(Clifford Geertz)


Protest Movements in Rural Java. By Sartono Kartodirdjo. London, New York, Singapore, etc.: Oxford University Press, 1973. PP xv + 229, maps, price not indicated.


Dr. Sartono, Professor of History at Gadjah Mada University in Jogjakarta, is already well known in the field of Indonesian social history as the result of his pathbreaking monographic study of the 1888 peasant revolt in Banten, West Java, published in The Hague in 1966. Here, he undertakes a comparative study of a large number of peasant protest movements all across late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Java, both to set that in-depth work in perspective and to develop a general classification of agrarian disturbances. The result is an excellent overview of one of the enduring features of Javanese rural society—its susceptibility to very narrowly based, evanescent, usually rather haphazard 'commotions', expressed in terms of one or another of the various threads in the extremely variegated Indonesian cultural tapestry. Only the adherence to a resolutely typological approach to analysis somewhat limits this informed and resourceful study, making it conceptually less incisive than it might have been.


Professor Sartono divides the movements he finds reported in the Dutch archives (civil servants' reports, special commission studies, a few scholarly works, a few memoirs) into four main categories: anti-extortion movements; messianic movements; sectarian movements; and local Sarekat Islam movements. Anti-extortion movements sprang from particular, local socio-economic grievances and had for their aim nothing more than the prompt removal of the grievance. They were tax revolts or working condition complaints, and that is all they were. Messianic movements were centered around the traditional Javanese conception of the coming of a Just King who would put right the wrongs of the social order at a charismatic stroke. Though economic factors were involved in such movements as well, they were of less central importance. The driving force was an essentially religious idea: namely, that a divine ruler would bring, in the very fact of his divinity, an ideal society. Sectarian movements were what have been called elsewhere 'revivalistic' or 'nativistic' ones—the call was for resistance to the decline of traditional values through the regeneration of the religious strength of the people, and as a result their tone was usually puritanical and reformist, as well as other-worldly. And Sarekat Islam (literally, 'Islamic Union') movements were local upheavals associated with, but not actually conducted by, the first mass nationalist organization (founded, 1912) which combined modern political themes with traditionalist moral and religious ones.


The bulk of the book then consists of a vivid and carefully researched review of the available material on movements in each of these categories taken in turn.


The anti-extortionist movements were centred in the so-called 'private lands', areas of western and northern Java, where foreigners, European or Chinese, squeezed peasant labour on lands purchased from the colonial regime and operated, with a certain help from the police, as states within the state. Landlords could not only extract rents, but demand labour services, including personal ones, distribute justice, and impose taxes. A whole series of small outbreaks occurred, taking always a similar form: first passive resistance, including flight; then open complaint, including demonstrations; then the emergence of a leader ready to risk violence; then a physical attack upon the landlord or his agents; then, finally, a brief, bloody skirmish with colonial troops that ended the movement by ending the lives of its cadres. 'After this bloody encounter,' the refrain goes (in this particular case, nineteen protestors killed, twenty-one arrested), 'the movement died down, and nothing more was heard of it.'


Messianic movements have been more characteristic of central and eastern Java, the heartland of traditional culture. Religious teachers, Islamic and Indic alike, surrounded by their students, turn themselves into prophets and their students into apostles. An apocalyptic message is revealed to the leader in a dream or a trance, who reveals it to the students, who propagate it more generally, though the group itself again remains small and the conclusion again is often violent: 'The insurgents . . . charged the column with sabres, spikes and krisses. In the wild mêlée which followed, well-directed fire from the soldiers cut down the insurgents... panic striken rebels fleeing in all directions ... [leaving] behind 40 men killed and 20 wounded ... Kasan Mukumin [the prophet] was killed when he resisted arrest.'


Sectarianism, too, could take either Indie or Islamic forms, but was in any case mystical, evangelical, and pietistic:


The rulers of the country, regents, district heads and village heads [the sect, held] were sinful; the [established religious officials] were ignorant ... inclined rather to violate the truth than to [behave] according to God's law ... The chiefs were branded as infidels and hypocrites who accepted heretical knowledge and lived therefore in sin. They should be brought to a realization that their religious practices were invalid and [taught to] protest against the prevailing... entertainments such as the shadow play and Javanese orchestral music . . . Because of the corrupt state of the chiefs ... it was quite lawful to refuse obedience to them, and, indeed, to put it more strongly, people were forbidden ... to follow the chiefs. Religious teachers and Meccan pilgrims who shared allegiance to the infidel king were also denounced. Instead of obeying the [civil servants] the people were required to follow the revealed law.


Some of these movements also ended in head-on clashes with established authorities, even in a sort of outlaw band, 'a half-way house between a mystical sect and a criminal gang'. But others shifted toward more accommodationist stances—condemning the state of things, but abandoning evangelism and withdrawing from secular life into a religious retreatism—and so survived, some of them until today.


And finally, the Sarekat Islam movements were essentially violent spin-offs from an essentially non-violent, at that point unrevolutionary, organization; local developments that escaped control of the loosely organized central direction of the party and embarrassed its gradualism. Unlike the other movements, however, the Sarekat Islam ones—or so Sartono argues—were not wholly 'traditional', but were intermixed with 'modem' (i.e., nationalist) elements, much of their aggression being directed against Chinese merchants whom they regarded as foreign usurpers and barriers to 'native economic development'. Religion, race, and economics thus combined to produce outbreaks at once reminiscent of the more traditionalist ones and anticipatory of the more genuinely revolutionary ones to come:


A study of the activities of Sarekat Islam at the local level ... thus ... illustrate[s] the general process by which traditional movements are absorbed into modern ones and modern movements sometimes acquire traditional characteristics. It... reveal[s] a kind of half-way stage reached by the rural population in its perennial struggle against exploitation and suffering. Traditional ... ideas have not been done away with totally, but continue to linger in many cases of agrarian disturbances. They even managed to incorporate themselves in the new ideological framework of the broader modern movement.


The coverage is thus both thorough and circumstantial, and the presentation clear; a model of descriptive social history. Whether the sorting of cases into general classifications is well advised is, however, more questionable. It is not merely that the types leak (as Sartono admits), so that instances devoid of features from all the categories are extremely hard to find and the 'normal' case is hopelessly mixed. Nor is it that they seem abstract and arbitrary, unanchored in theory and uncertain in application: ad hoc devices to keep the data in order. Fundamentally, it is that looking at Javanese peasant movements in such a way tends to obscure the general dynamics of Javanese rural society in this century and the last and replace it with a stereotype. In particular, it tends to lead to a Whig view of rural history—flagrant in the quotation just cited, but pervasive through the book—as a progress from traditional darkness to modern light, the replacement of presageful but archaic, irrational reactions by advanced and more effective rational ones.


It is not necessary to doubt change, and in some respects at least for the better, to be sceptical of so simple a view of how it occurred. One may rightly raise the question whether the phenomena Professor Sartono has so carefully uncovered are not both more integral (and, indeed, some of his movements less independent) than his type atomism suggests, and more persisting features of the Javanese scene, rooted in the more slowly changing aspects of rural culture—its syncretism, its collectivism, its factionalism, and its mysticism. Indeed, the formation of rather generally structured and impermanent groups combining elements of social protest, sectarian reformism, religious revivalism, and political messianism does not seem to have become all that less prominent a characteristic of the Javanese scene now that the present has managed at length to arrive, and indeed may have in fact intensified in recent years. Professor Sartono's superb researches may have led him to a deeper strain of Indonesian social history than his primitive conceptual scheme has enabled him to recognize.



Clifford Geertz; The Institute for Advanced Study; Princeton, New Jersey.


Book review, on: Protest Movements in Rural Java. By Sartono Kartodirdjo;
in: Journal of Development Studies (London/UK: Frank Cass), vol. 12 no. 2 (1976), pp. 284-286


online source: EBSCO, © 2002


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