Expert on southeast Asia and theorist of rise of nationalism

Benedict Anderson: August 26th, 1936 - December 13th, 2015


Benedict Anderson, who has died aged 79, was a specialist in southeast Asian politics and a theoretician of nationalism who argued that nations were “imagined communities” which sprung up through the interplay of capitalism and print culture.

His friend Tariq Ali, who had worked with him at the journal New Left Review and at the publishing house Verso, said that Anderson’s best-known book, Imagined Communities (1983), began with three paradoxes: nationalism is a modern phenomenon, even though many people think of their nations as ancient and eternal; it is universal (everyone has a nation), even though each nation is supposedly utterly distinctive; and it is powerful (so much so that people will die for their countries), even though on close inspection it is hard to define what exactly it is.

Anderson believed that liberal and Marxist theorists had neglected to appreciate the power of nationalism. “Unlike most other isms, nationalism has never produced its own grand thinkers: no Hobbeses, Tocquevilles, Marxes, or Webers,” he wrote.

Anderson argued that the mass mechanical reproduction of printed matter – books and newspapers – was an important factor in helping people who might have otherwise had trouble communicating with each other in person – given the very significant variations in language that often existed even within relatively small areas – to understand themselves as part of a community. Printing also slowed down changes within languages, making them seem fixed and stable, and created prestigious dialects which became the “language of power”, like the King’s English.

‘Imagined communities’

By “imagined” Anderson did not mean that nations were not real; indeed, he wrote, any community larger than a small village in which everyone knows everyone else is to an extent an “imagined community”. The “deep horizontal comradeship” that characterises a nation is socially constructed, he wrote, but also heartfelt and genuine; it explains why people die, and kill, for their countries. Imagined Communities has been described as “the most read book about nationalism”.

Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson was born in Kunming, China, in 1936 to an English mother and an Irish father, James Carew O’Gorman Anderson, who was a commissioner in the customs service, which collected taxes on behalf of the Chinese government.

United Irishmen

United Irishmen

The Anderson family, fleeing Japanese military advances, moved to California in 1941, and then to Ireland in 1945. Benedict Anderson attended Eton College and graduated from Cambridge in 1957 with a degree in classics before enrolling at Cornell in New York state. He received his PhD in government in 1967, and continued to teach at Cornell until his retirement in 2002.

While still a graduate student, he published, with Ruth T McVey, a searing account of the Indonesian genocide of 1965-1966, when, after a failed coup, at least 500,000 Indonesians were massacred because of real or supposed links to the Indonesian Communist Party. Anderson’s report helped undermine the official narrative of the coup. In retaliation, he was banned from the country in 1972, and returned only after the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998.

Anderson was renowned not only for his theoretical contributions but also for his detailed examinations of language and power in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines; he was fluent in Indonesian, Javanese, Thai and Tagalog.

It was America’s bitter experience in the Vietnam war, and other conflicts in the region at the time, that prompted Anderson’s curiosity about the origins of nationalism. Among his many other works are a collection of essays on nationalism in southeast Asia, an analysis of the influence of anarchist ideas on Filipino nationalism; a travelogue about Wat Phai Rong Wua, a popular Buddhist tourist destination in Thailand that tries to depict what hell would be like; and several books on language, power, violence and belief in Indonesia.

Anderson is survived by a brother, Perry, a noted historian and essayist who edited New Left Review; a sister, Melanie, an anthropologist; and two adopted sons, both of Indonesian origin.

At his death, he was working on an English translation of a memoir, A Life Beyond Boundaries, which was first published in Japanese. The book urges readers to resist the easy comforts of imagined homes and extols the joys of learning languages. It is scheduled to be published next year.