Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is perhaps the most influential book of its generation on nationalism. Other scholars, like Elie Kedourie, had broken away from nationalist history before 1983 when Imagined Communities was first published, but Anderson’s interesting turn of phrase has probably cemented this work in the minds of scholars of nationalism today.
Like most scholars of the modern period, Anderson’s basic argument is that the twin concepts of nation and nationalism are modern. He further argues that nationalism was born among the Creole pioneers and then brought to Europe, and that the printing press was the catalyst that allowed the dissemination of ideas and culture that led to the eventual formation of “national consciousness.” Nationalism is, for Anderson, “an imagined political community—and imagined to be both inherently limited and sovereign.” (6) He further declares that nationalism fits better with notions of kinship or religion rather than other “isms” such as liberalism or socialism because it is about destiny rather than choice.Andersonfurthers his claims by elaborating on the transformative effects mapping, census, literacy, the standardisation of languages, and other developments had on society. Through these various inventions, national consciousness began to be formed. Anderson approaches nationalism not teleologically but from its birth. He focuses on the developments in society that went into creating a larger consciousness that went beyond region. Literacy, cartography, and census taking connected people from remote parts to a central state, and through state-induced festivals and language, the nation was imagined.
Anderson’s most original claim is that nationalism was not European in origin but was implanted in Europe from the New World. As the post-settler generations of Creoles visited Europe, a sense of otherness and self began to develop. Europeans irrationally, Anderson argues, consigned those born in the New World to subordination and saw them as inferior. (58) The principle of exclusion and primacy of the metropole was due to contemporary notions of contamination and purity according to Anderson. This supposition, although not fully etched out, is plausible because during the early modern period, race was seen as something that could be affected not only by birth, but also by climate and food. Therefore, Europeans who left the continent were considered to have been contaminated by local “humours.”
Unfortunately, Anderson makes certain assumptions for which he does not provide reasoning, or does not consider counter arguments. For example, Anderson defines the national sentiment as a horizontal comradeship rather than a vertical relationship as in feudal Europe. However, this is perhaps more due to modernity than anything else. This does not answer if nationalism was modern or not but merely points to a rupture in societal hierarchies.
Anderson also does not consider that the nations of yesteryear may not have survived until the present. Some nations may be older than others, and nationalist propaganda may have distorted the evidence, but some nations, Prussia for example, may have been subsumed into a larger German identity while others, Athens for example, may have ceased to exist altogether. If Anderson is seeking to deconstruct nationalist propaganda, his book does an excellent job, but if he is arguing the recent origin of the national concept, he misses the point.
Another interesting insight Anderson has is the concept of homogenous empty time. Anderson posits that because each group of people followed their own calendars, they were disconnected from each other as their yearly cycles moved differently. However, this does not answer how people dealt with the “fact” of their physical presence with each other. How does it impact a merchant’s day-to-day life if the year is 5767 or 1395 or 2007? Although interesting in itself, it is unclear what Anderson wishes to say. If his attempt is to put time in the same category as certain “universals” such as Marxism or labour, Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued forcefully against such broad generalisations for some ideas do not carry well from one language or culture to another.
Anderson’s examples are also slightly problematic—South Americanists have not been kind to his explication of the Creole in their reviews. In my own area, India and the Middle East, many of his examples disintegrate too. For example, Anderson claims that language became fixed with the invention of the printing press. However, Arabic has been a stable language since the seventh century, Tamil since the third, and Sanskrit since the sixth century BCE. Undoubtedly, language is a major medium of culture, but one must ask if linguistic communities did not exist before the printing press and if so, did they not have any shared bond akin to nationalism?
Probably the greatest weakness of Imagined Communities is Anderson’s failure to take note of previous literature that runs contrary to his own. Many books have been written by classicists and medievalists about ancient Jewish nationalism, ancient Greek nationalism, or French nationalism during the Joan of Arc. Anderson merely defines nationalism to be modern without any justification for this term and then presents us with case studies to demonstrate his assumption. The claim that nationalism is older than two or three hundred years has not been sufficiently dismantled except with an arbitrary restructuring of the definition of what a nation is.
The unique selling point about Imagined Communities remains its title. For whether nationalism and nations are new or old, they are certainly imagined—only a rabid nationalist would argue for an inherent or intrinsic quality in a people.