Did nationalism originate in Latin America?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Sep 27 17:15:27 MDT 2001

[From a profile on Benedict Anderson in the latest Lingua Franca.
Unfortunately, it is not online.]

FREEVILLE, New York, sits eight miles east of Ithaca. Anderson lives
in a spacious old farmhouse surrounded by rolling hills, grazing
cattle, and a barn topped by a Javanese-style weather vane. A young
Indonesian friend, along with his wife and two small children,
occupies a cottage on the property; Anderson dines with them almost
every night, and they look after the place when he's away. In nice
weather, Anderson likes to shuffle around his garden, shears in hand.
He cultivates the flowers he knew in Ireland as a boy: yellow irises,
fuchsias, poppies, mock oranges, lupines. Directly across the street
are another forty acres he also owns: Some years ago, the old man who
lived there sold it to him at a cut rate, with the request that the
land be shielded from commercial encroachment.

On a breezy summer morning, Anderson's kitchen overflows with unruly
stacks of books, journals, Asian newspapers, and doctoral theses. A
portrait of the youthful Sukarno adorns one wall, a doleful relic in
light of his ultimate fate. "Indonesia was really like another home
for me," Anderson says. "Being kicked out was very painful." In the
years after his banishment, he frequently discussed his work with his
brother Perry, a distinguished historian and the author of the
sweeping survey "Lineages of the Absolutist State", among other
books. Perry urged him to adopt a comparative perspective beyond
Indonesia, and his stay in Thailand allowed him to do that. "Being in
Thailand forced me to think all the time about if I had to write
about Thailand and Indonesia in one space, how would I do it?"
Anderson says. In that sense, his banishment from Indonesia was not
entirely without benefit. "Probably I wouldn't have done "Imagined.
Communities" if Suharto hadn't given me this tremendous helping
hand," he says with a sly grin.

The roots of "Imagined Communities" lie in what Anderson, in the late
1970s, saw as "a fundamental transformation in the history of Marxism
and Marxist movements": the wars between Vietnam, Cambodia, and China
in 1978-1979. Far from presenting a unified front against Western
imperialism and capitalism, those regimes-whose "independence and
revolutionary credentials are undeniable," Anderson noted-were
engaged in undisguised fratricide. And so Anderson undertook a
full-scale study of nationalism, a force whose power and complexity
were not explained by the Marxist theory in which he'd been schooled.
As Anderson notes, even one of nationalism's strongest scholarly
proponents, the British Marxist Tom Nairn, writes that "'Nationalism
is the pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable as
'neurosis' in the individual...with...a similar built-in capacity for
descent into dementia."

For Anderson, nationalism was neither a pathology nor a fixed,
immutable force. Rather, he wrote, "it is an imagined political
community...because the members of even the smallest nation will
never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of
them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion."
For centuries, the world was organized into empires governed by
supposed divine right. Within them, liturgical languages, spoken I
only by the elite, were the medium of culture and of communion with
the sacred. Nationalism emerged as speakers of vernacular languages
came to reject this organization of society, discovering instead
their horizontal ties with one another and conceiving of themselves
as citizens rather than as subjects. Nothing was so crucial to this
transformation as the rise of what Andersen calls print capitalism:
the publishing industry, which produced books, newspapers, and other
media in vernacular tongues. Through these media, readers could
imagine that they belonged to a shared community.

Such observations flowed naturally from Andersen's work on
Indonesia's independence struggle of the 1940s: He saw how a skilled
nationalist intelligentsia, based in Jakarta, had summoned not only a
nation called Indonesia but also a new language, Indonesian, which
became the language of resistance to Dutch colonial rule. Indeed,
anti-colonialism provided a crucial context for Anderson. Rejecting
the view that nationalism first emerged in western Europe, he argued
that it originated in early-nineteenth-century Latin America and was
then adopted by the European nation-states.

One of the most striking aspects of "Imagined Communities" is
Anderson's upbeat view of nationalism. "It is useful to remind
ourselves," he wrote, "that nations inspire love, and often
profoundly self-sacrificing love." He rejected the identification of
nationalism with racism, arguing that "from the start the nation was
conceived in language, not in blood," and that its boundaries arc
potentially plastic: Nationalism thinks in terms of historical
destinies," he wrote, whereas racism "dreams of eternal
contaminations." In a recent interview in the Kyoto Journal, Anderson
argues that "in the U.S., if people didn't believe in America, they'd
be shooting each other out of pickup trucks in five minutes flat.
[Nationalism is] a kind of glue chat lakes people, on the whole, obey
the law id respect each other, in very large corn-unities. We're
talking about hundreds of millions of people. It's hard to think of
anything else on the horizon that can enforce at kind of everyday
decent behavior,"

Of course, in the name of the nation, people also exclude, persecute,
and even kill those considered outsiders to the national community.
But to Anderson, such virulence is best seen as a perversion a
basically positive force. Nationalism, he remarks, "can be exploited
and abused by people who have other things mainly on their minds,
like imperialism, monopolies, police states, racism, and so on."
Still, his recent collection, "The Spectre of Comparisons:
Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World" (Verso), Anderson

"My long attachment to, and interest in, anticolonial nationalism had
occluded from my vision its menacing potentialities once it got
married to the state."

Translated into twenty-one languages and bearing a title that has
become common coin across academic disciplines, Imagined Communities
is cited in virtually every contemporary work on nationalism. For the
foremost scholars in that field, Anderson's is a work to be revered
and contested-sometimes simultaneously. Anthony P. Smith, a professor
of ethnicity and nationalism at the London School of Economics,
cautions that Anderson draws too sharp a distinction between
religious and national communities; many modern nationalisms, Smith
points out, are religiously based. But it is Liah Greenfeld of Boston
University who, in a forthcoming essay for Critical Review, takes
sharpest aim at Imagined Communities. Anderson, she writes, "did not
ask why suddenly large-scale communities were imagined as
nations-rather than as classes or churches, for instance, which was
more in line with earlier imaginations." Like other critics,
Greenfeld questions Anderson's assertion that Latin America was the
birthplace of nationalism, pointing to "the substantial recent
historical scholarship discussing its earlier presence...in...Britain
and France." She concludes, "One can go on and on listing the
instances in which 'the spectre of comparisons' fails to haunt
Anderson: the amount of available empirical counterevidence-to his
general argument as well as specific statements-is staggering."
Nonetheless, with Imagined Communities, Anderson had laid the
cornerstone for a new discipline. And as Feith observes, with more
than a little admiration, "What is distinctive about Anderson's
scholarship is not judiciousness; it is adventurousness and

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 09/27/2001

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