Benedict Anderson, a Cornell professor emeritus in government who wrote “Imagined Communities,” the book that set the pace for the academic study of nationalism, died Dec. 13 in East Java, Indonesia. He was 79.
Anderson, the Aaron L. Binenkorb Emeritus Professor of International Studies, taught at Cornell from 1967 to 2002.
In his 1983 book, “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,” Anderson maintained that nations are communities that are “imagined” in the sense that all members do not – and will not – ever know all of the other members.
“Members of the community probably 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,” Anderson wrote.
Contrasting the ideas of political scientists who believe that ancient nation-states possessed ideas similar to nationalism as we know it today, Anderson suggested that modern nationalism depends upon widely disseminated material – printed in a common language. The development of the printing press and the subsequent market for books and other publications in vernacular languages created and reinforced discourse within language communities.
“I remember Professor Anderson from my days as a student here at Cornell as one of the great intellectual leaders of the university. You would always see him around campus, with a book in one hand, a small cigar in the other, deep in thought,” said Gretchen Ritter ’83, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who knew Anderson well and has used his book in her own classes. “‘Imagined Communities’ was a tour de force. In explaining the meaning and nature of contemporary nationalism, Professor Anderson focused on the way that members of society come to think of themselves as part of one community or public sphere – in the news they share, the sports teams they champion and the patriotic symbols they honor together.
“That sense of common identity, in turn, constitutes a powerful resource in developing the political and economic underpinnings of the modern nation-state,” she said.
Early in his career, Anderson was known for writing the “Cornell Paper,” a nonpublic document co-authored with Ruth McVey, Ph.D. ’61, to explain the October 1965 coup in Indonesia. The document ran counter to the official Indonesian government’s explanation and was written as a confidential working paper at Cornell. It was leaked to The Washington Post in 1966.
The paper focused on a neglected issue: internal divisions within the Indonesian military, which had been in turmoil since independence in 1945. The Cornell scholars argued the coup and counter-coup were an internal affair and that the Indonesian Communist Party was the scapegoat. The coup led to the massacre of about 500,000 Indonesians. (The era is depicted in the 1982 film “The Year of Living Dangerously.”)
The working paper and its conclusions were provisional and controversial, and its authors worried that it would endanger acquaintances in Indonesia. Eventually, McVey and Anderson thought it best to publish it in full (1971), without changes.
As a result, Anderson was barred from Indonesia for the next three decades, but he kept in touch with many Indonesian friends.
“When I was banned from Indonesia for all those years, a lot of young Indonesians would pretend they were going to Niagara Falls and stop by here, because they were strongly discouraged from having anything to do with me,” Anderson said in 2014. “The draw was that this is a guy exiled for 27 years, they’d heard so much about him, mostly they wanted to talk about the situation. I’d become a bit of a scarlet pimpernel.”
A prolific scholar, Anderson published more than 250 articles in scholarly journals and authored books including, “Java in a Time of Revolution,” 1972; “In the Mirror: Literature and Politics in Siam in the American Era,” 1985; ”Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia,” 1991; and “Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anticolonial Imagination,” 2005.
Anderson learned Latin at age 9, Greek at 12, then French, Russian, German and Spanish in his teen years. “I was fluent in French when I was young, but I rarely go to France,” he said in a Cornell interview last year. “I more or less taught myself Dutch, which was easy because of the German. The languages I can speak are all Southeast Asian. I’m almost perfect in Indonesian, and I’m 75 percent in Thai.”
Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson was born Aug. 26, 1936, in Kunming, China, to an Anglo mother and Irish father who was a commissioner at the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. The family fled China for California at the escalation of World War II. Anderson – who maintained his Irish citizenship – earned his bachelor’s degree in classics at Cambridge University 1957 and his doctorate in government from Cornell in 1967.
Tamara Loos, M.A. ’94, Ph.D. ’99, Cornell professor of history, was once Anderson’s student, explained: “Given the immense impact Ben had on Southeast Asian studies, it still astounds me to recall that he came to Cornell and to the study of Southeast Asia as happenstance,” Loos said. “A letter from a friend at Cornell inviting Ben to come for a year as a teaching assistant brought him from Cambridge, where he had been reading classics on a scholarship. He has been a deeply valued member of our community ever since.
“As a teacher, Ben goaded us to learn, to defy him by daring to answer his incisive questions, which he delivered with Socratic precision. It was so intimidating and equally glorious if you could answer,” Loos said. “As a colleague, Ben was generous, particularly with those of us in the Southeast Asia Program. We – his students, his colleagues, his comrades – will miss him immensely.”
This story originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.