Furthest Right

Ethnicity and Ideology (Gavan Tredoux)

1. Introduction

This is an exploration of ethnicity and its ideological disfigurement by liberalism; it forms part of a larger study of political ideologies and their relationship to ethnicity. More ambitiously, this is an attempt to reconstruct modern political philosophy.

2. Definitions

Certain words are used in special senses in the discussion that follows. An ethnie is a named human community, with a shared myth of common ancestry, an imagined history and a distinctive culture.(1) A sense of solidarity and an attachment to a particular territory often form part of this complex. Membership of an ethnie is fundamentally ascriptive; that is, ethnic identity is not a matter of choice, but ascribed by others, within and without the ethnie – thus ethnicity is best considered as an extension of kinship. ‘Nationalism’ is an integral part of this – the aspiration of the ethnie to statehood and political power. These are all complex notions with a wealth of theory and analysis behind them, which will be taken for granted in what follows.(2)


3. Liberalism & Ethnicity

Modern western society is steeped in liberalism & liberal political theory: consider the rule of law, the restriction of the state and its subordination to the citizenry, freedom of expression and the right to privacy. There is a notion of citizenship at the heart of all this: the citizens of the liberal society are individuals – the sole moral agents – whose citizenship is equal in every respect. This ‘citizen’ is an entity deliberately abstracted from a particular person; people have a unique history, personality, heritage; ‘citizens’ are simply ‘citizens’. Transparently, no liberal order could differentiate between its citizens, not knowing any of their peculiarities. The state provides nothing more than a framework for social interaction, and its authority stops at the abstract ‘citizen’, whose conscience and particular actions are protected by anonymity.

Historically, modern liberalism emerged partly as a critique of feudalism and the ‘old order’ in Europe; the core of the liberal programme was always the abolition of inequality, and not material inequality but abstract inequality of citizenship, of the social rank enshrined in feudalism and the old order. Tied to this was the formal vesting of authority in the ‘citizens’, or ‘the people’, rather than the state itself, or the church.

Ethnicity, with its ascription of identity, roots the individual in a special history, a unique heritage; ethnicity is the antithesis of abstraction. Freedom to choose an identity, or even to have an identity at all, disappears in a complex of description from within and ascription from without. The ‘individual citizen’ is now a concrete person entwined in a web of identities and relationships – trapped. There is an inherent potential here for unequal citizenship, for hierarchical ranking of ethnies; as we have already noted, hierarchies and a scale of social roles are important facets of feudalism, and liberalism was constructed specifically as a critique of social hierarchy and ascription of social roles. By its very nature then, ethnicity is foreign to liberalism, incomprehensible.

Liberal social scientists prove an interesting case study of this liberal antipathy toward ethnicity. As van den Berghe notes, in the context of American social science: “The great American liberals … presented a monolithic ideological front – a genuine party line on race and ethnicity.”(3) Central to this party line is the claim that all humans are fundamentally the same in all respects, that ethnocentrism is an irrational attitude, even socially dysfunctional, and peculiar to ‘authoritarian personality types’. Attached to this is a faith in the assimilation of ethnies in modern society; a conviction that societies progressively lose ethnic consciousness as they modernize. Ethnicity is an archaic fetter, on this view, broken by modernization; an anachronistic residue of traditionalism inevitably eroded by industrialization, urbanization and modern communications and transport. This process ought to be encouraged, on the liberal view, as both inevitable and desirable.

Liberal social science, and liberalism in general, presumes that human behaviour and action is motivated, above all else, by material self-interest.(4) To act on the basis of material self-interest is to act, ultimately, as an individual; to attach most importance to material self- interest is to attach least importance to ethnic identity, if any. Behaviour motivated by a sense of ethnic identity, a concern for the status of one’s ethnie in the face of ethnic pluralism, is not even other-regarding (as opposed to self- regarding), it seems to be nothing-regarding; for an ethnie has no tangible existence in itself, nor can it be reduced to a particular set of people. To the liberal, this sort of behaviour is fundamentally irrational and socially dysfunctional, and hence a problem; to the liberal social- scientist it is not so much a problem but an opportunity, to demonstrate that what appears to be ethnically-motivated behaviour is really materially-motivated(5), restoring rationality to human behaviour and credibility to an ideology which presumes precisely that sort of rationality.

To reiterate: ethnicity is foreign and incomprehensible in the liberal scheme, given liberalism’s thoroughgoing individualism, its historical antipathy toward feudalism, its abstract notion of citizenship, its faith in social modernization and progress, and its presumption that the fundamental motivation of human behaviour is material self- interest. This is superbly illustrated by the Lockean and Rawlsian notions of ‘social contract’: society ought to be viewed as nothing more than a collection of freely contracting individuals, who are morally prior to that society and to each other, each worthy of equal respect and treatment, by each other and by the political arrangements of the society contracted into.

To the extent that ethnicity is foreign to liberalism, to the extent that ethnic behaviour is incomprehensible within the liberal framework, to the extent that liberalism conflicts with the perception of self, the perception of others, and the perception of oneself by others; to that extent, liberalism is simply a failure. Ethnicity is an irreducible social phenomenon in its own right; a wealth of evidence demonstrates is pervasive influence, throughout history, on human society and conduct(6); moreover, ethnicity appears to be the single most important basis of social organization, of far greater durability and universality than social class. The fundamental motivator of human behaviour is not material self-interest, but ethnic identity; concern for the status of one’s ethnic group, for the well-being of that ethnie in the most intangible sense of myth and culture, for the well-being of the members of that ethnie, as members. This is a statement of fact, and a fact that utterly divorces liberalism from the object of its discourse; it is as if liberalism has an entirely different world in mind. The extent to which this undermines liberal credibility will become clearer later.

Naturally, liberals might claim to have an account of what ought to be, rather than what is; society might be irreducibly ethnic, but it shouldn’t be. Morally speaking, mankind is one homogeneous whole, and people ought to act as if it is; that they usually act otherwise is neither here nor there. Unfortunately, this is a lonely row to hoe; one can easily formulate moral prescriptions any time of the day or night, but others can just as easily disregard them. The trick is to get others to agree that the liberal scheme is in fact theirs, and of course, any liberal theorist worth his salt knows this.(7) To an extent, liberals have been highly successful at this, at least in those western societies now known as ‘liberal-democracies’ – The United Kingdom, The United States of America, the countries of Western Europe and the like. However, these are all unusually homogeneous societies; insofar as they have exhibited ethnic pluralism, this has always posed very difficult problems for the prevailing liberal ideology – consider the debate surrounding ‘affirmative action’ in the United States.(8)

The key to a proper understanding of modern liberalism, its success and its failure, lies in its intimate relationship with ethnic nationalism and ethnic homogeneity; a relationship that is obscured by its antipathy to ethnicity in general. It is no accident that liberalism has been most successful in ethnically homogeneous countries, and least successful in ethnically heterogeneous, plural societies; it was framed for homogeneous societies. As Michael Waltzer puts it, in an even broader context: “Most political theorists, from the time of the Greeks onward, have assumed the national or ethnic homogeneity of the communities about which they wrote … . [T]he assumption of a common language, history, or religion underlay most of what was said about political practices and institutions.”(9) Not only does liberalism presuppose homogeneity, it also contributes to that homogeneity; liberalism is part of the imagining of a community. This is an important and often overlooked point, worth exploring in greater detail.

That rare phenomenon, the modern European nation-state, is a product of an unprecedented wave of ethnic nationalism that reached its peak in the late 19th century, ultimately culminating in the doctrine of self determination. This movement had its immediate roots in the French Revolution of 1789, but was intimately connected to the more abstract notion of popular sovereignty; the debt that nationalism owes to liberalism here has often been noted.(10) Thus Anthony Smith remarks that “In modern European history, there was a classic link between liberalism and nationalism. Broadly speaking, liberalism gave birth to modern nationalism … .”(11)

However, to see liberalism as merely a cause of nationalism, or a contributing factor, is to miss a crucial point; liberalism is part of modern nationalism. The notion of citizenship embodied in liberalism, with its removal of the hierarchy and inequality associated with feudalism and the old order in Europe, is a crucial ingredient in the formation (or invention) of a national community, which necessarily transcends social class, status and region. The liberal citizen becomes part of an imagined community, which accepts his membership unconditionally; by doing so, the ‘community’ welds together a socially and regionally disparate set of people. All ‘communities’, to a greater or lesser extent, are inventions(12); this sort of invention is a cultural phenomenon, and liberalism is best seen as part of this broader context – the cultural construction of a moral, political, historical and artistic illusion of community. Of course, this ‘citizenship’ is bound to a particular ‘community’; in the modern context, citizenship is associated with a special nation, and removes internal differentiation, within the imagined community, while at the same time it separates particular nations from others.

In terms of ethnicity, the liberal notion of citizenship is part of the formation of ethnic (or ‘national’) unity and homogeneity, which may or may not involve the assimilation or combination of various ethnies. It is clear then why appeals to ethnic sentiment within a community are illegitimate in the liberal scheme; they destroy the illusion of unity that liberalism helped to invent. This also explains why minorities in liberal democracies – like the aboriginal inhabitants of the USA, Canada, Australia; the recent black and Asian immigrants in Britain; and the accultured but unassimilated black community in the USA – have such an ambiguous position. American liberalism was always, at the very least implicitly, tied to the Anglo- Saxon, and later the European, part of society; these are the people referred to in the Bill of Rights, as originally adopted, and these are the people the political system was built around. Similarly, the South African political and legal system was always tied to the European community; the status of others was, at best, incidental.

The fact that national or ethnic homogeneity is an extremely rare phenomenon in the modern state system, places liberal theory in grave danger – one that liberals are increasingly aware of.(13) There are many dimensions to this, but the case of separatist minorities is particularly instructive. Many liberal democracies contain minorities who claim a special status, some even going so far as to demand independence within a separate state; at the very least, these minorities claim and exercise a special hold over their members, which flies directly in the face of the liberal idea of universal citizenship. In the United States, Canada and Australia, aboriginal inhabitants agitate for the retention and extension of special reserves and ancestral land for their communities; one facet of this is the exclusion of other non-aboriginals from these reserves. Liberalism can currently provide no sensible account of this.

While some liberals are attempting to reconstruct the ideology to make sense of ethnicity, we can now seen that this would be a difficult task indeed. An examination of rival ideologies like Marxism comes to much the same conclusion; from this angle, Marxism and liberalism look like estranged siblings with the same congenital defect. This calls for nothing less than a reconstruction of modern political theory, to provide a credible account of the political and social arrangements of ethnically plural societies. Something like this has been underway for some time now, through the study of ‘consociational democracy’ and democratic instability in plural societies, but the philosophical, moral dimensions of this remain largely unexplored.




  1. There is no single word in the English language to describe the notion of ethnic community, so the French ethnie will be used.
  2. The bibliography lists some of the best recent literature. cf. van den Berghe [1981], Horowitz [1985], Connor [1972].
  3. Van den Berghe [1981], p.2
  4. Rawls [1971], arguably the most influential single piece ofliberal political theory this century, explicitly presumes material self-interest as the fundamental motivator of human behaviour, even making this a premiss in his attempt to derive a liberal account of justice.
  5. See Horowitz [1985], van den Berghe [1981] and Connor [1972] for analysis and rebuttal of this type of argument.
  6. This is not the place to prove these points; see Horowitz [1985].
  7. Rawls [1980, 1985] investigates this idea in detail; the Rawlsian programme no longer pursues ‘moral truth’ in any metaphysical sense, it now searches for a ‘practicable’ account of liberal justice that could command the assent, upon sincere self-reflection under fair conditions, of the typical citizen of a modern western liberal democracy.
  8. See Glazer [1975] and Cohen et al [1977] for some contributions to the debate within American liberalism surrounding affirmative action and ‘reverse discrimination’.
  9. Waltzer [1981], p.1
  10. See Kedourie [1961]; Connor [1973] contains a good discussion of the role that the French Revolution played in the genesis of modern European nationalism.
  11. Smith [1986b], p.47
  12. See Anderson [1983] for a discussion of the cultural dimensions of the imagining of communities.
  13. Kymlicka [1989] and van Dyke [1985] are recent attempts to provide some kind of account of ethnicity within a liberal framework.



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