The Sociology of Nationalism: Tomorrow's Ancestors

By David McCrone | Go to book overview

4

‘DEVILS AT HIS BACK’

Nationalism and Ernest Gellner

In his obituary of Ernest Gellner, John Hall commented that he wrote ‘with devils at his back’ (1996:v). Hall continued: ‘his theory of nationalism contained a tension between dislike of its potential for political exclusion and realisation that the nation-state remained the receptacle most likely to advance citizenship’ (ibid.). Gellner’s theory of nationalism has undoubtedly been central to how we have come to understand the phenomenon in the last thirty years. His views have been the template for supporters and opponents alike.

Why devote a chapter to the works of one person? Put simply, the modern study of nationalism began with Ernest Gellner in the mid-1960s. Some may object that it began much sooner than that. After all, what of the work of Kuhn, Cobban, Hayes, Deutsch and others who did much to shape our modern understandings of nationalism in the early and middle years of this century? Important though their contribution was, none had the impact on modern scholarship and debate which Gellner’s work has had. An analysis of citations in studies of nationalism would probably reveal that his writings are more often referred to than those of anyone else. This may seem odd to some because there is also a view that he formed his key ideas and theories in his early work on nationalism and did not deviate much from them in the course of the next thirty years. In other words, they claim, Gellner said it all in his 1964 essay in Thought and Change, and simply defended his position with customary vigour and stubbornness. There is of course some truth in this, and the collection of his essays entitled Nationalism published posthumously in 1997 lends support to this view. However, Ernest Gellner was too rich a thinker to be bound by this one small volume. His challenges to orthodoxy and his readiness to tilt at most available windmills established him as the key thinker on nationalism of the twentieth century. That is why the ‘line’ of this book which is concerned with forms and expressions of nationalism is broken in this central chapter by an examination of Gellner’s work in this area. If mere is one idea which he held to through thick and thin it was that nationalism is not some historical legacy which needs to be swept away with the detritus of the past. Rather, the condition of nationalism is central to modern society. People in contemporary societies are nationalists because they have to be.

Tensions and contradictions were the stuff of both his theories and his life. How these were connected is best summed up by his comment that it was the experience

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The Sociology of Nationalism: Tomorrow's Ancestors
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • 1 - The Fall and Rise of Nationalism 1
  • 2 - Tribe, Place and Identity 22
  • 3 - Inventing the Past 44
  • 4 - ‘devils at His Back’ 64
  • 5 - Nation as State 85
  • 6 - Dialectic with the Other 102
  • 7 - In and Out of the State 125
  • 8 - The Unforeseen Revolution 149
  • 9 - Nationalism and Its Futures 169
  • Bibliography 188
  • Index 199
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