In Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson examined the rise of nationalism and ideas of “nation-ness” during the last two centuries. Anderson argued that nationalism was a cultural artefact spontaneously created through the convergence of discreet historical forces at the end of the eighteenth century, and transplanted across the world because people became able to imagine themselves part of a community defined by nationality. Anderson argued for his thesis by explaining the historical reasons behind the development of nationalism, ways in which people’s understanding of nationalism changed over time, and reasons why nationalism inspired the sacrifice and dedication once reserved for religion.
Anderson addressed both Marxist and Liberal explanations for the origin and spread of nationalism. The power of national identity, seen by Marxist historians like Tom Nairn as ‘Marxism’s great historical failure’ and Liberal historians such as Hugh Seton-Watson as an anomaly without scientific definition, was identified by Anderson as a significant “cultural artefact” worthy of study. Anderson investigated nationalism as a specific force in human society instead of addressing how well or how poorly the evidence of nationalistic identity fit into existing historical interpretations. Instead of characterizing nationalism as a social pathology or ideology, like fascism or liberalism, Anderson treated nationalism as a part of the human experience, like kinship or religion.
The evidence compiled and presented by Anderson spans the globe and two hundred year of revolution, state-building, and decolonization. While citing numerous compelling examples from nationalist movements worldwide, his argument is highly conceptual. Anderson made a model explaining the development of nationalism from aspects of its European inception and then applied that model to the development of nationalism in Creole states, official nationalism in imperialist states, and anti-colonial nationalism in post-World War II states.
Anderson first defined the nation on page nine as an “imagined political community…both inherently limited and sovereign.” Anderson then traced the cultural roots of nationalism to the ‘unselfconscious coherence’ of medieval religious communities and the permeable political boundaries of preceding dynastic realms. Anderson showed how print-capitalism, book-publishing, and the development of vernacular languages provided the tools people needed to imagine they were part of a much larger community of similar people, even though they might never meet.
Anderson then followed the threads of nationalism as they spread with European expansion and changed with New-World reinterpretation. Anderson addressed the discrepancy between the nationalisms that spawned revolution and national identity movements in the Americas and their European models. The national independence movements of the Americas inspire sacrifice and devotion in revolutionaries, yet instead of rallying around linguistic distinctiveness or ancient cultural identities, Creole nationalists fought and died for the sovereignty of the nations they imagined, nations that had previously been only administrative units of Colonial States. Anderson embraced these differences in Creole nationalism and the European model as evidence that nationalism had become ‘modular’ and ‘capable of being transplanted.
Anderson then examined ways nationalism was self-consciously constructed once the nation-state had become a legitimate and prestigious political entity. Dominant groups and dynastic realms employed policies of “official nationalism” to legitimize their claims to national authority and identity. Anderson pointed to examples of “Magyarization”(102), “Japanification”(98) and “Russification”(86) to prove that nationalism was used by empire-nations to conceal a “discrepancy between nation and dynastic realm”. (110)
Anderson’s final examples of the modular, compelling and adaptable nature of nationalism are found in the formation of nation states after World War II. The postcolonial nation-building in Africa and Asia at this time drew on lessons from European, Creole and official nationalisms, while emphasizing youth and anti-imperialism. Both sincere and self-conscious, this “last wave” (113) of nationalism employed tools for national identity like the map and census to imagine the validity of their political community.
Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is a conceptual toll-kit that helps us understand the origin, function and power of nationalism. The smoothness with which he explains both the abstract and concrete, and the clarity of his arguments, soften the demands upon his audience. The most compelling image is that of Indonesian school children sitting in the classroom, looking at the map of the archipelago, and learning they were the blue-colored islands in the Indian Ocean. The blue-colored islands, Indonesia, that was who they were.