Gellner on nationalism

Ernest Gellner made important contributions to intellectual life in anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. He used them all to further the study of nationalism. In his last public appearance in the UK, at Warwick University, he debated the theme "Nationalism, real or imaginary?" with Anthony Smith (who spoke first). Following is an edited extract
December 20, 1995

Ernest Gellner taught me three basic lessons about nationalism. I want first to say how much he has inspired me-and all of us. His work first caught my imagination in the 1960s, when I was studying the decolonisation wave in Africa and Asia. Ernest Gellner guided my doctoral thesis on theories of nationalism with great patience.

The first lesson about nationalism that he taught me is that it is elusive, even protean, in its manifestations; so we have to classify the variety of movements and ideologies in order to make progress in understanding the phenomenon.

Second, Ernest taught me to appreciate the underlying sociological reality of nationalism. Against all those who would tell us that the nation exists only in the imagination and that it can be deconstructed away, Ernest has always insisted that nations and nationalism are real and powerful sociological phenomena, even if their reality is quite different from the tale told about them by nationalists themselves.

Third, he convinced me that nations, as well as nationalism, are modern phenomena, in the sense that the basic features of the modern world require nations and nationalisms.

And yet there are differences between Ernest and myself. In so far as he is a wholehearted "modernist," he would claim that the nation is not only relatively recent; it is also the product of specifically modern conditions-early industrialism with its social mobility, the need for mass literacy, public education and the like. It is the modern transition from spontaneous, non-literate "low" cultures to highly cultivated, literate and specialised "high" cultures which engenders nationalism and nations. It is not that I find this account wrong-only that it tells half the story.

Nationalism provides the sole legitimation of states the world over. For most people, nations-especially their own nations-seem perennial and immemorial. We cannot easily imagine a world without nations, nor are we happy with the idea that our nation is a recent creation, or a construct of elites.

Today, however, most scholars regard the idea of nations existing perennially through antiquity and the middle ages as simply "retrospective nationalism." According to Benedict Anderson the nation is seen as an "imagined political community." But there is nothing contradictory about saying that something is both imagined and real: the Parthenon, Chartres cathedral and the ceiling of the Sistine chapel are no less real and tangible for all the imagination of their creators and spectators down the ages. But if nations are not fabricated, are they cultural artefacts created in the same way as artistic monuments? I believe, although we can often discern elements of deliberate planning and human creativity in their formation, that nations and nationalisms are also the products of traditions and heritages which have coalesced over the generations.

What the modernists often overlook is the persistence of ethnic ties and cultural sentiments which in some cases date back to pre-modern times. Not every modern nation is founded on some antecedent ethnic ties, but many such nations have been, including the first nations in western Europe-France, England, Castile, Holland, Sweden-and they acted as models and pioneers of the idea of the nation for others.

The intelligentsia may invite the masses into history; and politicise them and their cultures. But why do the people respond? Not simply because of the promise of material benefits. Their vernacular culture is now valued and turned into the basis of a new mass public culture of the nation.

Unlike the civic, territorial nationalism of the French Revolution in the west, which perceives the nation as a territorial association of citizens living under the same laws and sharing a mass public culture, ethnic nationalism sees the nation as a community of genealogical descent, vernacular culture, native history and popular mobilisation. The "civic" kind is a nationalism of order and control; and it suits the existing national states and their dominant ethnic groups. But it offers little to the many submerged ethnic minorities incorporated into the older empires and their successor states. So they and their intelligentsias turn to ethnic nationalism, seeking to reconstruct their community as an ethnic nation. Theirs is the politics of cultural revolt.

Ernest Gellner replied:

it is a source of great pride to me that my student Anthony Smith should become one of the leading specialists on nationalism. As for Edward Mortimer [chair of this second debate in the Warwick University series on nationalism] he covered an entire page of the Financial Times about me without once including a mistake-an astonishing achievement for a journalist. So it gives me special pleasure to point out a factual error in his introductory remarks. My ancestors were not natives of the city of Prague. They were provincial Bohemian petty bourgeois-but that's not of great importance.

It is useful in debate to draw up clear battle lines. Anthony and I tend to be pitted against each other on opposite sides of what has become the major dividing line in the study of nationalism-the line between what I call "primordialists" and "modernists." The primordialists say that nations were there all the time (or some of them were, anyway), and that the past matters a great deal. The modernists such as myself believe that the world was created at about the end of the 18th century, and that nothing which happened before makes the slightest difference to the issues we face.

The question is: how do you decide between the two? What kind of evidence can we use to establish the reality of the past? Many of you may remember that Bertrand Russell asked, tongue in cheek, how do we know that the world wasn't created five minutes ago, complete with memories? Well, how do you know? Maybe it was. What is the evidence? Another form this debate takes is the battle between creationists and evolutionists. Was mankind created with Adam or did it slowly evolve?

At the time when the evidence was debated a particular question was very much alive: did Adam have or did he not have a navel? This is a crucial question. No, no-you may fall about laughing, but obviously if Adam was created by God at a certain date-4003 BC, say-it's a natural first reaction to say that he didn't have a navel, because Adam did not go through the process by which people acquire navels.

It's very simple. We actually know what question will decide whether the world is very old and mankind evolved, or whether the world was created about 6,000 years ago. All we need to find out is whether or not Adam had a navel.

The question I am now about to address is: do nations have navels or do they not? The case for modernism is that the ethnic, the cultural and the national community is rather like the navel. Some nations have one, some don't. Either way it is not essential. What Anthony is saying, on the other hand, is that he is anti-creationist. He believes that we have this plethora of navels and that they are absolutely essential. He says-and I think this is the crux of the disagreement between us-that modernism only tells half the story. But if it tells half the story that is enough for me.

There are some very clear cases where modernism holds true. Take the Estonians. At the beginning of the 19th century they didn't even have a name for themselves. They were simply referred to as people who lived on the land, as opposed to German or Swedish burghers and aristocrats, and Russian administrators. They were just a category, without any ethnic self-consciousness. But since, they have been brilliantly successful in creating a vibrant culture which can be seen, very much alive, in the ethnographic museum in Tartu. The museum has one object for every Estonian-and there are one million Estonians. Obviously Estonian culture is under no threat, although Estonians make a fuss about the Russian minority which they have inherited from the Soviet system. Estonians have a vital and vibrant culture but it was created by the kind of modernist process which I apply to nationalism and nations in general. If that kind of account holds true for some nations, then the exceptions which are credited to other nations are redundant.

The central fact of the modern world is that the role of culture in human life was totally transformed by the cluster of economic and scientific changes since the 17th century. The prime role of culture in agrarian society was to underwrite a people's status and identity-to entrench their position in a complex, usually hierarchical, relatively stable structure. In today's world people have no stable position within a structure. They are members of ephemeral professional bureaucracies which are not deeply internalised. They belong to increasingly loose family associations. And what really matters is how they can incorporate and master high culture. By that I mean a literate codified culture which permits context-free communication, community membership and acceptability-that is what constitutes a nation. It is a consequence of the mobility and anonymity of modern society and of the semantic, non-physical nature of our work that makes mastery of such culture and acceptance within it the most valuable possession a man has. It is a pre-condition of all other privileges and participation in society. This is what automatically makes a man into a nationalist, because if there is no congruence between the culture in which he is operating and the culture of the surrounding economic, political, and educational bureaucracies, then he is in trouble. He and his offspring will be exposed to sustained humiliation. Moreover, the maintenance of the high culture, the medium in which society operates, is politically precarious and expensive. The state is the protector, usually the financier- or at very least the quality controller-of the educational process which shapes people into members of this high culture. This is a process of creation-my equivalent of that event of 6000 BC when humanity was suddenly brought into being.

Anthony makes a number of points with which I would in no way disagree. Culture, or at least a shared form of symbols and communication, was important even in the pre-industrial age. That is indisputable-so having a "one-navel" culture was then a central feature of societies. Culture carries a great emotional charge and its members are highly conscious of their participation in it. The ancient Greeks knew the difference between people who read Homer and those who did not. Ancient Greeks knew the difference between people who were allowed to participate in the Olympic games and those who were not. They had a deep contempt for barbarians, who fell into the inferior class. In that sense they were plainly cultural chauvinists.

So cultures are sometimes conscious and beloved and sometimes invisible and ignored. Sometimes, too-but this is less likely-they have political institutions connected to them. But generally speaking, the condition of the agrarian world favoured political units consisting of local, intimate communities which were smaller than a "culture"-or much larger, such as large empires. There was nothing in the logic of the political situation to lead political units to expand to the boundaries of the culture. They tended to be either smaller or larger. Sometimes a culture expressed itself politically but more often it did not. Sometimes there is continuity between the cultures which were loved in the pre-industrial age and sometimes there is discontinuity.

To take an example: I wouldn't say that there is either a genuine folk memory or a preoccupation with Periclean Athens in modern Greece. There is some continuity with Byzantium, or at any rate with the clerical organisation which it left behind. Therefore I would say that there is a certain amount of navel about, but not in every example, and on the whole it's not vital-it's not like the cycles of respiration, blood circulation or food digestion which Adam would have had to have in order to live at the moment of creation. You would have to have a kind of fictitious past and yet that past would also have to be real. This is why I believe that cultural continuity is contingent and inessential.

Where does this leave us? I think the evolutionists are slightly unfair in saying that I am only interested in how nations came about and not in how they behave. Obviously it does matter to predict which nations will assert themselves and, in the case of potential nations, which cultural categories will assert themselves and which will not.

It is inherent to the situation that you cannot make exact predictions-you can only point to certain factors. Size is an obvious one, as very small cultural groups tend to give up. Continuity is another factor, but not an essential one; some diaspora communities have asserted themselves very effectively. Size, continuity, and the existence of symbolism are important-but again, the Estonians created nationalism out of thin air in the course of the 19th century.

The agrarian world was enormously rich in cultural nuance; the modern world has space for only two or three hundred national states. Not all potential nations become real ones-many don't even try. I don't believe you can apply any simple formula for identifying which ones will become real. So we can conclude that the modernists have a greater sense of how nations invent their navels, as opposed to how they inherit them.