I am trying to work out some thoughts on Marxism and ethnicity, with respect to Donald Horowitz’s reading of ethnicity. For some part, and this is a massive book, I think Horowitz proceeds properly. He sees ethnicity as something that is neither set in stone nor putty, it is malleable, within limits — to paraphrase Horowtiz (66). Ethnicity is a myth of common ancestry, or common descent (52). It isn’t “natural,” in the sense that it doesn’t proceed logically that, from differences of race, language, kinship groups, etc., there will be differentiated groups. Rather, differentiation of groups picks up on — or even constructs, that is, intensifies or gives new meaning to — language, race, etc. As he puts it, it’s not the attribute that makes the group or group difference, it’s group difference that makes the attribute (50). Culture provides the content, it is not the prerequisite to ethnic differentiation (69). If ethnicity, in and of itself, isn’t “modern” — i.e., identitarian differences existed long before “modernization” (incorporation of the Third World into the world capitalist system) — it certainly has been modulated, moulded, shaped by this incorporation of societies into modernity. Particularly, he notes how colonization gave rise to the significance of identity by incorporating diffuse groups, that is, previously politically diffuse groups, into a singular polity (76). All of a sudden, you have a different dynamic to deal with. He does mention somewhere about how colonialism reinforced ethnic identities, but he doesn’t focus on this too much (as, for instance, Benedict Anderson does in Chapter 10 of Imagined Communities, or how Leroy Vail approaches the question in The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa).
Horowitz distinguishes between “ranked” and “unranked” ethnic groups. Ranked is where, for instance, ethnicity maps on, more or less, to class. So slavery, or colonialism, is a clear example of how ethnicity (race) is ranked. The question of a caste system, to the extent that a caste can be seen as an ethnicity, is also a ranked system. (However, here we have to be considerate of the fact that castes exist within ethnic identities. Horowitz doesn’t seem to theorize this.) However, an unranked system is more complicated, in the sense that within an ethnic group you will have different classes (or castes, is it is). The question then is why is ethnic conflict — or ethnicity, at any rate — so salient in these unranked systems?
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