Ernest Gellner and the land of the Soviets

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Ernest Gellner’s many writings on the Soviet socialist project sought to come to terms with one of the key sociological and ideological arcs of the 20th century: the rise and fall of a utopian experiment, one that for some served as a kind of proof of principle, whose modern intellectual origins were more than 170 years old at the time of its demise. Gellner loved Russia and spent much time there. And he engaged with its 20th century very deeply, although I think from a very distinctive position outside of the Soviet experience. His analyses of the socialist bloc included attention to Soviet Marxism as a developmental ideology, as a secular religion that sacralized the everyday, leaving no room for a certain kind of civil society; and he offered the outlines of an account of its failure – from its revolutionary heroism through the cynicism of its stagnation to the possibilities and constraints of so-called post-socialist space. Along the way, Gellner’s insistent critiques of Soviet Marxism – of both its theoretical and actually-existing varieties – were powerful, sometimes polemical, and latterly self-critical. So what can we now make of Gellner’s rich analyses of the utopia that failed? This paper offers relative departures from pieces of Gellner’s intellectual trail, in the hope that at least part of the significance of the 20th century lies within the lessons that we draw from the utopia that failed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)100-112
JournalThesis Eleven
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2015


  • Civil society
  • Ernest Gellner
  • Marxism
  • Soviet Union
  • utopia


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