Influential historian Benedict Richard O'Gorman Anderson died on 13 December in Java, the Indonesian island that did much to form his outlook as a scholar of south-east Asia and theories of nationalism.
Anderson was born on 26 August 1936 in Kunming, China, to an Anglo-Irish father and an English mother. His father was a commissioner in the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, and the family moved to California in 1941 to avoid the Japanese invasion during the Second Sino-Japanese War. From there they moved to Ireland in 1945, and Anderson studied at Cambridge, before receiving his PhD in Cornell in 1967, and teaching there until his retirement in 2002.
According to the New Republic: “As Perry Anderson, Benedict’s younger brother and himself a distinguished historian, once noted, their father’s experience fighting corruption in the colonial management of China left a lasting mark on the children. In 1956, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Benedict Anderson was radicalized by the protests over the Suez crisis, where he found himself taking sides with anti-imperialist students —many of them born, like him, in the formerly colonized world — against British nationalists who supported the Anglo-French attempt to seize the Suez Canal. Out of his Cambridge experience, Anderson started on the path to becoming a Marxist and an anti-colonialist scholar.”
As Anderson focused on Indonesia as a graduate student, the country suffered a wave of anti-communist violence, as the US-backed dictator Suharto seized power in a coup and massacred between 600,000 and a million Indonesians, many of them supporters of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).
Along with Ruth T. McVey, Anderson wrote the so-called “Cornell Paper” discounting the Indonesian government’s official account of the coup. It was widely circulated in dissident circles, and for his efforts Anderson was banned from Indonesia, able to return only in 1998 after the overthrow of the Suharto regime.
Though he came from a highly cosmopolitan background, it was the study of nationalism which made Anderson’s name.
His 1983 study Imagined Communities was provoked in the immediate term by the national wars fought between the Stalinist states of Vietnam, Cambodia and China in 1978-79.
Coming at the beginning of a wave of studies in the following decade which completed obliterated the traditional literature on nationalism (including Ernest Gellner's Nations and Nationalism in 1983 and Eric Hobsbawm’s similarly 1990 study), Anderson held that nationalism was a modern, socially-constructed, phenomenon despite nationalist claims that nations are ancient or even eternal.
Unlike Gellner or Hobsbawm, however, Anderson did not take a wholly dim view of nationalism, writing that “it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love…”
For Anderson, nations were “imagined communities”. They are imagined “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.
And nations are “communities” because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”
Anderson’s focus was international, stretching far beyond the usual focus on Europe. As one summary put it: “While the preconditions were set in Europe, Dr. Anderson argued, the development of national consciousness began in the Western Hemisphere — in the United States, Brazil and the former Spanish colonies — in the late 18th century. From there, it spread to Europe and then to former colonies of Europe, in Africa and Asia.”
Essential to his study was what Anderson called the “the revolutionary vernacularizing thrust of capitalism”. Print capitalism, he argued, facilitated nationalism in filling the void left by the collapse of feudal societies. The “standardization of national calendars, clocks and language…embodied in books and the publication of daily newspapers” allowed people to overcome vernacular diversity, enabling them to identify with and form themselves around national communities.
Anderson’s death deprives us of a bold, highly original thinker who has done much to enrich our understanding of nationalism, colonialism, Indonesian history and much else besides.