Review: People, Nation and State: The Meaning of Ethnicity and Nationalism

Enlightenment thinking prioritized the interests of humanity over the interests of nations. Immanuel Kant, for example, envisioned a future federation of free states bound by laws of universal hospitality where a violation of rights in one part was felt everywhere. But, at the beginning of the 21st century, are we any closer to overcoming the narrow confines of national self-interest and achieving a universal cosmopolitan existence where members renounce patriotism and nationalism and defend universal values as opposed to national ones?

This is a theme of the thought-provoking text under review, the product of a milestone 1993 conference convened by international affairs commentator Edward Mortimer at the University of Warwick. A number of key questions under the general headings of ethnicity, nationalism, and statehood were devised to provoke discussion:
Are ethnic identities primordial or are they socially constructed?
Can modern nations be constructed ex nihilo or does there have to be some pre-modern ethnic identity on which to build?
What degree of common culture or shared values is needed for people to live together in a democratically governed state?
What are the criteria for deciding, and who has the right to decide, whether a given group of people possesses the right to self-determination?
Can communal or national identity be expressed other than through separate statehood?
Is there such a thing as benign nationalism, “civic” or “ethnic”’?

Scholars from a range of fields, including anthropology, law, sociology, philosophy, history, and political science, were invited to debate their answers—the results are of great interest to the specialist and lay reader alike.

Globalization is reducing the economic sovereignty of nations and international law is chipping away at the inviolability of states, but nationalism remains the strongest political force in the world today. It was once presumed that ethnicity would decline in the face of a shrinking planet, as people became increasingly interdependent in economic and cultural terms, and there was increased awareness that we are “one world” facing common ecological, political, and security problems. Yet the rapid dissolution of the known has led to the now well-documented phenomenon (described by Thomas Friedman in The Lexus and the Olive Tree) of people clinging to the familiar—of reaffirming and reifying what is believed to be true at the local level. In so doing they “re-energize the primordial standard-bearers, namely, ethnicity, tribe, race, language, religion, and nation,” says Robin Cohen.

Most authors comment on the problematic disjunction of “state” and “nation” and the resultant clash of rival nationalisms, describing it as one of the main causes of civil unrest and violence in the world today. Put simply, this clash is a struggle between those who believe that a nation should be a home to all and that race, color, religion, and creed should be no bar to belonging, and those who want their nation to be home only to their “own.”

The liveliest debates center on the question of whether states iv should define the nation v or whether a nation should define the state. There is overall agreement with Gidon Gottlieb’s view that the doctrine that every state should be one nation is pernicious. As Adam Roberts writes, no state is an undifferentiated monolithic whole and it is absurd to assume that specific peoples are neatly arranged on the map, awaiting liberation from outside control in order to assume their rightful place in a peaceful and democratic international order. Most modern societies are socially, culturally, sexually, religiously, and ethnically heterogeneous; all authors agreed that states should resist the temptation to claim cultural ownership of the political community and instead should strike a balance between unity and diversity. They called for fresh and imaginative thinking regarding territorial arrangements in disputed lands such as Sri Lanka, Macedonia and Karabagh, and new sets of concepts with regard to borders, national homes, citizenship, and nationality. The concept of national self-determination, for example, must be completely rethought—freed from the idea of sovereignty—and viewed more as an entitlement or commitment to democracy, Roberts says.

Various writers stipulate, as a matter of priority, the need to distinguish between “civic” and “ethnic” nationalism; that is, between forms of nationalism that appeal to people on the basis of ethnicity, language, religion, or race, and those forms that appeal to people on the basis of shared allegiance to certain constitutional principles (Habermas’s constitutional patriotism). Michael Ignatieff argues for the grounding of national symbols and traditions in civic values with which all can easily identify—like France’s “liberty, equality, and fraternity”—symbols and traditions that will unite citizens in patriotic attachment to a shared set of values that celebrate plurality and difference.

Debating from somewhat different premises, Bhikhu Parekh, a professor at the London School of Economics and member of the House of Lords, stresses the critical importance of ethnic identity in multicultural societies, and of promoting a people’s sense of self-understanding and belonging.vi But Parekh struggles with the problem of how to define national identity in countries that have declared themselves culturally plural. National identity cannot be ethnically and culturally neutral, he says, as this arrangement would satisfy no one and would lack the power to evoke deep historical memories, but neither should national identity be biased toward any particular community while it de-legitimizes and alienates others. To be culturally eclectic is to lack coherence and focus. In conclusion, he acknowledges that it is an extremely difficult undertaking and that each community has to strike its own balance.

The key concern from this reviewer's perspective is the welfare of minorities in modern pluralist democracies; their official recognition in a manner that honors their traditions and secures their rights, and legitimizes and values their existence and membership-and this was a topic dealt with in detail by some authors. As Parekh says, for example, if there is to be national cohesion, it is absolutely essential that minorities must not only be willing and active participants in the social and political life of the society. Minorities must be integral to a community's self-definition.

This fascinating, easy-to-read volume permits a deeper understanding of issues of vital and growing concern, including self-determination, multi-culturalism, and national identity, and is highly recommended not only for members of the academy, but also politicians and bureaucrats. Only discredited extremists such as Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky are advocates of the 'one nation-one state' model of 'balkanization' and texts such as this are vital in dispelling old myths and setting a trajectory for a world in which the Enlightenment values of peace, harmony, and security may one day hold sway.
Ian S. McIntosh is senior editor for Cultural Survival.

CSQ Issue: