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  • The Failure of Third World Nationalism
  • Lahouari Addi (bio)

Many books and essays on nations and nationalism underscore the importance of ethnic and cultural factors, but typically play down the political factor. In my view, however, a nation is first of all the political arrangement of a human collectivity, and this feature has not been emphasized as much as it deserves to be. The failure of postcolonial countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East underlines that the making of a nation rests not only on ethnic, linguistic, and religious self-identity, but also on the formation and consolidation of a public sphere in which citizens have the feeling of participating in the polity and of being integrated into the sphere of the state. Nationalist ideology gives birth to a nation only if that ideology allows the shaping of a public sphere in which the citizen is perceived under the aspect of his universality and not solely under that of his specific cultural identity.

The inability of many Third World nationalisms to ensure political participation satisfactory to the broad majority calls into question the relationship between nationalism and the nation. Social scientists have been too quick to embrace the notion that as soon as a country becomes independent, it constitutes a nation. It may, of course, but most often a nation is the result of a long historical process during which consensual values emerge to furnish grounds for national concord and civil peace. This is not the picture presented today by most Third World countries, where obedience to the central power is secured by force or the threat of force.

We face then a problem of definition. Either all political collectivities are nations insofar as they endow themselves with a central power, or [End Page 110] only those that grant their citizens effective participation in the polity truly deserve to be called nations. Properly understood, the idea of the nation is strongly connected to the idea of civil peace, which presupposes that a broad majority freely give their allegiance to the central power and feel that they participate in the polity. If this feeling is not broadly shared, if allegiance flows mainly from fear, it makes little sense to speak of a nation. In this light, most political collectivities in the Third World are still engaged in nation-building, searching for institutions that will ensure allegiance to the central power without resort to methods such as the arrest and torture of opponents, prohibitions of speech, and the like.

The nation, a historical category that first appeared in the modern West, is a collection of individuals with a form of political organization based on a strong sense of participation in the activities of the state. A nation is integrated through institutions that allow participation in the political realm, notably through elections. It is a human collectivity whose particular historical circumstances have endowed it with geographical frontiers that set it apart from its neighbors. It makes use of a political organization that grounds the legitimacy of power, and it establishes rules for the operation and distribution of this power through an administrative hierarchy that is accepted by the members of the collectivity. A nation is a modern political concept for two reasons: it is a collection of free individuals (free vis-à-vis traditional authorities and lineages), and it is a political system that allows these individuals to participate in the power of the state by swearing exclusive political allegiance solely to that state. This effective participation (betokened by universal suffrage in the choice of local and national representatives) that marks a nation is basically different from the fictive participation that obtains in the case of a political community integrated by means of belief in a charismatic leader who claims to “represent” the people.

I start, then, from the premise that a nation is a political community whose political arena has been pacified. The successful pacification of the political arena hinges upon the nature of the competition for power. A political community that changes governments through the shedding of blood is not yet a nation, and neither is one that changes presidents only when one happens to die in office. The use of...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 110-124
Launched on MUSE
1997-10-01
Open Access
No
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