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In memory of Benedict Anderson: An extract from Imagined Communities

Sarah Shin14 December 2015

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Benedict Anderson, a hugely respected author and scholar, passed away on Saturday 12th December, 2015. His best-known book, Imagined Communities, was first published by Verso in 1983 and became an instant classic. The innovative approach that the book introduced in the study of nationalism—that 'nations' are socio-cultural constructs, comprising otherwise atomised individuals who 'imagine' themselves to live in communion—showed Anderson at his best, combining a sharp intellectual mind with humour, compassion and an unrivalled knowledge of the societies he studied. We share the introduction to the book here. 

He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

- Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

Thus from a Mixture of all kinds began, That Het rogeneous Thing, An Englishman: In eager Rapes, and furious Lust begot, Betwixt a Painted Britton and a Scot: Whose gend'ring Offspring quickly learnt to bow, And yoke their Heifers to the Roman Plough: From whence a Mongrel half-bred Race there came, With neither Name nor Nation, Speech or Fame. In whose hot Veins new Mixtures quickly ran, Infus'd betwixt a Saxon and a Dane. While their Rank Daughters, to their Parents just, Receiv'd all Nations with Promiscuous Lust. This Nauseous Brood directly did contain The well-extracted Blood of Englishmen . . .

- Daniel Defoe, The True-Born Englishman

Perhaps without being much noticed yet, a fundamental transformation in the history of Marxism and Marxist movements is upon us. Its most visible signs are the recent wars between Vietnam, Cambodia and China. These wars are of world-historical importance because they are the first to occur between regimes whose independence and revolutionary credentials are undeniable, and because none of the belligerents has made more than the most perfunctory attempts to justify the bloodshed in terms of a recognizable Marxist theoretical perspective. While it was still just possible to interpret the Sino-Soviet border clashes of 1969, and the Soviet military interventions in Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1980) in terms of — according to taste — 'social imperialism,' 'defending socialism,' etc., no one, I imagine, seriously believes that such vocabularies have much bearing on what has occurred in Indochina.

If the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia in December 1978 and January 1979 represented the first large-scale conventional war waged by one revolutionary Marxist regime against another," China's assault on Vietnam in February rapidly confirmed the precedent. Only the most trusting would dare wager that in the declining years of this century any significant outbreak of inter-state hostilities will necessarily find the USSR and the PRC – let alone the smaller socialist states — supporting, or fighting on, the same side. Who can be confident that Yugoslavia and Albania will not one day come to blows? Those variegated groups who seek a withdrawal of the Red Army from its encampments in Eastern Europe should remind themselves of the degree to which its overwhelming presence has, since 1945, ruled out armed conflict between the region's Marxist regimes.

Such considerations serve to underline the fact that since World War II every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms – the People's Republic of China, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and so forth — and, in so doing, has grounded itself firmly in a territorial and social space inherited from the prerevolutionary past. Conversely, the fact that the Soviet Union shares with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland the rare distinction of refusing nationality in its naming suggests that it is as much the legatee of the prenational dynastic states of the nineteenth century as the precursor of a twenty-first century internationalist order.“

Eric Hobsbawm is perfectly correct in stating that ‘Marxist movements and states have tended to become national not only in form but in substance, i.e., nationalist. There is nothing to suggest that this trend will not continue.” Nor is the tendency confined to the socialist world. Almost every year the United Nations admits new members. And many 'old nations,' once thought fully consolidated, find themselves challenged by ‘sub’-nationalisms within their borders — nationalisms which, naturally, dream of shedding this sub-ness one happy day. The reality is quite plain: the 'end of the era of nationalism,' so long prophesied, is not remotely in sight. Indeed, nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.

But if the facts are clear, their explanation remains a matter of longstanding dispute. Nation, nationality, nationalism – all have proved notoriously difficult to define, let alone to analyse. In contrast to the immense influence that nationalism has exerted on the modern world, plausible theory about it is conspicuously meagre. Hugh Seton-Watson, author of far the best and most comprehensive English-language text on nationalism, and heir to a vast tradition of liberal historiography and social science, sadly observes: "Thus I am driven to the conclusion that no “scientific definition" of the nation can be devised; yet the phenomenon has existed and exists." Tom Nairn, author of the path-breaking The Break-up of Britain, and heir to the scarcely less vast tradition of Marxist historiography and social science, candidly remarks: The theory of nationalism represents Marxism's great historical failure.” But even this confession is somewhat misleading, insofar as it can be taken to imply the regrettable outcome of a long, self-conscious search for theoretical clarity. It would be more exact to say that nationalism has proved an uncomfortable anomaly for Marxist theory and, precisely for that reason, has been largely elided, rather than confronted. How else to explain Marx's own failure to explicate the crucial pronoun in his memorable formulation of 1848. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie'?" How else to account for the use, for over a century, of the concept national bourgeoisie' without any serious attempt to justify theoretically the relevance of the adjective? Why is this segmentation of the bourgeoisie – a world-class insofar as it is defined in terms of the relations of production – theoretically significant?

The aim of this book is to offer some tentative suggestions for a more satisfactory interpretation of the 'anomaly' of nationalism. My sense is that on this topic both Marxist and liberal theory have become etiolated in a late Ptolemaic effort to 'save the phenomena'; and that a reorientation of perspective in, as it were, a Copernican spirit, is urgently required. My point of departure is that nationality, or, as one might prefer to put it in view of that word's multiple significations, nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind. To understand them properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time, and why, today, they command such profound emotional legitimacy. I will be trying to argue that the creation of these artefacts towards the end of the eighteenth century' was the spontaneous distillation ofa complex 'crossing of discrete historical forces; but that, once created, they became 'modular,' capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations. I will also attempt to show why these particular cultural artefacts have aroused such deep attachments.

Concepts and Definitions

Before addressing the questions raised above, it seems advisable to consider briefly the concept of nation' and offer a workable definition. Theorists of nationalism have often been perplexed, not to say irritated, by these three paradoxes: 1. The objective modernity of nations to the historian's eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists. 2. The formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural concept – in the modern world everyone can, should, will have a nationality, as he or she has a gender– vs. the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations, such that, by definition, 'Greek' nationality is sui generis. 3. The 'political' power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence. In other words, unlike most other isms, nationalism has never produced its own grand thinkers: no Hobbeses, Tocquevilles, Marxes, or Webers. This 'emptiness' easily gives rise, among cosmopolitan and polylingual intellectuals, to a certain condescension. Like Gertrude Stein in the face of Oakland, one can rather quickly conclude that there is 'no there there'. It is characteristic that even so sympathetic a student of nationalism as Tom Nairn can nonetheless write that: " “Nationalism" is the pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable as “neurosis" in the individual, with much the same essential ambiguity attaching to it, a similar built-in capacity for descent into dementia, rooted in the dilemmas of helplessness thrust upon most of the world (the equivalent of infantilism for societies) and largely incurable.

Part of the difficulty is that one tends to hypostasize the existence of Nationalism-with-a-big-N – rather as one might Age-with-a-big-A – and then to classify ‘it’ as an ideology. (Note that if everyone has an age, Age is merely an analytical expression.) It would, I think, make things easier if one treated it as if it belonged with ‘kinship’ and ‘religion’, rather than with ‘liberalism’ or ‘fascism’.

In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. Renan referred to this imagining in his suavely back-handed way when he wrote that ‘Or l'essence d'une nation est que tous les individus aient beaucoup de choses en commun, et aussi que tous aient oublié bien des choses.' With a certain ferocity Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that ‘Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to selfconsciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.’ The drawback to this formulation, however, is that Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates ‘invention' to 'fabrication' and 'falsity,” rather than to 'imagining and 'creation'. In this way he implies that ‘true' communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations. In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined. Javanese villagers have always known that they are connected to people they have never seen, but these ties were once imagined particularistically – as indefinitely stretchable nets of kinship and clientship. Until quite recently, the Javanese language had no word meaning the abstraction ‘society’. We may today think of the French aristocracy of the ancien régime as a class; but surely it was imagined this way only very late. To the question 'Who is the Comte de X?' the normal answer would have been, not a member of the aristocracy, but the lord of X,' 'the uncle of the Baronne de Y," or ‘a client of the Duc de Z'.

The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet.

It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism between each faith's ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state.

Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

These deaths bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices? I believe that the beginnings of an answer lie in nationalism.

Read obituaries and tributes by Tariq Ali and others on the Verso blog.