Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson, the Aaron L. Binenkorb professor emeritus of international studies, government and Asian studies at Cornell University, died on Dec. 13 in Indonesia. He was 79. Anderson is perhaps most famously known for his book, “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,” which was first published in 1983, and has since been translated into 35 languages and sold more than a quarter million copies. (The publisher Verso has published the introduction to “Imagined Communities” online.) The following appreciation of Anderson’s life and work was written by Patricio N. Abinales, professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii. Benedict “Ben” Anderson was Patricio’s dissertation adviser and mentor at Cornell’s Government Department.
Various disciplines have claimed Benedict Anderson as one of their own. The cultural studies scholar, the historian, the anthropologist, the sociologist and even the occasional economist have invoked his writings either as inspiration or as a critical variable in their respective works. The trans-disciplinary appeal of his famous book “Imagined Communities” is the prime reason for this appropriation. In truth, however, Ben was formally a political scientist.
He belonged to the comparative politics subfield in Cornell’s Government Department, and exchanged ideas and pleasantries with Sidney Tarrow (social movements), Vivienne Shue (China, state-society relations, peasant politics), Mary Katzenstein (Indian politics; gender) and T.J. Pempel (Japanese politics, East Asian states). He also debated ideas and approaches with colleagues in international relations (notably Peter J. Katzenstein), and had a healthy albeit distant relation with colleagues in American politics, e.g., Martin Shefter (popular insurgencies) and Theodore Lowi (liberalism).
All these scholars share a partiality for both studying “the state” and for using an approach – comparative historical institutionalism – that examines institutions to understand social and political behavior and change over time. This department trademark is evident in Anderson’s works, even if he attributes this more to his conversations with his historian brother Perry Anderson and the staff of the “New Left Review.”
“Imagined Communities” narrows understanding about “the nation” to four features: it being imagined, limited, sovereign and a community. This parsimony, is highly valued by comparativists. The book is certainly packed with culturalist arguments, but two of the book’s original arguments – about print capitalism and about the Creole pioneers and the bureaucratic and educational pilgrimages they made across oceans – are historical and institutional in nature.
The same holds true for his major works on Southeast Asian studies, even though these were less known by political scientists, who tend to focus on “large” East Asian countries. His book “Language and Power” examines the discrepancies between Max Weber’s notion of charisma with the way the Javanese interpret and explain power. This was comparative politics and social theory blended, “a tour de force and became immediately part of debates in social theory,” according to historian Anthony Reid.
Further comparative historical work includes Ben’s essay “Studies of the Thai State and the State of Thai Studies,” which questions the orthodox and popular argument that Thailand and Japan are comparable because of a common experience of not being colonized. Ben argues that Thailand should instead be compared to the unfederated Malay states. At first glance, Thailand (a large territory under one monarch) and the Malay states (five small kingdoms under British protectorate) were incomparable, but Ben shows that these royalties had a neo-colonial relationship with the European powers. The Thai state was therefore not autonomous; it was under the sway of the colonial powers while Japan was not.
“Old State, New Society: Indonesia’s New Order in Comparative Historical Perspective” was written in the same vein, conjoining two opposites — “a popular, participatory nation with an older adversarial state” — to explore the policies of the Suharto regime. (Suharto was Indonesia’s second president and he ruled for 31 years, from 1967 to 1998.) Ben’s comprehensive piece looked at Suharto’s economic, sociopolitical, and security policies to reveal how much of the former colonial Dutch state structure remained. In this article, Ben stated that his argument was in response to the “intense and inconclusive debate over the state among neo-Marxist theorists in recent years [and] suggests that there is something there that does not straightforwardly fit with such analysis” (emphasis added).
Years later in a lecture he delivered in Delhi, he would call his reconsideration of the Indonesian state as an example of “negative comparisons,” which, according to him, “focuses … on comparisons that emphasize, and, I suppose, prioritize difference.”
Those of us who studied under him produced works that tried to mirror these “negative comparisons” that critiqued Charles Tilly’s Europe-based state-military formation. Some examples include an original study of the Burmese military and the durability of its rule; an exploration of Filipino “bossism” placed alongside American machine politics and Southeast Asian strongmen; and bringing in the rich Southeast Asian experience in protest and revolutionary politics into the discussion of a hitherto Western-dominated discourse on social movements.
In my case, Ben gently steered me toward the scholarship in American politics, resulting in a dissertation that compared American national state-building in the Progressive era to the construction of a colonial state in early 20th century Philippines. The research puzzle I have been working on – why Filipino Muslims, in this age of the war on terrorism and the Great American Satan, remain strongly pro-American – continues to be guided by the negative comparisons that Ben urged us to investigate.
A primary reason scholars may have erred in not classifying Ben as a political scientist is because he did not write like one. His most popular essays were often about political culture, and drew from biographies and autobiographies, literature and, of late, films. He translated and corrected the translations of novels and short stories, and contributed to newspapers and popular websites, ever mindful of a broader audience that read his works. These works were gregarious, lucid, impish, critical and poetic – rarely the character of most North American-based political scientists. Additionally, a lot of his work was not penned in English; he delighted, for example, in writing essays in street-smart Bahasa Indonesia or gangster-radical Thai.
Ben was also passionately political. Many know about the 25-year ban the Suharto regime imposed on Ben, and perhaps fewer also know about his criticism of the Filipino ruling class. Less known was his vow never to visit either autocratic Singapore or the Philippines when it was still under Marcos. These are sorties into the world of real politics that are often rare among scholars of comparative politics.
Ben is perhaps one of the few authors in the late 20th century remembered with fondness across continents. Amid all these recollections of Ben and his works, political scientists can comfort themselves with the fact that “Omben” (“Uncle Ben,” as he was popularly called by Indonesians) was a member of their species. That said, this celebration may also be a bit premature. Comparative historical institutionalism continues to lose its luster in a discipline that is moving further and further into the world of mind-numbing multi-country comparisons, number crunching, and econometric analysis.
Benedict Anderson’s passing may very well signal the demise of a perspective that gave Cornell’s Government Department its idiosyncratic identity.