History, said Karl Marx, always repeats itself: It happens first as tragedy and then as farce. For every Hitler, that is, there’s a puffed-up but feckless buffoon of a nationalist who wants a world made up of people only like himself; for every Pol Pot, a strutting peacock who insists on the primacy of his kind and class.
Nationalism, said Marx’s fellow German-speaker Karl Kraus, is the disease that keeps us bound to chuckleheads. But that disease is a powerful one, and it speaks to our ancient drive to keep to ourselves, to sort ourselves into tribes and ethnicities, to form nations and polities. We are the people, declare people all over the world, and you who are not the people—well, you are the other, and you are somehow different from us.
But is it an ancient impulse? Certainly nationalists appeal to tradition and antiquity when they invoke long-ago battles and long-buried forebears. But, argues the anthropologist-turned–political scientist Benedict Anderson, the nation is a comparatively modern invention, and so is nationalism.
Moreover, Anderson writes in his famed book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, the nation hinges on an idea: “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation 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.” We are Americans because we imagine that accidents of birth and fortune make us somehow different from Tuvans and Pintupis; and collectively, we imagine that our superior nation needs a wall, a military vaster than any known to history, in order to keep it superior.
There are few places in the world in which the idea of the nation—and of belonging to a nation—has not taken hold. The nation is everywhere. And one of Marxism’s shortcomings, Anderson wrote, was that Marx and his descendants never formed an adequate account of it. The epigone went on to form nations of their own, but mostly nations that were would-be empires, embracing many different languages, ethnicities, time zones. If there had been a Marxist theory of the nation, then we might have foreseen the disintegration of the Soviet Union into Russia, where membership is contingent not on an ideology but on accepting the idea that Russia is an ancient nation worth defending from its enemies—and not, in its current iteration, a recent invention.
If reality is a shared hallucination, as some philosophers of mind hold, then the nation may be the most perfect hallucination of all, grounded in the real but even so the most abstract of imaginings. Published 35 years ago, in 1983, Imagined Communitieswent on to become one of the most widely cited books in the social sciences, influential among historians, political scientists, even literary theorists. Anderson, a specialist in Asian societies who died in 2015, was modest about the book’s success; he remained at Cornell, where he taught well-attended courses and continued to work on scholarship over a long career.
He is gone, but his book endures. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of farce to behold all around us—and plenty of tragedy, too.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.