Understanding nations – the legacy of Benedict Anderson

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The recent death of Benedict Anderson is worth noting, as he was one of the key thinkers who shaped modern understanding of the phenomena of nations and nationalism.

Tom Nairn has famously quipped that inability to understand nationalism is Marxism’s greatest failure. In a sense he is correct, that not only Marxists but the broader political left have often tended towards an instrumental and unreflective relationship with nationalism, as if the consciousness and political dynamics unleashed by nations are somehow less authentic and fundamental than those based upon class and economic exploitation.

This is dangerous because it underestimates the degree to which the passions of nationalism are rational and derive from actually existing social relationships, but of course we also need to understand that nations are not unchanging, they are the product of a particular stage of human development.

As Hobsbawm argued in his work, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780

the ‘nation’ [is not a] primary nor … an unchanging social entity. It belongs exclusively to a particular, and historically recent, period. It is a social entity only insofar as it relates to a certain kind of modern territorial state, the ‘nation-state’, and it is pointless to discuss nation and nationality except insofar as both relate to it. Moreover, with Gellner I would stress the element of artifact, invention and social engineering which enters into the making of nations. ‘Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent … political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes preexisting cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates preexisting cultures: that is a reality.’ In short, for the purposes of analysis nationalism comes before nations. Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round.

An important insight from both Benedict Anderson, in his book “Imagined Communities” and Ernest Gellner in his work “Nations and Nationalism” is that industrial society created a new form of collective consciousness, whereby modes of face to face relationships were replaced by economic relationships with strangers.

Gellner stresses how the horizontal class loyalties that crossed national boundaries in European feudal society became fractured, and replaced with national traditions; and he points out how state sponsored education, and standardised languages developed segregation between nations. Anderson points out that printing accelerated the linguistic standardisation, trade standardised the legal system, and modern cartography created a new mental conception of borders.

Industrial societies require that the population should be socially mobile, and atomised, so that no job becomes restricted to a particular caste or family, and individuals owe their primary loyalties to wider society, rather than to family, faith group or tribe. Gellner attributes the growth of national consciousness to the state sponsored universal education system of industrialised societies, and with a complimentary insight Benedict Anderson describes the role of mass produced printing as creating an imagined national community of shared culture. It is worth also praising the insight of Neil Davidson of how this relates to the psychological theories of consciousness from Voloshinov, that national consciousness is collectively developed, and individuals interact with the forms of collective social consciousness that are available to them.

National consciousness is therefore by necessity participatory, and this supports the argument from the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer, that shared communities of fate develop shared communities of character (or consciousness). Bauer argued that people who share a common community of experience, develop a common community of culture. Even where there is a contested class struggle within a nation, the specificity of that class struggle provides a common frame of reference to the contending classes. The French revolution was a bourgeois overthrow of monarchical absolutism, but it was also specifically French. That is, unique and nationally specific forms of consciousness develop, whereby people share collectively developed signifiers and social performances which mark themselves as belonging.

Therefore we can see how the development of the early industrial societies, the eclipsing of feudalism led to a new form of consciousness, where people felt themselves as belonging to a nation, in a way they previously had not.

It is no surprise that this process was accelerated among colonists, in fresh lands where feudal legacies were weak, and where the colonising mission gave a sense of new identity and collective purpose; Benedict Anderson drew attention to the fact that the explicit political projects of modern nationalism arose mainly in the new world of the Americas.

To take a lesser known example, on 16th September 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest from the small town of Dolores, near Guanajuato in Mexico, issued the famous Grito de Dolores (“Cry of Dolores”):

My children: a new dispensation comes to us today. Will you receive it? Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen by three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? We must act at once… Will you defend your religion and your rights as true patriots? Long live our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government! Death to the gachupines!

It is worth looking at this, because Hidalgo himself was a creole (born in the Americas but of European descent), a similar background to Simon Bolivar and George Washington. This was more than a coincidence, it was a pattern.

As Anderson explained, the creole populations of the Americas suffered a social and political disadvantage compared to citizens born in Britain, France or Spain; this was highlighted by the slogan of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation”.

In Hidalgo’s proclamation, he calls for death to the gachupines , another name for peninsulares born in metropolitan Spain; this reflects the social and political clash between the creoles and the colonial elite. However, he also explicitly identifies the creole revolt of Mexicans of Spanish heritage with the historical plight of the indiginous population. Hidalgo was a political visionary who saw mestizos and indigenous peoples as fellow Mexicans, he was not seeking to replace an elite of peninsulares with an elite of creoles, rather he was seeking to unite a nation around their common history and specific mix of cultural peculiarities.

However, the arising of national consciousness was not itself sufficient to lead to political nationalism. It was also necessary for the idea of nations to establish itself at the ideological level, to bind the concept of nation to the realities of state power. The extraordinary book by Hans Kohn “The idea of Nationalism”, written by an academic historian and Zionist theoretician, details the development of a new ideology which matched the developing new form of collective consciousness in Europe, and how the old intellectual classes vigorously opposed what they saw as a vulgar patriotism that was undermining their pan-European outlook. Gradually national identity became the dominant ideology, and national consciousness became the dominant form of collective awareness, as a necessary corrolary of the growth of industrial society. Anderson argued that the advocacy of the form of a nation state as a political project in the rest of the world was shaped by the prototype nations that arose in the Americas.

Ernest Gellner explains the phenomenon very well of how in pre-industrial societies, populations are neither culturally homogenous, nor socially or geographically mobile. They have laterally isolated face-to-face communities of direct agricultural producers, and only the clerical, administrative and economically dominant classes communicate on a national basis and develop a high culture.

We can see how this works by looking at the example of the historical Czech populations of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. In the Middle Ages Bohemia and Moravia were among the most economically developed areas of Europe, with a prospering Czech nobility, chivalry and burgher classes, but they were struck by a number of catastrophes. Their defeat in the fifteenth century Hussite wars led to the nobility being deposed and replaced by the mercenaries of different nationalities who had fought for the Kaiser, and who adopted the German language and culture; the loss of Constantinople changed irrevocably the patterns of European trade, leading to a disastrous decline in prosperity, and the counter-reformation meant that the remaining protestant burghers migrated north.

The result was the eradication of Czech as a written and cultural language, and it became the preserve only of peasants living in a German state. Under early feudalism there was no requirement for the peasantry to speak the same language as their rulers, and as Gellner observes such a cultural/linguistic underpinning of social inequality promoted rather than impeded stability in pre-industrial societies.

But later feudalism, in the eighteenth century saw the arrival of a new phenomenon of the Absolutist state, which in both France and Austria developed a mass army directly employed by the state, and therefore required taxation to pay for it. So even though these absolutist states were run exclusively by the nobility, they consciously adopted mercantilist policies to develop capitalism, in order to increase national wealth. They also sought to eliminate the mediating feudal classes, and deal with their subjects direct.

In Austria, this meant the deliberate policy by the Kaiserin Maria Theresa of reviving the Czech language in the state bureaucracy, in order that the state could deal with the peasantry without intermediaries. Growing prosperity also created professional classes, such as schoolteachers and doctors who need to speak Czech, and a revival of interest in Czech folklore (originally writing about Czech culture in German, in the same ways that the early meetings of the revivalist Finnish folklore society spoke only in Swedish), this led over quite a short period of decades to the revival of Czech as literary language, firstly with the publication of a translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The growing Czech speaking middle classes became increasingly confident.

In the democratic revolution of 1848, the Czechs sided with the Monarchy against the democracy movement because the democracy movement expressed the economic interests of the German speaking bourgeoisie. The decision of the Reichstag to only allow speeches in German was a class measure designed to exclude the peasantry and small businessmen. Big manufacturing in the Czech lands was in German hands, (Bohemia had a 40% German population) and the economic interest of these Germans was closer integration and creation of an Empire wide market that eliminated local protectionism, whereas the economic interests of the agrarian areas in the Czech lands, and the smaller Czech manufacturers was to have federal provinces in the Empire, that protected and developed local production.
The emergence of a national Czech culture changed the nature of the Austrian part of the dual Monarchy from being a German state into a multinational state, because developing capitalism empowered the Czechs to participate in national life. Interestingly, the only socialists who aspired to nationalist secession from the Empire were from the most economically under-developed areas, and which bordered parts of the Czarist empire where there were bourgeois national movements of their co-nationals, the Poles and Ruthenians (Gallician Ukranians)

As one famous Russian accurately described it: “A very peculiar situation was thus created—a striving on the part of the Hungarians and then of the Czechs, not for separation from Austria, but, on the contrary, for the preservation of Austria’s integrity, precisely in order to preserve national independence, which might have been completely crushed by more rapacious and powerful neighbours! Owing to this peculiar situation, Austria assumed the form of a dual state, and she is now being transformed into a triple state (Germans, Hungarians, Slays).

But more specifically, following Otto Bauer we can observe that whereas the illiterate and isolated Czech peasantry had not been part of the nation, but merely its tenants, the development of capitalism created a national culture, and with the event of universal male suffrage in 1867, the political parties strived to draw every individual man into national life, because it wanted their votes. The growth of national life drew people out of the perspective of their own village or workshop, and introduced them to high culture and politics.

Anderson describes the process where industrialism promoted growing literacy, and the invention of the concept of the modern novel coincides with the growth of the concept of the “everyman” figure, and identification with the interest of strangers based upon shared nationhood.

The feeling of identity and belonging are powerful ones, and the left ignores them at its peril. Indeed, there is an argument, following Bauer, that the growth of nations has been an emancipatory project bringing the benefits of democracy and participation in cultural life to the whole population, rather that the nation being the property of the privileged dominant classes. What is more, whereas historical nations were based upon shared ethnic and cultural legacy, the growth of civic nationalism has allowed modern nation states to be porous and multi-cultural, open to newcomers.

16 comments on “Understanding nations – the legacy of Benedict Anderson

  1. Interesting stuff, Andy. A nation by definition is an imagined community of imagined common interests, reaffirmed by a common language and a history told and accepted from the stand point of this imagined community. This is why Marx and his works was deemed such a threat to the prevailing order, as were the Bolsheviks, and why such mammoth effort and energy has been expended in demonising everything they represent – i.e. a class consciousness which transcends borders, cultures, and national consciousness.

    I agree that national consciousness exercises a powerful hold, but not an impregnable one. You cite the French Revolution as being quintessentially French, yet it drew its inspiration from the American Revolution of 1776 and was itself the inspiration for the Haitian uprising of 1803 and the spread of universal ideas re the Rights of Man. All the great emancipatory projects have taken place as the very antithesis of nationalism, while nationalism has lain at the root of every war and major conflict since the Treaty of Westphalia in the 17th century.

    Jean Monnet, the French statesman and diplomat credited with coming up with the concept of European unity post WWII was motivated by this and how to militate against it to ensure there was not a recurrence of a major conflagration in Europe again. He said of the idea of European unity in 1950: “This proposal has an essential political objective: to make a breach in the ramparts of national sovereignty which will be narrow enough to secure consent , but deep enough to open the way towards the unity that is essential to peace.”

    Monnet would undoubtedly be aghast to see his idea of European unity starting to unravel, as it has, no doubt understanding the problem as one of implementation rather than concept. For me the nation state is an anachronism, held together by abstract notions of common interests which have failed to keep pace with a globalised inter connected world. It is in fact a retreat from reality rather than rooted in reality and as such anything to weaken the sovereignty of developed economies can only be progressive.

    This is why I remain unconvinced when it comes to withdrawing from the EU. We take for granted I think the fact that our generation has never endured the ravages of a major European conflict. The reason we have not is largely, perhaps even solely, due to European unity. Anything that deepens national particularisms, as the anti EU narrative inevitably does, is not something progressives should support.

  2. It has recently occurred to me that we have a pamphlet by a famous Georgian on ‘Marxism and the National Question’ and a library of literature on how socialists have, or should, relate to nationalism. But did anyone ever write, say, ‘Nationalism and the Social Question’, i.e. a study of how nationalists should respond to the rise of Marxism and internationalism?

    In other words, did anyone (maybe in the late 19th or early 20th century) ever take national consciousness as the subject and class consciousness as the object, rather than the other way round?

  3. George Hallam on said:

    Ken MacLeod: did anyone (maybe in the late 19th or early 20th century) ever take national consciousness as the subject and class consciousness as the object, rather than the other way round?

    Yes, but not in a good way.

  4. George Hallam on said:

    The problem is that as the more economically advanced countries dominated less developed areas of the world nationalists tended to degenerate into racists.

    For example in ‘The Revolt Against Civilisation’ (1922) Lothrop Stoddard wrote about Marxism but from a racist perspective.

  5. Pete Jones on said:

    A really thoughtful post Andy. Benedict Anderson was a revelation to me when I first read him (too long ago). However, I think you are too accepting of the status quo – we want to change this!
    Like all societal structures, under capitalism nations were created and continue to exist because they they serve a purpose. Primarily, they facilitate capital accumulation for the dominant class inside that nation. The EU facilitates capital accumulation for the capitalists in EU nations which would otherwise be crushed by US, Japanese and others who benefit from operating on a bigger scale.
    The EU has not created peace in Europe – that was down to an anti-soviet alliance which jointly opposed a threat to their common, rapacious, interests.
    But as socialists we have no long term interest in nations (except in specific circumstances – Cuba – as temporary bastions keeping out the sea of imperialism) but we want to create a hegemonic internationalist consciousness which suits the economic superstructure we want to develop.

  6. Ken MacLeod,

    The Hobsbawm book I refer to in the article summarises much mainstream nationalist thought, so would be a good first stop to look for an answer, but my copy is behind the Xmas tree, so I ‘ ll look in January

  7. Pete Jones,

    There is a very good article by Hobsbawm from January 1983 in Marxism Today called Falklands Fallout, that you can access on the online archive, that addresses these arguments.

    The working class has always been patriotic, but that is no obstacle to international solidarity based upon mutual respect

  8. John,

    The thing is, national consciousness is not necessarily based upon ideas of common or shared interest, so much as a feeling of belonging or shared fate.

    For example, soldiers can simultaneously despise their officers and know that they themselves have much in common with soldiers on the other side, but still loyally follow and identify with their officers in battle. Jonathan Neal’s book on mutiny in Nelson’s navy is surprisingly good on this point.

    I think you are right about EU though

  9. #1 &5 As Pete points out, peace in Europe was in the context of a stand-off between the USSR and its allies/satellites and the dominant Western imperialist powers.

    More to the point, since the collapse of socialism in the former countries and more to the point in Yugoslavia there has been more and more conflict in Europe.

    The EU played an important role in the breakup of Yugoslavia and in the consequent bloody civil war(s) that then ensued, and is now key to Western expansion into the territory of the former USSR, as we saw in Kiev.

    As the EU has expanded Europe has become less peaceful, not more.

    Whether that’s a coincidence and provides no evidence that the EU and its expansion is a threat to peace, it certainly doesn’t point in the opposite direction.

    I’ll return to this when I’ve more time.

  10. Vanya: peace in Europe was in the context of a stand-off between the USSR and its allies/satellites and the dominant Western imperialist powers.

    Peace between European states in Western Europe was undoubtedly a product of their shared enemy to the East, but inter-imperialist rivalry between those states as a product of protectionism and nationalism was undoubtedly weakened as a consequence of first economic and then closer political union.

    As for Yugoslavia, are we saying that Germany would not have played the part it did in destabilising the country if it had not been part of the EU? I’m not convinced this is tenable.

    There is also a clear correlation between the move of former Soviet Bloc states into the EU and increased tensions between the EU and Russia. But again are we suggesting that relations between the West and a resurgent Russia would be markedly different if those states had remained ‘nominally’ independent? Those states could not have remained truly independent, given the laws of neoliberalism and given their respective governments’ eagerness to embrace free market nostrums.

    The left/progressive case for leaving the EU has next to no traction when it comes to influencing public consciousness on this question. This just a fact, which cannot be discounted or dismissed.

  11. #12 The EU has been more and more integral to political and economic developments in Europe as it’s expanded, so I don’t see how counterfactual history really helps us.

    As for the extent to which the progressive case for Britain leaving is known about or understood, clearly this is limited.

    But I don’t see how this in itself invalidates that case.

    Surely we can’t base our political positions on the extent to which people understand or agree with us?

    If you look at the argument from the opposite point of view, clearly most people believe that the pro-EU argument is associated broadly with the left in British politics . Are you saying that this in itself is a good reason to campaign to remain in? In spite of the fact that so many of the most powerful reactionary forces which impact on us will also be doing so? US imperialism, the CBI, most of the Tory Party.

    Believing that British membership of the EU is in reality in the interests of the working class is a good reason to campaign for that position. I don’t so I won’t be.

    On the other hand, fear of the fact that most people don’t realise that there is a left progressive case for leaving is not a good reason to refuse to put that case forward.

    And that case is a lot better understood now than it was prior to events in Greece.

  12. George Hallam on said:


    I’m afraid your are wrong on two key points.

    John: inter-imperialist rivalry between those states as a product of protectionism and nationalism was undoubtedly weakened as a consequence of first economic and then closer political union.

    You have the causal arrows pointing the wrong way.

    It was the urge to create a Grossraumwirtschaft (viable economic space) that drove first economic and then closer political union.

    It would be an oversimplification to say that the Common Market was designed to benefit French farmers and German industrialists but it does go some way to explain what was going on.

    John: As for Yugoslavia, are we saying that Germany would not have played the part it did in destabilising the country if it had not been part of the EU? I’m not convinced this is tenable.

    Germany was only able to persuade the EU to facilitate the breakup of Yugoslavia by threatening to use its economic muscle. Without the Common Market, which gave West Germany access, not just to the rest of Western Europe, but Frances’s colonial empire as well, that muscle would not have existed.

  13. George Hallam: Germany was only able to persuade the EU to facilitate the breakup of Yugoslavia by threatening to use its economic muscle.

    This is part of the story but certainly not the entire story. Germany was funnelling weapons and money to Croatian separatists before the EU threat of economic sanctions. In a process coordinated with the US, and involving the IMF and World Bank, Yugoslavia was squeezed by threats to cancel credits and loans unless separate elections were held on the its future in each of its component states.

    Are we suggesting that Yugoslavia would have survived if there had been no EU at the time? This isn’t credible given the geopolitical and economic uniformity that existed across the West and the triumphalism with which the demise of Soviet communism was met in every state across Western Europe at the time.

    As the IAC article I link to reveals NATO and the UN played far more vital roles in the break-up of Yugoslavia than the EU.


  14. George Hallam on said:

    John: Are we suggesting that Yugoslavia would have survived if there had been no EU at the time?

    I’m saying that had there been no EU then Europe, and the world, would be rather different.

    John: This isn’t credible given the geopolitical and economic uniformity that existed across the West and the triumphalism with which the demise of Soviet communism was met in every state across Western Europe at the time.

    Perhaps, but this the context in which the EU existed.

    Ceteris paribus is an assumption which has its uses.

    You seem to be making it a conclusion.

    That’s fine, but I think you’ll find it hard to give the necessary arguments.