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Does It Hold Up?

Reading Imagined Communities Amid a Resurgence of Nationalism

What Benedict Anderson’s classic account of nationalism’s origins misses about today’s world.

Illustration by Aaron Lowell Denton
This is the first in a series of essays that will revisit classic works.  

Whenever I land back in the United States after a trip abroad, I feel a warm rush of familiarity, a penetrating relief at having made it home to native soil. It’s a curious sensation for someone like me, an academic who has lived abroad numerous times and certainly does not subscribe to the “America First” nationalism of the contemporary right. Nonetheless, it’s real, that comforting feeling of being once more surrounded by the strangers who make up my “imagined community.”

There was a period in the late 1990s when nations seemed to be fading away, nothing more than a warm glow on the horizon of the twentieth century, a tingling sensation that sentimental scholars indulged in after foreign travel. Globalization, it was thought, would wipe away the nation-state, replacing it with a neoliberal paradise of nongovernmental organizations and corporations and universal human rights. “The very fact that historians are at least beginning to make some progress in the study and analysis of nations and nationalism,” the great historian Eric Hobsbawm opined in 1992, “suggests that, as so often, the phenomenon is past its peak.”

Thirty years later, nationalism is back with a vengeance. From Giorgia Meloni’s government of “God, homeland, family” to Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist movement to Vladimir Putin’s efforts to rebuild old imperial Russia, nationalism has been intensifying around the globe for quite some time now.

Curiously, though, the most highly regarded study of nationalism remains Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book in which he coined the famous term. Nearly half a century old and cited over 140,000 times, it is undoubtedly one of the most influential scholarly works of the late twentieth century, responsible for cementing the idea that nations—far from ancient communities stretching back to the dawn of history—are, in fact, social and cultural constructs of recent vintage.

Returning to the text after well over a decade, however, I had completely forgotten that it was a work of Marxist scholarship. For Anderson, it began as an effort to explain what he considered a profound problem for the socialist left: namely, that wars broke out between socialist states, specifically Vietnam’s 1978 invasion of Cambodia as well as the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. For socialists, who so frequently insisted that “Marxists as such are not nationalists,” these skirmishes posed a grave problem. How could a movement that sought to unite the oppressed proletariat of the earth succumb to petty nationalist grievances?

Anderson’s goal, then, was to explain nationhood from a Marxist perspective, to understand how the same economic forces that inform socialist thought could also be leveraged to explain nationalism. The result is a dazzling interpretation of the last 500 years of history, displaying a mastery of the material uncommon among writers today. 

The ancient realms, in Anderson’s telling, were defined by three common characteristics. Each was organized around a particular “script-language,” which held out the hope of divine truth—Latin, in the case of Christian Europe. Each rested on a belief in concentric hierarchy, usually manifested as a feudal society orbiting a monarch. And—most importantly—each relied on a sense of temporality, an understanding of time, that did not meaningfully distinguish between past, present, and future. But in the late medieval and early modern eras, societies slowly began to shed these characteristics, opening up space for new manners of thought and new forms of belonging.

In Anderson’s account, the force of modern capitalism shoveled aside the ancient ways of being and thereby made room for the emergence of nations. These new “imagined communities” were based on vernacular, rather than divine, languages. They were conceived as leveled societies of coequal citizens. And they were attached to a profoundly historical sense of time: The nation became a protagonist of history; what the Germans call a Schicksalsgemeinschaft, a community of fate, “moving steadily down (or up) history.”

Capitalism enters Anderson’s account in the disguise of the printed word. Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz first set moveable type to paper in the middle of the fifteenth century. His original Bible was printed in 1455, and “print-capitalism,” as Anderson christens it, was born. By 1500, some 20 million books had been printed. A century later, that figure was 200 million. These texts spread and standardized vernacular languages and challenged the sacred centrality of Latin—and through it of Christianity. They also made intellectual communion possible between people who had never met and would never meet. In the profits of print-capitalism lay the seeds of the imagined community. 

Of course, one might justifiably ask: If nationalism arose in large part because of printed language, disseminated through newspapers and books, what might become of it in a world where fewer and fewer people have the attention span to read a newspaper article, let alone a novel? Can the nation survive TikTok? But Anderson’s goal was to explain not the enduring conditions for nationalism to flourish but, rather, the circumstances of its birth. 

The first nations sprouted in the Americas, the offspring of the earliest European colonies—the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru, Portuguese Brazil, and the 13 colonies. Modern states required functionaries, bureaucrats, and intellectuals and merchants scurrying about to do their bidding. But the careers of these functionaries were geographically limited. Whereas an aspiring diplomat from peninsular Spain might circulate through Mexico on his way to higher office back home in Madrid, those born in the colonies could expect never to leave the administrative unit of their birth. And it was unlikely, no matter how talented they were, that the sovereign would ever appoint them to the highest offices, even there. As their number grew, they slowly began to form a class who began to think of the administrative unit of their birth as something slightly different and slightly more meaningful: a nation. By the early nineteenth century, most of the Americas were organized into independent nation-states, almost all of them republics. 

At this point, Anderson argues, nationalism became an intellectual product available for export—or, as he puts it, “piracy.” As nationalist movements sprang up on the European continent, its monarchs grew increasingly concerned (with good reason) that nationalist fervor might sweep them off their thrones. After all, most royal families were foreign imports: England, for instance, has not been ruled by an English family since 1066. It has not been ruled by a British family since 1688. What claim could they possibly possess to rule a nation-state of Britons? 

Europe’s sovereigns thus reimagined themselves as primi inter pares, first citizens of prehistoric nations. Their governments generated “official nationalisms” which could then be exported to their African and Asian colonies, where local (nonwhite) subjects were taught to be good Englishmen and Frenchmen and Dutchmen—and to be good colonial administrators. But, once again, their careers were halted at the colony’s edge. No matter how well educated, no matter how well they spoke English or French, no matter how competent they were, the color of their skin meant that they would never move beyond the roles prescribed them within the colonial hierarchy. And so, they too began to imagine themselves as members of a cohesive, ancient community, a nation that deserved statehood no less than Czechoslovakia or Poland or Switzerland. 

And thus, we arrive at the end of the twentieth century, a world divided into nations and nation-states. Anderson’s account is a compelling one, for it explains the economic and geopolitical circumstances that attended the birth of nations and their perpetuation into the contemporary world. But what it cannot explain, and what Anderson himself remains seemingly mystified by, is “the attachment that people feel for the inventions of their imaginations.” Why, that is, “people are ready to die for these inventions.” No matter how many fine poems of the love of the fatherland or motherland (or whatever) he cites, Anderson’s Marxist framework cannot explain the devotion that nations have and continue to inspire.

The oversight is a result, perhaps, of Anderson’s strange, tenacious attachment to the idea of the nation. Waving aside “progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals,” who point out the violence and racism of nationalism, Anderson instead focuses on how “nations inspire love.” The “cultural products” of nationalism, he tells us, “show this love very clearly,” whereas it is exceedingly rare to find “nationalist products expressing fear and loathing.” It’s an assertion that beggars belief. Perhaps the most famous nationalist epics and novels are, indeed, works of love, but it requires little effort to find the extraordinary bodies of nationalist literature riven with hatred for the other; determined to protect the purity of the nation from contamination. The Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, for instance, penned Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man in the heat of World War I, a 600-page screed directed against French civilization. Richard Wagner’s operas—nationalist art if ever it existed—are laboriously racist and antisemitic. No one would seriously think to claim that organized religions are essentially peaceful because they inspire “love,” yet this is precisely what Anderson suggests of nationalism.

Perhaps it should not surprise us, then, that Imagined Communities remains strangely blind to the violence of nationalism and, especially, to the ideological interlocking of nationalism and racism. Indeed, in the roughly 10 pages that address racism, Anderson argues, “The dreams of racism actually have their origin in the ideologies of class, rather than in those of nation.” While “nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies,” he contends in a slipshod sleight of hand, “racism dreams of eternal contaminations.” He suggests that racism developed only in the nineteenth century out of aristocratic pretensions and the “official nationalism” sponsored by Europe’s monarchs.

These are passages no serious historian would write today, and they’re indicative of just how little mainstream scholars thought about race and racism a half-century ago. We know now (if we didn’t then) that modern racism was already present in the earliest European colonization and offered grounds for the multitude of crimes committed against Indigenous peoples. Indeed, Anderson even cites examples of such racist thought early in the text! We know that the specific forms of anti-Black racism that have flourished in Western countries—especially in the United States—are a direct product of the system of chattel slavery (which Anderson leaves virtually unmentioned). And slavery provided, of course, the economic foundation of early European colonialism. The notion that the conjoined spread of capitalism and nationalism—both of which were amply wrapped up in colonialism—had nothing to do with racism is risible. The fact of the matter is, nationalism and racism are twinned forms of meaning-making characteristic of the modern world, and it is no accident that they both came of age in the twentieth century.

While Anderson’s text offers a compelling account of nationalism’s origins, then, it speaks little to the guises in which nationalism has reappeared in the twenty-first century. Even if nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were not fundamentally racist (it was), there could be no doubt that the far-right nationalism on offer today is. Moreover, the left’s rejection of racism (such as it is) remains largely consonant with its skepticism toward nationalism. For all the economic accounts one might offer to explain nations and nationalism, there remains at the end of the day something profoundly ineffable about it, a deep desire for community defined not only by who belongs but also by who does not. As Anderson writes, national belonging satisfies not a political need but rather a baser human one, a need for meaning and belonging. If that is indeed the case, we are likely living not through the twilight of nationalism but rather its violent rebirth.