Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Robert H. Stauffer

Class and Ethnicity: Applying Wallerstein’s Core-Periphery Concept

First Published: Modern Times, Vol. V, Nos. 5-6, June-September 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Class analysis and Ethnic Studies have had an evolving history–both locally and around the world. This is due in part to inherent conflicts between the two subjects. We have occasionally seen reactionary forces opposing class consciousness while striving to develop ethnic consciousness. Why is this so?..and especially so for our case in Hawaii?

Several forces in Hawaii have sought to remove or divert interest from class analysis. Modern “liberal” writers such as Lawrence Fuchs (Hawaii Pono) and Gavan Daws (Shoal of Time) have introduced such concepts as ethnic identity, social mobility, assimilation and integration. These then tend to infer that class analysis is only dubiously relevant to any analysis of Hawaii. Instead, our attention is diverted to studying ethnic groups.

Such liberal intellectuals were of course opposed to the old guard oligarchy in Hawaii on various philosophical points, yet the oligarchy (for its own obvious vested interests), like the liberals, had always attempt ted to stifle class consciousness. One method utilized by the oligarchs was active contributions to differences and antagonisms among the various ethnic groups of the non-oligarchy strata. A third group–other, older scholars–tended also to reject a class analysis in favor of emphasizing the continuing “reality” of ethnic loyalties.

And then there were the leaders of the ethnic groups themselves. At one time or another, ethnic leaders have held key positions, especially in the political arena, in Hawaii; yet traditionally many of these individuals rejected class analysis and appealed to–and attempted to heighten–ethnic bonds and prejudices. As Immanuel Wallerstein comments (chapter 12, The Capitalist World Economy): “That such a denial (of class) serves particular ideological functions for men in power seems so banal as to be scarcely worth noting.”

In summary, all these diverse forces–old guard scholars, modern liberal intellectuals, oligarchs and ethnic leaders–rejected class analysis, largely because certain classes were “missing” at one point of Hawaiian history or another, or that ethnic links were far more “important” than class membership, or that while “classes” might have existed in ancient Rome or 19th century Western Europe, that they have not existed in any “real” sense in the history of Hawaii.

It is obvious that class consciousness is not the only form of consciousness. If we view the world around us, we see that ethnic consciousness is a far more frequent phenomenon than class consciousness, with the same general types of groups noted above contributing to keep class consciousness down.

To understand this better, Immanuel Wallerstein has suggested at least two distinct parts of the world economic system. First, the core states and secondly the peripheral countries which are exploited by the core.


Hawaii has an interesting position of being a largely peripheral part of the world economy, and yet also a political part of the United States–the chief capitalist core nation.

Hawaii for much of its history has been a clearly peripheral economic entity, first under the political sphere of Great Britain and then the U.S. In the early period (up until a century ago), class consciousness was not yet a relevant political tool. The local land owners (na ali’i, na konohiki, and later the white oligarchy) clearly felt their prosperity lay in the stability of a continued smooth flow of trade. Any type of struggle to upset this stability (either on the basis of “class” or “ethnicity”) represented an interruption and a threat. The local ethnic (Hawaiian) white-collar intellectuals, government workers, and private office workers were too small a group at this point to make a real impact on changing the system.

But over time this group grew in size and contributed to social struggle. The attempted native armed revolts of 1889 and 1895 were led by this social stratum, as was the case with much of the political agitation of the 20th century (first by Hawaiians, and later by Japanese and other ethnic groups). But most of these revolts were primarily seen in non-class terms, in ethnic terms, with the agitators essentially wanting to replace the existing power structure with their own people.

The broader working class – often subsistence farmers or agricultural laborers – tended only occasionally to be class conscious, as relevant action was difficult for them to carry out: a class-conscious proletariat can emerge only when it represents an easily-organized large sector of the total population. Such an emergence occurred finally with the plantation laborers towards the middle of the 20th century, but this process has been muted by the further “development” of the world economy, which has reshifted Hawaii’s economy into several directions (tourism, civilian government, the military, and the plantations being the four largest sectors, respectively, in the current Hawaii economy), thus inhibiting class organization.

Furthermore, the attempted integration of Hawaii into the politico-economic life of the U.S.–especially following “Statehood” in 1959–has brought about the further partial muting of class conflict by the absorption of certain skilled workers and professionals into privileged parts of the economy, and from the relegation of “sub-proletarian” jobs (menial service jobs, intermittent labor, criminal element, all often connected with tourism), to distinctive ethnic groups. Hence, as the old oligarchy played one ethnic group off against another, we have today parts of the proletariat played off one against the other on the basis of radical differences between privileged (and often “top level” union) workers* salaries, benefit plans, and job security, versus the unprivileged (and often “bottom level” union, or non-union) workers’ salaries, and general lack of job security and benefit plans.

What emerges from this brief sketch is the fact that the true conflicts of society (economic class struggle) are often masked behind apparent conflicts (often ethnic divisiveness). In the modern era, these “illusionary” conflicts based on ethnic consciousness are much more common than class struggle. And–unless we are very careful–any attempt at “ethnic studies” can unwittingly become a tool to foster more ethnic consciousness and thus further obscure the concepts of class.

For, to paraphrase Wallerstein, the heart of our argument here is based on the assumption that if a person really wishes to learn lessons from history, it is important first of all to locate the “primary contradiction” of a given political situation at a given time. And, in general, in core countries the primary contradiction is the struggle between economic classes for the control of the nation’s political structure. This struggle, when it is sharp, becomes a true class struggle and uses “class conscious” terminology, tactics and analysis.

But in the peripheral parts of the world, the primary contradiction is broader, being between the core powers and their local allies against the majority of the local population. Hence, any periphery “anti-imperialist” struggle against exploitation from the core becomes a type of true class struggle, on a broader scale.

Hawaii has portions of both these perspectives: a classic struggle In national terms between the two economic classes, and at the same time an international struggle with other peripheries and former peripheries against core domination and exploitation.

For the existence of economic classes is not lessened by various groups resisting the study of class analysis, or promoting exclusive ethnic consciousness, or by the rarity of true class struggle. If the main actors in the world were to foresake their dedication and interest in other things and were to instead preoccupy themselves with the class conflict, the present capitalist world system would not long survive in its present form. Within this perspective, the current strength locally, nationally, and internationally of ethno-national consciousness is in fact one of the most cohesive factors holding together the existing capitalist world-system.