Ben Anderson and Indonesia—an Appreciation

Anthony Reid
Australian National University, Canberra
October 2011

That a brilliant, elite-educated young man of Anglo-Irish background should have produced the wonderful Imagined Communities1 is a source of gratitude for us all, but it is not the biggest surprise of his remarkable career. That was his decision, after graduating with a stellar classics degree from Cambridge in 1957, to go to America to study Indonesia. I will focus on the Indonesian Ben, since this part of his extraordinary achievement is less well known to the world, even though I too am a great admirer of the breakthrough represented by Imagined Communities. Since I followed a few years later some of the same trajectory (late-imperial birth; beginning school in the wartime United States; King’s College, Cambridge; the 1965 shattering of pro-Indonesian innocence; reassessing the Indonesian revolution and nationalism; the dynamic mix of alterity and reformism in our attraction to Indonesia), let me try to recapture just how impressive some of his giant steps were.

Let us return to the portentious decisions that this immensely talented and already cosmopolitan Cambridge graduate took in 1957—first to go to Cornell, and second to study Indonesia there. What motivated these decisions was clearly in part an alienation from the English identity that Eton and Cambridge had offered him. As he says, “Though I was educated in England from the age of eleven, it was difficult to imagine myself English.”2 He found a natural empathy with, as well as interest in, the many Asians studying at Cambridge, and his first traumatic politicization on the side of the underdog came in a demonstration by chiefly South Asian students against Britain’s 1956 invasion of Suez. “My spectacles were smacked off my face by a loutish group singing ‘God Save the Queen,’ and so, by chance, I joined the column of the assaulted.”3 Soon after he accepted a suggestion from Cornell, through a school friend, to become “Chief Teaching Assistant” in its Department of Government—not at first a graduate student at all. “The move toward Asia through America felt like an exhilarating break with the past.”4 But George Kahin’s example of committed scholarship on the side of the new Southeast Asian nationalisms proved irresistible, and young Ben threw himself into learning Indonesian, Dutch, and the marvels of Javanese culture.

The first of his publications to startle me with its lucidity was a 1961 “Interim Report,” compiled just before he embarked for the field in 1961, modestly called “Some Aspects of Indonesian Politics under the Japanese Occupation.”5 What impressed me as I looked for sources to teach Indonesian history in Malaysia was its clear-eyed analysis of the vital importance of the Japanese as Indonesia’s last colonial influence, with all the ideological conflicts and turf battles that bedevil any such power in its final stages. On return from fieldwork in Java he presented at a 1965 AAS Conference panel a dazzling affirmation of some of these ideas, published the following year as “Japan: ‘The Light of Asia.”’6 As Harry Benda said in introducing it, this lifted “the study of the Japanese interregnum to a higher level of sophistication altogether” than what had gone before, including his own work.7 The incisive revisionism that marked all of Anderson’s subsequent work was already beautifully displayed in this delineation of the continuities and differences between European and Japanese rule. Although the fundamental techniques and prejudices were similar, the Japanese relied on a myth of extraordinary spiritual power whereas the Dutch had “relied on whiteness and the mystique of zakelijkheid [businesslike pragmatism]”:

The kabuki, with its mysterious silences, lightening changes of mood, terrifying grimaces, spectacular acrobatics and sumptuous pageantry, loomed bizarrely behind the ostentatious secrecy, political melodrama, public ritual and carefully random terror of Japanese military rule. 8

His formative two-and-a-half years in Java began what he later labelled “a sort of love affair with ‘traditional Javanese culture,’”9 rendered more fascinating even than its politics by the Cornell influence of Claire Holt, his training and predilection for literature, and friendships made in Java. The first fruits of his scholarship on return were mind-blowing not so much, perhaps, for their political arguments as for the cultural depth that underlay them. Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese (1965) was the prototype. It argued firstly that Java still had in the wayang tradition what the West had lost, “an almost universally accepted religious mythology which commands deep emotional and intellectual adherence.”10 So he put all those interminable performances in Sukarno’s palace to good use by carefully documenting each of the major figures of the Javanese Mahabharata and explaining what their ambivalent virtues meant for Javanese. His argument then became that the great diversity of role-models the wayang repertoire offered “afford a real legitimation for widely contrasting social and psychological types. In other words, tolerance is taught, and later maintained, by a mythology which informs and suffuses the whole Javanese tradition.”11

This conclusion would seem to have been cruelly disproved by events, since only weeks after its publication the September 30 coup attempt occurred that began Java’s paroxysm of violence, when around half a million Indonesians, overwhelmingly Javanese, perished in fratricidal conflict, the victims demonized by the killers. But of course things were not that simple. The final section of Anderson’s essay had pointed out that “on the tree of Javanese culture the leaves are dropping one by one,” notably through the reduction of the wayang’s subtleties and moral ambiguities to a good-versus-evil dichotomy.12 The fact that the paper has been twice reprinted shows its continuing value.

How then to explain this catastrophe that shattered all of us who had been entranced by Indonesia, but most poignantly and powerfully Ben Anderson himself? Those closest to the wayang tradition could re-read its message: “Claire Holt reminded me that the most loved part of Javanese mythology was an indigenized version of the Mahabharata, which culminates in an orgy of bloodshed between close kinsmen [i.e., the great Bharata Yudha battle]. Still, it felt like discovering that a loved one is a murderer.”13 The love remained, channeled through a host of Indonesian friends and protégées as well as the intellectual task of making sense of this. As he later put that enormous task, which animated his continuing work on nationalism, “politically, how to understand what Java and Indonesia have done to each other; morally, how to conjoin human solidarity with respect for difference; and theoretically, how to link the splendours of the imagining life with the remorseless engines of global economic and technological change.”14

The immediate result of these attempts was the “Cornell paper” on the origins of the coup, circulated to friends in January 1966, inevitably leaked to wider circles including hostile ones, and eventually published unchanged in 1971 to put the record straight, as A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia.15 While immensely valuable to everybody attempting to understand what had happened, this was a misfortune for its authors in seeming to trap them into standing by one of many possible explanations before all the evidence was in. The coup was immediately portrayed by the Indonesian military as a murderous communist grab for power, and within Indonesia this gross simplification was made the excuse for horrendous massacres of the left wing in national, local, and village politics, and was enforced as state myth that could not be questioned. Ben Anderson (with Australian Herb Feith) attended the show trials of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and coup leaders and movingly made the voice of the condemned available to a wider audience.16 Although a mature analysis of the coup attempt never happened, these tragic events dominated the rest of Anderson’s life, even more than that of the rest of us. He was banned from Indonesia from 1972 until after the fall of Suharto in 1998. The only winners from this disaster were the historiographies of Thailand and the Philippines, enriched by Anderson’s incomparable pen as his relation with Indonesia soured.

But Indonesianists would be its beneficiaries, first through his wonderfully detailed PhD dissertation at Cornell, “The Pemuda Revolution” (1967), followed by its book form, Java in a Time of Revolution. Written, as he said, after “the Indonesia I had known first and best was gone for good,”17 it had lost the optimism of George Kahin about the Indonesian revolution and its promise of democracy and modernity. But it did retain some of the millenarian hope of politicized youth everywhere in the late 1960s that their passionate visions could somehow be achieved. The national-communist Tan Malaka, marginalized by Kahin as an awkward threat to his hope of democratic modernity, was thereby redeemed as a prophetic voice. The book will remain the most reliable guide to the most formative years in Java’s history.

Even more widely influential was Anderson’s brilliantly controversial “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,” the pinnacle of his effort to show “that traditional Javanese culture did have a political theory that offered a systematic and logical explanation of political behaviour quite independent of the perspectives of modern political science and in many ways in fundamental opposition to them.”18 The key features of this Javanese understanding of power, contrasted in each case with the modern Western one, were that it was “concrete, homogeneous, constant in total quantity, and without inherent moral implications as such.”19 One of the applications of the model was that Weber’s charismatic leaders, so dominant in post-revolutionary or post-independence phases, were understood by their followers to possess “power,” each in a culturally specific sense.20 As a demonstration that culture matters in politics this was a tour de force and became immediately part of debates in social theory. Nobody else could have written it. Of course it exposed him to charges of reifying Javanese culture and undermining the fundamental assumptions of modernization theory. While arguing himself that most of the features of his Javanese model could be found in other traditional cultures, and indeed provided some more general antitheses to modern Western values, he did believe that the sum of the features he isolated “form a unique amalgam.”21 Later he was self-deprecatingly to concede that his brother Perry eventually convinced him that “Indonesians were, after all, part of the human species, and could not possibly be incomparable and unique as I had nationalistically insisted.”22 He came to see his cherished Javanese tradition as “largely a twentieth century invention.”23 Gradually, then, he found his way toward the breadth of Imagined Communities.

After the exclusion from Indonesia he produced a stellar range of revisionist essays on Thai and Filipino history, informed by his voracious engagement with Thai, Spanish, and Tagalog, added to earlier languages. Never much given to superficial generalizations about Southeast Asia, his approach to the region was the hard way, acquiring a language before he presumed to have anything important to say about the political culture. In all of this he was a remarkable goad and model for the more pedestrian Southeast Asianists who could not match either his industry or his linguistic flair. Indonesia was never forgotten, the flow of students never stopped, and the journal Indonesia, begun in 1966, for decades absorbed as much of his time as the rest of us had to spare for all our research. He was an indefatigable correspondent and nurturer of new talent, often returning pages of notes on an article submitted.

Ben Anderson has not been right about everything in the astonishing range of his writings, but he has never been dull or conventional. What marks everything he wrote is a bold originality, forcing us to rethink cherished assumptions by uncovering a neglected or suppressed voice. He has never, to my knowledge, been content to tell an audience what they wanted to hear. The task of intellectual leadership was to find the uncomfortable suppressed perspective. Even when returning to Indonesia in 1998–99, at a moment of triumph when opposition students, liberals, and Muslims had finally forced Suharto to step down, he excoriated the liberal audience that had invited him to celebrate the reopening of its flagship journal, Tempo:

I can only shake my head in disbelief at the way that the "opposition" demands that Suharto and his family be called to account for stealing so much money . . . and largely turn a blind eye to crimes a thousand times worse: systematic, planned murder on a scale never before seen in the history of the archipelago.24

For his generation and those that followed, his has been a prophetic voice.


  1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London, New York: Verso, 1983).
  2. Benedict Anderson, Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 2.
  3. Ibid., p. 1.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Benedict Anderson, Some Aspects of Indonesian Politics under the Japanese Occupation, 1944–1945 (Ithaca, NY: Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program, Dept. of Far Eastern Studies, Cornell University, 1961).
  6. Benedict Anderson, “Japan: ‘The Light of Asia,’” in Southeast Asia in World War II: Four Essays, ed. Josef Silverstein (New Haven, CT: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1966), pp. 13–50.
  7. H. J. Benda, “Introduction,” in Josef Silverstein, ed., Southeast Asia in World War II, p. iv.
  8. Anderson, “Japan,” p. 20.
  9. Anderson, Language and Power, p. 5.
  10. Benedict Anderson, Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese (Ithaca, NY: Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program, Dept. of Asian Studies, Cornell University, 1965), p. 5.
  11. Ibid., p. 26.
  12. Ibid., pp. 27–29.
  13. Anderson, Language and Power, p. 7.
  14. Ibid., p. 8.
  15. Benedict R. Anderson and Ruth T. McVey (with the assistance of Frederick P. Bunnell), A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Modern Indonesia Project, Cornell University, 1971).
  16. “Analysis of Responsibility: Defence Speech of Sudisman, General Secretary of the Indonesian Communist Party at His Trial before the Special Military Tribunal, Jakarta, 21 July, 1967,” trans. Ben Anderson (North Melbourne, Vic.: Works Co-Operative Ltd., 1975).
  17. Benedict Anderson, Java in a Time of Revolution, Occupation and Resistance, 1944–1946 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), p. xiv.
  18. Benedict Anderson, “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,” in Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 18.
  19. Ibid., p. 23.
  20. Ibid., pp. 74–76. This idea was further refined in a 1985 paper, “Further Adventures of Charisma,” reprinted in ibid., pp. 78–93.
  21. Ibid., p. 19.
  22. Ibid., pp. 9–10.
  23. Ibid., p. 12, and more carefully elaborated at pp. 194–237.
  24. As cited in Scott Sherman, “A Return to Java,” Lingua Franca 11, no. 7 (Oct. 2001).