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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 1 .


Nationalism
Ernest Gellner.

(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997).
114pp. Index. Bibl. 11.99;
ISBN 0-8147-3113-9.


It came as no surprise to learn in the introduction to this posthumously published volume that Ernest Gellner's earlier Nations and Nationalism has been the highest selling of his more than twenty books ranging over philosophy, sociology, anthropology and history. The theory of nationalism which he developed in that book was one of his most elegant and persuasive essays and established him as the doyen of those who insisted on a modernist explanation of nationalism as opposed to a 'primordialist' view. For Gellner, the idea that those who share a common culture should also share a common polity was demonstrably linked to the uneven rise of industrialisation and the need for populations of a certain size to share a common culture, and a common educational infrastructure, in order to be viable.

The book under review repeats this argument, but with more of the central European flavour - Gellner was Director of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism in Prague when he died in 1995 - and with rather more personal remarks than was usual in his writing. At the heart of the theory is a consideration of the varying ways in which culture and organisation combine in different historical formations. Gellner delighted in teasing the primordialists with the idea that nationalists habitually hark back to some pristine era, typically a peasant era, when the political ideology of the population was anything but nationalist in its make-up. The concerns of agrarian society are generally oriented to kin and locality rather than to the anonymous bearers of a common language or religion who typify our nationalistic era. Conversely, the concerns of the rulers of peasants were more often with maintaining the division of cultures than with their unification.

Nationalism is replete with the kind of pithy profundities which marked Gellner out as uniquely capable of transcending academic boundaries, a transcendence which both exhilarated and infuriated his colleagues. Occasionally he gets distracted and loses his reader by delving into the work of his favourite philosophers, Kant and Hume, or by some too close attention to historical detail of a central European development which particularly fascinated him. But for the most part he sticks to his task asking the kind of broad comparative questions which few scholars today will tackle. I found only chapter 8 disappointing, where he promises to look at the 'murderous virulence of nationalism': at three pages it is much too short to reveal anything of substance about the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing.

For those who have never read Gellner, this is as good an introduction to his preoccupations and style as one might find. One of his other subjects which occupied him throughout his academic life was the nature of Islamic societies. To the end he remained puzzled about 'why the victory of standardised high culture in mobile anonymous societies which live increasingly by semantic not physical work, should take the form of nationalism in Europe and of fundamentalism in Islam' (p. 84). One wonders to whom one might now look for answers to questions of this scale.


Declan Quigley, The Queen's University of Belfast.



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