|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
Ernest Gellner, among his other accomplishments, was a scholar of
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."
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.