Gellner’s Grenade

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Nations and Nationalism by Ernest Gellner
    Blackwell, 150 pp, £12.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 631 12992 8

This is a small book, but one of high density, both in ideas and, at times, in expression. Gellner’s field of concern is the modern world, and though occasionally he casts a look at Mediaeval Europe and Islam, it is in the 20th century that his interest lies, as does what evidence he can muster to support his themes. His view is simple and stark. Nationalism is not the product of history, in the sense that historical factors and institutions have shaped the cultures which have claimed national identity. It is the urge of particular groups to participate in a dominant and literate culture, and to have it linked with the administrative and educational machinery of a modern state. Historical development is then used to support this theory, not because history is a valid intellectual concern, but because it is a necessary part of the diagram which records the development of states as we know them.

Nationalism, says Gellner, is the claim that nation and state should as nearly as possible coincide. Groups within a state with deviant cultures must be assimilated, expelled or slaughtered if this is to be possible. The reader is likely at this moment to deviate from his argument to the problem of class division, separating culture from culture within a single people. Gellner sees this coming and is firm. Marxism, he claims, thinks that ‘ethnic conflict’ is ‘camouflaged class conflict’: sharper insights would reveal to the workers of the world that they do not have common interests. Gellner holds that class conflict will be subsumed into national identity when the scales fall from people’s eyes. If we are to look at these rival senses of identity over time, that of Marx appears the more powerful in a 19th-century setting, and Gellner’s in a 20th, but this does not give either the claim to permanent rightness, or establish that either can fully explain the actions of people.

Gellner sees that his definition of nationalism requires further definitions, those of state and of nation. The former is relatively easy. He accepts Weber’s description of the state as the social agency with a monopoly of legitimate violence: which will do well enough for the modern world, but helps very little with tribal society, feudal kingdoms with weak central governments, or even the battling monks of some Buddhist societies. The Samurai in Tokugawa Japan had violence available to many individuals. In some of these anomalous cases it could be held that the state was too weak to produce a valid nationalism anyway. That sounds fine until you recall the nationalism displayed in the Sicilian Vespers or the Scottish War of Independence. Our capacity for political reification is there long before the modern state. But to Gellner this is not so, for political unity cannot really be attained by what he distressingly calls ‘agroliterate’ society. This clumsy word covers a society in which people are either part of a ruling class containing whatever literacy there is around, or are the mass of the agricultural support system. In European development the Reformation brought in forces which eventually destroyed this system of combining power with literacy, by the demand that literacy should be acquired by all believers: it also transferred the instruments by which religious conformity was enforced from the church to the state. Industrialisation later provided a relatively united experience for the mass of the population at the same time as it compelled states, often against their will, to develop and administer controls over the new economic and social system. The state, Gellner says, is ‘charged with the maintenance and supervision of an enormous social infrastructure’. ‘Universal literacy and a high level of numerical, technical and general sophistication’ are being required of industrial society. Well, eventually, yes. But it is clear that, in the early factory world, literacy was of account only to managers and clerks, and the main use of a system of schooling, as it developed, was to provide a labour force used to long hours of disciplined behaviour. While claiming to write about the achievement of a fully industrialised society – in other words, late 19th-century Europe – Gellner is really writing about the mid-20th century. It is as consumer and voter that modern industrial man has needed command over the alphabet and its works, not primarily, in time, as worker. Still, allowing for a fifty to seventy-year margin of error, the state of affairs that Gellner sets out did come about. That doesn’t make it inevitable.

It is on the definition of nation that Gellner runs into difficulties. He raises these himself explicitly with the remark: ‘it is nationalism which engenders nations, not the other way round.’ I am not at all sure that this is true. There are instances which cast doubt on its simplicity. Finnish national identity was deliberately fostered, almost created, by the Tsarist government, as a way of keeping down Swedish expansionist intentions. It was not, under Russia, a question of a nationalism wanting a separate state identity, but there were ethnologists claiming that a Finnish nation existed, or would exist once such matters as the grammar of reflexive verbs in Finnish, and the correct traditional prosody, could be cleared up. Scottish and Welsh national identities do not march with nationalism, and English nationalism is usually unconscious of the bounds of English national identity.

The core of this book, Chapters Six to Eight, by which time, fortunately, Gellner’s literary style has simplified, is the demonstration that nationalism follows naturally on the fluidity and egalitarianism (this last combined with sharp inequalities) produced by industrialisation. Social entropy brings out the importance of the state; literacy makes culture more uniform and available. The industrial world, the argument goes, is bound to create and emphasise the nation state: the agrarian world could occasionally do so, but this result was not a necessary feature.

So nationalism is bound to be there, and it is no use deploring its manifestations. Gellner devotes a page to discussing ‘false’ theories about it, one of which I admit to owning: that it is natural and self-generating, absent only if repressed; that it is artificially the result of accidental propagation of unnecessary ideas; that it is a misapplication of consciousness that should have been attached only to class; and that it is ‘the re-emergence of atavistic forces of blood or territory’. None of these opinions is remotely tenable, says Gellner. But the author’s own explanation still leaves examples which do not fit. One of these is negative. Gellner pays no serious attention to historical development, so he does not see that the absence of a political unit in the past can prevent a culture developing into explicit nationalism, as it appears to have done in the case of the Protestant community of Northern Ireland. Of course, so far only. There is little or no attention paid to the liberal nationalism of 19th-century Europe, which, even if we can discount most of the myth of the Risorgimento, was all the same a manifestation of political importance. The nationalism found then in Ireland and Germany was not the product of industrialisation. The early manifestations of nationalism which promoted the major heresies within the Roman Empire of the fifth century and its Byzantine heir are also anomalous. And Gellner does not adequately grapple with the dual nationalism which many peoples sustain: the allegiance, for instance, of Egyptians both to Egypt and to Islam, and the virulence which the latter allegiance can at times display. The nastiest war at present raging is between two relative unindustrialised sections of the Islamic world, divided from each other only by a great river, heresy and rival allegiances. How many Iranians and Iraqis will need to be counted as literate – the women folk as well as the men – for their nationalist sentiments to fit into this typology?