The Politics of Meaning


Clifford Geertz





One of the things that everyone knows but no one can quite think how to demonstrate is that a country's politics reflect the design of its culture. At one level, the proposition is indubitable--where else could French politics exist but France? Yet, merely to state it is to raise doubts. Since 1945, Indonesia has seen revolution, parliamentary democracy, civil war, presidential autocracy, mass murder, and military rule. Where is the design in that?


Between the stream of events that make up political life and the web of beliefs that comprises a culture it is difficult to find a middle term. On the one hand, everything looks like a clutter of schemes and surprises; on the other, like a vast geometry of settled judgments. What joins such a chaos of incident to such a cosmos of sentiment is extremely obscure, and how to formulate it is even more so. Above all, what the attempt to link politics and culture needs is a less breathless view of the former and a less aesthetic view of the latter.


In the several essays which make up Culture and Politics in Indonesia, the sort of theoretical reconstruction necessary to produce such a change of perspective is undertaken, mainly from the cultural side by Benedict Anderson and Taufik Abdullah, mainly from the political by Daniel Lev and G. William Liddle, more or less evenly from both by Sartono Kartodirdjo. 1 Whether the subject be law or party organization, the Javanese idea of power or the Minangkabau idea of change, ethnic conflict or rural radicalism, the effort is the same: to render Indonesian political life intelligible by seeing it, even at its most erratic, as informed by a set of conceptions--ideals, hypotheses, obsessions, judgments--derived from concerns which far transcend it, and to give reality to those conceptions by seeing them as having their existence not in some gauzy world of mental forms but in the concrete immediacy of partisan struggle. Culture, here, is not cults and customs, but the structures of meaning through which men give shape to their experience; and politics is not coups and constitutions, but one of the principal arenas in which such structures publicly unfold. The two being thus reframed, determining the connection between them becomes a practicable enterprise, though hardly a modest one.


The reason the enterprise is immodest, or anyway especially venturesome, is that there is almost no theoretical apparatus with which to conduct it; the whole field--what shall we call it? thematic analysis? --is wedded to an ethic of imprecision. Most attempts to find general cultural conceptions displayed in particular social contexts are content to be merely evocative, to place a series of concrete observations in immediate juxtaposition and to pull out (or read in) the pervading element by rhetorical suggestion. Explicit argument is rare because there are, as much by design as neglect, hardly any terms in which to cast it, and one is left with a collection of anecdotes connected by insinuation, and with a feeling that though much has been touched little has been grasped. 2

The scholar who wishes to avoid this sort of perfected impressionism has thus to build his theoretical scaffold at the same time that he conducts his analysis. That is why the authors in the [Holt] book have such diverse approaches--why Liddle moves out from group conflicts and Anderson from art and literature; why Lev's puzzle is the politicization of legal institutions, Sartono's the durability of popular millenarianism, Abdullah's the fusion of social conservatism and ideological dynamism. The unity here is neither of topic nor argument, but of analytical style--of aim and of the methodological issues the pursuit of such an aim entails.


These issues are multiple, involving questions of definition, verification, causality, representativeness, objectivity, measurement, communication. But at base they all boil down to one question: how to frame an analysis of meaning--the conceptual structures individuals use to construe experience--which will be at once circumstantial enough to carry conviction and abstract enough to forward theory. These are equal necessities; choosing one at the expense of the other yields blank descriptivism or vacant generality. But they also, superficially at least, pull in opposite directions, for the more one invokes details the more he is bound to the peculiarities of the immediate case, the more one omits them the more he loses touch with the ground on which his arguments rest. Discovering how to escape this paradox--or more exactly, for one never really escapes it, how to keep it at bay--is what, methodologically, thematic analysis is all about.


And it is, consequently, what, beyond the particular findings concerning particular subjects, the [Holt] book is about. Each study struggles to draw broad generalizations out of special instances, to penetrate deeply enough into detail to discover something more than detail. The strategies adopted to accomplish this are again various, but the effort to make parochial bodies of material speak for more than themselves is uniform. The scene is Indonesia; but the goal, still far enough away to sustain ambition, is an understanding of how it is that every people gets the politics it imagines.





Indonesia is an excellent place to take up such a quest. As heir to Polynesian, Indic, Islamic, Chinese, and European traditions, it probably has more hieratic symbols per square foot than any other large land expanse in the world, and moreover it had in Sukarno (who it is a mistake to think was untypical in anything but his genius) a man both wildly anxious and supremely equipped to assemble those symbols into a pan-doctrinal Staatsreligion for the new-formed Republic. "Socialism, Communism, incarnations of Vishnu Murti," a newspaper call to arms cried in 1921: "Abolish capitalism, propped up by the imperialism that is its slave! God grant Islam the strength that it may succeed."3 "I am a follower of Karl Marx. . . . I am also a religious man," Sukarno announced some decades later; "I have made myself the meeting place of all trends and ideologies. I have blended, blended, and blended them until finally they became the present Sukarno."4


Yet, on the other hand, the very density and variety of symbolic reference has made of Indonesian culture a swirl of tropes and images into which more than one incautious observer has merely disappeared.5 With so much meaning lying scattered openly around it is nearly impossible to frame an argument relating political events to one or another strain of it which is totally lacking in plausibility. In one sense, seeing cultural reflections in political activities is extremely easy in Indonesia; but this only makes the isolation of precise connections that much more difficult. Because in this garden of metaphors almost any hypothesis discerning a form of thought in a piece of action has a certain logic, developing hypotheses that have truth as well is more a matter of resisting temptations than of seizing opportunities.


The main temptation to be resisted is jumping to conclusions and the main defense against it is explicitly to trace out the sociological links between cultural themes and political developments, rather than to move deductively from one to the other. Ideas--religious, moral, practical, aesthetic--must, as Max Weber, among others, never tired of insisting, be carried by powerful social groups to have powerful social effects; someone must revere them, celebrate them, defend them, impose them. They have to be institutionalized in order to find not just an intellectual existence in society, but, so to speak, a material one as well. The ideological wars which have wracked Indonesia for the past twenty-five years must be seen not, as they so often have, as clashes of opposed mentalities--Javanese "mysticism" versus Sumatran "pragmatism," Indic "syncretism" versus Islamic "dogmatism"--but as the substance of a struggle to create an institutional structure for the country that enough of its citizens would find sufficiently congenial to allow it to function.


Hundreds of thousands of political dead testify to the fact that nowhere nearly enough citizens did so, and it is questionable how far they do so now. Organizing a cultural hodgepodge into a workable polity is more than a matter of inventing a promiscuous civil religion to blunt its variety. It requires either the establishment of political institutions within which opposing groups can safely contend, or the elimination of all groups but one from the political stage. Neither of these has, so far, been more than marginally effected in Indonesia; the country has been as incapable of totalitarianism as of constitutionalism. Rather, almost every institution in the society--army, bureaucracy, court, university, press, party, religion, village--has been swept by great tremors of ideological passion which seem to have neither end nor direction. If Indonesia gives any overall impression, it is of a state manquÈ, a country which, unable to find a political form appropriate to the temper of its people, stumbles on apprehensively from one institutional contrivance to the next.


A great part of the problem, of course, is that the country is archipelagic in more than geography. Insofar as it displays a pervasive temper, it is one riven with internal contrasts and contradictions. There are the regional differences (the rhetorical combativeness of the Minangkabau and the reflective elusiveness of the Javanese, for example); there are the faith-and-custom "ethnic" divergences among even closely related groups, as in the East Sumatran "boiling pot"; there are the class conflicts reflected in the nativistic movement material and the vocational ones reflected in that of the struggle for a workable legal system. There are racial minorities (Chinese and Papuans); religious minorities (Christians and Hindus); local minorities (Djakarta Batak, Surabaja Madurese). The nationalist slogan, "One People, One Country, One Language," is a hope, not a description.


The hope that the slogan represents, however, is not necessarily unreasonable. Most of the larger nations of Europe grew out of a cultural heterogeneity hardly less marked; if Tuscans and Sicilians can live together in the same state and conceive of themselves as natural compatriots, so can Javanese and Minangkabau. Rather than the mere fact of internal diversity, it has been the refusal, at all levels of the society, to come to terms with it that has impeded Indonesia's search for effective political form. The diversity has been denied as a colonial slander, deplored as a feudal remnant, clouded over with ersatz syncretisms, tendentious history, and utopian fantasies, while all the time the bitter combat of groups who see in one another rivals not merely for political and economic power, but for the right to define truth, justice, beauty, and morality, the very nature of reality, rages on virtually unguided by formal political institutions. By acting as though it were culturally homogeneous like Japan or Egypt instead of heterogeneous like India or Nigeria, Indonesia (or more exactly, I suppose, the Indonesian elite) has managed to create anarchic politics of meaning outside the established structures of civil government.


This politics of meaning is anarchic in the literal sense of unruled, not the popular one of unordered. As each of the essays in the [Holt] volume shows in its own way, what I have elsewhere called "the struggle for the real," the attempt to impose upon the world a particular conception of how things at bottom are and how men are therefore obliged to act, is, for all the inability thus far to bring it to workable institutional expression, not a mere chaos of zeal and prejudice. It has a shape, trajectory, and force of its own.


The political processes of all nations are wider and deeper than the formal institutions designed to regulate them; some of the most critical decisions concerning the direction of public life are not made in parliaments and presidiums; they are made in the unformalized realms of what Durkheim called "the collective conscience" (or "consciousness"; the useful ambiguity of conscience is unavailable in English). But in Indonesia the pattern of official life and the framework of popular sentiment within which it sits have become so disjoined that the activities of government, though centrally important, seem nevertheless almost beside the point, mere routinisms convulsed again and again by sudden irruptions from the screened-off (one almost wants to say, repressed) political course along which the country is in fact moving.


The more accessible events of public life, political facts in the narrower sense, do about as much to obscure this course as to reveal it. Insofar as they reflect it, as of course they do, they do so obliquely and indirectly, as dreams reflect desires or ideologies interests; discerning it is more like interpreting a constellation of symptoms than tracing a chain of causes. The studies in the [Holt] book therefore diagnose and assess, rather than measure and predict. Fragmentation in the party system bespeaks an intensification of ethnic self-consciousness; enfeeblement of formal law, renewed commitment to conciliatory methods of dispute settlement. Behind the moral quandaries of provincial modernizers lie complexities in traditional accounts of tribal history; behind the explosiveness of rural protest, enthrallment with cataclysmic images of change; behind the theatrics of Guided Democracy, archaic conceptions of the sources of authority. Taken together, these exercises in political exegesis begin to expose the faint outlines of what the Indonesian Revolution in fact amounts to: an effort to construct a modern state in contact with its citizens' conscience; a state with which they can, in both senses of the word, come to an understanding. One of the things Sukarno was right about, though in fact he had something rather different in mind, was that it is, this Revolution, not over.





The classical problem of legitimacy--how do some men come to be credited with the right to rule over others--is peculiarly acute in a country in which long-term colonial domination created a political system that was national in scope but not in complexion. For a state to do more than administer privilege and defend itself against its own population, its acts must seem continuous with the selves of those whose state it pretends it is, its citizens--to be, in some stepped-up, amplified sense, their acts. This is not a mere question of consensus. A man does not have to agree with his government's acts to see himself as embodied in them any more than he has to approve of his own acts to acknowledge that he has, alas, himself performed them. It is a question of immediacy, of experiencing what the state "does" as proceeding naturally from a familiar and intelligible "we." A certain amount of psychological sleight of hand is always required on the part of government and citizenry in this in the best of cases. But when a country has been governed for two hundred years or so by foreigners, it is, even after they have been displaced, a yet more difficult trick.


The political tasks that loomed so formidable as independence was reached for--ending the domination of outside powers, creating leadership cadres, stimulating economic growth, and sustaining a sense of national unity--have indeed turned out to be that and more since independence has been gained. But they have been joined by another task, less clearly envisaged then and less consciously recognized now, that of dispelling the aura of alienness from the institutions of modern government. Much of the symbol--mongering that went on under the Sukarno regime, and which has been moderated rather than ended under its successor, was a half-deliberate attempt to close the cultural gulf between the state and society that, if not altogether created by colonial rule, had been enormously widened by it. The great crescendo of slogans, movements, monuments, and demonstrations which reached a pitch of almost hysterical intensity in the early sixties was, in part anyway, designed to make the nation-state seem indigenous. As it was not indigenous, disbelief and disorder spiraled upward together, and Sukarno was destroyed, along with his regime, in the collapse which ensued.


Even without the complicating factor of colonial rule, however, the modern state would seem alien to local tradition in a country like Indonesia, if only because such a state's conception of itself as a specialized instrument for the coordination of all aspects of public life has no real counterpart in such a tradition. Traditional rulers, and not only in Indonesia, may have been, when they could manage it and were so inclined, despotic, arbitrary, selfish, unresponsive, exploitative, or merely cruel (though, under the influence of the Cecil B. DeMille view of history, the degree to which they were has commonly been exaggerated); but they never imagined themselves, nor did their subjects imagine them, to be executives of an omnicompetent state. Mostly they governed to proclaim their status, protect (or, where possible, enlarge) their privileges, and exercise their style of life; and insofar as they regulated matters beyond their immediate reach--which was commonly very little--they did so only derivatively, as a reflex of concerns more stratificatory than properly political. The notion that the state is a machine whose function is to organize the general interest comes into such a context as something of a strange idea.


So far as popular reaction is concerned, the results of that strangeness have been the usual ones: a degree of curiosity, a degree more of fear, heightened expectancy, and a great deal of puzzlement. It was to such a confusion of sentiment that Sukarno's symbol-wielding was a failed response; but the various matters discussed in the [Holt ] book are others, less concocted so less ephemeral. In them, one can see in concrete detail what being abruptly confronted with the prospect of an activist, comprehensive central government--what de Jouvenel has called "the power-house state"--means to a people used to masters but not to managers.6


Such a confrontation means that the received concepts of justice, power, protest, authenticity, identity (as well, of course, as a host of others these essays do not explicitly treat) are all thrown into jeopardy by the requirements, or seeming such, of effective national existence in the contemporary world. This conceptual dislocation--the putting into question of the most familiar frames of moral and intellectual perception and the vast shift of sensibility thereby set in motion--forms the proper subject of cultural studies of new state politics. "What this country needs," Sukarno once said, in a characteristic burst of linguistic syncretism, "is ke-up-to-date-an." He didn't quite give it that, merely gestures toward it, but they were gestures graphic enough to convince all but the most provincial of Indonesians that not just the form but the nature of government had changed and that they had, in result, some mental adjustments to make.7





This sort of social changing of the mind is a great deal easier to sense than to document, not only because its manifestations are so various and indirect, but because it is so hesitant, shot through with uncertainty and contradiction. For every belief, practice, ideal, or institution that is condemned as backward, one, often the same one and by the same people, is celebrated as the very essence of contemporaneity; for every one attacked as alien, one, again often the same one, is hailed as a sacred expression of the national soul.


There is, in such matters, no simple progression from "traditional" to "modern," but a twisting, spasmodic, unmethodical movement which turns as often toward repossessing the emotions of the past as disowning them. Some of Sartono's peasants read their future in medieval myths, some in Marxist visions, some in both. Lev's lawyers waver between the formal dispassion of Justice's scales and the sheltering paternalism of the banyan tree. The publicist whose career Abdullah traces as an example of his society's reaction to the challenge of modernism, editorializes simultaneously for the restoration of "the genuine Minangkabau adat [custom]," and for headlong entry "unto the path of kemadjuan [progress.]." In Java, Anderson finds "archaic magical" and "developed-rational" theories of power existing side by side; in Sumatra, Liddle finds localism and nationalism advancing pari passu.


This undeniable, commonly denied, fact--that whatever the curve of progress may be, it fits no graceful formula--disables any analysis of modernization which starts from the assumption that it consists of the replacement of the indigenous and obsolescent with the imported and up-to-date. Not just in Indonesia , but throughout the Third World-throughout the world--men are increasingly drawn to a double goal: to remain themselves and to keep pace, or more, with the twentieth century. A tense conjunction of cultural conservatism and political radicalism is at the nerve of new state nationalism, and nowhere more conspicuously so than in Indonesia. What Abdullah says of the Minangkabau--that accommodating to the contemporary world has required "continuing revision of the meaning of modernization," involved "new attitudes toward tradition itself and [an unending] search for a suitable basis of modernization"--is said, in one manner or another, throughout each of the essays. What they reveal is not a linear advance from darkness to light, but a continuous redefinition of where "we" (peasants, lawyers, Christians, Javanese, Indonesians . . .) have been, now are, and have yet to go--images of group history, character, evolution, and destiny that have only to emerge to be fought over.


In Indonesia, such bending backward and forward at the same time has been apparent from the beginning of the nationalist movement and merely grown more marked since. 8 Sarekat Islam, the first really sizable organization (its membership increased from approximately four thousand in 1912 to approximately four hundred thousand in 1914), appealed at once to visionary mystics, Islamic purists, Marxist radicals, trading-class reformers, paternal aristocrats, and messianic peasants. When this commotion disguised as a party came to pieces, as it did in the twenties, it separated not into the "reactionary" and "progressive" wings of revolutionary mythology, but into a whole series of factions, movements, ideologies, clubs, conspiracies--what Indonesians call aliran (streams)--seeking to fasten one or another form of modernism on to one or another strand of tradition.


"Enlightened" gentry--physicians, lawyers, schoolteachers, sons of civil servants--attempted to marry "spiritual" East and "dynamic" West by fusing a sort of cultic aestheticism with an evolutionary, noblesse oblige program of mass uplift. Rural Koranic religious teachers sought to transform anti-Christian sentiments into anticolonial ones, and themselves into links between urban activism and village piety. Muslim modernists tried at once to purify popular faith of heterodox accretions and work out a properly Islamic program of social and economic reform. Left-wing revolutionaries sought to identify rural collectivism and political, peasant discontent and class struggle; Eurasian half-castes to reconcile their Dutch and Indonesian identities and provide a rationale for multiracial independence; Western-educated intellectuals to reconnect themselves to Indonesian reality by tapping indigenous, antifeudal (and to some extent anti-Javanese) attitudes in the interests of democratic socialism. Everywhere one looks, in the fevered days of the nationalist awakening (ca. 1912-1950), someone is matching advanced ideas and familiar sentiments in order to make some variety of progress look less disruptive and some pattern of custom less dispensable.


The heterogeneity of Indonesian culture and that of modern political thought thus played into one another to produce an ideological situation in which a highly generalized consensus at one level--that the country must collectively storm the heights of modernity while clinging, also collectively, to the essentials of its heritage--was countered on another by an accelerating dissensus as to what direction the heights should be stormed from and what the essentials were. After Independence, the fragmentation of the elite and the active sectors of the population along such lines was completed as the society regrouped into competing familles d'esprit, some huge, some minute, some in between, which were concerned not just with governing Indonesia but with defining it.


Thus, a paralyzing incongruity grew up between the ideological framework within which the formal institutions of the would-be powerhouse state were constructed and operated and that within which the overall political formation of the, also would-be, nation took shape; between the "blended, blended, blended" integralism of Guided Democacy, the Pantjasila, Nasakom, and the like, and the "boiling pot" compartmentalization of popular sentiment.9 The contrast was not a simple center and periphery one--integralism in Djakarta, compartmentalism in the provinces; but it appeared, and in not very different form, on all levels of the political system. From the village coffee shops where Sartono's peasants laid their small plans to the bureaus of Merdeka Square where Anderson's "ministeriales" laid their larger ones, political life proceeded in a curious kind of double-level way, in which a rivalry, again not just for power but for the power above power--the right to specify the terms under which direction of the state, or even mere official existence, is granted--went on, wrapped in the generous phrases of common struggle, historic identity, and national brotherhood.


That is, political life proceeded in this way until October 1, 1965. The bungled coup and its savage aftermath--perhaps a quarter of a million dead in three or four months--brought to open view the cultural disarray fifty years of political change had created, advanced, dramatized, and fed upon.10 The wash of nationalist cliches soon clouded the scene again, for one can no more stare at the abyss than at the sun. But there can be very few Indonesians now who do not know that, however clouded, the abyss is there, and they are scrambling along the edge of it, a change of awareness which may prove to be the largest step in the direction of a modern mentality they have yet made.





Whatever social scientists might desire, there are some social phenomena whose impact is immediate and profound, even decisive, but whose significance cannot effectively be assessed until well after their occurrence; and one of these is surely the eruption of great domestic violence. The Third World has seen a number of these eruptions over the twenty-five years it has been coming into being--the partition of India, the Congo mutiny, Biafra, Jordan. But none can have been more shattering than the Indonesian, nor more difficult to evaluate. Since the terrible last months of 1965, all scholars of Indonesia, and especially those trying to penetrate the country's character, are in the uncomfortable situation of knowing that a vast internal trauma has shaken their subject but not knowing, more than vaguely, what its effects have been. The sense that something has happened for which no one was prepared, and about which no one yet quite knows what to say, haunts the essays [in the Holt volume], making them read, sometimes, like the agon of a play with the crisis left out. But there is no help for this: the crisis is still happening.11


Of course, some of the outward effects are clear. The Indonesian Communist Party, on its claims the third largest in the world, has been, at least for the present, essentially destroyed. There is military rule. Sukarno was first immobilized, then, with that controlled, relentless grace the Javanese call halus, deposed, and has since died. The "confrontation" with Malaysia has ended. The economic situation has markedly improved. Domestic security, at the cost of large-scale political detentions, has come to virtually the entire country for almost the first time since Independence. The flamboyant desperation of what now is called the "Old Order" has been replaced by the muted desperation of the "New Order." But the question "What has changed?" is still, when it refers to the culture, a baffling one. Surely, so great a catastrophe, especially as it mostly occurred in villages among villagers, can hardly have left the country unmoved, yet how far and how permanently it has been moved is impossible to say. Emotions surface extremely gradually, if extremely powerfully, in Indonesia: "The crocodile is quick to sink," they say, "but slow to come up." Both writings on Indonesian politics and those politics themselves are permeated right now with the inconfidence derived from waiting for that crocodile to come up.


In the history of comparable political seizures, however (and when one looks at the history of the modern world, they are easy enough to find), some outcomes seem more common than others. Perhaps the most common is a failure of nerve, a constriction of the sense of possibility. Massive internal bloodlettings like the American or the Spanish civil wars have often subjected political life to the sort of muffled panic we associate with psychic trauma more generally: obsession with signs, most of them illusory, that "it is about to happen again"; perfection of elaborate precautions, most of them symbolic, to see that it doesn't; and irremovable conviction, most of it visceral, that it is going to anyway-all resting, perhaps, on the half-recognized desire that it do so and to get it over with. For a society, as for an individual, an inner catastrophe, especially when it occurs in the process of a serious attempt to change, can be both a subtly addictive and a profoundly rigidifying force.


This is particularly so (and here the analogy--which, as public disasters refract through private lives, is not entirely an analogy--with individual response continues) when the truth of what has happened is obscured by convenient stories, and passions are left to flourish in the dark. Accepted for what they were, as terrible as they were, the events of 1965 could free the country from many of the illusions which permitted them to happen, and most especially the illusion that the Indonesian population is embarked as a body on a straight-line march to modernity, or that, even guided by the Koran, the Dialectic, the Voice in the Quiet, or Practical Reason, such a march is possible. Denied, by means of another cooked-up ideological synthesis, the half-suppressed memory of the events will perpetuate and infinitely widen the gulf between the processes of government and the struggle for the real. At an enormous cost, and one which need not have been paid, the Indonesians would seem to an outsider to have now demonstrated to themselves with convincing force the depth of their dissensus, ambivalence, and disorientation. Whether the demonstration has in fact been convincing to the insiders, for whom such revelations about themselves must inevitably be terrifying, is another question; indeed, it is the central question of Indonesian politics at this juncture of history. For all their before-thestorm quality, the studies in the [ Holt] volume contribute, if not an answer, at least a sense of what the probabilities are.


However great a disruptive force the massacres may (or may not) have been, the conceptual matrix within which the country has been moving cannot have changed radically, if only because it is deeply embedded in the realities of Indonesian social and economic structure, and they have not. Java is still spectacularly overcrowded, the export of primary products is still the main source of foreign exchange, there are still as many islands, languages, religions, and ethnic groups as there ever were (even, now that West New Guinea has been added, a few more), and the cities are still full of intellectuals without places, the towns of merchants without capital, and the villages of peasants without land.12


Lev's lawyers, Abdullah's reformers, Liddle's politicians, Sartono's peasants, and Anderson's functionaries, as well as the soldiers who now police them, face the same range of problems with about the same range of alternatives and the same stock of prejudices as they did before the holocaust. Their frame of mind may be different--after such horrors it is hard to believe that it is not--but the society within which they are enclosed and the structures of meaning which inform it are largely the same. Cultural interpretations of politics are powerful to the degree that they can survive, in an intellectual sense, the events of politics; and their ability to do that depends on the degree to which they are well grounded sociologically, not on their inner coherence, their rhetorical plausibility, or their aesthetic appeal. When they are properly anchored, whatever happens reinforces them; when they are not, whatever happens explodes them.


So what is written [in the Holt volume] is, if not predictive, still testable. The worth of these essays--the authors of which may or may not agree with my interpretation of their findings--will, in the long run, be determined less by their fit to the facts from which they are derived, though it is that which recommends them to our attention in the first place, than by whether they illumine the future course of Indonesian politics. As the consequences of the last decade appear in the next, we shall begin to see whether what has been said here about Indonesian culture is penetrating or wrongheaded, whether it enables us to construe what happens in terms of it or leaves us straining for understanding against the grain of what we thought was so. Meanwhile, we can only wait for the crocodile along with everyone else, recalling, as a bar to the sort of moral presumptuousness that neither Americans nor Indonesians are at this time very well positioned to affect, what Jakob Burckhardt, who perhaps deserves to be called the founder of thematic analysis, said in 1860 about the dubious business of judging peoples:

It may be possible to indicate many contrasts and shades of difference among different nations, but to strike the balance of the whole is not given to human insight. The ultimate truth with respect to the character, the conscience, and the guilt of a people remains for ever a secret; if only for the reason that its defects have another side, where they reappear as peculiarities or even as virtues. We must leave those who find pleasure in passing sweeping censures on whole nations, to do so as they like. The people of Europe can maltreat, but happily not judge one another. A great nation. interwoven by its civilization, its achievements, and its fortunes with the whole life of the modern world, can afford to ignore both its advocates and its accusers. It lives on with or without the approval of theorists.13



See C. Holt, ed., Culture and Politics in Indonesia (Ithaca, 1972), in which the present essay first appeared as an "Afterword," pp. 319-336.


Perhaps the foremost, as well as the most uncompromising, practitioner of this paratactic approach to relating politics to culture is Nathan Leites. See especially his A Study of Bolshevism (Glencoe, Ill., 1953), and The Rules of the Game in Paris (Chicago, 1969).


Quoted (from Utusan Hindia) in B. Dahm, Sukarno and the Struggle for Indonesian Independence (Ithaca, 1969). p. 39.


Quoted in L. Fischer, The Story of Indonesia (New York, 1959), p. 154. For a similar statement from a public speech of Sukarno, see Dahm, Sukarno and the Struggle, p. 200.


For an example, see H. Luethy , "Indonesia Confronted," Encounter 25 (1965): 80-89; 26 (1966): 75 - 83, along with my comment "Are the Javanese Mad?" and Luethy "Reply," ibid., August 1966, pp. 86 - 90.


B. de Jouvenel, On Power (Boston, 1962).


The quotation is from Sukarno's letters attacking traditionalist Islam, written while he was in prison exile in Flores, Surat-surat Dari Endeh, eleventh letter, August 18, 1936, in K. Goenadi and H. M. Nasution, eds., Dibawah Bendera Revolusi I (Djakarta, 1959): 340.


For the history of Indonesian nationalism, on which my remarks here are but passing commentary, see J. M. Pluvier, Overzicht van de Ontwikkeling der Nationalistische Beweging in lndonesie in de Jaren 1930 tot 1942 (The Hague, 1953); A. K. Pringgodigdo, Sedjarah Pergerakan Rakjat Indonesia (Djakarta, 1950); D. M. G. Koch, Om de Vrijheid (Djakarta, 1950); Dahm, Sukarno and the Struggle; G. McT. Kahin, Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia (Ithaca, 1952); H. Benda, The Crescent and the Rising Sun: Indonesian Islam under the Japanese Occupation, 1942-1945 (The Hague, 1958); W. F. Wertheim, Indonesian Society in Transition (The Hague, 1956).


For the state ideology of the Republic until the mid-sixties, see H. Feith, "Dynamics of Guided Democracy," in R. T. McVey, ed., Indonesia (New Haven, 1963), pp. 309 - 409 ; for popular divisions, R. R. Jay, Religion and Politics in Rural Central Java, Southeast Asia Studies, Cultural Reports Series no. 12 (New Haven, 1963); G. W. Skinner, ed., Local, Ethnic and National Loyalties in Village Indonesia, Southeast Asia Studies, Cultural Report Series no. 8 (New Haven, 1959); and R. W. Liddle, Ethnicity, Party, and National Integration (New Haven, 1970). The rather schizoid political atmosphere thus created can be sensed in the debates of the constitutional convention of 1957-1958; see Tentang Dasar Negara Republik Indonesia Dalam Konstituante, 3 vols. [ Djakarta (?), 1958(?)].


The death estimate is that of John Hughes, The End of Sukarno (London, 1968), p. 189. Estimates range from 50,000 to a million; no one really knows, and the killing was on so grand a scale that to debate numbers seems obtuse. Hughes' account of the coup, the massacres, and the ascendency of Suharto, though not very analytic, is probably as reliable and evenhanded as any. For other discussions, from varying points of view, see R. Shaplen, Time Out of Hand (New York, 1969); D. S. Lev, "Indonesia 1965: The Year of the Coup," Asian Survey 6, no. 2 (1966): 103-110; W. F. Wertheim, "Indonesia Before and After the Untung Coup," Pacific Affairs 39 (1966): 115-127; B. Gunawan, Kudeta: Staatsgreep in Djakarta (Meppel, 1968); J. M. van der Kroef, "Interpretations of the 1965 Indonesian Coup: A Review of the Literature," Pacific Affairs 43, no. 4 (1970- 1971): 557-577; E. Utrecht, lndonesie's Nieuwe Orde: Ontbinding en Herkolonisatie (Amsterdam, 1970); H. P. Jones, Indonesia: The Possible Dream (New York, 1971); L. Rey, "Dossier on the Indonesian Drama," New Left Review (1966): 26-40; A. C. Brackman, The Communist Collapse in Indonesia (New York, 1969). To my mind, the literature on the coup, right, left, and center, has been marred by obsessive concern with the exact roles of Sukarno and of the Indonesian Communist Party in the immediate events of the plot (not unimportant issues, but more important for understanding the moment than for understanding the country), at the expense of its meaning for the development of Indonesian political consciousness.


The fact that no one predicted the massacres has sometimes been instanced as an example of the futility of social science. Many studies did stress the enormous tensions and the potential for violence in Indonesian society. Moreover, anyone who announced before the fact that a quarter of a million or so people were about to be slaughtered in three months of rice-field carnage would have been regarded, and rightly, as having a rather warped mind. What this says about reason faced with unreason is a complicated matter; but what it does not say is that reason is powerless because not clairvoyant.


It should perhaps be remarked that the external parameters have also not changed very much--China, Japan, the United States, and the Soviet Union are still more or less where and what they were, and so, for that matter, are the terms of trade. If so-called outside factors seem to have been slighted in favor of so-called inside ones [in the Holt volume], it is not because they are considered unimportant, but because in order to have local effects they must first have local expressions, and any attempt to trace them beyond such expressions to their sources would, in studies of this scale, soon get out of hand.


J. Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (New York, 1954); orig. (1860), p. 318.



Afterword: the politics of meaning, in: Holt, Claire (ed.): Culture and politics in Indonesia. Ithaca/N.Y./USA 1971: Cornell University Press, pp. 319-336.

cf. The interpretation of cultures: selected essays, New-York/N.Y./USA etc. 1973: Basic Books, pp. 311-326.


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