Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities

I had to do an assignment on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. I tried to pull together some of my thoughts here. Besides, it’s been over six months since I last updated this blog. So what better way to update now than to indulge in this.

When I first read Anderson’s book I quite liked it. Sure, some parts of it left me unsettled, but I couldn’t quite grasp why. It focused largely on culture and consciousness, but its basis was entirely “material” — so to speak — that the developments of capitalism facilitated national consciousness. Ah, historical materialism, I thought. And to a considerable degree, Anderson’s work is a pretty good example of a work that seeks to relate changes in consciousness to changes in material conditions (in a sense), and not doing so in a vulgar way, despite certain pronouncements in his book. But then pulling my thoughts together her helped me realize why I didn’t like it, his historical materialism isn’t properly historical nor properly material. For Anderson, history is not driven by the struggle of peoples — class struggle, in a word.

But I am putting the cart before the horse. Let us first examine Anderson’s argument step by step, so that we may better engage in critique.


Benedict Anderson is trying, in this book, to rectify Marxism’s supposed theoretical incapacity to deal with nationalism. Marxism cannot seem to explain why ostensibly classless revolutionary regimes fight each other (Vietnam vs. China, for instance), or why it is that the bourgeoisie and proletariat settle their affairs in national contexts before (ideally, but rarely) moving on to international ones. It’s not entirely clear if Anderson’s problem with Marxist theory hitherto is its descriptive aspects, i.e., the rise of nations and nationalism, or of its normative aspects, i.e., the incapacity of any project, once nationally constituted, to transcend its national boundaries. In any case, Eric Hobsbawm and Tom Nairn, despite valiant efforts, seem to have expressed defeat on behalf of all Marxism. And if Ernest Gellner, representative of the most sophisticated liberal materialist perspective, asserts that nationalism creates nations and not vice-versa, the creation of nationalism still has to be explained in a way that moves beyond asserting the falsity of the national idea. (Indeed, it is ironical that the pithy formulation, “imagined communities,” is read by some inspired intellectuals as testament to the arbitrary, discursive inventedness of the nation, which is not Anderson’s point at all.)

Anderson seeks to explain nations and nationalisms as cultural artefacts of a particular modernity, in the same vein as kinship or religion, but that nations are imagined political communities (6). Imagined in the sense that, despite lack of physical exchange, there nevertheless exist, or are presumed to exist, affective bonds (i.e., community) between any two members of a politically bounded set of people, even, and especially when, they do not know each other. They have to imagine the community, it is not self-evident, but only appears so. The question of nationalism is thus a question of consciousness, it is the very act of imagination that has to be explained.

Newspapers and novels facilitated the imagination of people in distant places nevertheless inhabiting the same, discretely measured time (homogeneous empty time), which is somewhat analogous to imagining an entire community (the nation) moving together through history (26). Newspapers and novels came from print capitalism, that is, the combination of the printing press with capitalism’s insatiable desire to maximize profit. The business of print requires a large market to turn a large profit. A large market can be made of people whose vernacular tongues may seem mutually unintelligible when spoken but, when written, can be mutually understood. Hence, the objective beginnings of a linguistic community. What allows them to subjectively imagine each other as parts of a unified community are the forms in which print became popular: the novel and the newspaper. Disparate events of disparate protagonists are nevertheless presented as occurring simultaneously in time, thus homogeneous empty time is what allows for the imagination of community.

Having thus established the origins of national consciousness, it is now for Anderson to trace how print capitalism throws consciousnesses up, or how it is used to establish consciousnesses. He does this, in every chapter, through comparative case studies of various regions. By showing the similarities, particularly by tracing print capitalism’s reach and its interactions with local conditions, he can establish the ways in which nationalism established itself. That is, either print capitalism took hold of nationalist sentiment, or nationalist sentiment took hold of print capitalism.

First, Anderson examines the Americas. There is a striking anomaly in the Latin American countries in that they established their nation-ness before those in Europe, what with their linguistic diversity, you’d expect them to have it first. How did that happen? In a word, creole functionaries of the Spanish authorities were limited to the administrative unit — they could go all over the place inside the unit, but were restricted from going to other administrative units, nevermind Spain. They established an American identity first, and then a national identity second, in this way (facilitated by print capitalism bound to administrative units, with vaguer notions of the Americas). In this way, Anderson displaces the origin of nationalism from Europe to the Americas — against Eurocentrism! And a model of nationalism was born.

This model of nationalism was then available for Europeans to pirate — “nation-states, republican institutions, … popular sovereignty,” etc. (81). European populist nationalisms were based on unique languages, closer to the bourgeoisie who imagined each other as community, than to the pre-bourgeois ruling classes. The conceptual model was so solid that “the ‘populist’ character of the early European nationalisms, even when led, demagogically, by the most backward social groups, was deeper than in the Americas: serfdom had to go, legal slavery was unimaginable” (82). There was thus a second model floating in the air.

And then third, official nationalism, or nationalism from above, which was prevalent in empires. The Russian empire, for instance, sought to Russify the empire to establish a sense of the Russian nation its various nationalities (or, vernacular groups which were not Russian). These official nationalisms developed in reaction to popular national movements, to try and preempt them, presumably. Anderson points out how the British Empire sought to anglicize its colonies, India chiefly to produce brown men with white minds, but also the white colonies. In the white colonies, too, the local functionaries could not serve in Britain, or in other parts of the empire (93). “Nothing more sharply underscores the fundamental contradiction of English nationalism, i.e., the inner incompatibility of empire and nation,” than the fact that the British policy of anglicization created so many English-speaking functionaries who could, nevertheless, not quite be English because they couldn’t serve in England itself. You see, this process of nationalism from above was ending up making the original nation distinct from its colonies!

Lastly, you had the new nations forming in the 20th century, whose intellectuals underwent some of this and some of that. They were functionaries restricted in one way or another to their administrative units, or their languages became widespread and raised national consciousness, and then once they achieved nations, they sought to also establish some nationalism from above by unifying their countries with singular languages. Basically, they had all three models to repeat, and to consciously apply. In an additional chapter, he notes that the colonial state also had a role in solidifying national consciousness. By categorizing often varied people into one identity bracket, and putting them through the motions (adminstrative motions) of having to identify themselves as such; by producing a map of the territory that became something of a logo; by excavating and cataloguing a past that belonged to this group of people, to this territory, to this nation.


So what’s he doing in this book? In what would seem to be a very decidedly Marxist way, he, in essence, links the rise of nationalism to the rise of capitalism. Note how Stalin (Djugashvili, as Anderson calls him, 160) might agree: “A nation is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism.” At one point Anderson makes it out pretty explicitly:

the ‘failure’ of the Spanish-American experience to generate a permanent Spanish-America-wide nationalism reflects both the general level of development of capitalism and technology in the late eighteenth century and the ‘local’ backwardness of Spanish capitalism and technology in relation to the administrative stretch of the empire” (63).

Cue Stalin:

Whereas in the West nations developed into states, in the East multi-national states were formed, states consisting of several nationalities…. This special method of formation of states could take place only where feudalism had not yet been eliminated, where capitalism was feebly developed, where the nationalities which had been forced into the background had not yet been able to consolidate themselves economically into integral nations.

But of course, Anderson isn’t just parroting his “vulgar Marxist” antecedents. After all, the relationship between nationalism and capitalism is mediated, culturally, by print.

Anderson explains the various waves of nationalism by looking at how print capitalism and its contents are modulated by given historical and social conditions. Print capitalism, or expanded print technology, can lead to nationalist sentiment, differentially in the cases of the Americas and the popular nationalist movements of Europe, or it can be used to evoke nationalist sentiment, of sorts, as in official imperious nationalisms. Or, it can lead to certain sections of populations becoming nationally conscious, and then give them the capacity to try and evoke national consciousness among other sections of the population, as in the case of aspiring anticolonial nationalisms becoming state nationalisms. Given these modulating conditions, we are in a better position to understand Anderson’s above quoted statement about the relationship between Spanish-American nationalisms and the development of productive forces in society.

The term “modulate” is key to Anderson’s argument. For once nationalism is established, particularly in the Americas, it becomes modular, in the sense that following national movements (from the middle-classes or upper-classes) have previous conceptual iterations of nationalism to adapt. The latest in the game, the anticolonial nationalists, have three models of nationalism to work with. Having once established a certain form of relationship between cultural logic (nationalism) and political economy (capitalism), Anderson appears to take the political economy aspect for granted, and follows changes only in the cultural logic. It would appear, to some extent, that the cultural logic is now disconnected from the political economy. Maybe this disconnect is a reflection of the times he was writing in.

But there are antecedents, too, in the Frankfurt School and Western Marxism — and it’s pretty explicit he is leaning on Benjamin heavily here. Anderson picks up on one aspect of Marxism: the one where a generalized logic of capitalism permeates society and transforms consciousness. This is a “totality” dynamic of the world, one that sees the irredeemable logic of capital operating everywhere — one inspired by Lukácsian readings of Marx (and Weber), and taken up by Fredric Jameson among others. Anderson sets up the emergence of capitalism, and print capitalism in particular, and then taking it further (beyond Lukács, perhaps, but maybe in Adorno’s territory where cultural logic is now semi-autonomous from the material base — I have to go through that literature again to figure this out). Anderson leaves changes in capitalism and how those changes might related to changes in consciousness, untheorized. Once he has set up the initial conditions, Anderson can leave political economy behind and just focus on reading nationalist literature comparatively to his heart’s content and in it look for explanations. The reference to comparative literature may be a bit unfair, but it is not entirely out of place here, the focus on the novel and nationalist literature as a concomitant of changes in the rationale of capitalism could well earn Imagined Communities the alternative title, Nationalism, or, The Cultural Logic of Print Capitalism (to ape Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism).

I think this is because he misses out on the other aspect of Marxism, which sees consciousness as also being borne of struggle, the push and pull, between the dominant and the dominated, that is to say, class struggle — that aspect that fixates Gramsci and Fanon. The mode of production may set up a structure in which consciousness manifests itself, but consciousness is created through experience and through human agency acting against human agency.

It’s for this reason, his privileging one aspect of Marxism, in a selective way, that I think Anderson’s explanation of anticolonial nationalism is, ultimately, lacking.

So let’s look again at some of what Anderson is saying. Notice how Anderson writes off class struggle in his explanation of the development of nationalism in the Americas: “The economic interests at stake are well-known and obviously of fundamental importance” (64), but he deals with those cursorily (50-1) and doesn’t really integrate them into his rather intriguing (and no doubt, valid) explanation which is predicated somewhat on the question of class, structurally, but not necessarily agentially. He addresses slavery and indigenous people, but pretty much as those who are invited into history by the American revolutionaries.

And this is his cutting off of class struggle almost entirely. He explains why the bourgeoisies leading popular nationalist movements were seeking to abolish serfdom:

the ‘populist’ character of the early European nationalisms, even when led, demagogically, by the most backward social groups, was deeper than in the Americas: serfdom had to go, legal slavery was unimaginable – not least because the conceptual model was set in ineradicable place (82).

If the dependent variable is the abolition of certain class relations, the independent variable here is not, say, class struggle, so much as it is the ineradicable place of the conceptual model of republican nationalism taken from the Americas. But why is it that the conceptual model led to one outcome in the Americas, and another in Europe? Anderson is, curiously, silent on this question. I am not suggesting that the only independent variable to be considered is the specific condition of class structure and class struggle, but it certainly would appear to play a considerable role.

Let’s look again at one of his discussions of official nationalism to see how he just skirts over actual historical differences in the political economy of colonialism. Anderson makes a category mistake in comparing the effects of the British imperial policy of Anglicization on India to Britain’s white colonies. “Nothing more sharply underscores the fundamental contradiction of English nationalism, i.e., the inner incompatibility of empire and nation,” than the fact that the British policy of Anglicization created so many English-speaking functionaries who could, nevertheless, not quite be English because they couldn’t serve in England itself—nor could they, as English-born functionaries, serve in other colonies (93).

But in the white colonies, that is, the settler colonies, the whites generally either killed the majority of indigenous inhabitants (as in North America or Australia), and/or pushed them into reserves from where their labour and mobility was strictly regulated. The idea of recruiting indigenous people into the British imperial bureaucracy, to serve in or outside of the colony, was comprehensively absurd. The white people generally spoke English, anyway, and the French in Canada and the Boers (the defeated settler colonizers) held on to their languages (and, in the case of both the French and the Boers, developed their own settler nationalisms). Anglicization, as it was imposed upon the indigenous peoples, for instance through residential schools in Canada, was a policy of cultural genocide—not one of imposing the nation upon the indigenous people or inviting them in. To this day, indigenous people in Canada are referred to as “First Nations,” they are not part of the Canadian nation.

In India, by contrast, the massive indigenous population simply could not be administered by white functionaries, regardless of where they were born. Recruiting Indians into the civil service was necessary for the colonial state’s political and economic stability, as it was not particularly capable of killing them all (not that they didn’t kill millions) or pushing them into reserves—nor was India’s role in Britain’s political economy based upon the colonization of land, as such. (Incidentally, MacCaulay’s thirty-year program for brown people with white minds was articulated in 1836, and twenty-one years later in 1857 much of India rose up in what is now known as the first war of independence.) My point is that the political economic basis of the cultural logic of Anglicization of indigenous populations in India was rather different from that in the other colonies. To compare India to the settler colonies is to compare apples and oranges. Focusing on conceptual logic alone obscures certain fundamental realities, that is to say, in Hegelian (or even dialectical materialist!) fashion, that just because phenomenal aspects are similar (and there is, no doubt, some reality to appearance), it does not mean that essential aspects are as well.

The point that ought to emerge, regarding Anderson’s argument, is that there is absolutely no political economic contradiction between nation and empire; indeed, it would appear that the two emerge on the world scene at about the same time and even now would appear to coexist quite happily (American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance). Even culturally, as Anderson himself argues in Chapter 8, imperialism made use of international racism to cement a national identity and thereby cloak over non-egalitarian class structures at home. Imperialist ideology was, indeed, a conjuring-trick, but not the one he suggests here:

[i]mperialist ideology … had the character of a conjuring-trick [which] is suggested by the equanimity with which metropolitan popular classes eventually shrugged off the ‘losses’ of the colonies, even in cases like Algeria where the colony had been legally incorporated into the metropole. (111)

Sure, legally, Algeria was incorporated into the metropole. Algerians, however, were not. France shrugged off Algeria only after killing one million Algerians in the process, but after a period of worldwide anticolonial resistance has come to an end, France now seeks to glorify the “positive role” of colonialism. Culturally, then, it would seem, France has (or at least sections of its population have) shrugged off Algerians, and not Algeria. The narrowly constituted conceptual logic that Anderson posits, which has little place for class and its articulations with race, is not enough to explain just what is going on.

Along these lines, there is also a problem in Anderson’s heavy reliance on print, that is, written cultural productions, to assess the development of nationalism in various regions. By this evidentiary standard, whereby print capitalism has been established to lead to nationalism, the very appearance of print becomes emblematic of the appearance of nationalism. Thus, Anderson focuses largely on the indigenous professional classes in explaining twentieth century nationalism, and traces their nationalism to writings or to schooling. This begs the question, is print the only way that natives become cognizant of their nationality? For instance, illiterate peasants who are forcibly and oppressively recruited by the colonial regime for corvée labour, or sent off farm to comingle with peasants from other parts of the territory as they become seasonal waged labour in mines, factories or plantations, could they not develop the concept of nation—or something approximating it—without print? I am not saying that the native professional classes did not play an important role in pushing forward the idea of the nation, but I am saying that focusing on this aspect alone may obscure far too much history, subaltern history.

Here we begin to get into the crux of my argument against Anderson. I agree, with Anderson, that nationalism is modular to some degree, and that a variety of models of nationalism played a role in the nationalisms of the twentieth century. How could they not? India inherited much of its administrative and political infrastructure and terminology (not to mention the political economy) from the British, for instance. Yet, I would suggest that twentieth century nationalisms were not so much “derivative” in Partha Chatterjee’s terminology, as they were a return to the source. By Anderson’s account, the source would be creole nationalism. But creole nationalism, too, was derived from another source—and, here, the model is not the United States or France, but one that makes for footnotes in Anderson’s text.

Anderson notes that Bolívar was originally for slavery, but then became anti-slavery (49). But the why is relegated to the footnote, “[w]hen he fled to Haiti in 1816, he obtained military assistance from President Alexandre Pétion in return for a promise to end slavery in all territories liberated” (49, f. 12). Pétion himself was mulatto, which, in Haiti, meant that he was not a slave, nor did he have a great reason to be anti-slavery, as many mulattoes had supported the institution. The driving force of the Haitian Revolution had been the slaves themselves who, for their freedom, fought repeatedly against the white powers of the day — French, Spanish, British. While, initially, under Toussaint L’Ouverture, the ideology of the revolution was firmly ensconced within the empire-nation of France, when it became clear that the French were interested in restoring slavery, even erstwhile enemies of L’Ouverture (who by now had died in French custody) turned against the French. Moreover, the constitution L’Ouverture established specifically forbade racial discrimination, going leaps beyond the French declaration of the rights of man (sic). The name of San Domingo was changed to Haïti, the indigenous Arawak name for the island (though the Arawak themselves, as such, no longer existed on the island). The Haitian Revolution, in other words, was an anticolonial nationalist revolution. And as Pétion’s interaction with Bolívar shows, it was a nationalism that, self-consciously, was interested in exporting its model to other lands. (See C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins and also Susan Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History.)

The dynamics of the Haitian Revolution are perhaps best captured in the writings of another Caribbean revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, though he was writing about the Algerian Revolution. Fanon talks about the dialectic between the spontaneous energy of the oppressed masses, the vast peasantry, and the radicalized intellectuals of the professional classes, in The Wretched of the Earth. It’s a situation where race is class. What distinguishes Anderson’s various models of nationalism is, at root, the agents behind it — but agency that Anderson inadequately examines. In creole nationalisms, the agents are upwardly mobile professional classes, landowners and bourgeoisies. In popular national movements of Europe, they are the bourgeoisies, sometimes bringing the masses along with them. In the official nationalisms, it is the ruling strata responding to popular national movements. The Haitian Revolution represents a different agential basis, the uprising of slaves in conjunction with radicalized middle-class mulattoes, with, what is perhaps for the first time ever in the Western world, an ideology of truly universal freedom. It is a fourth model, or, rather, the first; the one that was incorporated into the creole nationalisms of the Americas.

But why is it that Anderson is unable to formulate this first model? I would suggest that it is precisely his elision of political economy, that is, of the political economic basis of imperialism, and the class struggle within it. Of the other three models of nationalism, class struggle is most explicitly mentioned in creole nationalism, with respect to slaves or indigenous peoples — and even then, it’s a question of the subalterns being invited into history by creoles. The struggles of the slaves themselves are ignored, for the most part. In the other two, as I have illustrated above, class is the backdrop, or the subtext, to the cultural/conceptual logic of nationalism. In the last wave of twentieth century nationalisms, the armed struggles that often accompanied revolutions are not mentioned — the discussion of Mozambique, for instance, revolves entirely around the use of the Portuguese language in the establishment of an official nationalism (134-5), and not around the consolidation of a national identity rooted in protracted people’s war (indeed, the flag of Mozambique still has an AK-47 in it). In this sense, I argue that the twentieth century nationalisms represent a return to source. Indeed, they had the three other models to pick and choose from, so to speak, and they did. But there is much more to it than that. The story of nationalism that Anderson constructs seems to be one of an idea that floats in the ether, waiting to be grasped by middle-class educated natives, trying on its cultural aspects. The real historical political and economic struggles, however, are barely mentioned.

Ultimately, Anderson comes around to class, but sideways, in his conclusion. He begins with the question of why socialist states fight each other. He does not draw on Marxist or non-Marxist literature that examines the internal politics of these countries, but tries to posit the question of how and why it is that Marxism has failed and nationalism has won. His answer is something of a non-answer. He talks about how the leaderships of revolutions, inheriting the state, also inherit the nation and the cultural trappings of power. Thus, he argues, it is not a surprise that they aspire to greater power. The vast masses of China and Vietnam and Cambodia have no interest in border wars. But what is this if not an admission of a decidedly non-revolutionary state of affairs, one where revolutionary leaders transmogrify into a state bourgeoisie of sorts? Where rulers are alienated from the ruled? That is, what is this if not class struggle, which bleeds out into foreign policy? Mao and others were precisely able to theorize the “capitalist roaders” within the party and the state apparatus, whether or not they dealt with it properly is another question. The book’s opening salvo against Marxism ends up imbibing its ineradicable logic, but refuses to do so explicitly and openly. Ultimately, we are left with no answer as to why these socialist states went to war with each other, because the only answer we are left with is that culture alone, or the cultural logic of print capitalism/socialism, certainly cannot explain the wars. The causes and consequences have to be sought in the political and economic histories of the countries involved — in which, no doubt, as Anderson does illustrate, the cultural logic plays an important role. this!

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    twf said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

    Of historical interest — You can see a clip of Toussaint’s last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film “The Last Days of Toussaint L’Ouverture” at

  2. 2

    Jay said,

    March 22, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    It may seem small minded of me to ignore your trenchant analysis of Anderson’s argument to pick on a grammatical flaw, but I thought you might appreciate this link on begging the question:

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