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When I went to college long ago, everyone had to read Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848). I think I read it in half-a-dozen classes. Today Marx is out. Benedict Anderson, however, is in. You’d be hard-pressed to get a college degree without reading or at least hearing about his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983). That book says, in a phrase, that nations were invented, and quite recently at that.
The trouble is that according to Azar Gat, Anderson is wrong. In his new book Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Gat musters a significant amount of evidence suggesting that humans are more-or-less hardwired for kin and ethnic preference–we’ve always liked people who look, talk and act like “us” more than “strangers” because we are built to do so. We didn’t “invent” the nation; it was–and remains–in us. Moreover, he shows that the historical record itself makes clear that something like nations have been with us since the state appeared 5,000 years ago. To be sure, their form has; but they were always around. This is important for the way we think about the world today. Marx thought classes were going to disappear They didn’t. Anderson and those who follow him seem to think that nations are going to disappear. They aren’t.
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