Benedict Anderson’s landmark study of nationalism, Imagined Communities, starts by rejecting the assumption that nations are a natural or inevitable social unit. Instead, Anderson describes the nation as a cultural construct, with a particular history rooted in the fall of monarchies and empires, as well as specific advancements in literacy, technology, and capitalism. To understand the essential features of nations and the remarkable power they seem to hold over their citizens, Anderson points to the continuities among nations that formed in different eras and places, many of which he argues result from countries simply copying one another. But he also turns to the radical differences between nations, both in the eras when they formed and today, to point out the way they depend on history and show how they preserve many of the structures, tendencies, and inequalities inherent to the forms of social and political organization they superseded.
In his introduction, Anderson illustrates what is special about nationalism with a case study. In 1978 and 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, and then China invaded Vietnam. This is remarkable because all three countries were Marxist, so they had aligned goals in the international sphere and would be expected to side with one another during wars, not fight against each other. But these countries put their nationalist ideologies above their Marxist ones, letting their historical grievances and concepts of ethnic identity get in the way of their long-term political goals. This shows that nationalism is different from other political -isms: nobody would die for the idea of liberalism, but thousands of people die for their nations every year. The idea of the nation is so powerful that everyone assumes everyone else belongs to one; the world’s most important international political body is called the United Nations; and “since World War II every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms.” And yet, Anderson notes, nobody really knows or agrees on what “nation, nationality, [and] nationalism” even mean, and the more scholars look for explanations or justifications for nationalism, the less sense it seems to make. When someone dies for their country, what is their sacrifice actually for? According to Anderson, it is for an idea: nations are emotional and cultural phenomena, not concrete ones. Anderson defines a nation as “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Like any group larger than a small village, a nation is “imagined” because most citizens will never meet one another face-to-face, and yet see themselves as being part of a “political community” that is like a family, with shared origins, mutual interests, and “a deep, horizontal comradeship.” The nation’s borders are seen as definite (“limited”) and it is seen as the only legitimate authority within those borders (“sovereign”).
In his next chapter, “Cultural Roots,” Anderson argues that one of nationalism’s most important effects is to create meaning where it is lacking—when one dies in battle, for instance. When religion declined in importance and lost its political role after the Enlightenment, nationalism conveniently took its place in giving meaning to people’s striving for improvement, service to their overlords, and even deaths. After the Middle Ages, people of different religions began meeting one another, vernacular languages started displacing sacred ones in print, and people started thinking of “history as an endless chain of cause and effect,” rather than as the preordained will of God. (Anderson calls this new concept “homogeneous, empty time.”) Anderson looks at a few examples of nationalist novels written in vernacular to show how they begin portraying a community of citizens living in a bounded territorial entity, and then analyzes “the newspaper as [a] cultural product” to show how it constructs an imagined community out of its readers.
In the next chapter, “The Origins of National Consciousness,” Anderson looks more deeply at the role of printed texts circulated in progressively more accessible languages to progressively wider audiences, which he calls print-capitalism. He cites the Protestant Reformation as an important early influence that helped “dethrone” Latin from its position as Europe’s common scholarly and political language. Then, Anderson shows how print-capitalism contributed to the standardization of languages: publishers chose a “standard” dialect to print in, one that would be accessible to their whole audience. These standard dialects became “prestige” versions of languages and, because they were now written down, changed much less than oral languages through the ages.
In his fourth chapter, Anderson turns to the earliest nationalist movements, which were in the Americas (not in Europe) and led by the elite creole classes (not by the disenfranchised masses). Because they shared languages with their imperial rulers in Europe and easily got access to European Enlightenment philosophy, the colonial elite revolted with ease and inevitably created democratic republics in the New World rather than replicating the European monarchies that oppressed them economically and culturally. In the second half of this chapter, Anderson tries to explain the scale of nationalist movements: why did the United States become a single, large country, but the Spanish empire split into more than a dozen? Whereas the British colonies were “bunched geographically together,” with their newspaper markets and economies closely integrated, the Spanish colonies were much more spread out. Moreover, in the Spanish empire, colonial-born bureaucrats could only work in the nearest colonial capital, but could never make a “pilgrimage” all the way to Madrid. As a result of this administrative organization and these geographical limitations, a separate economy, newspaper system, and sense of national identity arose in each major Spanish colonial territory, and then each launched a separate revolution to become its own country.
In the next chapter, “Old Languages, New Models,” Anderson turns to the next 100 years, from about 1820-1920, when nationalist republics began displacing monarchies in Europe. Again, language was crucial: the “reading classes” of each major European language began thinking of themselves as a community, and also expanded rapidly due to the growth of government bureaucracies and a new bourgeoisie class (both of which essentially required members to be literate). But Anderson also introduces a new cause of nationalism: the fact that Europeans could copy their American counterparts, who had already revolted and built nations. Anderson calls this phenomenon “piracy.” In the sixth chapter, “Official Imperialism and Nationalism,” Anderson looks at how established states and empires also began copying nationalist tropes in an attempt to stave off populist revolutionaries. He offers a number of examples of official nationalism, from the Russian and British empires forcing their national languages on linguistic minorities to Thailand copying European empires’ diplomatic and infrastructure projects in its ultimately successful attempt to avoid getting invaded by them.
In his seventh chapter, Anderson turns to “The Last Wave” of nationalisms, which arose after World War II in Africa and Asia, specifically in colonies rebelling against European rule. New technology and the growth of bureaucracy meant that natives of these colonies could more easily participate in government and make pilgrimages to Europe. Largely young and idealistic, they became excellent revolutionaries, copying the strategies of earlier nationalists on other continents and defining their nations in contrast to the specific European countries that colonized them (but using the same European languages). There were still differences between these nations, however: for instance, the huge and diverse archipelago of Indonesia, colonized but ruled indirectly be the Dutch, became a single nation after World War II in large part because of the spread of standard Malay (now called bahasa Indonesia) and the centralization of higher education in a few universities in western Java. In contrast, in West Africa and Indochina, the French built schools in more provincial cities and played ethnic groups against each other, which led these territories to split into various smaller countries.
In his eighth chapter, Anderson asks why people feel so attached to their nations, to the point of dying for them. Nationalism and racism often go hand-in-hand, as many scholars have pointed out, but nationalism also leads to a “profoundly self-sacrificing love,” akin to people’s love for their families. Anderson argues that nationalism is always open to the possibility of new people joining the nation, for instance by learning the language and naturalizing, while “racism dreams of eternal contaminations” and has been used by powerful people everywhere, throughout history, as a tool of oppression. Accordingly, he concludes that nationalism does not cause or lead to racism, although racism can be expressed in nationalistic language.
In the ninth chapter, the original conclusion to Imagined Communities, Anderson re-emphasizes the role of imitation and “piracy” in the history of nationalism. He traces his original example from the introduction—China, Vietnam, and Cambodia—to states copying bad models of official nationalism and Marxist revolution. With nationalism clearly more important to countries like these than the political ideologies they formally espouse, Anderson thinks scholars should stop putting Marxist theory before the evidence and start expecting more “inter-socialist wars.”
The last two chapters are later additions, Anderson’s attempts to refine his arguments in the book’s revised edition. Chapter Ten looks at three colonial institutions—the “Census, Map, [and] Museum”—that Anderson believes made it possible for post-World War II revolutionaries to imagine their lands as nations (specifically in Southeast Asia, his area of expertise). Colonial censuses and maps used “systematic quantification” to divide people and territory into systems of “totalizing classification,” while maps and museums created logos and symbols of national identity, turning living history into a series of dead artifacts. Chapter Eleven looks at the role of history itself in nations’ narratives of identity. The earliest nations were forward-looking and thought of themselves as breaking new historical ground, but the next generation (1815-1850) argued that its nations were “awakening from sleep,” with their people recognizing a longstanding, ancient, primordial unity. With the corresponding shift to homogeneous, empty time, the new academic discipline of History became a key tool for nations to define the deep ties that bound their people, specifically by selectively choosing what “to remember/forget”; that is, what to include in and erase from narratives of national identity.