In This Review

By Ernest Gellner
New York University Press, 1997, 114 pp

This slim book, written shortly before the author's death, continues many of the themes of his earlier, widely read Nations and Nationalism (1983). In a nutshell, Gellner argues that nationalism does not represent some timeless, atavistic force, but rather is a man-made creation that tends to arise as a consequence of industrialization. Phenomena like Islamic fundamentalism can be seen as a similar "disease of the transition." Earlier forager or agricultural societies are too small, segmented, or stratified to support genuine nationalism; only with industrialization and its high degree of occupational mobility does a system that links large numbers of non-kin on the basis of a high culture become feasible. The overall thesis is correct and worth pondering, although it has a hard time accommodating certain cases of nationalism arising in agricultural societies (for example, nineteenth-century Serbia). Gellner's sense of humor is evident here as in earlier books, as for example in a chapter entitled "Do Nations have Navels," which explores the question of why nationalists believe their creed is age-old when it is actually of recent provenance. The book concludes with some sound, though rather general, thoughts on how to deal with nationalist passions in Eastern Europe.