Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000

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John A. Hall, ed.
The State of the Nation: Ernest Gellner and the Theory of Nationalism.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 317 pp. $US 19.95 paper (0521633664) $US 59.95 cloth (0521633249)

This review is long overdue. But the relevance of this book has in no way diminished since its publication. Quite the contrary: nationalism is a mounting political and social movement, greatly strengthened over the past year.

The book is a thorough assessment of Gellner’s theory of nationalism and his various writings on the subject throughout his life. It contains twelve papers by scholars of sound reputation, along with an introduction by the editor, John A. Hall. Given the sweeping nature of Gellner’s theory and his dismissive attitude to problems in the defense of that theory, many of the best papers are retrospective critiques. Brendan O’Leary presents a magisterial critique in a fifty page paper. He provides an excellent summary of the theory as a ‘re-worked and non-ideological form of historical materialism’ including a ‘modified Durkheimian account of normative orientations’, leading to the forceful claim that ‘nationalism is the functional equivalent for industrial societies of the world religions of agro-literate polities, and of the animistic cults of pre- agrarian bands, nomads and tribes.’ He proceeds to give a stage by stage account of Gellner’s various writings on nationalism and does his best to provide logical order and an informed defense, conceding modifications where necessary. One crucial instance is with regard to the arguments with Anthony Smith and John Armstrong regarding the existence of ‘nations before nationalism’ and the historically evident role of ethnic consciousness in the formation of several modern nation-states. Here O’Leary concedes the distinction between nationalism as an ideological innovation using and shaping prior ethnic and cultural resources into a distinctive ideology of political legitimacy – rather than an invention of ‘modern’ transformations. His discussion would also be relevant to hasty postulations of ‘invented’ traditions, since the general issue is why some proposed ‘inventions’ take root and others do not. However, O’Leary also concedes that Gellner’s theory suffers from insufficient analysis of the autonomous influence and contingency of political processes and manipulation.

This masterful essay, which every sociologist should read, is followed by several focused critiques. Miroslav Hroch insists on the ‘real’ bases of national identity as against its supposed ‘myth’ status and the modernising processes that separate ethnic identity from national identity. Tom Nairn questions the dependence of national movements on modernisation through analysis of the prevalence of ethnonationalist conflicts in predominantly rural situations. David Laitin examines nationalism and language with the help of rational choice theory in order to suggest that bilingualism and economic success will dampen secessionist tendencies amongst linguistic minorities. The case material is drawn from contrasting situations in the Baltic republics. Mouzelis proposes that Gellner’s work is better assessed as an ‘ideal-type’ indicating ‘elective affinities’ rather than as a variety of functionalist theory. Mark Beissinger further underscores the necessary recognition of contingencies by building upon Gellner’s own observations on the limited success of nations to create nation-states. Chris Hann examines the relations between the new nationalisms and the development of civil society in Central and South-Eastern Europe, noting the regressive features as regards equality and civil social institutions accompanying the current transition to capitalism. Dale Eickelman questions Gellner’s late attempts to consider Islamic movements, and points to the evident separation of state and religion in Islamic history, and thus the ‘secularisable’ possibilities in Muslim societies.

Finally, one must note two very interesting papers by Charles Taylor and Alfred Stepan. Taylor explores the role of modernity in shaping identity and the ‘social imaginary’ and how these intersect with nationalism. He presents a forceful, strong version of the claim that both the political forms and the underlying structure of sentiments are results of modernity – rather than any atavistic rootedness. The struggle for ‘recognition’ is itself a result of realised modernity. Stepan considers the question of reconciling nationalism and democracy in multiethnic states – those in which the ideology of one culture-one state pose a complex issue of assimilation or boundary changes. There is a suggestive discussion of multiple political identities transcending the tension between individual and group rights.

All the papers are of a very high intellectual quality and each merits a review. The book deserves high recommendation. There is one major lacuna, in my view, and that is the issue of the relations between nationalism and non-western civilisations and the unitary and unilineary conception of ‘modernity’ all the contributors seem to employ. Perhaps this is symptomatically expressed in the absence of any contributor resident in a non-Western society.

Pradeep Bandyopadhyay
Department of Sociology
Trent University
January 2000
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