I don’t read a lot of history, contemporary or otherwise, and when I do, it is usually in the area of political economy. In recent years, for instance, I have delighted at the scholarship and intellect of Eric Hobsbawm. But what always strikes me about history is how perfect our vision can be from the distance of time. Not so if you are closer, and so I can forgive J. D. Legge my single criticism of his book, Sukarno – A Political Biography, which is its lack of overview. Legge published the book in 1972 and so did not have the luxury of 35 years of clarifying hindsight that we have today.

J. D. Legge’s biography charts the life and career of Sukarno in intricate detail. Particularly strong are the descriptions of the internal machinations and wheeler dealing amongst the Indonesian political elite. Sukarno is presented as one of the major political figures of the twentieth century. If anyone should doubt this, then recall that the terms “Third World” and “Non-Aligned”, terms that structured our thinking about the world for decades and perhaps still do, would probably not have existed if Sukarno had not promoted them. The former arose out of the 1955 Bandung conference, which Sukarno hosted, and the latter out of continued initiatives involving the Indonesian president. Furthermore Sukarno’s significance for the century is also underlined by the fact that the aftermath of the coup that ousted him led to the murder of 250,000 people, while the president himself was allowed to live out his last years and die a natural death. Legge stops short of laying the ultimate responsibility for these deaths at Sukarno’s door, and neither can he be certain about the president’s relation to the coup. True, he lost power as a result, but he did not lose his life. He lost most of his dignity, but remained such an esteemed figure after 50 years in politics that he retained at least a figurehead status up to his death.

A point that Legge underplays, however, is the relationship between the nationalism that formed the basis of Sukarno’s politics and the pragmatism that sought inevitably loose alliances to both define and promote it. One such Sukarno initiative in particular, NASAKOM, may have been responsible ultimately for precipitating the coup and even causing the slaughter.

Sukarno was almost as old as the century, being born in June 1901 in East Java. Legge makes an interesting point about his parents, who met in Singharaja, Bali, while his father was a teacher there. The father was Javanese, a member of the aristocratic priyayi class, but his mother was Balinese and not even a Muslim. I have visited Bali and Singharaja and East Java and can fully appreciate the fundamental differences, both cultural and religious, between these places. And yet, from this mixed parentage there was born a figure who consistently espoused nationalism as a defining ideology. But from the start, and perhaps because of his background, it was a syncretic nationalism that tried to create unity by bridging difference.

Initially, of course, this nationalism was defined via opposition to Dutch colonial rule. It was a nationalism that brought the young Sukarno into conflict with the authorities, led to periods of imprisonment and exile. Nothing strange here. The twentieth century is full of such figures who struggled against externally-imposed colonial rule. In the Second World War, Sukarno, like Laurel in the Philippines, collaborated with the Japanese. But whereas to the north Laurel was eventually disgraced by the association, Sukarno found himself in 1945 the president of an independent Indonesia. And here, perhaps is where the nationalist ideology became, out of necessity, essentially pragmatic.

As an ideology, nationalism claims it expresses a single identity or culture, often defined by language or religion. And this despite the fact that there are almost no nations that actually display the homogeneity that the ideology assumes. It thus has the capacity to become an exclusive force in direct contradiction to its stated aim. Thus nationalism inevitably is an ideology that is easiest to define and promulgate by opposing what it is not, rather than defining precisely what it is. We only have to think of the agendas of the so-called nationalist parties and movements in contemporary Europe, and how they crystallize around opposition. In Britain, we have the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, which is nationalist because it opposes the European Union. And we have the National Front, nationalist because it opposes immigration. The list could be a long one. So nationalism often must be defined in relation to what we are not, rather than via what we are.

If you live in a country subjected to colonial rule, it is surely easy to define nationalism around concepts of independence and self-government. One these things have been achieved, however, the focus that defined the nationalism is removed. If it is to continue as an ideology for an independent nation, it must change, one option is for it to be elevated to state-worship, almost to the status of a national religion. The North Korea of Kim Il Sung was this route in extremis. But in a country as vast as Indonesia, the social conformity this route requires could never have been achieved.

So Sukarno took the other route that can sustain nationalism as a state ideology, which was expansionism, coupled with attempts to create coalitions across political ideology and religion. The expansionist tendency led to the incorporation of West Irian into Indonesia. It also led to Sukarno’s opposition to the establishment of a Malaysian Federation and thus to several years of war in Borneo. It might be argued the same need for expansion to bolster nationalism led, under Suharto, to the invasion of East Timor. The point here is that the external positions are adopted in order to define internal political identity.

As well as promoting an external focus, alliances and coalitions must be erected internally to create at least a semblance of unity. Sukarno’s NASAKOM was such an attempt, an initiative to unite Nasionalisme, Agama and Komunisme, Nationalism, Religion and Communism. And so the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, was part of an equation whose result was always going to be a problem, given the ubiquity of the cold War and the proximity of China. When we consider the difficulty of creating unity out of such an admixture, we then appreciate the need for nationalism to retain its external focus. No nationalist agenda can cut across ideological differences that are global. In Sukarno’s case, effectively the Cold War won. The internal tensions had to be resolved and, in Indonesia’s case, it led to military action, the slaughter of 250,000 communist sympathisers and anyone else who got in the way, and the emergence of an initially pro-Western government under Suharto.

But despite this unsatisfactory end for Sukarno’s nationalism, J. D. Legge reminds us of his achievements. Modern Indonesia came into being under Sukarno’s leadership and vision. The politics of the region and of the century were influenced by him. And he was leader of one of the world’s most populous countries for over two decades. Certainly he was a great figure, but, because of his use of syncretic nationalism, he was not a contributor to political thought and so, perhaps, his influence died with him. J. D. Legge’s Sukarno – A Political Biography is a superb, scholarly and measured account of this life and career.

Source by Philip Spires

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