Understanding Pluralism

Ethnic Conflict and Political Development.
by Cynthia H. Enloe.
Little, Brown. 282 pp. $4.95.

Ethnic nationalism, with its accompanying toll of racial and religious conflict, would seem to be on the rise everywhere in the world today. In the Middle East, Jews and Arabs have just emerged from their fourth war in twenty-five years, and in Northern Ireland the historic tensions between Protestants and Catholics continue to erupt into almost daily violence. In Canada there is Quebec separatism; in Belgium, increasing friction between Flemings and Walloons; in Spain, a resurgence of Basque nationalism; in Great Britain, growing Scottish and Welsh nationalist movements, in addition to the Irish problem; in South Africa, apartheid; in the United States, continuing racial tension. There is no escape, not even to Fiji, where descendants of the Indian settlers are embroiled with the native islanders.

This widespread phenomenon is generally seen in terms of a struggle for power between exploiters and exploited, between “colonial” authority and oppressed “subjects” (however broadly these terms are interpreted). While there is some truth in this view, it does not apply in every instance. For example, it does not help us to understand the Biafran attempt at secession from Nigeria, where blacks battled blacks with an estimated loss of over a million lives, or Uganda's expulsion of Indians long resident in the country. Yesterday's exploited are quite capable of becoming today's exploiters, and cultural differences can prove more decisive than class differences.

For Cynthia H. Enloe, who has written a most illuminating book on the subject, the phenomenon of present-day ethnic nationalism is to be viewed through the filter of the “new pluralism,” a conceptual theory of society that many scholars, including political scientists like Dr. Enloe, have taken up to explain a variety of social situations. As she describes it, the unitary state or nation—a comparative latecomer on the stage of history—has often joined together groups of questionable compatibility, ill-mated partners who find it difficult to forge a common national life because of differing values, special interests, or long histories of mutual conflict. Even a long-standing and seemingly stable society like Great Britain, according to A. J. P. Taylor (whose view is cited by the author), stands in danger at some future date of breaking up into its original national and ethnic components.


The ethnic mobilization now taking place throughout the world, Dr. Enloe argues, has become a means of forcing doubts about modernity in general into the open—causing us to recognize “the elements of oppression in most political systems.” Of course, the present rise of ethnic consciousness is itself a result of the success of modernization, which equips ethnic communities with new political resources and aspirations. The most up-to-date forms of communication and transportation are available to all, even in the most remote places, and for many ethnic groups this has led to a heightened awareness of subordinate status, with all the attendant disaffections. As for the trend toward suburbanization, one of the more striking developments of the postwar years, Dr. Enloe sees this as helping to reassemble ethnic groups and strengthen group ties.

Dr. Enloe challenges the widely held view that progress in society is measured by the movement from “narrow tribalism” to the modern, highly centralized, national state. She reminds us that ethnic mobilization can often be a source of innovative social and political reform, and she argues that the truly farsighted nation builders in the modern world have been pragmatic shapers of multi-ethnic societies.

Dr. Enloe rounds out her survey with a particularly trenchant discussion of the ethnic picture in Communist societies. In the course of their efforts to overthrow the old regimes, both Russian and Chinese Communist leaders cultivated various national sentiments by promising local autonomy or even independent status to ethnic groups. However, once in power they promptly reneged on their promises and embarked on a course of centralization which demanded the assimilation of ethnic minorities.

A major problem in the Soviet Union today, widely recognized although rarely discussed in public, is the so-called “50 per-cent problem”: how to maintain the Great Russian hegemony in such areas as Soviet Central Asia where the mostly Moslem population is rapidly and vastly increasing. (Indeed, one of Moscow's greatest fears is the decomposition of the Soviet empire, along the lines predicted by Andrei Amalrik in his book, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?) In China, where the Han Chinese are the major ethnic group, non-Han Chinese are excluded from top posts in party leadership, even in their home regions, and, following the Great Leap Forward, are being pressed to comply with central directives.


Dr. Enloe's wide-ranging discussion of ethnic conflict prompts a closer look at the American experience with a multi-ethnic society. On the face of it, what with the bewildering array of religious, ethnic, and national groups that make up American society, it would appear that the U.S. is ripe for a massive social upheaval. And yet, except for the Civil War, Americans have managed to hold together as a nation and to extend social and economic opportunities to a succession of groups. The effort is by no means completed, but at a time when attention is focused on the failures of American life, it is important to recognize that by and large this society has succeeded notably in containing ethnic frictions of the sort that are still causing havoc in so many places throughout the world.

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