on 10 December 2012
"Ignorance has many forms, and all of them are dangerous. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries our chief effort has been to free ourselves from tradition and superstition in large questions, and from the error in small ones..." ( R.I. Moore, Editor's Preface to "Nations and Nationalism.")
"(N)ationalism suffers from pervasive false consciousness. Its myths invert reality...Nationalism tends to treat itself as a manifest and self -evident principle, accessible as such to all men, and violated only through some perverse blindness, when in fact it owes its plausibility and compelling nature only to a very special set of circumstances, which do indeed obtain now,but which were alien to most of humanity and history....Its self image and its true nature are inversely related with an ironic neatness seldom equalled..." (Ernest Gellner, "Nations and Nationalism", pgs. 119/120.)
Gellner's book was written in 1983, long before the collapse of Communism and long before the upheaval and social engineering inherent within globalisation, which, for it to succeed, entailed a mixture of forced and voluntary mass migration along with radical upheaval of myriad ethnic identities and their attendant senses of belonging. The book was written long before the savage attack on diverse ethnic groups' stability, carried out under the phony flag of `democracy', the `end of history' , and the guise of the 'war on terror'.
Gellner's book was also written before `the age of the internet', which has turned many of his ideas on `high culture' and `shared and exclusive' identities on their head.
Therefore, Ernest Gellner's landmark text on nationalism, is inevitably, slightly dated, but it is still essential reading, mostly for his appreciative readings, uses, subversions and disputations with Durkheim, Weber, and Marx, as well as for his exploration of the theories of Hobsbawm,Nairn,Trevor Roper and Alan Macfarlane .
It is here that Gellner is at his best and most thrilling to read, theorising that in Shamanistic pre agrarian cultures, men professed to worship nature, river and mountain spirits -- but in reality, they were worshipping themselves. He theorises that in agrarian cultures, men worshipped, dreaded, bowed down to, and feared God -- but in reality, they were fearing and worshipping the austere power over life and death that the kings held. In extreme nationalism, Gellner informs us, men worship so called 'bloodlines', ancestors and 'unique genes' -- but in reality, they are fetishising and worshipping themselves.
Gellner explores, at great length, the distortions, illusions and negative effects of Christian, Catholic, Protestant, rural Berber Sufi and Islamic prisms on nations, tribes and nationalism, and he investigates in some depth, the Anglo Saxon, Dutch, Scandinavian, Slavic and Islamic delusions connected to notions of the `in' group and `out' group, the `accepted and the other' as well as exploding myths about primordial 'race' and 'nation.'
He covers these theses admirably, in detailed, insightful extended diatribes - but, disappointingly, he barely mentions anything whatsoever about Judaism, Jewish notions of ethnicity and nation, and he mentions nothing about Zionism, except for one or two brief lines about the Ashkenazim's 'successful RE-settlement' of the land of Israel, and the tragedy of Eastern European `diaspora', without looking at the roles that Jewish communities played within the agrarian cultures of Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, and how these highly cultured, literate Jewish communities perceived concepts of `in' and `out' group, `accepted' and `other', `sacred' and `profane', `race' and `nation' in these geographical boundaries. It is disappointing that Gelllner so ably, admirably and accurately explodes many of the myths of other ethnic groups, but takes as axiomatic, many of the myths of Zionism. Yuri Szlezkine, Amos Elon, Illan Pappe,Shlomo Sand and Israel Shahak have so much more to tell us about those aspects of Jewish history and identity, that, prior to the 1990s, most scholars were apparently too timid to address.
It is still a landmark book, which must be read if you are at all interested in the myths and delusions that surround concepts of nationalism : you just have to `fill in the spaces' for everything that has happened since the early 80s, which means of course, that the reader will have to consider the resurgence of (frequently violent) Slavic nationalism, and the continued enthusiastic rise of South Korean nationalism, which has never abated, and since the late 1800s has always been concerned with `bloodlines' and `racial purity', `racial character', `in group' and `out group', all considered as unquestionable, axiomatic truths. (For more on that, read Shin Gi Wook,Koo Hagen, and Choi Jang Jip) The reader will also have to look closely at how successfully Islam has replaced `cosmic primordial blood and soil' nationalism with the uniting principle and authority of the Umma and Ulama. Essentially, the Western reader will also have to address the intense nationalism of China, which shows no sign whatsoever of looking objectively at these ideas, taking their hitherto dormant national and `racial' superiority as a given.
on 7 April 2002
Nations and Nationalism is a readable account of the birth and rise of nationalism, but suffers from its mechanistic portrayal of society. Put simply, Gellner sees the rise of cities through industrialisation as creating, ex nihilo, modern nationalsim. The movement away from the agrarian, peasant existance to one of nineteenth-century economism leads Gellner to believe that before industrialisation there was no nationalism, and after it there will be nothing in the future other than nationalism. For an author who chides Marx over his determinist viewpoint, Gellner makes the identical mistake with nationalism as Marx did with materialsim. Read this book because it presents some useful introductory concepts, but be warned that the books I've come across on nationalism (Hobsbawm, Breuilly, Anderson, Gellner, Hastings) all suffer from inadequate explainations. If you seriously want to look for a challenging modern world view, I would suggest starting with either Bourdieu's Logic of Practice or Foucault's Discipline and Punish. Perhaps the latter of the two is best to start with, as the comparison to what is called by most, if not all, contemporary historians as 'nationalsim' compares nicely to what Foucault calls 'surveillance.'