A generation ago, when Benedict Anderson was asked on Dutch television what country he would be prepared to die for, he hung his head in silence. “It would depend very much on the circumstances,” he finally said. A leading left thinker about nationalism in his generation, Anderson was born into an Anglo-Irish family in the collapsing Republic of China, and raised in the Republic of Ireland and the United States, where he made his academic career. He devoted much of his life to studying Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, where he died in 2015. He was not a provincial person. Yet the credo of post-nationalism ascendant in the 1990s found no place in his affections. For Anderson, the force of nationalism was not a dark phantom. Like other domains that sometimes seem to be exclusive property of the right—the market, the military—the “nation” was ideological terrain that could be harvested for high and low ends. Drafted into a Bush war in the Middle East, Anderson would have been on the first plane to Canada, but called up for the Indonesian War of Independence against the Dutch, or for the Easter Rising against the British, it would not have been hard to imagine him taking up position.
What is the idea of the nation for? It depends, as Anderson said. Over the centuries nationalism has swung back and forth as a progressive and retrograde force, depending on historical conditions. In revolutionary France the “nation” started as a wrecking ball against feudalism and the church. Before the “nation” became defined by its limit of concern, it appeared to the Old Regime as terrifying in its limitlessness. Before the “nation” could be for anyone it had to be against specific someones: kings, priests and their enablers. Nationalism became a forest fire of fraternity that Napoleon wanted to control-burn through Europe in order to make fertile ground for the imposition of his uniform Code. Hegel believed this was a great leap for the world, but also witnessed its reversals: the way the Napoleonic armies provoked crude nationalist backlashes. He mocked the nationalist students around him determined to throw off the French yoke: “Liberation? Liberation from what? … If I ever see one liberated person with my own eyes, I shall fall to the ground and prostrate myself before him.?