Apr 14, 2024 Last Updated 4:19 AM, Apr 12, 2024

Ideas man

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Jamie Mackie

One aspect of Herb's work on Indonesia that has attracted less attention than it deserved amongst the many tributes to him has been his creative role as a formulator of new ideas that throw a fresh beam of light upon the bewildering world around us. This role was especially in demand in pre-1965 Indonesia. Because Herb's lovable personal qualities have given rise to so many marvelous stories about his life, this more recondite side of his intellectual contribution to our understanding of Indonesia can easily be overlooked.

Much of his work on the nation's political and social turmoil since 1945 was devoted to hunting for new and better mental road maps that would help to explain the innumerable complexities involved. It was not just his unrivalled knowledge of Indonesian society and politics, both detailed and comprehensive, that made him so special, but also his passion for better explanations that would throw light on the obscure parts of it.

I recall a rather dismissive comment he once made about something written about an aspect of the Indonesian revolution which I thought was pretty good but which he waved aside as: 'Oh, that's just a piece of history'. He wanted more analysis, theorising and comparison with similar cases elsewhere - which weren't easy to find. I suppose he felt that 'mere history', or story telling, was too easy. Conceptualising was the real hard work we ought to be engaging in.

It was an odd remark from the author of The decline of constitutional democracy in Indonesia, which was such a fine blend of superb story telling about the course of events between 1950-57 and brilliantly illuminating analysis. The story will never have to be told again, apart from a few details, perhaps, because it was such excellent historical narrative. Yet what we all remember about it were his innovative ideas about relations among the elite, the political public and the newspaper-reading public, or the celebrated categorising of 1950s Indonesian political leaders into 'administrators' and 'solidarity makers'. (Years later he used to flinch whenever anyone mentioned those words in front of him. Not because he felt they were wrong, I think - which they patently weren't - or that he wanted to disown authorship of them, but because he thought they were often being used to oversimplify a more complex reality.)

Later he wrote a masterly account of 'The Dynamics of Guided Democracy' in the Ruth McVey-edited Indonesia, describing the power struggle after 1959 in terms of the Sukarno-Army-PKI triangle. Not long after that came an article modifying that picture, with the revealing subtitle 'The triangle changes shape', which hit the nail on the head exactly.

His celebrated exchange in the Journal of Asian Studies with the high-powered Harry Benda, after the latter's review of his book, became something of a classic. In reply to Benda's challenge: 'How could anyone have seriously expected democracy to succeed in Indonesia's circumstances?' Herb responded with an unusually 'historical' rather than theoretical answer: Indonesia in the 1950s had become a very different, more 'modern' place, he said, than the traditional Indonesia evoked by Benda. Surely he was right.

Most of us who heard him lecture will recall those ingenious diagrams he would scrawl across a blackboard as road-maps to the political manoeuvring (percaturan politik) relevant to the particular phase of the game he was talking about. Parties, groups and individuals were arrayed from left to right on the horizontal axis in more or less conventional class or ideological terms, and vertically according to more exotic alignments. (There is a good example on page 14 of Indonesian political thinking 1945-1965.) We used to argue endlessly about the details, but rarely about the general framework he had set before us, which was nearly always helpful to newcomers to the subject and old hands alike.

Marxist notions

One of the puzzles we talked about frequently in the early years of Indonesia's independence was that conventional Marxist notions of class analysis of society and politics did not seem applicable there, for reasons Sukarno had set out well in his 'Marhaen dan Proleter'. Most peasants were not landless, although generally poor. There did not seem to be a wealthy propertied class of landlords or a bourgeoisie. The Dutch and to a lesser extent the Chinese had played roles rather like that, but their political and economic power was crumbling in the 1950s in the face of the Indonesian revolution. So what had the revolution been all about, apart from merdeka (independence)? And what would be the social and political basis of the new Indonesia?

Wertheim had tried to give a more or less Marxist interpretation in his influential Indonesian society in transition, but it was less than fully satisfactory. Kahin sometimes implied a class basis to the political support he discerned for the main parties, but did not push the analysis very far. The PKI put forward some ingenious assertions about Indonesia's class structure, but they were questionable and left a great deal unexplained. Herb, on the other hand, took a more Weberian rather than Marxist approach to the problem, with greater success, in my view.

His previous study of political science at the University of Melbourne under Macmahon Ball and Hugo Wolfsohn had steeped him in the debates about Marxism and the Weberian alternatives to it, mainly in terms of European and Australian politics. He was far more impressed, he once told me, by Wolfsohn's deep knowledge of the Marxist classics than he was by Ball's Nationalism and communism in East Asia. But we were all preoccupied in those days with the question of how far theories and concepts appropriate to European conditions were applicable to the radically different circumstances of Asian countries. Hence the need to find alternatives, and the excitement generated by Herb's contributions to the search.

While he was at Cornell in the late 1950s Herb came under the sway of the new approaches to political and social analysis which became known as 'structural-functionalism', or more generally 'modernisation theory'. But he never really became a devotee of the latter, for he had already seen enough of the good and bad effects of Westernisation and modernisation in newly independent Indonesia not to be swept off his feet by any such panacaea. Yet he did adopt many of the concepts put forward by Lasswell, Shils, Pye, Wriggins and Arnold and Coleman, whose 1960 book on The politics of the developing areas he particularly admired. In his early years at Monash University he introduced a new wave of Australian students of Indonesian politics to these ideas.

When a reaction against modernisation theory set in later in the 1960s, leading towards a new emphasis on neocolonialist interpretations of Third World poverty, then dependency theory and later a revival of class analysis, Herb moved with it, although not so wholeheartedly and without turning away from those earlier ideas. He was very much impressed for a time with Huntington's Political order in changing societies, although far from being a disciple. In the early 1970s he was much attracted by the ideas of the maverick Ivan Illich and spent a semester at his centre at Cuernavaca. But by this time Herb's most productive phase as an ideas person was ending and he was drawing increasingly on the ideas of others (there were many more others by then, including the prolific and fertile-minded Ben Anderson), including his own graduate students, like Harold Crouch and Rex Mortimer who had a big influence on him in the 1970s. He shifted increasingly towards peace studies and theories of international order in his later years.


The timing of the reaction against modernisation theory, just after the fall of Sukarno and in the early Suharto years when the New Order was taking shape, created painful moral and intellectual dilemmas for Herb. These partly explain why his stream of new ideas about Indonesia began to dry up in later years. He was impressed and initially cheered by Suharto's success in pulling the country out of the mire of economic stagnation of the mid-1960s towards on-going economic progress. Suharto had done this largely on the advice of Herb's old friends Widjojo, Sadli and Emil Salim. But he soon became increasingly opposed to the repressive aspects of the regime and its dreadful record on human rights, especially after the seizure of East Timor in 1975. His last piece on Indonesia with an innovative thrust was his influential 1980 essay on 'repressive-developmentalist regimes', an ugly but accurate piece of phrase-making which conveyed the essence of the unbeautiful Suharto regime all too well.

Was it his dismay over Indonesia's political trajectory under Suharto that caused Herb to write so little about Indonesia after 1970, or was it disillusionment with the ideas he had derived from modernisation theory which he had earlier found so stimulating and fruitful? A bit of both, I suspect, but that is too tangled and far-reaching a question to answer briefly here. The earlier unpredictability of Indonesian politics had given way to such a dominant, heavy-handed regime that there was not much scope for new ideas. But it was always ideas - and people, especially those who generated them - that really delighted him, right to the end.

Jamie Mackie (jamiemackie@hotmail.com) is professor emeritus at the economics department of the Indonesia Project, Research School of Pacific & Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

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