Benedict Anderson. A Life Beyond Boundaries. London: Verso, 2016

In 1965 a coup d’état took place in Indonesia. The left-leaning government of President Soekarno (var. Sukarno) was replaced by a military regime headed by General Suharto. Soekarno’s presidency had balanced itself on the so-called Nasakom, the attempted harmonisation of three major forces in Indonesian life: Nasionalisme (Nationalism), Agama (Religion) and Komunisme (Communism). The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), with its some three million members, was said to be the largest non-ruling Communist Party in the world and had an increasing influence on Soekarno. When Soekarno fell so too did Nasakom. In violence that continued into 1966, at least 500,000 Indonesians (and possibly upwards of one million) were killed, communists mainly as well as ethnic Chinese and an ideological array of leftists. Tortures and mass-imprisonments were also common. As the Suharto rule solidified, the new dictatorship blamed the violence on communists, with the claim that the PKI had fomented all this. Western governments, the United States foremost among them, pushed a similar line.

Quietly, though, three young academics at Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program began to use their university’s enviable array of up-to-date Indonesian source material to analyse what was taking place.   The result was a meticulously researched paper drily entitled Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia. The main conclusion was that Suharto and his supporters were behind the mass killings. Recognizing the scope of their findings, the paper’s authors did not initially seek to publish their work fearing it would endanger their Indonesian colleagues at Cornell. Instead, the paper was quietly circulated in samizdat. But by early 1966 it had been leaked to the Washington Post “and both Suharto’s men and the US State Department (who were actively supporting Suharto and delighted by the destruction of the communists) were furious.” The Preliminary Analysis was the work of Ruth McVey (who had recently completed her studies at Cornell and would go on to teach at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London), Fred Bunnell (who would later teach at Vasser College), and Benedict Anderson. Anderson was a polyglot Political Science PhD student recently returned from an extended research trip to Indonesia. He would go on to become one of the most influential academics of the later twentieth-century. A Life Beyond Boundaries, a mix of autobiography, intellectual reflections, and good-old fashioned academic gossip, is his posthumously published memoirs.

Anderson is primarily known for his much-cited (perhaps over cited?) 1983 work Imagined Communities, twice republished in expanded form since then. Ironically, for a work that sought to intervene in a series of British debates about nationalism, its roots go back to Indonesia and to the fallout from the Preliminary Analysis. Exposing Suharto’s hand in the massacres made Anderson persona non-grata in Jakarta. He did manage to acquire a visa through the embassy in London and spent two weeks in Indonesia before the government realised; he was promptly expelled from the country and banned for the next 27 years. A scholar of Indonesia who could no longer visit the country, he began to cast his net across South East Asia, in time producing work on Thailand and the Philippines and adding Thai and Tagalog to an already impressive résumé of languages. It is as if his exile shoehorned him into a comparative approach to studying the modern world. But as he shows in A Life Beyond Boundaries, his multi-nationalism had deeper roots.

Anderson was born in 1936 in China to an Irish father (an official with the Chinese Maritime Customs Service) and English mother and, like any good Victorian novelist, he gives valuable details about his heritage; Irish nationalists and old Gaelic nobility on the paternal side and imperial administrators on the maternal. His nanny in China was Vietnamese and “My mother once told me that the first words I spoke were Vietnamese, not English.” In 1941, fleeing the Japanese invasion, the Andersons moved to California. A wave of anti-Asian nativism prevented their nanny from joining them. When the war ended, the family moved again, this time to the Ireland of which Seamus O’Gorman Anderson was still a citizen; the ailing father died soon after, though, leaving Benedict, his brother Rory (better known as the intellectual historian Perry Anderson) and his sister (the anthropologist Melanie Anderson – she goes unnamed in the memoirs) to be raised by their mother, Veronica. Fortuitously, the widowed mother decided to channel her sons away from the Irish educational system (with its focus on the Irish language) and toward the Latin of elite British schools. Both Benedict and Perry won scholarships to Eton and Benedict would go on to take a Classics degree at Cambridge. While it is hard not to suspect a certain anti-Irish snobbery on the part of Veronica Anderson, as Benedict Anderson recounts it:

Geographically, I was being prepared (without realizing it) for a cosmopolitan and comparative outlook on life. On the brink of puberty I had already lived in Yunnan, California, Colorado, independent Ireland, and England. I had been raised by an Irish father, an English mother and a Vietnamese nurse. French was a (secret) family language; I had fallen in love with Latin; and my parents’ library contained books by Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, Italian, American and German authors. There was also a useful feeling of being marginal. In California, I was laughed at for my English accent, in Waterford for my American idioms, and in England for my Irishisms.

Indeed, there is something markedly novelistic in how Anderson reads his own future in the lineaments of his peripatetic childhood. It makes for an enjoyably readable end product, albeit with a certain amount of elision. And much of the book progresses like this; his trips as a young student around Jakarta on his Vespa scooter, unsatisfying experiments with marijuana at student parties in Ithaca, boyish scraps and fraternal rivalries with a pre-pubescent Perry Anderson. At the very outset, we are told that “Professors in the West rarely have interesting lives”, yet there is much here that is just genuinely fun, a rarity in academic writing.

And then he comes to the writing of Imagined Communities. The focus moves over to the more conventionally academic. For reasons never elaborated, the Anderson brothers fell out of contact some time after their undergrad years. But they were reunited by the New Left Review. By the 1970s, Perry Anderson was the NLR’s editor, and Benedict took to reading it closely. “During this process, my brother and I became close again, as we have remained till this day.” Through this reading, Benedict Anderson came into contact with a number of scholars, both living and dead. Walter Benjamin brought his attention to questions of “homogenous, empty time.” And Tom Nairn, a non-traditional Marxist with Scottish separatist sympathies, introduced Anderson to an on-going debate about nationalism in Britain. Nairn had just released his analysis of The Break-up of Britain (1977), advancing the then-blasphemous, now quite tame thesis that the United Kingdom was “a fossilized, conservative and imperialistic relic of the past, doomed to break up into its four constituent underlying nations, with Scotland leading the way.”

This had put Nairn at serious odds with the leading British scholars of nationalism: Eric Hobsbawm, Elie Kedourie, Ernest Gellner, Anthony D. Smith, all of whom were of Jewish backgrounds and, despite their vastly differing politics, all had a certain affinity for a United Kingdom that they saw as fascist- and antisemitic-free. Anderson, as he retells it in his memoirs, was clearly on the side of Nairn, both for his combative tone and because, “as an Irishman”, he felt the broadsides against British patriotism held serious water. Imagined Communities was his own intervention into this field. But it was also a work that tackled the eurocentrism of the scholarship of nationalism. The result was a relatively short text that mixed a very British polemic with a diversity of material drawn from his work on South East Asia. The eclecticism surely goes a long way to explaining its appeal; his understanding of nationalism is a noticeably versatile one.

Imagined Communities now has an iconic status in Anglophone academia, a de rigueur text for any graduate student in the humanities and social sciences. In later chapters of his memoirs, Anderson surveys the current state of academia from this high status. The crisp autobiographical narrative is replaced by a series of interlocking reflections on university life. In one acidic passage, he castigates the fad for Theory (with a capital “T”), that rules in American academia and that has tended to revere Anderson himself as a reluctant Theorist. In addition to this disdain for faddish theories – which he compares to the built-in obsolescence of high-end commodities under late capitalism – he has few kind words to say for contemporary graduate students’ turgid prose or over-reliance on digital technology. These are valid points but with more than a hint of unfair caricature to them.

Anderson died just before his memoirs were published and it is impossible not to read them in that light, as if this was almost a self-penned obituary. Indeed, the late-in-life text ranges across his life and work with rapidity, highlighting intriguing episodes and perspectives even as it skips quickly past it all. The autobiographical portions act as a genial portal to his personal life, but clearly much has been left out of his re-telling. The reflections on academia are at odds with this, and are equal parts fair-minded and crabby. The result is a richly packed book but also an at times unsatisfying one.

Aidan Beatty is Scholar-in-Residence at the School of Canadian Irish Studies Concordia University, Montreal and is author of Masculinities and Power in Irish Nationalism, 1884-1938.


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