Pivotal Figures of Asian Nationalism


At a time when nationalism is rising and authoritarian, populist-inspired politics rejects the assumptions of global co-operation and multilateral co-ordination that were common in the early part of this century, it is helpful to be reminded of the ability of individuals to identify simultaneously with both international and national causes. Tim Harper, professor of the History of Southeast Asia at the University of Cambridge, takes us deep into the mentality and the milieu of a generation of Asian revolutionaries for whom political change was both a universal and a particular project, grounded in intellectual, spiritual, material and social perspectives that defied narrow boundaries, whether temporal or territorial.


At the heart of this monumental work are the lives of three pivotal political figures in the complex history of Asian nationalism: from Vietnam, Nguyen Ai Quoc (more commonly known as Ho Chi Minh); from India, M. N. Roy, originally an orthodox Marxist but in the later stages of his life, a proponent of radical humanism; and from Indonesia, Tan Malaka, a key figure in the establishment of the Republic of Indonesia, if not the decisive one. All three men were born in the closing years of the 19th century and all lived through the tumultuous years of the two world wars and the fragmentation of colonial empires, both European and Japanese, surviving to witness the onset of the Cold War.


Harper’s narrative is much more than a story of three important individuals. It is also fundamentally an account of a movement, or a set of changing perspectives in which these three men, important in their own right, were emblematic of a much wider set of powerful influences — an “unstoppable wave of collective consciousness” — that represented a rejection of colonial hierarchies and a sustained and inherently optimistic effort to effect change in the interests of the downtrodden and the dispossessed.


For the leading figures in the movement, some of the intellectual energy that drove this process was reflected in their philosophical works, particularly in the case of Roy’s Marxist writing and Tan Malaka’s efforts to craft an Indonesian, if not distinctive Islamic Marxist, dialectic that could influence his political followers. However, the ideas behind this period of intense political activism — a period from 1905 to 1927 that defines the chronological shape of the book — were expressed in a diversity of sources, including popular pamphlets and ephemeral journals, and was often relayed through word of mouth as expressions of a new cultural movement that captured the imagination of a whole generation of activists.


These activists were part of a “global underground,” a revolutionary diaspora that was forced, often for decades, to operate internationally, at far remove from the “lost countries” that had been captured by the colonial empires of the British in India and Malaya, the French in Indochina, and the Dutch in Indonesia. Nominally, the efforts of this revolutionary movement to undermine and dislodge these colonial structures ended in failure, but Harper argues persuasively that the movement can be better seen as laying the foundation for subsequent seismic changes, including, for example, the emergence Mao Zedong’s China in 1949, and the collapse of the British Raj and the emergence of an independent India in 1947. The often extraordinarily brutal and violent events of the interwar years unfolded in Asia in ways that “fatally undermined” the foundations of empire in the 1930s and paved the way for the subsequent dynamics of the Cold War after 1945.


In telling this fascinating story, Harper shifts between Asia, Europe and North America, offering both geographically and conceptually an “eccentric view” that enables him to introduce an extraordinarily vivid and compelling set of portraits of individual political actors. Familiar political characters are present, such as Mao, Lenin, Gandhi and Sun Yat-sen, but so too are an equally memorable cast of less well-known figures caught up in ideological war of ideas encompassing nationalism, anarchism, socialism and communism. The protagonists in this existential battle of ideas were motivated by concepts, sometimes secular and rationalistic, sometimes religious and emotional in their appeal.


Critical to the worldview of the revolutionaries was a common understanding that the Age of Empires was coming to a close and a sense that the center of political and intellectual gravity was shifting from Europe to a newly emerging Asia — an attitude that might be seen as prefiguring some of the changes the world is experiencing today. The proponents of revolution also embraced the idea of the international as transcending, or at the very least complementing the national, and foreshadowing post-1945 initiatives such as the Bandung conference of 1955 and the emergence of the non-aligned movement.


Strikingly, many of the agents of change were marginalized and, understandably, given the revolutionary threat they posed to the colonial authorities, required to use concealment and subterfuge to advance their political ideas. Consequently, Harper’s account is a complex one that digs into the world of subterfuge, informers, underground activity, terrorist plots and police informants. The vividness of his narrative reflects his immensely comprehensive and detailed reading of archives of the colonial powers (primarily British, French and Dutch) from which he distills portraits of individuals and events that have the immediacy, vividness and dramatic intensity of a novel.


An equally impressive quality of the book is its ability to work at multiple levels simultaneously covering the pivotal geopolitical trends of the period, but also revealing history from the ground up, documenting the lives of revolutionaries, both men and women, who worked as seamen, chefs, entertainers and students and who were united above all by their experience as long-term exiles from their countries of origin. Given this diversity of backgrounds, Harper’s account also works as social, literary, artistic and urban history, going beyond simply the political and revealing sweeping changes that transformed the physical environment of cities and neighborhoods as well as revealing the clash between traditionalism and modernity that underpinned this revolutionary firmament.


Above all, Harper’s work reminds us of the power of ideas and the emotional appeal of political activism, particularly for the often young revolutionaries whose lives embraced sacrifice and resistance. The power derived from a sense of agency and engagement in a cause larger than oneself can perhaps explain the resilience of the individuals depicted here (many of whom died before they could view the results of their activism). It is a reminder of the continuing relevance of transformative political ideas and the revolutionary impulse today.


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