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Ben Anderson, author of Imagined Communities, 1936-2015

A great scholar has just died, this short salute allows those inspired by his work to add their appreciations.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
13 December 2015
 Aengus McMahon. All rights reserved.

Anderson speaking at the National University of Ireland Galway, 2012. Credit: Aengus McMahon. All rights reserved.Ben Anderson, author of Imagined Communities, died yesterday, Saturday 12 December, in East Java. His adopted son Wahyu Yudistira was with him and told the Jakarta Post. A prolific author of scholarly work on Indonesia and Thailand with an amazing breadth of knowledge, Ben used his distinct perspective to write a general book on nationalism that gave him a world reputation. This is Imagined Communities. Among its many qualities such as brevity, clarity, comparative range and profound sympathy for the human condition, two stand out for me. One is its opening question about the peculiar nature of nationalism, asking why people would die for such a cause. Another is his firm and convincing argument that nationalism is inherently inclusive, unlike racism. Of course, chauvinists try to capture nationalism and define their nation in terms of an ethnic exclusivity. But historically, the force and function of nationalism is to bring together people of different races and religions around a patriotic identification with their geographical country.

So Ben sets out a historical argument that embraces the realities of nationalism rather than denying them. He explains that the “immediate occasion” for writing Imagined Communities was the conflicts between Cambodia, Vietnam and China in 1978-79: the first full-scale wars between socialist states. But they in no way claimed a Marxist justification. What then is the force that held Marxist regimes in its grip? In this way Ben confronts the Marxist tradition with its own failure in terms of historical materialism.

I had the huge privilege of working in Cornell University, in up-state New York, where Ben taught. I stayed in his house and was inspired by the exactitude of his scholarship, the generosity of his profound humanism, his infectious humour and his exemplary love of the peoples of South East Asia. I was studying Vietnam when its confrontation with Pol Pot’s Cambodia forced me down tracks I had not expected of ‘Inter-Communist Conflict’. Ben helped everyone to keep their balance.

I am not sufficiently expert in Ben's other writings to attempt an obituary but want to salute him for his wonderful influence and give others an opportunity in the comments to register briefly their experience and appreciation of a truly great scholar and teacher.

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