The Emergence of the Modern Indonesian Elite.
ROBERT VAN NIEL. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, Inc., 1960. vii, 314 pp., bibliography, index. $6.75.


Reviewed by CLIFFORD GEERTZ, University of Chicago


It is Van Niel's express purpose, in this very illuminating account of the formative period of Indonesian nationalism, to assist in the revival of colonial history as a legitimate and valuable field of research. Traditionally, such history, so far as Indonesia is concerned, tended to view the development of colonial society largely in terms of the impact, or presumed impact, of alternative governmental policies on a given, but in itself largely undynamic, native population. Discredited by the. simple fact that the native population involved ultimately turned out to have rather more dynamism than any of the policies could contain, colonial history has fallen into some disrepute. This disrepute is not wholly undeserved, but it has had the unfortunate result that "the historian has reacted by abdicating the function of explaining change in colonial societies to the behavioral scientist whose concepts and methods of study do not equip him to function as a historian." For Van Niel, therefore, a tracing of the rise of the modern Indonesian elite during the first quarter of the present century appears to be just that sort of task through which the once high office of colonial historian can be vindicated and a new, less one-sided, view of the evolution of East Indian colonial society be constructed.


His book might well have been entitled "the rise and fall of the Ethical Movement," for he sees the period with which he is concerned as divided into two contrasting phases, one in which government activity is animated by idealistic, visionary, and liberal aims; the other in which it is animated by realistic, ungenerous, and conservative ones. First there appears, at the turn of the century, a new orientation in the colonial relationship, one which attempts to recognize, as Wilhelmina puts it in her 1901 speech from the throne, the Netherlands' "ethical obligation and moral responsibility to the peoples of the East Indies." And then, after this policy has over two decades led initially to a gradual acceleration of change in native society, including the appearance of the first nationalist stirrings, and subsequently, as these stirrings become more ominous rumblings, to the "rampant radicalism" of the violent twenties, there occurs the quiet, unheralded, even unacknowledged abandonment of this self-consciously (and somewhat self-congratulatory) high-minded orientation for one which "distrusted the Indonesian organizational movements, opposed any large extension of powers to the Indonesians, and favored the Europeanization of the East Indian government." The grand and glorious mission, upon which Van Niel says the ethici conceived themselves to be embarked-"the task of helping the Indonesian people to help themselves to the greatness of Western culture"-dissolves into the disillusioned bitterness of the last of the ethici Governor Generals, van Limburg Stirum as, exasperated by the Indonesian nationalists' inveterate tendency to respond to concessions by intensifying opposition, he warns them evenly in 1919: "whoever ... leave(s) the path oflegality bites on iron."


Drawing on personal interviews with surviving participants in the events he describes, as well as conventional historical sources, Van Niel presents a carefully detailed and, although he occasionally writes as if he were himself the last of the ethici ("In a sense [the Reform Commission Report of 1920] is also a tragic piece, for coming when it did, it could only serve as an epilogue to what had been a glorious epoch in Dutch colonial policy"), reasonably objective picture of the evolution of colonial policy from 1900 to 1927, and of the alterations in East Indian society which accompanied it. So far as the Indonesian side of the process is concerned he finds, even as early as 1900, the first signs of what becomes his dominant theme: the formation of a "functional elite" of Western trained intellectuals and professional men from the lower ranks of the traditional native civil servant, or prijaji, class. The result of this development was a lowering of the upper pri'jaji, who clung to traditional hereditary claims to status, and a raising of the lower, who grasped eagerly the new opportunities offered by nonhereditary ones; a trend which continued slowly, evenly, and irresistibly through the whole of the first quarter of the century as Western-type schools and technically demanding administrative posts for Indonesians gradually opened up. It is out of this evolutionary process of restratification that "the modern Indonesian elite" emerged. But as it was "not really a new elite, but rather an extension of the old," it tended, too, to be conservative, pragmatic, and conciliatory: "As long as Dutch authority was unshaken, they stayed with it and sought their future within the colonial system, limiting their demands to attainable objectives within the existing system. Until they gave their support, the [more aggressive] Indonesian political leaders would remain only symbols."


Despite the fact that, in the event the bulk of the new prijaji never did give their support but the political leaders triumphed all the same, this is a persuasive, enlightening, well-documented thesis. Less persuasive, however, is Van Niel's attempt to see this restratification process-and, in fact, the nationalist movement generally-to a significant extent the child of the Ethical Policy. Perhaps it is true that "the Indonesian leaders during this period had gone far in accepting the ideals of the Ethical Policy ... (and) these ideals served the leaders as keys for operation in the Western sphere of life." But then again, perhaps it is not. For, the question of whether it is appropriately referred to as "glorious" aside, two decades is rather short for an epoch even in this eventful century; and as Van Niel never systematically demonstrates the precise way in which the ideas of the ethici were transformed into dynamic social forces, he might be hard put to defend against a counter-argument that the Ethical Policy represented but a brief, ineffectual interlude in an enduring pattern of relationships between colonizer and colonized, a momentary attack of guilt feelings and inner doubts on the part of a few highly placed colonial officials and advisors, and little more. But whichever view, or neither, may be correct, the important point is that the determination of the precise relationship between government policy decisions and broader socio-cultural changes is the cardinal analytic problem facing any colonial historian, new or old. It is, therefore, unfortunate that while managing to rid himself of so many other ghosts of the past, Van Niel has not been able to exorcise as well the false opposition between history and (behavioral) science and so has cut himself off from the very methods and concepts by means of which this cardinal problem could have been effectively approached.


Book Review, in: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Jun., 1961), 604-606.


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