Benedict Anderson on Nationalism and Racism: A Critique.

Political Scientist Benedict Anderson has become one of the most influential thinkers in the social sciences. His 1983 book “Imagined Communities” became a seminal work in sociology and anthropology, helping re-define our understanding of nationalism as a socially constructed product of Modernity, through which developments in print media and shared vernacular led to a sense of belonging and similarity between individuals who would probably never meet. Thus, nations and nationalisms were imagined into existence.

This marked a stark shift in thinking by contrast to the previously popularly held view of primordialsm and socio-biology, which saw nationalism and nations as products of natural biology which have existed throughout the course of human history. Whilst Anderson’s approach was certainly groundbreaking, when reading his chapter on “Patriotism and Racism”, his denial of a link or relationship between racism and nationalism seems to contradict his most valuable insights on the imagined nature of nationalism.

To evaluate his view on nationalism and racism, it is, of course, necessary to outline his two main reasons for the differences between the two ideologies. The first being that nationalism, as the name suggests, seeks to assert nation-ness and national boundaries, whereas racism does the reverse, reducing whole groups of people to their biological physiognomy and erasing any national differences withing the social group:

“The fact of the matter is that nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies, while racism dreams of eternal contaminations, transmitted from the origins of time through an endless sequence of loathsome copulations: outside history (…) Jews, the seed of Abraham, forever Jews, no matter what passport they carry or what language they speak and read. (Thus for the Nazi, the Jewish German was always an impostor.)”

Anderson’s point here is relatively straightforward, and a chain of reason and logic is evident. Racism is a tool of domestic oppression which on the whole is not confined to national borders. Take Anderson’s example of the increasing racism towards Asians from Americans during the Vietnam War. Derogatory terms like “Slant” were common, and in such a case it didn’t matter whether you were actually Vietnemese, but rather just held the physical characteristics which the slurs discriminated against, and so the term and prejudice would too be applied to, say, the Chinese, Japanese or Koreans. In such a case, the national and cultural differences between these nations were removed by racism which just cast them “all into a nameless sludge”, devoid of nationality. Therefore, Anderson sees it fit to view racism as a malignant tool that disregarded nationalism and nation-ness, rather then something which functioned interdependently with, or could be derived from, nationalism.

However, I propose that when looking at the effects of such prejudice, it is more appropriate to focus on the proprietors of the racism, and the consequences this has for them. Yes, it seems apparent that the Nazis and too the Americans too (in the case of the Vietnemese War) when propogating anti-semitism and racism were not focused on the nationality of their scapegoat, instead viewing them all as a homogenous group with their hatred for them being rooted firmly in racial grounds, as Anderson suggests. Yet, what purpose would denationalising and dehumanising these groups serve the racists and nationalists? Well, it is no secret that Hitler and the Nazis imagined the ideal German nation as Aryan and ethnically homogenous, without Jews or other minority groups. Therefore, by racism stripping these groups of the possibility of national identity, whether it be German or otherwise, they could not feasibly be considered a part of any nation whatsoever. In turn, the Nazis could reaffirm their desired national identity and nationalism, one which was inherently exclusive and understood by being a binary opposite to the nationless other. So, while the demonised other may have been excluded from nation-ness, this has the reverse effect on the group from whom the racism arises, with their sense of national identity being informed and built through such prejudice. As Anderson only focuses upon the victims of racism and not the racists, he fails to account for racism being a tool through which nationality is defined, hence why there is such a well documented link between nationalists and severely bigoted and discriminatory beliefs.

This should come as no surprise. Even by applying Anderson’s own notion of nations being imagined and socially constructed implies this, which is why Chapter 8 is so baffling in the context of the wider book. The fact that nations are manifested through the members’ own perception of who they relate to, generally informed through cultural qualities like language and shared symbols (flags, national sporting events, historical figures) suggests that, theoretically, they can be imagined in racist ways. It is not a logically impossible coalition of ideas. This is only confirmed by actual evidence of nationalism in the world, as seen through the fascist nationalists of the 20th century, and even more recent rises of nationalism as in America, with Donald Trump not hesitating to stir up racial and religious tensions, most notably through his demonisation of Mexicans and Muslims. Therefore, Anderson’s first attempt to distinguish racism entirely from nationalism falters, because by excluding specific groups from national identity, racism is frequently a means towards nation building and nationalism for other groups.

It is with Anderson’s second justification that “Imagined Communities” perhaps most shows its flaws. He begins by arguing that racism, particularly colonial racism, has its roots in class, not nationalism. With aristocratic desire to shore up and maintain their power, came empires and colonialism which would allow those in the classes below the dynastic rulers to hold status in overseas territories and assert the traditional beliefs on power and privilege, meaning that the domestic position of aristocrats would go unthreatened:

“The colonial empire, with its rapidly expanding bureaucratic apparatus and its “Russifying” policies, permitted sizeable numbers of bourgeois and petty bourgeois to play aristocrats off centre court: ie, anywhere in the empire except home.”

Effectively, Anderson is just stating that racism and colonialism are tools used by the upper class to ensure their own power, with non-nobles not contesting the aristocrats’ status as these “Englishmen were no less superior to the subjected natives” . This is no suprise with Anderson being most heavily influenced by Marxist thought in his formative years, although his perspective on nationalism remains generally idiosyncratic. Neither is it inherently false. With many being able to hold power in, say, colonial India, why would they focus attention on to the seemingly hegemonic control which the aristocracy held in their domestic countries like Britian or France? It is virtually a concession the dynastic classes can give to those with relative status in order to legitimise their own authority in home countries, as Gramsci’s ideas could be applied, and was literally at no expense to them, but rather at the expense of grave oppression and subjegation of millions of Indigenous peoples and non-Europeans. In addition, the intersectionality between class and race can be further seen, such as by how indigenous nations in America frequently experience poverty and poor social conditions at the bottom of the class hierarchy, rooted in the impact and intent of white settler colonialism. Thus, Anderson is correct to establish a link between racism and class.

But, it is because intersectionality exists that racism can be derived from nationalism, and nationalism can be derived from racism, as well as class. Nationalism, racism and class all operate interdependently, which Anderson seems to deny. To refer back to the example above, the oppression of Indigenous communities may best highlight this overlap. Through Native Americans being subjected to poor social conditions and low class status on reservations, many settlers and US policy makers saw it as a means to solve the “Indian Problem”, which has actually always been a white problem whereby Native Americans were seen as “savages”, not compatible with the values, identity, or system of the white American nation state which settler colonialism has led to. These are undeniably racist assertions and can be seen today with white nationalism prominent in America and being exerted in shows of force in marches such as the recent one in Portland against minority racial groups who do not fit with their conception and desire for a white American ethno-nation. Therefore, nationalism is not a phenomenon which manifest itself independant of class and race, as Anderson suggests, but rather can instigate racist beliefs, as well as racism stimulating prejudice conceptions and notions of nation.

Most bewildering of all is that fact that Anderson verges on acknowledging this overlap of nationalism with class and racism within his argument, literally stating that:

“Official nationalism was typically a response on the part of threatened dynastic and aristocratic groups- upper classes- to popular vernacular nationalism. Colonial racism was a major element in that conception of “Empire” which attempted to weld dynastic legitimacy and national community.”

Here Anderson seemingly admits, perhaps unintentionally, that actually nationalism is implicated in colonial racism as a tool by aristocratic rulers to legitimise their authority. This contradicts his first reason but also his second explanation, of which this extract is taken, formulated on the premise that “the dreams of racism actually have their origins in the ideologies of class, rather than those of nations”. One can only assume that even Anderson recognises the difficulty of separating the sheer racism from the nationalist sentiments of past colonialisms and movements, yet why does he continue to argue in self-contradictory and paradoxical terms? Perhaps he himself, even as an intellectual behemoth, just didn’t realise this inconsistency in his thinking, or was just so adamant on refuting the racist origins of nationalism that he simply just continued to argue with his original line of reasoning.

It is probably most appropriate here to recognise that if political and anthropological developments into nationalism and nations has proved anything, it is that there is not one clear explanation. Not all racism is nationalist in and of itself, and not all nationalisms are racist, with many academics noting “civic” or “benign” nationalism, such as the Scottish National Party who seeks an independant Scottish nation state, but whose conception of the Scottish nation is not defined by exclusion on racial grounds, or, more significantly, nationalist movements across colonised countries which sought to undo centuries of colonial racism and oppression.

Irrespective, though, this does not mean that mild nationalist sentiments don’t turn malignant, as they evidently do when we observe the past, as well as events of today. It is with the imagined nature of nations, as Anderson so fabulously identifies, that they can be defined, partially by those with high class status, in exclusionary and prejudicial ways. We should be conscious of this in order not to repeat the mistakes which plagued the past and to continue to progess so that our imaginings of an equal and fair world can become a reality.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store