Civil Society and Its Rivals
Email this review


 A brutally esoteric philosophical peregrination concerning the prospects for civil society in post-Marxist Eastern and Central Europe. Gellner (Social Anthropology/Cambridge; Director of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism/Central European Univ., Prague) notes that a call to civil society has become a rallying cry for many nations formerly behind the Iron Curtain. But he is concerned that discussion about the nature of civil society has fallen out of vogue in Western philosophy. He defines civil society as ``a cluster of institutions and associations strong enough to prevent tyranny, but which are, none the less, entered and left freely, rather than imposed by birth or sustained by awesome ritual.'' Gellner refines this definition by discussing several of civil society's ``rivals,'' most notably, the Marxist state and Islam. He views the failure of the Marxist state primarily as the failure of the first large-scale secular religion, and he develops the notion that the sacralization of the everyday world, particularly the world of work, was an unsustainable venture. As the routinization of daily life began to take hold of Soviet consciousness, retreat into the sacred was made impossible since the sacred had been ideologically inverted into the mundane. This presupposes a sort of Durkheimian functionality with regard to the purpose of ritual and transcendental experience. Gellner's analysis of Islam is no less abstract and seems to capture even less of the spirit and diversity of the religion. In his discussion of the preconditions for civil society, Gellner becomes mired in historical asides that have little to do with current sociopolitical reality and that probably never had much to do with the reality of any period--comparing, for instance, the ideas of Machiavelli and de Tocqueville regarding the relative geographic distribution of social atomization. Whatever insights Gellner may have into specific historical circumstances are obscured by sociological jargon and abstraction.

Pub Date: Dec. 7th, 1994
ISBN: 0-7139-9114-3
Page count: 225pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1994