces that do not always coincide, for example: space for matrimonial exchanges, for long-distance trade, for eventual centralization of surplus, for political organization, for the eventually centralized states, for mythologies of kinship and origin, for religious beliefs, and space for linguistic communications (it would be possible to make an almost infinite catalogue of the areas defined).

Where is the ethnic group in this multiple reality? Everywhere and nowhere. If by ethnic group is meant a people who 'speak the same language' (even allowing for dialect variations so long as they do not prevent communication), and who obey the same political authority, there are only rarely ethnic groups in the advanced tribute-paying systems (in China and in Egypt). But why then speak of ethnic group? How does it differ from the modern nation? Furthermore - in the mediaeval West or black Africa for example - the surplus is scarcely centralized beyond the elementary constituents of the system (the feudal manor, the village). Part of the surplus is distributed through the long-distance trade. The state scarcely exists, and where it does seem to have formal existence it is without power: neither a state integrating the basic units of production of tribute-paying surplus, nor a state organized by 'warrior-merchants' as masters of long-distance trade. In these systems communal consciousness has several stages, without necessarily going through the stage of 'ethnic' identification: there is the village community and that of the villages included in the same elementary tribute-paying unit and/or close matrimonial ties, there are the broad spaces with vague religious connotation in some cases: Christianity for medieval Europe, for example. But there is no such thing as a Frenchman, or even perhaps a Breton... Is 'provincial' (pseudo-ethnic) consciousness not a later product, of centralized monarchies (who 'crease' the provinces as organizational units in order to control them), whereas the provinces are very like the advanced tribute-paying mode. Language in itself does not necessarily motivate a sense of community. In our age, when the state education system has largely brought together and imposed a 'single language', it is easy to forget that the ancient peoples were often polyglot (see Africa), that according to need they used this or that language, variant or idiom, without being perturbed by 'multiple identity' in the jargon of the modern phenomenon of linguistic chauvinism.

Pre-capitalist organization is not 'homogeneous', even in fractions of the world, a fortiori over great areas. There are nearly always areas of greater population density, development of forces of production, political, cultural and religious organization, and the 'intermediate' areas, with more or less defined dependence on the former. There are also nearly always enclaves that escape the (linguistic, religious, economic or political) homogenization imposed by the rise of great states. Where the area of long-distance trade does not correlate exactly with that of minimum common disposition of power there often emerge people-classes who bridge the gaps the Jews in mediaeval Christianity, the Dioula in West Africa, among others.

We have elsewhere suggested an interpretation of Arab and pre-colonial African history based on the method described above.

In the Arab case, we speak of the quasi-nation superimposing itself on the regional community, founded on centralization and distribution of the surplus provided by the dominant class of warrior-merchants. It was a class at its height (moving from Tangiers to Baghdad without difficulty) strongly unified through, amongst other things, a written language and a religion. It was a quasi-nation and not a nation pure and simple since the means corresponding to the development of the forces of production scarcely touched the peasant masses, especially those cut off by natural barriers (hence the survival of linguistic and religious enclaves) and since the correlation with power, often localized (especially at times of decline in the great trade), was only relative. Unification in the ruling class was, however, strong, hence our description. But this was not an 'Arab ethnic group'; any more than the enclave peoples had an 'ethnic' by the Western mass media, was of no interest to the broad masses; the 'one' people).

The case of the old Sudanic Africa is very similar to that of North Africa. It is known (i) that the great states of Sudanic Africa (Ghana, Mali. Songhai, and so on) were founded on control of the southern edge of trans-Saharan trade, just as those of the north were founded on control of its northern edge; (ii) the ruling class of these states far from being identifiable as a 'dominant ethnic group' was formed on the basis of certain warrior clans, wide open to assimilation (there were professed Malinke or Songhai here just as there were professed Turks in the Ottoman Empire): (iii) that the scope of these dominances, with fluctuating frontiers, was highly heterogeneous, or variable, especially as regards what is now called the 'ethnic' factor. These theses with their critique of 'ethnicity' are gaining ground nowadays. The Atlantic trade ruined the states and classes to the north and south of the Sahara for similar reasons that led to the decline of the Afro-Arab long-distance trade. The Atlantic slave trade completed the destruction and wrought one of the worst abuses recorded in the history of humankind. The formation of black coastal states founded on this trade was not matched by any development of the forces of production, but rather their regression.

Our political thesis on contemporary Arab unity and African unity comes within the pursuit and revival of this history. Arab unity has firm objective roots, reinforced even today despite the impact of a decline dating back several centuries and aggravated by colonization and the emergence of the present-day post-colonial states. It is in our view impossible to defend the long-term interests of the Arab peoples, their liberation from world capitalist domination and the related internal patterns of exploitation, without defending the triple objective of delinking, socialism and the building of a unified Arab nation. African unity, or African regional unities, has perhaps more tender roots, since, among other factors, it does not enjoy the unparalleled instrument represented for the Arab nation by a shared language. It is, however, the only possible response to the challenges of our age. Neither consolidation of the states emerging from colonization, often too tiny to face the problems of our time, nor the break-up desired by the proponents of ethnicity (to be seen in Nigeria of the past and Ethiopia of the present) provide a response to these issues.

The practices of colonial domination have played a decisive part in the 'creation' of 'ethnic realities' in Africa in particular. For the colonizers to dominate vast regions, often disrupted by decline associated with slave trading, they need to 'reorganize' and above all find local intermediaries for the purpose. In the absence of state, a tribute-paying or 'feudal' class, the colonizers invented 'chiefs' and invested them with an authority that was often spurious. But of what could they be chiefs anyway? It was then that poor, amateur anthropologists, who were good military and civilian servitors of colonialism, invented the 'ethnic groups' (wish the frankness of the times the expressions were 'races' or 'tribes'). Professional anthropology made a halfhearted attack on these inventions. The story of these inventions has been told very wittily about the Bambara and the Bété - and of the Ibo and many others. In the most tragic instances - for the peoples victimized - colonialism linked the invention of ethnicity to the establishment of savage systems of exploitation, nowadays adorned with the description 'traditional'. J. P. Chrétien has shown how Belgian colonialism and the Catholic church jointly invented the 'Tutsi' and the 'Hutu': curious ethnic groups indistinguishable by language, culture or history, he says. Tutsi feudal domination was thus an entirely Belgian invention, then justified by a baseless theory (the vaunted distinction between Hamites and Bantu).5

Ideologization of ethnicity is a clear example of racism. The ethnic group - or 'race' as it was called - was supposed to exist on its own, prior to the ethnic consciousness of those affected. It defined significant qualities that have sometimes been comically described: for example, the X or the Y are 'bright' or 'stupid', dedicated to agriculture or to abstract thought, according to the needs of the colonial power. But when all is said and done the mass circulation description of 'An Englishman's view of the French' or vice versa is not much better.

The extreme form of the ideology of ethnic racism comes in apartheid South Africa and the bantustanization of the country. The black people of South Africa have, as is well known, riposted with demonstrations of unity and struggle and it might be hoped that their courage and example would give the theoreticians of ethnicity and its unconditional acceptance more pause for thought. Zionist literature showing its 'view' of the Arabs and plans based on this view are no different.

History cannot go backwards. As a consequence, if the ethnic group exists, whether or not as a product of colonialism, it must be acknowledged and taken into account. But does it really exist and if so where? Here variety is the rule and there is no substitute as is said for 'concrete analysis of concrete situations'.

In some instances it would seem clear that ethnic reality - albeit a false reality - is a given of current politics. But on closer examination it can be seen that in most situations this reality is manipulated by clans competing for power within the ruling class. The best examples of this are Zaire. Rwanda and Burundi. In the latter two countries, the quasi-racist contrast of Tutsi and Hutu has been internalized by the ruling classes. Belgian colonialism and the Catholic church favoured in the extreme a 'feudal' domination they themselves created and christened 'Tutsi'. Later the new educated petit-bourgeoisie, hoping to take over from the 'feudals' in the new neo-colonial framework, claimed 'Hutu' ethnicity and, with colonialism and the church showing a change of heart, were supported by imperialism when the post-independence regime was established in Rwanda. As C. Vidal has shown, the 'tine ethnic excuse' was manipulated by the petit-bourgeois clans competing for power. But has 'ethnicity' really been internalized by the great manipulated masses? This remains to be proven. In Katanga (now renamed Shaba) it can hardly be called ethnicity but provincialism, and pluri-ethnic at that. Here it can be seen that provincialism was only the reflection of the backwardness of the petit-bourgeoisie of this province under the extreme domination of large-scale mining capital, in the face of the Kinshasa petit-bourgeoisie, who were radical nationalist in the early 1960s. Here, too, imperialism used the contradiction to try to prolong its domination of Katanga, threatened by the rise of support for Lumumba. Once again with colonial power situated in Kinshasa, imperialism had a change of heart. It should also be observed that this provincialism, speedily dubbed as 'ethic' by the Western mass media, was of no interest to the broad masses; the first workers' organizations in the province laid no claim to ethnicity.

The hydra of ethnicity and ethnic affiliation is always ready to spring up again. In fact it reappears whenever the local ruling class is slipping and when its failure is becoming unbearable. This is clearly the case in Zaire, and perhaps not the only one in Africa. But it is not the case generally. Stable neo-colonial power is founded on a ruling class more or less united at state level: this class largely transcends ethnic grouping. A comprador class as a whole it binds its destiny to the state's and the state is its means of exerting local power. Doubtless the individual components of this class may seek to 'build a following' in their region of origin. For want of power or the desire to use the 'normal' political means (as defence of social interests and conflict over programmes are barred by the widespread system of single pseudo-parties serving comprador development), they may appeal to ethnic or pseudo-ethnic solidarities. This kind of manoeuvre is limited in effect and is only serious in case of global failure and acute conflicts for 'succession' to a broken power, when imperialism has itself decided to switch horses.

The political conclusion to be drawn from this critique of ethnicity is self-evident. It can be summarized in two phrases: respect diversity, and be united despite it.

Respecting diversity means giving up empty talk of a power pretending to be what it is not, asserting 'national interest' (frequently betrayed) by appearing to internalize the ideology of the nation-state. It means accepting that there are social realities, primarily classes (although the authorities often deny their existence in order to deprive them of autonomous expression), but also gender, religious communities, regions and sometimes even ethnic groups. A social reality exists when individuals are conscious of it and desire to express it; no right has higher value than such expression. Scientific analysis may provide an understanding of the objective conditions that create this reality, but it does not justify giving 'prior warrant' to its expression. It is not the duty of thinkers and researchers (any more than of the authorities) to decree whether a reality (ethnic or otherwise) exists or not. That right belongs only to the people and to them alone, those really concerned with the issue.

A recognition of diversity does not mean allowing fragmentation through endless secession. On the contrary it must be the jumping-off point for an appeal to unity. This is the only prospect that is bound to be favourable to the development of the popular forces. But an appeal to unity remains hollow unless it is associated with a denunciation of the global and local system that, while not always and inevitably responsible for all the 'differentiations', is ready to exploit them to break the unity of the popular forces.