Benedict Richard O'Gorman Anderson (August 26, 1936 – December 13, 2015) was a political scientist and historian, best known for his 1983 book Imagined Communities, which explored the origins of nationalism. Anderson was the Aaron L. Binenkorb Professor Emeritus of International Studies, Government & Asian Studies at Cornell University. A polyglot with an interest in Southeast Asia, his work on the Cornell Paper that debunked the official story of Indonesia's 30 September Movement and the subsequent anti-Communist purges of 1965–66 led to his expulsion from that country. He was the brother of historian Perry Anderson (b. 1938).
Anderson was born on August 26, 1936, in Kunming, China, to an Anglo-Irish father and English mother. His father, James Carew O'Gorman Anderson, was an official with Chinese Maritime Customs. The family descended from the Anderson family of Ardbrake, Bothriphnie, Scotland, who settled in Ireland in the early 1700s.
A maternal grandfather Trevor Bigham was the Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, 1914-1931. One of Benedict's grandmothers, Lady Frances O'Gorman, belonged to the Gaelic Mac Gormáin clan of County Clare and was the daughter of the Irish Home Rule MP Major Purcell O'Gorman. Major Purcell O'Gorman was in turn the son of Nicholas Purcell O'Gorman who had been involved with the Republican Society of United Irishmen during the 1798 Rising, later becoming Secretary of the Catholic Association in the 1820s. Benedict Anderson took his middle names from the cousin of Major Purcell O'Gorman, Richard O'Gorman, who was one of the leaders of the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848.
Anderson's family moved to California in 1941 to avoid the invading Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War and then to Ireland in 1945. He studied at Eton College, where he won the Newcastle Scholarship, and went on to attend King's College, Cambridge. While at Cambridge, he became an anti-imperialist during the Suez Crisis, which influenced his later work as a Marxist and anti-colonialist thinker.
He earned a classics degree from Cambridge in 1957 before attending Cornell University, where he concentrated on Indonesia as a research interest and in 1967 received his Ph.D. in government studies. His doctoral advisor at Cornell was Southeast Asian scholar George Kahin.
The violence of Suharto's coup in Indonesia disillusioned Anderson, who wrote that it "felt like discovering that a loved one is a murderer". Therefore, while Anderson was still a graduate student at Cornell, he anonymously co-wrote the "Cornell Paper" with Ruth T. McVey that debunked the official Indonesian government accounts of the abortive coup of the 30 September Movement and the subsequent anti-Communist purges of 1965–66. The Cornell Paper was widely disseminated by Indonesian dissidents. One of two foreign witnesses at the show trial of Communist Party of Indonesia general secretary Sudisman in 1971, Anderson published a translated version of the latter's unsuccessful testimony. As a result of his actions, Anderson was in 1972 expelled from Indonesia and banned from reentering, a restriction that lasted until 1998, when Suharto's dictatorship ended.
Anderson was fluent in quite a few languages relevant to his Southeast Asian field, including Indonesian, Javanese, Thai and Tagalog, as well as the major European languages. After the American experience in the Vietnam War and the subsequent wars between Communist nations such as the Cambodian–Vietnamese War and the Sino-Vietnamese War, he began studying the origins of nationalism while continuing his previous work on the relationship between language and power.
Anderson is best known for his 1983 book Imagined Communities, in which he described the major factors contributing to the emergence of nationalism in the world during the past three centuries. Anderson defined a nation as "an imagined political community [that is] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign". (See below for a more extensive discussion.)
Anderson was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994. In 1998, Anderson's return trip to Indonesia was sponsored by the Indonesian Tempo publication, and he gave a public speech in a luxury downtown Jakarta hotel in which he criticized the Indonesia opposition for "its timidity and historical amnesia—especially with regard to the massacres of 1965–1966".
He taught at Cornell until his retirement in 2002, when he became a professor emeritus of International Studies. After his retirement, he spent most of his time traveling throughout South East Asia. Anderson died in Batu, Malang, Indonesia, in his sleep on December 13, 2015. According to close friend Tariq Ali, Anderson died of heart failure. He had been in the middle of translating his memoir, A Life Beyond Boundaries, from Japanese to English, and was survived by two adopted sons of Indonesian origin.
Anderson is best known for his 1983 book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, in which he examined how nationalism led to the creation of nations, or as the title puts it, imagined communities. In this case, an "imagined community" does not mean that a national community is fake, but rather refers to Anderson's belief that any community so large that its members do not know each another on a face-to-face basis must be imagined to some degree.
According to Anderson, previous Marxist and liberal thinkers did not fully appreciate nationalism's power, writing in his book that "Unlike most other isms, nationalism has never produced its own grand thinkers: no Hobbeses, Tocquevilles, Marxes or Webers." Anderson begins his work by bringing up three paradoxes of nationalism that he would address in the work:
In Anderson's theory of nationalism, the phenomenon only came about as people began rejecting three key beliefs about their society:
Anderson argued that the prerequisites for the rejection of these beliefs began in Western Europe through the numerous factors that led to the Age of Enlightenment, such as the power of economics, the scientific revolution, and the advent of improvements in communication brought about by the invention of the printing press under a system of capitalism (or as Anderson calls it, print capitalism). Anderson's view of nationalism places the roots of the notion of "nation" at the end of the 18th century when a replacement system began, not in Europe, but in the Western Hemisphere, when countries such as Brazil, the United States, and the newly freed Spanish colonies became the first to develop a national consciousness.
Therefore, in contrast to other thinkers such as Ernest Gellner, who considered the spread of nationalism in connection with industrialism in Western Europe, and Elie Kedourie, who construed nationalism as a European phenomenon carried around the world by colonization, Anderson sees the European nation state as a response to the rise of nationalism in the European diaspora beyond the oceans, especially in the Western Hemisphere, which was then retransmitted to Africa and Asia through colonization. Anderson considers nation state building as an imitative and transportable action, in which new political entities were copying the model of the nation state. As Anderson sees it, the large cluster of political entities that sprang up in North America and South America between 1778 and 1838, almost all of which self-consciously defined themselves as nations, were historically the first such states to emerge and therefore inevitably provided the first real model of what such states should look like. According to Anderson, this phenomenon led to the rise of nations: communities that were limited by their borders and were sovereign. Anderson conceived nationalism as having come about in different "waves."
Like other thinkers such as Marshall McLuhan in his The Gutenberg Galaxy, of particular importance to Anderson’s theory on nationalism is his stress on the role of printed literature and its dissemination. Thinkers like McLuhan, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and Anderson did not believe that nationalism came about because of a vaguely-defined "European" way of thinking, but because of the social, economic, and cultural practices associated with the rise of the printing press and the mass reproduction of printed material.
According to Anderson, "the revolutionary vernacularizing thrust of capitalism" was central to the creation of imagined communities, as the mass mechanical reproduction of printed works united people that would otherwise have found it difficult to imagine themselves as part of the same community, mainly because of extreme linguistic differences. With the advent of the printing press, languages became more stable and certain dialects became "languages of power" (such as the Queen's English in the United Kingdom) that were inherently more prestigious than sub-regional vernacular dialects. Print capitalism also meant a culture in which people were required to be socialized as part of a literate culture, in which the standardized language of their nation became both the language of printed material and education for the masses.
Fellow nationalism scholar Steven Kemper described the role of print technology in Anderson's theory as "mak[ing] possible for enormous numbers of people to know of one another indirectly, for the printing press bec[a]me the middleman to the imagination of the community." Kemper also stated that for Anderson the "very existence and regularity of newspapers caused readers, and thus citizens-in-the-making, to imagine themselves residing in a common time and place, united by a print language with a league of anonymous equals."
Therefore, for Anderson, the rise of print technology was essential to create the "deep horizontal comradeship" that despite its socially constructed origins, was also genuine and deep seated, explaining why nationalism can drive people to fight, die, and kill for their countries.
Anderson also studied how the 19th century European dynasties that represented retention of power over huge polyglot domains, underwent naturalization at the same time as they developed programs of official nationalism in a process that he called the "willed merger of nation and dynastic empire . Anderson considered the empire as solely a pre-modern, "dynastic realm" and focused his attention on the official nationalism in multiethnic empires (e.g. the Russian Official Nationality), programs that he described as "reactionary, secondary modelling."  Whereas previously, the legitimacy of European dynasties had nothing to do with nationalness, Anderson argued that after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian empires in the aftermath of World War I, the nation-state superseded the empire as the norm in international affairs, as demonstrated by how delegates from the imperial powers in the post-war League of Nations were careful to present themselves as national delegates instead of imperial ones.