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John A Hall [ed] THE STATE OF THE NATION: Ernest Gellner and the Theory of  Nationalism [Cambridge, 1998] pp. 317


The key elements of the late Ernest Gellner’s theory are familiar, especially from Thought and Change and Nations and Nationalism. He claimed that, as the stress of early industrialisation drove people to seek comfort in a common identity and language, intellectuals were able to draw members of their language group behind the project of creating the nation. Marxism lost out, as workers divided on language rather than class grounds. In the modern world, in contrast to pre industrial society, the nation state is functionally necessary. A new nation will generally require an ancient lineage and that it is the task of intellectuals to provide it. A later version reworked John Plamenantz’s distinction between benign western and malevolent eastern nationalism.


Several of these essays reiterate familiar objections to Gellner’s theory. He provides almost no evidence, and his criteria are so vague that it is difficult to see how they could be tested. The timing is wrong, as nationalism often appears well before industrialisation. The claim that something is functionally necessary cannot account for its origin. Historians have generally stressed the contingency of events and have had little time for system building.


Gellner altered his theory to answer criticisms, but  did not claim he had always been right. He was always willing to adapt his original model, and sometimes seemed to lose interest in it. Shortly before his death he returned to work in his native Prague, where he was quite unperturbed by the break up of Czechoslovakia, the state that best fitted his model.


Brendan O’Leary provides a critical survey which, registering the faults in Gellner’s model, attempts to reformulate it in a more plausible, if weaker, version. This impressive, scholarly essay qualifies the grand claims of the original at the cost of making the theory unremarkable. The effect is like reading the detail  in Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Gellner’s claim that a useful theory is a ‘neat crisp model’, not because it is true, but because it makes you notice that the evidence goes for it or against it, seems more convincing.


Gellner had little interest in political forces. The needs of  industrialisation, or modernisation in his later versions, seem to carry people along irrespective of political factors. Three essays by Mark Beissenger, Charles Taylor and Alfred Stepan grouped under the title ‘bringing politics back in’, which try to correct this, are amongst the least useful in the book. Charles Taylor in ‘Nationalism and Modernity’ worries about “democracy” by which he means voting systems and the design of constitutions, after the fall of the Soviet Union. The fact that  the population of Eastern Europe did not vote for the changes which have been imposed on them from power centres outside their State seems to have eluded him. It is a truism that a vote cast in the United States will have more influence on Russian events than a vote cast in Russia. Even in the west there is massive political abstention: surely an understandable reaction when decisions are not made in Parliament.


Some of the best essays are on issues peripheral to Gellner’s work. Miroslav Hroch’s, polite but baffled essay, wonders how Gellner could ever have seen him as a co-thinker. Chris Hann, in one of the few essays to focus on empirical matters, describes how in Poland anti Ukranian chauvinism is lavishly supported by Western charitable foundations, whose stated aim is to promote local democracy and strengthen ‘civil society’. Hann quotes from Gellner’s marvellously comic description of  Ruritania’s struggle to win independence from the Megalomanian empire, surely the finest piece of comic writing in social science. Dale F. Eikelman provides a convincing demolition of Gellner’s claim that Islam provides an alternative to modernisation. That idea has never been popular with Islamists and would probably have received little attention if  advanced by a lesser scholar, so we may hear little more of it.


Contributors tend to neglect the role of the State in fomenting nationalism, on the grounds that it begs the question of why appeals to it are successful. Yet, if nationalism was always so seductive, states would hardly need such an enormous machinery of indoctrination in the education system and elsewhere. Tom Nairn criticises Gellner’s refusal to take nationalist thinkers seriously and argues that far from being modern inventions, some nations have ancient histories. None of this is convincing. Recent events in Bosnia show how a national identity can be invented in a few months.


Few contributors give much weight to the role of powerful allies, yet how many states have been established without such help? Gellner thought that a national language must be possessed of a ‘high’ culture, yet, once a state exists, and its rulers have, not only an army and a navy, but an educational system, they will be the ones to decide if their language qualifies. Surprisingly, Gellner’s claim that a modern state requires a single language is hardly questioned, in spite of the existence of many multilingual states and the ability of people at many different social levels to function in a language which is not their mother tongue.


Most contributors accept that, where Gellner can be tested, the evidence is against him. However his theory, or observations if it does not amount to a theory, did move the discussion forward. Compared to the narrow focus on constitutional politics outlined in some of these essays, his ideas are immensely stimulating. Nevertheless, it would seem that a general theory of nationalism is neither necessary nor possible.