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Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation

Chapter 3

(Indonesian) History and its Uses

Theory, Lessons, Activism and Policy

Robert Elson

Perhaps to the cynic I may appear naive, but I passionately believe that historians can be a powerful positive force in society. As George Santayana famously wrote, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Sadly, I can think of no more pertinent example of the dangers of forgotten history than is manifest in the vast human tragedy unfolding in Iraq today (Cook 2007).

Can historians really ‘be a powerful positive force in society’? What might it mean to make such an assertion? The implication seems to be that historians know the field of their acknowledged historical expertise better and deeper than other people, and that they are therefore better positioned to devise socio-political policies and advice which relate to that field that will more likely prove correct and socially useful than that provided by people without such expert knowledge. I want to argue here that this activist, policy-oriented notion loads more upon the historian than he or she can possibly bear; in an important sense, indeed, it can sometimes entice the historian to relinquish best practice in the pursuit of political preferment and popular renown. For it is my argument that the discipline of doing history is an inherently conservative one, with conservative rather than activist implications, and that the proper public or social role of historians is as watchful critics of over-generalised, misleading, misunderstood or mistaken policy ambitions or activist claims allegedly based upon historical precedent, rather than themselves, qua historians, pretending to roles as activists or policy-makers.

Ways of ‘doing history’

To make this argument, I want to conduct a kind of ‘thinking-out-aloud’ exploration of my own historical practice as a historian of Indonesia, insofar as I understand it, interlacing it with some (admittedly old-fashioned, but nonetheless persistent) historiographical concerns and reflections. I will begin with some examples from Indonesian history writing, which I consider to be examples of poor historical practice:

On one occasion, the prince [Iskandar Muda of Aceh, r. 1607–1636] went out on an elephant catching expedition. His grandfather became nervous and decided to set out to bring him back. The prince, having heard that his grandfather was on the way to the forest, decided to go to meet him with his aide Setia Rimba. Now Setia Rimba had a sore leg, so the prince seated him on a buffalo, while he mounted his horse. After travelling part of the way Iskandar’s horse stopped and trembled. A tiger roared nearby. The prince shouted at it: ‘Senseless, uncivilised beast, how dare you lie in wait for me. Why couldn’t you choose someone else?’ The prince gave chase but the tiger escaped. But meanwhile the unfortunate Setia Rimba, left behind seated on his buffalo, suddenly found himself face to face with the tiger, and shouted desperately for help. Iskandar came galloping back on his horse and thrust his spear into the tiger’s mouth, slaying it (Hikayat Aceh in Johns 1979: 50).

We had a precious former day; we had a period of brilliance! … lives there an Indonesian whose heart does not sigh upon listening to tales of those beautiful times: is there anyone who does not feel the loss of that greatness? Where is the Indonesian whose national spirit does not come alive upon hearing stories of the great kingdoms of Melayu and Srividjaja, of the greatness of the first Mataram period, of the Sindok, Erlangga, Kediri, Singasari, Madjapahit, and Padjadjaran periods – and the grandeur of Bintara, Banten, and Mataram II under Sultan Agung! What Indonesian does not longingly remember his former flag, seen and honoured even in Madagascar, Persia and China? But conversely, too, ought we not to live with the hope and belief that a people who achieved such greatness formerly will surely have the strength to attain as beautiful a future – will surely have the capabilities necessary to rise again to the level of their former grandeur (Sukarno in Paget 1975, 75–80).

The palpable deterioration in living conditions of the Indonesian masses ultimately compelled even the Dutch authorities to institute enquiries at the turn of the [twentieth] century. There were perfectly sound reasons for this apparent altruism. In the first place, industry in Holland was by now sufficiently alert to export prospects to appreciate that, whatever low wages for colonial labour might contribute to the prosperity of the mine and plantation companies, they spelled unnecessarily miserable business for Dutch exporters. In the second place, the general infrastructure requirements of all big European enterprises in Indonesia, which had been met up till then by NEI expenditures raised from termination of the batig slot (1878) and from subsequent loan issues, were rising steeply as new industries brought new and more demanding requirements. Hence there was inaugurated in the early years of the twentieth the smugly-styled ‘Ethical Policy’, under which grants were made from the Netherlands treasury for social capital investment in the Indies … In fact, of course, the expenditures undertaken were all of most benefit to the foreign companies and the colonial administration, in providing improved roads, ports and other facilities, and in providing healthier and harder working labourers and slightly better educated but low level clerical employee (Caldwell and Utrecht 1979, 33).

The problem with this kind of history-writing is that the writers engage their material with a strong sense of what they want to conclude – something that might be termed ‘jigsaw puzzle’ history-writing. With ‘jigsaw puzzle’ history-writing, the fascination and interest in the job at hand is not in the solution to a historical problem, but rather in how one gets to the solution, already preordained. The writers know the answer they want, and their interest is not so much what they finally arrive at but rather in how they select and arrange their materials to get to the anticipated solution. They are not so much interested in ‘what really happened’ – for example, the fact that Iskandar’s aide was attacked by a tiger is not all that important – but in ‘how things happened as they did’ – how the pieces came together to provide the expected, indeed desired, end-product. The solution in each case is clear: Iskandar Muda was a brave and kind ruler; Indonesia has a great and glorious past; capitalism and colonialism are self-interested and necessarily impoverish the masses. The historical puzzle is not in finding a solution but in selecting and appropriately placing the pieces of the puzzle so that this known, preordained solution can be arrived at.

My problem with the ‘jigsaw-puzzle’ approach to history is that I have a sense that all is not how it should be. I do not think I ‘do history’ like this, nor do I think it is a proper way to ‘do history’. I usually do not have a sense, at least not a strong and determining sense, of what my conclusions might be when I set out. To put it bluntly, what I try to do is to get to ‘the truth’, whatever that might mean (and I’ll say a little more about that presently) – a truth which is not available to me at the beginning of my historical pursuit. But how exactly does what I do, and what I take many other historians to do, differ from ‘jigsaw-puzzle’ history, and what exactly is it that makes what I do, as I judge it, ‘better’ or ‘more proper’ history than ‘jigsaw-puzzle’ history’?


The problem of ‘truth’ is an eternally difficult one. At least one fundamental aspect of the problem lies in the old difficulty of bridging the gap between the historian (in the present) and ‘the past’. This, I think, is an appropriate place to bring in E. H. Carr, because he spills so much ink on this particular question in his old, but still eternally useful and brilliant little book What is History (Carr 1964). In his first chapter, Carr raises the old problem of fact and interpretation. He argues that there is no such thing as an objective historical fact that lives, as it were ‘out there’, free of the observer and independent of him/her. ‘History’, he says, ‘means interpretation’ (Carr 1964, 23). He goes on to make three points. First, historical facts are always refracted through the mind of the recorder, and have therefore already lost their ‘purity’, have already been polluted, before they even reach the historian. Second, the historian needs to have an ‘imaginative understanding’ of the people of the past with whom they are dealing. Third, we understand the past only through the eyes of the present, by which I think Carr means we retrospect our current values and interests into the past, so that certain ages and individuals tend to produce certain types of history.

Now all this is more or less acceptable up to a point, but there are important and difficult problems involved in it, of which the major one is relativism. Carr seems to realise the problem; to realise that he is steering his ship towards the rocks of relativism because of his emphasis on the interpretative, imaginative and time-bound activities of the historian. If there are no ‘objective facts’, and if the way in which data are selected and ordered is purely a matter of personal interpretation or the arbitrary or deliberate choice of a certain determining theoretical framework, then one ought to argue that history is eventually a matter of invention and artifice, of ‘constructedness’, and thus not really substantially different from literature or poetry or even some reaches of philosophy. So Carr makes a valiant effort to stave off the problem. He acknowledges that ‘the emphasis on the role of the historian in the making of history tends, if pursued to its logical conclusion, to rule out any objective history at all: history is what the historian makes’ (Carr 1964, 26). But he certainly does not want to go this far – he does not want to allow that history has ‘an infinity of meanings, none any more right than another’, nor is he happy with the notion that the only meaning history has is that which can be applied to some present purpose. But how does Carr attempt to escape from the predicament in which he finds himself? Put simply, Carr escapes from his problem by returning to a notion of ‘the facts’ that he has previously abandoned as excessively empirical. On page 23 he had claimed that ‘by and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation’. By page 28, however, more mindful now, perhaps, of the problems he faces, he states that ‘[the historian] must seek to bring into the picture all known or knowable facts relevant, in one sense or another, to the theme on which he is engaged and to the interpretation proposed’. He goes on then to give an orthodox empiricist account of how most historians write, moving back and forth from their writing to the sources, developing new questions, new insights, new hypotheses and so on, in a kind of dialectical manner – in Carr’s words, ‘moulding his facts to his interpretations and his interpretations to his facts’ (1964, 29). Carr has re-installed the old view of facts which he was wanting to dispose of, that there are ‘facts’ out there independent of the writer and having some sort of existence apart from his or her mind.1

Here we have a real problem. On the one hand, I sense there is something wrong with what I have called the ‘jigsaw-puzzle’ approach to history-writing, which simply selects the facts that are needed to fit into the predesigned solution. On the other hand, Carr, at least in the first part of his first chapter, has shown the subjectivism inherent in history-writing – that facts are refracted and distorted before the historian gets them, and that he/she dissects and reshapes them even more in using them; that historians using ‘facts’ are in fact creating rather than simply reproducing them. The problem is that, to my mind, we need to acknowledge the truth of what Carr says about the role of selection and interpretation in history-writing, but on the other hand we need to realise that history-writing is, or in my mind should be, different from artistic and literary forms which are based on pure invention. What should we do? Is there some sort of middle ground that will give due credit to the role of interpretation and the selection and ordering of ‘facts’ in history-writing, but which will not deliver us into the hands of complete relativism and constructivism?

The first requirement, it appears to me, is to rescue the notion of ‘fact’ from the uncomfortable limbo to which it has been consigned by Carr and others. We need to assert that there is some real sense in which the facts are independent of the observer, because if we can’t do this, if the fact is no more than invention and entirely subjective interpretation, there is no escape from the problem of relativism, a relativism which does not distinguish between varying accounts or which does so purely, for instance, on the basis of their literary merit. But how can we do this if the data are patchy and distorted, and becomes even more distorted when the historian uses them?

One way is to return to basics and sort out what we really mean when we talk about ‘fact’. I argue that when we say ‘fact’, we really mean a ‘proposition’ or ‘assertion’; ‘facts’ as historians use them are propositions that contain certain pieces of information, such as ‘Sukarno became president of Indonesia in 1945’ or ‘Suharto died in 2008’ or ‘The price of rice in Java in 1830 was f3 [3 guilders] a picul’. Now, it seems to me to be an indispensable and distinguishing mark of the work of historians that they be able to say that propositions such as these are in some sense ‘true’, however qualified that assertion might be, or in some sense ‘false’. What does it mean to say this? Essentially, it means that we say a proposition is true if it conveys information that accords with the event or happening (or whatever) of which it is an assertion; we say it is false if it does not so accord. I am aware, of course, that even the casting of ‘facts’ into the shape of ‘assertions’ entails some degree of theorising, the employment of a priori assumptions and values, and some inventiveness. Thus, the proposition ‘Suharto was more evil than Sukarno’ might require some further elaboration, even deconstruction. But the assertion is not in itself thereby unable to be declared true or false.

The bigger and more important question, however, and the place where Carr starts getting himself into difficulties, is the question of how one goes about establishing truth and falsity, especially when the data we have is so distorted, patchy and often unreliable. How can we say with any certainty or meaning that such-and-such is true or false? Even more to the point, how do we know that the result of the way we employ these propositions in writing our history is either true or false?

At this stage, I think we need to distinguish some separate meanings of the word ‘truth’. For the sake of the argument, I want to distinguish two simple senses of the word ‘truth’. The first is an absolute sense in which a proposition is true by definition. For example, 2 + 2 = 4. Given a certain sense of 2, of 4, of the notion of addition, and of the notion of the consequence of addition, there can be no dispute over the truthfulness of the proposition that 2 + 2 = 4. But this sort of truth is of no interest to historians, since it does not add to their stock of knowledge. Historians are usually concerned with another form of truth, which we might conveniently label as ‘contingent truth’, that is, when an assertion is true (or false) not by definition but by some other kind of test.

Here we are getting into fairly deep waters. What sort of criteria might serve as a means of establishing that we have arrived at a contingent truth? In my view, we do this by means of what might be called a ‘set of general expectations’. If, for example, I drop my pen, I expect, other things being equal, that it will fall to the ground. In social life, in the relations of humans with humans, we develop much bigger, more complex and more sophisticated ‘sets of general expectations’. For example, if I give my students the option of sitting a final examination or not, I would expect that most will choose to avoid the trauma associated with examinations. But this notion of a ‘set of general expectations’ needs closer analysis. How, for example, do I get such a thing? I think I get it from social observation, from self-reflection, from reading, from social theory, from experience with other people, from dealing with different situations, and so on. How precise it is? It is precise to the extent that I would expect certain consequences to occur from a certain happening given certain conditions and contexts. For example, I would expect the pen I dropped to fall to the floor unless, for example, somebody caught it, or it rested on some other object before hitting the floor, or someone removed the floor, or the law of gravity for some reason went into suspension. I would be surprised if the pen suddenly stopped in mid-air for no apparent reason, and I would want to know why. So, to return to the question of contingent truth, when I come to the study of ‘the fact’, I bring to it my set of general expectations and set them to work. It is this that allows me to assert that a proposition is more or less true or more or less false (that is, the notion of contingent truth); it is also this that allows me to select and arrange my propositions to tell a certain story.

I have recently published a book on the history of ‘the idea of Indonesia’ (Elson 2008). I know such an idea actually emerged because my ‘set of general expectations’ gives me no grounds for thinking that all the evidence available for its existence has been fabricated purely to deceive me and others. How do I start finding, selecting and ordering all the masses of data that are available to me to take my research forward? My ‘set of general expectations’ tells me that one place to start looking is the Dutch-language archives for information, since, other things being equal, relevant information is more likely to be found there, given the fact that the Dutch were the colonial masters in the archipelago in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rather than in the archives of, say, Kenya or Peru. I arrange the material I select in certain patterns; again these are the result of my set of general expectations. I would expect, for example, that under certain conditions some things are more likely to have happened than others and that other things defy credibility, and I arrange my material accordingly.

In other words, the sense in which I write is very similar to the description Carr gives at the end of his first chapter; there is a no clear distinction between a research phase and a writing-up stage, but rather a continual interchange between my data and my writing. I bring my set of general expectations to the selection and ordering of the materials, but I frequently find things that are surprising or do not accord with my expectations. For example, I began my PhD thesis on a region in East Java in the nineteenth century with the expectation that certain kinds of colonial economic intrusion there would lead to peasant unrest and revolt. I was most surprised when I came to peruse the archive documents in the Netherlands only to find, with a single small exception, that this situation had clearly not arisen. My expectation (no doubt informed by a certain fixation with then predominant theories of social action) suggested to me that revolts had in fact taken place but that local Dutch officials had covered them up or ignored them or perhaps not even noticed them. That trail ran cold when I came to realise that many Dutch officials were not averse to reporting such events and, indeed, were prone to report them in excruciating detail when they did break out. Meanwhile, I was left wondering, whether I still had a thesis to write. So I had to go back and revise my set of general expectations, informing them with a much more appropriate and, I hope, much more sophisticated sense of the range of choices available to peasants, and this approach led me to the realisation, among other realisations, that for peasants in certain circumstances revolt was often very much a last resort rather than a first choice. It also meant that I had to go back to the data again with different questions and select different sorts of information, look for different clues, read the materials in different ways. In other words, I learned that history-writing means constantly going back and forth from the writing to the data (itself necessarily a changing field) and vice versa, constantly refining my general sets of expectations, making them more appropriate, more sophisticated and more intricate, and refining at the same time the way in which I put my materials together as a consequence of my more subtle and, I hoped, agile set of general expectations.

‘Sets of general expectations’

There are some difficult problems with the view of things I have outlined. One such problem is that of differentiating between different ‘sets of general expectations’. Is it the case that one person’s set of general expectations is just as valid as everyone else’s, and that we have therefore not really escaped from the problem of relativism? I think not. It seems to me that there are means available for testing and correcting and improving our individual sets of general expectations. Some sets of general expectations are better than others and it is precisely this quality which sets off good historians from bad ones and from very good ones and from outstanding ones.

A set of general expectations, for example, which is given to challenge, alive to complexity, and amenable to perceiving links between things that are not immediately evident, would seem to be a better set than one that is dogmatic and simplistic. Thus an explanation of the outbreak of the Indonesian revolution based on a set of general expectations that takes into account social conditions and popular feeling in Java in mid-1945, the operations of the Allied powers, the policies of the Japanese, the opportunities provided by the Second World War, the intransigence of the Dutch, and so on, would be preferable to one that focuses purely on the personality and behaviour of Sukarno. By the same token, a set of general expectations that is internally coherent is preferable, better, and truer than one that is riddled with internal contradictions. In other words, I am arguing that sets of general expectations are not purely matters of whim or arbitrary choice, that some are better than others, and that there can be contests between them that can be resolved.

A second problem might be that our sets of general expectations are no more than particular reflections of our present-day situation, and that when we do history, we simply mould the data of the past to our present conceptions and concerns. There is certainly a sense in which that is true. We have concerns and interests today, as well as ways of discussing and analysing things, which were not a part of the past. We are, for example, much more interested in the fate of women, or of ordinary people, or of peasants, and we indulge ourselves in such notions as ‘identity’ or ‘memory’ in ways that would puzzle the early chronicle writers of Indonesia. We also have categories of social analysis such as demographic theory, elite theory, game theory and even critical theory that help us to analyse things in ways these earlier writers would have found unimaginable or nonsensical. At the same time, however, these present-day categories are not altogether delimiting and defining. They do not, of themselves, prevent us from understanding at least something of what a nineteenth century peasant or a revolutionary fighter or a Javanese general felt, or how they might reasonably be expected to have acted in the context in which they found themselves. One of the greatest skills of the historian is to rise above and see beyond the categories of the present day to achieve some understanding of the past. It is difficult to do this, and even more difficult to do it well; we need continually to refine and refurbish our set of general expectations to do it, but it can in principle be done.

Where has all this discussion brought us? I hope it is to see that there is some middle ground between arbitrary relativism on the one hand and the compilation of meaningless empirical ‘facts’ on the other. The key is to be found in the notion of contingent truth, that is, propositions that are not necessarily true, but can be said to be so on the basis of a set of general expectations that is moulded by the experience of living. The truth of these propositions is always partial and never total, and always subject to modification, elaboration, revision and re-evaluation. What we decide to be true one day we may realise is false the next day. The reason we change our minds is not pure whim or arbitrary choice, but because we realise that our set of general expectations has not been equal to the task of understanding, and that it needs further enhancement and modification. Moreover, it is part and parcel of this argument that the choice of sets of general expectations is not just a matter of invention or whim. Some sets are better, more refined, more sophisticated, more sensitive, more aware than others, and we therefore should choose them rather than less appropriate and clumsy ones. It follows from this, as well, that some histories are better than others and that one can choose rationally between competing histories not just on the grounds of their literary merit or internal logic, but on the grounds of the accuracy with which they deal with the past, and the significance, aligned with accuracy, that they draw from it.

History’s uses

If historians can claim to achieve, if only in a provisional, partial and always revisable sense, some significant sense of the truth of the past, does it follow that they have an obligation to use that knowledge in the services of better state policy-making or in the pursuit of activist causes? In other words, should the knowledge of historians have practical and more or less immediate utility? At bottom, this problem of utility comes down to finding answers to two questions. First, does history give us lessons which can be employed in present or future activities? Second, if it does, how should those lessons be applied? And by whom?

One of the challenges of history-writing is to explain, with the greatest possible precision and care, why a particular outcome occurred rather than some other possible outcome; to put the matter in Legge’s terms, the special concern of the historian is not with ‘the sort of thing that occurred’ but rather ‘what in fact occurred and with the fact that it happened in one way rather than another and at one time rather than another’ (Legge 1976, 399). In other words, there is a certain characteristic particularism about history-writing that might imply that it contains no generalisable principles. That implication, however, is untenable because, as I have argued, the only way historians can arrive at explanations of the historical problems they address is to use working generalisations – what I have termed ‘sets of general expectations’ – which tell them what they might expect to happen under certain conditions and in certain contexts. That is, we can construct certain expectations about how people might behave in certain circumstances, and how larger social forces might impact upon them. This, of course, is what we do in our normal everyday lives – thus, I expect that if I plunge my hand into boiling water, the hand will, other things being equal, be scalded. History-writing, then, is fundamentally concerned in its very process with generalisation.

The second question is more troublesome: if there are lessons in history, how should they be applied? Can the specialised, detailed, particularised knowledge that historians possess allow them to act as ‘a powerful positive force in society’? Some people think so. Some of us might recall the intervention of Geoffrey Blainey in the so-called ‘immigration debate’ in Australia in the mid-1980s. He based his authority to intervene on his expertise in Australian history. Indeed, he is reported to have said that ‘my interpretation was essentially based on my knowledge of Australian history. I was speaking very much as a historian’ (in Markus 1985, 10). One lesson of Australian history, if I may so paraphrase Blainey’s views, is that there are certain circumstances where you can’t put different ethnic groups together. We in Australia are doing this today, he went on, under these certain circumstances, and therefore there will be trouble.

Is this kind of intervention by Blainey, or by historians more generally, socially useful and acceptable? The answer lies in the kinds of claims being made, and for their transferability to other contexts. When we draw a lesson from history we do two things: we accept something about the specific character of a person or event, and we specify certain conditions. For example, when I generalise about people dropping pens onto the floor, I assert something about the nature of objects when constrained by the law of gravity, and I specify certain conditions, for example, that no one will catch the pen before it hits the floor. In order to explain such happenings, I need to have an insight into the character of the thing I am inquiring into and I need to specify closely and accurately the conditions under which it will behave in certain ways rather than others, or not at all. This is where things get tricky, because it is uncomfortably easy to get things wrong, to ignore or not give due weight to certain conditions or to misjudge the character of the thing we are examining. Consequently, in normal life, we use lessons that are partly general and flexible, so that if we do get things wrong, the consequences won’t be too bad. We can also apply general rules of thumb (another name for generalised lessons of history) to a large number of situations that confront us daily. Moreover, the more general the lesson, that is, the less the number and specificity of the conditions we attach to it, the more likely it is to be correct, durable and thus socially useful.

Clearly, the more we want to specify a lesson, the more difficult it is to get it right and the more careful and precise we need to be in applying it. This problem is the great danger in applying specific lessons from history to specific present or future circumstances. The more complicated and particular those lessons are, the more easily we get them wrong or misunderstand them, or improperly contextualise them, or misapply them. In other words, if we act to draw lessons from history, we need to do so with great care and only after very thorough examination of the particular character or nature of the person or event under consideration and the particular circumstances under which certain things took place. Otherwise, we run the risk of missing or misunderstanding vital variables that made things turn out this way rather than that way. This is particularly dangerous when the lessons are applied by institutions that affect us all, like governments. It would, in my view, have been disastrous had the Australian government agreed with Blainey about the lessons of Australian history he wanted to promulgate and sought to apply them by stopping immigration from Asia. Similarly, it would be similarly concerning, not to mention cavalier, were Australia to adopt a more relaxed, even encouraging policy towards changes to the territorial boundaries of Indonesia, simply because one scholar drew the lesson that ‘the politics of contesting and redrawing political boundaries never ends’ and because that kind of policy would allow Australia to be ‘on the right side of history’ (Burchill 2000, italics in original).


We need to be careful about how and where we apply the lessons we have learned, and the more careful the more specific we want to be. But does this prescription then mean that historians have no social responsibility, that even if they discover important lessons they should not attempt to benefit themselves and their societies as well by having those lessons applied in public policy? It all depends on the sort of lesson that the historian wants applied. If the lesson is a generalised one, such as ‘reading good literature makes people wiser’, I would have no complaint and vigorously fight for the establishment of more and better libraries, schools, universities and so on. But my concern would grow as the lesson to be applied gets more complicated and more specific. I would need to look very carefully at the purported lesson, exactly what it meant and what it specified, be satisfied that it was accurately drawn from the past and applied appropriately and contextually in the present.

My position comes not as a denial of the historian’s social responsibility, but rather arises out of the knowledge of just how difficult it is to gain full insight into the nature of things, and to grasp all the sufficient and necessary conditions that makes things turn out in certain ways – in short, my always developing awareness of the essentially contingent, fragile nature of knowledge that the historian establishes. Put another way, it is history’s ‘inability ever to secure what are effectively interpretive closures’ (Jenkins and Muslow 2004, 3). History, it has been said, is among the more conservative of disciplines:

[C]onservative … in the larger sense of inculcating skepticism about people’s ability to manipulate and control purposefully their own destinies. By showing that the best laid plans of people usually go awry, the study of history tends to dampen youthful enthusiasm and to restrain the can-do, the conquer-the-future spirit that many people have (Wood 1984, 10).

Robert Cribb makes the same point more elegantly and restrainedly:

[H]istorical consciousness refers to the way that knowing about the past expands our sense of the human experience as a basis for which we can plan for the future. The dilemma in every human aspiration is to understand what is possible and what is not possible, so that we know more precisely where to put our efforts, whether on the one hand to avert catastrophe and to achieve success or on the other hand simply to avoid wasting effort on things that cannot be changed. The social value of history lies in its vast repertoire of complex human experience … (Cribb 2008, 207–208).

One can so easily get things wrong, or weigh things misleadingly, or ignore nuances and contexts. This knowledge of the characteristic imperfections of the result of our work make me wary about applying complicated, and thus necessarily contestable, lessons from the past to a similar (and perhaps even more) complicated present and future. Doing history means dealing with unending complications, and that inevitably should make the historian a meticulous, cautious, skeptical and, yes, even conservative operator.

Perhaps our greatest social responsibility is to be critical of those who think they enjoy command of such complex lessons in those areas of our own special expertise (and not theirs) and who want to impose them on us all. Historians, precisely by the nature of their engagement with the complexities of truth, at least as I have described it, should be the skeptical ‘watchdogs’ of their specialised truths. They must engage in matters of public importance, and they must communicate, as best they can, their specialised knowledge by way of careful criticism and incisive commentary. It is there, and not in areas of activism, advocacy and policy-making, which are necessarily less nuanced and more generalised, indeed, often prophetic, and which have a public and unspecialised audience, that historians can perhaps best exercise the vocation of being ‘a powerful positive force in society’. Such modesty in engagement might seem unduly limiting, but it is the necessary implication of and most accurately reflects the complex intellectual activity that is history-writing.


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Paget, Roger K. 1975. Indonesia Accuses! Soekarno’s Defence Oration in the Political Trial of 1930. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Wood, Gordon S. 1984. ‘History lessons’, New York Review of Books (29 March): 10.

1  For a similar critique of Carr’s approach, made from a rather different perspective, see Munslow 1997.

Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of Self, Discipline and Nation

   by Jemma Purdey