Remembering Benedict Anderson

Remembering Benedict Anderson

The renowned scholar exemplified intellectual passion and political engagement.


Young academics are often advised to prioritize scholarship over citizenship, meaning political involvement. But as the careers of some of our most influential scholars repeatedly demonstrate, especially in the humanities and social sciences, this is often a false and foolish distinction. It’s hard to imagine a more impressive “citizen scholar” than Benedict Richard O’Gorman Anderson, the Anglo/Irish, China-born, California- and Ireland-raised, Cambridge- and Cornell-educated specialist in Indonesian, Philippine, and Thai politics and culture. An endowed professor at Cornell and a frequent contributor to New Left Review, Anderson died in his sleep of apparent heart failure on December 13, three days after giving a lecture on “Nationalism and Anarchism” at the University of Indonesia. He was 79.

I took Anderson’s class on civil-military relations as an undergraduate more than 30 years ago. It was a remarkably stimulating experience, impressive not only for the professor’s polymathic presentation, but also for the tension that arose from having a coterie of graduate students recruited by Anderson from the ranks of Thai revolutionary guerrilla fighters in discussion with a significant number of crew-cut ROTC students. Anderson often dressed in the garb of (what I imagined to be) an Indonesian peasant, which made his aristocratic bearing and erudite Marxist analyses all the more entertaining.

We were never close, but Anderson remains responsible for one of the most exciting intellectual moments of my life: He invited me to attend a faculty/graduate seminar where he sketched, in graphic form on a whiteboard, the argument that would eventually become Imagined Communities. That short book, which has since been translated into more than two dozen languages, is without doubt the most influential work ever written on the origins of nationalism. It has also turned out to be a significant work of media studies. In it, Anderson considers Hegel’s comparison of the ritual of the morning paper to that of morning prayer: “Each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion.” It is at least partially through the “imagined community” of the daily newspaper, Anderson explained, that nations are forged. Today I make the same argument to students in my media-history class about the importance of what we are losing (for better and worse) with the death of the American newspaper industry. Every time, I see that whiteboard in my head.

Anderson explained that he learned “the inseparability of politics and scholarship” from studying Indonesia with George McTurnan Kahin, another Cornell scholar whose work—not just on Indonesia, but also on the US involvement in Vietnam—echoed across the globe. As Kahin’s graduate student, Anderson co-wrote a richly detailed analysis of Indonesia’s bloody 1965 coup, which led to the massacre of between 600,000 and 1 million people for alleged connections to the Communists who precipitated it. According to a now-declassified 1968 CIA analysis, it was “one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century.” (Sadly, the agency aided the killers in locating some of their targets.) Anderson was also one of just two foreign witnesses to the 1971 show trial and death sentence of the party’s general secretary. He went on to translate the general secretary’s testimony and had it published after the trial.

The effort to understand the full scope of that horrific massacre remains ongoing 50 years later. The events were recently portrayed in two amazing documentaries by Joshua Oppenheimer—The Act of Killing (2012) and its 2015 follow-up, The Look of Silence—and human-rights groups continue to press the US government to acknowledge its role in the atrocities and release all relevant documents. Anderson and his colleagues revealed their findings as the massacre was still underway, anonymously circulating what has become known as “The Cornell Paper” to a small group of interested scholars. As Nation contributing writer Scott Sherman reported in a lengthy 2001 article in Lingua Franca, when Kahin sent the paper to Bill Bundy, who was then responsible for Indonesian policy in the State Department, he also arranged for his co-author, Ruth McVey, to speak to the widely read pundit Joseph Kraft. Kraft wrote it up, and soon enough the study circulated among the brass in Jakarta. The authors were then accused of being Communist sympathizers with an ideological interest in absolving the party and its leader, President Sukarno. A newspaper with ties to Indonesian intelligence wrote about the report beneath the headline Cornell Scholars: Useful Idiots. Anderson was questioned by authorities and banned from returning to the country until the dictatorship finally fell in 1998.

In his later years, Anderson retained his passion for Indonesia but developed new ones as well. He became fluent in Thai and led a group of graduate students who conducted groundbreaking research on the suppression of Thai radicalism by the military regime in Bangkok. Anderson also developed expertise in Philippine history and the sorry US role there. (He read and spoke Tagalog too.) He died while overseeing the English publication of his memoir, first published in Japanese, which is appropriately titled A Life Beyond the Boundaries. It will be available from Verso next year.

Rarely, if ever, have the clichés “a gentleman and a scholar” and “model global citizen” better applied to an individual. Anderson’s work stands as an inspiration not only to his students, his readers, and all those whose lives have been affected by his work, but also to all those who reject the false choice between politics and scholarship, and who seek to live accordingly.

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