What motivated your seminar series in the 1980s, and how would you describe the political conjuncture at the time?

Étienne Balibar: We started the series right after the Front National had won its first critical local election in France. That event alone was striking to most of us, a very worrying phenomenon. The question of Islam was not yet central, but there was the issue of migration, so-called invasions from formerly colonized people. It was already very racist at the time. And I felt somehow theoretically disarmed or unable to address this question efficiently. Immanuel, whom I had met at a conference in 1981, had more precise ideas because the issue of migration had a central function in his understanding of the world-system. I asked him, what he would like to work on at this moment. And he said: “ethnicity.” So, we started the series with the topic of “race.” The seminar went very, very well. It was crowded. The discussions were very interesting. So, we proceeded with a seminar on “nation;” then with “class.”

Immanuel Wallerstein: The big message of the following book is that “race” and “nation” and “class” are categories that should not be analysed separately. What’s missing when one deals with them separately is to not see that 80 percent of the people who are proletarians are in fact an under-group according to “class,” or “race,” or “nation.”

Balibar: In France, to the best of my knowledge, there was no place where these questions were discussed from an interdisciplinary standpoint, bringing together historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers.

At the time when Race, Nation, Class was published in Germany, people thought of the combination “race,” “nation,” and then “class” as problematic—which becomes apparent in the reversal of terms in the German translation of the book to Rasse, Klasse, Nation. To put “class” in the middle, it seems, would somehow disrupt “race”—a no-word in German.

 Wallerstein: The very concept of “race” is linked inevitably with the reality of a hierarchy. If some people are considered more privileged, then you want to know why and you’ve got to come up with some explanation of what justifies the hierarchy. The minute you do that, you’re a racist. You just use different terminology to do that. Racism is simply the justification for the legitimacy of some people having a better standard of living than other people, regarding housing, schooling, income—their social respect.

You suggested that in the 1980s, there was a crisis of terminologies. Terms like “race” and “racism” were changing. Considering the situation historically against today—has the idea of racism changed, and if so, how?

Balibar: When you are in the US for instance, and you apply for a job, sometimes you have to fill out a form. It’s officially for equality and anti-discriminatory policy, but you have to cross boxes: Caucasian, African American, or Hispanic. All of them are grounded in pseudo-biological categories, in anti-Semitism leading to the Shoah, in the colour bar in the US, the racial difference of blacks or negroes, as they were called at the time, which, essentially, was a legacy of slavery, and all sorts of colonial racial hierarchies and discriminations in French or British colonies.

If you go back to earlier periods when these stratifications emerged in the Spanish colonies, the word “race” doesn’t mean the same; it’s applied, for example, to the aristocratic races. And if you continue to the present you see the progressive emergence of something that some scholars, myself included, would call a “racism without races.” Meaning, that discriminations are no longer based exactly on the same criteria, but they’re still there. I think in the global world we now inhabit, where many social structures are transformed, “race” is not going to disappear just because such a mixture of populations is coexisting. It will perhaps become intensified, especially to create antagonisms between different types of workforces.

To put it provocatively, is “class” the external and determining factor of racism and nationalism? Or, is it up to the respective historical contingency?              

Balibar: That’s what I wanted to address. Just look at how anti-Semitism works: It’s not the case that Jews are to be kept in an inferior racial position; it’s the case that they are seen as internal enemies, as people who are better than the others in becoming capitalist professionals. They are seen, psychologically speaking, more as a threat at the same level.

Wallerstein: On the other hand, take Trump’s appeal, that reflects the situation of people who in reality are an underclass and who are resentful of this, and decide to denominate those who are oppressing them by some category, such as “intellectuals”. There you’ve got the use of the concept of “race” as a method of the under-group deciding to push their way up a hierarchy by invoking this.

Balibar: I agree. But I think it’s more about suppressing or even eliminating an enemy or competitor. I think many dichotomies or distinctions are proposed in order to classify and organize different forms of racism. Immanuel would insist more directly on the economic function and, therefore, on the articulation of “class.” I would insist more on the articulation with “nation.” Even if you don’t make Nazi Germany the paradigm according to which everything has to be understoodwhich was the tendency, understandably, in post-war discoursesyou have to take into account that certain forms of racism lead to extermination or elimination more generally. And other forms lead to keeping the structures and forms of exploitation and hierarchies as stable and as immutable as possible. So, of course, there’s a lot of overlap between all of that. That’s what Hannah Arendt taught us.

How would you rewrite your book today, and would you include other core categories?

Balibar: Yes, something that is not in the book is religion. I think that neither of us at the time, or at least explicitly, considered that it was important.

Wallerstein: The new Archbishop of Paris, Monsieur Au Petit, confirmed in an interview published in Le Monde that the new taboo word is “religion”. To speak of God is not considered something one should do, he said. And when he recently spoke to an audience made up mostly of Muslims they applauded him, explaining to him: “at least you speak about God”. I find it interesting that Pope Francis in his discourse speaks of refugees and migrants, so this is a different brand of Catholicism.

If you think of India, Russia, Turkey, even of the US, or states in Europe like Poland, Croatia, and Serbia, it seems there’s an unholy liaison between right-wing forces that are racist, right-wing nationalist movements and parties in combination with very different right-wing religious movements. How do you think this is going to unfold?

Balibar: Historians or philosophers would perhaps like to see this as a kind of regression—a world in which all sorts of conflicts are based on economic interests, education and political ideologies, that dramatically draw us towards religious hatred, which seems to be something of the past. I have this temptation sometimes to say that in fact, this is rather a new brand of nationalism. It’s a new class if you like; it’s a new discourse which hides, in fact, nationalist rhetoric. So, often this religious discourse is used in a nationalistic way, to create, to exclude, to purify the collective body, to exclude foreigners, who are becoming scapegoats and targets as religious enemies; Christians in Pakistan, Muslims in Europe, and so on. To be honest, I am not sure that religion today is not just a cover name for nationalism. That remains a big, big question to me.

Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me. It has been a pleasure.