Isaiah Berlin called nationalism "the direct product of wounds inflicted on a sense of common nationhood, or common race or culture". One cannot but add that it tends to inflict the same wounds on the perceived nationhood or ethno-cultural heritage of others. An atavism attends the impulses that drive such nationalism: blind attachment to tribe and soil, real or imagined.
Yet there is something profoundly modern about nationalism. Statehood, institutional organisation and cultural mobilisation need a level of development that agrarian society can hardly summon. For the social anthropologist Ernest Gellner, the evidence weighed heavily against a view of nationalism as primordial, despite the wellsprings of many of its ingredients. Equally, Gellner was at pains to show that nationalism is not an ideological accident of 19th-century Europe.
Rather, this elegant little book sketches the unfolding of a phenomenon entwined with social and economic transitions to modernity. The "status expressed through culture", which is the staple of nationalism, could not exist where differentiation was based on clan, social class and locale. It was not cultural chauvinism that was absent, but the idea of nationhood as a political rallying cry.
Surely the 18th-century Enlightenment with its prizing of universal reason over narrow attachments, coupled with the advent of industrialisation, could not have been conducive to nationalism?
But those were just the conditions that presaged an incendiary coming together of state and culture. Both had been integral to European life for some time. What gave them new potency were the economic and political contests of the industrial age. Protestantism turned out to be an especially congenial carrier not only of high culture to vernaculars, but also vice versa - abetting nationalism's quest for precisely the latter elevation.
The Enlightenment's barren rationality, moreover, spurred Romanticism. And, if that were not enough, Darwinism gave it a biological twist. It is a small, predictable, Nietzschean step from there to the genocides and ethnic cleansing that still to plague us.
Still, Gellner finds cause for optimism in the grounding of nationalist fires in socioeconomic fields. The fires tend to be doused by affluence, stability and the non-territorial cultural associations spurred by globalisation. These militate against disturbing the peace overmuch. Also, societies are judged less by territory than by the economic growth rate.
Gellner fails to consider another, quite salubrious trend: civic nationalism. It is an unexpected omission from the author of Conditions of Liberty. The distinction is a vital one. In Canada, civic nationalism confronts ethnic nationalism in Quebec. Now Quebec faces irredentism from native Cree and Inuit communities, as well as from Anglo communities. The clashes are being played out in Ottawa's reference to the Supreme Court on Quebec's right to unilaterally secede.
On the other hand, Gellner reprises his theme from Conditions of Liberty about resistance to secularisation in the Muslim world. This is cast as thwarting nationalism, but not the triumph of fundamentalism. This analysis would be news in ex-Soviet Central Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Those quarrels aside, Nationalism is replete with shrewd insight; Gellner's facile command of history runs throughout the book. Erudition sans footnotes, but with an index, is no mean achievement on this vast topic - with brevity into the bargain.
Amyn B. Sajoo is a scholar of international affairs and consultant based in Vancouver, Canada.
Author - Ernest Gellner
ISBN - 0 297 81612 8
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £11.99
Pages - 114