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Nations and Nationalism 20 (1), 2014, 18–36.
DOI: 10.1111/nana.12029

Gellner redux?
Department of Political Science, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

ABSTRACT. The work of Ernest Gellner continues to be an influential part of
nationalism studies. A recent appraisal has raised questions about the argument that
Gellner offered in his central text on nationalism, Nations and Nationalism. This article
takes up other issues in Gellner’s work on nationalism. The article examines Gellner’s
influential definition of nationalism and the interpretation that he placed on that
definition, as well as his treatment of ‘political cohabitation’. It also pays more attention to Gellner’s later work, namely, Gellner’s discussion of ‘the time zones of nationalism’. The paper draws on secondary literature but its primary purpose is to assess the
coherence of Gellner’s arguments.
KEYWORDS: Ernest Gellner, industrial society, political cohabitation, political
domination, political legitimation

Meadwell (2012) has argued recently that the central claim of Nations and
Nationalism [NN] (Gellner 2006 [1983]) – that nationalism is necessary for
industrial society – fails. The failure is significant, given the importance of the
book in nationalism studies. The critical examination of this classic text continues in this article. There are other problems that, in this instance, stem from
ambiguities in the definition of nationalism, first of all, and then from the
disconnection between the definition of nationalism and the theory of nationalism that is on offer.
The article is built on a close reading of key passages in Gellner’s central
text on nationalism. The article also takes into account work by Gellner on
nationalism after NN, notably, his argument about the ‘time zones’ of nationalism that is set out in Encounters with Nationalism (1994) and Nationalism
(1997). Nonetheless, the primary focus is on this text, Nations and Nationalism,
which is one of the most powerful arguments in the field of nationalism studies.
Of his later work, it is my view that the most important addition is Plough,
Sword and Book [PSB] (Gellner 1988). However, discussion of his arguments in
this source, and their implications for his argument about nationalism, are left
for another occasion. His later work on nationalism is not of the same ambition of either NN or PSB, and it is my position that it does not noticeably
advance his arguments in NN or PSB.1
I anticipate the main lines of my argument before proceeding. First, I argue
that reading NN closely shows that, for Gellner, only the politically dominated
© The author(s) 2013. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013

As he continues in this passage. Impartiality. Third. in support of my reading of Gellner. which is said to make a situation of political cohabitation illegitimate. rather than the non-congruence of state and nation. there is social and political tension. hence nationalism as a modality of political rule and. in fact. a theory of justice. Gellner sets up the issues in a particular way by arguing that there is one particular violation of this principle to which nationalist sentiment is quite especially sensitive: when ‘the rulers of the political unit belong to a nation other than that of the majority of the ruled . finally. The purpose of this section is to reveal this inconsistency. this. has explicitly identified this restriction on the nature and range of nationalism that characterises NN. Gellner’s discussion (of what I call ‘political cohabitation’) shows that nationalism is in fact not a principle strictly speaking. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 .2 Second. in his own discussion. I take up the formal definition first and then turn to his interpretation. they all follow from Gellner’s treatment of his own definition of nationalism. despite the way NN opens. The definition is quickly followed by an interpretation of this definition. nor is nationalism self-legitimating. We might continue © The author(s) 2013. trades on an unacknowledged assumption that different nationals sharing a political roof also share an ethic of impartiality or. no one. The analytics of the argument in NN The book opens with his famous definition of nationalism as a political principle that holds that the national and the political should be congruent (2006 [1983]: 1). It is important to see what this restriction tends to rule out: nationalism in the political centres of social formations. constitutes a quite outstandingly intolerable breach of political propriety’ (2006 [1983]: 1). In the concluding section. I explore some of the implications of my arguments. Moreover. . they are not really fully recognised in the secondary literature. This is consistent with the definition. in my view. nationalism as fusion (or assimilation). for nationalists. is the principle at work when he speaks of political cohabitation. I argue. . Definition and interpretation are inconsistent: the definition implies things that the interpretation cannot support. I introduce a brief contrast with the arguments of Benedict Anderson (1991 [1983]). with a definition of nationalism as a principle of political legitimacy. That is to say. While there is a wide range of criticism of Gellner along the lines that his arguments about nationalism are apolitical. The formal definition of nationalism As long as the national and the political are not reconciled. the putative principle of the congruence of nation and state. These are surprising limitations to put on the expression of nationalism but.Gellner redux? 19 experience nationalism. even more fully.

’ (O’Leary 2001: 275. as Gellner argues later in the book. either way. but how he proceeded theoretically to set up his definition of nationalism. It does not matter which of these two formally secedes. . but. Indeed I could agree that. we are left with two separate nations who no longer share a political roof. It is beside the point whether Gellner did recognise or would have recognised the historical importance of assimilation. © The author(s) 2013. London or Oxford. the ‘nationalist imperative of the congruence of the political unit and culture will continue to apply’ (NN: 115–117). . even if fusion is formally consistent with the definition. I will show it more directly shortly but it needs to be said now: Gellner’s interpretation of his own definition does not allow for assimilation or fusion. This is so because under the condition of two independence-worthy nations. what we should expect is not the possible absorption of one by the other via fusion. or what he experienced.3 Then notice that this argument about ‘cohabitation’ does not rule out a process of fusion but neither is it fully allowed. if we follow the formal definition: fusion or fission.20 Hudson Meadwell in this way: the long-run tendency in international society is towards a tension-reducing equilibrium in which the national and the political are congruent. fusion is not a full possibility. whether in Prague. Gellner never came to grips with the first of these choices – homogenisation by assimilation. Parenthetical material added. This is one illustration of the larger problem of inconsistency that plagues these elements of his argument. this kind of argument gives too much weight to fusion in Gellner’s argument. there are two basic processes by which equilibrium might be reached. Nevertheless. Congruence has not been met. and nationalist secessionism which produces another nationalist homogenization . Nonetheless. The ‘choice’ available to nations is even simpler in the case of two independence-worthy nations – it is either separation or continued cohabitation. However. it is not the case that this important passage in NN supports the claim that there is in Gellner’s work a ‘simple choice between nationalist homogenization through assimilation [much like what I am calling fusion]. Gellner knew about assimilation and exclusion. He admits that the sharpness of nationalist conflict produced in these types of societies may be less under late industrialisation than under early industrialisation. Thus. since the odds of successful resistance to incorporation should go up with independence-worthiness but instead secession by one of the two nations. It is an understandable mistake to make. Thus. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . Gellner does qualify this argument. and then to interpret it. even in this important extension of the basic definition. But what counts here is not what he knew or thought generally. as a Czech of Jewish background. 1998: 63–64). And thus it is not surprising if it is difficult to imagine. given the definition. two large politically viable independence-worthy cultures cohabiting under a single political roof (NN: 114). The long-run equilibrium state of modern international society is one in which state and nation is congruent.

however. beyond the gesture in the direction of political viability (independenceworthiness). a nationalism of the ‘center’. sorting the worthy from the unworthy so that (a) the independenceunworthy either fail because they are not viable and are then absorbed by a larger political unit or are absorbed immediately into a larger political whole before they fail on their own. and their legitimate fate is to be integrated into larger political units. 1997. Thus. National cultures that are not politically viable are not independence-worthy. it might be argued that there is in the text an implicit criterion by which to determine. we would observe a relatively small number of larger states. Independence-worthy national cultures are nations that would be politically viable as independent political units. the problem I have raised is no problem at all. 1998) never really rectifies the problems with the argument in NN. including even that short-run situation in which nations and states have not yet been made congruent. Each reduces the tension produced by the non-congruence of state and nation. If fission dominates. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . since this extrapolation implies a nationalism of the political centre by which national cultures that are not viable become integrated and assimilated. and so that (b) the independence-worthy control states of their own. Nonetheless. Otherwise. Any state of the world is made formally consistent with the argument. we can continue tracing out the formal implications of the definition and note that. These processes issue in international societies of the same sort. effectively. There is another response available here which is at first glance more compelling because it tries to turn what might be seen as a weakness into strength: these processes – fusion and fission – are formally equivalent. at least a rather wide range. although it remains rather formal.4 Industrial civilisation is consistent with. Yet it is hard to see how industrial civilisation selects for independence-worthy nations. I will show shortly. I comment on some of this later work shortly. in a general way. Later work by Gellner (1994. at least when it is an issue of dealing with those national cultures that are not independence-worthy. this means they must have the capacity to support the costs of providing standardised education for their members. For Gellner. if not any number of states. this is indeed a criterion. However. given Gellner’s interpretation of his definition of nationalism. The independence-worthy must become independent and the unworthy must be absorbed. Nevertheless. The argument implies an anonymous process of sorting by which independence-worthy cultures become states and independence-unworthy cultures are absorbed into larger units. that this fairly straightforward extrapolation is not really allowed. There is no way to tell in Gellner’s argument which of these processes will dominate. no matter the number of states that compose these two different steady-states. tension persists.Gellner redux? 21 The interpretation that follows the definition does not rule in what the definition allows and that is. when fusion will dominate fission. if fusion dominates. I am sympathetic to this argument because Gellner should not be held to too fine-grained © The author(s) 2013. we would observe a relatively large number of smaller states.

There is. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . Recall that there is one particular violation of this principle to which nationalist sentiment is sensitive: when ‘the rulers of the political unit belong to a nation other than that of the majority of the ruled . Nationalism can have social force. we cannot predict just which cultures. A sense of ‘political impropriety’ is limited to the experience of being dominated. if and when congruence characterises the relationship between state and nation. with which political roofs. a further problem that arises before we turn below to his interpretation of his definition. . there is no longer either nationalist sentiment (since this sentiment is aroused only when the political principle is violated) or nationalist movements (since the latter are actuated by this kind of sentiment) (NN: 1). . for nationalists. The definition of nationalism implies that.22 Hudson Meadwell an argument about the number and size of nation-states that international society can support in equilibrium. Yet the extension of this definition to the apparently general case of independence-worthy nations sharing political institutions implies only the possibility of fission. On its face. introduced earlier. or by the local domination of an alien group’ [Emphasis added]. The way that nation and state is to be made congruent in this canonical situation is through the © The author(s) 2013. however. this suggests a very truncated sense of the social effects of nationalism. even if we do not hold Gellner to the fine-grained details about size. Fusion or incorporation is not very likely. even when nation and state are congruent. Gellner is clear: ‘. At this hypothetical point. nationalism ‘ends’. this. . The distribution of power implied by joint political viability suggests that any political equilibrium that defines relations between these nations will fall short of full incorporation. . will be blessed with success’ (Gellner 2006 [1983]: 45). I agree with Gellner that this is a difficult exercise. Important parts are not analytically connected. Interpreting the definition But let me now turn to the canonical situation that Gellner used to interpret his definition. is the incoherence of his argument. What should be recognised. This means that there is no clear and coherent argument in NN about the carrying capacity of international society. as well. This passage shows how Gellner’s interpretation of his definition implicitly restricts its application. and begin to consider how this interpretation limits the application of his definition. Gellner sets things up here at the outset in order to associate nationalism with political domination. The definition of nationalism implies that both fusion and fission are possible responses to the tension associated with non-congruence of political unit and nation. number and identity of nation-states. constitutes a quite outstandingly intolerable breach of political propriety’ (2006 [1983]: 1. Now I add the sentence that immediately follows in the text: ‘This can occur either through the incorporation of the national territory in a larger empire. Emphasis added). so to speak.5 We should not rule out these possible consequences simply by definitional fiat.

Consider a thought experiment framed by this question: is this minority nation independence-worthy? Suppose this minority nation is not large enough to be independently viable. By the way this canonical situation is constructed. But. is thus troubling. it is not the experience of assimilation or incorporation into the norms. for current purposes. the minority nation seeks to consolidate its rule via a programme of nation-building within the boundaries of the state it controls. Nationalist counter-mobilisation in the periphery is ruled out in the way that the situation is constructed. and then nationalist sentiment.Gellner redux? 23 majority nation throwing off its shackles of political domination. The ‘national’ territory is the territory of the majority nation. There is no question or possibility of nationalism among the dominators even if. controls the state.6 Gellner’s canonical setup must mean that the ruling nation. as a kind of nationalist counter-mobilisation in the periphery. It is the first expression of nationalism. and nationalism is available only to the dominated. it must be alien rule plain and simple that motivates nationalism among the dominated. The upshot of my discussion. By hypothesis. in the canonical situation. a minority. They are the potential nationalists. It cannot be like this. Nationalism in the periphery is pristine. namely that nationalism is only available to the dominated. In other words. Thus. the minority nation controls the state. His discussion here commits him to the position that the dominators are a nation when he states that the rulers of the political unit belong to a nation other than that of the majority of the ruled yet they can never be nationalists because they are not dominated. by construction. as an exercise in state-rationalisation that consolidates the political control of rents and revenue streams. simply because nationalism is not allowed to be a modality or instrument of domination or rule. this in turn implies the transformation of a © The author(s) 2013. the nationalism of the dominated is not triggered by nationalism of the political centre or of the minority ruling nation. This is a striking limit to place on nationalism. the minority nation is not independenceworthy. in these circumstances. But it is the clear consequence of reading this last passage since. the dominators constitute a nation. In effect. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . It is certainly not a stretch of political imagination to imagine a situation in which. which is living under alien rule (domination). Nationalism thus is ruled out as a modality or instrument of political rule. in it. Notice as well that it is alien domination alone that motivates nationalist sentiment among the dominated. expulsion or killing in the name of the nation. he is referring to the experiences of the majority nation – the dominated nation. alien rulers have not penetrated society and. That is. We could think of this. they are not allowed to pursue policies of assimilation. customs and language of the dominant nation that triggers the experience of impropriety. still. This would be nationalism. and then by implication its viability depends on what its continued political domination of the majority provides through rents of various kinds. Only the dominated experience nationalism.

that nationalism emerges in the majority nation however they are ruled by the politically dominant minority nation. Yet it might be that it is nationalism at the centre of political authority that provokes the sentiment of ‘political impropriety’ in the subordinated majority nation. if we endow the state in question with infrastructural power. in effect in the periphery. Nationalism is the experience only of the dominated and nationalism frees one from alien domination. about despotism. then nationalism might begin in the ‘core’ as a project of making congruent the minority nation and state boundaries. and this is not equivalent to a definition of nationalism as the political principle that the national and the political should be congruent. at least if you read carefully how he interprets his definition of nationalism for us. Now we can see that this sentiment of impropriety is not only not all of what nationalism is or can be. It continues to set aside the possibility of nationalism as a modality of political rule. Perhaps all that is meant in the way in which Gellner develops his definition of nationalism is that alien rule. a state without significant or with limited infrastructural capacity. And then it is a question. roughly speaking. this is still an interpretation of nationalism that associates the social and political tension produced by nationalism with political domination or inferiority. It should not matter if the dominated nation is a majority © The author(s) 2013. when rulers and ruled are drawn from different nations and the minority rules. This is the commitment implied by his discussion. let alone nationalist. Furthermore. which I acknowledge might address some of these issues.7 But then this is to imply. indeed this type of nationalism. Yet Gellner argues the latter. But this is exactly what Gellner’s interpretation of his definition of nationalism rules out. why it matters that the dominated nation is a majority.24 Hudson Meadwell despotic into an infrastructural state in the process of rationalisation and consolidation. that nationalism in the majority-dominated nation arises simply in the presence of despotism. is enough to produce nationalist sentiment within the majority nation. this is a much narrower interpretation of nationalism than is warranted by the definition of nationalism. Even after conceding some ground here as I have done. and thus nationalism is not associated in its very first beginnings with a sentiment of political impropriety among those in the majority nation ruled by a minority nation. and this alone. given the way the definition of nationalism is developed by Gellner. But then this is to say. Let me consider a possible counter-argument to my line of argument here. is quite possibly ‘second order’ rather than ‘first order’ nationalism. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . Then this is to say that there can be a nationalism of the ‘center’ or ‘core’ of the political unit. Gellner’s restriction on the application of his definition implies a despotic state controlled by a nation that sits atop its territory without effectively penetrating it. And in continuing to consider this possible rejoinder. we might also ask. Yet there is clearly nothing intrinsically national. of whether the power of numbers in the dominated majority nation is enough to challenge minority control of the state. Strictly speaking. if it is alien rule pure and simple that counts.

Notice. This might provoke. 1870. in Gans’s (2004) terms.Gellner redux? 25 nation or a minority nation. second-order nationalism. if it is alien rule alone that produces the sentiment of political impropriety in the dominated nation. that in his discussion of political cohabitation. roughly. Something like this might be read out of Gellner’s formal definition of nationalism. Stepan 1998) that in Gellner. They can implement democratic control. In his discussion of a typology of nationalisms. Gellner (NN: 95) really means ‘unification nationalism’ (Germany and Italy). first of all. And again this would become nationalism in the political centre or core. again. in turn. a statist nationalism and a cultural nationalism or in O’Leary’s terms. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . 1998) and others (e. as the majority nation democratically takes over control of regime and state. we see that Gellner distinguishes two kinds of nationalism. nationalism is necessary for industrial society. for example. It is possible to think. In particular. in his own discussion of his definition. There are other ways in which we can examine these difficulties in NN. The book opens with an apparently general formal definition of nationalism that is then immediately modified but without acknowledgement. may be meant to imply that the nation is politically viable and legitimately can challenge domination in a way that the ‘independence-unworthy’ cannot). why are © The author(s) 2013. In fact. But when we look closely we see. What is presented as a general argument about nationalism turns out to be implicitly limited. and perhaps even more revealing. as does O’Leary (2001: 275. Gellner rules out statist nationalism that would proceed via the political instruments of killing (‘cleansing’) or expulsion or assimilation. by virtue of their majority status. His setup presupposes the absence of democracy. Gans 2004. what his discussion entails: there is no nationalism before. But by the latter. the dominated nation can escape domination politically. if it is majority status that yields the sense of impropriety. however. initially. Indeed. Otherwise. it will raise questions about his theory of nationalism: If. Although this is a less damaging problem. it should be noted. (Majority status. and then proceed with nation building so as to make nation and state ‘congruent’ by absorbing/assimilating the minority nation. and this is how Gellner proceeded to interpret his definition of nationalism after introducing the definition. as Gellner insisted. the introduction of ‘numbers’ in this implied difference between majority and minority suggests that political power commensurate with numbers might satisfy nationalists and that is not the same as arguing that nationalism is the search for congruence between the national and the political. This should prompt recognition of another feature of Gellner’s interpretation and application of his definition – what I been calling his canonical case. we see a simple bifurcation between.g.8 They are ‘Habsburg’ nationalism and ‘classical Western liberal nationalism’ (NN: 91ff). Second. between homogenisation via assimilation and homogenisation via secession. This is striking. there is really no place for homogenisation via assimilation. then it is not alien rule plain and simple that produces the sense that the nationalist political principle has been violated. minority nationalism but this is.

‘nationalism had its political shells and cultural filling pre-fabricated. In this instance. ‘. this argument works better for Italian unification than for German unification. ready and waiting’ (1998: 29]). Here. It is odd to see. the two basic ways in which nation and states can be made congruent according to the formal definition. the Czech awakening. by this stage of the argument in NN. who take into account his personal biography. which corresponded. It is notable that this later discussion never really picks up the specificity © The author(s) 2013. only one kind of nationalism and such a historically limited nationalism at that. What remains is the earlier interest in nationalism in the peripheries of social formations. We can see a glimmer in fact in NN and then trace out how this gesture is amplified later. in a book presented as a general argument about nationalism. This is too easily turned on its head. rules out nationalism as an instrument of political rule by way of treating nationalism as a response to (alien) political rule. 1994: 29–31) and then again in his posthumously published book on Malinowski and Wittgenstein (Gellner 1998). . One striking feature of these nationalisms is that they do not map on to homogenisation via fusion/assimilation and homogenisation via fission/ secession. in or around the edges of the Habsburg empire? We should also add that. as eventually happened on Europe’s Western seaboard’ (NN: 39. These two types are in fact one.10 This passing comment is later expanded in his discussion of the ‘time zones of nationalism’ (Gellner 1997: 50–8. In this last book. Some of the commentators on Gellner on nationalism. by accident. Both unification and Habsburg nationalism are motivated by people who have been violated in the same way. and indeed all of NN. . which in turn was influenced by Gellner’s work in North Africa. with a language and a culture. more or less. Political propriety has been breached because they are ruled by aliens. . Nationalism is the response of the politically dominated.26 Hudson Meadwell the first expressions of nationalism occurring only in the late nineteenth century and why here. only very occasionally. the linkage back to the earlier work on nationalism (Gellner 1964). ‘[T]he social organization of agrarian society is not at all favourable to the nationalist principle . seem to see this typology. effectively for both types.9 are reactions to alien political rule. expressed in different forms.’ He then continues. we look at arguments that come after NN. as a simple projection of his life history (Snyder 2011). but at heart the Risorgimento and. among other things. say. he returns to the comment in NN: along the Western Atlantic coast it ‘just so happened’ that there was a series of strong dynastic states. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . now reworked in NN as the story about ‘Ruritania’ (Meadwell 2012: 576). Admittedly. The next feature is more surprising: these different kinds of nationalism are actually of a type – the only type Gellner recognises – expressed in different forms. Here is another way to examine the difficulties in NN. where Gellner seems to become aware of the oddity of a theory of nationalism that. has atrophied. material in parentheses added). it (agrarian social organization) produced a dynastic state. .

But then this is to invert the putative relationship between nations and industrial society. at a minimum. and it is motivated by the experience of domination. although never directly. When nationalism appears. When nationalism does enter ‘stage right’ in these states (and to concede the existence of something like proto-nations is to grant that nationalism in all likelihood will follow). The time zones begin in the dynastic states of Europe and move eastward towards Eurasia. This is an argument on which he insists throughout NN. It is true that there are important issues here (see. that there were agrarian societies that were. and again in 1978. the formal and official definition of nationalism is not doing the work in NN. his reluctance to acknowledge the existence of proto-nations on the ‘Western seaboard’ is understandable. but of the periphery. once amplified in particular. as does his claim that the existence of proto-nations was an ‘accident’. This takes some of the sting out of the concession. Kissane and Sitter 2010). however. nationalism is limited to the experience of the politically dominated in the peripheries of social formations. which he earlier made in Thought and Change (Gellner 1964: 168). is equivalent to conceding. By virtue of the interpretation he places on his own definition of nationalism. It is the other way round’ (Gellner 1979 [1978]: 271).14 To conclude this section. (and nationalism does appear) it will be the wrong kind of nationalism by which to legitimate these states. Breuilly 2005a.13 Nationalism is left ‘waiting’ off-stage for the opportune moment to appear. in these agrarian dynastic states without allowing for the presence of nationalism. 2005b). Gellner’s language here suggests that he will concede the existence of proto-nations. and culminate in the formation and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union (cf. What is doing the work is clearly the limit put on the definition of nationalism by Gellner: only the dominated experience © The author(s) 2013. one might conjecture. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . His argument that nationalism precedes nation is also violated by this concession. Thus. Nevertheless. it cannot be the nationalism of NN because the nationalism of NN is not nationalism of the centre. it cannot be a coincidence that the one part of the agrarian world that yielded proto-nations is also the site of exit from Agraria. Surely. Why? The nationalism that might legitimate a European dynastic state cannot be the nationalism of which Gellner writes in NN.11 The historical time implied by the time zones of nationalism turns out to be European time. Llobera (2001: 190) is on the right track when he argues that Gellner cannot conceive of nationalism as a principle that could legitimate agrarian state monarchies in Western Europe.12 But the cryptic remark about dynastic states. ‘Nationalism is not to be explained by the alleged existence of “nations”. or perhaps even national consciousness or nationality. (Gellner 1988: 158–70). Given that Gellner concedes (reluctantly) the existence of proto-nations. proto-nations well before the transition to industrial society and without the impetus of industrial takeoff. it is then not a stretch to propose that protonations should be added to his long list of ‘candidate explanations’ for the ‘miracle’ of the exit from Agraria in northwestern Europe. in particular.Gellner redux? 27 of Gellner’s North African experience.

But consider this issue: a principle of political legitimation might draw some of its force from more fundamental principles of legitimacy. © The author(s) 2013. But. it is clear that his discussion should be read as ruling out any form of assimilationist nationalism in the event of two independence-worthy nations. then. and my discussion of this part of the text.15 I do agree that. the importance of impartiality is to acknowledge that the putative principle of nationalist political legitimacy is not doing all of the work of legitimation. But the principle of impartiality cannot be derived from the principle of congruence. There are three difficulties in O’Leary’s claim. It is notable. It is politically illegitimate. And if impartiality is a principle. Instead there must exist here. This looks on its face to be innocuous. The first is best set out with reference. The easiest way to interpret the difficulties of cohabitation is to invoke the force of this principle of political legitimacy: cohabitation is difficult. a theory of justice that can be set out. quite independent of ‘nationalist propriety’ (to paraphrase Gellner’s canonical situation discussed above). the discussion in NN of political cohabitation. because it runs afoul of this principle. it is a shared principle. persons share an ethic of impartiality (and such an ethic likely will also commit them to other principles). Nevertheless. and which has purchase. The disconnection between definition and theory There is often equivocation about Gellner’s main argument in NN. to the question of cohabitation.28 Hudson Meadwell nationalism in response to alien rule. The thrust of the argument of this article is that this equivocation follows from the disconnection between definition and theory. Here is one example: ‘Gellner emphasized that nationalism is the primary principle of political legitimacy of modernity – along with affluence’ (O’Leary 2001: 276). in his discussion of independence-worthiness and cohabitation. supports my position that Gellner’s argument rules out fusion/assimilation. That. as I show below in the next section. does not provide direct supporting evidence for the thesis that it is the limit on the definition that is crucial for his interpretation of cohabitation. and prone to breakdown. Admitting. there is an even more revealing assumption in play. that the problem of cohabitation is construed by Gellner to be a problem of trust. given how the discussion of cohabitation proceeds. even if fusion is consistent with his definition of nationalism. in turn. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . Thus. there is no assumption at work that it is domination that makes cohabitation difficult. in this political setting. but it cannot be sustained as a satisfactory interpretation of Gellner’s argument. even unwittingly. Members of each nation believe that political institutions will not be impartial (NN: 114). On the other hand. This is implied in Gellner’s argument that members of different national cultures do not believe that political institutions will be impartial. The definition is modified by Gellner as soon as he introduces it. in fact. it is not non-congruence or congruence of political unit and nation per se that is at issue. Despite their national divisions.

or will not. on its own. Then the argument that cohabitation is prone to difficulty and breakdown is not really. This result is far more damaging to his overall argument. The existence of a shared ethic of impartiality has certain implications. is only modern when it depends on non-national standards for its justification. should be applied? © The author(s) 2013. about the putative importance of congruence. since such an ethic is redolent of an up-to-date theory of justice or normative account of public justification for political action. and more consistent at the same time. In invoking impartiality in his discussion of cohabitation. how different this normative claim is from the official definition of nationalism as a political principle of legitimation – the principle that nation and political unit should be congruent. Notice. The problem of cohabitation actually shows us that the force of nationalism depends on a claim that the ethic of impartiality should be applied to nations. in the first instance. It is a damaging problem since it shows that Gellner’s interpretation of political cohabitation depends on exactly what Hall (2010: 161) claims that Gellner neither needed to acknowledge nor wanted to acknowledge in the face of difference. notably. One is that in principle an impartial solution exists. we can now see. as long as it is common knowledge among different nationals that they share an ethic of impartiality.16 This would be to say that what makes nationals and nationalism ‘modern’ is how nationalism ‘proper’ – the desirability of congruence between state and nation – is justified. Nationalism. The latter is the counterfactual that counts. Then we can press one step further and ask the question: why should nations be the primary subject matter to which an ethic of impartiality in this instance or. or only. Will politically viable independence-worthy nations still seek a state of their own if it is common knowledge that they share an ethic? That is the real test of the putative power of a nationalist principle of political legitimacy. To say that they cannot. Gellner’s argument would be more faithful to his definition of nationalism if he had not invoked impartiality. Gellner’s discussion of political cohabitation actually works to undermine his own definition of nationalism. if he could show that even under impartiality cohabitation is conflict-ridden. The real test then is not whether or not an impartial solution is in place. however. Nationalism does not generate its own standards of normative judgment. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . the issue is why persons who share principles of justice cannot find a way to live together even if they are not of the same nation. more generally normative political judgments. on this reading. This is the upshot of bringing the value of impartiality into the discussion of political cohabitation.Gellner redux? 29 A shared ethic of impartiality already suggests. an ‘ought’ rather than an ‘is’. and his argument would be more powerful. the force of a shared ethic (in this case) of impartiality. but his definition of nationalism implies that it does. One might even wonder if it is in fact the importance of such an ethic that makes nationals ‘modern’ in the case of cohabitation. This is a kind of normative claim – it is. simply begs the question. Rather. a fair degree of social rationalisation. Gellner has unwittingly revealed that nationalism is not a principle. In other words.

Are they? Gellner’s basic answer. It is not modernity per se that counts for Gellner but industrial society. Nationalism is the fate of the times. The latter is not a consequent of the former). Impartiality cannot guarantee that our nationalist will live in a state of his own. yes nations are primary and fundamental. compactly stated. by his own hypothesis.30 Hudson Meadwell The answer shows that the ‘ought’ here very likely rests ultimately on an ‘is’: nations are a fundamental. industrial society (not ‘modernity’) makes them so. Gellner and Anderson I indicated that there were two other issues arising from the commonplace statement that. The difficulty here is that Gellner has our nationalist appealing to a standard of impartiality even though. O’Leary’s language fits Anderson better than Gellner. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . we have to be careful. Indeed. as a consequence of the fundamental fact of nations. This statement [1] does not effectively distinguish Gellner’s argument about nationalism from other arguments. a kind of incoherence of argument. for now we need to know if nations are primary institutional facts. Yet Gellner and Anderson offer accounts of nationalism that are rivals. Nationalism as political practice then needs no further justification. However. normative political judgments will have nations as their subject matter. NN is not about the elective affinity © The author(s) 2013. and the connection between these two things – nationalism and industrial society – is necessity. The contrast is between a cultural anthropologist interested in cultural systems of meaning and a social anthropologist interested in social structure. and we should bear the fate of the times as he does in NN – like a man. This description of Gellner’s argument could also be used to describe Anderson on nationalism. too. even if they are both modernists. is that. it must be applied in this way. Indeed in some sense. It is modern. nationalism is the primary principle of political legitimacy of modernity. moreover. By the nature of things. in some ways. nor [2] does it pick out the key features of Gellner’s theory of nationalism. It is one thing to say [a] that nations are a basic fact and another to say [b] that nationalism is the desire to make nation and state congruent. a nationalist would never settle for impartiality. when an ethic of impartiality is applied. But this is exactly what Gellner proceeds to do in his discussion of political cohabitation. But then it is a mistake. Nationalism is a principle of legitimacy. this argument does not distinguish Gellner’s position from others writing on nationalism. ‘nations dream of being free’ and the ‘gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state’ (Anderson 1991 [1983]: 7). to have our nationalist appealing to impartiality as justification for his rejection of political cohabitation. As it stands. for Gellner. indeed a kind of primary institutional fact and this is why. it should be applied to nations. the answer to the question above cannot be a resting point. with the proviso that Anderson aligns nationalism with cultural systems of meaning. (Here. I take them up now.

1997) makes to his arguments in NN are ad hoc. but it may turn out to be simply a problem in his argument. Subsequent work by Gellner stands in an ambiguous relationship to his arguments in NN. One is that. there is the first part of the book that sets out changes in cultural systems of meaning in European civilisation in the transition to ‘modernity’ and then. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . [2] As a consequence. The most telling problem is the difficulty Gellner has in NN and in later work in taking on board expressions of nation-ness and nationalism at the political centres of social formations. this claim might work as an interpretation of Anderson. So much of his argument is about changes in cultural systems of meaning in the heartland of Europe that the reader quite naturally expects the first expression of nation-ness to emerge in this heartland. for Anderson earlier in the breakup of the Spanish-American empire. Imagined Communities (IC) seems to have two somewhat unconnected parts. I summarise the basic flaws here and then offer brief concluding observations. Anderson seems to have difficulty imagining nation-ness at the political centre. the further claim that nationalism is modern is not substantiated. [1] Gellner does not make good the claim that nationalism is necessary for industrial society. [7] The adjustments that Gellner (1994. We can now draw two more general conclusions. Gellner unwittingly acknowledges that nationalism is not self-legitimating. [3] Although nationalism is defined as a political principle of legitimacy. ironically. therefore. suddenly. Gellner’s work is actually fundamentally ambiguous about the relationship between nationalism. nationalism is firmly linked to political domination but political domination is never explicitly examined.Gellner redux? 31 between nationalism and modernity (O’Leary 1998: 77) although. as noted for Gellner in the later years of the Habsburg empire. [5] As a consequence. it is the disconnection between one part on the necessity of nationalism and another part on the politicisation of differences in the peripheries of social formations (Meadwell 2012). in his discussion. related conclusion is that his central claim – to have shown that © The author(s) 2013. Both found the first expressions of ‘nation-ness’ (Anderson’s term) in imperial experiences. [6] The further consequence is that Gellner’s two types of nationalism – Habsburg and unification nationalism – turn out in fact to be one type. agrarian society and industrial society. Like Gellner. [4] In NN. when all is said and done. a poorly motivated shift to the dynamics of créole societies in Spanish America. In NN. In IC. Another. Anderson 1991 [1983]: 50) calls this a ‘riddle’. And like NN. not in the peripheries of a blue sea European empire. there is no recognition let alone discussion of the restriction placed on nationalism: nationalism is the experience of the politically dominated. but its central arguments are flawed. There is a further parallel between Gellner and Anderson.17 Conclusion Nations and Nationalism is an influential text in nationalism studies.

He wants this proposition to be true because its truth would vindicate his intellectual position.18 If our contrast is between knowledge and illusion (Hall 2010: 207–43) then the claim must be illusory. ‘You may wish it were not so but. in light of how I have argued NN proceeds and in particular how it concludes (Meadwell 2012: 576–8). that nationalism is necessary for industrial society. bear the fate of the times!’ On the other hand. but one that takes into account Gellner’s sympathy for Humean ‘custom’ and the homely comforts of culture. the specific issues raised in this article have not been fully appreciated. but it would be pedantic and tedious to say them. namely. however. It is not obvious what is left as theory. since Gellner has not been able to show that belief in the truth of the proposition – that nationalism is necessary for industrial society – is justified. As a further suggestion. not to mention his fondness for the Czech folksongs of his youth). I do not attribute to Gellner special powers that immunised him from the possibility of self-deception. Nationalism is necessary for industrial society. which is to say that his influence lies in the realm of inspiration and imagination. Gellner’s influence should be located in ‘contexts of discovery’ rather than ‘contexts of justification’. The recent biography of Gellner by Hall (2010) effectively captures his brilliance. inevitable and unavoidable in our world is deceiving himself. This is what remains after his overriding theoretical claim has been shown to fail. Gellner is intellectually committed to his central proposition about nationalism. once we press on his arguments. I attribute some of that appeal to qualities identified by Hall (2010). indeed should be said. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 .32 Hudson Meadwell nationalism is necessary for industrial society – is illusory. Then there is the question of Gellner’s appeal. please. notably. He confesses in his concluding remarks that there are some things that could be said. A running theme through Hall’s biography is Gellner’s ‘cold intellectual honesty’ (a leading theme. I am somewhat sceptical of this reading of Gellner. or as explanation. Gellner’s theory of nationalism is flawed. He then goes on to rest the necessity of nationalism on our © The author(s) 2013. Hall’s proposal (Hall 2010: 334) that Gellner’s ‘socio-economic account’ of nationalism merely needs to be ‘complemented’ (in Hall’s argument with a political account) therefore seems too vague as to what it is that remains in Gellner’s argument upon which to build. although I read these qualities somewhat differently. I will hazard a conjecture about Gellner’s influence in nationalism studies. Thus. however. Nevertheless. the subtext of NN is the claim that most others are softheaded on nationalism. This is why NN concludes so oddly. and after inconsistencies in his theoretical argument are identified. despite much critical discussion of Gellner. It draws on a distinction made by a philosopher of science (Kaplan 1964). To think anything else is to engage in wishful thinking. what explains the influence of Gellner? The first point is to say that. This itself can invite a form of wishful thinking. Yet Gellner does not show that it is true. In my view. Anyone who thinks that nationalism is not fated. true. the way that Gellner tried to finesse the central proposition of his most important text on nationalism. Given these problems.

Compare. 7 This distinction between despotic and infrastructural power is Mann’s (Mann 1984). 3 I acknowledge that this ignores cleansing and expulsion (but see the discussion below). The context in NN is not the world of segmented. Thus. Notes 1 Indeed. I discuss this typology later in the article. there is certainly some psychological comfort. Mann’s distinction remains useful. do nationalist sentiments and movements not appear? This question is taken up in the next section through a discussion of the implications of an ethic of impartiality in political cohabitation. Dannreuther and Kennedy 2007: 342) as much closer to what Skorupski (1996: 492) called Gellner’s ‘spiritual machismo’. © The author(s) 2013. introduced in PSB. the method of philosophic history. By fusion. fusion and fission. Nonetheless. Hechter’s (2000) discussion of forms of rule and nationalism. when read in light of my discussion of NN. 6 And is it cohabiting with aliens that counts or is it alien domination that counts? As long as intergroup relations are domination free. 2 There are collections and monographs on Gellner (Hall 1998. where they describe mechanisms of conflictregulation through the formation of new polities. constructivism. I am inclined to think that Gellner was neither more honest nor less than most other intellectuals with whom he might have agreed or disagreed. 2010. it implies that nationalism may not be distinctively modern. And it is a short step from accepting his claim to have exposed illusions to see in Gellner a kind of intellectual stoicism by which to live. See as well the discussion of Gellner’s typology of nationalism in O’Leary (1998: 49 and 82n. to be had in his position and I believe that this is part of his appeal: ‘Others labour under misapprehension and illusion.Gellner redux? 33 believing that nationalism is necessary. Gellner presents as a commentator who took on the shibboleths of idealism. does not supply the methodology missing in NN. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . Hall and Jarvie 1996. 4 These terms. The equivalent of fission in this latter world is secession. Yet however much scorn he heaped on ‘hermeneutic comfort blankets’ (Skorupski 1996: 492). and this violates what he set out to show – the belief-independence of the necessity of nationalism (Meadwell 2012: 576). 5 I believe that Breuilly (2006: xxxvi) makes a similar point. I argue that PSB actually works to make some of my arguments stronger because. we do not’. Gellner thus becomes an apparent intellectual antidote to the illusions of the time.35). I mean mainly assimilation – the notion that state and nation are made congruent while holding state borders constant. Lessnoff 2002. capture my main meaning here but they do have some extraneous theoretical background that I should acknowledge. and a sense of superiority. But I see Gellner’s intellectual stoicism (cf. exposing their intellectual immaturity. Furthermore. as well. That is why I invoked earlier the Weberian dictum: ‘Bear the fate of the times like a man’ (Weber 1946 [1918]: 155). stateless societies but rather a world of states. Maleševic´ and Haugaard 2007) as well as a comprehensive discussion of Gellner on nationalism (Breuilly 2006). relativism and postmodernism. Ertman (1998) has reason to disentangle ‘state’ and ‘regime’ characteristics that are intertwined in these types of power. I will continue to use these terms but will point to issues of nomenclature and terminology when needed. They have a somewhat technical meaning in the literature on segmentary societies.

Imagined Communities. Castro-Klarén and Chasteen (2003). see Kadercan (2012). however. (See as well Gellner 1996: 636). these states form around dominated nations. 18 There are places in his later work where Gellner attempts to introduce allowances to this claim but they are cursory. whilst the modern (ie. in opposing a universal religion to a bounded political and cultural construction. There is no discussion. he allows that ‘bureaucratisation’ and ‘Protestant-type religion’ may contribute to nationalism. not nationalism ‘proper’. 1991 [1983]. Nations and Nationalism © ASEN/John Wiley & Sons Ltd 2013 . 10 In fact.) volume on the Reformation. 15 For one place in work after NN. when compared to the attention he pays to the necessity of nationalism for industrial society. see Gellner (1997: 75). Here he contrasts assimilation and nationalism (implying that a nationalist is someone who resists assimilation. B. 14 The best treatment of nationalism and states is Breuilly (1993). Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. In contrast. a normative account of deliberative democracy or Habermas’s ideal speech situation. edn.) London: Verso. in ‘modernity’. Anderson’s interpretation of Latin America is discussed in Miller (2006). (rev. This is an odd contrast which. It might be further noted that. © The author(s) 2013. the first mention of the ‘Western seaboard’ can be found in Gellner (1964: 173) where he also adduces that this is indeed nationalism but it is not modern. For example. (But recall that. in Nationalism (Gellner 1997: 76–8). only this passing comment. Unlike all of the European time zones. leaves out all the world which is neither ’European’ nor Islamic. only that the agrarian world could occasionally do so. since a Spanish functionary and a créole functionary were effectively indistinguishable culturally. which thus is to associate nationalism with the periphery and with ‘fission’) but then adds that indeed one can be assimilationist and nationalist ‘both at once’. It does not signal my endorsement of a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ theory of nationalism. 17 Sewell (2004) notes part of this problem but only in order to reassert the importance of the French Revolution to the emergence of the ‘nation form’. 9 Gellner never liked this term but I use it innocently. and Lomnitz (2001). The Reformation. Philpott (2001: 97–149) connects ‘Protestant propositions’ to the consolidation of a system of states in Europe. figures prominently in Anderson’s (1991 [1983]) culturalist interpretation of nationalism. References Anderson. the importance of the wars of Reformation to the development of the ‘state-nation’ is one of the threads of the argument in MacCulloch’s (2003: 673ff. 11 Hall (2010: 317) makes an explicit link between this typology and the arguments in Thought and Change (Gellner 1964) by arguing that secession and decolonisation are equivalent but then goes on to concede that the ‘Czech awakening’ was not secessionist which. industrial) world is bound to do so in most cases’ (Gellner NN: 132) (Emphasis in original. 84). through the political equilibrium induced by the terms of the peace settlements of the wars of religion. which evokes a contrast between Europe and Islam. it is not culture per se that matters in créole societies for Anderson. of course. according to Gellner). in the fifth one – the world of Islam – cultural standardisation does not take nationalist form (Gellner 1997: 83. 12 In Nationalism (1997: 79). For an analysis that more effectively situates the Revolution in the political history of nationalism in Europe.34 Hudson Meadwell 8 There is a third type – diaspora nationalism – but it is less relevant for my arguments. But his discussion of the first takes up one short paragraph and discussion of the second is limited to five paragraphs. but rather the politicisation of place of birth (Anderson 1991 [1983]: 56–58). Gellner also introduces a fifth zone. 16 The evident candidates for such a theory would be a Rawlsian-type theory of justice. 13 He returns to this concession at the end of the book: ‘It is not denied that the agrarian world occasionally threw up units which may have resembled a modern national state. he spends roughly 135 pages in NN attempting to demonstrate the necessity of nationalism for industrial society. post-1648. Outside of nationalism studies. for all of his interest in cultural systems of meaning. where Gellner seems to recognise what he has been arguing. Material in parentheses added). (Not many blue sea colonies forgo political independence). in effect. is to deny the link just made.

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