This article is adapted from Idols of the Tribe: Group Identity and Political Change, forthcoming from Harper & Row, New York, May 1975. Copyright Harold R. Isaacs, 1975.

We are experiencing on a massively universal scale a convulsive ingathering of men in their numberless groupings of kinds, a great clustering of separatenesses in which people feel they can find the physical and emotional security they find nowhere else. These are the basic group identities that all people possess by virtue of having been born into a particular family at a given time in a given place. They are tribal, racial, religious, national. These elements cluster in each person in endlessly varying ways. Their sources and their power are rooted in physical facts, in history, in language, in systems of belief and values that make up our cultures. For most of the people on earth in our own time, these elements of identity have come to be embraced in what we call our "nations." It has to be seen in its other shapes and guises, but basic group identity does come most largely into view dressed in its national colors, marching under its national flag, wearing its national tag. In its many definitions and usages, the "nation" or "nationality" appears as the ultimate, the most political, the most inclusive, even the "terminal" form of the basic group identity itself.

The nation, writes Rupert Emerson, is "the largest community which, when the chips are down, effectively commands men's loyalty . . . it is for present purposes the effective end of the road for man as a social animal, the end point of working solidarity between men." Other groupings have played this role-the family, the tribe, religious communities-but "all of these, without vanishing from the scene, have bit by bit, often after harsh struggle, yielded pride of place to the nation in the sense that for constantly growing numbers of men the claims of the nation have come to be accepted as taking priority over claims coming from any other source." The nation has come to be seen as "the community which makes the nearest approach to embracing all aspects of their lives."

In one form or another, the strong identification and feeling of loyalty attached to the idea of the "nation" has always been present in human affairs. "It has been a mark of nature, if not nurture," wrote Carlton Hayes, "for human beings since the dawn of history to possess some consciousness of nationality, some feeling that the linguistic, historical, and cultural peculiarities of a group make its members akin among themselves and alien from all other groups." Attachment to one's own family and the locality where one was born has always been part of its beginning; hence patria, one's birthplace, and on from there to all that "fatherland" and "motherland" eventually came to mean. The very use of these terms carries the powerful primordial associations projected from one's own birth and one's own parents to all others born in the same place, the same country. The word nation itself is from the Latin nasci, to be born. The emotions and attachments first focused on family, tribe, clan, or other kinship group extended gradually outward to larger bodies of belonging and connectedness, to local regions, towns, cities, city-states, religious bodies, the realms of lords and kings. These came to command, in the words of a fourteenth-century Arab philosopher, that "unique mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other."

In Western Europe three to four centuries ago, these various claimants on group loyalty began to be absorbed into what became the modern "nation," a political entity whose demand for loyalty overrode all others. "Love of fatherland," said a bishop at the court of Louis XIV, is "all the things which unite citizens together: the altars, the sacrifices, glory, peace, and security, in a word the society of divine and human things." A century later the French Revolution made the transfer from the divine to the national quite literal and explicit: it built its altars only to the fatherland; La Patrie took over from God. From Napoleon's time until now, taking on its modern shapes in Europe in the nineteenth century and in Asia and Africa in the twentieth, the idea of the "nation" and the driving force of "nationalism" have dominated the making and the wielding of political, economic, and military power in every kind of society and under every kind of ideological banner. The presence of nationalism is everywhere, its prints on our history and our lives huge and deep.

Yet for all this pervasiveness, all this dominance in all our affairs, an extraordinary fact: even at eyeball range, neither "nation" nor "nationality" comes clearly into view. As in so much else, it depends on who is looking. One distinguished scholar after another has made the safari over time and come back to describe what he has seen, but each, like an artist, has painted his own vision of what he saw, and no two portraits have been quite alike. All writers of this century make the same acknowledgment to those of the last-almost always, for example, to John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, Ernest Renan-who had preceded them on the same quest. Nearly 50 years ago, Carlton Hayes began his own classic study of the subject (published in 1926), with the observation that the word "nation" was "tantalizingly ambiguous" and that "nationalism" appeared as "vague and intangible and mysterious" and that "there is no agreement as to precisely what it is." Twenty years later the British historian E. H. Carr, who headed up a special commission to examine the subject, concluded that "the nation is not a definable and clearly recognizable entity." Others, estimable scholars all, have written landmark works on the matter-among them Alfred Cobban, Boyd Shafer, Hans Kohn, Louis Snyder, Rupert Emerson-without coming, even among themselves, to any commonly accepted view of what "nation" and "nationality" actually look like, full face on. We obviously do know a great deal about the subject, thanks in good part to their works, but what we do not know, as Rupert Emerson ruefully acknowledged in his own notable study (published in 1960), "adds up to an impressive body of ignorance and an uncertainty."

Everyone has his own list of parts that go into the making of a nation. Give or take an item or two, they all include the elements of what I have called the basic group identity, usually mentioning shared culture, history, tradition, language, religion, some adding "race" as well as the elements of territory, politics, and economics that all go in their varying measures into the making of what is called a "nation." On closer examination, it seems, no single part could be shown to be unique or indispensable to nationhood, except perhaps for some version of the idea of a shared past and a shared common will noted earlier by Mill and Renan and included as standard elements in every definition offered since their time. His own search through these thickets of definition led Emerson to join most of his predecessors in concluding: "The simplest statement that can be made about a nation is that it is a body of people who feel that they are a nation; and it may be that when all the fine-spun analysis is concluded, this will be the ultimate statement as well." We cannot ever really be certain what it is that makes "the existence of a singularly important national 'we' which is distinguished from all others who make up an alien 'they'." As state of mind, shared consciousness, or other version of Renan's "soul" or "spiritual principle," or Otto Bauer's "community of fate," that "nation"-so formidably real in the real world of everyone's everyday existence-has eluded all efforts of scholars to agree on what precisely it is. The abominable snowman again.

Finding such imprecision more abhorrent than any vacuum ever was, latter-day social scientific political science has tried to re-objectify the "nation" and "nationalism." Karl Deutsch, notably, has tried to sort out the graspable, countable, measurable "building blocks" of technology and communications that go into the making of a "nation." To this beacon, many of the tired and weary of academia have flocked in these years, only belatedly to find nestling among Deutsch's tidy formulas, diagrams and tables the same old ambiguities, elusive, subjective, uncontrollable as ever. They pollute the scientifically antiseptic precincts from which some thought they had finally been banished, or where, at least, it was thought they could simply be ignored.1 If there is some arrangement of the various indicated ingredients which somehow creates a "nation" as hydrogen and oxygen at two to one make water, no one has found the formula. "The combinations in which they appear," concluded the quietly despairing Emerson, after long toil, "defy orderly analysis."


This uncertainty about the meaning of "nation" and "nationality" has been reflected and compounded by a corresponding confusion in how these words are used, whether by official bodies, scholars, lexicon-makers, or in the common parlance of various languages. As with the substance, so with the names: the same words arise in different meanings and versions out of different outlooks and experience. In all that there is to read about the politics, diplomacy, wars and revolutions of the last several centuries, these terms contradict and trip over each other, adding their additional blur to the miasma-like quality of the history itself. In one text or context or another, the word "nation" has been used interchangeably with "tribe," "people," "ethnic group," "race," "religion," "nationality," "country," and "state," among others. Distinctions are variously made among and between these terms, having to do with ideas about size, territory, "stage of development" or measure of "backwardness," the level of "consciousness." In the end, such distinctions may reflect only how the particular writer feels about it.

The facts, past and present, seem to suggest that the formula whereby a "tribe" or a "people" do or do not become or remain a "nation" depends mainly on the conditions of power or the lack of it, and the given political circumstances of the time. The World War I peace settlement promised "self-determination of nations," presumably to all. As the victors rearranged the map at the expense of the vanquished, new "nations" were carved accordingly out of the lands of the defeated Central European empires, each new "nation," to be sure, made up of a mix of subnationalities each of which in turn would have dearly wished to become a "nation" on its own. But the Versailles formula was not considered to apply at all to the multitude of "nations" locked into the colonial empires of the Western powers: when they tried in the next few years to exercise self-determination they were put down by main force.

One world war later, the United Nations went the League one better and proclaimed the universal right of "self-determination of peoples." But no formula about what constituted a "nation" or a "people" was applied to any specific outcome, only the concrete circumstances of the forces in play. Only these circumstances could explain why, after World War II, the ex-colonies in Asia and Africa were simply converted from quite arbitrary colonial administrative conveniences into "nations." No formula, only particular conditions and relations of power and interest, could explain why in the decades following 1945 little Gambia and the tiny islands of Fiji, Nauru, and Grenada could become "nations" while big Biafra could not; why Pakistan, a patchwork of Punjabis, Sindis, Pathans, Baluchis, etc., could become a nation while Nagaland, with its patchwork of separate tribes, could not; why the Pathans of Pakistan could not have their own Pushtoonistan, at least not yet, while the Bengalis could, after a bloody amputation, finally create their own Bangladesh. Tiny Abu Dhabi could become a "nation" but the Kurds must still fight on to establish their own Kurdistan. The Filipinos, Indonesians, Burmese, all acquired sovereignties of their own, but not the Muslims of Mindanao and Jolo, the Achinese of Sumatra, or the Kachins, Shans, or other peoples living on lands they held long before there was a "Burma."

If by "nation" we mean a culturally homogeneous group, then what is being said here is that some "nations" become states and some do not. If, as is so much more commonly the case, we use "nation" to mean the same thing as "state," then by some unkind fate, all claimants to nationhood who are unsuccessful in winning sovereignty for themselves cannot be referred to as "nations" but have to remain "tribes" or "minorities." This fate, it should be clear, has nothing to do with whether they are indeed "nations" by this or that definition. It has to do only with the fact that at the given time they lack the power or other fortuitous conditions in which, weak as they might be, they could set up "states" of their own. This terminological blur between "nation" and "state," often blurred further as "nation-state," is probably the most common and the most important of all these confusions. Thus the League of Nations. 2 Thus the United Nations. Thus all the official bodies, agencies, and organizations that use the word "international" in their names when, as Walker Connor has pointed out, they have to do not with "nations" but with sovereign states, most of which are made up of many "nations." These confusions of usage have been noted, not always without further compounding, by various writers and it is happily not needful for us to review them at any greater length here.

One principal clarifying distinction does emerge. It lies between defining "nation" or "nationality" as in essence cultural or political. These two views do not appear to develop separately, but they do wind in and out of the design, making different patterns as they go.

The cultural concept of nationality in its modern European context is usually traced back to the eighteenth-century German poet-philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who conceived of a Volk formed around the core of a common language as the keeper and carrier of the common heritage. This idea played a guiding role in much of the further course of nineteenth-century European nationalism-Mazzini adopted it and gave it his own rhetorically universalistic setting-and it appears and reappears in the turbulent history of European politics. Herder, who was more concerned with culture than with politics, apparently believed that if each Volk could be a nation unto itself, all would live at peace among themselves and in amity with others. The mystique of the German Volk he so passionately espoused ultimately became, as he could not have dreamed in his own universe, the driving spirit of Hitler's Reich. Believers in the positive power of self-determined homogeneous peoplehood of this kind do have to ponder the fact that the two most conspicuously successful examples of this type of national development occurred in modern times in Germany and Japan, with a third possibly in the making now in Maoist China.

The political concept of the nation took shape not out of any cultural or group matrix but out of the ideas and events that created the new states of post-Reformation Western Europe. It came out of the social transformations and political revolutions in England, America and France. This was essentially the great shift of power from the kings to the newly rising bourgeois class. The guiding ideas were Social Contract and General Will and Democracy in the tradition usually ascribed in its beginning to Rousseau. The evolution of the "nation" that grew out of these ideas moved, not like Herder's, from the cultural to the political, but from the political to the cultural. The rise of the bourgeoisie, the development of modern capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, the establishment of new systems of government based on popular sovereignty, all created their own new cultures in the "nations" that came into being in this process. Where this happened, "nationality" came most generally to mean, especially in official usage, passport-holding citizenship in the state regardless of the individual's country of birth or origin. But it also became the symbol of a new cultural identity which in some degree displaced or at least shared place with any older ancestral cultural legacy an individual might also have. Such were the degrees of relative assimilation of different peoples that took place in Britain and France and other European countries, but most especially in America. The stamp of a uniquely new Americanness became visible on all immigrant groups, especially as they moved into their second and third generations, becoming much deeper and more strongly marked without ever quite effacing the older imprints of remoter cultural origins.

In eastern Europe and beyond, on the other hand, "nationality" remained the term applied to particular communal groups whose cultural features were their own but whose political status was fixed by the places they held in some larger imperial power system, as under the Habsburgs, Romanovs and the Ottoman rulers. These groups were defined by region, by language, and in the Ottoman empire especially, by religion. No Jew in Poland was ever a "Pole" by nationality, no Ukrainian or Georgian or Tatar or German in Russia a "Russian," no Greek or Bulgarian or Syrian or Kurd in old Turkey a "Turk." In the Ottoman empire, separate groups enjoyed separate local rule under the "millet system"-millet coming from the Arabic millah, meaning religious community. Under this system each group had a large measure of jurisdiction over its own purely internal civil affairs, usually as defined by its religious code and administered by its religious leaders. Out of these separate enclaves eventually came the various nationalisms that split the crumbling old empire and formed the new states that were carved out of it. The millet system that existed in old Palestine under Turkish rule was maintained through the decades of the British mandate and provided the framework in which the Zionists were able to organize and maintain themselves as the national force that finally established its own power in Israel. The millet structure was carried over essentially untouched into the new state, which is in all respects a modern democratic state except that all matters touching on the civil status of its citizens-birth, death, marriage, divorce, recognition as "Jews"-remain under the effective control of an archaic religious establishment much as they did in Ottoman times, only subject now to occasional contention in the secular courts set up by the new state.


In older times in much of the world, nationality and religion were commonly fused in the society, in the single body of the divine or divinely ordained ruler or in some other form of entwined religious and temporal power. Such was the case too in Europe until the Reformation. The creation of the modern European "nation" as we know it now began with the noble princes of the land taking over from the holy princes of the Church and proceeded with the bourgeois princes of wealth taking over from the noble princes of the land. The newly risen bourgeois class created governments based, in theory at least, on the sovereignty of the people. The power and the glory passed from God's Chosen Church to God's Chosen Kings to God's Chosen People.3

In his discussion of the transfer of the "religious sense" from religion to nation, Hayes noted that like declining Rome where "pagan skepticism" among the elite led to the popular deification of the emperors, eighteenth-century Europe, amid similar elite skepticism about all religion, witnessed the elevation of the "nation" as the "central object of worship." In revolutionary France this was most ardently and explicitly done. Altars to the fatherland were erected everywhere bearing the words: "The citizen is born, lives, and dies for La Patrie." The new regime instituted civic excommunication, civic baptism, civic marriage. It dedicated hymns, prayers, feasts to the new national deity. In modified and adapted forms this became the style of all the new European nationalisms. The believers in the Age of Reason who founded the American Republic believed in the higher calling, ideals and mission of their new nation: the new American "civic religion."

This was one of the great shifts in human affairs, one of those great turnings from all that had gone before toward much that would try to become new under the sun. For all its shoddy or ironic features and all its great failures, it was still one of history's finer hours of aspiration, as the historian J. L. Talmon's statement of it should remind us:

The recognition of the right of the individual to be his own lawgiver, the challenge directed to him to express his personality spontaneously instead of submitting to god-given or time-hallowed prescriptions for the expiation of his sins, to work for the triumph of progress on earth instead of waiting for divine judgment-all these were extended to the collective personality of the nation. Moreover man's own smallness and unworthiness could be sublimated into the greatness and power of the nation, as they were formerly into the glory of the Church.

These rearrangements of religious and secular value systems and interests were all part of a revolution that was taking place. As Weber, Tawney, and of course much earlier in their sharper way, Marx and Engels showed, it was not always possible to distinguish between the lofty and the low, the heavenly and the earthly orders of self-interest that operated in those turbulent times of change. It was a massive transfer of power between classes and it was quite possible, even reasonable, to interpret the whole process as one of identifying the interests of God with those of the creators of the new capitalist system and with the cause of each of the aggressively contending national powers they created to advance their own particular interests. To put it in its bluntest and non-loftiest form, it was a matter of refashioning the old-style religion to fit the new-style rapacity. "The upshot of the whole process," to quote Hayes once more, was "that a nationalist theology of the intellectuals"-and, he might have added, of the new ruling classes-became "a nationalist mythology for the masses." A new religious syncretism was achieved, the continued adherence to the various ancestral faiths adapting obediently to "the exigencies of nationalist worship and discipline." The cult of the nation, the worship and reverence of national symbols and heroes-the cult of Washington in early America came close to using the language of deification-became entwined and incorporated into the more traditional religious symbols and objects of worship, characteristic behavior that history had known long before and has known only too well since. Traditional religion was duly bent to all these purposes and the autonomy of religion progressively brought under the control of these new national forces. "The universal in religion," as Rupert Emerson put it, was made "to bow to the tribal gods of nations."

Tribal gods were obviously much better suited to national purposes than any other kind, especially the kind that spoke for the brotherhood of man. Tribal gods, plainly earthier, more practical and more "national" in every way, required brotherhood only among fellow-members of the tribe, and that only when faced by their natural enemies, or all who belonged to other tribes. One of the great advantages of tribal-nationalist religion was its ability to blunt contradictions between universal moral professions and parochial self-serving practice. Believers in God usually require their God to be always right; in the cult of patriotism-the highest form of nationalist religion-believers were licensed, indeed required, to believe in their country right or wrong. Before this time there had been tribal wars, dynastic wars, religious wars; but national wars have surely outdone them all, as David did Saul, in the business of mutual slaughter. In the celebrations of nationhood in song, story and sacred ritual, indeed, no matter how far back one goes, these slaughters and their heroes and exploits are celebrated most of all, as a look at the words of almost any national anthem will attest.4

Some of the loftiest spirits and best minds of many generations have struggled to see how it might be otherwise, but the "nation" and the power of "nationality" have bested them all, whether as political fact, fiction, goal, idea, myth, or state of mind.


"Nationality," then, comes in different sizes, shapes and colors, and, as always in such matters, styles have been subject to change. But "variable and malleable" as Alfred Cobban suggested it might be, it remains in all its varieties a primary shaping ingredient in the formula of every person's life.

As identification by birth with a "nation"-meaning a group with certain shared holdings of history and culture-it fixes certain features of every person's existence no matter what other features he takes on. It establishes where one belongs or is seen by others to belong. It fixes the place that is "home," whether it be a country, a region, a neighborhood, or simply the bosom of the group. It is where one lives or is entitled to live, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and it underpins and in some way shapes us, no matter how we change or how far away we move. From this basic attachment, as so much art and literature attest, much nourishment has come. "Nationalities," wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his undelivered Nobel Prize lecture in 1970, "are the wealth of humanity, they are its crystallized personalities; even the smallest among them has its own special colors, hides within itself a particular facet of God's design." From it too, and presumably also part of God's design, have come the hatred, violence and bloodshed that resulted as these colors clashed, as these crystallized personalities confronted each other over their differences and over how to distribute humanity's wealth, whether spiritual or material.

As citizenship in a state, "nationality" has been hardly any less governing or influential, providing the individual with whatever security-both physical and emotional-it can create in a remarkably insecure and unsafe world. However oppressed, disaffected or alienated the individual might be within his own "nation," the unhappy fact is that everywhere else in the world he is more alien still, unless, as the great masses who migrated to America in the century past were uniquely able to do, he could carry his "nation" with him and acquire a new "nationality" that served him better than his old one. To be deprived of nationality in the sense of having citizenship in a state is to be cast out into the desert of homelessness, out among the beasts of prey that roam the wild world outside. To suffer this fate, as millions have in this era of the Refugee, the Stateless and the Displaced Person, is to learn, as Hannah Arendt has written, that "the abstract nakedness of being human" is not enough to entitle one even to the least of so-called "human rights," that in our age nationality has become "the only remaining and recognized tie with humanity." To belong to a nationality that is defined by birth rather than by citizenship has meant for millions of people in our time to be doomed to banishment and death. In Hitler's Germany, German Jews who thought they were Germans turned out, for purposes of their end, to be Jews. In Stalin's Russia, millions of Ukrainians, Germans, Tatars and other peoples were transported to exile and death. Even in Franklin Roosevelt's America, Japanese-Americans who thought they were Americans were abruptly uprooted and moved to detention camps because they were seen, and feared, as Japanese.

By its various definitions, in all its varied appearances, "nationality" is clearly, however, the most inclusive and the most explicitly political of all the elements that go into the making of every person's basic group identity. If "group belongingness is the haven of personality," as R. M. MacIver has written, "it is strongest and most enduring when it achieves the form of nationhood." The "nation" is the most persistently surviving unit of political organization in human affairs, remaining so in a world that has outgrown its limitations and can no longer afford its drawbacks and dangers. Since it is politics-relative power or powerlessness-that decides the fate of any community of people, nationality is in the end the most critical of all the identifications an individual carries as part of this group identity.


The history of world politics during the last two centuries has consisted primarily of the increasingly more explosive appearance, disappearance and reappearance of "nations" or states, wars and revolutions changing their placement and displacement in relation to each other and to the distribution of resources and power. Every aspect of the world's political landscape, post-colonial, post-imperial, post-revolutionary, and in the United States, post-illusionary, is dominated by the problems of nation, nationality, nationalism. These impinge on every person's existence. They press their reshaping forms on all our group identities as we come through the great political changes that are now the common experience of all. The massive rearrangements of power that have taken place in this century have brought on deeply wrenching rearrangements of all group relations and mutual perceptions among different kinds of people everywhere on earth. It has made of everyone's world a heaving, blurring landscape on which there are no fixed markers, no security of any kind for anyone, not even the kind that used to be provided by commonly accepted pecking orders of superiority-inferiority, mastery-subjection. This is the condition that produces so much of the tumult, so much of the killing of our time, with much more clearly yet to come.

Writing of this condition in the context of his own country's affairs, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz says:

We Mexicans have always lived on the periphery of history. Now the center or nucleus of world society has disintegrated and everyone-including the European and North American-is a peripheral being. We are living on the margin . . . because there is no longer any center.

In another passage and another image, Paz writes: "The past has left us orphans as it has the rest of the planet. . . . World history has become everyone's task and our own labyrinth is the labyrinth of all mankind. . . ." And in still another: "Our century is a huge cauldron in which all historical eras are boiling and mingling."

Centerlessness, labyrinths, boiling cauldrons-the pictures in the poet's mind vary but they are all of the same condition: the plight of people who until only yesterday were held together by some central and controlling system of dominance, of political order and accepted beliefs. They were held by these mystiques and realities of power in their high or lowly status, esteemed or unesteemed by others and esteeming or unesteeming themselves accordingly. Now the great net or field of image and self-image held together by the gravity of that ruling center-ruling imperium, ruling race, ruling class, ruling caste-has been torn apart, the whole system disrupted by power failure. And here we all are, clinging to our peripheries, stumbling around in our labyrinths, boiling in our cauldrons. The poet chooses his images meaningfully: these are all intolerably disorienting and frightening situations to be in.

No wonder, then, that in the panicky rush to be as physically safe and emotionally secure as they can in a world full of danger and normlessness, more and more people are driven to rejoin and cluster more and more with their own kind, to cling all the more tightly to the primary group in which they can at least feel they inalienably belong. The image that comes to mind is that of the House of Muumbi, the home of the progenital mother of the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya which all Kikuyus swear they will never leave, of everyone's "home," the place where, as Robert Frost put it, "when you have to go there, they have to take you in." The image corresponds to some of the deepest-laid psychological realities: Muumbi's house is also that womb to which we all strain to return. At its most, it provides us with the nourishment of security and self-esteem; at the least, it provides a refuge from being alone. It is precisely because they provide such shelters in a world that offers no ampler satisfaction of profoundly pressing human needs that the separate basic group identities remain so strong and survive so powerfully, despite all the changes we go through under the homogenizing pressures of power and technology. These pressures should have long since flattened these differences into common shapes, and so they have to no small extent, but yet without being able to obliterate them.

In all their racial and religious or "ethnic" varieties, these differences resurface now with sharpened edges and with great effect, inside our various societies and in all the world's politics. Arrayed in their most distinctively political form-the national states where power is wielded-these edges become sharpest of all. The biggest of them, the superpowers, confront each other with weapons of total destruction, making the ancient goal of world hegemony even more strikingly unreasonable than it ever was. All the smaller states are riding out around those centerless peripheries, groping in dark labyrinths without threads, boiling in cauldrons without handles. As the world's population swells and bulges and the profligacy of the industrial system brings the earth to an awareness of limits to its resources in food, energy and raw materials, the best we have been able to do politically is to multiply the number of national states. The "world" that meets periodically to mirror its conflicts and confusions at the United Nations is now made up of 138 separate states, more than half of them created since 1945. No one would mistake the United Nations for a political instrument capable of solving world problems. Unfortunately, there is little or no evidence that the national state is any more capable now than it ever was of solving its own most pressing national problems by itself. All that happens is that the older states dig themselves deeper into their self-made morasses and the "new" ones dig "new" morasses of their own.

It remains true that the relative position of any group is measured by its degree of power or powerlessness relative to others. Until now, in the absence of any workable system of larger political, social and economic coherence, the national state has remained the only available instrument of this kind of power. For some, as in the case of Israel, it has served-at least so far-the purposes of survival. It has been the only form of power that could replace foreign rule in the colonies. The reality is, however, that with only very few exceptions, the power that could be generated by national sovereignty has been just about enough to run a new flag up the pole, put local rascals in place of the foreign rascals in the seats of local power and send a delegation to the United Nations to make what it could of its single vote in the new game of international politics as it is played in that forum. It is not enough power to turn the wheels of needed social and economic change, solve the problems of internal diversity, or assure physical and emotional security. There are of course examples that partly or temporarily contradict this proposition: China with its great size and numbers, the oil countries with their valuable but exhaustible and ultimately replaceable resources. The urge to nationhood may be one of the strongest and most persistent urges known to man; but the fact remains nevertheless that for most human beings on earth in these late decades of the twentieth century, the road to national statehood is the road to frustration and impotence. The dream of national self-determination becomes a nightmare from which no one, it seems, is able to awake.

Independent statehood, moreover, does not by itself provide the means of maintaining all the separatenesses that people want to maintain. If the homogeneously national nation-state ever did exist anywhere, it does not exist any more, except perhaps in one or two places on earth, as in Japan. Just about every society on earth is heterogeneously composed, and in almost every one, indeed, one of the most pressing of today's political problems is how to deal with this heterogeneity. Statehood is not available to all candidates for it. All sorts of illogical but powerful circumstances get in the way. The chances are that more people have killed each other for this reason in the last decades in Asia and Africa than in any previous time. In a different though not much less pressing way, the same issue presents itself in the changing societies of America and Europe.

Hence the great and bewildering paradox of our time: we are fragmenting and globalizing at the same time. We spin out as from a centrifuge, flying apart socially and politically, at the same time that enormous centripetal forces press us all into more and more of a single mass every year. World power is more concentrated and more diffused than ever before. We reach the limits of the earth's resources while increasing every year the numbers of people who have to share in them. We have entered the post-industrial age before two-thirds of the world has barely begun to emerge from the pre-industrial era and before most of the world's people could glean any advantages at all from industrialization and modernization. The fundamental and decisive conflicts grow ever sharper over the hard stuff of wealth, access to sources of energy and other raw materials, over production, food, trade and military power. These are the conflicts that will decide the fate of the world and its peoples. But these conflicts continue to be ribbed and shaped and fleshed by the soft stuff of group identities, by the ways people see themselves and are seen, how they feel about themselves and about others, and how these feelings cause them to behave.

These are matters of skin color and other physical characteristics, names and language, history and origins, religion, and nationality. Generations of students of society, unlike artists and poets and masses of ordinary people, have stopped looking at group identity except in its national forms, regarding it as an incidental feature of evolving human affairs. Some of them did so because they simply took for granted the governing conceptions of their own times and their own national cultures about human differences, about progress and backwardness, superiority and inferiority, power and powerlessness. At another level, some believed that insofar as these differences were unfortunate or undesirable, they would be flattened out under the pressures of modernization or kept under control by the benign power of superior peoples carrying out their divinely ordained civilizing missions. At best, possibly, they believed that conflict over differences of this kind rose out of ignorance and superstition, and would be erased by advancing knowledge and enlightenment along with improved well-being; or else that they rose out of class and economic exploitation, in which event they would be done away with-"nations" and all-by revolutions that would create a seamless and classless world socialist order. For socialists, more than for any other aspiring improvers of the human lot, the element of "class" dominated both description and prescription. All traditional systems were hopelessly reactionary-"feudal"-and all national governments in bourgeois states were simply executive committees of capitalist ruling classes. The tribal gods must have had a good laugh in their caves as they watched the socialist hope for a better future based on international working class solidarity founder precisely on the rocks of "national" and "ethnic" differences.

With all appropriate humility, then, one has to state as a conclusion what has been well-known to great masses of people for a long time but not to generations of elite humanistic scholars and strivers for human perfectibility: namely, that our tribal separatenesses are here to stay. Barring total extermination, they cannot be indefinitely contained. They are not about to dissolve into any new larger human order. And a good thing too, some argue, since, as Solzhenitsyn said, these diversities are the wealth of humanity, inheritances from the past that are the main sources of the enhancement of life, of art and beauty and elevation of the human spirit. They stand as a present bar to the aridity and homogenized cultures created by modern industrial societies. This is strongly argued, and there is certainly more in human experience to support it than any contrary notion that we might still be able to create some better kind of existence than we now have by detribalizing ourselves and ordering our lives by some set of more universal human and humane values.

On the other hand, with all the beauty goes all the blood. If tribal separateness and its life-giving qualities are here to stay, so are intertribal hostility and its death-dealing consequences. The coin of this realm, like all others, has two sides. Along with all it has contributed to the enhancement of the human spirit, tribal distinctiveness has contributed more than any other single cause to the brutalization of human existence. If anything emerges plainly from our long look at the nature and functioning of basic group identity, it is the fact that the we-they syndrome is built in. It does not merely distinguish, it divides. It provides the substance of an active, value-laden, emotionally-supported separation of one's own kind from all others. It develops in virulence and violence in direct ratio to the extent of contact with others. The relative license or relative constraint with which this hostility is expressed depends on the prevailing system of power, that is, who is ruling whom, and how. Where there is contact or propinquity between sufficiently different groups, the normal responses run from avoidance to suspicion, to fear, to hostility, to violence. Such violence occurs along a scale, depending on the power relations between them and the interplay of other interests, from indifference to depreciation, to contempt, to victimization and, not at all seldom, to slaughter. There is nothing in our present condition to suggest that any significant numbers of people are any more prepared now than they ever were to act any differently in these matters, even when they have just emerged from being victims and acquired the power to become victimizers in their turn. The only "new" question has to do with what kind of power systems, what kind of politics, might cope with this condition in its present form in any "new" way. The problem as always, if we wish to preserve and enjoy the enhancing pluses of our tribal uniquenesses, is what to do with their destructive minuses.


The underlying question is still: can human existence be made more humane, and if so, how? For a long time answers to this question bore on varieties of the belief that the tribes of men would eventually, through Reason or Faith, come around to discover their One Humanity and would thereupon organize themselves to live more happily thereafter with one another. This belief survives only with the greatest difficulty in some of its religious versions. In its secular/political forms, whether in the humanistic tradition created by the Enlightenment or the materialistic tradition of socialism, it barely survives at all. But the question remains and one must still doggedly ask it: how can we live with our differences without, as always heretofore, being driven by them to tear each other limb from limb? This is at bottom a question of power, of the relative power or powerlessness of groups in relation to each other. If there is any substance to the now-universal demand of all groups for some decent equality of status in all societies, how might this demand be met? What new politics might meet these needs, what new institutions? What new pluralisms?

This is a "new" question, of course, only in a relative sense. Up until now, it was generally "solved" by the creation and maintenance of power systems based on pecking orders, rulers and ruled, masters and subjects, empires and colonies, etc. These systems, usually created by the sword, usually came to an end the same way, falling apart or being cut to pieces, whereupon the old pieces would be rearranged by another ruling group in some new design. The repetition of this process and the reproduction of some such system remains the most possible, even the most probable outcome of the present centrifugal whirl. Examples are common enough in the so-called socialist world and among recent ex-colonies.

New models more in tune with modern capabilities suggest themselves in the control system created by positive reinforcement and the meeting of primary needs of masses of people, as in Maoist China, where results-no one yet knows how effective or how fragile-are achieved through a combination of physical force and high suggestibility. Much surer methods are being developed in laboratories at the frontiers of biology and biochemistry, where it begins to appear that the stuff of group identities and behavior in the future may be put together not in the messy confusion of human existence but in tidy test tubes. The degree of control and manipulation already made possible by the new technologies in modern society may not be as far as we might like to think from the concentration of such control-of numbers as well as kinds-in the hands of any who get to push those buttons on those black boxes and give their own shapes to our future outcomes, some ultimate kind of homogenization. The question would be whether events are moving more rapidly in that direction than toward the even more radical "solution" of nuclear war. Meanwhile, it is simply factual to say that we do appear to be approaching systems of total control or total destruction more rapidly than we are creating new political systems that promise to be not just less bleak but more hopeful.

Yet the options continue open. This is still a time of confused and chaotic passage. All the old pecking orders have been pulled down or at least been pulled apart for some rearrangement. In all kinds of clustering, people hitherto deprived are reaching for some better distribution of the rights and privileges of belongingness and the satisfactions of self-esteem. There are still choices, still directions open, still new outcomes to seek. It is still possible to imagine systems of power, new pluralisms, in which human beings may be able to live with each other in some more satisfying and mutually satisfactory way. Those who still believe, in the face of all the irreducible and stubborn facts to the contrary, that some more humane arrangement of human affairs is possible can still gamble on some right things happening even if-as is most likely-they happen for some wrong reasons.


1 In an examination of Deutsch's theories about nationalism, Walker Connor lists ten major works of the 1960s by important American political scientists concerned with theories of "nation-building" and "integration." Not one, he found, "dedicates a section, chapter, or major subheading to the matter of ethnic diversity" and in six the indexes show "not a single reference to ethnic groups, ethnicity, or minorities." "Nation-Building or Nation-Destroying?" World Politics, April 1972.

2 At Versailles in 1919, when the delegate of Portugal "suggested that the new organization would more correctly be called a League of States, Lord Robert Cecil replied that he thought the difference between the word 'nation' and 'state' was a very small one." Alfred Cobban, The Nation State and National Self-Determination, New York: Crowell, 1970.

3 Shakespeare had personified and glorified the England ruled by the Tudor kings, but it was Milton who registered the transfer of Heaven's mandate from the kings to the people. "God is decreeing some new and great period," he wrote. "What does he, then, but reveal himself to his servants and, as his manner is, first to Englishmen?" Cromwell believed that the people of England were "a People that are to God as the apple of his eye." Quoted by Carlton Hayes, Nationalism: A Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1960, p. 41.

Since choosing the ancient Hebrews and then Cromwell's Englishmen, God has clearly collected an orchard-full. "It would appear," said Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Eastern Nigerian nationalist leader, in 1949, "that the God of Africa has especially created the Ibo nation to lead the children of Africa from the bondage of the ages." (Quoted by Emerson, in From Empire to Nation, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960, p. 356.) "As black preachers we must tell our people that we are God's chosen people and that God is fighting with us as we fight. When we march, when we take it to the streets in open conflict, we must understand that in the stamping feet and in the thunder of violence we hear the voice of God." Albert Cleage, The Black Messiah, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1969, p. 6.

4 See Martin Shaw and Henry Coleman, eds., National Anthems of the World, London: Pitman, 1963; cf. Oliver Jensen, "Letter from the Editor," American Heritage, August 1974, p. 2.

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