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Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism: New Perspectives on the Past (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2006). 192 pp.

Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism remains one of the seminal books in the scholarship on nationalism. Belonging to the constructivist school, Gellner believes that nationalism is “primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent.”1 He further marries nationalism to ethnicity as Anthony Smith does, by stating “nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cross political ones.”2 Thus, ab initio, nationalism is inextricably tied to a political unit known as the state which is defined ethnically. As Gellner clarifies later on, “the problem of nationalism does not arise for stateless societies.”3

Gellner does well to separate nation from nationalism. He hesitates to define nation because it is based on a shifty value, culture. A culture is a mutually agreed upon system of signifiers, ideas, and associations among a group. This changes with each phase of civilisation, pre-agrarian, agrarian, and industrial as the power elites change at each step. In a manner, Gellner would agree with Hobsbawm’s theory of proto-nationalism but like Hobsbawm, Gellner argues for the singularity of the industrial experience that shapes nationalism. Centralisation of government, education, and culture creates the nation from the myths of volk and narod.4 However, Gellner sees the development of the national concept as inevitable: there was no “long-term calculation of interest on anyone’s part,” Gellner argues, because culture and ethnicity was taken for granted in the old days. Only with the appearance of labour migration and bureaucratic employment on their social horizons did they suddenly become conscious of their own culture, and therefore the Other and the Self.5 The advent of modernity breaks people away from traditions and old structures of power and replaces them with “anonymous, literate, identity-conferring culture.”6 Essentially, Gellner’s argument is that nationalism is the product of modernity’s impact on older orders. He therefore accepts the notion of proto-nationalism, yet argues, as Hobsbawm did, that they do not form modern nationalism.

Gellner makes a compelling argument, and its weaknesses reveal as much as its strengths. For example, by Gellner’s first principles, nations must necessarily be ethnically homogenous, failing to explain with any nuance nations like the United States or India. It seems he conflates ethnicity and culture here even though a culture is far more than just ethnicity. Many nations define themselves not on ethnicity but on religion, or common civic values. French nationalism under Napoleon, for example, was specifically civic in opposition to contemporary German or English values.

Furthermore, Gellner sees the development of nationalism on a single trajectory: that of European modernity. He does not explore a basic difference between European nationalisms and, say, Asian nationalisms. The former could, if we accept Gellner’s argument, arise from modernity, but for the latter, large swathes of Asia remain unindustrialised to this day (I follow Gellner’s conflation of modernity with industrialisation). Asian nationalisms have for their core a discourse of opposition to foreign rule (and therefore an inherent inferiority complex)7, while western European nationalisms developed from a fusion of intellectual traditions and conflict. To speak of modernity, then, as the defining ingredient of nationalism, is premature. China defies Gellner’s model because it became institutionally a nation only during Mao’s agrarian Cultural Revolution. Mao’s movement destroyed communist China’s ties to its past, but gained the trappings of the modern state. To flip this argument, if a strong, central bureaucracy is the mark of nationalism, then China and the Ottoman Empire had bureaucracies in the fifteenth century that would put any twenty-first century bureaucracy to shame. Thus, Gellner’s model suffers from a particularly narrow Eurocentric view.

What is particularly odd about Gellner’s argument is that it sets up a structuralist model based on economics and rational actor theory. Nationalism and its participants have been anything but rational in history. Secondly, there is no justification for the structures Gellner assumes. For Gellner (and for many others), the modern bureaucracy forms nationalism. Gellner does not explain why a cultural force like nationalism should be studied through a legislative network. Although legislature may well be part of culture, people prioritise different elements of their identity. The books of the Jewish Bible, for example, clearly mention land, race, religion, and language, and speak in a manner of othering.8 It is, therefore, possible to have nations before modernity.

Gellner is absolutely right in positing that nationalism is a political principle—nationalism is the mobilisation of the nation for political purposes. The question the debate centres around is what exactly is a nation? Gellner writes that it is a set of signifiers and signifiers that are shared by large numbers after modernity. He does not, however, say that the cultural morphemes did not exist before modernity. Thus, Gellner leaves the formation of a nation to sheer numbers. This is unsound in the Aristotelian mode of reasoning because concepts can either have materialisation or not. Gellner’s model asks for a gradation, but a gradation that matures not with members of a national set but with time. If Gellner assumes that nations are modern by definition, the book becomes merely a case study rather than an argument.

Like Hobsbawm, Anderson, and other theorists of nationalism, Gellner contributes much to the field. Gellner’s structural model for nationalism is argued with great rigour and it explains Europe’s experience quite well in the last two centuries. What is unsatisfying is Gellner’s complete neglect of acknowledging the differences in his own examples between Europe and the Middle East.

1: Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism: New Perspectives on the Past(Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2006), 1.

2: Ibid.

3: Ibid., 4.

4: Ibid., 56.

5: Ibid., 59, 60.

6: Ibid., 84.

7: Many books have been written on India’s and China’s colonial complex. See, for example, George Perkovich’s India’s Nuclear Bomb, which argues that India acquired nuclear weapons for reasons of prestige. Itty Abraham also makes this point in The Making of the Indian Nuclear Bomb. On China, see Chen Jian’s Mao’s China and the Cold War.

8: Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy