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A Tom Nairn Essay

The following appeared in The Observer. The Guardian (Pre-1997 Fulltext); Manchester; Nov 12, 1995

Nationalism is not the enemy. The threat to world peace comes from a failure of democracy, not old ethnic allegiances.

Last weekend, while Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv, Ernest Gellner died suddenly in Prague. I would love to have known what the founder of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism would have thought of the Israeli leader's untimely death and the forces of Zionism that brought it about. I am one of many researchers in this area who feel the loss of Gellner deeply and personally. He was a lovable, contentious man who dominated an essentially contentious field of thought. Three months ago, when the University of Edinburgh decided to adopt a one-year postgraduate course called Nationalism Studies, he warned me it might mean trouble and he was right.

`Master of Nats Degree!' squawked the Express, predicting political storms over the appalling waste of public money. The award of a parchment was itself clearly offensive. It is one thing to teach classes in the subject (as Professor Anthony Smith and his colleagues have been doing for years at Gellner's old university, the London School of Economics), but quite another to award a degree in infamy. The Daily Mail pointed out with due indignation that yours truly, a man with a Marxist past, would soon be compounding infamy by lecturing students on nationalism. `Little more than political propaganda at public expense,' snarled Tory MP Phil Gallie.

The main assumption behind such wildly deranged reactions is that one single genie, `nationalism', was released from history's bottle around 1989, and is now stalking (or soon will be stalking) everyone's land. The threat is to the whole world or, more portentously, to the International Order. However, the attention tends persistently to be on locations such as Bosnia and Rwanda, or on personalities like Vladimir Zhirinovsky (rather than, say, on Slovenia and Eritrea, or Vaclav Havel).

Politics are, so to speak, defaulting back to nationality after the blessed Cold War era when they were regulated by `-isms', and therefore intelligible. Universal blueprints have given way to the old ethnic patchwork of homo sapiens. Unless restrained and shown the error of their native ways, people will revert to their true selves, which now tends to mean as aborigines of whichever culture, faith or blood group they were born into. The true content of the postmodern turns out to be the prehistoric.

Gellner used to call the above the Dark Gods theory. Courtesy of W.B. Yeats, another good title might be the Rough Beast theory: whoever is out there slouching towards us out of the post-2000 darkness, he is mean, he is backward, and it is time he was chained up again. There is only one problem with this popular view: does he exist at all? Gellner denounced the Rough Beast as a delusion in the 1960s, the time when he laid the foundations for a modern understanding of nationalism by pointing out that it is not really about the past. It is about the difficult transition to modernity, a process in which people often have to recreate a more suitable past for themselves. To become modern (or postmodern) beings, they need a new identity, and to get that they must re-imagine their community as being (and always having been) worthy of the change.

Thus new nations and pasts are `invented' " but not by whim or arbitrarily. However cruel and uneven, modern development is inescapable and all societies are called to opt into it in their own way " predominantly the way of separate or independent growth. Where such development is abruptly reimposed " as in eastern Europe after 1989 " nationalism becomes as inevitable as it was at earlier stages of modernisation.

A good example is the one best covered by recent journalistic comment. BBC2's amazing five-part series, The Death of Yugoslavia, recently gave non- specialists a unique chance to look back over the intricate causation of the conflict in Bosnia. The earlier coverage had been inevitably governed by preconceived ideas, and notably by the Dark God stereotype of nationalism. Now, the protagonists have been allowed to speak for themselves. Worried about judgment day, they rushed before the cameras to spill their own version of the beans. By skilful editing and combining these interviews with news or archive footage, the programmes have, without obtrusive commentary, furnished a context for a more informed judgment of the post-Yugoslavia wars.

What emerged most plainly is indeed how utterly useless the Dark God theory is as any sort of explanation. Nationality politics were bound to reassert themselves after the failure of a multi-ethnic state. However, what made this reversion to nature catastrophic was not nationalism as such, but the preceding and continuing failure of democracy. The ethnic brand of nationalism triumphed because the civic one (Gellner's preferred model in his last book, Conditions of Liberty) was scarcely given a chance.

Many in Yugoslavia may have wanted a multi-national society to continue, but for years practically none of them had had even a vestigial belief in the political or economic apparatus administering it. When the latter foundered, the result was not liberated ethnic nature revenging itself on a multi-ethnic old regime; it has been far more like the old regime obtaining a savage posthumous revenge over its constituent nations. Gellner was not denying the existence of rough nationalistic beasts. His own Czech-Jewish family had suffered the attentions of an earlier generation of them in the 1930s. However, he enjoyed nothing so much as ridiculing the `fakelore' they use as an alibi, the myths of blood and pure descent. It is simply untrue that nationality was `repressed' under Titoism, any more than it was in the old USSR or other parts of the Communist imperium. A kind of castrated nationalism was, if anything, over-cultivated in a cultural sense, carefully segregated from politics and economics. Visits to the Peoples' Democracies were never rendered hellish by uniform Marxism and statistics alone: interminable folk-dancers, National Museum visits and orations in carefully resurrected national tongues all played their part. In that context, `ethnicity' acquired a quite specific meaning which it is foolish to generalise or identify with humanity. The eastern dictatorships `saved' it as something harmless and compensatory; when they abruptly dissolved it was left intact, but now, without a democratic leaven, anything but harmless. So the Dark God's return was showy and sanguinary " but also transient, and not necessarily typical of the new way of the world. Because nationalism remains inseparable from modernisation, it does not follow that its ethnic strain must remain dominant, or that Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin, is a portent of the coming millennium. In Gellnerian terms, the eastern drama as a whole appears as one specific and transient conjuncture within what used to be the Socialist World " a move from ideological autocracy towards (eventually) assorted forms of democratic-national identity. As in the ex-USSR, the Balkan threat has come where autocracy did not give way to a new nation-state project, but used a retrograde version of ethnicity to maintain itself in life.

Gellner's office in Prague looked northwards towards Zizkov Hill, a view which encapsulated the things that most interested and infuriated him. It was dominated by the Czech National Memorial and the outsize equestrian statue of the blind Bohemian military hero, General Jan Zizkov. Gellner understood nationalism so well partly because he was brought up in it, and returned home to it in the year of the Czech-Slovak split (of which he heartily approved).

The National Memorial had also been used by the Communists to pretend they were the true inheritors of Czech nationhood. Klement Gottwald, the `Czech Lenin', was embalmed there for some years after his death in 1953, until the air-conditioning failed and the mouldy cadaver had to be furtively smuggled out. So from where Ernest sat (occasionally cursing his portable word-processor), there was a daily reminder of another example of how vulgar autocracy, fake ethnicity and Stalin's big stick had fused together to form a uniquely dire parody of modernity.

I always felt that what mattered most about modern history was in that room. The thought of never entering it again, never hearing Ernest's walking stick thumping up the corridor, or the latest low jokes about Socialism, Slovaks or Californian professors, fills me with desolation. One consolation is that he seems to have been irrepressible and in no way diminished, right to the end. Certainly, conversations last year showed the same mixture of disrespect, malicious humour, deep insight and spiky, somewhat conservative, rectitude as 20 years before.

As for the academic study of nationalism, those trying to develop it along the lines he established so well always felt it was a kind of personal tribute to him, in Edinburgh as in Prague. Even more so now. His influence has already effaced that of the petty critics and diehards I mentioned to begin with.

Tom Nairn, an author and journalist, lectures on sociology at Edinburgh University.