Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is one of the most celebrated and debated intellectual works of the 20th century. In this seminal piece, Anderson lays out his own theoretical definition of the nation, which is informed by the work of other thinkers such as Renan and Gellner, as well as a robust analysis of modern history centered on the Americas, Europe and several colonial territories. Having concluded that the nation is, as the title suggests, imagined, Anderson examines the cultural process of its creation. In doing so, he hopes to clarify why such abstract denominations of humanity can command such profound emotional followings and inspire sacrifice as they do.
There are several key features of Anderson’s definition that contrast with other theorists’ understandings of nationality. His particular theory of nationalism is centered around the contention that the nation is “an imagined political community– and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” He considers nations ‘limited’ because no matter how large, they are always defined as finite and exclusive, in relation to others that lie beyond their perceived boundaries. ‘Sovereign’ has to do the with the historical definition of nations as a departure from other forms of dominion, principally the religious hold of the Catholic Church over European kingdoms. The use of the term ‘community’ is derived from Anderson’s view of the nation as a “deep, horizontal comradeship” which commands an emotional allegiance from those who belong to it.
In this understanding of the nation, Anderson seeks to explain its seemingly paradoxical nature, which he describes as “the objective modernity of nations to the historian’s eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists” and “the political power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence.” He often refers to the nation as a ‘cultural artefact’ which is capable of changing over time and being transposed across distance. Ultimately Anderson diverges from other prominent scholars and summarizes his thesis in the claim that “the creation of these artefacts towards the end of the eighteenth century was the spontaneous distillation of a complex ‘crossing’ of discrete historical forces; but that, once created, they became ‘modular,’ capable of being transplanted […] to a great variety of social terrains.” Anderson spends the remainder of the text explaining the role of these historical forces and how they intersected in various cases, resulting in the multitude of mature and emerging nationalities present in the modern world. He focuses on the development of vernacular languages that wrested power from elites, and print-as-commodity facilitating the spread of information and notions of simultaneity, as key historical forces which intersected to spark the development of nation-states.
To better understand the reasoning behind Anderson’s convictions about nationalism, it is informative to contextualize Imagine Communities in the time period during which it was produced. As Anderson’s work was first published in 1983, there was a sizable sample of regional decolonization movements in the preceding fifty years that had resulted in the formation of new African and Asian nations. This left the major powers with a host of new states to contend with, especially as the Cold War’s bipolar international system led into the negotiation of alliances and fortification. Thinkers such as Anderson wrote for an intellectual audience– in his case, the English intelligentsia– who sought to inform their opinions about foreign policy in a theoretical rather than strategic decision-making capacity. In short, they were the educated non-military elite with time for cerebral reflection on the historical roots of revolutions seen in the paper.
Marxism was also a topic of more practical scholarly discussion during the Cold War period; particularly its hotly contested claim that capitalist class struggle was the root of all modern war. This would logically preclude the possibility of warfare between Marxist states. Why, then, did the Red Army often find itself at war with revolutionary ethnic minorities of its own realm? Such internal strife seemed to suggest that there was some other, more visceral force at work than a shared class struggle that unifies the transnational Marxism. Anderson’s theory applied to this question provides a far more convincing alternative, explaining the Soviet Bloc’s membership as a projection of an imagined Russian cultural identity over surrounding nationalities, rather than a universalist Marxist ideology. Given the eventual worsening of the subdivisions of the Soviet Union, and continual splintering over ethnoracial lines, nationalism seems to have been at the root of conflict even within (not just between) the bipolar system’s two major players.
A major strength of how Anderson supports his theory of nationalism is that he credibly demonstrates an understanding of social structures in the diverse areas and periods he writes about. Anderson uses this base of knowledge to broaden the discussion of nationalism beyond the Eurocentric view of other authorities on the subject. One of his most compelling and unique additions to the study of nationalism is the claim that North and South American Creoles were the first pioneers of the imagined community, providing a model for the development of the nation which was later paralleled in the European cultural revolutions of the 19th century. His knowledge of Spanish American demographic nuances and early nationalist rhetoric from Mexico suggest that Anderson has a level of insight which Europe-focused provincialism has missed by viewing early America as a monolithic colonial frontier. Drawing heavily on firsthand accounts by Jesuit missionaries, as well as early examples of vernacular journalism that united disparate areas of Spanish America, Anderson effectively captures popular sentiments that suggest a deep identification with a shared Creole ancestry.
Though he does well to acknowledge the agency of postcolonial territories in developing national identities via language, print capitalism and education, the Englishman Anderson occasionally falls into the trap of ignoring his own nation’s historical tendency to suppress such efforts. In many cases, colonies were not simply awaiting the organic alignment of factors to sprout nationalist ideology, but were victim to deliberate national suppression by their imperial conquerors. Particularly in Chapter 5, where he uses the development of Ireland as a case study, Anderson conveniently glosses over the role that the English played in attempting to eradicate Irish nationalism through colonial homogenization. He paints this as more of an inadvertent byproduct of English nationality being established through language. But in “The Politics of the Irish Language,” NYU’s Sean Cahill highlights the historic importance of Gaelic as a politically symbolic issue of Ireland’s claim to nationhood, and forced Anglicanization as a tactic of English suppression. Banning Gaelic language instruction in public education, as well as targeting Gaelic activists in internment, is a clear case of English hegemony combating the vernacular linguistic aspect of nationalism– which Anderson himself emphasizes earlier in the book as a key force in Western European nations’ individuation from a larger body, in that case the Catholic Church.
Imagined Communities’ publication has prompted a wide variety of reactions, ranging from theoretical critiques to case studies of emerging imagined national identities.
In Itzigsohn and vom Hau’s “Unfinished Imagined Communities: States, Social Movements, And Nationalism in Latin America,” the sociology researchers use Anderson’s model to analyze trajectories in the development of postcolonial Latin American nations, giving particular attention to the role of modernization. The article recognizes Anderson for filling a gap in the literature regarding nationalism by exploring its origins in the aforementioned chapter on Creole nationalism. “Most theories of nationalism are grounded in European case studies. One of the few notable exceptions is Benedict Anderson’s highly acclaimed Imagined Communities, which argues that early nineteenth-century “creole pioneers” invented nations in the struggle for Independence from Spain, thereby establishing a “blueprint” for nationalism around the globe.”The article also highlights key criticisms that Imagined Communities received from the academic community. Foremost among these is the postmodern view that Anderson mainly focuses on the intellectual elite, failing to fully account for the role of ‘subaltern’ actors in the development of Creole national identity. Nevertheless, the study largely confirms the validity of his analysis concerning Latin-American nations’ development, even as they progressed into the early 20th century.
In a 2006 piece published in the London Review of Books, T.J. Clark poses the question of how technological developments of modernity might influence the formation or reformation of imagined communities since Anderson’s initial publication. He proposes that new ‘technics of representation’ might play a role in reshaping or even subverting established national identities across the world. Clark describes the rapid expansion of visual media such as television as having a potential impact in the development of new transnational citizenries, likening the impact of ‘screen capitalism’ to that of the advent of print capitalism in Anderson’s argument. Interestingly, it is unclear whether he believes modernization has resulting in new nationalisms or the rehashing of old ones, as the main example he uses is religious in nature. “It seems to me that a complex rejigging of the balance of forces between nation and ummah, nation and congregation, nation and jihad, nation and chosen people, is underway in many parts of the world – and not only under the banner of Islam. And this has something to do with the new opportunities offered by screen capitalism.” He later states more explicitly the relevance of Imagined Communities and the parallels to print capitalism in modern technology’s impact: “A shuffling and grating of imagined communities is taking place. And this is connected, as I say, with the arrival of new technics of representation. Imagined Communities gives us the beginning of a way to think about just such matters, in its treatment of the effect of print capitalism on the day-to-day imagining of those things called ‘languages’, and its reflections on the role of the newspaper and the novel.” Clark makes a compelling argument that even as new modes of cultural expression and communication (‘technics of representation’) have developed, Anderson provides a historical model that is suggestive of their implications for present-day nations.
At a point in history where liberal internationalism has fallen out of favor and perceptions of national identity are again the focus of domestic politics, it is critical for academics to have a coherent explanation for the phenomenon of nationality. Anderson adds to this conversation by providing an exhaustive theory, grounded in multiple national histories and extraordinarily deep evidence, that pushes back on the primordialist viewpoint. Most importantly, he reorients the entire debate by explaining nationalism as a human construction centered around often-shaky perceptions of a shared past. Thus, he shows nationalism not to be uniquely modern nor rooted firmly in the past; rather, it resides in present reimaginings of a cultural past, which become more important to nationalists than the actual events which transpired.
Considering the significant political power that nationalist agendas still command in major states, Imagined Communities is surely relevant to the current world. But perhaps it needs to be revised in light of new levels of global interconnectivity. Humanity has developed technologies that make geography less relevant and language more universal, allowing for the conception of communities Anderson could not have anticipated in 1983. To build on his work, further research on nationalism in the modern age should seek to incorporate developments such as Clark’s ‘screen capitalism’ and, in some cases, lingering disputes over language. Newly produced works dealing with the EU or USA might seek to address the question: if Anderson correctly characterizes the nation as a mutable but finite category, what developments could prompt today’s nationalist ideologues to tighten or expand their definitions of national belonging?
Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism. New York: Verso, 2016.
Cahill, Sean. 2007. “The Politics Of The Irish Language”. New York University.
Clark, T.J. 2006. “In A Pomegranate Chandelier: Benedict Anderson”. London Review Of Books.
Itzigsohn, José, and Matthias vom Hau. 2006. “Unfinished Imagined Communities: States,
Social Movements, And Nationalism in Latin America”. Theory And Society 35 (2): 193-212. doi:10.1007/s11186-006-9001-1.