March 31, 2010

Some thoughts on Ernest Gellner’s _Nations and Nationalism_

I like the book. My wife told me that I tore it up. Nationalism is something that has interested me recently, especially as I see it as a major stumbling-block in improving the course of mankind in the world. Nations and flags are something you hold onto instead of opening up your arms and hands to the idea of a better world. That said, I have read little in the subject, the most pertinent being Hobsbawm’s essays in the collection _The Invention of Tradition_. I am just opening up the hermeneutic circle in hopes of someday closing it.

I do have several critiques of the book, and many of them are answered or at least brought up in the introduction to this addition. The primary critique is that the book is overly generalized. To illustrate his concept of nationalism only arising after industrialization, Gellner uses a hypothetical country to make his point. While I understand he is trying to construct a general model of nationalism, his experiences and theories naturally have to be based off of real situations to be a working model. All nations and nationalistic movements will differ in specifics from the model he creates. Does this show the strength of his model, or its weaknesses.

A secondary critique is that the models he uses are entirely too Eurocentric. The book could be titled _European Nations and Nationalism_ quite easily. The post-colonial struggles for a definition of nationalistic identity all over the formerly colonized worlds are give short shrift, and I think this is because they do not fit as easily into the model he argues for in this book. The idea that the European culture imposed on the developing world is too strong to be subverted by one of the native folk cultures seems to me rather patronizing in a cultural aspect. That many of the colonial borders still exists should be reason to reexamine the model, not look for reasons why the cultures do not fit the model working in it.

A final, more personal critique is Gellner’s dismissal of the Marxist view of history. While the Marxist view can be open to some of the critiques I have against Gellner, I feel that the burden lies to Gellner to show more particularly how his model is superior to one that has been studied and refined through academic discourse over the past century and a half. I recognize that this book is long in print, so I am sure some Marxist historian has taken up Gellner and his glib dismissal of the Marxist system. I respect the cultural model drawn by Gellner, but I doubt the prevalence of the influence on a large scale of the socio-linguistic system he uses as the center of his theory. To me, class still seems like a larger division, even if Gellner disagrees. I still find this work interesting and illuminating, so I will not dismiss it despite my critiques. I have to read more on the subject