Ernest Gellner is widely seen as one of the most important theorists in the study of nationalism. Gellner was introduced to nationalism and identity politics during his youth. As a Jewish Czech, Gellner was forced to leave his home in 1939, fleeing Prague for England in the wake of Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia. Upon his return to Prague after the war, he found a much changed city that had lost most of its multiculturalism. Not feeling at home, Gellner went back to England to pursue an academic career. From his experience as an ‘outsider’, he develops his first thoughts on identity politics and nationalism. For Gellner, nationalism is the imposition of a high culture on society replacing local, low cultures and most multiculturalism. His most prominent theory on the origin of nationalism starts by regarding the transformation of society from an agrarian based economy and social structure to one centered around industrialism. For Gellner, society before industrialism, was vertically bound with over 80 percent of the population being peasant farmers. There was strict boundaries between communities (fiefdoms) as well as between classes.
These separate communities while bound under the ‘state’ do not necessarily share common language, memories, myths, religion or ancestry. Peasants were born as farmers and died as farmers with no possibilities of economic mobility or social advancement due to lack of a standardized education. Therefore, these communities did not wish to impose their language or culture on neighboring communities. There was also no imposition of a high culture due to a lack of standardized education.
According to Gellner, this changes with the rise of industrialism. In industrial society the barriers between communities are broken due to a standardized, mass education which allows for economic and social mobility. Gellner notes that industrialization does not spread evenly among all of the communities within the ‘state’. Therefore, individuals in the community which industrialized later lack the opportunities that those in the already industrialized community possess. According to Gellner, there are two possibilities, assimilation or lack of assimilation. If both communities share language and culture, (‘ethnicity’) then assimilation is possible through standardized education. However, if there is not a shared ‘ethnicity’, then assimilation will not occur but rather are excluded from society. In this case, Gellner argues that nationalism will emerge as the excluded ‘ethnicity’ pushes for political sovereignty.
Gellner believes that nationalism strives for one culture or ethnicity under one roof, or ‘state’. For Gellner, this is the most important principle of successful states. He argues that the worst case is when the ruler of a state is not a member of the ethnic majority within the boundaries of the state. In this case, Gellner states that nationalism will inevitably occur because members of the ‘nation’ will want to strive for advancement by attempting to gain control of the state.
As one of the main protagonists in the study of nationalism, Gellner and his theory has come in for a fair bit of criticism. J.A. Hall mentions the main criticism: that Gellner’s argument is too functionalist. Meadwell also mentions several criticisms of Gellner. First that Gellner never proves the nationalism is necessary for industrial society. In addition, Gellner says that nationalism is only available to the dominated, yet this is clearly not always the case as the case studies below will show.
One of the most covered and discussed current nationalist movements is taking place in Syria. The civil war in Syria is difficult to simplify with many factors involved including factions, deaths, international involvement and chemical weapons among others. However, Gellner would simplify the situation in Syria and the nationalist conflict there by looking at the ruler and the ruled. When the current leader’s father, Hafiz al-Assad came into power in 1970, Syria was splintered with the military being the dominant political force. Hafiz al-Assad was a member of the Ba’ath party at the time, a party largely made up of Alawites. Hafiz al-Assad and his son, Bashar, are both Alawites themselves, members of a relatively liberal sect of Islam. However, the majority of the population is made up of Arab Sunnis. Two articles from the BBC and the Washington Post help explain the ethnic breakdown in Syria.
The map from the Washington Post web site shows the geographical breakdown of religious and ethnic groups in Syria.
Hafiz al-Assad appointed mostly Alawites and members of his Ba’ath party to leadership positions in the military, explaining the military’s commitment to Bashar al-Assad and the current regime. While binding the military to the party and the ruling family, this limited advancement possibilities for the Arab Sunni majority. The Alawites loyalty and can be seen in this clip from the BBC below.
To Gellner this marks the worst case scenario mentioned above. The ruler is not of the ‘nation’ which makes up a majority of the state but is rather of the minority ‘nation’. With a lack of assimilation, Gellner argues that this will always lead to a homogenization process which we can see during the current civil war.
In your opinion does Gellner’s argument do enough to explain the rise of nationalism in Syria?
Why didn’t the revolt and protests happen sooner since the country has been ruled by the Assad family since 1970?
Gellner claims that “the social organisation of agrarian society, however, is not at all favorable to the nationalist principle, to the convergence of political and cultural units, and to the homogeneity and school-transmitted nature of culture within each political unit (Gellner, 1983, 38-39).” China is a complex country which, on some points, seems to break away from Gellner’s conception of an industrial nation. On the one hand, China has a state-run education system, has managed to converge the national with the political and has experienced unprecedented industrial economic growth.
Yet, there is an argument to be made that the structure of Chinese society remains largely familial and rural. As well, the increasing income gap between the average Chinese citizen and members of the elite class has led some to question whether Chinese society is returning to a pseudo-feudalistic structure. Thus, despite Gellner’s belief that the social makeup of an agrarian society is incompatible with an industrial society, is it possible that China manages to successfully incorporate elements of both?
The country of Rwanda is a former colony of Belgium and a country recovering from major internal strife due to long-term discrimination between two of the country’s major ethnic groups, culminating in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Following the Berlin conference of 1884, Rwanda was assigned to German East Africa. Following WWI, Belgium took control of the colony, marking the beginning of a more direct colonial rule. Introducing large-scale projects in agriculture, education and public works, Rwanda enjoyed a period of industrialization.
The Germans and the Belgians both favoured Tutsi supremacy, despite them being only 15% of the population. In 1935 the Belgians issued identity cards labelling each individual by their ethnic group, either Hutu, Tutsi, Twa or naturalised. Previously a wealthy Hutu could become honorary Tutsi, the identity cards however prevented any movement between the classes. The Hutu population rebelled in the Revolution of 1959, killing a large number of Tutsi and establishing an independent Hutu-led state in 1962. In 1990 the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) launched a civil war, leading to the culmination of the Rwandan Genocide, in which Hutu extremists killed approximately 500,000 – 1 million Tutsi.
A more detailed overview is given in this article:
Rwanda’s economy suffered greatly following the massacre but has since strengthened. The establishment of criminal courts to deal with the aftermath have led to years of relative peace. At the height of the crises some 2.1 million Rwandans were displaced by the crises, with some 100,000 still remain abroad. The cessation clause came into effect on the 30th of June 2013 – it states that a “refugee status should end if the circumstances which led to flight no longer exist in the country of origin”.
“The disastrous and tragic consequences in modern conditions, of the conjunction of economic superiority and cultural identifiability with political and military weakness, are too well-known to require repetition. Sometimes a precarious and uneasy balance is maintained. The main point is that the central power now finds itself in a very different situation, and subject to very different temptations and pressures from those which prevailed in the days of the agrarian division of labor….Now the state has more interest in depriving the minority of its economic monopolies and because of the minority’s visibility and wealth, it can buy off a great deal of discontent in the wider population by dispossessing and persecuting it; and so the inevitable happens.” Nations and Nationalism, 2008 Blackwell Publishing, pp 101-102.
Do Gellner’s theories shed light on what happened in Rwanda in 1994?
What do Gellner’s theories have to offer for theorizing a future for Rwanda?
-This post has been authored by Matthew Cuff, Kirsten Gerrie and Gyða Fanney Guðjónsdóttir.