In the latest issue:

The Politics of Like and Dislike

William Davies

The Shrine

Alan Bennett

After the Shock

Adam Tooze

Punishment by Pressing

Hazel V. Carby

The Suitcase

Frances Stonor Saunders

Short Cuts: Thanington Without

Patrick Cockburn

The Lessons of Reconstruction

Randall Kennedy


Linda Colley

Eva Hesse

Anne Wagner

Parachuted into France

Neal Ascherson

The Age of Sail

N.A.M. Rodger

Poem: ‘Near Gleann nam Fiadh’

Robin Robertson

‘You People’

Clare Bucknell

What Didn’t Happen

Michael Wood

Forster in Cambridge

Richard Shone

Diary: In Ashgabat

James Lomax

Our WayJohn Gray
Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals 
by Ernest Gellner.
Hamish Hamilton, 225 pp., £18.99, August 1994, 0 241 00220 6
Show More
Show More

Recent discussion of the Soviet collapse, even when not echoing the shallow triumphalism of Western conservatives and neo-liberals, has interpreted that collapse as an episode in the global spread of civil society – defined by Ernest Gellner as ‘that set of diverse non-governmental institutions which is strong enough to counterbalance the state and, while not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitrator among major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and atomising the rest of society’. The debacle of Gorbachev’s reformist project has been understood, if not as proof of an ineluctable global convergence on Western institutions, then at any rate as compelling evidence of their functional indispensability to a modern industrial economy. Western opinion, shaken by the political upheavals of the past five years, which confounded all the expectations of diplomats, strategists and (not least) Sovietologists, is now gripped by the conviction that, in the long run, there simply is no alternative to the institutions of civil society: any state which wishes to enjoy prosperity and the stability that prosperity confers will have to adopt them.

The truth of the matter is virtually the opposite of this conventional view. The demise of the Soviet system occurred at the high-water mark of Western civil societies. Among its unintended consequences are the unravelling of the post-war political settlements in the major Western countries and a burgeoning legitimation crisis for their market institutions. Moreover, our economies are being outpaced by East Asian societies which have adopted few of the central norms and practices of Western civil society, such as individualism and the priority of contract over status, and which increasingly question, or reject. Western models for their institutions. The idea of civil society, indelibly marked as it is by its historical and intellectual origins in the period of European and North American bourgeois hegemony which endured from the 17th century almost to the present day, can scarcely do justice to the diversity of institutional and cultural forms we see around us now, when the axis of global economic power is tilting away from the West. Whatever else it may have been, the Cold War was a family quarrel among Western ideologies. If it is true that the Soviet side lost, it is also true that Western civil societies did not win. For the ending of the Cold War at once removed the legitimacy which they acquired from their rivalry with the Soviet Union and released non-Western cultures from the perceived necessity to emulate Western models, liberal or Marxist. The demise of the Soviet state has indeed been accompanied by the re-emergence of civil societies, where they existed prior to the Communist period, and where historical memory of them has not been altogether effaced. Globally, however, it marked, not the universal spread of such societies, but the beginning of a period of weakness, instability and retreat in the struggle with their new rivals, at whose outcome we can only guess.

Ernest Gellner’s Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals is a brilliant collection of aperçus, asides, obiter dicta, historical analogies and digressions. Into the 29 chapters of a shortish book, Gellner crams more insight and incisive reasoning than we could hope to glean from half a dozen sociological tomes, each of them several times as long – even if, as I think, his argument is excessively whiggish and wrongly conflates the conditions of prosperity in a modern market economy with the institutions of a Western-style civil society. Gellner begins by making a crucial and often neglected distinction – one on which his own grip seems to weaken later in the book – between modern civil societies and traditional segmentary societies. Civil societies differ from segmentary societies, which are plural, decentralised and balanced in their structures. In civil societies Benjamin Constant’s modern liberty is institutionalised: in a segmentary community social life is governed by pervasive and demanding rules of kinship and ritual. In ancient pluralism, identities are matters of inheritance or ascription, while in civil societies (according to Gellner) they are chosen.

Gellner’s distinction is important, not only because it notes correctly that plural societies need not be civil societies, but because it discloses the normative content of his conception of civil society, as a set of institutions animated by a particular type of individualist moral culture. This moral culture is also secular: modern civil society was engendered from the conflict within Western Christianity between the bureaucratised ritual and magic of a centralised church and the scripturalist and puritan activities of initially marginal religious enthusiasts. In 17th-century England this ended in stalemate, compromise and eventual secularisation – and thereby in civil society. Gellner qualifies this whiggish (and Weberian) narrative by observing that we cannot know whether only this peculiar mixture of superstition and enthusiasm could have given rise to the modern world; here he seems to be nodding in Humean fashion not only to our necessary ignorance of the many causes of modern liberty, but also to the likely presence of chance among them. That is one qualification; a second is his constant recurrence to Islam as the great exception to the processes of secularisation that are a necessary precondition of civil society’s emergence.

Gellner’s account of Islam suggests that modernisation renders it more, not less resistant to secularisation. A religion which combines the theocentrism of Christianity with the legalism of Judaism, Islam generates a legal blueprint for the whole social order, a blueprint developed by scriptural scholars who are often urban in their background and rooted in the merchant classes. Within Islam, the major conflict was between a scripturalist and puritan tradition at the centre and ritualistic, hierarchical communities of enthusiasts at the periphery – almost an exact mirror-image of the conflict within Western Christianity. The scripturalist tradition represents what Gellner calls the High Culture of Islam, whereas the Low or folkish culture is expressed in communities and brotherhoods springing up around Islamic saints. His central thesis is that, under the impact of modernisation, the High Culture wins out, with fundamentalism – the project of purifying Islam of folkish accretions – being an integral part of the new, urban, literacy-based society. The Low Islam of saints and ecstatic practices reflects particularistic communities, of village, lineage, clan, tribe; the High Islam of scholars and rulers better expresses a modern, anonymous, mobile mass society. Islamic fundamentalism is not, then, a species of cultural atavism: on the contrary, like nationalism in the West, it is that phase of modernisation in which a High, literate culture becomes pervasive and membership-defining for the entire society. Through this confluence Islam has tended to produce an Umma: an overall community based on a shared faith and the implementation of its law. For Gellner, Islam is as much of a contrast with civil society as plural segmentary societies are: its politics are varieties of cynical clientelism and it produces ‘a social order which seems to lack much capacity to provide political countervailing institutions or associations, which is atomised without much individualism, and operates effectively without intellectual pluralism’.

This interpretation may be questionable at points, but it has the clear merit of stressing Islamic fundamentalism’s functional fit with the imperatives of modernisation, and its analogies with Western nationalism. The contrast with Western nationalism is that the latter is typically congenial, if not indispensable, to civil society. For, according to Gellner, the individualist or ‘modular’ character of human identity in civil societies makes nationalism, the political embodiment of ethnic identity, unavoidable:

the modularity of man, so intimately tied up with an industrial and growth-oriented society, has two aspects, two principal social corollaries: it makes possible Civil Society, the existence of countervailing and plural political associations and economic institutions, which at the same time are not stifling; and it also makes mandatory the strength of ethnic identity, arising from the fact that man is no longer tied to a specific social niche, but is instead linked to a culturally defined pool.

Gellner needs no reminding that in our time nationalism and liberalism have not always gone together; but he grasps a crucial truth that eludes the understanding of all schools of recent liberal thought, whether their provenance is Austrian, as in Hayek and Popper, or American, as in Rawls and Nozick. This is that the Enlightenment project of a form of political order resting solely or primarily on subscription to universal principles is merely a utopia.

Whether it is embodied in the reactionary market utopia of the New Right or in more egalitarian forms, this illusion of recent liberal theorising – not found in the thought of Mill, for example – neglects the historical and sociological reality, that the displacement of local knowledge and allegiances which accompanies the growth of modern civil societies compels the construction of a common national culture. For, contrary to the legalism and economism that shape virtually all recent liberal thinking, in which conceptions of contract and exchange are ubiquitous, neither market institutions nor legal institutions are sufficient, separately or together, to sustain a civil society. It is a comment on the almost fathomless shallowness of recent liberal theory that the thought, which for Gellner is a sociological (and historical) truism, that in a democratic age civil society must rest on common membership of a national culture, is unknown to it.

Gellner’s account is in large part avowedly historical and backward-looking, spending a good deal of time on why the Marxist project was such a ruinous failure in the Soviet Union. This is perhaps a pity, since it means he has little to say on the paradoxes of post-Communist life, such as the brilliant success of the old political élites, as yet little remarked on by the political pilgrims of the Western New Right, in capturing the project of economic reform and detaching it from its association with Western-inspired market romanticism. His observations on the Soviet experience are nevertheless often astute. In his account of the inability of Marxism in the Soviet bloc to establish a secular Umma, he notes that the sleaze of the Brezhnev ‘Era of Stagnation’ was far more corrosive of the credibility of the system than Stalinist terror had been, since it struck directly at the pretension to have created a new morality, even a new humanity. This may well be true, but it exaggerates the residuum of ideological conviction in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, and underestimates the importance to the nomenklatura of their material privileges. One of the more destabilising consequences of glasnost was the discovery by many nomenklaturists that they were under-rewarded, in fact poor, by Western standards. It is partly the impact of this realisation that accounts for their enthusiasm in embracing – and, in the neo-Communist coalitions which, in Poland and almost everywhere else in the post-Communist world, are the principal political beneficiaries of market reform, in controlling – policies of economic liberalisation.

It is a limitation of Gellner’s analysis that he approaches his subject from the standpoint of the emergence of civil societies in post-Communist countries. For the truth is that they have emerged, or re-emerged, only where they existed before, in Hungary, Poland and the Czech lands, for instance. Where civil society never existed, or was weak, as in Romania or Russia, it has yet to make an appearance. This is not so surprising if Gellner is correct that civil society presupposes a certain type of individualist moral culture and a particular sort of religious history, but it makes his remark that the former Soviet Union ‘is now condemned ... to create a civil society from above, by design and in a hurry’ incongruous, to say the least. That Gellner should fall into this inconsistency is evidence of the continuing hold over him of the view that something like European civil society is functionally indispensable for the success of any modern economy, even though he is unequivocally clear that Islam has been strengthened in important respects by modernisation. Yet treating Islam as the great exception makes it more distinctive than it is. Islam’s historical record and contemporary reality are a good deal more complex than Gellner allows, and if his analysis implies that Islam cannot co-exist with the institutions necessary for a prosperous modern economy, it will have to account for such counter examples as contemporary Malaysia. Again, to hold that Islam is unique because it alone bucks the global trend towards secularisation is to pass over as insignificant the largest, and most familiar exception to that generalisation: the United States, where modernity and a primitive popular religiosity co-exist happily.

The East Asian examples, which Gellner treats only in passing, are of decisive importance for his argument. It is from these that civil society’s most formidable rivals are in the foreseeable future most likely to come. Contrary to the fashionable thesis that the coming conflicts will be civilisational or cultural, these countries need not be the West’s enemies unless we make them so. In Japan, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan, segmentary plural societies have modernised with spectacular economic success without altering their essential characteristics. They have made numerous borrowings from the West, institutional as well as technological, but they have not accepted our individualist moral culture and they are not civil societies as Gellner, no doubt rightly, conceives of these. The example of China, where the project is to develop market institutions without adopting a Western-style civil society, illustrates his central error, which is to conflate the two. The Chinese project may fail, but if it does it will be because of traditional problems of state disintegration, not because successful market institutions cannot exist in a modern economy without those of a civil society. Gellner has ‘no shadow of doubt’ concerning the morally unattractive character of current Chinese policy, citing the use of force and loss of life its leaders are ready to incur in its pursuit. He is ready to allow only that political liberalisation may be easier to achieve after economic reform has generated prosperity. Certainly, the human costs of Russian policy, which encompass tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dead in forgotten wars in Tajikstan and elsewhere, are such as to make his caveat prudent. Nowhere, however, does he entertain as a serious prospect the possibility that Western civil society may not be a good model for China. The moral scepticism which forces Gellner to the conclusion that civil society cannot be given a compelling rational justification that excludes all the viable alternatives to it, casts no shadow of doubt on his own endorsement of it.

Though he is well aware that Western civil societies have their own internal problems, I think Gellner understates their seriousness. He notes en passant that their success has depended vitally on social and economic life there being a positive-sum game, and therefore on a pace and steadiness in economic growth that cannot, for a host of reasons, some of them environmental, be guaranteed indefinitely. This poses the large question: how are Western market institutions with their animating individualist culture and liberal civil societies to be politically legitimated in a context of low or zero economic growth? This is an especially pressing problem if slow economic growth is to be combined, as it has been over the past decade, with incessant technological innovation and structural economic change. Such a combination is potentially deadly for political stability, as Edward Luttwak has noted (in a prescient piece in the LRB of 7 April). It exposes working people to a degree of economic insecurity that is wholly unprecedented in living memory, and by shattering the post-war social settlements of the major Western countries, reopens the possibility of class war. The neglect of this new economic insecurity by the moderates of all parties is dangerous, since it leaves unaddressed one of the classic breeding grounds of fascism. In Western countries the political impact thus far of the Soviet meltdown has been to embolden the New Right to frame yet more hubristc policies of marketisation and to place policies of market utopianism, such as global free trade as embodied in the Gatt agreement, beyond public debate. The political risks facing Western civil society are not yet palpable urgent. They are real enough, however, for Gellner’s two cheers for it to ring somewhat hollow. Would it not be ironic if, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, Marx’s pessimism about civil society were to be vindicated?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences