Make your own free website on
Front Page







by Jerome Braun ( a review of Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals by Ernest Gellner and Critique of Modernity by Alain Touraine

Ernest Gellner, who passed away on November 5, 1995, was a social philosopher and social anthropologist and a student of the social evolution that culminated in what is now called modernity. He wrote much on the constructs of the modern world, be they nationalism or psychoanalysis, knowing well the world that preceded them, though with skepticism for the claims of those students of postmodernity who claim to know what is coming after. He will be sorely missed, if for nothing other than a methodological rigor that clearly distinguished between social knowledge and social criticism.

Ernest Gellner, among his other accomplishments, was a scholar of liberty. Like the fabled glass that can be interpreted as being half empty or half full, Ernest Gellner in Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals and Alain Touraine in Critique of Modernity interpret the rise of modern society from overall optimistic and pessimistic perspectives, respectively, though not without a good deal of overlap, especially regarding the weaknesses of modern society that are obvious to both men.

Ernest Gellner, whose last position was Director of the Institute for Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict Research at the Central European University in Prague, sought to bring Western thought to the dour authoritarianism of Eastern Europe. In other of his books Muslim Society and Encounters with Nationalism-he described the increasing scope of the ruling structures of society, with the increasing weakening of folk societies by the high cultures in their respective culture areas. Of course one can debate how noble the adherents of these high cultures are and whether they are getting more virtuous or less.

In Muslim Society he recounts the old story, originally told by Ibn Khaldun, of the continuing conflict between the inhabitants of the historical pastoral areas, with their vigor and protection of their own rights, and the governmental bureaucracy, with its depredations, emanating from the cities. Of course, over time some succumbed to the temptations of a rather wealthy and spoiled existence in the cities, an existence parasitic on the wealth produced in the countryside. (Or so the others left behind, with their dislike for social complexities and intermediaries that they nevertheless needed, thought.) A similar historical cycle was recounted by Aristotle and, in Roman times, by Polybius: the evolution from monarchy to tyranny to aristocracy to democracy to aristocracy and back again.

In fact, fundamentalist Islam, as a kind of purified high culture, has its appeal largely because the central government is now so important economically and as a provider of jobs. Therefore the temptations of particularism, producing societies based on connections and patronage, which are natural in all societies, and especially these, have more disruptive effects than before, not least because the subgroups of society no longer have the same horizontal ties to one another. That which increases the power of all government, and which once increased the power of monarchy, now increases the power of elected government, which nevertheless is still often not widely trusted. If the economies in these societies were more dynamic, perhaps the powers of central government would not be so hungered after.

Ernest Gellner's book on nationalism recounts how the economic dynamism of Western Europe has defused the tensions surrounding the powers of central government that were used by elites to reinforce their hold on high culture. The traditional economic backwardness of Central and Eastern Europe has often produced a remnant of respect for peasant culture, as described in the German traditions of populist romanticism, and a new kind of high culture, the culture of nationalism. There is a continuing conflict between elites who are trying to preserve ancient hierarchies and relationships and elites who are more purely economically oriented. Communism, oddly enough, was a Westernizing influence in Russian history, though influenced by older traditions of nationalism and status hierarchy. All these themes are repeated in Gellner's book on civil society. He is on the side of the Anglo-American and French versions of progress, where non-governmental institutions are strong enough to counterbalance the state, and vice versa.

He was opposed to the visions of Eastern European nationalisms. This "negative" liberty that Gellner favored, made famous in the writings of Isaiah Berlin, is the liberty of not being controlled. It still leaves open the question of "positive" liberty, which is the liberty of doing what one wants, if one can figure out what one wants-that is, the liberty produced by one's identity. How does the liberty fostered by economic growth conflict with the liberty of personal identity, the liberty of a meaningful life?

This is the question faced by all modernizing societies in the twentieth century, Individualism and nationalism are both the offspring of modernity, of the downfall in recent times of traditional hierarchy and its replacement by entrepreneurialism or bureaucratization. Professor Gellner has misgivings about such nationalism. He thinks modern liberty, of the kind historically found in Anglo-American societies, works in a pragmatic sense, that modern pluralism differs from the pluralism of segmentary societies (ancient or tribal), which would be considered stifling by modern people-cousin-ridden, ritual-ridden, and often priest-ridden.

Gellner has praise for a society made up of coordinating but separate institutions and associations strong enough to prevent tyranny but which individuals can enter and leave freely; the institutions and associations, in a sense, are connected horizontally rather than vertically, much like tribal societies are, and so are forced to negotiate with one another because there is no overarching authority. Yet tribal societies often choose to live under a monarch, if only to have someone to arbitrate their disputes. The same need to have it all, to have both local communal feeling and overall social order, is also present in modern societies. For Gellner the historical movement to achieve this is marked by the transition from societies based on status to societies based on contract, though his analysis is much more sophisticated and ironical than that of his precursors in the nineteenth century.

Gellner's book is a meditation on the vicissitudes of "negative" liberty, disposing of the pretensions of its competitors with an acerbic wit. It is popularly written and describes social structures and social roles within both crosscultural and historical perspectives. Chapter titles such as "A Contrast between the Abrahamic Faiths" and "Ideological Pluralism and Liberal Doublethink, in the End of the Enlightenment Illusion" give a good notion of its tone. Still, by not being intellectual history, Gellner's book lacks a sharp critical edge compared to Touraine's book, for the former respects evolutionary change and does not "rage against the night."

Not that Gellner is naive. He approvingly quotes Ibn Khaldun's definition of the state: "the institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself." As to why, for example, Islamic societies are not good at creating social structures through agglomeration-though the economic explanation of lack of financial independence is somewhat stressed-the ultimate explanation is that it is so because it has always been so.

Alain Touraine, the Director of the Centre d'Analyse et d'Intervention Sociologiques in Paris, is also concerned with freedom, not so much freedom against the state, but the freedom to do whatever one wants, a kind of existential freedom. He probably believes that Ernest Gellner underestimated the degree to which inefficient or unjust institutions have power over us, though even Gellner in his book recognizes that his ideal is often far from a complete reality. Touraine's book is a meditation on the vicissitudes of "positive" liberty.

Touraine seems to long for an identity and tries to give it, as intellectuals are wont to do, through a kind of meditation on modes of consciousness, not through reproducing them, but through commentary on them. Just as religious commentary on scripture rarely produces a religious experience but is considered the next best thing, Professor Touraine's commentaries seem to be a secular version of this primeval need. If he can't produce a leftist substitute for religion, he can at least comment on it.

Ernest Gellner was raised in Czechoslovakia, spent many years in Great Britain, and finally returned to the Czech Republic. He admired the tendencies of Anglo-American intellectual culture and scorned the idle utopianism and impractical crabbiness posing as social critique of so much Continental European political philosophy. Alain Touraine, like so many French intellectuals of his generation, takes for granted the accomplishments and failures of the French Revolution and thinks it is not enough. In a sense, they are pushing the envelope of free speech to the limit, producing not so much social solidarity as, in many ways, social hatreds, the solidarities of extreme factionalism-things that since the 1960s have been a predilection in American social science as well.

His book, rich in historical and philosophical allusions, shows a great dialogue with the great thinkers of the past, whom he respects, but less concern for the opinions of fellow Frenchmen of the present, whom he ignores for the most part. To a large extent, the leftist critique of the 1960s, so prominent a part of Touraine's work, remains. But is the rest of society really made up of puppets? He has become too shrewd or perhaps just too cynical-again, like many French intellectuals of his generation and even more so of the one that came afterward-to rely anymore on mere denunciations of modern institutions.

Thus the critique of liberalism is once again in vogue in French political thought, and as part of this tradition of critique, which is swallowing up even the leftist critique of the previous generation, Touraine places great emphasis on comparisons and contrasts of various other people's critiques of modern society, particularly Nietzsche and Freud, and prefers to draw out common threads. The changes in society that Touraine writes about are important, but they are described from the point of view of outside observers, not from the point of view of the people being affected, so that the practical side of these questions, the options that people have, is not explored. Nevertheless, the issues he does explore-the decay of modernity, the destruction of the ego, the nature of modern consumerism-are of critical importance. There is no question that this book succeeds as intellectual history and, secondarily, as a description of social processes. Touraine is correct about the decay of our private life, just as Gellner is correct about politics without a sense of civil society being impossible, for that is the source of social cooperation and compromise.

Touraine is correct that science rather than God is the central legitimating construct of modern society. As the search for truth, science has become the handmaiden of technology and of the economic system that is tied in with it, and not the other way around, which would not be the case if science still had its ancient connection to morality and religion. Autonomy of individuals and autonomy of institutions have become defining characteristics of modern society, and this autonomy tends to minimize coordination of various social functions.

More than anything else, Touraine documents the disillusionment that characterizes the modern world, in a sense putting the concerns of French existentialism on a more sociological footing. The unity of the transcendental and the social as expressed in custom and community-that is, in religion-had been greatly weakened in the eighteenth-century Age of Reason. It has been a sobering experience to realize that the issues of happiness or sadness must be introduced into nature, since nature will not answer such questions directly-or, more accurately, nature is about both happiness and sadness, life and death. The dilemma of freedom stressed by earlier French existentialists is carried on by Touraine in his sociological discourses; and, like them, he sometimes clears a path, and sometimes, like the rest of us, he seems to be caught in a maze. "Freedom for what?" has always been the question the existentialists failed to answer, for freedom for them often seemed to substitute for human nature and morality, freedom acting as a pure, distilled essence of human nature removed from all contingency, and therefore from all meaningful context in which it can function.

As a sociologist, Touraine struggles to provide that context, and, I should add, perhaps in a more unconscious way, so does Ernest Gellner. Does Touraine succeed? I think he does, partly. Touraine's book is a meditation on how social utility-on what is useful to society-has become the source of all values, and how this falters because of contradictions in social interests. Social differentiation, like all the king's men, can't easily put all the pieces of social integration back together again.

For those interested in the sociology and psychology of disillusionment, Touraine offers much to think about. Gellner, with his emphasis on progress defined as political freedom, thinks we should make the attempt. For those who wish to concentrate on certain "practical" issues, to get beyond intellectual history and learn from political history why intellectual elites can often be so self-serving, or to find an explanation for the failure in Eastern Europe of communism, Gellner's book has much to offer.

Touraine and Gellner do not really contradict each other; they just look at modernity as being, respectively, half empty and half full. It is a pity that the debate between Ernest Gellner, the defender of Anglo-American traditions of liberty and of that procedural justice which falls under the name of limited government, and Alain Touraine and the propounders of Continental European thought who proposed a search for substantive justice without proposing procedures for finding it, has ended so soon.

Though both sides in this debate pointed out important lessons, the loss of Gellner may be more important for one significant reason. He could write of intellectual history without himself succumbing to the arrogance of being an intellectual. He had that small bond with the common people in which he showed that he was satisfied at being their observer, not their teacher. In doing so he became, not without that touch of urbane irony so common in his own writings, not so bad a teacher himself, practicing, for all his fertile output, a kind of British understatement to the end. Of course, if Alain Touraine is right, ours may not be such a great time for being so laid-back.

Still, with Gellner's faith in virtue freely chosen, and with Touraine's faith in freedom for individual and collective creativity, these two thinkers may not be so far apart after all.