<html><head /> <style type="text/css"> <!-- .style1 { font-size: x-small; font-weight: bold; } --> </style> <body> <META http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-16"><title>Introduction to Gellner</title><meta name="keywords" content="ethnic,nations,gellner,anarchy,anthropology,brendan,conflict,creation,Ernest,ethnicity,Islam,leary,philosophy,politics,polymath,power,regulate,states,yugoslavia,nationalism,"><table style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:larger; " align="center" border="0" width="50%"><tbody><tr> <td style="background-color:silver; border-color:white; border-left-style:none; border-style:none; " width="730"><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:larger; ">Introduction to Gellner</span></td> </tr> <tr> </tr> </tbody></table><br><table style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:medium; " align="center" bgcolor="white" border="0" width="50%"><tbody><tr> <td height="131" width="669"><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small;"><strong>Editors Introduction</strong></span><span class="style1"><IMG SRC="auth_O'Leary.jpg" WIDTH="80" HEIGHT="110" ALT="O'Leary" VSPACE="2" HSPACE="2" BORDER="0" ALIGN="right"> </span><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small;"></span><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "> When Ernest Gellner died, in 1995, obituaries poured in from anthropologists, historians, political scientists and psychoanalysts. He was widely recognised as a true polymath, but perhaps the greatest impact he made was with his ideas and theories about nations and nationalism. </span> <p><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">In this interview, Brendan O'Leary (right), professor of political science at the London School of Economics and Political Science, explains Ernest Gellner's theories of nationalism and considers their application and usefulness in the world today.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><strong>A large part of your work on nationalism is based on the important and influential ideas of Ernest Gellner. Could you outline his work on nationalism?</strong></span><br> <br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><b>Brendan O'Leary:</b> Ernest Gellner said that he started to think seriously about nationalism as a result of reading the works of one of his colleagues, a man called Elie Kedourie. The late Elie Kedourie, roughly speaking, thought that the British Empire was a marvellous thing and wondered why it had come to an end. His answer was that a lot of nineteenth-century thinkers had developed crazy ideas based upon a misinterpretation of Immanuel Kant's philosophy. They had come up with a doctrine of national self-determination, implying that the only kind of legitimate rule was rule based on co-nationals. Kedourie's thesis was a classic idealist thesis: bad things happen because people have bad ideas.</span><br> <br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Gellner responded to this work by thinking, "I've taken it for granted that everybody is naturally a nationalist, whereas, in fact, what Kedourie has taught me is that nationalism is a modern phenomenon." He utterly rejected Kedourie's underlying supposition that nationalism was simply the product of bad ideas.</span><br> <br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">That didn't mean that Gellner thought that nationalists' ideas were necessarily good or cognitively powerful, but he did want to explain why nationalism was so powerful in the modern world. His answer to that question, putting it very crudely, was that nationalism is functionally beneficial for industrial societies. It is the kind of legitimation formula that works best where you have a society of formal equals that are co-cultural and in principle are mutually substitutable for one another.</span><br> <br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">He argued that nationalism was not possible in tribal societies, because we didn't have states and we didn't have nations seeking to control states. In agrarian societies, it was impossible to have nationalism, because there were deep social divisions between the upper classes and the village communities over which they ruled and there was no need for the governed to be co-cultural with their governors. So nationalism is a modern phenomenon because it is only possible in modern times and it is a modern phenomenon because it is the most obvious legitimation formula for keeping industrial societies cohesive.</span><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><br> <br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><strong>Why do you admire Ernest Gellner?</strong></span><br><br> </span><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><b>O'Leary:</b> A whole range of reasons. First of all, he was a tremendously lucid and clear and very funny thinker. He tackled big and important questions, he gave brave, testable, falsifiable answers. His range was amazing. He participated in a frontal assault on the then very fashionable Wittgensteinian philosophy. Bertrand Russell was the only major political philosopher to come out in his defence when he attacked fashionable ideas, and he has proven to be right.</span><br> <br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">He was a vigorous, amusing and partly personally motivated critic of psychoanalysis. In fact, he wanted to do an anthropology of the psychoanalysts, to go and investigate and to sit in on their conduct. They very wisely refused. I think his work in that area will last. Anybody who reads <I>The Psychoanalytical Movement</I>, I think, is very unlikely to check into a therapist thereafter.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">He was also an extremely good anthropologist in the field. He worked on the understanding of Moroccan hill tribes, as some would put them, in particular the workings of a segmentary society, a society without state power, showing how it is quite feasible for anarchy to work in clan-based societies and in particular emphasising the role of holy men or hereditary saints in mediating conflicts between communities. I think that is a vital lesson for students of political science and anyone else. The state is not a permanent feature of the human condition. It hasn't always been necessary. Societies can function without the state, and we learn fundamental things about our own societies and our own condition by examining such societies.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">That is what got Gellner interested in Islam as well. He produced fascinating work on Muslim society, taking as his premise the arguments of a much neglected thinker in the West, Ibn Khaldun. He basically applied and reformulated the ideas of Ibn Khaldun to try to understand how modern Muslim societies have coped with the arrival of industrialism and the imperial onslaught from the West. So his range was amazing.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">He also gave rise to critical thinking on nationalism. He was one of many thinkers, but I think there is a wide agreement that he stated the modernist case for the interpretation of nationalism more crisply, more clearly than anyone else. One of the reasons he was able to do this is that Gellner was what I would call a liberal Marxist. He was opposed to Communism, vigorously so, not least because of what happened in his own lands, but he applied Marxist thinking about stages of history--what was feasible at a given stage of economic development--quite rigorously. And, unlike Marxists, he didn't presuppose that to each stage of society there necessarily corresponded a given type of property relationships. He was much more flexible. I think his understanding of nationalism was based upon a liberal application of historical materialist thinking, which in a way brought him back to his roots.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">When he first started thinking about philosophy, he was highly influenced by the British school of empiricists, who themselves were heavily influenced by the Scottish political economists, and in a roundabout way one can see the widening of his work as it returned to his original intellectual roots.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><strong>How have your own ideas been influenced by Gellner?</strong></span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><b>O'Leary:</b> Ernest Gellner examined my doctoral thesis, which was on a completely different topic. The subject was the Asiatic mode of production, which is an obscure Marxist concept linked to the ideas of Oriental society and Oriental despotism. But I first came across Gellner's work when thinking about nationalism particularly in relationship to Ireland.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">The great joy for me of Gellner's thinking was that, first of all, it was a proper theory of nationalism, an explanation of why it exists, which in principle was testable. It was possible to examine whether it was true or false against concrete historical cases and, secondly, what Gellner did was to explain why nationalism was powerful, whilst avoiding treating it as completely irrational or something only for the cognitively befuddled. He didn't treat it with contempt; he basically understood the emotions which it generated and sought to explain them. He was somebody who sought in a properly social scientific sense to analyse the phenomenon in a positivistic sense, and I think he largely succeeded in doing so.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">In my own work, I think what has been inspired by Gellner is, first of all, that I ask questions such as: Given the supposition that nationalism is so powerful, how can it be best regulated? In certain circumstances it can be eliminated, but only at the cost of ferocious repression. So the key question is: How can we manage national communities in ways which are compatible with other values that industrial societies hold dear--liberty, democracy and equality?</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Gellner himself wasn't particularly interested in questions of how you regulate national and ethnic conflicts. Indeed, he was profoundly pessimistic. His view was that the choice in the modern world for many communities was between coercive assimilation or ethnic expulsion and genocide. He had a very strong conception that people had to accommodate to nationalism and there wasn't any easy way to regulate it. So he was deeply pessimistic about the prospects of using federal devices to regulate national and ethnic tensions, power-sharing systems and so on.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">I think part of my work has been driven by an attempt to prove his pessimism wrong. That is at the normative level. At the analytical level, I think I have been driven more by the standard preoccupations of my own discipline. Gellner was a sociological reductionist. He thought that you could explain politics largely by reference to forces emanating from the economy and society, and he thought of political institutions as predominantly emanations from those.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">By contrast, I tend to believe in the independent importance of political institutions. So, unlike Gellner, I am disposed to believe that political institutions matter. I also try to prove that they do matter, that it is possible in certain very tightly specified circumstances to regulate national and ethnic tensions in ways that Gellner himself would have approved of but would not have been particularly optimistic about.</span><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><strong>What are the main criticisms that people have with his theories?</strong></span><br> <br></span><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><b>O'Leary:</b> One technical criticism that people have of Gellner's theory of nationalism is that it's a functionalist argument. Broadly speaking, that means you explain something by the consequences to which it gives rise. Gellner explains that nationalism gives rise to beneficial consequences for industrial society--cohesion, legitimation, the facilitation of rapid social mobility, both vertical and horizontal--and then explains nationalism by these consequences. Most people would want to argue that, although nationalism might have those consequences, it may not be those consequences which explain the phenomenon. In other words, they might want to say that the reason nationalism developed in the modern world was that it was a by-product of greater democratisation, leading to greater equality and the supposition that people should rule and have a common culture.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Some might want to emphasise the importance of military mobilisation, that various monarchs in various parts of Europe and elsewhere discover that the most successful way to build military fighting machines was to have some notion of national citizenship, to be able to recruit and conscript people for national armies and to build a notion of the national interest. Many people would want to insist that the mechanisms which brought nationalism into the world need to be specified, and that Gellner's own particular mechanism, the mere arrival of capitalist or industrial society, is not sufficient.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">A second way in which people criticise Gellner is to say that he is a very strong modernist. Gellner implies that nationalism invents nations, not the other way round. That is a very strong claim. It implies that it doesn't matter what the past was, nationalists can construct new nations out of completely diverse materials. I think he even quotes a line from the Mikado: "a thing of shreds and patches." A nation can be constructed from anything.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">Critics say that it fundamentally matters what materials nationalists work with. If they work on appeals based upon authentic ethnic pasts, they are more likely to be successful, because their claims have a popular resonance only if there is some authenticity behind them. There is a strong school of thought which says that nations can't be constructed out of nothing, and those that are are more fragile and brittle as a result. That is particularly associated with the thinking of one of Ernest Gellner's most famous pupils, Anthony Smith, also at the London School of Economics. Smith argues in <I>The Ethnic Origins of Nations</I> that most nations in the modern world are the outcome of previously existing historic ethnic communities.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">A third way in which Gellner's argument is criticised is that people think his own general logic is inconsistent. He makes the same kinds of argument for the power of Islam in the modern world that he makes for the power of nationalism, and by doing so he implies that the two are mutually substitutable, in which case his strong claim about the fit between nationalism and modernity comes into question.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">A fourth area which people tend to focus on is that Gellner's theory is, broadly speaking, apolitical. It leaves little room for political institutions to be autonomous in the way that they respond to national and ethnic phenomena. Lastly, some think that Gellner's arguments are Eurocentric, that they drive too strongly from the European experience and more particularly from his own experiences growing up as a Jew in Czechoslovakia before the arrival of Hitler. Some believe that is what drives Gellner's conception that you either have to assimilate or face expulsion and genocide, and they also believe that accounts for his neglect of ethnic and national phenomena in places such as America, Africa and Asia, where his references are less than compelling and convincing. I happen to think that is nonsense. Even if a theory originates in a particular locale and even if you can account for its origination by reference to the particular locality from which it came, it is nevertheless testable on a worldwide basis, and a lot of the arguments that Gellner makes apply elsewhere in the world, even though the argument began in the European zone.</span><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><strong>How applicable do you think they are to things that we're seeing currently?</strong></span><br> <br> </span><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><b>O'Leary:</b> I think Gellner is a helpful guide to understanding phenomena that have occurred in the Balkans. There are contemporary factors which drive national and ethnic conflict in the Balkans, rather than some notion of medieval historic forces suddenly being unleashed as a consequence of the fall of Communism. Gellner will help you understand why, for example, the Serbs are less economically advanced than the Croatians and the Slovenians and that that gives rise to some underlying tensions, rivalries, antagonisms and animosities between those groups. He can help you understand why political elites can successfully make nationalist issues important bases for their mobilisation. I don't think, however, that he can give you a good guide to the institutional problems that specifically resulted in the Yugoslav meltdown, nor is he very helpful with his rather cynical remarks about national self-determination. Thinking through hard concepts like that can be constitutionally managed in such a way that they can produce a great deal of ethnic and national peace. Even though I happen to think that there are grave limitations to his arguments, I think they are nevertheless useful, and in a great many conflicts useful results can be derived from showing how they are inadequate or how in certain cases they are spot on.</span><br> <strong><br> <span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">You mentioned a range of criticisms of Gellner's work. Which do you personally find most persuasive?</span></strong><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; "><b>O'Leary:</b> I think the most important criticism is the historic one. I can think of very few cases of successful nations built out of nothing, or built out of pure invention and fiction. Most modern nations which have successfully institutionalised themselves in state power or in the sharing of state power have rested in historic ethno-national and in some cases ethno-religious communities and, therefore, the very strong modernist claim that Gellner makes should be discounted, once one looks at the historic evidence.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; ">That does not mean that one has to be some kind of primordialist and believe that nationalism is in our genes, but it does suggest that the pathways by which people arrive at modernity are very important and that the transition from agrarian society to industrial society gives rise to nations which are built around historic communities and some communities in effect get eliminated, get wiped out, get forgotten, get coercively assimilated or get expelled and then get assimilated by somebody else. But the surviving nations of the modern era do owe something to their agrarian pasts and those continue to matter. Whether one considers this fortunate or unfortunate is immaterial. I think one has to recognise the fact.</span><br><br><span style="font-family:Verdana; font-size:x-small; font-style:italic; ">This story was taken from an interview with Brendan O'Leary at the London School of Economics and Political Science on October 20, 2000. Copyright the London School of Economics and Political Science.</span></td> </tr> </tbody></table> </body></html>