The prophet redeemed?

Ernest Gellner was a polymath and a public intellectual, a philosopher and defender of modernity. A remarkable ‘intellectual biography’ by John A.Hall explores the Gellner Archives at the LSE alongside his published works to piece together the profile of something even more important than an account of the man or his ideas - a ‘prophetic’ quasi-ideology destined for our times.
Tom Nairn
3 January 2011

Ernest André Gellner was born in Paris in 1925, part of a Bohemian Jewish family from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. They lived in the German-speaking Sudetenland, before moving in 1910 - 'as the result of anti-semitic riots' (p.4) - to the great capital of Slav Central Europe, Prague. This reviewer remembers Gellner's account of his father Rudolf's resultant anguish: in the later nineteen-twenties he had to sternly insist that Czech alone would be spoken in the household. The strategy was effective, if costly: seventy years later, his son would confess to feeling queasy upon hearing quite ordinary conversations in south-German dialect. His life was to be largely configured by both the clash and the fusion of cultures - and the results generated in a single mind and temperament. He was a remarkably warm and open personality, and (as Hall says) formed a kind of informal 'tribe' around him. But something of that warmth arose from profound anguish, understood and transcended. He had come from the heart of Europe's inter-war furnace, a survivor carrying the scars, but also exemplifying its passion, and some of its more positive features.

Ernest Gellner in 1977 / Wikimedia Commons

Such is the remarkable 'intellectual biography' Professor Hall sets out to relate. As well as the published books and articles, he was able to make use of 'The Notes' over the late 1950s and early 1960s, a vital part of the archives deposited with the London School of Economics and described in the 'Preface' (see especially pp. xi and xii): in these jottings, 'Gellner worked out his central intellectual positions, often by distilling his thoughts into aphorisms', as he loved doing right up to his death.

'Cultures' in this formative sense always combine genesis with confinement. Their power to nourish derives from supplying a world-view whose particularity and limits can only be grasped later, via at least partial emergence and comparison. They make individuals feel at home, but just what that 'home' is may only be clearer from the outside, much later on. Gellner's was a 'Czechoslovakifying' family secularized while still German-speaking, but with an inheritance of Jewish culture and Zionism, which passed on from Masaryk's pre-war Republic to exile in Britain, after 1939. Hall describes him accurately as 'a natural anthropologist, rather than just the professional one he became in London, concerned (e.g.) with the Berber population of North Africa: 'An outsider constantly and with dry irony observing the customs of social and intellectual groups wherever he found himself...  Nothing was ever taken for granted. His mind was always at work' (p.30).

What resulted was uncannily like a prevision of today's globalization process, which went on evolving during his later Prague period at George Soros's Central European University, from 1991 to 1995. He himself called the stance 'communal marginalism'. One 'margin' after another had given him a sense of what 'communities' are for, and about (p.13). He understood that there is indeed 'no such thing as society' - that is, society in general abstracted from the varieties of pre-history. All societies transcend kinship, and add a decisive, practical dimension to the latter - the cooperative requirement of larger-scale development and environmental mastery. However, this general requirement can't avoid itself remaining 'particular', or even 'peculiar': the ineffaceable mark of humanity, which in turn enables the 'universal' and makes conceivable what Hegel called 'species-being'. Gellner theorized the deeper dilemma better than anyone had done previously - including his predecessors in English exile, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

However, the success made him understand why he himself could not easily join up with any of the resultant collectivities. Rather it imposed something like a constitutional 'lack of faith' upon his outlook. There would never be a 'Gellnerism'. Nor would he become another prophet of the transition to modernity. And yet, his ironic counter to older belief-structures couldn't help being itself like a rationale, or at least a rationally-inclined faith - indeed it can be argued that Gellner's stand-in may be the most important quasi-ideology of the present time. This is what John Hall's dissection suggests, making his account into much more than a biography of the man or his ideas. The author maintains that the anti-prophet couldn't help being way ahead of his own present, in ways that general culture has still to catch up with.

Yet a kind of prophetic role is implied here, albeit with inverted commas.  The 2001 attack on the Twin Towers made the world aware of the emergence of an Islamic challenge to North-Atlantic progress and self-confidence. However, Ernest Gellner had understood some of the factors involved decades previously. An ironic critique of western Enlightenment had already carried him beyond the latter's complacency. His important comparative study of Muslim Society dated from 1983. Even earlier, his doctoral thesis had been on Saints of the Atlas, an anthropological view of holy men in Moroccan North Africa. Hall's Chapter 9, 'The Sociology of Islam' deals very thoroughly with this, arguing that his extensive writings on the subject are an even more 'consistent theory' than the more celebrated essays on nationalism. The contraposition of 'Western' culture and Islamicism became part of the structure of Gellner's thinking, down to his last days. The Centre for the Study of Nationalism he founded in Prague was planning another conference on the subject, and Hall vividly describes how much the project took out of him. A 'long bureaucratic meeting' in Budapest dealing with the future of his Centre preceded the heart attack that killed him in December 1995 (pp. 373-4).

Gellner was helping social theory to catch up. And we have still to catch up with him. Professor Hall several times comments that the main weakness in Gellner's world-view was a neglect of 'politics'. In one sense this may appear absurd: the great strength of Gellner's outlook was emphasis upon the principal force of nineteenth and twentieth century development - political nationalism. His Nations and Nationalism (1983) remains the central text here: a decisive refutation of both Marxism and capitalist liberalism, showing why and how nationality-politics was bound to dominate the first round of world industrialization. From the start the Czech incomer and self-conscious exile disabused the self-satisfied cosmopolitanism of both Austria-Hungary and its North Atlantic successor hosts. He showed how intellectuals alone had persuaded themselves that nationhood was some kind of throw-back, a reversion to 'tribalism' destined for defeat at the hands of universalizing progress. Both a-national 'class' and purely socio-economic development had been deemed sufficient motors of advance by intelligentsias at several removes from the process itself. In fact, renovation overcame defeat: what the actual human vehicles of such forces required were renovated collectivities, new 'imagined communities' strong enough to bear the huge stresses and displacements of emergent modernity.

However, the very force of his insight may have made Gellner attach too much weight to the factors of nationality: that is, to the indwelling thrust, rather than to the ways in which such powers asserted themselves. And this is of course the truth in Hall's observation: his subject was indeed impatient with the lower-level of national politics - with the parties, politicians, tactics and half-measures that actually came to embody ideology and passion. When the Central European University got going and enabled his return to Prague, realization of an old dream was accompanied by a sense that 'Czechia had become desperately dull' (p.370), just another small, prosperous nation-state. He had found his way back home all right; but it wasn't quite what had been hoped for.

Thus Gellner's admiration for Vaçlav Havel co-existed with a sensation of regret for 'the multi-cultural Prague of his childhood' full of Germans, Jews and Slovaks. The Czech 'genius for normalizing itself' exemplified his theory, and was now  irreversible. Nor would he have had it otherwise. And yet, one of its results was 'petty-mindedness in tandem with an egalitarianism that undermined human agency' (from a letter by Jan Patoçka), which made him feel restless, even homeless. The prolonged exile in the London School of Economics (1949-84) had been in the company of many other 'aliens', within an English culture oddly indifferent to displacement and contrasts. Hall reminds us that his uncle Julius Gellner had written a memoir entitled England Receives Me as a Human Being (p.74), and Ernest too benefited from this social configuration that had side-lined ethnicity for the sake of imperial outreach - an expansive identity, 'above that sort of thing'. Czech normalization of course couldn't help being exactly that sort of thing: a key part of the enduring Central-European settlement, attained at the cost of two world wars and tragic genocide.

Hall's account shows Gellner as a creature of this formative moment. The internal space created by migration and culture-clash became the matrix of a more serious theory of nationalism, which pushed social science forward from earlier polemics and prejudices. And English neutrality furnished the milieu within which such a philosophy could mature. A decade after his death, we find that 'little England' still has no representative assembly of its own, only the Campaign for an English Parliament. The political elite of 'Great Britain' - including representatives from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - have remained fixed in the mould of past expansiveness, still unwilling to contemplate resignation from world-power status and posturing. Ordinariness remains banned: today no-one denies 'decline', but the fact of having already declined - once and for all - is another matter. Medication is constantly called for, from both Left and Right, and none of the placebos work. Wilson, Thatcher, Blair and now Cameron have merely covered up the longer-term fall. It may soon be Edward Miliband's turn - the son of another immigrant intellectual sharing many of Gellner's attitudes. He will inherit a mid-range country still equipped with the Deterrent, and addicted to grunting alongside the down-town big lads. The prime mover of first-round industrialization may try to console itself via a 'special relationship' to second-round takeover, but can never feel comfortable as an 'also-ran'. Instead, it has lapsed into something uncannily like a left-over among nations: the haunting aunt of generations who have moved on - a querulous ghost of exceptionalism, forever nagging the world that has relegated Model-T Being-Humanhood to the pre-globalization museum.

However, 'has-been' neutrality retains some consolations, from which Gellner benefited. Hall's Chapter 4 relates how he established his niche in United Kingdom culture, while Chapter 5 goes on to discuss the results: he had arrived at the general diagnosis of 'a single perception of a fundamental breakdown of social structures such that human beings lack social moorings' (p.130), and went on to try and furnish nothing less than a general therapy: 'a social philosophy for modern times'. The latter was outlined in Thought and Change (1964), especially Chapter 7, more fully worked out in Nations and Nationalism (1983), and continued in the Nationalism essay of 1997. But his Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals (1994) may also be taken as a kind of last word: 'A new ideal was born, or reborn, in recent decades: Civil Society...': not simply society minus the State, but a positive conception, some of whose elements were originally caught by the Muslim theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and more fully presented by the Scottish eighteenth century philosopher Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) — the 'father of sociology', and author of Civil Society.

Thus nationalism had reproduced and emphasized humankind's variety; yet the various forms of industrialization also ended by producing various forms of a basically common society, whether labelled as 'civil society' or 'social democracy'. The Australian politician - and subsequent Prime Minister - Kevin Rudd imagined the same thing, in a Melbourne Monthly essay called 'The Global Financial Crisis' (No. 42, February 2009), arguing that the combined downfalls of State Socialism and Neo-Liberalism should set the scene for an enduring qualitative change: social democracy was no longer an intermediary contender, but simply all that was left. The trouble is, the inheritance has now to be made over for globality by politicians and parties left over from the old days. Rudd himself would find out just how hard this was in Australia. Though popular with the voters, he couldn't keep the support of his own Australian Labor Party, since then uncertainly revived by his successor as Premier, Julia Gillard. In Britain, Blair and Brown went adrift in the same weird whirlpool. The new politics of the global times will have to be contrived by people of that age, those who are growing up within it and acquiring different presuppositions and 'instincts'. Nobody knows how long this will take.

Hall is surely right to underline Gellner's importance in this context: globality requires a renewed social anthropology, and his subject was the key theorist of the era preceding it - more important than either Marxism or neo-liberalism, he provided vital ideas for the formation of any twenty-first century successor. And yet, too much shouldn't be expected, either. Much of the Gellner oeuvre is very readable, but some of it is anything but. For example, The Concept of Kinship (1987) contains some of the most inscrutable sociology of recent times, notably in Chapters 11 to 14 ('The Alchemists of Sociology'), and most exasperatingly on the vital matter of Chapter 13, 'Nature and Society in Social Anthropology'. Hall is from a Canadian background, where politics are at once more inescapable, and more positive. This makes him properly conscious of Gellner's failings on the political front, But he may not be critical enough of the non-prophet's meanderings around such issues: we probably have to wait for a more distanced critique, from thinkers more imbued with the spirit of post-globality.

However, Gellner himself should have the last word on the matter. The Concept of Kinship also contains a valuable 'Introduction' looking both back and forward, from his days at the London School of Economics (in Bronislaw Malinowski's period, when it seemed 'the world capital of anthropology'), to a present in which the globe is changing so much that anthropologists will have to follow and adapt, like everyone else. Hence: 'My own guess is that the subject should retain that fine sensitivity to small and intricate social structures, that awareness of the inadequacy of documentary sources on their own, that sense of something socially far more interfused, which has become its trademark... The danger of over-abstract and messianic mega-theories which haunted the nineteenth century and the earlier part of the twentieth, is no longer so very great. We are less complacent, more haunted by a sense of the complexity of things. The re-marriage of anthropological data with historical questions, and of historical findings with anthropological issues, might be the correct slogan...' (p.xii).

How do we work after coronavirus?

The pandemic has profoundly changed our working lives. Millions have lost their jobs; others have had no choice but to continue working at great risk to their health. Many more have shouldered extra unpaid labour such as childcare.

Work has also been redefined. Some workers are defined as 'essential' – but most of them are among the lowest-paid in our societies.

Could this be an opportunity?

Amid the crisis, there has been a rise in interest in radical ideas, from four-day weeks to universal basic income.

Join us on 5pm UK time on 20 August as we discuss whether the pandemic might finally be a moment for challenging our reliance on work.

In conversation:

Sarah Jaffe, journalist and author of 'Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone', due to be published next year.

Amelia Horgan, academic and author of 'Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism', also due to be published next year.

Chair: Alice Martin, advisory board member of Autonomy, a think tank dedicated to the future of work.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData