Book Review: ‘Nation and Nationalism’ by Ernest Gellner

Monika Gupta

Gellner’s nationalism is the need for every society that under the garb of false “heterogeneity” and “multiculturalism” hinders its own progress and development.


Ernest Gellner is a modernist, social anthropologist and philosopher whose work on ‘nationalism’ is considered to be an extensive, detailed and an original piece on sociological theory of nationalism. ‘Nation and Nationalism’, published in 1983, is one in the series of many books published by Gellner. This book provides an intensive theory of nationalism and rejects various false connotations surrounding both the nation and the state. Gellner’s other notable works include ‘Thought and Change’ published in 1964, ‘Muslim Society’ in 1981, ‘Conditions of Liberty’ in 1994. Amongst all his works, ‘Nation and Nationalism’ is considered to be one of the pioneering contributions by Gellner in the field of modern politics.

Gellner’s work has close connections with his own life. He was Jewish by birth, born in Czech in 1925, a British citizen who died in Czech in 1995. Wherever he lived, he had to grapple with many conflicting issues related to identity, culture, association, assimilation and nationality, which contributed to the formulation of his theories and concepts surrounding nation and identity. There is a biography written by John A. Hall., a Professor of Comparative Historical Sociology on Gellner’s life and work, titled as “Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography”, published in 2010 that depicts the impact and relevance of Gellner’s work in contemporary politics.

Summary of the Book

In the book, Gellner focuses on the importance of nationalism being a key principle of political legitimisation and modernity. He provides a theory of nationalism that connects deeply with industrialization. Referring to a transition from agrarian to industrial society, he emphasizes on the existence of nationalism only within the realm of modernisation and industrialization by focussing exclusively on the political and cultural spheres. He also talks about cultural homogeneity as the basis of nationalism within a nation-state and at the same time, highlighting the fact that nationalism is prior to state and that “stateless societies cannot experience nationalism”.

Every chapter in this book conveys a message surrounding different dimensions of ‘nationalism’. Gellner begins the book by an influential definition of Nationalism as “primarily a political principle, which holds that political and national unit should be congruent” and asserts that “…ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones”. By saying this, he emphasises on the transition through which mankind has gone through in three stages: Pre-agrarian, Agrarian and Industrial. Pre-agrarian was a phase where there was no concept of state and hence no ‘nationalism’; Agrarian was a phase in which ‘state’ existed but it was optional, in other words, it was not mandatory that the principles and policies within the state were to be followed; the last was ‘industrial phase’ in which the presence of the state became ‘inescapable’.

In the next few chapters of the book, Gellner justifies how ‘nationalism’ is compatible only in industrialised societies because of the existing division of labour and quest for knowledge among humans. Industrial society, according to Gellner is marked with rationality, consistency and coherence where the role of the culture is not to predominately rule over people (as in the pre-modern societies) but culture provides a platform of connecting people together and fostering greater understanding between them. Since in the agrarian society, the ruler distanced themselves from the ruled and literacy belonged to the elites (the priests preferably), it created a hierarchy of power thereby reinforcing inequalities; on the other hand, in the industrial society, individuals due to their quest for knowledge and adequate means of communication have enhanced scope of specialization and learning, thereby, leading to reduced inequalities, stronger connections and greater homogenization. And here comes the central argument of Gellner that “nationalism arises whenever and wherever barriers exist to the spread of industrial society and the homogenization it brings with it”.

In the subsequent chapters, Gellner strongly rejects different forms of nationalism, especially the one given by Elie Kedourie, a British historian of the Middle East, who calls the development of nationalist theory as “an accidental development, ideas which did not need ever to be formulated and is inessential to the life of industrial societies”. In chapter seven, Gellner rightly rejects the ‘self-evident, natural and self-generating conception’ of nationalist theory and says that nationalist theory “own its plausibility and compelling nature only to a very special set of circumstances…”. Gellner also rejects Marxists’ “Wrong Address Theory” which claims that nationalism’s message was intended for classes but due to some error, it’s delivered to nations.

Gellner in his book talks about the problems and conflicts surrounding nationalism by defining four different typologies of nationalism. ‘Satisfied Nationalism’, which implies homogenous industrialism in which everyone has access to similar kind of facilities to make their lives better and where there are no internal conflicts; Second is ‘Classical Liberal Nationalism’ in which power structures are not equal but the relevant persons are educationally capable for an industrial modern society; Third form is ‘Ethnic Nationalism’ in which there are huge differences between the power holders- the powerful have access to the ‘high cultures’(knowledgeable) whereas the powerless are deprived to ‘low cultures’. The last form of nationalism is ‘Diaspora Nationalism’ which exists in those societies which are in the transition phase of agrarian to industrial society and in which groups had earlier access to ‘high cultures’ through their role as ‘middle men’ in the agrarian societies but lack on the political and military fronts. Gellner presents this in the light of dilemmas that he is well aware of and asserts that it is difficult to predict which cultures will successfully become nationalist cultures with strong political roots. Lastly, Gellner very convincingly reflects through his theory that nationalism comes with huge positive consequences for modern society, provided that there is required ‘homogeneity’ thereby asserting his ‘functionalist’ approach to nationalism.


Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationalism, despite being one of his pioneering works, was criticised on various fronts. For some, his theory is too ‘functionalist’ and the homogeneity he talks about will not always lead to progress and modernisation- the two essential characteristics of an industrialised state according to Gellner. Others argue that Gellner doesn’t make significant difference between ‘nationalist principle’ (what Gellner asserts) and ‘nationalist sentiment’ (which can exist without statehood) while emphasizing ‘nationalism’ exists only within ‘states’. Gellner also fails to acknowledge ‘nationalism’ in those societies where industrialization is complete and therefore his theory cannot be validated in today’s context of technologically globalized world, opine other critics.


Despite these criticisms, Gellner’s theory is etched in history for the remarkable contributions it makes to a progressive society founded on the basis of oneness, equality, knowledge, unity and growth. Gellner’s nationalism is the need for every society that under the garb of false “heterogeneity” and “multiculturalism” hinders its own progress and development. Gellner quotes in his work that the “main boon which nationalism has conferred on mankind…may well be political”. Gellner himself acknowledges many consequences that ‘nationalism’ might bring along and this is reflected in his work especially when he mentions that nations and nationalism have not been permanent features of human history. Despite all the debates surrounding his work, one cannot simple deny that it is due to Ernest Gellner’s theory and ideas that we can visualize “nationalism as a major form in which democratic consciousness expresses itself in the modern world”.

The author is a research scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and an intern at Academics4nation.


© 2020 by Academics4Nation