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 Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism: A book critique

 Opinion — Analysis 
  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism: A book critique ‎ 14.3.2012 
By Saeed Kakeyi

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Saed Kakei, Ph.D. Student, Nova Southeastern University’s Department of Conflict Analysis & Resolution – PhD Program Read more by the Author

March 14, 2012

Book reviewed by Saeed Kakeyi


The new edition of Ernest Gellner's "Nations and Nationalism" (2006) is another reprint of the first edition of the book published in 1983, but with a new introduction by John Breuilly who provides valuable insight in an elaborative overview of Gellner and his place in the overall historiography on nationalism. After identifying Gellner’s unique contribution to the growing body of literature on nationalism, Breuilly elegantly critiques Gellner's functionalist yet persuasive arguments on only three erroneous accounts; theoretical, practical and explanatory which I will explain later in this book critique, among other omissions.

Gellner’s “Nations and Nationalism” is a captivating book-length rigour statement in response to Elie Kedourie’s criticism of Gellner’s two decades earlier book entitled “Thought and Change” (1964). Unlike the latter book, Nations and Nationalism is very well received by political scientists who study nationalism. The reader is typically mesmerized by Gellner's crystalline novel like style enriched by examining sequences of causations.

Summary of Nations and Nationalism

From the onset of his book, Gellner provides an abstract definition of Nationalism as “primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent” (p. 1). He then asserts that “nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones, and, in particular, that ethnic boundaries within a given state ... should not separate the power-holders from the rest” (p. 1). Gellner maintains the thesis of his book by arguing that nationalism is a powerful sentiment that holds a key component of passage from an agrarian community to an industrial society in which the latter requires a politically defined state that can create and enable a belonging, knowledgeable and appreciated culture. The discourse in which this concept is conveyed has become a rich segment occupying a wide field of philosophy of history.

In chapters 2, 3 and 4, Gellner advances his hard-core modernist interpretation of nationalism by underpinning that the only unprecedented change since the recorded history began has been the transition from agrarian to industrial society. According to Gellner, this extraordinary transition has holistically transformed society’s basic social relations to its overall political structure based on the goodness of industrialisation. Like most modernist scholars, Gellner pays specific attention to human quest for knowledge; and, as knowledge peaks, he believes that it will be standardized as “high culture” and persistently becomes the most essential requirement of industrialism. Inaccurately, however, Gellner thinks that only nation-state has the legitimate authority and the ability to indoctrinate and maintain qualities of high culture on an uprooted agrarian labour force. In furthering this argument, he asserts

that modern industrial society is based on constant cognitive and complex economic progress. Gellner reasons that because of the division of labour in modern industrial society is more complex and constantly evolving, and requires open, precise, and context-free communication between members of society, the high culture development requires a nationally homogeneous society.

In chapters 5 and 6, Gellner focuses on the importance of “will and culture” for the construction of a theory of nationality. In so doing, he advances on his well-known description of fissiparous “Eastern nationalism” in which the Empire of Megalomania’s top-down homogenization incites the reaction of the excluded ethnic minority to protect its own will and culture. Yet, if this minority group needs to be transformed into a high culture, then it has to have a legitimate political authority. Therefore, the creation of a tiny, but glorious state of “Ruritania” becomes the perfect nationalist objective.

In chapter 7, Gellner tackles various typologies of nationalism as his core functionalist thesis. In it, he rejects four of the highly contested theories of nationalism. First, in concert with Kedourie, he argues that the nationalist theory which is claimed to be a “natural and self-evident and self-generating” is false (p. 129), because 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” (p. 126). Second, this time disputes Kedourie’s theory by describing it as “an artificial consequence of ideas which did not need ever to be formulated,
www.ekurd.net and appeared by a regrettable accident” which politics in industrial societies could ignore it (p. 129), Gellner maintains that nationalism is a key component for any modern nation-state. Third, he ridicules Marxism’s “Wrong Address Theory” which claims that “the awakening message [of nationalism] was intended for classes, but by some terrible postal error was delivered to nations” (p.129). In this regard, Gellner argues that the theory of social conflict predicts conflict to occur “where ‘ethnic’ (cultural or other diacritical marks) are visible and accentuate the differences in educational access and power, and, above all, when they inhibit the free flow of personnel across the loose lines of social stratification” (p. 96). Last, Gellner dismisses the “Dark Gods” theoretical claim that “nationalism is the re-emergence of the atavistic forces of blood or territory” on the bases that these dark forces are “neither nicer nor nastier” than the pre-nationalism ones (p. 130).

In chapter 8, Gellner speculates that when an industrial society is alleviated and stabilized, nationalism will be modified in one way or the other (pp. 108-109). Then, he goes on to assume that an increase in international freedom and the shared limitations of industrial society may reduce the sharpness of international conflicts (p. 116).

Finally, in chapter 9, Gellner refutes Kedourie’s erroneous claims that Immanuel Kant had ideologically played a significant role in the development of nationalism; therefore, he was the source of all evil. For that, Gellner states that “Kant is the very last person whose vision could be credited with having contributed to nationalism” (p. 132). In fact, he defends Kant maintaining that there is no relationship, other than a verbal one, between “individual” self-determination and “national” self-determination, and that Kant was “a very model for that allegedly bloodless, cosmopolitan, emaciated ethic of the Enlightenment, which romantic nationalists spurned and detested so much, and which they so joyously repudiated in favour of a more earthy, shamelessly specific and partial commitment to kin or territory or culture” (p. 133).

Critical Review of Nations and Nationalism

As provided in the summary section of this paper, Gellner considers nationalism as a political principle which, if not violated, ultimately leads toward the creation of sovereign nation-state. This implication that nationalism is by definition geared toward the formation of independent nation-state is also advocated by Eric Hobsbawm who writes that the nation “is a social entity only insofar as it relates to a certain kind of modern territorial state, the nation-state, and it is pointless to discuss nation and nationalism except insofar as both relate to it” (1990, p. 9-10). Working with Weber’s definition of the state, as that unit within society that retains the control of legitimate violence, Gellner asserts that a state only exist where there is division of labour, and the state “is that institution or set of institutions specifically concerned with the enforcement of order (whatever else they may also be concerned with)” (p. 4).
There are several issues with Gellner’s definition of nationalism. First of all, we all know that nationalism, as a political phenomenon, has been defined many ways, including by modernists such as Gellner, Kedourie, Hobsbawm, and others. Yet the most common abstract definition of nationalism holds that it is the political will of a nation–a particular group of peoples descended from common ancestors with common histories and a shared language,–over the distinct lands in which her members belong to and reside. This tells us that there is not a single political unit to hold a coherent and a unitary political will. Gellner knew the true meaning of the term ‘will’. That is why he devoted two chapters of his book to discuss it as mentioned earlier. Despite of that, he chose not to include it in his definition of nationalism. Instead, he used the term ‘principle’ to mislead his readers as he countlessly does, particularly in his meaningless attacks on Marxism and Islam. Both terms; will and principle have different meanings and drastically diverse linguistic, philosophical, and political applications which I do not think there is a need here for details. Political units, especially in the western hemisphere, are made of multiparty systems. Each one of these systems operate based on various political thoughts, ideas, and philosophies held by separate political entities reflecting the division of labour’s diverse needs and interests. Nationalism is one of these various political thoughts, ideas, and philosophies which some political parties are identified with to ascribe their political will and most of the time their national ambitions. Therefore, nationalism is not a political principle. Rather, it is a political will held by a particular political entity as a mean to meet the ends demanded by one or several segments of the division of labour.

Second, for the division of labour to occur, there must be a society with diverse professions to exist on a defined geopolitical unit or state. Such a society could either be homogeneous or heterogeneous. Accordingly, a society’s political state must reflect the characteristics with which its people are identified. In a homogeneous state, patriotism, as a sentiment, plays a crucial role in legitimizing the political authority of the state. Therefore, the state, through its

education policies, will act on developing and maintaining patriotism to legitimize its existence on the one hand, and then evolve it into a nationalist formula as a high quality of its society’s culture, on the other hand. Modern states do this in order to secure a competitive edge in the non-governed international arena. Consequently, they are always prone to interstate conflict. The United States and Israel are two examples of such states. In a heterogeneous state, however, it is nationalism that overwhelms and subdues patriotism. A heterogeneous state is made of different nations with distinct societal characteristics formed on the outputs of their own division of labours. Canada, Belgium, and Spain are perfect examples where their distinct nations have strong nationalist sentiments drastically different from that of the predominant political will of the ‘legitimate’ state. In other words, the political wills of the Québécois in Canada, the Flemish in Belgium, and the Basques in Spain, to name a few, are significantly different from those of their corresponding states. Therefore, although these states rarely involve in international conflicts, they have been defied with internal disintegration attempts.

Third, the most difficulty with Gellner’s definition of nationalism which implies that “stateless societies cannot experience nationalism” (p. 4) is that it runs counter to observed reality. With the end of the Cold War era, ethnically oriented nationalism stepped in to fill the vacuum which Marxism has left behind. Considerable number of nation-states either disintegrated allowing new states to emerge or decentralized. Thus, approving that nationalism is a prior to state and not the other way around as Gellner erroneously assumes.

Gellner extravagantly states that nationalism is typical to modernity. Nevertheless, it has become part of a philosophy of history that differentiates three essential periods in mankind development, “the pre-agrarian, the agrarian, and the industrial” (p. 5). In other words, a considerable re-work of the Marxist historical materialism. Gellner maintains that each of these three periods is associated with characteristic means of production, oppression, and cognitive culture. In the period of industrial society, nationalism is closely associated with the mode of production. It would have made no sense in pre-agrarian societies because they were and still are too small to have a division of labour which requires the establishment of a unified political state. In the agrarian societies, the existence of the state was an option, because they did not need their elites to share a common culture with their peasants. By contrast, during the industrial age, the existence of the state became and still is inevitable. Therefore, nationalism arises as a fundamental aspect of the cultural cohesion in which values and norms of individualism supersede those of collectivism.

By not providing logical grounds for the rising of nationalism, Gellner makes a critical omission. For nationalism to arise, it must go through three critical stages; collective national grievance caused by foreign oppressors, struggle for independence, and consolidation (Minogue, 1967, pp. 25-28). Throughout the recorded history of humans, be them in stateless or statehood societies, foreign rulers have been an affront to human dignity. In the Tigris-Euphrates valley, Sumerian city-states evolved around 3000 B.C. displaying definite signs of the division of labour. As the Semites, probably from the Arabian Peninsula, moved upwards to invade Sumerian city-states such as Akkad and Ur, endless wars broke out lasting well over a thousand years. Foreign invaders such as Alexander the Great, Roman, Byzantine, and the Islamic conquerors had all faced ardent resistance from their oppressed subjects. With the signing of Peace of Westphalia in 1648, recognition for European “sovereign” states became the most appealing demand for the newly emerging independent states. French and German intellectuals, especially German Universalist philosophers like John Herder and Immanuel Fichte had made initial but considerable contributions which led to the emergence of the European nationalism (1967, p. 7). However, Gellner chose not accredit their themes because he knew that his modernist argument would entrap him further.

Gellner provides a simplistic three dimensional typology of “nationalisms” in which he differentiates:

1. Power-holders from the rest.
2. Those who have access to modern high culture from those who have not.
3. A state in which a homogeneous culture shared by all from a state with nonhomogeneous culture (p. 93-4).

Aside from proposing eight possibilities in which nationalism will be stimulated by four circumstances and thwarted by four other circumstances, the typology implies four nationalism-engendering situations limited to nationalist conflicts within states:

1. Satisfied nationalism, characteristic of mature homogeneous industrial societies in which no internal nationalist conflicts and problems are expected.

2. Classical liberal nationalism, characteristic of territories in which some have power and others do not. This difference correlates with cultural differences which historically correspond to the nineteenth-century ‘unification nationalisms’ between Italy and Germany.

3. Ethnic nationalism, characteristic of territories in which power-holders have privileged access to the central high culture, while the powerless are sunk in low cultures. The small intelligentsias of the powerless will lead efforts to transfer their low culture into a high culture.

4. Diaspora nationalism arises in societies in passage from high agrarian culture to high industrial culture. These groups are economically better equipped for modernization but lack political and military power. However, because of their ethnic distinctiveness, they are likely to face genocidal assaults or mass expulsions due to scarce resources within a modernizing state (pp. 97-109).

It appears that this typology is based on a theory of cultural conflict rather than of political nationalism. Conflict is predicted to occur “where ‘ethnic’ (cultural or other diacritical marks) are visible and accentuate the differences in educational access and power, and, above all, when they inhibit the free flow of personnel across the loose lines of social stratification” (p. 96). As provided, Gellner offers very little explanation about nationalist oriented interstate conflicts. Also, he does not clarify how classical liberal nationalism arises from the intrastate conflicts which occur between the educated power-holders of

one high culture and the educated non-power-holders of another high culture, while ethnic nationalism arises from a conflict between the educated power-holders of one high culture and the uneducated non-power-holders of a low culture.

Additionally, this typology neither has a persistent logic of political doctrine to shape social life, nor does it offer a politically sensitive explanation on the possibility of reducing nationalist secessionism. This lack of political hold is due to Gellner’s deliberate choice of ignoring the role of power-politics in explaining which cultures become nations. Although he sees the connections between nationalism and egalitarianism in modern societies as he demonstrates in his hypothetical discussion on the nature of “Eastern nationalism”, he did not see, however, the equally supporting relationships between nationalism, egalitarianism and democratization. If any, this validates his already exposed dislike of nationalist doctrines.

What is important to be highlighted here is the fact that at the core of his definition of nationalism, Gellner asserts that nations ought to be ruled by co-nationals. Though liberal nationalists insist on this to be the case, however, they reiterate that this must be done with unequivocal consensus of the co-nationals.

Gellner did not hesitate to tell his readers that nationalism is not worth examining because it represents a mixture of myths, human superstition, and false consciousness (p. 129). The suggestion that nationalism cannot tolerate ethnic, racial or religious differences is refuted by the existence of multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious nations. Yet because Gellner asserts that the essence of nationalism is to “attain that close relation between state and culture,” he preludes it with the charges of “population exchanges or expulsions, more or less forcible assimilation, and sometimes liquidation” (p. 101). By far, this is the most deficient sign of his understanding of the variety of political methods available to modern political systems.


Gellner’s arguments about the discretionary attraction between modernity and nationalism are conceivable. Nations and nationalism have not been perpetual features of human history. Nations emerge and disappear based on the scale of their division of labour. Nationalism is an ideology of mobilization closely associated with the political will of the state-actors and the marginalized non-state-actors.

The critiques provided in this paper on Gellner’s “Nations and Nationalism” book are simply essential examinations. His obvious functionalist argument is problematic, as is the prevalence he gives to industrialization in discussing the origins and development of nationalism. Gellner’s typology of nationalisms is defectively defined and has a modern political deficiency. His reliance on reductionist interpretations of political motivation could have stemmed from his deep disenchantment with the range of established democratic institutions in the Cold War era. Otherwise, he would have not failed to treat nationalism as a political doctrine on the one hand, and, as he was a liberal social democrat, he would have seen the interdependencies between modern nationalism and the democratization which endures, especially in this rapidly globalized age.


Gellner, E. (2006). Nations and nationalism (2nd ed.), Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Hobsbawm, E. J. (1990). Nations and nationalism since 1780: Programme, myth, reality (2nd
ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Minogue, K. R. (1967). Nationalism. London: University Paperbacks.

Saeed Kakeyi, Ph.D. Student, Nova Southeastern University’s Department of Conflict Analysis & Resolution – PhD Program,
a longtime contributing writer and columnist for ekurd.net

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  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


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