The National Imagination

Benedict Anderson's classic study of nationalism, Imagined Communities, is out this week in a new edition — available at a 40% discount through Saturday, October 15th.

We'll be posting writings related to the book throughout the week. Below is Gopal Balakrishnan's critique of Anderson, first published in New Left Review in 1995, and collected in Antagonistics: Capitalism and Power in an Age of War.

via Wikimedia Commons

Eric Hobsbawm, in his final chapter of a survey on the history of nationalism, claimed that the nation-state had embarked on a declining curve of historical viability, and that the beginnings of its fossilization would clear the way for deeper explorations into its origins, impact and possible futures. Not long afterwards, this judgment appeared to be refuted by the resurgence of national causes in the former Communist world. Hobsbawm, however, had suitably qualified his prediction so as to take into account the outbreak and intensification of national conflicts in such contexts. His claim that the nation-state was no longer a ‘vector’ of historical development meant only that the trend lines in the most dynamic zones of the world system had begun to push beyond familiar national dimensions.

Although Hobsbawm alluded to Hegel, the notion of capitalism bypassing the nation-state is, of course, one of the central themes of classical Marxism. The latter held that economic laws of motion would come into conflict with the constricting frame of the national market by way of either free trade or imperialism, or some combination of the two. But the historical vision of the Communist Manifesto is undoubtedly more complex. The prediction that all that is solid — national cultures included — will melt into air isbalanced by another: that the expansion of capitalist civilization will promote the formation of territorially bounded, modern bourgeois states. Although these two themes jostle with each other in the pages of the Manifesto, Marx as well as later Marxists, believing that proletarian revolutions were imminent, stressed the first theme over the second, for therein dialectically lay the possibility that the widening cosmopolitan scope of the market would throw up working classes of proportionate scale. Yet the transnationalization of the productive forces that capitalism is now setting into motion is historically unprecedented. Confounding established expectations, its main thrusts seem to undermine the very bases of successful class struggle in advanced industrial societies, and it is difficult to foresee the conditions under which the organized working classes will rise up again ‘stronger, firmer, mightier’. 

The Site of Struggle

According to Marx, the modern class struggle passes through a series of historical stages beginning with riots and the breaking of machinery, and ending in nationwide civil wars. As a preliminary condition for the successful conduct of the class struggle, the unregulated competition of all against all must be suppressed within the ranks of labour. Historically, this was accomplished by dint of struggles and negotiations that took place throughout the state, aimed at regulating capital’s purchase of labour-power. In Marx’s theory, then, the state is not just the functional weapon of the possessing classes; it is also the unrecognized site and point of concentration of the struggle against those classes, ratifying the results of that struggle. Far from opening the gates to more expansive working-class organization, the eclipse of the state deepens labour’s functional subordination to capital and threatens to dissolve the site and boundaries of sustainable collective action against it.

This development is difficult to understand from within the framework of Marxism — and not only because of the strain thus placed on its theory of the state. The graver challenge is to the ‘anthropological’ basis of its very conception of history. For Marx, the irresistible scalar expansion of world capitalism could only temporarily leap beyond the dimensions of sustainable collective action against it. Capitalism’s laws of motion, even as they continually pulverized the cultural and material basis of all limited forms of membership, would supposedly, and incessantly, recreate the bases of class solidarity at ever more cosmopolitan levels. No single Marxist idea has been more discredited than this one, inasmuch as even the semblance of such a dialectic has been overthrown.

Régis Debray has argued that the principal victories of the Left in the twentieth century emerged out of an unacknowledged liaison with the nation, and that the future of the Left depends on its ability to reinvent a national politics for the twenty-first century. Behind this strategic assessment stands the claim that the well-spring of political action resides in the pathos of national membership, for it is only in the form of a ‘people’ that the masses erupt into political life and make history. In this view, nations are like the ‘fused groups’ of Sartrean philosophy — in a political sense, existentially more decisive than class as communities of fate. The problem with Marxism, according to Debray, is that its central concerns do not enable it to grasp the enigmatic subjectivity which such collectivities assume.

As a characterization of Marx’s writings, this is perhaps only half true; the Grundrisse, in fact, contains many rich insights into the material foundations of the pre-capitalist peasant community. In his intriguing sketches of what for him were the four basic types of agrarian civilization in Eurasia — Oriental, Slavic, Mediterranean, and Germanic — Marx argued that the distinctive communal organization of entitlement, cooperation and exploitation formed the primordial social relationship of these pre-capitalist societies. Capitalism is premised on the epochal suspension and negation of the communal organization of direct producers in their relation to nature, to one another and to their appropriators. Released from the semi-natural, communal provision of peasant subsistence, whole regions of the earth are plunged into an inescapable market dependence, setting into motion the ceaseless, wave-like expansion of the productive forces.

In this view, the structure of modern society arises out of the anarchic interplay of market forces, out of the counter-finalities of alienated labour. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel argued that the modern sovereign state, though based on this condition of radical alienation, transcended it by imparting to peoples organized into political communities a higher level of ethical life, historical personality and collective agency. Marx, in his famous critique of this work, retorted that the political community constituted by the modern state was merely an ‘imagined community’, powerless because unreal. In his essay ‘On the Jewish Question’, he depicted the public identity of the ‘completed bourgeois state’ as post-Christian. However, if stripped of all cultural and historical particularity, as he argued such a state must be to achieve its final form, one must ask in what sense it could be considered national. Indeed, in conventional terms, the completed bourgeois state would seem to be post- nationalist as well as post-Christian. The undetermined national dimension in this conception of the modern state is internal to all subsequent Marxist theory. Debray’s criticism in this sense holds true: while Marxists spent enormous amounts of time theorizing the bourgeois state, they left unresolved the question of what it means for a state to be a nation-state. The political or economic concepts of, for instance, civil society or modes of production are not commensurable with the anthropological practice of naming communities: terms like ‘Chinese capitalism’ are semantically unstable, if necessary, conjunctions. The enigmatic and undertheorized juxtaposition here of a reference to a bounded community defined by language, territory or descent with a reference to an abstract social process indifferent to such boundaries brings to light the difficulties that Marxism had in formulating an effective critique of such communities of fate.

Hegel, like Marx, had little sympathy for Romanticism, with its celebration of venerable and invented customs. The emphasis in Hegel, as in Marx, is mostly on the state, but the state’s relationship to the culturally defined collectivity to which it gives form is maintained as a problem and a source of tension, not extinguished as was the case in the essay ‘On the Jewish Question’. ‘Nations’ in Hegel’s theory express the phase structure of human history, each successive phase an embodiment of Reason in the customary, or what Hegel called the ethical, life of a people. Thus was there a Chinese, an Indian, a Persian, a Greek, a Roman and finally a German nation. ‘Nation’ here is broadly synonymous with civilization, a largely non-ethnic and only vaguely geographic category. In fact, Hegel’s ‘German nation’ is simply a synonym for the most advanced forms of modern civilization: representative government, rule of law, civil society, the modern bourgeois family and individualism — not Germanhood in any ethnic sense. This German nation came into its own, not when disparate Germanic peoples got their own state (an objective that Hegel himself opposed after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire), but rather when post-revolutionary Europe finally settled into the architectonics of the modern state. The diversity of peoples with respect to customs, institutions and beliefs is aligned to a higher rationality, but the connection between the low ethnographic fact and the lofty self-determination of Reason remains unresolved: What is specifically ‘German’ about the German nation? In Hegel’s theory of development, the ethnically distinctive character of the nation is left as an opaque anthropological reminder.

An early text, The Positivity of the Christian Religion, expresses this problem with clarity and drama. Hegel here defines the nation more conventionally, as a community of customs, memory and fate, with ‘its own imagery, its gods, angels, devils or saints who live in the nation’s traditions, whose stories and deeds the nurse tells her charges and so wins them over by impressing their imagination’, as well as its own ‘ancient heroes’ whose valor and exploits are widely commemorated. But he then proceeds to argue that ‘real’ history is not the story of such communities: world-historical progress brings with it massive erasures in the fabric of ethnic life, creating new peoples to accomplish new tasks. For Hegel, the greatest transformation in history prior to the French Revolution was the rise, and the Reformation, of Christianity. Those Germanic tribes drawn into the orbit of that Christian revolution were forever sundered from their shadowy and shapeless ethnic pasts:

Christianity has emptied Valhalla, felled the sacred groves, extirpated the national imagery as shameful superstition, as a devilish poison and instead given us the imagery of a nation whose climate, laws, culture and interests are strange to us, whose history has no connection to our own. A David or Solomon lives in our popular imagination but our country’s heroes slumber in learned history books. 

For the early Hegel, such hybridization was lamentable, yet possibly reversible; later he saw it as necessary and irreversible. The progressive nations in Hegel’s schema have no real ethnic memories and no ethnic lineage. They appear as the episodic subjects of a harsh, discontinuous history of freedom.

These notations on Hegel and Marx are meant to expose some of the tensions and displacements of emphasis involved in this interface of two images of the nation: as a general type of modern state or society and, in any given case, as a particular community of fate whose outlines have been shaped by a history of language, settlement and politico-religious renewal. The point of opening a discussion of nationhood with Hegel and Marx is that there exists, in both their theories of world history, a gap between a story of generic modes and orders and an underdetermined ethnography of peoples. This gap reveals itself during attempts to grasp the dominant form of modern political community: the nation-state. The lacuna indicated here is not specific to Marxism per se, as it in fact raises some of the central unresolved problems of classical social theory: 1) In the context of a modernity defined by agonistic individualism and impersonal forms of social power, can agency be exercised by large-scale collectivities? 2) To what extent does socio-political change depend on the existence of such problematic collective subjects? 3) What is the more politically consequential form of modern collective subjectivity — nation or class?

Anderson and imagination

Benedict Anderson’s small book Imagined Communities is distinctive in the contemporary literature on nationalism in the centrality it accorded to the issues just cited. Composed during the unexpected and disappointing aftermath of the victory of national liberation forces in Indochina — the downward spiral of Cambodian genocide, Vietnamese intervention and Sino-Vietnamese war––and published in 1983, it reflected on the significance of these events in a manner approaching the clairvoyant. At the time of the book’s publication, the Soviet bloc seemed glacially stable, yet Anderson foresaw a coming collapse along national lines. Viewing the Indochinese tragedy as a culmination of two decades of hostility between ‘actually existing socialisms’, he noted that the belligerents had been making ever fewer references to socialist ideology and ever more references to ‘sacred national interests’. The outbreak of national disputes between regimes still officially committed to the dogmas of internationalism underlined the need, in his view, for a fundamental re-evaluation of the whole problematic within which the Left had conceptualized the problem.

In this spirit, Anderson proposes that nationalism should perhaps be seen not as an ideology like ‘liberalism’ but rather as the modern counterpart to kinship. But this initial suggestion to see the nation as an invented kinship structure is then overtaken by a more conceptually developed equating of the nation with an elective religious community. Obviously, presenting the nation as an imagined kinship form evokes associations quite different from identifying it with a world religion. The abrupt transition from one to the other reveals an ambivalence concerning the politics of nations and nationalism. Very simply put, is modern nationhood exclusive like kinship, or inclusive like the religious fellowship described in Galatians 3, in which there would be ‘neither Jew nor Greek . . . neither slave nor free man . . . neither male nor female’? Arguing the latter for most of the book, Anderson holds that nationalism, apparently like religion in this respect, is neither an ‘ideology’, in the sense of a doctrine, nor a form of ‘false consciousness’. Both national community and religious community are grounded in a convocation with anonymous others: ‘All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact . . . are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.’ Here Anderson is claiming that social identity is a structured and shared symbolic projection and that, moreover, such organized outpourings of the imagination are impervious to being debunked by the enlightened mind.

Modern liberalism and socialism, it is implied, have failed to offer rich, compelling solutions to the arguably ineradicable problem of our finitude — the existential challenges of suffering, sickness and death. For Anderson, the enduring achievement of the great world religions was their ability to address the longing for solutions to these brute contingencies of existence within the framework of the narrative rituals that punctuate the life cycle. Although intensely local in its manifestations, Christianity, like Islam, could be experienced more broadly by the multitudes who journeyed to its sacred centres, participating in the geographies of pilgrimage and consuming the narratives of faith. A thin stratum of Latin literati imparted a semblance of uniformity to these narratives and representations through which the medieval world experienced itself. In a largely illiterate, dialect-divided agrarian civilization, Latin language uniformity gave the Church an authority, an institutional cohesion, that transcended and attenuated the jurisdictions of secular powers.

Anderson sees the origins of the modern nation in the early modern expansion of vernacular literacy that fomented the demise of this pan-European ecclesiastical order. Protestantism used vernacular texts to devastating effect in its pamphlet war against the Church and its allies, activating communities that had taken shape beneath the Latin-literate ruling stratum. Anderson argues that although neither Luther nor Calvin propounded national causes, in a sense the medium became the message. Literate civil societies were shaped and more sharply differentiated from one another as the mass-production techniques of early modern ‘print- capitalism’ standardized the norms and increased the density of social intercourse within particular vernacular languages.

But how do such cultural formations come to be imagined as ‘nations’ in Anderson’s sense? That is to say, how do they appropriate the experience of the sacred attributed to world religions and give it civic and territorial shape? A recurring theme in the book is Marxism’s failure to address ‘the sacred’, understood as a longing for immortality through membership in an imperishable collectivity. As in Durkheim, Anderson conceives the sacred as an anthropological constant of social life; the novelty of modernity lies in the fact that the national form it assumes is essentially secular. While the sacred and the secular might seem antithetical, for Anderson they intersect in the symbolic artefacts of the nation-state, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This strange civic deity is the object of a communion reminiscent of an ancestor cult, but here intimacy is crossed with the anonymity of modern society.

This linking of an anonymous modernity and the sacral reverses Max Weber’s verdict on modernity; instead of an iron cage, the arrival of the modern social order gives rise to a collective re-enchantment specific to it. Introducing the term ‘imagined community’, Anderson attempts to resolve the theoretical tension between two conflicting images of the nation: modern society is an abstract social system that is nonetheless experienced as a transcendent community of fate. Anderson’s print-capitalism thus becomes a force that shatters old idols only to incessantly invent new ones. This is not simply Weber stood on his head; it is a departure from the Marx of the Manifesto as well. Instead of capitalism, the great profaner of all that is sacred, there is print-capitalism, the matrix and crucible of the secular reconstitution of the sacred.

How convincing is this attempted inversion of classical social theories of modernity? Accounts of modernity organized around science, bureaucracy or capitalism have had difficulty explaining why, over the past century, great multitudes have often shown themselves willing to endure enormous hardship and even death to acquire and maintain a homeland. The sacrifices required of citizens on many occasions during these epic struggles revealed an immense capacity for collectivization dormant within structurally atomized bourgeois societies. But it is precisely here, at the point of ultimate sacrifice, that the identification of the national with the sacred becomes questionable. A robust national identity deals in high stakes yet offers, at best, a monument to the soldier’s heroic death. Unlike prophets, nationalists do not actually promise immortality. The modern national identity seems to offer far less consolation than does religion, and it is not entirely clear how in Anderson’s argument the one could ever fill the void left by the decline of the other. But if we move away from this association of nation with elective religious community, and back to its original identification with forms of kinship, then another — albeit less ‘progressive’ — solution to this modern problem of the mobilization of sacrifice becomes apparent. For if there is an anthropologically invariant desire to overcome death through communal bonding, then arguably not only have the ties of kinship played this role more universally than have the salvation religions, but they have often done so without regard to any otherworldly rewards. The blood connection has unparalleled intensity, immediacy and naturalness: atheists, nationalists and Christians in equal numbers rush to save their children from burning houses. Even the most universalist of modern constitutions makes allowance for the mythic ethnic core of society, which must always be defended in the face of existential threats.

Only quite late in the book, however, does Anderson return to this equation between kinship and the imagined affinities within the nation:

While it is true that in the last two decades the idea of the family-as-articulated-power-structure has been much written about, such a conception is certainly foreign to the overwhelming bulk of mankind. Rather, the family has been traditionally conceived as the domain of disinterested love and solidarity. So too, if historians, diplomats, politicians, and social scientists are quite at ease with the idea of 'national interest', for most ordinary people of whatever class the whole point of the nation is that it is interestless. Just for that reason, it can ask for sacrifices.

While representations of the nation depend heavily on familial and fraternal motifs, the figure of the nation as an imagined kinship structure, as suggested earlier, is in fact not compatible with Anderson’s focus on elective religious community. It is important to remember that, despite the melancholic tone of its introduction, the book has an almost uniformly positive view of nationalism, maintaining that its fundamental norm is fraternity, not hatred of and invidious comparison with the enemy. But the narrowing affinities of kinship seem too dependent on ethnic mythologies to serve as a ground for so generous a conception of the nation. The analogy to world religion better conveys an image of the nation that is open, even cosmopolitan, in its horizons. Pointing to the affinities between religious conversion and political naturalization, Anderson suggests that both are premised on conceptions of membership that supersede the raw fatalities of birth, kinship, and race. Ironically, this rather positive equation takes its terms from Lord Acton’s famous polemic against nationalism. Shaken by the Risorgimento, Acton argued that modern nationalism represented a reversion to the unethical premises of the ancient world, in which ‘merely natural’ bonds of kinship and ethnic descent provided the basis for political association, whereas ‘Christianity rejoices at the mixture of races’. For Anderson, by contrast, it is modern nations that rejoice in a sort of imagined mixture of races.

This depiction of nationalism is certainly foreign to many on the liberal Left, who see its exemplification in fascism and, more generally, the politics of ethnic cleansing. Disputing such associations, Anderson offers some moving lines from nationalist poetry and anthems to demonstrate that ‘it is astonishing how insignificant the element of hatred is in these expressions of national feeling’. The sharp distinction he draws between nationalism and fascism relies not simply on this charitable hermeneutic of the themes of patriotic fraternity, but also on his careful selection of case studies, drawn heavily from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Creole revolts in the Americas, with their constitutionsand high republican ideals. The principle, if not the practice, of this Creole republicanism constitutes for him the paradigmatic form of nationhood. These insurgent, idealistic elites struggled to lead societies which, despite their great ethnic and racial diversity and division, came to be imagined as national communities — and they invented broad and inclusive genealogies to match these aspirations:

The son of an Italian immigrant to New York will find ancestors in the Pilgrim Fathers . . . Spanish-speaking mestizo Mexicans trace their ancestries, not to Castilian conquistadors, but to half-obliterated Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs and Zapotecs . . . San Martin’s edict baptizing Quechua- speaking Indians as ‘Peruvians’––a movement that has affinities with religious conversion––is exemplary. For it shows that from the start the nation was conceived in language, not in blood. . .

Anderson stresses language because it defines membership in ways fundamentally connected to his specific conception of the nation. Language is intimate and natural, and thus, in the minds of an overwhelmingly monoglot humanity, deeply associated with the essence of oneself. The quasi-naturalness of these cultural formations sustains the idea of the nation as an eternal collective. Few of us conceive of even a distant future in which our own language is not spoken; many have difficulty imagining a past in which our language did not exist. And yet, despite its intimate association with self and being, language defines a form of collective membership which, unlike race, can be acquired:

If every language is acquirable, its acquisition requires a real portion of a person’s life: each new conquest is measured against shortening days. What limits one’s access to other languages is not their imperviousness but one’s own mortality. Hence a certain privacy to all languages . . .Seen as both a historical fatality and as a community imagined through language, the nation presents itself as simultaneously open and closed.

But there are, of course, several ways in which nations are not ‘conceived in language’. Throughout the world the boundaries of nation-states and the boundaries of linguistic distributions rarely overlap — many nations share the same language; many states are officially multilingual; in some states the official language is no one’s mother tongue. If the first possibility raises no insurmountable difficulties for Anderson’s claim, the second and particularly the third suggest that language is only one dimension of the ‘nationality principle’. More problematically, these different possible configurations raise the question as to whether there are any cultural attributes that uniformly demarcate nationhood.

Notwithstanding such boundary problems, Anderson’s argument remains compelling. The conception of the modern nation as an imagined community offers some advantages over any attempt to subsume it under the concept of ‘ideology’; the vaguely Hegelian claim that nationalism is therefore likely to be with us for some time, despite cosmopolitan protests and reveries, is also plausible. And, like Hegel, Anderson maintains that reconciling oneself to this situation has its advantages, as a world of nations is not the worst of all possible worlds. A note of improbable optimism, in fact, lies behind the formulation that ‘nations are conceived in language not in blood’.

The nation in arms

Anderson’s focus on language involves an attempt to uncover something deeper than citizenship. For him, mere membership in a political community does not generate an imagined collectivity, a ‘people’. While individuals might obey a Leviathan, no one wouldwillingly — or, indeed, be obligated to — die for it, as Hobbes himself acknowledged. By contrast, a nation can legitimately issue the call to arms, which, if successful, evokes a collective identification that overrides and subsumes the tug of competing ‘partial’ memberships — class, family, town, workplace.

The problem for Anderson’s thesis is that the cultural affinities shaped by print-capitalism do not in themselves seem sufficiently resonant to generate the colossal sacrifices that peoples are at times willing to make for their nation. It is difficult to see how a civil society conducting its quotidian affairs in a vernacular could inspire the same pathos as a religion whose mandate encompasses issues far weightier than mere life on this earth. If societies are imagined in sacred idioms, then vernacular sociability seems to offer much less in this regard than does religion. Anderson attempts to address the problem by claiming that the social organization of language in the modern world (schools, newspapers, novels) gives rise to a belief in the antiquity and imperishability of the nation. Yet such a belief could hardly be the basis of a compulsion to make sacrifices for that nation. To believe that French will be spoken in the twenty-fifth century is not the same as declaring, ‘France is eternal.’ Only the latter evokes a project, a struggle and a call to arms, and all this has arguably little to do with language.

The reason that the political nature of nationality warrants greater emphasis is not because the state is more important than language or culture in determining which groups are nations and which are not. Rather, the centrality of the state is posed by the very question which organizes Anderson’s whole problematic: not what the nation is, but why people are willing to die for the one they consider theirs. Absent the possibility of sacrifice, it is doubtful whether the nation could evoke the affective peaks of collective belonging that Anderson attributes to the national imagination.

‘Collective sacrifice’, ‘fatality’, ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’ — this is the language and imagery of war. But Anderson addresses the relationship of war to the pathos of national identity only fitfully, no doubt discomfited by its implications.1 The state is not absent from Anderson’s treatment of the ‘cultural roots of the nation’; on the contrary, he presents a lengthy discussion of the role of absolutist state formation in shaping the cultural grids of what would later become nations. But here the rule of the state is strictly analogous to that of print-capitalism. The proto-bureaucracies of early modern Europe were simply an alternate path to the vernacular sociability which elsewhere emerged out of the Reformation and the market. The state, then, stirs the national imagination merely by giving territorial shape to a language of public life. But it is doubtful that either this strangely pacific process of state formation or the cultural affinities produced by print-capitalism would be capable of generating ‘sacred’ idioms of collectivity.

Max Weber, always attuned to the role of force in history, offered a few penetrating reflections on the relationship between national culture and the burdens of Machtpolitik:

The political community is one of those communities whose action includes, at least under normal circumstances, coercion through jeopardy of life and freedom of movement. The individual is expected ultimately to face death in the group interest. This gives to the political community its particular pathos and raises its enduring emotional foundations. The community of political destiny, i.e. above all of common political struggle of life and death, has given rise to groups with joint memories which have often had a deeper impact than the ties of merely cultural, linguistic, or ethnic community. It is this ‘community of memories’ which constitutes the ultimately decisive element of national consciousness.[Economy and Society, p. 903.]

For Weber, as for Hegel, the modern state possesses a historical purpose, or project, because it organizes a community into a sovereign polity ready for war. It is during war that the nation is imagined as a community that embodies an ultimate value. Ironically, after offering a positive portrayal of nationalism as the great political passion of the modern age, Anderson concedes that in fact war has always been the decisive test of this form of imagined community:

The great wars of this century are extraordinary not so much in the unprecedented scale on which they permitted people to kill, as in the colossal numbers persuaded to lay down their lives . . . The idea of the ultimate sacrifice comes only with the idea of purity, through fatality . . . Dying for one’s country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a political grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps even Amnesty International cannot rival, for these are all bodies one can join and leave at easy will.

Two implications in this passage cut against the general tenor of Anderson’s idea of the nation. The first is that instead of the civic baptism of peasants into Frenchmen, or Quechuas into Peruvians, its conditions of possibility are located in the perpetuation of a sort of state of nature between nations. The second is that the most tenacious solidarities of recent centuries did not arise spontaneously from the social organization of vernacular language, but rather through the risks of membership in a political ‘community of life and death’.2 Thus, imagined nationhood, with its sacral affinities to religion, is not some phenomenological constant of modern social life. It speaks in the voice of Fate most pointedly in times of war, when it acquires a monopoly on the precise meaning of patriotic behaviour. The nation then ceases to be an informal, contestable or taken-for-granted frame of reference, becoming instead a precise, univocal and resolutely imagined identity.

In contemporary Western Europe, after fifty years of a thorough pacification of inter-state relations, it is difficult to imagine the nation in sacred terms; other zones of the world system have moved more erratically down the same path. What had once been Great Powers were stripped by post-war agreements of their colonial empires, institutionally distinctive constitutions and full geopolitical sovereignty. Even as certain of those agreements now come undone, their institutional legacy is probably irreversible — the neutralization of any danger of war in this theatre has closed off the sources of the great political enchantments of the previous period. It is not just ‘globalization’ that has put a question mark over the future of the nation-state; in addition, after such an unprecedentedly long peace, the social and cultural atmosphere is unable to sustain themes of high drama in the political sphere. In a Europe where ‘coercion through jeopardy of life and freedom of movement’ is a fate reserved only for the immigrant worker, new social and cultural divisions have come to replace national ones.

But for Anderson, the vector of historical development does not bring a kinder and gentler world. Assertions of collective ‘identity’ are attempts to neutralize the encroachments of an advancing social universe of capital. As the patterns of contemporary cultural and economic life relentlessly frustrate the desire and need to live in communities, these become ‘imagined’ only in the negative sense, that is, disconnected from any sense of historical reality and the possibility of social transformation. Ethnic pastiche evokes an ersatz sense of belonging:

Consider the well-known photograph of the lonely Peloponnesian Gastarbeiter sitting in his dingy room in, say, Frankfurt. The solitary decoration on his wall is a resplendent Lufthansa travel poster of the Parthenon, which invites him, in German, to take a ‘sun-drenched holiday’ in Greece. He may well never have seen the Parthenon, but framed by Lufthansa the poster confirms for him and for any visitor a Greek identity that perhaps only Frankfurt has encouraged him to assume.

I began by pointing out that the legacies of Hegel and Marx lacked a concrete conception of a people, a political anthropology. It might be thought that this criticism would lose its force when such communities of fate become inoperative, when nationalisms become increasingly ‘spectral’. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Marx, such spectres weigh too heavily. If modern society had settled into a form in which archaic imaginings of communal freedom had finally been neutralized, there would of course be no need to revisit the national question. But perhaps the social question, too, could no longer be posed.

Anderson challenges those who would too hastily conclude that the by-passing of the nation-state sets the stage for the long-awaited ‘open society’ — liberal, tolerant, multicultural. He suggests that there are in fact limits to how open society can be: beyond those limits, solidarity falters. Anderson begins Imagined Communities by contrasting cosmopolitan ideologies such as liberalism and socialism with the elementary forms of social community. But these ideologies have always tacitly relied on an image of society as an ultimately finite association. The successes, failures and compromises of both traditions stem in large measure from the fact that these communities are imagined as nations in the modern world, and that the only versions of these creeds which have any measure of practical success are those which have tailored their message to the limited sympathies of nations. Is it true that the masses have erupted onto the stage of history only in the form of nations? The Russian Revolution was perhaps the exception: not just ‘the Revolution against Capital’, to use Gramsci’s phrase, but a revolution also against the order of nations — that other, once equally formidable limit to the revolutionary will. But retrospectively, in the opening years of the twenty-first century, that great rebellion appears more than ever to have been a unique event. Anderson’s book is a reminder that future awakenings of the wretched of the earth may yet put into question the present verdicts on the nation-state.


1. His examples on this point are revealing. As indicated earlier, he draws very heavily on anti-colonial and national liberation struggles in which it is claimed that fraternal love of one’s country trumps hatred of the colonizing people and their culture, as the source of national solidarity. But if this is true (and Frantz Fanon, for one, thought that even in these cases the record was mixed), can the same be said of war between states? The introductory reflections on the bewilderingly abrupt passage in the Indochinese theatre from anti-imperialist struggle to inter-state conflagration suggest that powerful hatreds and powerful loves are not so easily separated.

2. Does the rise of the far Right signal a reversal of these developments? The striking thing here is the degree to which older national animosities have effectively disappeared from within its ranks, replaced now by a common hatred of the non-European immigrant. But regarding this hatred of the culture of foreigners, not ‘redeemed’ by love of one’s compatriots — is it nationalism?

The new edition of Imagined Communities is on sale at a 40% discount through Saturday, October 15th.