This article is based on the transcription of a lecture Gellner gave in October 1995 in Heidelberg at a conference organized by the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut on “Religion als Kultur und Antikultur” (Religion as Culture and Anti-Culture). This was most probably Gellner’s last lecture as he died in early November 1995 in Prague. The eminent anthropologist and philosopher had been an active participant in many events of the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, Vienna. In the framework of the TERC-Program, he served as the first European Chair in Social Sciences and Humanities at Warsaw University, and he was a contributor to Transit.
Ernest Gellner looks for the cause of some surprising developments in the twentieth century: the rising strength of Islam (in particular, Muslim fundamentalism); the upsurge in nationalism; and the unexpected and total collapse of Marxism. Behind both Muslim fundamentalism and nationalism, Gellner sees a break from local communities and hierarchies. And the main fault in Marxism, says Gellner, was the abolition of the profane. The big success stories today, he writes, “are the plural, liberal societies – what I call the unholy alliance of consumerist unbelievers.”
Tonight I will try to explain a few of the major striking events of our century – some very surprising, some a little less surprising. Very surprising is the tremendous success of Islam in maintaining and strengthening itself. Most social scientists accepted the secularization thesis, which argued that in modern or industrial societies the hold of religion over society and over the hearts and minds of men declines. This seems more or less true with one striking exception: the world of Islam, where the hold of religion over society and over men in the past hundred years has certainly not diminished and seems to have increased.
The other equally surprising event of the century is the unexpected and total collapse of Marxism. Marxism is often and correctly compared to religion, sometimes even described as secular religion, as it had many of its features – total vision, the promise of righteousness on earth, etc. It did, however, lack one prominent feature of religion – that is, when religions are established, they retain a hold on the hearts and minds of men, and do not collapse easily. When they do collapse, there is some resistance and struggle; some people remain loyal to them. Marxism succeeded in retaining the loyalty of a remarkably small number (perhaps none at all). In the post-communist world, there is, of course, the frequently noted return of the ex-Communists. But these merely stand for the maintenance of their own position, less radical change, keeping the welfare provisions, and so on – they are basically conservatives. The really interesting thing about them is that none of them have returned under the “banner of Marxism”. In those societies that were under Marxist domination for forty to seventy years, the Bolsheviks utterly failed to emulate the Jesuits and other representatives of the Counter-Reformation in leaving deep marks in the souls and the societies of their adherents. This is also an interesting and important fact that is worth trying to understand.
Then there are some facts that are just slightly less surprising, though they were not properly anticipated: the strength of nationalism in this century (which is no longer surprising). But of course, for a long time the decline of nationalism was confidently predicted. The syllogism that entails the demise of nationalism has two features. First of all, it is shared by Marxists and liberals, and secondly, it is absolutely cogent. The premises are correct, the conclusion follows from the premises; the only thing that is wrong with the conclusion is that it does not correspond to the real world. The argument is very simple: nationalism depends on ethnic, cultural, and national differences, which it turns into principles of political membership and loyalty. This is unquestionably true. Secondly, the conditions of the industrial world, with the tendency towards mobility, dissolution of local communities, instability, standardization of communication, and so on erode cultural, linguistic, and ethnic differences. Thus one can conclude that nationalism ultimately collapses in the modern world because the foundations upon which it is built are gradually eroded.
Unfortunately, as I said, the conclusion does not correspond to the facts. Thus there must be some additional factors that are working; I shall try to point them out. The proposition that nationalism would ultimately collapse was, on the whole, shared by Marxists and Liberals. These two camps disagreed only about the precise causes of its collapse. For the Liberals, it was the international division of labour and the advantages thereof, and for the Marxists, it was the terrible melting pot of the pauperized international proletariat, which through its pauperization and alienation would be separated from its erstwhile ethnic roots and would have loyalty only to that terrible melting pot. In their cultural nakedness, there would be something like a pure essence of humanity that would reassert itself in the proletariat.
The fourth feature of our century is the relative success of semi-secular, pluralist, liberal “democracies” which have won the wars in which they were involved. They won the military war that ended in 1945 (which was a close call) as well as the economic war that ended in 1989. This was one of the most conclusive conflicts in the history of mankind. Perhaps the fifth feature, the right-wing alternative vision of how to run an industrial society (which was eliminated in 1945) also deserves some comment.