Book Review: ‘Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism’ by Anderson

Ranjana Singh


For Anderson, the evolution of nationalism is dominated by the history of Europe and America and followed simply as models by the 3rd world seems flawed in nature.

Benedict Anderson in his book ‘Imagined Communities’ makes valiant efforts to provide a coherent narrative of nationalism, explaining the transition in the consciousness of people by time and space. He defines nation as ‘an imagined political community and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’. He offers an intelligible explanation of exactly how and why new emerging nations imagine themselves antique? First published in the year 1983, the book contains eleven chapters.

Anderson explores factors which caused rise of the most celebrated feeling of nationalism. He did a historical evolutionary analysis of this sentiment. He tried to answer unlike other loyalties and devotion what makes devotion to the nation more special. In explaining these developments he did a comparative analysis of nations over time and space. He found certain commonality and sequence in the rise of nationalism based on which he framed models of nationalism to be adopted, adapted and copied by third world countries.

The author explains the interplay of some factors which caused the rise and spread of nationalism to find print capitalism as the most important drive. He enlists factors like linguistic, racist and ethnic affinities and their role in infusing unity and national consciousness among people. It was in the 18th century Europe that the ebbing of religious belief led to the dawn of age of nationalism. Religious relativism or competition between ‘our’ and ‘their’ caused affinities and animosities too towards communities. With reformation and scientific revolution he lays special focus on print capitalism, how revolutionary vernacularization and administrative vernaculars, the rise of philology, vernacular lexicography, grammarians and the role of bilinguals in 19th century Europe awakened nationalism.

Anderson explains how Creoles became the pioneers of nationalism, how they were crucial and menace both to the masters. Creoles were subjected to discrimination from the rulers to unify them together. They rose in fury against the Spanish king and rejected Madrid’s interventions on slave laws. As they outnumbered the peninsulares by 70:1 they were the deprived majority. The ‘shared fatality of transatlantic birth’ developed in them a sense of loyalty to the place of birth i.e. Americas. Another example of ‘nationalism based on the place of birth’ the author quotes is that of Bolivar’s declaration “in future the aborigines shall not be called Indians or natives rather Peruvians (citizens of Peru)” and this is when print capitalism didn’t yet reach them. Anderson rightfully observes for a new consciousness to develop the older consciousness needs to go away forming its own narrative as in the case of Official Nationalism (term borrowed from Seton-Watson) or development of nations within dynastic empires. The consciousness got transformed because of rapidly rising prestige of nations in Europe since 1820s from Romanovs into Russians, Hanoverians into English and Hohenzollerns into Germans. This process of official nationalism went further to create nation states with Anglicization (Britain), Russification (USSR), Japanification (Japan) forming the three models to be copied.

The institutional manifestation of nations after the 1st and 2nd world wars brought the age of high dynasticism to an end; all colonies also became a part of this organization but were represented by their masters. Anderson attaches importance to modern style of education introduced by the imperialists in Indonesia and Indochina. Sumatra an island had neither same religion, language nor territorial linkages with Indonesia still due to the schools set up by the Batavia caused in them a sense of fellow Indonesian feeling. Similarly in Indochina too the author opines the following:

The education policy pursued by the colonial rulers of Indochina had two fundamental purposes both of which as it turned out contributed to the growth of an Indochinese consciousness”.

While on the other hand, on changing the language for recruitment into state machinery in China in 1915 & 1918 from Confucian to French he writes:


It was a consciously promoted step to break the links with China making dynastic records and ancient literatures inaccessible to new generation”.

In the 8th chapter ‘Patriotism and Racism’ he tries to delineate the process by which the nations got imagined and once imagined, were modeled, adapted and transformed but the author states nationalism in colonial states as simply modeled and copied leaving no space for imagination.

Anderson believes that love and especially self-sacrificing love and not fear, hatred of the other and affinities with racism inspired nations. He writes:


Even in the case of colonized people, who have every reason to feel hatred for their imperialist rulers, it is astonishing how insignificant the element of hatred is in these expressions of national felling”.

The author provides no single reason behind this conclusion which history of the colonial states he mentioned proves wrong. The author very convincingly explains how natural ties bind people. The assumed moral grandeur which people attach with dying for one’s country which no other community can rival since membership of a nations isn’t chosen. The author at times attempts to clearly turn the black impact into white, projecting imperialism as the ‘Whiteman’s burden’.

The book is particularly engaging and insightful on how the Europeans and Americans foundationalise the concept of nation and nationalism. While the factors he enlists are relevant but they alone do not explain the rise of nationalism particularly in Asian and African nations. Anderson mentions the rise of anti-colonial novels like ‘Semarang Hitam’ (Black Semarang) a tale by Mao Marco kartodikromo (1924) which talks about the young man represented as ‘our hero’ belonging to the collective embryonic imagined community(Indonesia) confirmed by the doubleness of our reading about our young man’s reading. Similarly among the Creoles too the ‘shared fatality of transatlantic birth’ developed in them a sense of loyalty to the place of birth i.e. Americas but the author ignores to count this factor into the rise of nationalism. In the Indian case the author says, Is Indian nationalism not inseparable from colonial administrative- market unification after the mutiny by the most formidable and advanced of the imperial powers?”

Anderson attaches importance to modern style education, industrial capitalism, imperial Anglicization and the importance of bilingual intelligentsia’s who were introduced to western education for their (British) own pity ends (which by default helped Indians) as not only a contribution rather a cause of nationalism in India. In addition Indian nationalism was also strengthened by the recovery of India's past heritage and culture. Swami Vivekananda’s nationalism was based on spiritualism, patriotism and religion. He re-introduced Indians with Vedas, Puranas, Geeta and their great past heritage. But the author limits the cause of nationalism in India to imperial initiatives only.

Out of all other factors, he attaches special importance to ‘print capitalism’ in the case of Europe and ‘bilingual intelligentsia’ for colonial states but ‘reading people, meant people of some power’ and not all could read. The book does not explore or questions what other factors than these two, particularly among the illiterates made them imagine the community? For e.g., no reference was made to ‘religion’ while analyzing nationalism in Asian nations.

The book is a major contribution in the understanding of the concept of most quoted and contested term of nationalism. Tracing the transition of this qualitative development and sustenance is brilliant but it appears that the author is more convinced than he could convince with his explanations. He begins with nationalism as imagined communities but till the last wave of nationalism it becomes modular nationalism. Even if the third world nations got inspiration from these established models they must have imagined the community on some collective base unique and different from other nations, then what makes the author label nationalism in these countries as pirated or imitated? He rests up establishing causal relation between imperialism and nationalism while highlighting the importance of modern education, industrialization, market and print capitalism bought by them in the colonial states. The evolution of nationalism is dominated by the history of Europe and America and followed simply as models by the 3rd world seem oriental in nature. While tracing commonalities and tying them all with a single thread of print capitalism is unfair. Equal importance should have been given to the peculiarities of these new nations rather than simply terming them as modular.


The author is a research scholar in Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Banaras Hindu University and is an intern at Academics4nation.

79 views

© 2020 by Academics4Nation