Tag Archives: Benedict Anderson

What would Benedict Anderson say?

First, there’s the European Court of Justice, the so-called Supreme Court of the EU. Of the 37 members listed on its site, six studied and/or taught in the United States. That’s 16%, including the president of the court. We count four Harvard degrees and a Harvard visiting scholar. Two Fulbright scholars. Several more studied at Cambridge or Oxford, and I would say nearly half studied outside of their country of origin. President of the Court Koen Lenaerts was a Fulbright scholar, and has an LLB from Harvard, as well as a Master of Public Administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government – the gold standard signifier for a true-blue USG man. The ECJ was established in 1952.

Then there’s the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, established in 1951. Of the 16 members of this court, five studied and/or taught in the United States. That’s 31% of the country’s Supreme Court. Do we notice Harvard JFK fingerprints here? Of course! JFK, Harvard Law, Yale, University of Michigan – a number of the usual suspects are implicated.

The Constitutional Court of Austria, in contrast, does not have a single sitting friend or alumnae [sic] of Harvard or Yale. Not one out of 14 members. The president of this court studied in Graz and Salzburg, not even making it to Vienna, the old cosmopolitan imperial capital. We note three instances of foreign influence: New York University, the College d’Europe in Belgium, and the University of Limerick in Ireland. A grand total of 7% who studied or taught in the United States, less than half of the ECJ and less than a quarter of Germany’s supreme court. The one infringement is NYU, not JFK or Yale Law, which might make the one infringement a Trump-tier heresy.



The first imagined solidarity

If the expansion of bureaucratic middle classes was a relatively even phenomenon, occurring at comparable rates in both advanced and backward states of Europe, the rise of commercial and industrial bourgeoisies was of course highly uneven — massive and rapid in some places, slow and stunted in others. But no matter where, this ‘rise’ has to be understood in its relationship to vernacular print-capitalism.

The pre-bourgeois ruling classes generated their cohesions in some sense outside language, or at least outside print-language. If the ruler of Siam took a Malay noblewoman as a concubine, or if the King of England married a Spanish princess — did they ever talk seriously together? Solidarities were the products of kinship, clientship, and personal loyalties. ‘French’ nobles could assist ‘English’ kings against ‘French’ monarchs, not on the basis of shared language or culture, but, Machiavellian calculations aside, of shared kinsmen and friendships. The relatively small size of traditional aristocracies, their fixed political bases, and the personalization of political relations implied by sexual intercourse and inheritance, meant that their cohesions as classes were as much concrete as imagined. An illiterate nobility could still act as a nobility. But the bourgeoisie? Here was a class which, figuratively speaking, came into being as a class only in so many replications. Factory-owner in Lille was connected to factory-owner in Lyon only by reverberation. They had no necessary reason to know of one another’s existence; they did not typically marry each other’s daughters or inherit each other’s property. But they did come to visualize in a general way the existence of thousands and thousands like themselves through print-language. For an illiterate bourgeoisie is scarcely imaginable. Thus in world-historical terms bourgeoisies were the first classes to achieve solidarities on an essentially imagined basis. But in a nineteenth-century Europe in which Latin had been defeated by vernacular print-capitalism for something like two centuries, these solidarities had an outermost stretch limited by vernacular legibilities. To put it another way, one can sleep with anyone, but one can only read some people’s words.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

The beginnings of imagined communities

What were the characteristics of the first American newspapers, North or South? They began essentially as appendages of the market. Early gazettes contained — aside from news about the metropole — commercial news (when ships would arrive and  depart, what prices were current for what commodities in what ports), as well as colonial political appointments, marriages of the wealthy, and so forth. In other words, what brought together, on the same page, this marriage with that ship, this price with that bishop, was the very structure of the colonial administration and market-system itself. In this way, the newspaper of Caracas quite naturally, and even apolitically, created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellowreaders, to whom these ships, brides, bishops and prices belonged. In time, of course, it was only to be expected that political elements would enter in.

One fertile trait of such newspapers was always their provinciality. A colonial Creole might read a Madrid newspaper if he got the chance (but it would say nothing about his world), but many a peninsular official, living down the same street, would, if he could help it, not read the Caracas production. An asymmetry infinitely replicable in other colonial situations. Another such trait was plurality. The Spanish-American journals that developed towards the end of the eighteenth century were written in full awareness of provincials in worlds parallel to their own. The newspaper-readers of Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Bogota, even if they did not read each other’s newspapers, were nonetheless quite conscious of their existence. Hence a well-known doubleness in early Spanish-American nationalism, its alternating grand stretch and particularistic localism. The fact that early Mexican nationalists wrote of themselves as nosotros los Americanos and of their country as nuestra America, has been interpreted as revealing the vanity of the local Creoles who, because Mexico was far the most valuable of Spain’s American possessions, saw themselves as the centre of the New World. But, in fact, people all over Spanish America thought of themselves as ‘Americans,’ since this term denoted precisely the shared fatality of extra-Spanish birth.

At the same time, we have seen that the very conception of the newspaper implies the refraction of even ‘world events’ into a specific imagined world of vernacular readers; and also how  important to that imagined community is an idea of steady, solid simultaneity through time. Such a simultaneity the immense stretch of the Spanish American Empire, and the isolation of its component parts, made difficult to imagine. Mexican Creoles might learn months later of developments in Buenos Aires, but it would be through Mexican newspapers, not those of the Rio de la Plata; and the events would appear as ‘similar to’ rather than ‘part of’ events in Mexico.

In this sense, the ‘failure’ of the Spanish-American experience to generate a permanent Spanish-America-wide nationalism reflects both the general level of development of capitalism and technology in the late eighteenth century and the ‘local’ backwardness of Spanish capitalism and technology in relation to the administrative stretch of the empire. (The world-historical era in which each nationalism is born probably has a significant impact on its scope. Is Indian nationalism not inseparable from colonial administrative-market unification, after the Mutiny, by the most formidable and advanced of the imperial powers?)

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

Also, the thesis:

What I am proposing is that neither economic interest, Liberalism, nor Enlightenment could, or did, create in themselves the kind, or shape, of imagined community to be defended from these regimes’ depredations; to put it another way, none provided the framework of a new consciousness — the scarcely-seen
periphery of its vision – as opposed to centre-field objects of its admiration or disgust. In accomplishing this specific task, pilgrim Creole functionaries and provincial Creole printmen played the decisive historic role.

Somehow ancient

As we have noted earlier, the new imagined communities (including the still-born, but still imagined USGA [United States of Great Austria]) conjured up by lexicography and print-capitalism always regarded themselves as somehow ancient. In an age in which ‘history’ itself was still widely conceived in terms of’great events’ and ‘great leaders’, pearls strung along a thread of narrative, it was obviously tempting to decipher the community’s past in antique dynasties.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

Nationalism vs. monarchism

Insofar as all dynasts by mid-century were using some vernacular as language-of-state, and also because of the rapidly rising prestige all over Europe of the national idea, there was a discernible tendency among the Euro-Mediterranean monarchies to sidle towards a beckoning national identification. Romanovs discovered they were Great Russians, Hanoverians that they were English, Hohenzollerns that they were Germans — and with rather more difficulty their cousins turned Romanian, Greek, and so forth. On the one hand, these new identifications shored up legitimacies which, in an age of capitalism, scepticism, and science, could less and less safely rest on putative sacrality and sheer antiquity. On the other hand, they posed new dangers. If Kaiser Wilhelm II cast himself as ‘No. 1 German,’ he implicitly conceded that he was one among many of the same kind as himself that he had a representative function, and therefore could, in principle, be a traitor to his fellow-Germans (something inconceivable in the dynasty’s heyday. Traitor to whom or to what?). In the wake of the disaster that overtook Germany in 1918, he was taken at his implied word. Acting in the name of the German nation, civilian politicians (publicly) and the General Staff (with its usual courage, secretly) sent him packing from the Fatherland to an obscure Dutch suburb. So too Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi, having cast himself, not as Shah, but as Shah of Iran, came to be branded traitor. That he himself accepted, not the verdict, but, as it were, the jurisdiction of the national court, is shown by a small comedy at the moment of his departure into exile. Before climbing the ramp of his jet, he kissed the earth for the photographers and announced that he was taking a small quantity of sacred Iranian soil with him. This take is lifted from a film about Garibaldi, not the Sun King.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.


The Protestant, English-speaking Creoles to the north were much more favourably situated for realizing the idea of ‘America’ and indeed eventually succeeded in appropriating the everyday title of ‘Americans’. The original Thirteen Colonies comprised an area smaller than Venezuela, and one third the size of Argentina. Bunched geographically together, their market-centres in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were readily accessible to one another, and their populations were relatively tightly linked by print as well as commerce. The ‘United States’ could gradually multiply in numbers over the next 183 years, as old and new populations moved westwards out of the old east coast core. Yet even in the case of the USA there are elements of comparative ‘failure’ or shrinkage — non-absorption of English-speaking Canada, Texas’s decade of independent sovereignty (1835—46). Had a sizeable English-speaking community existed in California in the eighteenth century, is it not likely that an independent state would have arisen there to play Argentina to the Thirteen Colonies’ Peru? Even in the USA, the affective bonds of nationalism were elastic enough, combined with the rapid expansion of the western frontier and the contradictions generated between the economies of North and South, to precipitate a war of secession almost a century after the Declaration of Independence; and this war today sharply reminds us of those that tore Venezuela and Ecuador off from Gran Colombia, and Uruguay and Paraguay from the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

The key to North American intellectual life

The figure of Benjamin Franklin is indelibly associated with Creole nationalism in the northern Americas. But the importance of his trade may be less apparent. Once again, Febvre and Martin are enlightening. They remind us that ‘printing did not really develop in [North] America during the eighteenth century until printers discovered a new source of income — the newspaper.’ Printers starting new presses always included a newspaper in their productions, to which they were usually the main, even the sole, contributor. Thus the printer-journalist was initially an essentially North American phenomenon. Since the main problem facing the printer-journalist was reaching readers, there developed an alliance with the post-master so intimate that often each became the other. Hence, the printer’s office emerged as the key to North American communications and community intellectual life.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

Administrative units

To see how administrative units could, over time, come to be conceived as fatherlands, not merely in the Americas but in other parts of the world, one has to look at the ways in which administrative organizations create meaning. The anthropologist Victor Turner has written illuminatingly about the journey, between times, statuses and places, as a meaning-creating experience. All such journeys require interpretation (for example, the journey from birth to death has given rise to various religious conceptions.) For our purposes here, the modal journey is the pilgrimage. It is not simply that in the minds of Christians, Muslims or Hindus the cities of Rome, Mecca, or Benares were the centres of sacred geographies, but that their centrality was experienced and ‘realized’ (in the stagecraft sense) by the constant flow of pilgrims moving towards them from remote and otherwise unrelated localities. Indeed, in some sense the outer limits of the old religious communities of the imagination were determined by which pilgrimages people made. As noted earlier, the strange physical juxtaposition of Malays, Persians, Indians, Berbers and Turks in Mecca is something incomprehensible without an idea of their community in some form. The Berber encountering the Malay before the Kaaba must, as it were, ask himself: ‘Why is this man doing what I am doing, uttering the same words that I am uttering, even though we can not talk to one another?’ There is only one answer, once one has learnt it: ‘Because we … are Muslims.’ There was, to be sure, always a double aspect to the choreography of the great religious pilgrimages: a vast horde of illiterate vernacular-speakers provided the dense, physical reality of the ceremonial passage; while a small segment of literate bilingual adepts drawn from each vernacular community performed the unifying rites, interpreting to their respective followings the meaning of their collective motion. [It’s too bad he doesn’t elaborate on this.] In a pre-print age, the reality of the imagined religious community depended profoundly on countless, ceaseless travels. Nothing more impresses one about Western Christendom in its heyday than the uncoerced flow of faithful seekers from all over Europe, through the celebrated ‘regional centres’ of monastic learning, to Rome. These great Latin-speaking institutions drew together what today we would perhaps regard as Irishmen, Danes, Portuguese, Germans, and so forth, in communities whose sacred meaning was every day deciphered from their members’ otherwise inexplicable juxtaposition in the refectory.

Though the religious pilgrimages are probably the most touching and grandiose journeys of the imagination, they had, and have, more modest and limited secular counterparts. For our present purposes, the most important were the differing passages created by the rise of absolutizing monarchies, and, eventually, Europe-centred world-imperial states. The inner thrust of absolutism was to create a unified apparatus of power, controlled directly by, and loyal to, the ruler over against a decentralized, particularistic feudal nobility. Unification meant internal interchangeability of men and documents. Human interchangeability was fostered by the recruitment — naturally to varying extents — of homines novi, who, just for that reason, had no independent power of their own, and so could serve as emanations of their masters’ wills.

Absolutist functionaries thus undertook journeys which were basically different from those of feudal nobles. The difference can be represented schematically as follows: In the modal feudal journey, the heir of Noble A, on his father’s death, moves up one step to take that father’s place. This ascension requires a round-trip, to the centre for investiture, and then back home to the ancestral demesne. For the new functionary, however, things are more complex. Talent, not death, charts his course. He sees before him a summit rather than a centre. He travels up its corniches in a series of looping arcs which, he hopes, will become smaller and tighter as he nears the top. Sent out to township A at rank V, he may return to the capital at rank W; proceed to province B at rank X; continue to vice-royalty C at rank Y; and end his pilgrimage in the capital at rank Z. On this journey there is no assured resting-place; every pause is provisional. The last thing the functionary wants is to return home; for he has no home with any intrinsic value. And this: on his upward-spiralling road he encounters as eager fellow-pilgrims his functionary colleagues, from places and families he has scarcely heard of and surely hopes never to have to see. But in experiencing them as travelling-companions, a consciousness of connectedness (‘Why are we … here … together?’) emerges, above all when all share a single language-of-state. Then, if official A from province B administers province C, while official D from province C administers province B — a situation that absolutism begins to make likely — that experience of interchangeability requires its own explanation: the ideology of absolutism, which the new men themselves, as much as the sovereign, elaborate.

Documentary interchangeability, which reinforced human interchangeability, was fostered by the development of a standardized language-of-state. As the stately succession of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Norman, and Early English in London from the eleventh through the fourteenth centuries demonstrates, any written language could, in principle, serve this function — provided it was given monopoly rights. (One could, however, argue that where vernaculars, rather than Latin, happened to hold the monopoly, a further centralizing function was achieved, by restricting the drift of one sovereign’s officials to his rivals’ machines: so to speak ensuring that Madrid’s pilgrim-functionaries were not interchangeable with those of Paris.)

In principle, the extra-European expansion of the great kingdoms of early modern Europe should have simply extended the above model in the development of grand, transcontinental bureaucracies. But, in fact, this did not happen. The instrumental rationality of the absolutist apparatus — above all its tendency to recruit and promote on the basis of talent rather than of birth — operated only fitfully beyond the eastern shores of the Atlantic.

The pattern is plain in the Americas. For example, of the 170
viceroys in Spanish America prior to 1813, only 4 were Creoles. These figures are all the more startling if we note that in 1800 less than 5% of the 3,200,000 Creole ‘whites’ in the Western Empire (imposed on about 13,700,000 indigenes) were Spain-born Spaniards. On the eve of the revolution in Mexico, there was only one creole bishop, although Creoles in the viceroyalty outnumbered peninsulares by 70 to 1. And, needless to say, it was nearly unheard-of for a creole to rise to a position of official importance in Spain. Moreover, the pilgrimages of creole functionaries were not merely vertically barred. If peninsular officials could travel the road from Zaragoza to Cartagena, Madrid, Lima, and again Madrid, the ‘Mexican’ or ‘Chilean’ creole typically served only in the territories of colonial Mexico or Chile: his lateral movement was as cramped as his vertical ascent. In this way, the apex of his looping climb, the highest administrative centre to which he could be assigned, was the capital of the imperial administrative unit in which he found himself.

Yet on this cramped pilgrimage he found travelling-companions, who came to sense that their fellowship was based not only on that pilgrimage’s particular stretch, but on the shared fatality of trans-Atlantic birth. Even if he was born within one week of his father’s migration, the accident of birth in the Americas consigned him to subordination — even though in terms of language, religion, ancestry, or manners he was largely indistinguishable from the Spain-born Spaniard. There was nothing to be done about it: he was irremediably a Creole. Yet how irrational his exclusion must have seemed! Nonetheless, hidden inside the irrationality was this logic: born in the Americas, he could not be a true Spaniard; ergo, born in Spain, the peninsular could not be a true American.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

The fall of Latin

One of the earlier forms of capitalist enterprise, book-publishing felt all of capitalism’s restless search for markets. The early printers established branches all over Europe: ‘in this way a veritable “international” of publishing houses, which ignored national [sic] frontiers, was created.’ And since the years 1500-1550 were a period of exceptional European prosperity, publishing shared in the general boom. ‘More than at any other time’ it was ‘a great industry under the control of wealthy capitalists.’ Naturally, ‘booksellers were primarily concerned to make a profit and to sell their products, and consequently they sought out first and foremost those works which were of interest to the largest possible number of their contemporaries.’

The initial market was literate Europe, a wide but thin stratum of Latin-readers. Saturation of this market took about a hundred and fifty years. The determinative fact about Latin — aside from its sacrality — was that it was a language of bilinguals. Relatively few were born to speak it and even fewer, one imagines, dreamed in it. …

The logic of capitalism thus meant that once the elite Latin market was saturated, the potentially huge markets represented by the monoglot masses would beckon. …

The revolutionary vernacularizing thrust of capitalism was given further impetus by three extraneous factors, two of which contributed directly to the rise of national consciousness. The first, and ultimately the least important, was a change in the character of Latin itself. Thanks to the labours of the Humanists in reviving the broad literature of pre-Christian antiquity and spreading it through the print-market, a new appreciation of the sophisticated stylistic achievements of the ancients was apparent among the trans-European intelligentsia. The Latin they now aspired to write became more and more Ciceronian, and, by the same token, increasingly removed from ecclesiastical and everyday life. In this way it acquired an esoteric quality quite different from that of Church Latin in mediaeval times. For the older Latin was not arcane because of its subject matter or style, but simply because it was written at all, i.e. because of its status as text. Now it became arcane because of what was written, because of the language-in-itself.

Second was the impact of the Reformation, which, at the same time, owed much of its success to print-capitalism. Before the age of print, Rome easily won every war against heresy in Western Europe because it always had better internal lines of communication than its challengers. But when in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his theses to the chapel-door in Wittenberg, they were printed up in German translation, and ‘within 15 days [had been] seen in every part of the country.’ In the two decades 1520—1540 three times as many books were published in German as in the period 1500—1520, an astonishing transformation to which Luther was absolutely central. His works represented no less than one third of all German-language books sold between 1518 and 1525. Between 1522 and 1546, a total of 430 editions (whole or partial) of his Biblical translations appeared. ‘We have here for the first time a truly mass readership and a popular literature within everybody’s reach.’ In effect, Luther became the first best-selling author so known. Or, to put it another way, the first writer who could ‘sell’ his new books on the basis of his name.

Where Luther led, others quickly followed, opening the colossal religious propaganda war that raged across Europe for the next century. In this titanic ‘battle for men’s minds’, Protestantism was always fundamentally on the offensive, precisely because it knew how to make use of the expanding vernacular print-market being created by capitalism, while the Counter-Reformation defended the citadel of Latin. The emblem for this is the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum — to which there was no Protestant counterpart — a novel catalogue made necessary by the sheer volume of printed subversion. Nothing gives a better sense of this siege mentality than Francois I’s panicked 1535 ban on the printing of any books in his realm — on pain of death by hanging! The reason for both the ban and its unenforceability was that by then his realm’s eastern borders were ringed with Protestant states and cities producing a massive stream of smugglable print. To take Calvin’s Geneva alone: between 1533 and 1540 only 42 editions were published there, but the numbers swelled to 527 between 1550 and 1564, by which latter date no less than 40 separate printing-presses were working overtime.

The coalition between Protestantism and print-capitalism, exploiting cheap popular editions, quickly created large new reading publics — not least among merchants and women, who typically knew little or no Latin — and simultaneously mobilized them for politico-religious purposes. Inevitably, it was not merely the Church that was shaken to its core. The same earthquake produced Europe’s first important non-dynastic, non-city states in the Dutch Republic and the Commonwealth of the Puritans. (Francois I’s panic was as much political as religious.)

Third was the slow, geographically uneven, spread of particular vernaculars as instruments of administrative centralization by certain well-positioned would-be absolutist monarchs. Here it is useful to remember that the universality of Latin in mediaeval Western Europe never corresponded to a universal political system. The contrast with Imperial China, where the reach of the mandarinal bureaucracy and of painted characters largely coincided, is instructive. In effect, the political fragmentation of Western Europe after the collapse of the Western Empire meant that no sovereign could monopolize Latin and make it his-and-only-his language-of-state, and thus Latin’s religious authority never had a true political analogue.

The birth of administrative vernaculars predated both print and the religious upheaval of the sixteenth century, and must therefore be regarded (at least initially) as an independent factor in the erosion of the sacred imagined community. At the same time, nothing suggests that any deep-seated ideological, let alone proto-national, impulses underlay this vernacularization where it occurred.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

Every successful revolution

Since World War II every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms — the People’s Republic of China, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and so forth — and, in so doing, has grounded itself firmly in a territorial and social space inherited from the prerevolutionary past. Conversely, the fact that the Soviet Union shares with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland the rare distinction of refusing nationality in its naming suggests that it is as much the legatee of the prenational dynastic states of the nineteenth century as the precursor of a twenty-first century internationalist order.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

(As we all know, the USSR was a steppe empire.)

Eric Hobsbawm is perfectly correct in stating that ‘Marxist movements and states have tended to become national not only in form but in substance, i.e., nationalist. There is nothing to suggest that this trend will not continue.’

Now, if we look at the relation between the Marxist revolutionaries in the first world and nationalism… well, the revolution won’t be coming anytime soon. One might even begin to suspect that they don’t want it to.


Tom Nairn, author of the path-breaking The Break-up of Britain, and heir to the scarcely less vast tradition of Marxist historiography and social science, candidly remarks: ‘The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure.’ But even this confession is somewhat misleading, insofar as it can be taken to imply the regrettable outcome of a long, self-conscious search for theoretical clarity. It would be more exact to say that nationalism has proved an uncomfortable anomaly for Marxist theory and, precisely for that reason, has been largely elided, rather than confronted. How else to explain Marx’s failure to explicate the crucial adjective in his memorable formulation of 1848: ‘The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie’? How else to account for the use, for over a century, of the concept ‘national bourgeoisie’ without any serious attempt to justify theoretically the relevance of the adjective? Why is this segmentation of the bourgeoisie — a world-class insofar as it is defined in terms of the relations of production — theoretically significant?