Mochtar Lubis, Twilight in Jakarta and Indonesian Communism

by indonotes

The depiction of communism in Mochtar Lubis’ Twilight in Jakarta sheds light on elites’ fears during the Cold War.

I’ve been reading Twilight in Jakarta, probably Mochtar Lubis’ best known novel. The first Indonesian novel to be translated into English, it is rich in its social and political commentary on Indonesia in the 1950s. Amongst much else it tackles corruption, the plight of the urban poor, the problems of the party system, as well as regional, religious and social tensions.

The story of its publication is also interwoven with Indonesian politics. Having been arrested then held without trial in 1956, Mochtar Lubis began work on the novel in late 1958 whilst under house arrest. An English version was published in 1963 with the help of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an international cultural organisation which received funding (at the time unbeknownst to Mochtar Lubis) from the CIA. It was not until 1970 that an Indonesian version was published.[1]

Given the Cold War dimension of the circumstances surrounding the publication of Twilight in Jakarta, its depiction of communism takes on particular resonance.

Mochtar Lubis’ anticommunism comes through in telling exchanges between the communist Achmad and the Muslim reformer Murhalim. On the one hand communism is anti-democratic, standing against the values of independent thought and expression.

‘Brother Achmad has forgotten that human beings are not machines that can be ordered to become parts of a production system… [He] wants an economic system wholly controlled by the state, one hundred percent.  Such a totalitarian system must, of necessity, control the lives and thoughts of people, because without such absolute control and authority it would be impossible to attain what brother Achmad wishes for.’[2]

However, there is a more visceral fear, a fear that hung over the politics of Southeast Asia (and beyond) throughout the Cold War. This was the fear of manipulative communists unleashing the masses in destructive, explosive fashion. Thus Achmad explains to the Muslim reformer Murhalim, as they watch a communist-orchestrated mob demonstrate:

‘Look at that.’ He [Achmad] pointed at the crowd that kept moving forwards relentlessly, like a stream of lava blazing with heat, like some howling animal pawing the ground and filling the air with frightening noises. ‘Isn’t that,’ said Achmad, ‘a beautiful sight?… Listen to what they’re shouting – “The Little People Must Eat! The Little People Must Win! Down with the Capitalists!”

Murhalim steps in to prevent the ‘half-maddened mob’ ransacking a little food stall, only to have Achmad turn the ‘half-dazed and frenzied crowd’ crowd on him. The becak (trishaw) driver who kills Murhalim is in turn shot by a policeman.[3]

The descriptions of the crowd as animal-like, frenzied, half-mad stick in my mind. They speak to deep fears among political, military and intellectual elites that help explain the ferocity of the response to communism in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. The description is all the more significant for being written by someone who, as evident in Twilight in Jakarta, was able to empathise with the plight of the urban poor and was acutely aware of many of the failings of the political system as it existed.

The bitter irony was, despite this fear of an animalistic, maddened poor being manipulated by communists, the left itself was ultimately destroyed in the most violent manner, with the massacres and mass imprisonments of 1965-6. And the military-led ‘New Order’ built upon this bloody foundation would be no more democratic than the communist rule it claimed to have prevented.

[1] The circumstances surrounding the publication of Twilight in Jakarta are detailed in David Hill’s Biography of Mochtar Lubis, Journalism and Politics in Indonesia: A Critical Biography of Mochtar Lubis (1922-2004) as Editor and Author, pp. 76-8.

[2] Twilight in Jakarta, Mochtar Lubis (trans. Claire Holt), Oxford in Asia (1983 edition), p. 54.

[3] Twilight in Jakarta, pp. 238-45