Ernest Gellner

A tale of two émigrés: One of whom wanted to subvert the British State, while the other embraced it

If Ralph Miliband devoted his life to “the god that failed” — Marxism — Ernest Gellner devoted much of his to the god that didn’t — Islam. But whereas Miliband’s books were really political tracts masquerading as sociology, Gellner used the techniques of sociology to understand a genuine political problem: why Marxism had failed and Islam had flourished. 

While Miliband saw his role as the subversion of the British State, Gellner was profoundly grateful to Britain and contemptuous of academics who indoctrinated students rather than opening their minds. In his first book, Words and Things, a sparkling demolition of the fashionable “linguistic philosophy” of the day, he denounced Oxford dons for sneering at ideas as “products of carelessness or confusion”. In later life, he was equally scathing about those who corrupted academic life with political ideology.

Yet it was characteristic of Gellner that he remained on friendly terms with Miliband when they both taught at the LSE, despite Gellner’s lifelong opposition to everything that Miliband stood for. Among the LSE’s extraordinary array of émigrés and exiles in those years, Gellner distinguished himself above all as an observer of the intellectual life — a critical, even caustic observer, no doubt, but always rigorous in the pursuit of objective truth. 

Where Miliband, following his master Marx, thought philosophers had missed the point, which was not to understand the world but to change it, Gellner realised that the world was changing anyway with terrifying rapidity and that understanding these changes was much more demanding than idle talk of revolution. To this end, he mastered the techniques, not only of philosophy, but of anthropology and sociology. Gellner’s omnivorous intellectual appetite meant that he was equally at home among the “Saints of the Atlas” (the title of his classic study of the Muslim holy men of the Berber tribes of Morocco) and the “Narodniks of North Oxford” (his nickname for the tweedy targets of Words and Things).

Gellner was a product of Prague, the same German/Jewish/Czech melting pot as Kafka. At the end of his life he returned there to set up the Centre for the Study of Nationalism in response to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. As one of the “disinherited minds” of the lost world of Habsburg Mitt-eleuropa, he never lost his acute ear for the sinister manoeuvres of intellectual charlatans. His excellent  biographer John A. Hall (Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography, Verso, £29.99) has unearthed Gellner’s polemics against various fashionable figures of the day. He defended Bernard Lewis’s critique of the self-hating Anglo-American liberal against Noam Chomsky, who blamed the West even for such communist monsters as Pol Pot, asking: “Why should a man judge his own society by an absurd standard, unless he has the need to use a standard which will then enable him to condemn that society with vehemence?”

He poured scorn on Edward Said’s foolish fantasies about the role of literature in imperialism. Said accused Gellner of an “obsessive revulsion for Islam” and of lacking the languages to do proper fieldwork. In fact, Gellner spoke Berber fluently, but he ignored the ad hominem insults, pointing out that the best scholarship on Oriental societies came from Westerners, including colonial administrators, rather than Said’s ideological confrères. Although Said denied his own political correctness, the charge stuck.

Gellner’s view of Muslim societies may, indeed, prove to be his most lasting contribution. What struck him most forcibly was the fact that Islam had not only survived but flourished in the modern world, having proved immune to the secularisation of the Judaeo-Christian West. In his posthumous ly published study, Nationalism, Gellner argued that, while the inevitability of secularisation might be valid for other civilisations, “in Islam, it is not true at all”. Indeed, Islam had proved more resilient than its supposedly more modern ideological rival, Marxism. Nor did the other great European ideological export, nationalism, replace Islam as an agency of development. Gellner attributed this to the fact that Islam was “modern, but not too modern”. 

What was Gellner’s solution to the threat posed by Islam? He believed passionately in what his teacher Karl Popper had called the open society, and he preferred to call civil society, but by which both men meant the liberal values embodied in the Britain that had offered them refuge. “I am not a relativist,” he wrote. “The existence of a culture-transcending truth seems to me the most important single fact about the human condition.” 

But he was pessimistic about preaching the superiority of Western values to Islamic or other fundamentalists, because “the nature of our choice prevents us from proving its pre-eminent merit. We have to live with this.” After the first Gulf War, Gellner was disappointed that an “unholy alliance” to defend Western civilisation had not emerged. Subsequent events, however, suggest that his pessimism was justified.

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