In Republicanism, Communism, Islam: Cosmopolitan Origins of Revolution in Southeast Asia, John T. Sidel makes a powerful analytical contribution to existing scholarship. The book questions why the Philippine, Indonesian and Vietnamese revolutions occurred when they did in comparative perspective, exploring their conditions of possibility and showing how dominant explanations for their outbreak have not sufficiently recognised the importance of cosmopolitan and trans-regional connections in fuelling these revolutions, writes Lin Hongxuan.
This book review was originally published by the LSE Southeast Asia blog and LSE Review of Books as part of a collaborative series focusing on timely and important social science books from and about Southeast Asia.
More information and a video recording of the LSE book launch event for Republicanism, Communism, Islam, hosted by the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, are available here.
Republicanism, Communism, Islam: Cosmopolitan Origins of Revolution in Southeast Asia. John T. Sidel. Cornell University Press. 2021.
John T. Sidel’s Republicanism, Communism, Islam: Cosmopolitan Origins of Revolution in Southeast Asia provides an incisive account of the most prominent anticolonial revolutions in Southeast Asia – the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam – from a rigorous comparative perspective. His freewheeling style sees his narrative range across the world, starting at counter-intuitive and surprising locations like Litoměřice in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Baku in Azerbaijan, but in a way that feels organic instead of superficial or facile . Sidel shows how the cosmopolitan currents that animated Southeast Asian nationalist movements had cognates across the world, and that Southeast Asian revolutionaries were sometimes directly inspired by, or enriched by dialogue with, counterparts in Europe, Africa, China and the Middle East. These influences, from intellectual exchange to popular culture, unleashed powerful though oft-subtle forces in colonised societies, readying the ground for revolution when international geopolitical conditions permitted. Throughout it all, Sidel remains firmly grounded in historical context, never losing sight of the particularities of each revolution, while firmly pushing back against the nationalist telos which essentialises each revolution as the product of an intrinsic Indonesian, Vietnamese or Filipino sensibility.
Sidel poses cogent questions which will be familiar to any scholar of Southeast Asia, questions which are implicit in any undergraduate survey course, but which scholars rarely have the expertise or opportunity to answer. These include ‘How did nationalist elites manage to effectively mobilise ordinary folk in revolutionary struggles?’ as well as ‘Why did these revolutions occur when they did, and why were they successful?’ In answering these questions, Sidel effortlessly weaves together various trans-regional contributing factors to the outbreak of revolutions in specific times and places. He shows how ‘transoceanic Islamic solidarity’ (178) between Indonesian students abroad and Egyptian labourers put direct pressure on Dutch shipping and won diplomatic recognition for the Indonesian republic; how Indonesian mercantile networks (including diasporic Southeast Asian Chinese) connecting Sumatra and Java to Singapore facilitated the export of commodities to fund the revolution; how Indonesian sailors and political prisoners in Australia mobilised in solidarity with their Australian, Indian and Chinese counterparts to impede Dutch naval operations in the Indonesian archipelago. All of these forces were made possible by cosmopolitan connections that linked Indonesians to Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Australia in the decades, even centuries, preceding the Indonesian revolution, and made a discernible impact on the revolution’s success. Reaching further back, Sidel convincingly demonstrates how the unassimilated Chinese diaspora in the Netherlands East Indies proved an important stimulant for Indonesian nationalism, providing organisational precedents and republican visions which Sarekat Islam, the Indies’ first anticolonial mass organisation, would react against and successfully adapt.
Sidel does not have a core archive in the way historians often do, and these insights are not the result of ground-breaking research using hitherto unknown sources. Instead, he makes a powerful analytical contribution to existing scholarship by questioning why the Philippine, Indonesian and Vietnamese revolutions occurred when they did in comparative perspective, exploring their conditions of possibility and showing how dominant explanations for their outbreak have not sufficiently recognised the importance of cosmopolitan and trans-regional connections in fuelling these revolutions. It was these connections that made them successful where earlier attempts at anticolonial mobilisation had failed, and it is this interpretive paradigm, clearly stated and surgically targeted, that makes Sidel’s book such a valuable addition to comparative Southeast Asian history.
Sidel’s argument, however, does not end there. He also explores the aftermath of these revolutions, showing how many of the cosmopolitan connections that empowered revolutionaries also planted the seeds of dissension and exacerbated centrifugal forces on freshly-minted polities. This may seem paradoxical at first glance, but Sidel does an eloquent job of demonstrating how strengths could quickly become weaknesses in different political contexts. The Philippine revolution, for example, benefited from forms of associational life such as rural Catholic cofradías (lay brotherhoods) and Masonic lodges, which provided powerful channels of social mobilisation for the largely-urban Katipunan who spearheaded the revolution. However, the liberal and republican ideals that electrified the revolutionaries, uniting urban and rural, peasants and landowners, intelligentsia, proletariat and patricians through these mobilising structures, also proved inadequate to address the needs and aspirations of rank-and-file revolutionaries. The Philippine revolution relied on ideas, rhetoric and organisational structures it acquired through cosmopolitan connections to succeed; the same forces failed to deliver a hoped-for commonwealth to Filipinos, weakening the new Malolos republic at a time when it faced the existential threat of US imperialism.
Sidel’s greatest strength lies in being able to synthesise scholarship both classic and recent into a digestible yet detailed narrative. Taking the Indonesian example, Sidel shows that the genesis of the agentive pemuda, the youths who filled the revolutionary rank-and-file, did not simply lie in Japanese-sponsored paramilitaries or Javanese essentialism, nor in the dynamism of anticolonial intellectuals acquired through colonial education or European sojourns, as other scholars have argued. Drawing together the implications of deepening linkages with the rest of the Muslim community through steam travel and print, influential diasporas of Parsis, Arabs and Chinese, novel forms of popular culture and the development of subversive new vernaculars, Sidel condenses a complicated skein of Indonesian history into a tight narrative arc. This is what makes this monograph so appealing: his questions are undeniably pertinent for any student of the recent history of the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam or broader Southeast Asia; his answers are concise where other specialist monographs go down the rabbit hole of historical detail, yet they are still able to encompass the big picture without meandering. Every side-trip the book makes to Paris, Porto Novo and Guangzhou leads to delightful and unanticipated insight on Southeast Asian revolutionaries, and these detours are refreshing rather than distracting.
Sidel’s ability to toggle between three Southeast Asian countries, as well as demonstrable fluency in a range of histories outside of Southeast Asia, is also truly impressive. Already known for being one of the few scholars who has genuine expertise in both Indonesia and the Philippines, he is perfectly positioned to execute this difficult comparative analysis of three revolutions. In fact, he often goes beyond these three countries: the breadth and depth of Sidel’s reading – which includes both primary and secondary sources, as he shows in his section on the Tartar Muslim Communist Mir Sultangaliev or the section on Egyptian labour mobilisation – speaks volumes about the effort and dedication that went into writing this book.
Sidel’s treatment of Vietnam, which is relatively untrodden ground for a scholar working primarily on the Philippines and Indonesia, is particularly notable for its depth and rigour. It dives deep not only into the revolutionary bases of cosmopolitan Guangzhou and the Siamese frontier, but also examines the transit of ideas and the formation of solidarities across the colonised societies of the French Empire, encompassing Cambodia, Laos, Dahomey and Madagascar. These connections, facilitated by the demands of empire – particularly in commodity labour, maritime shipping and military service abroad – and manifest in popular theatre, literature and intellectual activity, shaped Vietnamese anticolonial sensibilities in fundamental ways. In conjunction with bureaucratic French structures of governance, they helped create a robust Vietnamese nationalism, strongly tinted by Marxism-Leninism and its attendant structures, that was able to withstand French attempts at recolonisation after 1945. All of these arguments are concise but never terse, despite the wealth of supporting evidence Sidel deploys.
It is this argumentative aspect of Sidel’s writing that makes this book especially suitable for graduate and undergraduate courses on Southeast Asian history. Even the conclusion, which is not unduly long, contains a tightly-structured comparative argument which draws in nearly every Southeast Asian nation state. Such features make this monograph especially useful for both graduate and undergraduate students. There are several wonderful comparative-minded monographs which cover some of the same ground as Sidel does, notably Tim Harper and Christopher Bayly’s Forgotten Wars (2007) and Tim Harper’s Underground Asia (2020). These are gripping reads for non-specialists which transport their readers with choice anecdotes and their narrative sweep, but neither can compete with Sidel’s Republicanism, Communism, Islam for argumentative clarity. Sidel combines Harper and Bayly’s readability with a nuanced argument that pointedly inserts his monograph into a scholarly debate on the roots of revolutions across Southeast Asia.
There is one aspect of the book which would have benefited from more sustained analysis. Sidel explores how Islam, Republicanism and Communism could coexist and even mutually reinforce one another as mobilising discourses for anticolonial resistance. Sidel puts it succinctly: ‘Without Islam and communism, nationalism would not have sufficed for purposes of winning Indonesian independence’ (199). These ideas were imagined as congruent with the nation, or at least not inimical to it. Revolutionaries were successfully roused by narratives of holy struggle (jihad), Christian ethics and fraternal ideals, or communist condemnations of structural exploitation; many saw the fulfilment of their cherished hopes as entirely possible within the framework of the nation state. Indeed, many perceived the nation state as necessary for the fulfilment of these hopes. The eponymous concepts of Republicanism, Communism and Islam provide the book’s title; their fractious interaction, as well as the tensions and incongruities generated when these beliefs came into contact with nationalistic sentiment, are important enough to merit more attention, perhaps in a distinct chapter.
Minor quibbles aside, Republicanism, Communism, Islam is a thoroughly enjoyable read that will appeal to both academic specialists and students. Sidel’s trademark eloquence, known to scholars from Capital, Coercion, and Crime: Bossism in the Philippines (1999) and Riots, Pogroms, Jihad: Religious Violence in Indonesia (2006), is on full display here. This book is an invaluable addition to the existing scholarship on Southeast Asian history, and condenses so much compelling history into its pages that readers will be impelled to follow up on the plethora of monographs in its bibliography.
 See Sidel’s discussion of the satirical Azeri journal Molla Nasreddin, which began publication in Baku in 1906, pages 73-74, 96, 111 and 228. Sidel cites Molla Nasreddin as an example of print culture that appealed to the literate and the illiterate in both style and substance, serving as a powerful stimulant to the dissemination of nationalist consciousness. Sidel shows how Molla Nasreddin had cognates in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, making Baku a useful point of reference for understanding the conditions necessary for revolution in Southeast Asia.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, the Department of International Relations, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.