Benedict Anderson

Robin Blackburn
University of Essex, UK
October 2011

I am delighted to learn of the recognition of the work of Benedict Anderson bestowed by the Social Science Research Council. It is richly deserved. Others are far better qualified than I to assess his overall scholarly contribution, but I offer comments on his work that stem from my involvement with the editorial groups associated with the New Left Review magazine and the publishing house Verso. These outlets published—and continue to publish—several of Anderson’s most significant writings, especially those not written primarily for a specialist readership. I hasten to clarify that I did not myself serve as editor for these texts. However, I was a member of the collective to whom they were addressed and whose discussions played some role in prompting them.1 The editorial group met in London. Ben, usually far away in North America or Southeast Asia, was not formally a member. But he was the brother of the editor (Perry Anderson), and eventually became a frequent contributor, so he was a virtual member, very occasionally stopping by for a discussion, and anyway sharing some, at least, of the Review’s theoretical and political concerns.

I need scarcely dwell on the phenomenal publishing history of Imagined Communities. It sold in the hundreds of thousands, and by 2006 had been translated into twenty-nine languages.2 With national movements of one sort or another making waves in global politics, the book’s concepts entered the language of informed discussion and its extraordinarily graceful style and wide learning won it a readership outside the academy and nicely complemented its argument.

Such success itself creates a problem, a sort of reification in which the book becomes isolated from the attachments and developments that gave it meaning. This is particularly inappropriate in this case because the book itself has changed, with the addition of crucial new chapters and fascinating sidelights. The cluster of ideas central to the book has also been developed in later works, notably "The Spectre of Comparisons" (a reader) and Under Three Flags.3 The contextualization I offer here is experimental and tentative, relating, as it does, to now quite distant conjectures and debates.

The starting point of Imagined Communities was bluntly declared in its opening pages in a quoted observation by Tom Nairn: “The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure.”4 Anderson was here citing “The Modern Janus,” first published in New Left Review in 1975 and subsequently reprinted in Nairn’s book The Break-up of Britain, the reference given for this and several other citations to this essay in the book. In fact, Anderson’s book began life as a friendly response to Nairn, defending him from Eric Hobsbawm’s critical review in NLR, though soon going beyond this to develop its own highly original focus and significance.5

Nairn’s insistence that modernity rendered the national inescapable represented a break for him and the journal. Not so long before this Nairn had published a lyrical celebration of the French evénements of 1968, The Beginning of the End,6 which drew on Gramsci and Marshall McLuhan to hail the dawn of a new global consciousness and spirit of universal liberation. Nairn also had ironized at the expense of Scottish nationalism, yet here he was in “The Modern Janus,” just a few years later, declaring that the national, the folkish, the tribal could not be dismissed so blithely after all.

Probably none of the young editors of NLR subscribed to a simplistic universalism or naive progressivism. After all, we had read Deutscher, Marcuse, Benjamin, and Fanon. But some of us—I include myself—were still drawn to a qualified version of the progressive doctrine. We could see that history had taken several wrong turnings but still believed that, eventually, it would get back on track. Dialectically history would have to advance, even if only by its “bad side.” Social democrats and liberals had failed to stop the war in 1914 but the terrible slaughter that followed weakened the appeal of war-mongers. The Russian Revolution had taken a bad turn, and lost its cosmopolitan character, with the rise of Stalin. The progressive agenda regained traction from the defeat of fascism in the Second World War, albeit at the cost of more than fifty million lives. The appearance of Krushchev and Dubček had showed that, notwithstanding horrendous crimes and grotesque detours, the Stalinist monolith was vulnerable after all.

Thanks to Ben Anderson the Review was able to publish a remarkable document concerning another grim and bloody wrong turning, one that was very recent and little known—the Indonesian bloodbath of 1965-66, involving the massacre of between one half and one million villagers and urban dwellers because of their real or supposed link to the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, and an attempt by young officers to purge the high command. Together with his colleague Ruth McVey, and by dint of interviews with key participants, Anderson had composed a detailed narrative of the onset of the disaster.7 The PKI itself had been favored by President Sukarno and had thereby built up an extraordinary network of civic organizations, but also aroused the enmity of the generals. One of the most sophisticated of political parties—an Asian counterpart to the Italian Communists—was eliminated by a merciless and thorough operation that left no chance of later recovery. NLR published an abbreviated, but vivid, version of the Cornell report, outlining the catastrophic errors of the young officers behind the September 30 movement and the failure of the PKI to effectively confront the coup or safeguard its own followers. The article was attributed to “Lucien Rey,” since the real authors still hoped to visit Indonesia (in fact they were to be barred for many years).8

Despite its huge cost, the defeat of the United States in Vietnam gave the progressive narrative some credibility but not so the subsequent bloody clashes between Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. In the opening pages of Imagined Communities Anderson cited these ominous and fratricidal wars as the occasion for his work, and as proof that supposedly Communist states were still prey to bitter national enmities.

Nairn’s “Modern Janus” had urged that the national form had a vitality and effectiveness of its own, that it was profoundly ambivalent—facing both ways. It could contribute to the wrong turns but also furnished a salutatory corrective to the implicit notion that historic revolutionary nations such as France or Russia were the bearers of universal progress and the brotherhood of man. Instead smaller nations had a necessary role to play and the formal institutions of democracy meant little without an infusion of national content. The disasters often stemmed from failure to reckon with and harness the national imperative. Nairn cited the warning embodied in Walter Benjamin’s striking image of the “angel of history,” its wings pinned back by a storm blowing from Paradise and the debris of disaster piling up before it. Anderson also invoked Benjamin’s “angel” and built on the ground that Nairn had cleared. Nairn’s arguments also owed much to Ernest Gellner and in particular to Thought and Change,9 where Gellner uses cultural anthropology to demonstrate the necessity of nationalism in societies being remade by the industrial revolution.

The work of Anderson’s colleagues at Cornell and in Southeast Asian studies surely gave him ample opportunity to register the potential contribution of cultural anthropology to illuminating the inner world—the subjectivity—of nationalism. Anderson deftly deconstructed the assumed national-setting of the plot of a novel to show how this subjectivity was formed. However there was still something vital missing. With the concept of “print capitalism” Anderson introduced another level of explanation. He evoked the explosion of print culture in the sixteenth century and after, using evidence from the work of the Annales historians Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin in The Coming of the Book.10

The literature on nationalism has proliferated but Imagined Communities retains a special place because it put its finger on the involuntary subjective link between the intimate and the public, the citizen and the state. The purist may object that all communities are imagined but they do not determine the lieu des mémoires—and the equally obligatory oubliettes—of the specifically national imagination.

There are obvious biographical prompts for Anderson’s interest in nationalism. Someone growing up in Ireland, in an Anglo-Irish family, would have food for thought. The Anderson brothers were also aware of their father’s career as an official of the Chinese Customs Service. This was a multinational body in which the British, French, Germans, and Japanese cordially cooperated in extracting tariff revenues from China to service its foreign debt, even when they were at one another’s throats in other global theaters.11

The power of national sentiment helped to explain the surge of decolonization, the survival of national aspirations in the Communist world, and the reawakening of submerged national entities even in Western Europe (Scotland, Catalonia). The breakup of the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia confirmed that we were living in an “age of nationalism.” Anderson had showed how in the Spanish American revolutions the “Creole pioneers” had thrown off Spanish rule but still respected the circuit boundaries of imperial jurisdiction. In eastern and central Europe the same pattern was to be observed as new national republics arose, chips from the block of the former USSR and Yugoslav federation.

Unfortunately, far from persuading Western observers to mend their ignorance of the formerly colonized, decolonization actually allowed it to flourish in new ways. There was a lively market for the effusions of political tourists and their “holidays in hell.” Exotic passions and seemingly random violence became a staple of a new type of travel writing that Anderson mercilessly exposed in a classic polemic—“James Fenton’s Slideshow.”12 Such “settings” as Indo-China, the Middle East, and the Hindu Kush, or the slums of Manila, Rio de Janeiro, or Port–au–Prince, supplied a perfect backdrop to carbon-free literary exhibitionism. The Cambridge magazine Granta largely invented this genre but it soon spread to the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Magazine, creating an illusion that the reader of these publications would be pretty well-informed concerning the politics and history of Bosnia, or Iraq, or Pakistan, when in reality both Western statesmen and their publics were, if anything, more ignorant of these lands than the adventurers and bureaucrats of colonial days. Anderson’s writings over the last two decades on Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and the Philippines have sought to dispel the provincialism of the globe-trotters and the arrogance of those bent on a twenty-first century mission of enlightened militarism.

Is there still any role for the universal? Imagined Communities had tracked the emergence of the nation from the unachieved universality of Christendom and the dynastic states. It had insisted that we pay attention to assumptions radically different from our own, but it also discerned other dimensions of modernity. Anderson’s more recent writings on anarchism perhaps suggest that beneath the national horizon lie other would-be universalisms. Under Three Flags traces the distinctly cosmopolitan world of Filipino and Cuban nationalism in 1880–1910, often intersecting with Spanish or French syndicalism. It is, perhaps, not surprising that the anticolonial imagination could embrace anarchism since the state it rejected was an alien one. Many Cuban anarchists pragmatically backed José Martí’s national movement, reckoning that the future republic was little menace compared with the perpetuation of Spanish rule.

Anderson’s focus on the anarcho-syndicalists would, perhaps, have been puzzling in the mid-twentieth century but, in 2011, and the age of the Web, the choice now seems a shrewd one, with global awareness of indignados in Madrid, the occupation of Wall Street, and the giant copper mine at Grasberg, Papua, closed by a strike.

  1. In the acknowledgments to Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London, New York: Verso, 1983), Ben thanks—among others—his brother Perry Anderson and Anthony Barnett, then an editor at New Left Review, for helpful suggestions.
  2. Be sure not to miss the interesting reflections on the book’s gestation and reception in the revised edition, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London; New York: Verso, 2006), 207-29.
  3. Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (London: Verso, 1998); “Introduction,” in Mapping the Nation, ed. Gopal Balakrishnan (London: Verso, 1996); Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (London; New York: Verso, 2005).
  4. Tom Nairn, “The Modern Janus,” New Left Review 94 (Nov.-Dec. 1975): 3-29. Reprinted in The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neonationalism (London: NLB, 1977), 329-63.
  5. Eric Hobsbawm, “Some Reflections on The Break-up of Britain,” New Left Review 1/105 (Sept.-Oct. 1977). Nairn’s book, which has recently acquired a new currency as the SNP attracts ever more support, has just been reissued.
  6. Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn, The Beginning of the End: France, May 1968: What Happened, Why It Happened (London: Panther, 1968).
  7. Benedict R. Anderson and Ruth T. McVey (with the assistance of Frederick P. Bunnell), A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Modern Indonesia Project, Cornell University, 1971).
  8. Lucien Rey, “Dossier of the Indonesian Drama,” New Left Review 1/36 (Mar.-Apr. 1966). Lucien Rey was the nom de plume of Peter Wollen, who edited the text for publication. Wollen did not use his real name because he was then a deserter from the British army. Ben used the name Robert Curtis for an earlier article on “Indonesia and Malaysia,” New Left Review 1/28 (Nov.-Dec. 1964), 4-32. He was eventually able to write accounts of what happened in 1965-66 (with new evidence) in two fascinating articles: “Petrus Dadi Ratu,” New Left Review, 2nd ser., 3 (May-June 2000): 7-15, and “Exit Suharto: Obituary for a Mediocre Tyrant,” New Left Review, 2nd ser., 50 (Mar.-Apr. 2008): 27-59.
  9. Ernest Gellner, Thought and Change (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).
  10. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800; trans. David Gerard, ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and David Wootton (London: Verso, 1976).
  11. Benedict Anderson was born in China but left it as a five-year-old. He writes vividly about familial, political, and scholarly influences in the “Introduction” to the paperback edition of Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 1-16. Ben had further entertaining reflections on family history in “Selective Kinship: A Family History, with Omissions,” Dublin Review 10 (Spring 2003): 5-29. For Anderson père, see also Perry Anderson’s remarkable portrait, “An Anglo-Irishman in China: J.C. O’G. Anderson,” Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas (London: Verso, 2006), 343-88.
  12. Benedict Anderson, “James Fenton’s Slideshow,” New Left Review, 1/158, (July-Aug. 1986).