Hirschman Lecture: Era, Culture, Absence, and Comparison

Benedict Anderson
February 17, 2012
40th World Congress of the International Institute of Sociology
Delhi, India

In the scholarly life, one should never underestimate the importance of chance. When I started to think about what I should say on this occasion, it seemed only obliging to begin with a few simple pieties about the famously “maverick” economist Albert Hirschman. Lazily, I opened Wikipedia to get a short account of his life, intellectual formation, and contributions. What I read was simultaneously ridiculous and interesting. Hirschman was described as having acquired German, Spanish, and Portuguese, as if he was a native speaker of American; in fact, his mother tongue was German, and his early second languages were French, Italian, and English. He came from a middle-class family of assimilated German Jews, but Wikipedia passed this over in silence. By the time he escaped to the US, in 1941, at the age of 26, he had studied in Berlin, Paris, London, and Trieste, obtained a doctorate, and published articles in French and Italian scholarly journals focused on the linkages between economics, politics, sociology, and demography. But Wikipedia’s “bibliography” of his work started only in 1946, making him look like a mainstream American academic. Almost nothing substantial was said about his political outlook and activities.

If Wikipedia had not been so infuriating, I might have shrugged and just pressed on. But thanks to the help of my distinguished Cornell colleague Peter Katzenstein, I was put in touch with Hirschman’s son-in-law Peter Gourevitch, also a distinguished political economy specialist, and through him reached the historian Jeremy Adelman, who generously sent me four marvelous chapters of his nearly completed biography of the famous “maverick,” all of them devoted to his education and his courageous political activities in late Weimar Germany, Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, and Pétain’s semi-France. Lesson: fury, chained to chance, can be productive.

Enchanted by these chapters, which rang many bells as I look back on my own scholarly and mildly political life, I decided to talk today about some affinities with Hirschman, under the rubrics Era, Culture, Absence, and Comparison.


Like everyone else, intellectuals and scholars are fundamentally formed by the era in which they grow up, even if they do not often reflect on their own lives from this perspective. Placid eras can have a soporific, conformist effect. On the other hand, eras of crisis create a turbulence that can be intellectually stimulating. Hirschman was born in 1915, too late to be mentally tattooed by World War I. I was born 21 years afterward, too late to be formed by World War II. But crises were up ahead. Hirschman happily went to an excellent Berlin gymnasium, focusing on France and the French, till he graduated less than one year before Hitler took power and began study at the University of Berlin. But he had already become a political activist as a member of a dissident youth wing of the German Social Democratic Party, whose political existence was abruptly eliminated by Hitler’s savage decrees in late March 1933. Barely 18 years old, Hirschman was forced to flee alone to Paris.

My Anglo-Irish father spent all of his peripatetic career in the service of China’s (ex-Imperial) Maritime Customs Service from 1914 to 1941. So I was born in Kunming, my younger brother “Perry” in London, and my younger sister in Denver, Colorado. My father, already very ill, tried to get us back to Ireland, but intensive submarine warfare in the Atlantic made this impossible till 1945. So I had primary education in Denver, Los Gatos, our hometown Waterford, and eventually the outer environs of London. It was an eccentric household, eating rice rather than potatoes and with shelves full of books about China in Chinese and English.

My political awakening came only in 1956, when I was a 20-year-old student at Cambridge University. In that year Britain, France, and Israel declared war on the nationalist military regime in Egypt. Walking back to my room, I noticed a small group of slender Indian and Sri Lankan students passionately orating against the war and Prime Minister Eden’s barefaced lies. Listening to them out of idle curiosity, I was stunned when a phalanx of large-bodied, enraged “Aryans” came to beat up the brown-skinned orators. Feebly trying to intervene, I found my spectacles torn off my nose and trampled into fragments on the grass. I had never been so angry in my life. My “moment” thus came not with the Cold War, which had been going on for 10 years, but with the agonies of decolonization: Cyprus, Malaysia, Algeria, Vietnam, Kenya, and so on.

I left to study the mysteries of “Government” at Cornell University in January 1958, for no better reason than that Indonesia was in the news—a civil war where right-wing elements, with the support of the CIA, seemed likely to succeed against the shaky regime of left-wing, populist President Soekarno. From 1962 to 1964, I lived happily in chaotic Indonesia studying the radical youth mobilizations and frail multiparty ruling coalitions that had created the armed “revolutionary” struggle for independence from the Netherlands between 1945 and 1949. My generation took “revolution” for granted, but it was not the kind of revolution to which the youngsters of the 1930s had been accustomed.

By the time I returned to the US, the turbulent 60s were getting under way, inspired by the heroic Afro-American struggle against segregation and racism and the impending full-scale American war in Vietnam, which also led to the devastation of Laos and Cambodia. But “the movement,” as my students and coeval colleagues called it, was quickly internationalized—to Japan, Germany, the UK, Italy, Canada, and best of all, France—in the legendary May Days of 1968. Universities in all these countries were the sites of sometimes violent struggles between students and university hierarchs and power-hungry state apparatuses.

For the first time in my sheltered life I was “mobilized” for marches, protests, disorganized agitation, speeches, and so on. I started to teach the History of Socialism in the widest sense, including my personal favorite, anarchism in its heyday. But the end of this era was on the horizon—first the US’s humiliating defeat in Indochina and then the miserable war between China, Vietnam, and Cambodia at the end of the 1970s, all controlled by Communist governments supposedly committed to “internationalism.” By then, I was in my early 40s.


A few years ago, in of all places, Oslo, I ran into Étienne Balibar, perhaps the last of the brilliant intellectuals who dominated French political culture and a lot of Anglo culture as well from the end of World War II till the late 70s. Angrily, he told me that (I paraphrase) “when I was young we detested Germans, but we read many of the works, in German, of the great German thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, when youngsters of both countries think of themselves as fellow-Europeans and spend time drinking at each other’s universities, they can barely read each other’s languages; it is all English.”

Our generation was perhaps the last that was trained to think “internationally” about culture internationally. One was supposed to learn to be “cultured,” which meant starting with Latin in primary school and moving on to ancient Greek, French, a bit of German, and some Russian (we didn’t really learn to speak these languages, just to read them). One was taught to admire Spanish painting, German music, Russian novels, translated Chinese classical poetry, Japanese movies (then at their international peak), etc. (I suspect that it was at the end of the 60s that the word “cultured” disappeared from the American language, to be replaced by the word “elitist,” which would have shocked Mosca, Pareto, and C. Wright Mills.)

In my little southeastern town in “backward” Ireland, there was almost no television, let alone computers, websites, and games, and films were usually in black and white. Our young lives were formed by wonderful traveling theatre troupes switching easily between Shakespeare, Wilde, O’Casey, Chekhov, and Beckett. Radio was still important: many evenings my family would listen to the lively reading of chapters from classical novels. In school we were also trained to memorize poetry—English, French, Russian, Greek and Latin, German, and Spanish too—and we competed with each other in oral performances. Even today, many of these poems are still there in the back of my while-crazy-for-Dostoievsky head.

These practices really disappeared in the UK by the end of the 50s. Adelman emphasizes how much Hirschman plunged privately into literature while he was fitfully studying international trade, accounting, and economics as a college student in Paris and London; this habit, Adelman avers, had a big influence on how Hirschman came later to think about economics. The only curious thing is that while crazy about Dostoievsky and the French masters, he seems to have had no interest in English literature.

There were two other aspects of “culture” in both our eras that are very striking in retrospect. Newspapers and general-interest magazines were then still excellent. Paris’s Le Monde was the finest model, but some first-class British minds made their living by regularly writing articles and reviews (not the chatty “columns” of today). In this way, intelligent right-wingers, moderates, and leftists all had their outlets. In those days too, very few British scholars were interested in compiling professional PhD theses in a specifically walled-off discipline. Instead they wrote books. By the end of the 70s, most of this had disappeared, and with it some serious conception of the “public intellectual” who writes for any readers rather than academic colleagues.

Out of this came a strange irony: starting in the late 60s, professionalism in American universities was on the rapid rise. There were certainly many good aspects to this change, but the longer-term consequence was the adoption of the characteristic occult literary style of the established professionals—lawyers, doctors, and of course practitioners of the “hard sciences.” Hence the birth and development of disciplinary argots, mostly understood only by other professionals and sealed off from general public communicative life.

In this drive toward professionalism, at least two engines were at work. One was certainly a misguided “scientism.” There were (and are) very few courses on the interesting history of political science in the US because the “discipline” is thought of like medicine: steady advances into the future, so that yesterday’s brilliant book is first made essential reading for students and 10 years later disappears into oblivion. Basic courses could politely begin with a few pages of Marx and Weber and then make an electric leap to “today.”

The other side of the transformation was the religion of “theory” (Hirschman was notoriously suspicious of theory). Too often the concept of theory was basically utilized to push the “professionalization” of the social sciences. But it was also shaped by American democratic-egalitarian culture. “Anyone can be a theorist, if he or she works hard enough,” one might say. But the truth is that big theorists are very rare, especially in so practical and pragmatic a culture as America’s. Conflict-full, amateurish Europe produced most of the “big theorists”—Heidegger and Wittgenstein, Hayek and Keynes, Malinovsky and Mauss, Durkheim and Pareto, Foucault and Derrida, Weber, Marx and Simmel. Peirce, Rawls, and Chomsky stand out as the great American exceptions. Hence the fallback onto “mid-level theory” chained to separate disciplines.

Let me add another factor which is usually unnoticed. When I arrived at still “amateur” Cornell University in 1958, all graduate students had to take an exam showing proficiency in two foreign languages. This policy followed European practice. The exam was not very tough, but American high schools were not the best places to produce youngsters with a serious control of any language other than American. By the end of the 60s, the old requirements were changed to insist on only one language and statistics. A decade later, foreign languages, except those needed for fieldwork in the Third World, largely disappeared. More and more academic books were published in which the references were entirely to books written or translated in American and published in the US. This was not really a jingoist turn but more an unconscious reflection of Anglo-American world hegemony and the progressivist belief that the US had the largest and most advanced universities in the world. The real effect of course has been what anyone would have expected: imperial provincialism. This is why the US is notorious for the very low numbers of non-English books (translated or not published in the US). Hirschman, entirely educated in Berlin, Paris, London, and Trieste, would have smiled ironically at this example of misguided professionalism and theorization. (His prose style is always elegant and lucid.)


As a bookish child, I was a hungry fan of Conan Doyle’s endless Sherlock Holmes stories. If you have enjoyed the stories, you will remember that down-to-earth Dr. Watson never solves any puzzle because he is always thinking about material evidence. In a famous passage, Sherlock tells him that this is not enough. A detective has to notice what is absent, invisible. I don’t recall when I began to think consciously about absence, but I am fairly sure that in the 70s I started to asked students not to criticize what was wrong, muddled, or unscientific in this book or that article but rather to consider what was invisible in them.

Disciplinary walls give you data but not absence. I remember casually eavesdropping on the friendly chatter of Allan Bloom, a top Cornellian conservative political theorist at the time, as he escorted a friend to lunch: “People don’t realize that Classical Greek had no word for power.” As a dumb former Classicist, I said to myself: “Nonsense!” But Sherlock gave me a useful prod. So I looked over some of the famous texts of Plato and Aristotle and had to admit that this nice, politically detestable man was right. So? Let’s see if there is the same absence in old Javanese chronicles and poems. It turned out that the “blank” existed in remote Southeast Asia.

So the problem became: how can one explain why these polities, which did not know of each other’s existence, were in this respect so alike? I had always been a fan of Hobbes, not least for his deliciously ironic description of the state as a Mortal God. Machiavelli too. These men were the pioneers of the radical expulsion of God and Gods from political theory. The outcome of their writings was the idea that power was relational, merely the name for self-generated coercion linking human beings. Old Java and Old Greece, on the other hand, regarded power as something ontological, a “thing” in the hands of gods, spirits, and universal cosmic nature, accessible by, but independent of, human societies. In my earliest quasi-theoretical work, “The Concept of Power in Javanese Culture,” I tried to show that many things that struck foreigners as irrational in Javanese history and politics could be explained as rational, provided that one started from the assumption of power as a non-human “thing.”

The next time this kind of epiphany occurred to me came at the end of the 70s, when I was starting to think generically about nationalism and its perplexities. In post–World War II Europe, thanks to Hitler and Mussolini, nationalism was generally regarded as dangerous, absurd, and antiquated (except in your country or mine). It wasn’t taught at any global level. Oddly enough, the UK, the last non-national Western polity, was the only place where there was an intelligent debate on this subject. Famous Jews—the communist economist and economic historian Eric Hobsbawm, the libertarian “enlightened” emigré philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner, the right-wing ex-Iraqi political scientist Elie Kedourie, and Anthony Smith, the impressive Orthodox Jewish historian of nationalism along ethnic lines—were more or less aligned against Scottish Nationalist–New Left Marxist Tom Nairn’s provocative 1977 book The Breakdown of Britain. All of these very different Jews, some of whom still had intimate ties to vanished, supra-national Austro-Hungary, were annoyed by Nairn’s provocations and his support for Scottish Nationalism. My Imagined Communities was written, quite locally, to defend Nairn, who was a good friend and of my generation. But most of the debate was confined to Europe and paid very little attention to anticolonial nationalism, which I had been studying in invisible Indonesia. Furthermore, Nairn also pointed to an astonishing absence when he remarked that Classical Marxism had never dealt seriously with the nationalist phenomenon. It was simple for me to make the same point about liberalism and conservatism—and then ask myself, why?

The epiphany occurred when I asked a political scientist colleague, a distinguished specialist on politics in the US, for help in studying American nationalism. The reply was more or less: “Oh, you mean 19th-century Manifest Destiny ideology! Here are the best books!” But what I had in mind was “now.” Any foreigner living in the US feels the hurricane force of contemporary American nationalism in everyday life, on TV and radio, in newspapers, advertisements, movies, and political celebrations. It then occurred to me that in some way nationalism is like oxygen, something one never notices unless one has a bad asthma attack. Great thinkers had not thought much about nationalism because already in the 19th century it was political oxygen and couldn’t be studied seriously within the disciplinary fortress of political science. One had to look elsewhere—to anthropology, economics, history, and literature.


When I arrived at Cornell to study what was called “Government,” I had never taken any course on the subject and was therefore naively surprised that the department was divided into four parts described as American Politics, Comparative Politics, International Relations, and Political Philosophy. I asked several of my fellow students and some un-scary professors why American Politics was exempted from comparison. Shouldn’t American Politics be a subsection of Comparative Politics? The answer was a resounding “NO!,” usually on the practical grounds that most undergraduates were only interested in American politics and the workload for Americanist professors was therefore huge.

In one sense they were right. For twenty years, I would typically ask undergraduates these simple neighborly questions: Who is the prime minister of Canada? And who the president of Mexico? I never found a single student who could answer the two questions correctly. For a long time, I rather snobbishly said to myself, “how incredibly provincial these American youngsters are.” But later in my career, I came to realize that this ignorance was common all over the world. Ask a British student who is the prime minister of Belgium and who the king of Norway, and the answer is almost always: “No idea.” I found the same phenomenon in my countries of specialization: Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. The youngsters who were best informed came from small, weak states threatened by aggressive larger neighbors. But everywhere, universities teaching comparative politics excluded local politics from comparison and worked hard to create patriotic Thai Studies, Philippine Studies, Indonesian Studies, Japanese Studies, etc.

What became plain was that “our nation” is everywhere incomparable. In the last two decades, scholars in the US who liked to do “area studies” were under heavy negative pressure from true professional comparativists to stop working on “single-case studies,” thought to be unscientific, petty, and old-fashioned. This amused me since your-area studies, single-case analyses, and absence of careful comparisons were perfectly illustrated by fenced-in American Politics; Indian Politics; Nigerian Politics; Portuguese, Malaysian, and Chinese Politics; and so on.

Nonetheless, comparative politics is a serious research field, and many brilliant and original scholars work in this domain. At the same time, the studies in this subfield are usually founded on what I think of as “positive comparisons” focusing on similarity. It is typically the scalar investigation, by the use of variables, of attachment to, or deviation from, some kind of basic norm. For example, one could collect data on annual rates of carried-out death penalties in 100 nation-states. One would then find that most European states have abolished the death penalty (this is the norm), while non-European states vary wildly, including the US and China. Then, how to explain the deviations from the norm, which may be taken for granted because of the statistical cluster that Europe provides?

Before turning to the alternative, maybe I should insert something personal. My first book, Java in a Time of Revolution, based on my 1967 PhD thesis, was published in 1972 and is a relentlessly untheoretical single-case study. My second book, Imagined Communities, first published in 1983, is no less relentlessly a historical-global comparativist theorization of nationalism. Why the huge change in outlook and ambition? I can offer two basic explanations, even if they are a bit dubious.

The first is that in 1972 I was banned from entering Indonesia, and I was not allowed back till 1999, after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship. So I decided to study politics and political culture in Thailand, especially after the bloody coup d’état of 1976, in which many students were publicly tortured and murdered. In the mid-1980s, with the fall of the vile Marcos dictatorship, I followed some of my best students in studying the same problems in a new context—Indonesia: republican, Muslim, communist, ex-colony of the Dutch; Thailand: monarchist, Buddhist, conservative, ex-protectorate of the British; the Philippines: republican, Catholic, successively colonized by Spain, the US, and Japan. Serious study of one was necessarily guided by its dissimilarity to the others. I often thank Suharto in my dreams. Now I will put “exiled” Hirschman into other dreams.

The second explanation lies in my enormous good luck in having as my biologically younger, intellectually elder brother “Perry Anderson.” He pulled me into the orbit of the New Left Review (still going strong almost 60 years after its foundation), wrote books and articles of exemplary comparativism, introduced me to European Marxism on a broad scale, and has always been the best critic of my work. I am quite sure that without him I would never have expanded my 1960s horizons.

In any case, I began to think about what I call “negative comparisons” (dissimilarities). This kind of study focuses not on norms but on comparisons that emphasize and, I suppose, prioritize difference. (Hirschman’s PhD at the University of Trieste in 1938 investigated the political economy of Mussolini’s fascist Italy, which was a wild deviation from standard economic expectations—so deviant that very few people then thought it worthwhile studying.) The expectations of negative comparison are not scalar, do not rotate around well-known norms, and ask questions that a good deal of political science is not well equipped to answer.

Let me give you a simple example. Indonesia has a national language that is not colonial, represents no particular ethnic group, and is the basis of the country’s nationalism. India, which became independent at almost the same time, has no national language that is accepted everywhere, but India has been for 60-plus years more or less a democratic state, while Indonesia has only once in a short while been democratic. These “opposites”—what do they ask us to explain, and how? Without Partition, could India ever have had a stable, successful democratic life? Might Indonesia have profited in the long run from some kind of early partition? If not, why not? This kind of “what if” consideration marks the characteristic features of negative comparison, which is not open to scalar thinking and data-based practices but demands the help of many different sources and outlooks, as well as languages. I like to think that Albert Hirschman might have said: “Yes, why not at least try negative comparisons?”