Imagined Communities

by Benedict Anderson

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In the introductory chapter of Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson defines a nation: a limited, sovereign “imagined political community” that depends on “horizontal comradeship” among its members. Deep, emotional bonds join citizens, even those who never meet in person, as do supposedly shared cultural features. Nationalism uniquely inspires extreme loyalty and devotion, even a willingness to go to war and give one’s life. In modern times, it is generally assumed that people belong to a nation, despite disagreement about its definition. Throughout the book, Anderson explains, the terms nation, nationality, and nationalism will be analyzed, both individually and in terms of one another.

“Cultural Roots,” the second chapter, offers an overview of Anderson’s historical analysis from the waning Middle Ages through the late twentieth century. With the decline of the Medieval worldview and religion-based political control by hereditary monarchies, Latin similarly lost its dominance and vernacular languages became more important. Nationalism importantly helped to supply existential meaning as confidence in religion waned. Even the concept of time was altered as doubts arose about God-given or fated outcomes, and the succession of events was newly conceptualized as history. Anderson points out that the connection between language and technology is significant, as the invention of the printing press facilitated connections among dispersed populations through newspapers and novels—all written in the national language.

In the third chapter, Anderson considers “The Origins of National Consciousness” within printed texts that were written in national languages and circulated widely. The rise of “print capitalism” supported nationalism by helping to standardize the language of each national territory into a single, dominant version. Print capitalism not only stimulated literacy but also reduced linguistic diversity: numerous dialects were condensed into a single print-language, which became the official language of state administration—formerly the monopoly of Latin. The unseating of Latin as the language of governance coincided with the declining power of the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. The increase in writing and publishing in national languages also effectively reduced the importance in oral transmission of information and slowed the rate of linguistic change. Communication was not only enhanced but also prolonged, thus continuing the process of community building through linguistic solidarity.

The “Creole Pioneers” of the fourth chapter are residents of the Americas, where national revolutions began earlier than in Europe. Despite the nation-state’s conceptual development in Enlightenment-era Europe, new forms of democratic governance were first established in the Western Hemisphere. In former Spanish colonies, a dozen new nations—all republics—were created, each with a strongly individual character. In North America, in contrast, the British colonies yielded only a few countries. Shared language and cultural heritage were contributing factors in the revolutionaries’ success, as they established their independence from their distant rulers.

The fifth chapter, “Old Languages, New Models,” is concerned with a century of European democratic developments, from 1820 to 1920. Compared to the Americas, Europe was far more fragmented by language and diverse traditions. The popular movements that overthrew the monarchies were modeled on the American achievements of the late eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, solidarity grew within the new “reading classes,” the literate bourgeoisie of each European nation. Linguistic hegemony was promoted through governance, the academic study of culture and language, and the development of literature in the national language.

“Official Imperialism and Nationalism,” the sixth chapter, shows how the impact of nationalism extended into established states and the empires they controlled. Driven by concern over the increasing revolutionary fervor, numerous monarchies officially adopted nationalism. They applied its mechanisms toward securing their rule at home and in the farthest outposts of their empires. In the British...

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and Russian empires, among others, language and cultural symbols were widely and systematically deployed. To conduct the business of empire, the imperial power’s national language was imposed, while indigenous or minority “dialects” were discouraged or prohibited. Even nations that had avoided becoming colonies used such discourses, aiming to improve both internal security and external relations, thereby maintaining sovereign status.

In the seventh chapter, “The Last Wave,” Anderson addresses the post-World War Two era, which saw the rapid emergence of new nation-states casting off European rule. Anderson notes significant differences as well as widespread similarities among former empires, such as the Netherlands and France, and between former colonies in Africa and Asia. Lengthy periods of rule strengthened the use of colonizers’ national languages within their colonies, so the initial break from colonial control was often partial: those linguistic patterns and the related technology and education remained in place. In nations where one large indigenous group had remained relatively powerful, a large nation formed and that group’s language soon became the basis for a new national language. Territories in which ethnic divisions and regionalism had remained strong were more likely to fragment into numerous nations, each declaring a different national language.

“Patriotism and Racism,” the eighth chapter, is devoted to an analysis of racism as a quality of nationalism or of class structure. Patriotism is addressed, particularly in the ways it shapes profound emotional attachment and self-sacrifice. Anderson emphasizes the equalizing effects of nationalism, in contrast to the divisiveness of class. Although nationalism and racism are often tightly connected, Anderson does not see racism as an outgrowth of nationalism. He views the nation as an open entity which others may join, whereas racism is an ideology that excludes others by essentializing them, and thus it generally runs counter to nationalist inclusivity.

The ninth and final chapter, “The Angel of History,” serves as a conclusion and a commentary on Marxist interpretations of nationalism. Anderson considers the recent (as of the book’s 1983 publication) wars in Southeast Asia, in which Marxist-based governments came to dominate large territories. Anderson warns of the current and future hazards of adopting nationalist ideas wholesale rather than adapting them to local conditions. He considers the likelihood of continued armed conflict between nations that ostensibly share political philosophies, arguing that the influence of nationalism is stronger.