Friday, December 19, 2003
Chapter 47 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974
Prejudice Both Pathological and Natural
By MAX BELOFF
The word 'RACIALISM', or 'racism', has become, like 'fascism', no longer a term descriptive of a particular phenomenon, but an undifferentiated term of abuse. The same fate has befallen the term 'genocide' which no longer means the deliberate attempt to extirpate an entire race, however defined, as in the 'final solution', but some degree of oppression which may or may not include large-scale killings exercised by one people over another. Since nothing in politics is more to be deplored than the muddled thinking which shows itself in a perversion of language one must always be sensitive to questions of definition of this kind. I would myself limit racialism in its international political aspect to those cases where a deliberate attempt has been made by a powerful government to rearrange the map of the world or part of it, on the assumption that the biological differences that exist, or are presumed to exist, between different races are the most important aspect of relations between human groups, that the races of man can be disposed in a hierarchy, and that the 'superior' races however defined are entitled ipso facto to subjugate, oust or even exterminate the inferior ones.
In that sense racialist doctrines explicit or implicit are to be found at intervals throughout history; in modern times on a small scale in relation to European colonisation, particularly in North America and Australia. But only in the case of Nazi Germany does racialism as a force in international politics appear to have had a period of domination. Fortunately no regime since 1945 has followed the Nazi path, though the overthrow of the Nazis has not put an end to the appeals of racialism or prevented its survival in some quarters. But although one could no doubt in a mood of pessimism visualise a recurrence of the Nazi phenomenon or of something with the same basic characteristics, it has not happened yet, and this particular problem is therefore absent from the international political scene of the moment.
What does exist as a factor is of course 'race' itself, by which I mean not necessarily with Disraeli that "race is all" but that much that goes on in international affairs, and in many countries in domestic policies as well, is to be explained in terms of the actual or postulated differences between races. Even this subject is full of pitfalls.
For one thing 'racialism' in the Nazi sense as well as other phenomena such as South African Apartheid as it works in practice have so discredited the belief that race is important that some aspects of any serious discussion are almost taboo. No one denies that at any rate some human groups are markedly different from each other, that for instance the Irish soldiers who served the U.N. in the Congo were not likely to be taken for natives of that country. But if anyone suggests that physical differences may have psychic parallels, that some races may for instance be less talented than others in some measurable respect, the suggestion which does not prima facie seem unreasonable is met with such contumely that even a purely scientific investigation designed to establish the facts if possible is thought reprehensible and its results unsuitable for publication. The equality of all races in everything has become a dogma almost as entrenched in the modern enlightened UNESCO-type mind as was the reverse in Hitler's Reich.
It is also difficult because while the major races of mankind can in the broad sense be identified and characterised, the lesser groups within them which may or may not be regarded as separate races can provoke an almost endless quest for definition. Race, caste, even nation are all useful concepts; but all of them overlap and intermingle and give rise to intellectual as well as social and political problems. It is important to emphasise these complications if only as an answer to the type of commentator who denounces 'racialism' wherever a white man is unfair to a black man but refuses to consider whether the concept has any relevance to black men oppressing brown men or vice versa. All right thinking men were opposed to 'Aryanisation' even before it culminated in the holocaust; but who questions the right to pursue 'Africanisation'?
It is also a particularly difficult subject for a Jewish writer because of the ambivalence of Jewish attitudes towards race. For while it is true that Jews define themselves in religious terms, the nature of their religious beliefs and the ways in which the right to automatic recognition as a Jew is acquired --as shown in recent debates in Israel-- emphasises physical descent, and therefore tends to promote the idea that the Jews are essentially a race despite the obvious heterogenity of the physical types present in any large gathering of Jews. Since so much of Jewish energy is spent on maintaining and perpetuating the existence of the Jewish race and since admission to the Jewish religious community of those not born within it is not normally regarded desirable, there is an obvious foundation for saying that Jews are in fact committed to the belief in the importance of race, and this can have repercussions in the way in which international issues involving Jews are debated.
For one thing, it obviously affects the future relations between Israel and its neighbours in so far as they are influenced by internal Israeli developments. If Israel is to remain at anything like its present frontiers-- and I, for one, would expect this to happen-- the future of the country will largely turn on Jewish-Arab relations within it. Some people there argue that the only long-term policy is the creation of a single nationality which could come about through a Judaisation of the Arabs including their mass conversion to Judaism. But in the present temper of the world this outcome is hard to believe in. On the other hand, if the secularisation of the two communities was to go on-- and much in the world seems to point that way-- the problem of race would be posed in a new fashion.
In any event, we cannot rule out the fact that the claims of races to maintain their identity and act as vehicles for separate cultures are common form, and cannot be regarded as illegitimate by anyone who accepts the basic Jewish case for a recognisable identity whether in Israel or the diaspora.
The repercussions of this fact upon international relations will largely be a by-product of the development of a series of internal situations where identifiable racial groups exist within a single political complex. The situation is thus not the same as half a century ago when the issue was one of equality of access to the emptier parts of the world by different races. The exclusion of the Japanese from the U.S.A. and the white Dominions was an important cause of the extension to the Pacific area of the second world war. Such pressures could arise again-- from Japan itself, or from Chinese pressure in Siberia. But the right to limit immigration by category -- i.e., by race -- has now been well established in almost all countries. What we are mainly dealing with are the consequences of a previous period when some kinds of migration across racial divides were relatively unhampered, as they were from Commonwealth countries into the United Kingdom until very recently.
What we are witnessing is a reverse movement, an endeavour to reassert racial homogeneity by getting rid of elements who are regarded as unassimilable or wish to preserve their identity. This does not in all cases lead to serious international complications. Some countries may be too weak to react; what can Greece or the Lebanon do about their diasporas? Or they may not wish to embroil themselves with countries whose goodwill they require for other reasons. India's relative indifference to the fate of Indians in East Africa contrasts very strongly with the agitation about the rights of Indians in East and Southern Africa earlier this century.
In some cases, it is not clear whether or not assimilation in some form is the goal of a racial minority. A generation ago most people took it for granted that the American Negroes were concerned to assert parity of rights with white Americans and that, having achieved this aim and corrected their unequal economic status, the problem would resolve itself by an ultimate biological admixture thus continuing a process which began in slavery times. The United States might have become more like Brazil and develop a complicated racial admixture of its own.
Such views have been challenged by the emergence of movements denying the desirability for the American Negroes of assimilation and claiming an independence of culture looking to the re-establishment of affinities with their countries of origin in Africa. It is not for the Jews witnessing the return to Zion to say that this is unthinkable; the advent of Negroes to the new world began a mere three and a half centuries ago; but they have of course far less in the way of religious or cultural links to build upon, and it may be that what we are witnessing in the United States is only a temporary interruption to the processes of the 'melting-pot'. Meanwhile however there are some signs that other elements in the American amalgam are also beginning to dispute the assumptions of the melting-pot theory and to claim more recognition of their separate characteristics: but these claims fall into the category of national rather than racial ones.
Meanwhile of course the combination of Negro dissent and the Vietnam war are tending to make the United States a general target of suspicion and dislike for most non-white countries, and through the mechanism of the United Nations this fact is not without its significance in international relations. But race would seem ultimately less significant for America's place in the world than questions of economic advantage and pure ideology.
When we look at the great adversary, the Soviet Union, the situation is very different. In theory, the Soviet Union repudiates any form of racial approach to social and political issues; the recognition of some national groups as entitled to a limited cultural autonomy is a purely temporary concession to particular situations, and does not in theory provide an obstacle to the eventual creation of 'Soviet man'.
The reality is very different. The Russians are no more immune from racial prejudice than other people, as 'third world' residents in the Soviet Union have come to learn. The dispute with China is undoubtedly envenomed, perhaps on both sides, by racial considerations. Within the Soviet Union, the Great Russians assert their cultural superiority and claim the leading positions at the expense both of other Slav peoples and of the non-white minorities. The movement of populations is an instrument of government, undertaken for security reasons.
The ambiguity inherent in the Soviet attitude to the Jews is familiar. They have never enjoyed the status of a national minority or been recognised as having the right to cultural self-expression except for brief periods when it was hoped to impress gullible people abroad. As a religious minority they have been subjected to the oppression exercised against all religions. The logical conclusion would have been total assimilation into the host-peoples. But whether in deference to popular anti-semitism of a traditional kind, or for political and even security reasons connected with the links binding Russian Jews to Jews in other countries, this has not been attempted in the sense that the distinction between Jew and non-Jew in the eyes of officialdom has been maintained.
Such pressures and a degree of discrimination in some spheres tends to hold Jews together in a negative fashion and to prevent the disappearance of the Jews as an identifiable group which it is easier to call racial than national or religious, since the national ties are weak and the religious ones only now the affair of a minority. The advent of Israel and the events that have transpired since its foundation-- particularly the Six Day War-- have given a new positive content to Jewish self-consciousness. It is the harder to cope with because of the stance which the Soviet Union has itself come to occupy in the affairs of the Middle East.
It would be too much to say that this stance has been determined by the desire to isolate the Jewish community of the Soviet Union and therefore by considerations that are in the last resort racial. There are good reasons (from the Soviet point of view) for cultivating Arabs rather than Jews; just as no philosemitic tendencies are needed to explain the Soviet Union's original acceptance of the creation of the State of Israel. Policies once designed to embarrass Britain are now redesigned to embarrass the U.S.A.
But it is not clear at all whether the Soviet Union has now got a definite policy with regard to its own Jewish problem: the problem of the Jews who want to leave. For one thing no one, perhaps not even in the Soviet Union, certainly not outside, knows what the dimensions of the problem are; how many Jews would leave if the gates were opened? What proportion would choose Israel as their ultimate destination if other opportunities were available?
We know even less about other racial and national minorities. At a time when racial ties are reasserting themselves, can the Soviet Union be sure of how, for instance, Soviet citizens of Turkic descent -- many times as numerous as the Jews --would react if there was any weakening of the Great Russian determination to maintain their isolation and subjection?
As for the new Super-Power, China, which is clearly coming onto the world scene to an ever larger extent, what role will the historic racial solidarity and sense of racial superiority of the Chinese play in the international policies of China, particularly in relation to the areas of Chinese colonisation in South East Asia?
By comparison with these vast questions, the international problems created by South African Apartheid seem relatively simple. At one time it looked as though South Africa's racial policies were an international danger, in the sense that the countries of black Africa would combine against it and receive backing from the Russians or the Chinese or both, and that the ideological overtones of such a struggle could not leave the U.S.A. and its allies outside it. It now looks as though this was an over-simplification. Apartheid provides a useful slogan for agitators of the Left in various white countries since opposition to it is widespread among good men. But nothing serious can be done in this way, and the obstruction of sporting fixtures or cultural contacts cannot be an end in itself. Meanwhile the black African countries themselves are divided in their attitude according to what they regard as the national interest of particular States. As with the Arab countries and Israel, the most verbally hostile are often those remotest from the line of fire. It now looks much less likely that World War III will begin somewhere on the Zambesi.
Indeed one could argue that race is more likely to lead to international complications on the other side of the Atlantic, in Latin America and the Caribbean. From some points of view, the upheavals in those countries are not merely the consequence of economic deprivation and misery but of the reassertion of the racial identity of the Indian against his Spanish conquerors after centuries of submission. The role of the United States economically and as a prop of Right-wing regimes adds to the sense of racial confrontation. One must again not overdo things. The Tupamaros must be as white as any other Uruguayans and race plays little part in the tangled politics of Argentina. But in the Andean countries, as earlier in Mexico, race is clearly a factor of the greatest importance.
Even this brief survey will show why it seems dangerous and misleading to talk of racialism as the important thing. It is common to all human groups that men seek comfort in shared identities; what we call race is one of the most conspicuous of such shared identities. Most races cherish a vision of their own superiority and endeavour to maintain their separateness by various institutional or ideological means. Religions-- those that do not, like Judaism or Hinduism, identify with a racial grouping-- may try to bridge the gap; so may an ideology like communism. Often they fail or have to make concessions to race in the process.
The world must learn to live with this plurality for a long time; perhaps for all the time the human race still has on earth. Even within particular political communities very different races can survive in a healthy symbiosis and with mutual respect. What we need is a study of what the limits of such co-existence are, where the surgery of partition is needed or merely the gentler cure of federalism or its equivalent. We must look out for where racial feeling becomes pathological rather than worry about prejudices which are deep-rooted and natural. Jews in particular, quick in the light of their history, to sense prejudice in others, must also be aware of it in themselves. International relations are difficult and dangerous and will go on being so; the important thing is to try to distinguish where the real dangers lie. Proportion is all.
This article originally appeared in "Patterns of Prejudice" (1971, 5, 1-4)-- a publication of the Institute of Jewish Affairs, London.