Ernest Gellner

Ernest Gellner, who has died a few days short of his 70th birthday, was brought up in Prague, in an urban intellectual Jewish family. He came to England in 1939, aged 13, and went to school in St Albans, getting a scholarship to Balliol when he was 17. During the war he served with the Czech Armoured Brigade, which took part in the siege of Dunkirk and then went to the victory parade in Prague. He ended a year's military service as a Private. His experience prepared him to take a pessimistic view of the future of Czechoslovakia: the Brigade had two lines of command, one official, the other a hidden hierarchy of members of the communist party. "There was a man who was a private who ... had been an officer in the International Brigade in Spain ... and when he finally crossed back to Czechoslovakia he suddenly became a lieutenant". In Bohmeia the Party attracted all the distinctive authoritarian personalities, and the future "Stalinoid dictatorship" was apparent even in 1945. He admitted later that he had assumed that "Stalinism was due to stay for another 300 years, like the darkness imposed on Bohemia by the Counter-Reformation", and he put Czechoslovakia out of mind until the late 1960s, when counter-currents of liberalism became apparent. He returned to Britain in 1945, completed his studies at Oxford, went to Edinburgh as a lecturer in philosophy, and two years later joined the sociology department at the London School of Economics in 1949 where he remained for 35 years, becoming Professor of Philosophy with Special Reference to Sociology, and then Professor of Philosophy. He moved to Cambridge as WIlliam Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology in 1984. He retired from Cambridge in 1993, and became head of the centre for the study of nationalism in the Central European University at Prague. He was elected to the British Academy in 1974.

At the LSE he came into contact with the social anthropologists Firth, Schapera and Stirling. Anthropology, at LSE, then, was attractive because it was concerned with the real world, and because the discipline offered the possibility of a vigorous community of scholars producing comparable work and taking notice of each other. Philosophy was too abstract; the sociological establishment was evolutionist, with "the younger people torn between their Marxism and their scientistic Parsonism". Politics was dominated by Oakeshott, and economics was "a mixture of second-rate mathematics with very bad sociology". In 1954 he went climbing with the LSE mountaineering society, and had to choose between an expedition to the Himalayas or the Atlas. He went to the Atlas ‹ partly because he anticipated that the establishment of the State of Israel would lead to confrontation with the Muslim world, and he wished to find out more about it. He then began the association with Morocco and the Berbers of the Central High Atlas that resulted in Saints of the Atlas. It was a study of how holy men kept a fragile and broken peace among the shepherds who moved each spring from the plains of the ante-Atlas into the high pastures, and back again each autumn: a hundred thousand people, a million or so sheep traversing the bottle-necks of the mountain passes twice each year. It was an ideal opportunity for theft and rustling, and the Saints were there to maintain the peace without establishing any acceptable claim to political control. His book, criticised by scholars who have worked in Moroccan archives, remains important reading because it analyses so clearly the ways in which pastoral peoples, who had been in contact with states for a couple of millennia, maintained an ideology of total rejection of the Moroccan state, and a determination not to make anything of the kind themselves. Their practice was more often than not in accord with the ideology.

This was his only monograph based on fieldwork of the traditional anthropological kind. He maintained his scholarly and political interest in Islam and in Morocco, organising conferences and publishing important collections of papers of his own and others, of which the most notable are Arabs and Berbers (1973), with C. Micaud and Patrons and Clients in Mediterranean Societies (1978), with John Waterbury. His own elaboration of the Moroccan themes is contained in the virtuoso small monograph on Ibn Khaldun and David Hume which leads the essays collected in Muslim Society (1982).

From the mid-sixties he began to publish extensively on the Soviet Union and the satellite states. He was especially important for bringing work published in Russian to the attention of English- and French-speaking anthropologists; and his championship of the work of Anatoly Khazanov was a major fruit of this branch of his scholarship. It was Gellner, with some Dutch colleagues, who campaigned successfully to get Khazanov permission to leave the USSR for Israel. In 1989 he spent a year in Moscow, intending to study the organisation of social sciences; but he was present as a witness at the flowering of perestroika as a moral and intellectual force, and he made an extensive but informal study of the changes in the Muscovite academic and literary world in that crucial year. This was ‹together with his work on nationalism‹ his consuming interest in the last few years.

Within anthropology he was also important because he brought a breadth of historical and philosophical learning to the discussion of what were and are often naive and ignorant arguments: he was able to show that anthropologists (who often seem to think they have invented everything) have a context, a place in history, and that the problems which perplex them have analogues outside their own discipline. Many of his contemporaries and seniors did not welcome this kind of contextualisation of their work; to his students, who remained devoted and affectionate even if they came later to disagree with him, this aspect of his work was an enhancement and a liberation. The other characteristically Gellnerian contribution to anthropology was his instinct for building simple models of social systems and social process, and for explaining them with wit and seductive charm, defending them with great firmness once he was convinced that he had given the best account so far.

David Glass, the sociologist, once said "with a touch of irritation", that he wasn't sure whether the next revolution would come from the right or from the left; but he was quite sure that, wherever it came from, the first person to be shot would be Ernest Gellner. Gellner came to anthropology trailing clouds of controversy caused by his attack on linguistic philosophy (Words and Things, 1958). In the 1960s, he wrote about Soviet anthropology partly to provoke Western Marxists: the Soviet practitioners made subtle and useful contributions with a framework of ideas that they could criticise only tacitly. He thought this was much more serious than the work of Western Marxists, whom he considered used their Marxisms as a series of rallying-points for recruiting personal followers in the internecine struggles of the Left. This was provocative, and he relished that. He was appalled by the attempts to introduce Wittgensteinian notions and ideas into anthropology, and combative when these (under the influence of Geertz in particular) were used to support what he considered to be a provincial and folksy relativism. He was very serious in his condemnation of Geertz and Edward Said, though it is clear that Gellner's ability to joke his way through an argument, infuriated his opponents. The same was true in his conflicts with feminists whom he thought were too often tempted by relativism, or by an inconsistent admixture of relativism with rectitude.

He was witty, liked anecdotes and gossip, enjoyed other people's intrigues, and lived intensely with and for his friends and students. He was deeply loyal to his family.

He had, he said, never had a faith, and had never had a community. His studies of relatively closed communities (Moroccan Berbers, Soviet Communists) with faiths that claimed closure and perfection (Islam, Marxism), was respectful, tinged with regret, and cahracterised by merciless exposure of inconsistency and circularity. At the same time he refused to accept relativist positions, which he regarded as a betrayal of an intellectual's duty, as a kind of unmanly self-indulgence, His University Sermon, delivered in King's College Cambridge in 1992, described a world with three kinds of people: fundamentalists, relativists and "Enlightenment Puritans". He was a cautious and self-aware (and self-mocking) member of the the third category, but regarded the "ambiguous, unstable, uneasy relationship between Faith, Indifference, and Seriousness" as the condition of contemporary intellectual life, and even to be accepted "if only one is allowed to vacillate between the options, and they do not press upon one too hard".

John Davis, Warden of All Souls
appeared in the Guardian, November 7th, 1995.