Nationalism is a strange phenomenon. Against all commonsense to the contrary, people perceive themselves to be in community with total strangers who just happen to be citizens of the same nation. As soldiers, people are even willing to die for those complete strangers. This peculiar phenomenon is replicated the world over. Every successful revolution since World War Two has defined itself in national terms, and the United Nations adds to its ranks every year. Why has the nation become the de facto form of government? And why do the nation’s citizens feel such deep attachments, including the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice, to the nation and its strangers? Neither Marxism nor liberal theory has answers to these questions.
In his classic book Imagined Communities, political theorist Benedict Anderson argues that nationalism is a cultural artifact—not a self-conscious political ideology—that coalesced in the late eighteenth century out of a “crossing” of different contingent historical forces. Once it came into existence, it became “modular.” That is, it was transplanted and adapted to a wide range of social, political, and ideological terrains. In every context, nationalism arouses deep attachments because of the aura of naturalism it cultivates. While a nation is fundamentally imagined, it appears to its citizens as very real indeed.
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