the Third Rate intellectual salutes the Third World intellectual

this is quite possibly one of my favourite historical photos of all time: the curious, motley Indonesian Delegation to the United Nations in 1947, looking for all the world like they have just fallen out of the sandiwara (theatre). In the center is Sjahrir, the careless loll of his head matching his characteristic, cerebral aloofness. To his left, Haji Agus Salim: wise, eccentric, devout. Behind them is journalist Charles Tambu, the vociferous thorn in Sukarno’s undemocratic side throughout the ’60s. At the apex of the motley pyramid: Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, economist.

And lastly, to the left, a public intellectual who, for me at least, is so far without equal from Indonesia: Soedjatmoko, whose writings have this peculiar ability to appear to meet my gaze and look me in the eye, so that every word has the force of gentle admonition, direct advice, avuncular cautioning, and often, understanding and sympathy. And also, I find, preemption. He writes:

The historian is “not to limit his reflection to the nature of historical knowledge and to the study of history as a specific search for truth alone, but to include also a consideration of the philosophical implications of his discipline and the question of the significance of what he is doing in relation to his own society … He will then realize that the study of history can only be meaningful and is only possible if the historical process is seen as being essentially indeterminate and open to man’s deliberate participation in it. History becomes important only when man realizes that he can make it. […]

At the same time, he cannot escape the realization of the inherent inadequacy of historical knowledge, its provisional character, and its subjectivity … By strict adherence to his scholarly discipline, he cannot avoid the tension between what he can do and what his society expects of him. […]

The problem of the Indonesian historian [is that] he cannot speak with the finality expected of him by his public. His professional training has robbed him of [such] historical innocence …

Out of this, three things are unsurprising. One is that, despite his brilliance, Soedjatmoko never played the sort of prominent roles in Indonesian politics held by his more energetic contemporaries — Sukarno, Hatta, and even the reluctant politician, Sjahrir. Secondly, he wrote a thinkpiece on the roles (limits and obligations) of intellectuals in developing societies, which resonated in just the same way with me, and which reads like a kind of credo.

And thirdly, the problems that he identified and spoke so strongly out for throughout his life — Indonesian inequality, poverty, and particularly the tendency of humankind towards violence and mutual destruction — read as though they were written yesterday. For although ‘Koko’ died nearly 20 years ago, and spent over half his life speaking, writing and spending time in prison for his convictions, none of the problems have been solved. He writes, soberly:

Certainly the life of an intellectual in the Third World is not without its risks. The dangers and penalties are not just jail, unemployment or the loss of integrity, but also irrelevance. The last of these could be the most humiliating of all.


At times, and increasingly now, when I’m contacted by people from Malaysia asking me to clarify a certain point of history for them or to recommend some readings or to write an essay or to chair a panel, I feel as though I’m poised on the edge of a precipice of social responsibility, wearing my chronic uncertainty like leg irons. Try as I might, I simply cannot think of myself as a public intellectual. And here, for Soedjatmoko, hesitation is OK, but paralysis is not: “It is certainly true that man does not, and cannot, know the end result of any single social act,” he says. “But this is no reason for him to abdicate his rationality nor his moral responsibility.”

Perhaps not. But I start from stillness. Does this not make things triply hard? And was it an outcome or an impulse of my research, that having drunk deeply of my country’s past, I should stand facing the choice — duty? — of social responsibility from this strangely removed vantage point, which Soedjatmoko must have known so well?

Well, at any rate, I will be chairing the first panel of that conference next week; if you are Malaysian or otherwise interested, and are in London next weekend, the details are here.

Quotes from Kathleen Newland and Kamala Chandrakirana Soedjatmoko (eds.), Transforming Humanity: The Visionary Writings of Soedjatmoko (West Hartford: Kumarian Press, 1994).
Photo from here.


3 responses to “the Third Rate intellectual salutes the Third World intellectual

  • Kristen

    Good luck with the conference this week, Rachel! And I have an inkling that, as you are someone who dwells so much on social responsibility, the problems you see in your country’s society have been an impulse to your research. Like it or not, the confluence of the two will one day throw you into full-fledged public intellectualism.

  • Rachel

    thank you, Kristen ๐Ÿ™‚ actually, looking at the photo of the Indonesian delegation again, I think I’m all for public intellectualism if it means I can wear glasses like those in public …

  • Gavin Robinson

    You have a blog and you’re very clever. Therefore you’re already a public intellectual. ๐Ÿ™‚

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