A story for all nations

October 20, 2006

Imagination does more to drive jingoism than political scheming, the author of the pre-eminent text on nationalism tells Huw Richards

It would be an exaggeration to say that Benedict Anderson is grateful to President Suharto. As an expert on Indonesia, he is far too aware of the human rights abuses inflicted during Suharto's 31-year presidency, which ended in 1998.

He accepts, however, that being banned from Indonesia for years, from 1971, brought him benefits beyond the cachet usually attached to academics or journalists who have upset authoritarian regimes enough to be slung out.

"It forced me away from what I knew very well, to look at and learn about other countries and to start thinking comparatively," he says.

Without that enforced intellectual diversification it is unlikely that Anderson, emeritus professor of international studies at Cornell University, would have written Imagined Communities , the ground-breaking 1983 study of nationalism that made his name. The book, a third edition of which was published last month, has sold more than 250,000 copies worldwide and has been translated into languages in 30 countries.

This success has propelled him - on that crude but compelling measure of modern academic celebrity, the Google page count - to a place (3.5 million pages) not far behind Richard Dawkins (4.5 million) and Stephen Hawking (4.49 million), but ahead of undoubted stars such as Amartya Sen (1.61 million), Philip Pullman (2.8 million) and Daniel Dennett (1.59 million).

The impetus for the new edition, which follows an earlier revision in 1991, came not from Anderson but from his publisher. "I'm generally not too bothered about things like that," he says. Its main novelty is an afterword in which Anderson recounts the chequered fortunes of the volume on its journey from transcript to classic text.

The influence of Imagined Communities is unquestioned; its publishers are not indulging in hyperbole when they say it is "widely considered the most important book on the subject". The work caught an intellectual wave. In the 1980s, Anderson was, he says, "an erratic Marxist", but in writing he emphasised the importance of imagination and perception, which gave the book an appeal to postmodernists. "It has been described as a bridging book, and I can see why people would think that, although that was not my intention," he says.

It was also, he notes, "a polemic aimed at our ignorance of small and middle-sized nations. Readers from the US, the larger European countries, China, India and Russia have pointed out that there is not much about their countries in the book, and I've always replied that their histories are well written about elsewhere. Those of smaller countries are not."

In that sense, the world has changed little since 1983, and it may even have regressed. Anderson speaks with exasperation of the frequency with which he encounters American academic works whose bibliography "is composed entirely of sources in English, 85 per cent of which are published in the US. It is as if nobody anywhere else in the world has anything worthwhile to say. It is depressingly parochial."

This might help account for another phenomenon he observes - America's lack of awareness of its own nationalism - but he notes that this is not an exclusively American characteristic. "Americans assume that they stand for universal values, rather as the French used to do, and are not aware that they are as nationalistic as everybody else," he says.

More than two decades on, he has not felt the need to make major alterations to the book or refashion his argument; he says that both the sources and the argument are in essence historical. He does, however, note how the literature on nationalism has developed in that time. Michael Billig's 1995 book, Banal Nationalism , which examined the role of nationalism in everyday life, was, Anderson says, "a terrific book and a major contribution - a cold shower for anyone who has romantic ideas about nations and nationalism".

His own view of nationalism is unromantic, but not as hostile as those of other major figures in the field such as Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Gellner. He attributes this to differences in age and background. "They are from a generation [Anderson is 70] and origins, both from Central European Jewry, that had the worst possible experience of nationalism," he says. He points to his own Irish background - albeit an odd mixture of early childhood in China followed by four wartime years in the US, which might have been designed to inculcate an interest in differing national identities - which he says predisposes him to a kinder view.

His description of nationalism as an "imagined" rather than "invented" phenomenon is also significant. "I don't see it as the outcome of Machiavellian political processes. They played a small part, but I think the more important and interesting role is played by the imagination. Stories seize the imagination more than newsprint, and it has always struck me that the intermediate zone between the made-up and the real is particularly interesting."

He accepts one criticism unreservedly: "I still feel bad about the question of women and nationalism. About the only women in the book are queens. But I haven't worked out an answer to this problem."

He has always emphasised the central role of the printed word in the development of nationalism but he is unconvinced by the arguments that its electronic counterpart might also have a transforming role.

"Many people think that the web and television have changed the way people understand things. Perhaps people do respond more readily to pictures than they do to print. But it is too early to tell - and you have to remember that a great deal of the electronic media is in essence print and that people read it," he says.

He also accepts that religious identities have revived in strength. "Those forces have become much stronger than I would have anticipated 25 years ago," he says, but he rejects suggestions that a clash of civilisations is set to displace nationalism. "I think nationalism will continue to be hugely important. It is hard to imagine what could take its place," he says.

Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson is published by Verso, Pounds 12.99.

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