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20211002 – Imagined Communities



The main idea is to review the origin of nations and nationalism based on the author’s suppositions that it is a cultural phenomenon that originated as the result of the printing press. This new technology prompted the new religiosity of Protestantism when people started searching for who they were not only as individuals but also as members of a community defined by language, culture, and attitudes. It is also quite often, but not always linked to unchangeable characteristics such as race, and the author demonstrates the multiracial nationalism of Creole nations.    


1 Introduction

The author begins by defining his starting point:” My point of departure is that nationality, or, as one might prefer to put it in view of that word’s multiple significations, nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind. To understand them properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time, and why, today, they command such profound emotional legitimacy.”

After that, he presents what he considers three paradoxes:

(1) The objective modernity of nations to the historian’s eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists.

(2) The formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural concept – in the modern world everyone can, should, will ‘have’ a nationality, as he or she ‘has’ a gender – vs. the irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestations, such that, by definition, ‘Greek’ nationality is sui generis.

(3) The ‘political’ power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence.

Finally, the author defines the notion of the nation:” it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

2 Cultural Roots

The author begins the discussion of cultural roots with the popular symbol: the Tomb of Unknown Soldier. From there, he proposes:” that nationalism has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which – as well as against which – it came into being.” The first such system the author discusses is a religious community, specifically Christianity, and its transition from the global Latin-based Church to multiple communities using their local languages. The second system was royal dynasties that curved, shaped, and reshaped realms through wars, marriages, and other tools. After that author discusses historical changes in apprehensions of time from the perception of static and unchangeable to historically developing process within which a nation is growing much like one unified organism with individuals being just a tiny part of it.  Finally, the author discusses prosperity or lack thereof as a condition of this organism. Here is the author’s summarization of ideas presented in this chapter:” I have been arguing that the very possibility of imagining the nation only arose historically when, and where, three fundamental cultural conceptions, all of great antiquity, lost their axiomatic grip on men’s minds. The first of these was the idea that a particular script-language offered privileged access to ontological truth, precisely because it was an inseparable part of that truth. It was this idea that called into being the great transcontinental sodalities of Christendom, the Islamic Ummah, and the rest. Second was the belief that society was naturally organized around and under high centers – monarchs who were persons apart from other human beings and who ruled by some form of cosmological (divine) dispensation. Human loyalties were necessarily hierarchical and centripetal because the ruler, like the sacred script, was a node of access to being and inherent in it. Third was a conception of temporality in which cosmology and history were indistinguishable, the origins of the world and of men essentially identical. Combined, these ideas rooted human lives firmly in the very nature of things, giving certain meaning to the everyday fatalities of existence (above all death, loss, and servitude) and offering, in various ways, redemption from them.”

3 The Origins of National Consciousness

Here, the author discusses mass book printing in the Middle Ages that prompted the Reformation and became the foundation of the formalization of languages and correspondingly national consciousness. The author describes in detail the development of what he calls “print-capitalism,” concluding at the end:” We can summarize the conclusions to be drawn from the argument thus far by saying that the convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation. The potential stretch of these communities was inherently limited, and, at the same time, bore none but the most fortuitous relationship to existing political boundaries (which were, on the whole, the highwater marks of dynastic expansionisms).

4 Creole Pioneers

This chapter is about intermixing of populations in America and elsewhere and how it created new nations from creole communities:” the growth of creole communities, mainly in the Americas, but also in parts of Asia and Africa, led inevitably to the appearance of Eurasians, Eurafricans, as well as Euramericans, not as occasional curiosities but as visible social groups.” The author also discusses the mixing of languages and overall communications, starting with Ben Franklin and newspapers. In the end, the author concludes:” By way of provisional conclusion, it may be appropriate to re-emphasize the limited and specific thrust of the argument so far. It is intended less to explain the socio-economic bases of anti-metropolitan resistance in the Western hemisphere between say, 1760 and 1830, than why the resistance was conceived in plural, ‘national’ forms – rather than in others. The economic interests at stake are well-known and obviously of fundamental importance. Liberalism and the Enlightenment clearly had a powerful impact, above all in providing an arsenal of ideological criticisms of imperial and anciens régimes. What I am proposing is that neither economic interest, Liberalism, nor Enlightenment could, or did, create in themselves the kind, or shape, of imagined community to be defended from these regimes’ depredations; to put it another way, none provided the framework of a new consciousness – the scarcely-seen periphery of its vision – as opposed to centre-field objects of its admiration or disgust. In accomplishing this specific task, pilgrim creole functionaries and provincial creole printmen played the decisive historic role”.

5 Old Languages, New Models

In this chapter, the author looks at methods and tools of nation formation in the XIX-XX centuries, especially languages:” Europe. If we consider the character of these newer nationalisms which, between 1820 and 1920, changed the face of the Old World, two striking features mark them off from their ancestors. First, in almost all of them ‘national print-languages’ were of central ideological and political importance, whereas Spanish and English were never issues in the revolutionary Americas. Second, all were able to work from visible models provided by their distant, and after the convulsions of the French Revolution, not so distant, predecessors. The ‘nation’ thus became something capable of being consciously aspired to from early on, rather than a slowly sharpening frame of vision. Indeed, as we shall see, the ‘nation’ proved an invention on which it was impossible to secure a patent. It became available for pirating by widely different, and sometimes unexpected, hands. In this chapter, therefore, the analytical focus will be on print-language and piracy.”

6 Official Nationalism and Imperialism

Here the author discusses the transformation of old dynasties from mainly royalty-based genealogies to nations based on the commonality of language and narratives. In such nations, while remaining at the top of the nation, the royals were incapable of transforming it. Instead, they had to accommodate themselves to losing the ability to control the population. It was also true for the periphery of different empires when the local elite was educated and deeply connected to imperial capitals and main population, conflicting with their loyalty to their local population. After looking at the variety of cases from India to Hungary, the author concludes:” In almost every case, official nationalism concealed a discrepancy between nation and dynastic realm. Hence a world-wide contradiction: Slovaks were to be Magyarized, Indians Anglicized, and Koreans Japanified, but they would not be permitted to join pilgrimages which would allow them to administer Magyars, Englishmen, or Japanese. The banquet to which they were invited always turned out to be a Barmecide feast. The reason for all this was not simply racism; it was also the fact that at the core of the empires nations too were emerging – Hungarian, English, and Japanese. And these nations were also instinctively resistant to ‘foreign’ rule. Imperialist ideology in the post-1850 era thus typically had the character of a conjuring-trick. How much it was a conjuring-trick is suggested by the equanimity with which metropolitan popular classes eventually shrugged off the ‘losses’ of the colonies, even in cases like Algeria where the colony had been legally incorporated into the metropole. In the end, it is always the ruling classes, bourgeois certainly, but above all aristocratic, that long mourn the empires, and their grief always has a stagey quality to it.”

7 The Last Wave

In this chapter, the author moves to WWI and WWII that led to the dissolution of empires and the birth of many nation-states based on linguistic, cultural, and historical commonality. The author discusses this process in several locations, from Russia in 1917 to Indonesia in the 1970s. The author stresses that this process was driven by educated part of populations of empires, that often were minorities:” As bilingual intelligentsias, however, and above all as early-twentieth-century intelligentsias, they had access, inside the classroom and outside, to models of nation, nation-ness, and nationalism distilled from the turbulent, chaotic experiences of more than a century of American and European history. These models, in turn, helped to give shape to a thousand inchoate dreams. In varying combinations, the lessons of creole, vernacular and official nationalism were copied, adapted, and improved upon. Finally, as with increasing speed capitalism transformed the means of physical and intellectual communication, the intelligentsias found ways to bypass print in propagating the imagined community, not merely to illiterate masses, but even to literate masses reading different languages.”

8 Patriotism and Racism

In this chapter, the author looks at the intertwining of patriotism and racism. The author stresses the nobility of patriotism and provides a few samples of relevant literature. The author makes the point that it is also mainly imagination:” It may appear paradoxical that the objects of all these attachments are ‘imagined’ – anonymous, faceless fellow-Tagalogs, exterminated tribes, Mother Russia, or the tanah air. But amor patriae does not differ in this respect from the other affections, in which there is always an element of fond imagining.”

9 The Angel of History

Here, the author returns to the theme of imagination giving birth to the new reality, in this case, patriotic vision giving birth to the nation that existed only in the imagination. He refers to some examples: Russia and its revolution, China, and Vietnam. The author then talks about leadership that creates new reality mainly acting in their own interests:” I emphasize leaderships, because it is leaderships, not people, who inherit old switchboards and palaces. No one imagines, I presume, that the broad masses of the Chinese people give a fig for what happens along the colonial border between Cambodia and Vietnam. Nor is it at all likely that Khmer and Vietnamese peasants wanted wars between their peoples, or were consulted in the matter. In a very real sense these were ‘chancellory wars’ in which popular nationalism was mobilized largely after the fact and always in a language of self-defence. (Hence the particularly low enthusiasm in China, where this language was least plausible, even under the neonlit blazon of ‘Soviet hegemonism.’)”

10 Census, Map, Museum

Here the author discusses how three key institutions foster nationalism and even create it in the first place: Census, The Map, and the Museum.

11 Memory and Forgetting

The author begins this chapter with a discussion about an interesting habit of people from Europe who moved to the new places to name these new places after the old ones, such as New York. Interestingly, it is not the case with Chinese or Arabs. This difference moves the author to contemplate reasons for nationalism’s origin in America in the wake of anti-colonial revolutions.  He writes: “… none of the creole revolutionaries dreamed of keeping the empire intact but rearranging its internal distribution of power, reversing the previous relationship of subjection by transferring the metropole from a European to an American site.”  Overall, by the end of the XIX century, this, plus biology, plus philosophy, prompted nationalistic awakening elsewhere, first of all in Europe. This awakening, in some cases, produced fratricide, and the author traces its reflection in literature. Finally, the author discusses the personification of Nations, noting that they are different because they have no clear beginning or end.


I agree that human cultures and imagination create nations. Still, the nations are not imaginary. They reflect the complex reality of shared characteristics such as language, culture, and mutual support. They also protect against external violence when needed and internal criminality. I think that history demonstrated many times over and over again that nations are not a given unchangeable object, but rather are forever work in process. They combine multiple groups of people into an ever-increasing whole that expands protection bubble and economic cooperation broader and broader, which would eventually cover everything and everybody, but only after decades, if not centuries of development. This process is analogous to earlier processes that made Germany, France, and other countries out of small states or provinces merging into one nation with dynamic accommodation of languages and cultures. In short, humanity develops by way of “E Pluribus Unum.”

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