On Benedict Anderson

Against the Current, No. 184, September/October 2016

John Roosa

BENEDICT ANDERSON, WHO passed away on December 13 last year, is best known as the author of the book Imagined Communities (1983), which remains today a must-read book on nationalism for university students all around the world. It sparked a wave of new studies on nationalism and became as much a phenomenon as Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978).

Translated into 29 languages, the book has been one of the best-selling titles for Verso, the left-wing press based in London that has been partly managed by his younger brother, Perry Anderson.

The reception of Imagined Communities took its author by surprise. Anderson was like a person who posts a home video online and then discovers the next morning that she is an international celebrity.

As a professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University, he was prominent in the field of Southeast Asian studies but had not attracted much attention outside of that relatively small field. The success of the book thrust him onto the international stage and once there he was uncomfortable playing the role expected of him, a kind of grand sage of left social theory on par with contemporaries such as Said, Noam Chomsky and Jürgen Habermas.

Instead of following up the book with a more elaborate theorization of nationalism or an equally ambitious study of global history, he returned to what he had been doing before — writing about Southeast Asia. That is where his passion lay. All of his later books were about Southeast Asia.

Anderson’s affinity for the region had nothing to do with his upbringing. He was born in Kunming, China where his Anglo-Irish father was a customs official, but the family, to escape the Japanese occupation of China, moved to the United States in 1941, when he was five, and then moved to Ireland at the conclusion of the war.

His father passed away only a year after they were back in Ireland.(1) Benedict and Perry, raised by a single mother on a pension, spent much of their childhood in Ireland reading and their precocious intellects allowed them to earn scholarships to the elite boarding school Eton College.

Benedict won another scholarship to Cambridge University, where he studied Latin and Greek, while Perry won a scholarship to Oxford University. Neither wished to climb into the ranks of the British elite.

Benedict, back at his mother’s house in Ireland with a Classics degree in 1957, refused to become a diplomat or a businessman and chose instead to leave Britain. As he explains in his memoir, A Life Beyond Boundaries, published by Verso only months after his death, he took up an offer that came out of the blue from an old friend to become a teaching assistant at Cornell University.

Under the Spell of Kahin

Anderson’s interest in Southeast Asia began when, as a graduate student at Cornell University in the late 1950s, he was inspired by George Kahin, a professor in the Department of Government who had established a center for the study of Indonesia at Cornell. At a time when many Americans and Europeans viewed the Indonesian nationalists as barely civilized upstarts, Kahin treated them as friends and equals.

Kahin had conducted his doctoral research in Indonesia during the years of the fighting against the Dutch in the late 1940s at great risk to his personal safety and health. The 500-page book he published on the Indonesian nationalist movement in 1952 reflected his intimate, empathetic engagement with the nationalists and his heroic industriousness in gathering information.(2)

Many reviews of Kahin’s book in scholarly journals, reflecting the racism of the time, complained that he was overly critical of Dutch colonial rule.

Anderson designed his dissertation as a kind of prequel to Kahin’s book. It covered the years of the Japanese occupation and the early years of the Republic of Indonesia.

The dissertation, finished in 1967 and then published in revised form as a book in 1972, was a conventional, empiricist work of history, albeit written by someone from a political science department.(3) It moves chronologically through the events of a narrowly defined period and draws upon oral interviews and written sources.

Carefully analyzing the moves of the politicians and military officers involved in the struggles to form the new Republic, it could almost have been written by Kahin or one of his other graduate students, such as Herbert Feith and Daniel Lev who wrote about Indonesian politics of the 1950s. One sees only faint glimpses of the concerns for translation, literature and culture that would dominate Anderson’s later work.

Anderson differed with Kahin on the role of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) in the Indonesian nationalist struggle. In Kahin’s version of history, the PKI played a negligible role. It may have been that he was trying to make Indonesian nationalism more palatable to Americans in the early 1950s. Many of Kahin’s sources in Indonesia were anti-communists, especially those from the Socialist Party circle.

Communism was, of course, a sensitive issue: Kahin himself was harassed by Senator McCarthy in the early 1950s for refusing to inform on his dissertation supervisor, Owen Lattimore. Anderson, by including more information about the PKI in his book, told a less sanguine story. He concluded the book by noting that the success of the “national revolution” in 1949 came at the expense of radical movements that were pushing for “social revolution.”

Kahin and his students in the 1950s-’60s countered the then-reigning modernization paradigm, which assumed that a newly decolonized country like Indonesia was a “traditional” society in the process of “modernizing.” A typical text in the modernization genre was the book edited by Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist who specialized on Indonesia, Old Societies and New States (1963).

Geertz envisioned the decolonized countries of Asia and Africa as crammed full of people clinging to “primordial” identities of ethnicity, religion and race, while being led by a small educated elite heroically persuading or forcing them to adopt the new modern identity of the nation. Kahin’s group, refusing this paradigm, saw Indonesian society to be as modern as any place else in the world.

Anderson’s article “Old State, New Society” (1983) elaborated on the basic approach he had followed since beginning his research: it was Indonesian society that was modern, forging democratic politics and novel identities, while the postcolonial state was filled with personnel continuing the fossilized policies and institutions of the old colonial state.(4)

As Anderson gained his expertise on Indonesia in the 1960s, Kahin was becoming preoccupied with the war in Vietnam. Convinced it was his civic duty to speak out against U.S. policy, he argued in many public teach-ins, Congressional hearings, and tête-à-têtes with government officials that the United States had set itself against Vietnamese nationalism, not communism, and was bound to lose.

Kahin did not return to writing about Indonesian history until the 1990s, after finishing his monumental study of U.S. policymaking on Vietnam, Intervention (1986).(5)

Under the Spell of Java

Anderson’s two and a half years of fieldwork in Indonesia (late 1961 to early 1964) were formative. He did not just read old documents in archives and interview former officials about the events of high politics for the purposes of his dissertation. He immersed himself in Javanese society, speaking to a great variety of people, attending all-night shadow puppet performances, traveling around the island, visiting old temples. He quickly became fluent in Indonesian while also studying Javanese.

Upon returning to Cornell, he didn’t immediately work on his dissertation. Instead, he wrote a short book about “Javanese culture” that argued that the characters and plots of the shadow puppet theater gave the Javanese an ability to understand different points of view and appreciate the complexities of moral reasoning.(6)

He praised “the admirably wide dimensions of the Javanese respect for human variety” and their avoidance of a stark dichotomy of good vs. evil. The book’s first sentence was meant to be self-referential: “Most Europeans and Americans who have lived long in Java sooner or later fall under the spell of her ancient civilization.”

He too had fallen under the spell and fallen in love with Javanese culture — or some reified version of it. Events one month after the book was published suggested that his argument about the tolerance of the Javanese was inaccurate. The Indonesian army began a political genocide in October 1965 against members of the PKI, slaughtering hundreds of thousands.

Most of the people in the army and the PKI were Javanese, so the killing was often a matter of Javanese killing other Javanese. While Anderson understood that the genocide was not a direct expression of Javanese culture, that it involved institutions of the modern nation-state, he also realized that he had missed something. As he wrote years later, “it felt like discovering a loved one is a murderer.”(7)

The Suharto Dictatorship

With fellow Cornell scholars Ruth McVey (who had just published a massive tome on the PKI in the 1920s) and Frederick Bunnell, Anderson threw himself into the task of untangling the complicated series of events that began in October 1965. They completed in January 1966 an analysis of the putsch against the army high command and the army’s attack on the PKI.

They sent their manuscript, A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965 Coup in Indonesia, to other scholars and two officials in the State Department, requesting that they not release it to protect their identities. An editor at New Left Review, Peter Wollen, abridged and edited their report and published it under his pseudonym, Lucien Rey.(8)

Their anonymity did not last long. One of the State Department copies was leaked to the Indonesian army generals in Jakarta. Viewing it as the source of much of the press commentary in the United States and Europe critical of their bloody seizure of power, the generals were determined to discredit it.

They were especially worried about U.S. public opinion since their newly formed regime was so dependent on American economic, diplomatic, and military aid. Much to the delight of the U.S. government, the army under General Suharto was pushing aside President Sukarno and offering up the country’s resources to multinational corporations. Both the army generals and American officials treated Anderson as a communist sympathizer.

The official refutation to what became known as the “Cornell Paper” was written by the army’s leading historian, Nugroho Notosusanto, and a prosecutor in the special military courts, Ismail Saleh. These two worked with the RAND Corporation’s specialist on Indonesia, the Romanian émigré Guy Pauker, in 1967 to compose The Coup Attempt of the ‘September 30th Movement’ in Indonesia (1968).

It is telling that this execrable tract was only published in English. Foreigners needed to be persuaded of the legitimacy of the new regime. Indonesians could just be ordered to obey.

As Anderson describes in his gripping article about his dealings with the officials of the Suharto dictatorship and the U.S. embassy, “Scholarship on Indonesia and Raison d’État,” he was allowed to visit Indonesia in 1967 and 1968 but was then deported after arriving in 1972.(9)

It was painful for him to be banished from the country to which he had acquired such a romantic attachment. When he was denied entry at the Jakarta airport in 1981, after he had already been issued a visa to attend an academic conference, he had a sort of nervous breakdown during the return flight.

As he recounted to the journalist Scott Sherman years later, “I suddenly felt this agonizing pain all over my body. It was so bad that for most of the flight I had to lie on the floor of the cabin, to the astonishment of the passengers and stewardesses.”(10)

One consolation of the banishment was that he was free to criticize the regime and write about the PKI, unlike all other foreign scholars on Indonesia who worried that his fate could be theirs. His testimonies at Congressional hearings in the late 1970s and early 1980s about human rights in Indonesia and the occupation of East Timor were influential interventions.(11)

As a co-founder and editor of the semi-annual scholarly journal Indonesia, he continued to play a major role in Indonesian studies. His many articles in that journal alone represent an invaluable archive: he translated and commented on many important historical documents and literary works.

Unable to return to Indonesia, he turned his attention in the 1970s to Thailand and the Philippines and began to immerse himself in their languages and literatures. For left-wing publications, he wrote incisive analyses of political struggles, such as the democratic interlude in Thailand 1973-76 and its violent suppression, and the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, always with an appreciation of long-term class and state structures.(12)

As a graduate student and an activist in the 1990s in the solidarity movements for self-determination for East Timor and democracy in Indonesia, I had a great deal of respect for him. He was a principled, uncompromising critic of the Suharto dictatorship who combined hard-nosed analyses of realpolitik with a sensitive understanding of Southeast Asian cultural history.

I was impressed when visiting the well-known Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, in 1995, to find a framed photo of Anderson on one of his tables. I was also impressed some years later when reading through Pramoedya’s personal collection of documents to find Anderson’s letters from the 1980s to him and his editor, Joesoef Isak, containing detailed comments on translations of Pramoedya’s writings.

I corresponded with Anderson several times before and after my book on the September 30th Movement was published. He was generous with his time and courteous. In the book, I tried to express my criticisms of his arguments about the events of 1965 in a respectful way. I think he appreciated at least part of what I was doing: he requested that an obituary of Suharto that I had written be republished in Indonesia, the journal he co-edited.(13)

Imagined Communities

Imagined Communities came up in many of the classes I took in the 1990s. The book was meant, as its subtitle indicated, to be a set of “reflections” occasioned by events in Southeast Asia — Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in late 1978, which ended the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, and China’s invasion of Vietnam in early 1979, which punished Vietnam for its move against China’s client state.

For Anderson, these wars between three socialist states were further confirmations that nationalism had trumped Marxism. Why, he wondered, was nationalism so powerful? Why, for instance, had communist parties always been formed along national lines?

Anderson’s answers to these questions were unusual, as was the prose style in which he expressed them. Anderson’s idol was the uncategorizable Walter Benjamin who was repeatedly cited, from the epigraphs to the last page.

Like Benjamin’s work, the book displays impressive erudition while defying the protocols of academic disciplinarity. It seems to be a work of history: it moves chronologically through some five centuries. But one cannot imagine a professional historian daring to move so quickly and unpredictably over such a vast terrain.

Arguments, instead of being substantiated by evidence, are illustrated by “arresting,” “striking,” and “stunning” aperçus (such as the commentary on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). Unprecedented comparisons are drawn between seemingly disparate historical processes and personages. The book is as much a work of history as it is a work of literary criticism, political theory and anthropology.

However much the book took readers by surprise, it fit into prevailing intellectual trends in the 1980s. The field of cultural studies was expanding as leftist academics wished to transcend the genre of political economy. Many books about Antonio Gramsci and Walter Benjamin were being published.

“Identity” became a key word and it became understood as something that was contingent, fluid and unstable. Essentialism was the great enemy. Many book titles took the form of Inventing X or The Social Construction of X. The influential collection of essays The Invention of Tradition, edited by Hobsbawm and Ranger, also came out in 1983.

Anderson’s book nestled nicely into this zeitgeist: it discussed nations, not classes, proposed that nationalism had deep “cultural roots,” and presented national identities as being historically constructed in modern times. Unlike many of the books about the social construction of identities, Anderson’s emphasized the durability of an identity, not its mutability.

Nationalism, he argued, was a kind of religion that provided powerful existential meanings for people’s lives, grounding identities in space and time. This was an original insight. The leading scholars of nationalism at the time treated it either as a political ideology on par with liberalism and Marxism (Anthony Smith), a philosophical doctrine (Elie Kedourie), a pathological delusion (Tom Nairn), a necessary political strategy in a world of imperialism (Nairn again), or as a simple byproduct of industrialization (Ernest Gellner).

In arguing that nationalism was a kind of religion, Anderson did not mean to condemn it. Quite the contrary. He thought nationalism normally encouraged good, selfless behavior.(14)

While Imagined Communities is couched as a commentary on Marxism, with the opening and ending pages addressing Marxism, its analysis owes little to Marxism. It narrates the history of “the origin and spread of nationalism,” as the subtitle puts it, without relating it to a history of changes in relations of production.

Anderson’s idea of capitalism was idiosyncratic. He argued that the causal agent in bringing about the new religion of nationalism was “print capitalism,” by which he meant the mass marketing of machine-made books in the 1500s-1600s. He placed much explanatory weight on this idea of “print capitalism” and it became one of the more famous arguments of the book.

His meaning of “capitalism,” one should recognize, was not Marx’s. Anderson was referring to what Marx would have called merchant capital, not capitalism itself. By only referencing the commodification of books, Anderson passed over in silence all the other things that became commodified at that time, such as land and labor power.

One would have hoped that an analysis correlating nationalism to some kind of “capitalism” and changes in “apprehensions of time” would have had time to address Marx’s analysis of time which, as one can see in the three volumes of Capital, was quite elaborate.

Likewise, one would have hoped that a narrative of nationalism as a new relationship between society and territory, as a territorialization of a collective identity, would have considered the concomitant changes in property relations (such as the expropriation of people from the land and the rise of private property) as being as important as book publishing.

One cannot fault Anderson: the entire literature on the history of the origins of nationalism, including the works written by Marxists, has not explored its connections to capitalism.

Anderson tended to avoid engaging with all kinds of social theory, not just Marxism. That avoidance might have seemed justified when addressing nationalism that, as Anderson put it, had “never produced its own grand thinkers: its Hobbeses, Tocquevilles, Marxes, or Webers.”(15)

Imagined Communities, with its lack of references to such “grand thinkers,” can seem quite original. The profusion of quotes from primary sources, effortlessly drawn from all over the world, combined with Anderson’s original and witty commentary on those sources certainly makes for a refreshing, if sometime perplexing, read. Still, a reader will easily notice that his text bears the deep influence of that last writer in his list — Max Weber.

The book tells the story of nationalism as the cultural unfurling of the bureaucratic state. For all of the emphasis on imagination, the story is very much about the determinant role of state structures. The “creole nationalism” in the Americas of the late 18th century is explained in terms of career paths within the British and Spanish imperial states. Likewise, the anti-colonial nationalism in Asia in the 20th century is explained by the structure of schools and offices of European and American imperial states.

Partha Chatterjee’s criticism of Imagined Communities, in his book The Nation and Its Fragments (1993) was wildly off-target, but he had one valid point: Anderson did not give much explanatory power to pre-colonial cultural forms.(16) The “Census, Map, Museum” chapter that he later added, about which I saw him lecture in Jakarta once, was uncompromising in its denial of agency to anything besides the colonial states.(17)

The Retirement-era Oeuvre

After Imagined Communities, Anderson published many articles, and two collections of his articles, but he did not write another monograph until he retired from teaching in 2000. He moved to an apartment in Bangkok and, amid his heavy schedule of lectures around the world, focused on writing.

The major book he wrote then was Under Three Flags (2005), about the life and writings of the great Filipino nationalist José Rizal, whose novels of the late 19th century were incredibly inventive and witty.(18) The book situates Rizal amid the global networks of anarchists and avant-garde artists of his time.

Anderson also wrote about a Sino-Indonesian writer, Kwee Thiam Tjing, who had fallen into obscurity, despite having written a fascinating and honest account of the Indonesian national revolution as it was taking place. Anderson dug up more information about his life and arranged for the republication of the 1947 book.

Another Indonesian writer whom Anderson decided to champion was Eka Kurniawan, two of whose novels have just been translated into English and published in the United States with Anderson’s assistance. He was a fan of the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and wrote commentaries on his films.

Anderson’s retirement-era oeuvre indicates that he most enjoyed translating and commenting upon the work of individual creative geniuses. He prized the idiosyncratic and became less interested in analyses of impersonal forces of markets and states (such as those found in Imagined Communities). He wrote as an aesthete, prioritizing the stylistic features of the prose he studied, such as multiglossia and syntactic elegance, rather than the political implications.

I admit to being too much of a historian concerned about clarifying past events, such as the political genocide of 1965-66 in Indonesia, to share these priorities. I find, for instance, little that is politically progressive in Kurniawan’s fiction and find Anderson’s praise of him as the “successor” to Pramoedya to be nonsensical, as if there was a empty slot after Pramoedya’s death in 2006 called The Greatest Living Indonesian Writer and Kurniawan’s novels could be made commensurable with Pramoedya’s. (Likewise, I think its nonsensical to talk about anyone being a “successor” to Anderson.)

Kurniawan plays around with historical events, such as the 1965-66 killings, referencing them opportunistically, without adding any depth to them, without allowing the reader to gain any new insight into them or emotional connection to them. Pramoedya’s fiction, which Kurniawan has incorrectly labeled “socialist realism,” have a completely different approach to history.(19)

Anderson’s memoir, published by Verso just months after his death, says little of his political work and commitments over the years. I am calling it a memoir for the lack of a better term. It is autobiographical, going from childhood to dotage, but it might just as well be called a manifesto or a letter to a young scholar.

He uses his life to expound the credo of liberal humanism: go out and learn about the world, be cosmopolitan, learn other languages, read poetry and fictional literature, study other cultures in depth, disregard the walls between academic disciplines, be creative, find new angles, follow your passion. It is a worthwhile credo, though the young scholar Anderson is addressing will have to look elsewhere for guidance on connecting scholarship with any kind of political agenda.

Anderson passed away only three days after the book launch in Jakarta of the Indonesian translation of Under Three Flags. He was obviously struggling physically and mentally when delivering his lecture.(20)

He travelled to East Java after the book launch to visit places of nostalgic interest, places that he had first seen in the early 1960s, such as a 1,000-year-old Hindu water temple and a museum of old Javanese artifacts. He died of heart failure while asleep after a day of strenuous walking.

It does not appear he expected to die then and there but if he had ever been allowed to choose he probably would have chosen precisely those circumstances: near the ancient sites of Old Java, amid young intellectuals, discussing an Indonesian-language translation of a book of his about another country of Southeast Asia.

Within days of his death, friends and relatives from all over the world, including his brother Perry, arrived in East Java’s main port city, Surabaya, the city of Kwee Thiam Tjing and the protagonist of Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet, for the memorial service. On December 20, this diverse crew, under the guidance of a young woman, Khanis Suvianita, a scholar and activist in Surabaya who has been writing about and working for LGBT rights, deposited the urn of his ashes in the Java Sea.


  1. Perry Anderson consulted archives in China to learn about their father’s work there: “A Belated Encounter,” London Review of Books (July 30, 1998 and August 20, 1998).
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  2. George Kahin, Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1952). The Southeast Asia Program at Cornell reprinted the book in 2003 with an introduction by Benedict Anderson. I reviewed the book in Itinerario 29: 1 (2005).
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  3. Benedict Anderson, Java in a Time of Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1972).
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  4. “Old State, New Society: Indonesia’s New Order in Comparative Perspective,” Journal of Asian Studies 42: 3 (May 1983), 477-496. His thesis of Suharto’s New Order as a return to the Dutch colonial state does have its problems, as Robert Cribb has pointed out: “The Historical Roots of Indonesia’s New Order: Beyond the Colonial Comparison,” in Soeharto’s New Order and its Legacy: Essays in Honour of Harold Crouch, edited by Edward Aspinall and Greg Fealy (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2010).
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  5. Kahin’s posthumously published memoir is revealing: Southeast Asia: A Testament (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
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  6. Benedict Anderson, Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese (Ithaca: Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1965).
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  7. Benedict Anderson, Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 7.
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  8. Lucien Rey, “Dossier of the Indonesian Drama,” New Left Review 36, March-April 1966, 26-36.
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  9. “Scholarship on Indonesia and Raison d’État: Personal Experience,” Indonesia 62 (October 1996), 1-18.
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  10. Scott Sherman, “A Return to Java,” Lingua Franca (October 2001), http://www.scottgsherman.com/profiles/benedictanderson.php.
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  11. Arnold Kohen, “Benedict Anderson and the Indepen­dence of Timor-Leste,” (December 2015), https://www.unsw.adfa.edu.au/school-of-humanities-and-social-sciences/timor-companion/benedict-anderson.
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  12. “Withdrawal Symptoms: Social and Cultural Aspects of the October 6 Coup,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 9:3 (July-September 1977), 13-30; “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams,” New Left Review 169 (May-June 1988).
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  13. John Roosa, Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’État in Indonesia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006). The obituary of Suharto, originally written for the online magazine Inside Indonesia, was republished in Indonesia 85 (April 2008), 137-143.
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  14. Benedict Anderson, “The Goodness of Nations,” in Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia, edited by Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
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  15. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, rev. ed. 2006), 5.
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  16. Andrew Parker has a good critique of one part of Chatterjee’s argument, “Bogeyman: Benedict Anderson’s ‘Derivative’ Discourse,” in Grounds of Comparison: Around the Work of Benedict Anderson, edited by Jonathan Culler and Pheng Cheah (New York: Routledge, 2003).
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  17. David Henley’s critique of Anderson’s analysis of anti-colonial nationalism in Southeast Asia is effective: “Ethnogeographic Integration and Exclusion in Anticolonial Nationalism: Indonesia and Indochina,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37:2 (April 1995), 286-324.
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  18. Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination (London: Verso, 2005). Parts of the book were serialized in three issues of New Left Review in 2004.
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  19. Criticisms of Rushdie in the following article could apply mutatis mutandis to Kurniawan: John Roosa and Ayu Ratih, “Solipsism or Solidarity: The Nation, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Salman Rushdie,” Economic and Political Weekly, 36:28 (July 14-20, 2001), 2681-2688.
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  20. A video of the December 10, 2015 lecture has been posted online, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6l4NM14PCw.
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Note: The Indonesian translation of this essay is on the website indoProgress.com.

September-October 2016, ATC 184