On Benedict Anderson’s Passing: Revolutions, Time, and Imagined Communities

By Bryan A. Banks

Benedict Anderson, the much respected political scientist and theorist of nationalism, passed away in his home away from home — Indonesia — on December 12th, 2015 at the age of 79.  Born in China to an Irish father and an English mother, later raised in the United States, and then educated at Cambridge and Cornell, Anderson was keenly aware of the complexities of nationalism. For most of his life, he encountered its mechanisms. He experienced various definitions of community. His best-known book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism , first published in 1983, remains a foundational text to which graduate students and Ph.D.s still turn.[1] I never met Benedict Anderson, but I imagine myself as part of a scholarly community shaped by his work and saddened by this loss.

Black and white picture of Benedict Anderson.
Benedict Anderson, 1936-2015

Over the past couple of days, several articles have announced Anderson’s death and reflected on his contributions to the fields of nationalism and Southeast Asian studies. Many of these articles have also noted his willingness to jump the scholarly-public divide earlier in his life, when he spoke out against Indonesia’s 1965 bloody coup and the establishment of the Indonesian “New Order” the following year.[2] Anderson’s experience with this revolution undoubtedly influenced his work on revolutions. The “New Order” and the politics of time figure prominently in his conceptualization of imagined communities. Certainly, countless revolutions have employed the “script” of ancien and new regimes.[3]

Engraving of the French Republican Calendar.
French Republican Calendar, 1794 by Philibert-Louis Debucourt

Political revolutions often rely on new chronologies and modes of temporal organization to bolster their legitimacy. Implicit and explicit examples of the politics of time abound in the historical record. Anderson took the Declaration of Independence’s omission of “Columbus, Roanoke, or the Pilgrims Fathers” seriously. “A profound feeling that a radical break with the past was occurring — a ‘blasting open of the continuum of history’? — spread rapidly.”[4] Later in the eighteenth century, the French Revolution inaugurated a new era with Year One and the creation of the new French Republic on 22 September 1792. A new calendar reflecting the seasons of the year replaced the older Gregorian calendar marked by its Christian origins and character. Over 100 years later, the Bolsheviks organized time differently as well, molding the Gregorian calendar into one that facilitated production. Traditional “off” days, normally used for religious purposes, were so upset that whole communities either had to work around the Soviet system or buy into it.

This rewriting and reorganization of time facilitated the creation of imagined communities, both ideological and cultural in origin and manifestation. Capitalist driven print culture made this temporalization possible. People connected via print media in ways that they never could have accomplished in physical reality. And yes, this is a rather obvious nod to our own Information Revolution and the existence of this collaborative blog.

I’m sure that many feel this loss without ever knowing Anderson. His part in print media made this connection possible. Surely, our historiographical essays find that Benedict Anderson’s 1983 Imagined Communities sparked a “new order” in the study of nationalism. I doubt we’ll be designing a new revolutionary calendar in his honor, but perhaps, this modest blog post might help demarcate time in some way.

Bryan A. Banks is a religious and intellectual historian of France with an interest in Atlantic and World History. You can tweet him @Bryan_A_Banks.

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006).

[2] See articles written in the NYT, the New Republic, The Washington Post, Crooked Timber, and I’m sure many more.

[3] See Keith Michael Baker and Dan Edelstein, Scripting Revolution: A Historical Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutions (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).

[4] Anderson, 193.

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