On the Occasion of Ben Anderson Receiving the Albert O. Hirschman Prize

Charles Hirschman
University of Washington
October 2011

There are several routes to achieving academic renown. The most obvious path is to produce a new theory or interpretation that changes a field forever. The second route is a well-earned reputation for writing important empirical studies, often penned over the course of a productive career. “Important” is hard to define in the abstract, but it is clearly evident in research that resolves highly contested debates. The third, and perhaps most difficult, pathway is work that enlarges the corpus of knowledge and the horizons of scholarship. Examples include sensitively translating important manuscripts, compiling dictionaries, discovering new data sources, and inventing new methods of analysis. Many of the scholars in this third tradition may toil in obscurity for much of their careers, but their contributions are well known to those who follow in their intellectual footsteps.

Ben Anderson has achieved academic renown for doing all of the above. His breakout book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism,1 was a brilliant and original interpretation of how and why modern states have been able to mobilize popular attachments and participation. If the number of Google hits is sign of celebrity, the term, “imagined communities,” with 3,400,000 results (links) is even more famous than the name of its author. Since Imagined Communities is likely to be better known than Ben Anderson’s writings on Southeast Asia, and on Indonesia in particular, I focus here on his major empirical contributions and his work as an editor, translator, and creator of a field of interdisciplinary scholarship.

Ben Anderson’s empirical contributions define much of what we know of the workings of Indonesian history and society. His book, Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance 1944-46,2 published in 1972, is an extraordinary empirical account of the social movements, political parties, and individuals who were jockeying for leadership and influence in the early decisive days of the Indonesian revolution. He explains how and why popular aspirations for a social revolution were crushed by the leaders of the nationalist revolution. Anderson’s attention to “facts on the ground” is evident in a 41-page appendix of over 135 brief biographical sketches of key Indonesian leaders.

The massacre of between a half to one million Indonesians in 1965-66 is the turning point of modern Indonesia history and, I sense, also of Ben Anderson’s career. This enormous tragedy has not been labeled as an act of genocide, or even as the monstrous crime it was, because of the smokescreen put up by the Suharto military dictatorship that ruled Indonesia from 1966 to 1998. The victims of the massacres, mostly villagers who were sympathetic to the Indonesian Communist Party (or mistakenly thought to be so), were labeled by Suharto’s regime as thugs who tortured, murdered, and then mutilated the bodies of six prominent Indonesian generals in October 1965. The cover story, which was accepted by the international community, was that the killings of hundreds of thousands of communist sympathizers were necessary to save the country from the threat of communism.

Although violence and fear suppressed the reporting and study of what happened in 1965 and 1966, Ben Anderson (and a few other brave scholars) have exposed the major lies and cover story about events that preceded the Indonesian massacres. In an analysis largely based on available documents and local newspaper accounts, Anderson and his colleagues showed that the murders of the Indonesian generals were most likely the result of an internal military coup and that the accusation of complicity by the Indonesian Communist Party was “manufactured” by the Indonesian military.3 Many years later, Anderson was reading the transcripts of a military tribunal and came across copies of the autopsies of the six murdered Indonesian generals, which were included in an appendix to the trial record. He published a short commentary along with English translations of the autopsies.4 In contrast to the claims that the generals had been tortured and castrated by a women’s affiliate of the Indonesian Communist Party, the autopsies reported only gunshot wounds.

For his reporting of the facts of the attempted 1965 internal military coup and subsequent congressional testimony on the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, Ben Anderson was expelled from Indonesia and was not permitted to return for much of his career.5 For area studies researchers, the loss of access to the places, people, and culture of study is a very heavy professional price to pay. Although fieldwork in modern Indonesia was off limits to Ben, he continued to write about Indonesia, including new interpretations of history and on developments in Indonesian literature. He also charted a new direction in political research by becoming the most famous chronicler of the Indonesian military with his periodic articles entitled “Current Data on the Indonesian Military Elite” in the journal Indonesia. He created a database of Indonesian military officers that tracks the promotions and postings by ethnicity, cohort (year of military college graduation), and prior position. His analyses typically begin with a “big picture” sketch of whether recent military promotions and assignments reflect traditional patterns or the ascendancy of new cliques within the military or external political influences.

Some of us in Southeast Asian studies are comparativists because it is relatively straightforward to test a familiar hypothesis with statistical models and secondary data. Others work in a comparative mode because contemporary national boundaries are irrelevant for early history or because the topic (e.g., trade, war, migration) is inherently comparative. But for anthropologists or political scientists who conduct in-depth interviews and have made major investments in the study of language, cultural nuance, and localities, it is next to impossible to pick up sufficient knowledge to work in a different cultural setting. In mid-career, when many scholars are reluctant to continue fieldwork of any sort, Ben Anderson learned Thai and began a second career writing on Thai politics and literature. A few years later, he learned Tagalog and began working in the Philippines. His mastery of new languages and cultures in mid-career, as well as the publication of original research on Thailand and the Philippines, has been sufficient to raise suspicions that he has more than mortal powers.

With his founding of the journal Indonesia while still a graduate student at Cornell, Ben Anderson signaled that he intended to do more than just publish his own original scholarship on the politics of Indonesia. The aim, to create a new field, was clearly expressed in an editorial statement in the first issue:

It is intended to provide an opportunity for all those interested in Indonesia, specialists and nonspecialists alike, to exchange views and information. It has long been felt, particularly by Indonesia specialists, that too narrow a confinement within the framework of their own particular disciplines hinders an approach to Indonesia as a whole; we therefore hope that Indonesia, which will aim at the widest possible range of subject matter, may help to overcome this disadvantage.6

The pages of the journal have contained articles (traditional scholarship and commentaries) of every stripe, review essays, translations of important documents and literature, obituaries, and book reviews. The working assumption is that scholars of Indonesia are interested in (and should learn from) every field of study about the country. For more than four decades, in the pages of Indonesia and in the various other publications of Cornell’s Southeast Asian Program, Ben Anderson has done more than create a field—he has helped to create a community of scholars. Indonesianists, and by imitation many of those in modern Southeast Asian studies, are expected to stay abreast of important contributions to cultural studies and literature as well as to economics and politics. In this field, translation is not a technical task, but an art form that requires the ability to express cultural and political content with sensitivity and clarity. Reading the footnotes in one of Ben Anderson’s translations is almost as rewarding as reading the text itself. In addition to a nuanced discussion of the meaning of words, he explains how context and other events are relevant to a full understanding.

I have often thought that Ben Anderson has created an impossible model for all of us to follow. Most scholars, being mere mortals, are barely able to do one thing well. An occasional imaginative researcher with a prodigious appetite for work might be able to master two fields. But every once in a great while we are blessed to have someone who is able to create new fields of study, to regularly produce important empirical scholarship, and even to create bold theoretical syntheses. Albert O. Hirschman, Charles Tilly, and Ben Anderson are individuals of this last sort.

  1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London, New York: Verso, 1983).
  2. Benedict Anderson, Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance 1944-46 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972).
  3. Benedict 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).
  4. Benedict Anderson, “How Did the Generals Die,” Indonesia 43 (1987): 109-34.
  5. For very personal and candid appraisals of his professional career, see Benedict Anderson, “Introduction,” in Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 1-14; and “Scholarship on Indonesia and Raison d’Etat: Personal Experience,” Indonesia 62 (1996): 1-18.
  6. “Editorial Statement,” Indonesia 1 (1966): 1.