Re-Reading WS Rendra’s ‘Perjuangan Suku Naga’ (The Struggle Of The Naga Tribe) – Essay


A retrospective essay on Indonesia’s greatest poet and playwright during the time of President Suharto.

“You got to have patience. Why Tom, us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone ….. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But we keep a-comin,” — John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

“If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through, it will blow everything in its way.” — Emile Zola, J’accuse


In 1975, Willybrordus Surendro Rendro (Rendra) wrote and performed Perjuangan Suku Naga (The Struggle of the Naga Tribe; henceforth The Struggle,) a play about the Naga tribe which triumphantly opposes the forces of industrialization and modernization in order to maintain their cultural autonomy and to protect their copper-rich territorial chastity from being raped by the “ogress from tanah sabrang,” foreign based transnational corporations.(1)

As Max Lane wrote, the enormous success of the play, drawing crowds of several thousand during its first performances, is “besides being due to the excellent acting and script, must also be attributed to its power as a genuine meeting between indigenous cultural experiences and social reality.”(2) The Struggle’s dramatic framework adaptively parallels the epic Bharata Yuddha lakon (3) and its theme is that of a critique of Indonesia’s socio-economic reality although in the prologue, the Dalang assure us:

This story does not – I stress once again, does not – take place in Indonesia, so don’t get uptight and censor the story.(4)

Analyses of the play have been few. Nonetheless, in general most of them center around the affirmation of the playwright’s ingenuity in blending the framework of the wayang with the theme of Indonesia’s socio-economic decadence.(5)

But if wayang is the dramatic framework Rendra based his play upon, what then appears to be the ideological framework the playwright adheres to in the process of creating The Struggle? One could contend with the Indonesian literary critic, Profesor Teeuw when he wrote about Rendra:

Rendra has remained faithful to his own calling: he is no politician, he has no ideology and no practical solutions to offer, but he is a poet, whose sole duty is to have a ready ear for the cry of the wounded animal falling from its nest as a man is aiming his desecrating arrows at the moon. (underline-mine)(6)

Rendra is not a politician but is he apolitical? Non-ideological? Without practical solutions to offer to the problems of underdevelopment? Besides asserting that Rendra remains without ideology. Teeuw also believes: “[o]f all contemporary poets perhaps Ajip [Rosidi] and Rendra are the least influenced by foreign trends.”(7) And, in talking about Indonesian poetry and poets after 1965, Teeuw however believes that the rich variety in themes and motives of Rendra’s work (his poems particularly), can be attributed to his syncretic elements and manifested in his literary products.

The syncretist elements which contribute to the playwright’s creative power are drawn from traditional Javanese, Christian, Hindu-Buddhist, animistic, as well as Islamic thoughts. (8) However, Teeuw is talking about Rendra’s overall philosophical orientation especially with respect to the latter’s early collection of poems. Specifically, however, in much of Teeuw’s as well as Lane’s analyses of The Struggle there seems to be a major denial, consciously or otherwise, of the distinct ideological basis the play is grounded within: political economy. Such a discourse, of social analysis, Marxian in tradition, is distinctively foreign in tradition and serves as the analytical case of Rendra’s satirical piece.

The intent of this essay is to shed light upon the features such as ideological delineation in Rendra’s criticism’s on issues such as modernization, mass consumption, false consciousness, technological inappropriateness, and authoritarian rule which are not viably analyzable within the political economic framework. I propose that Marxist analysis – especially from the dependency perspective – is employed throughout the author’s work. Through the character Abivara – a “critical theorist” within the Naga tribe – Rendra’s voice of conscience is heard loud and clear in his powerful ideologiekritik of both the international bourgeoisie and their collaborators, the underdeveloped native elite; the two groups as purveyors of the modern capitalist system.

Political-economy approach to the study of the Play: Marxist theme, Javanese accent?

Precisely because the theme of The Struggle is that of an indigenous culture’s attempt to preserve its existence and cultural autonomy and to perpetuate its cherished pastoral and communal values in the face of super-exploitative desires of modern capitalism, Rendra’s play must be seen within the political economic context. Respectively, the “great communicator”, of Rendra’s ideological orientation is Abivara. Remarkable and sound are the latter’s philosophical, political, and economic argumentative bases that one would be compelled to analyze the roots of Rendra’s rhetoric. Abivara speaks for Rendra, Abivara’s words are Rendra’s thoughts. Especially at the time of Rendra’s authoring up The Struggle, those thoughts were the products of a phase in Rendra’s creative process: his Marxist interlude.

Through Rendra’s essay on his creative process, his poems lamenting the theme of human dispossession in an industrialized society, and plays he translated and authored prior to the writing of The Struggle, one can find the prevalence of Marxist themes in the playwright’s work. Most remarkable is the universality of Rendra’s analysis for the study of underdeveloped societies; poverty is a structural problem when viewed within a larger historical and dialectical materialistic context. Thus, before further analysis of The Struggle is made, a brief discussion on the structurality of poverty, i.e. political as well as an analytical framework to the study of Rendra’s masterpiece. Political economy is a discipline for studying how a particular society organizes the distribution of its economic surplus for the benefit of its members.

It goes beyond orthodox economics in that not only the means of economic distribution is analyzed, rather, it also recognizes that power relations are embedded within these practices. In addition to that, political economy also looks at how human values are altered or stagnated in the process of development. Charles K.Wilber and Kenneth Jameson, in an essay which analyzes the various paradigms of economic development which have dominated the theoretical writings of scholars on development, stated that the political economist is concerned with the enhancement of human values in the “active”, – i.e. human beings as subjects of development – rather than the “passive” sense – i.e. as objects of development – within the overall process of economic growth. (9)

Political economists differ with orthodox economists in their view of what constitutes the means and end in development, in that,

Traditional economists look at people’s values as means. Since the goal is growth, if people’s values have to change in order to get growth, then society must effect that change. But for political economists, one goal is to enhance people’s core values. Development becomes the means, not the end, for the end is to enhance what people value. Development or growth is desirable only if it is consistent with people’s deepest values. (10)

Political economy sees the inextricable link between politics and economics; whichever group controls the economic resources and surplus controls the development process. External and internal loci of control over the surplus are crucial topics explored by this form of Marxist analysis. (11) With regard to external control, for example if the economy of a particular developing country is controlled by outside forces – international agencies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, transnational business or banking corporations, etc ..) political economists would argue that the development policies pursued by that country would be influenced by policies made by those international agencies. In addition, the external forces would collaborate with the internal forces. As such, an alliance is forged; there would be a First World-Third World dependency based upon collaborations between the foreign political-economic elites with those with political and economic powers in the developing country. Within this context, development means the unequal relationship between the developed and the developing country.

Technology, investments, capital, technical skills, and services from the former to the latter in effect not only create a dependency relationship based upon unequal exchanges but also ensure that the primary beneficiaries from such a structural arrangement would ultimately be the political and economic elites for both camps, international capitalists and their “friends”, the native comprador-bourgeoisie. Marxist writers such as Paul Baran, Andre Gunder Frank, and Bill Warren have dwelt on the dependency notion of development in their analyses of the under development of Latin America in particular and the Third World in general. (12) The Struggle, albeit dramatically framed after the wayang, is primarily based upon the Marxist analytical framework: political economy.

Perhaps Rendra fell short of employing class analysis (in the tradition of vulgar Marxism) for the contenting “battle” between classes are reduced to that of the capitalist class and a tribal group, the Naga, rather than between capitalists and workers (industrial and agricultural). Nonetheless, such a lack is perhaps intentional, for the intent of the play is to satirize in a non-complex caricatured manner. The Struggle, in addition, is perhaps meant to be performed for an unsophisticated audience which would immediately grasp the message of social criticism. In short, Rendra wrote the play for the rural masses. In fact, The Struggle was created with the “involvement’ of the rural peasantry. As Max Lane wrote:

The actual writing and rehearsing of the play was preceded by a number of visits to villages where the group spoke to the villagers about their lives. These visits were prominently reported in the Indonesian press. Moreover, the rehearsing of the play in an open yard in the kampong involved local villagers as an audience and as commentators right from the beginning of the production. This latter aspect elicited an enthusiastic reaction from the villagers who would often wait to watch a rehearsal. Some parents even began naming their children after the characters in the play just as they do with wayang. (13)

At this juncture, the question is : what is Rendra’s perception of the role of art in society? Is art, as in the case of art for art’s sake, merely an aesthetic expression in support of the dominant class in power, or should art expose the contradictions in a society, a mirror of life in the Marxist sense, i.e. constantly in question of the mismanagements of those in power and raising the critical consciousness of the dispossessed masses? In other words, is the artist merely an embodiment of the bourgeoisie class or does the artist have a more committed role within the overall picture of contending and continuing struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed? Part of the question has been answered.

In Rendra’s The Struggle, the simplicity of the plot, the message intended, and the creative involvement of the peasantry in the notion of “committed” art in the Marxist sense art, to be truly meaningful, must ally itself with those marginalized in the face of oppressive forces. Whilst such an answer can be sought via one’s analysis of The Struggle, the other part can be sought through Rendra’s writings which describe his ideological delineation – from his viewing of art for its own sake to art as purposeful. In an essay centering around that question, for example, Rendra wrote about the event which prompted him to use art as a tool for social criticism. (14)

The event was his stay in the United States from 1964-1967; the years which introduced him to disciplines such as sociology, politics, and economics, that give him the basic tools to analyze the inner workings of the capitalist system. Prior to 1964, he was in fact already aware of his tendency to shift to committed art which was then the practice of Lekra (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakjat) artists who championed the idea of art for the masses. Nonetheless, Rendra did not yet acquire the artistic tools to commit himself in Lekra. He wrote in “Proses Kreatif Saya”:

[S]ukar dibayangkan bahawa saya akan studi untuk terlibat di dalam masalah sosial-politik-ekonomik sebagaimana para seniman Lekra yang didikte oleh keputusan sentral partai. Meskipun begitu saya tidak pernah anti kepada seni yang “terlibat”. Bahkan mungkin sebenarnya sudah terdorong untuk terlibat tetapi belum menguasai sarana-saranan penghayatannya. Baru setelah tahun 1964 saya pergi ke Amerika Serikat dan tinggal di sana selama 3, 5 tahun saya sempat berkenalan secara bersungguh-sungguh dengan sarana-sarana penghayatan itu. Ialah: ilmu sosial, ilmu politik dan ilmu ekonomi. Bukan artinya saya lalu menjadi ahli di dalam bidang-bidang itu, tetapi saya mulai memahami dasar dari ilmu-ilmu tersebut. (15)

Prior to the writing of The Struggle, Rendra and Bengkel Teater performed several plays, both original and adaptations, with themes of revolt against established rules. Two which warrant discussion for their Marxist treatment are the Greek classic Lysistrata and Rendra’s original, Mastadon dan Burung Kondor (Mastadon and Eagle). Lysistrata, was adopted at the time of Rendra’s interlude with political economy, the theme of the Greek classic is revolt, “[t]he women of Athens and Sparta were accusing the male oligarchies, who rule these cities, of waging war against their neighbors while the national economy deteriorated and the people suffered.” (17)

Whilst Lysistrata can be said to be a political economic treatment of a play set in ancient times. Rendra’s Mastadon dan Burung Kondor is without doubt a play based upon the realities of contemporary socio-economic problems, which find their expression in Marxist terms – a critique of the modern capitalist system. The theme in the latter is development and underdevelopment in a Latin American country and how mass marginalization of the rural poor – via the country’s obsession with the Gross National Product (GNP) is a yardstick of development. (18)

Mastadon and Burung Kondor is remarkable in its exploration of the theme of dependency. The 1970s was a period when dependency theory of development was at its primacy. The ripening of social turmoil, mass marginalization of the poor, and the increasing domination of predominantly United States-based transnational corporations upon the economies in Latin America gave birth to dependency theory and the study of under development. Wilber write about the theorists as well as the dominance of the theory within the context of Third World development:

Starting with the historical studies of underdevelopment pioneered by Celso Furtado, Andre Gunder Frank, Keith Griffin, Osvaldo Sunkel, and others, a dependency perspective on the process of development and underdevelopment has been in the making, particularly in regard to Latin America. This structural approach builds on the history of capitalist development ….. The development of capitalism and the world market is seen as a twofold process. A highly dualistic process of underdevelopment of Africa, Asia, and Latin America is the consequence of the process of development of Europe and North America. This twofold process created a situation of dependence in which the underdeveloped countries become appendages of the developed countries. (19)

Mastadon dan Burung Kondor is Rendra’ analysis of the Latin American experience, employing dependency theory as its ideological base. Perhaps it can be correctly said that sciences of sociology, politics, and economics (“ilmu social, ilmu politik dan ilmu ekonomi”) (20) the playwright studied during his stay in the United States are those in the Marxist tradition of dependency perspective. The Struggle Rendra employed such an analysis in relation to the socio-economic realities of Indonesia. But before further analysis is made on Rendra’s interlude with Marxism, in the context of The Struggle a brief note on a similar ideological shift in Rendra’s poetry-making needs to be mentioned. In his collection of poems Blues for Bonnie, the fruits of Rendra’s years in the United States, he acknowledged that many of the issues dealt with are about morality and commonsense. Such was the period of Rendra’s search for an art form which would suit him best. He wrote:

Dari alam stoned saya harus menyeberangi ke alam common sense. Seperti orang bertapa yang turun gunung, lalu tergagap dan termanggu di dalam pasar. Banyak pengalaman rohani dan pikiran saya didalam persentuhan dengan persoalan sosio-politik dan ekonomi itu. Tetapi saya belum bisa merumuskan pengalaman itu dengan baik di dalam alam kesedaran yang baru itu. Demikian pula saya belum bisa menemukan “bentuk kesenian”-nya yang cocok. Di dalam ketegangan kreatif serupa itu, persoalan itu menyentuh rasa moral saya. Sebagai hasilnya lahirlah Blues Untuk Bonnie yang tidak merumuskan persoalan sosiopolitik, tetapi persoalan moran dan common sense. (21) (emphasis original)

Nonetheless, although as Rendra himself admits of his non socio-political and not committed nature of Blues for Bonnie, much of what he poetizes about are people dehumanized in a world of progress. In “Negro Tua” Rendra writes about an old Negro from Georgia, despite his deteriorating health, still plucks his guitar for a living. In “Maria Zaitun”, “Bersatulah Pelacur-Pelacur Jakarta”, and “Rick dari Corona”, the poet championed the prostitutes whom he sees as the by-products of a world dehumanized by modernization. And in “Pemandangan Senjakala” the theme is mass destruction of human lives in the face of war created by human beings themselves. (22) Blues for Bonnie is thus about human dispossession especially in a nation as rich as America. As Dani N.Toba wrote:

“Blues untuk Bonnie”, merupakan nota universal tentang kemelaratan manusia terlantar di Amerika Serikat, di mana ada diskriminasi dan hak sosial lebih tinggi dari ras putih. Negro tua yang menjadi tokoh Rendra masih lebih lumayan dari “Maria Zaitun” Indonesia, karena masih bisa menyanyi, biarpun tubuh sudah “bagai guci retak”. (23)

It was after 1971 that Rendra began writing poems centering around socio-economic and political themes. Written between 1971-1978 and compiled in Potret Pembangunan Dalam Puisi, (24 ) the poems, as Rendra claimed, are meant for his audience rather than for the critics. The strength in a particular art form is judged by the degree the audience understands what the message is, the poet believed. (25 )The public response to the poems in Potret Pembangunan Dalam Puisi was good at the time Rendra read them in public. That success, Rendra believes, is due to the strength of the art form, one which commits itself to the issues of socio-economic and politics. Rendra attacked those in the literary circle who believed that art needs its critics who would help the audience judge its aesthetic value. He wrote:

Kritikus adalah jambatan antara penonton dan pembaca dengan seniman? Omong kosong! Kritikus adalah jambatan antara seniman dengan kemungkinan-kemungkinan spekulatif dalam dunia seni. Jambatan yang benar-benar bisa diandalkan antara seniman dengan penonton atau pembacanya adalah kekuatan “bentuk seni”nya. Seniman yang mengiba-iba dan memohon agar kritikus suka menjadikan jambatan lagi karyanya, sebenarnya kalau diteliti ternyata karyanya itu memang punya “bentuk seni” yang lemah, atau yang tidak otentik timbul dari penghayatan terhadap kehidupan tetapi timbul dari prasangka-prasangka yang eksentrik dan dari tingkah genit yang dibikin-bikin. Jadi memang serba artifisial. (26)

Themes of oppression, alienation and protest against those in power who dehumanize others, embodied particularly in Rendra’s poems written in the 70s reflects the poet’s use of art as a tool to champion the plight of the masses. Rendra’s engagement with the plight of the wretched of the earth, placed him among writers in the Marxist humanist tradition. The poet’s use of his intellectualism in making aware the unknown i.e. raising the critical consciousness of the dispossessed in seeing the structure of their dehumanizing condition parallels what Jean-Paul Sartre – humanist, philosopher, and literary genius – believed about the role of art and the artist in society. Sartre, who believed that literature is always committed, said in 1959.

If literature is not everything, it is worth nothing. This is what I mean by ‘commitment’. It wilts if it is reduced to innocence, or to songs. If a written sentence does not reverberate at every level of man and society, then it makes no sense. What is the literature of an epoch appropriated by its literature? (27)

Rendra’s art explains to the public the process of ideological manipulation of the ruling class upon the masses. Especially in The Struggle, he analyzes the ruling class’s mystification of the term “development”. What makes Rendra an intellectual who “has the right” to his art is the fact that he communicates to the masses what is otherwise known: the ideology of the ruling elite. In other words Rendra’s “committed art” attempts to release the masses from the shackles of such ideological domination. In the Sartrean sense, Rendra is not an intellectual “accidentally” (i.e. propagator of bourgeois ideology), but an intellectual “essentially” (communicator of the miscommunicated). (28) As Sartre summarize the role of the written (intellectual) within the contending demands of “universality” (real knowledge) and “particularism” (ideology of those in power):

The commitment of the writer is to communicate the incommunicable (being-in the-world as lived experience) by exploiting the misinformation contained in ordinary language, and maintaining the tension between the whole and the part, totality and totalization, the world and being-in-the-world, as the significance of his work. In his professional capacity itself, the writer is necessarily always at grips with the contradiction between the particular and the universal. Whereas other intellectuals see their function arise from a contradiction between the universalist demands of their professions and the particularist demands of the dominant class, the inner task of the writer is to remain on the plane of lived experience while suggesting universalization as the affirmation of life on its horizon. In this sense, the writer is not an intellectual accidentally, like others, but essentially. (29) (emphasis original)

And in The Struggle, Rendra attempts to universalize what is particular, communicate what is miscommunicated and though remaining on his plane of existence, reaches out to the masses to feed them with thoughts essential to the understanding of ideological dominance and the structurality of their socio-economic condition. Albeit simple in message and its framework. The Struggle is rich in its Marxist analysis of economic dependency and bourgeoisie ideology. More than just an analysis, Rendra does suggest an alternative development program based upon the idea of a participatory development. And more than any other character in the Naga tribe, perhaps Abivara can accurately be tamed as the dramatis personae; the great communicator of Rendra’s thoughts.

The Struggle as Habermasian Ideologiekritik

Though the play is set in Indonesia, the message is universal; one can relate it to the critique of modernization in the capitalist portion of the Third World. As such this essay does not attempt to ground Rendra’s analysis specifically as it pertains to Indonesian society. As mentioned in the introductory section, Max Lane’s analysis already serves as a major reference to the study of The Struggle as it relates to Indonesia’s socio-economic reality. Enough have been said by lane for that matter. Because of the universality of Rendra’s message, perhaps a more general and conceptual connection can be made of the play with a Marxist discourse rooted in German philosophical tradition: Ideologiekritik.

As the term suggests, such a discourse, or more accurately a cognitive science, deals with the critique of ideology. Particularly, ideologiekritik serves as a tool for the critique of the modern capitalist system. The Frankfurt Institute of Social Research (commonly referred to as the Frankfurt School), established in the 1920s, serves as an institution which gave prominence to critical theory; social research movement anti-thema logical positivism. The heart of critical theory lies in ideologiekritik. The latter attempts to analyze the role of ideology in a capitalist society; a role which prevents the working class from seeing the structurality of their situation as well as one which prevents them from carrying out the revolution Marx predicted would tear down the capitalist state. (30)

Three features of Ideologiekritik explain why it could aptly be related to the suggestion that Rendra’s play theoretically is based upon ideologiekritik:

(1) Radical criticism of its dominant ideology (Ideologiekritik) are inseparable, the ultimate goal of all social research should be the elaboration of a critical theory of society which Ideologiekritik would be an integral part. (2) Ideologiekritik is not just a form of ‘moralizing criticism,’ i.e. an ideological form of consciousness is not criticized for being nasty, immoral, unpleasant, etc. but for being false, for being a form of delusion. Ideologiekritik itself is a cognitive enterprise, a form of knowledge. (3) Ideologiekritik (and hence also the social theory of which it is a part) differs significantly in cognitive structure from natural science, and require for its proper analysis basic changes in the epistemological views we have inherited from traditional empiricism (modelled as it is on the study of natural science. (31)

The theory’s aim is to liberate individuals from the manipulations of ideology, especially those which serve the interests of those in power. In the same vein as Paulo Freire’s idea of conscientization, (32) critical theory attempts to subjectivize the objectified, communicate the miscommunicated, and unlearn what has hitherto been learned. In other words, critical theory is in character reflective and in its potential, emancipatory. As Brendo and Feinberg summarizes:

[C]ritical theory attempt to explain communicative distortion in terms of a history of events in which people’s interest were involved: it recognizes that this historical context gives meaning to present communicative distortions can be used to reveal the partial interest behind current ideologies made sense in their earlier lively days when they fitted their practical social contexts and the ways in which those social contexts changed, the critical theorist can better understand current distortions and the limited interest that they serve. (33)

How is Rendra’s The Struggle related to Critical Theory’s Ideologiekritik?

Exactly how and when Rendra studied critical theory is not the issue here, rather the dialogues in The Struggle do suggest an abundance of instances where critical theory is the underlying theoretical framework. The whole play is in fact a critique of positivist ideology permeating in Western modeled developmentalism, value neutrality of technology, cultural manifestation of modernization, etc. In other words, communication from the dominant class (international capitalist and its collaborator, the native bourgeoisie) is analyzed as a miscommunication; the latter distorts real communication. Through the voice of the Naga, Rendra offers the anti-theme to such distortions in communication, and hence, in the tradition of critical theory, attempts to anticipate his audience from such ideological mould. Remarkable is the manner Rendra exposes the inner workings of the modern capitalist system; both in its mode of production (economic base) and the ideology to sustain it (superstructure).

In The Struggle, a careful analysis would reveal that not only the Astinamese use their critical tools to oppose the rhetoric of capitalism but also most interestingly, Rendra even equates capitalism with similar tools to degrade itself and thus, in the process, exposing its own inner contradictions. In the very first scene “The Machine’s Chorus”, Rendra, in the Marxist sense, relates the development of capitalism with its tool of exploitation: technology. Dudley Dillard, in his essay on capitalism, wrote about the parallel but dependent development of capitalism and technology. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution with the shift of commercial activities to industry, technology became the major force aiding capitalism in promoting such a shift:

Two of three centuries of steady capital accumulation began to pay off handsomely in the 18th. century. Now it has become feasible to make practical use of technical knowledge which has been accumulating over the centuries. Capitalism became a powerful promoter of technological change because the accumulation of capital made possible the use of inventions which poorer societies could not have afforded. (34)

The machines – i.e. the promoter of capitalism -, speaking in chorus, described their capability of producing goods for mass consumption; the latter are to be sold cheaply via huge markets. Largely developed in the industrialized countries, “land of the ogres” as Rendra calls them – “rich in capital and in machines that produced commodities”, (35) – technology, personified, talked about the link between production and the inability of capitalism to withstand its own weight thus, have to search for markets abroad:

The warehouses overflow/ We’ve got nowhere to store our goods./ …… We sell our products cheaply/ We must have a huge market./ ….. Working fast requires a big market/ cheap goods can be sent far and wide. (36)

The machines also talked about “economics” in the neoclassical Milton Friedman sense; time saved by the advancement of technology for mass production will generate profit and if the workings of free market enterprise is disturbed, the economy will collapse. The machines reveal the logic of such a system:

Profit increases capital./ Capital increases profit. More money means more schemes./ We can’t be held up, we can’t be interrupted … Money must circulate./ Money must circulate/ Time is money./ Goods are money/ we call this economics….. If you disturb us/ Unemployed workers will bite their nails.37 And, besides their search for huge markets, the international capitalists also demand raw materials.

Such is a scheme the machines termed in unison as “Progress”. They chant:

Give us raw materials/ So that we can run. ….Progress This is the age of progress / The age of agriculture we leave behind./ The age of industry we make a reality. (38)

Thus, in the very beginning of The Struggle, Rendra lay deconstructed and presented the inner workings of the international capitalist system as such Dillard described – capitalism help develop sophistication in technology and in turn, the latter make efficient the production of goods for mass consumption, to be sold in as huge a market as possible. Marx, writing as early as in the Communist Manifesto (39) observed the alliance of capitalism and technology, and in the years after World War II writes such as Immanuel Wallerstein, (40) Richard Barnet and Ronald Muller, (41) and Paul Baran (42 )- those writing in the Marxist tradition, observed such a tendency of capitalism – technological development alliance to characterize the globalization of world economics. If the machines provide an expose, of such capitalist logic – i.e. Rendra providing technology the tools for self explanations, – the playwright, through the Dalang’s narration provides antithetical arguments to counter the already self degrading rhetoric of capitalism. The Dalang, albeit answering in a somewhat confused manner when explained about economics, nevertheless debunks the “trickle down” myth of development advanced by free-marketeers and modernization theorists.

Dialectical to the argument on profit, the Dalang relates development as such with poverty:

Money goes round and round/ Money circulates/ Round and round in the sky/ Up towards heaven./ Ah, but from there/ It never comes down to earth. The god of money gets richer/ The poor remain coolies/ For all eternity./ The people are cultivated, schooled and molded/ To be nothing but consumers. (43)

Whilst the “Machine’s Chorus” scene provide The Struggle’s audience with the knowledge of international capitalism’s logic for penetration into an “undeveloped” society, the “Astinampuram” scene described the mentality of the native comprador-bourgeoisie – the Indonesian elite set – who make possible the development of underdevelopment. Equipped with the paraphernalia of Western affluence and modernity, – dark sunglasses, heavy make-up, girdle to slim the body “before it’s too late”, (44) – Rendra’s “Sri Ratu’ is given the honor to lead the role of an Imelda Marcos – type wife of a leader obsessed with the rhetoric of Western-modeled developmentalists.

Nothing should obstruct the collaborative effort between the foreign investors and the elites of Astinapuram – for, there are benefits to be accrued in the latter’s approving of such a development scheme. For example, when the Prime Minister proposes that Sri Ratu approve the building of Wijaya Kasuma hospital, the latter see it as a viable project for a developing country whilst the Prime Minister assured that the queen will personally profit from such a deal. Rendra wrote its brilliant dialogue:

SRI RATU: …. Our nation must not be left behind in developing modern science. PRIME MINISTER: No need to worry, Your majesty. Happily there are many foreign companies who want to invest here and build pharmaceutical factories. SRI RATU: Their requests must be given priority – providing, of course, they show sufficient “understanding”. PRIME MINISTER: Their “understanding” is quite large. They are going to keep aside ten percent of the capital for unforeseen matters, the use of which will be entirely up to your Majesty, and will be entirely deposited in Your Majesty’s bank account in Hong Kong. SRI RATU: Excellent! (45)

Clearly, as in the earlier scene with machines, the native bourgeoisie are also given the tools to expose their inner contradictions; the Prime Minister himself suggests the corruption of the system with wealth from the country channeled into foreign banks. Rendra does not even limit his criticism of the capitalist ideology (permeated into the thinking of the native elites), by making the elites contradict themselves, he uses the Dalang to further conscientize his audience on the issue. The latter anti-thematically argued the building of Wijaya Kusuma: What’s the use of all this for the ordinary people? Most people in this country still live in poverty. What they need is not the most modern hospital in all Southeast Asia, but more small hospitals in each district. One luxury hospital could mean fifty simple hospitals available to all. (46) Thus, the preceding discussions on the two scenes show that Rendra criticizes the capitalist ideology which mystifies the term development.

For the international capitalists, development means larger markets for goods, which are mass produced, and no longer consumable in the industrialized societies, they are marketed in the underdeveloped societies. For the native elites, it means believing that those goods are inherently necessary for progress and the notion of modernization (albeit such is a false notion of development). The free enterprise model – allowing markets to regulate uninterruptedly, – is transplanted by international capitalists, “the ogress from tanah sabrang”, (47) into the economy of the developing society with collaboration from the native elite who equate progress with development along such a line. Rendra sees it as mystification and via Ideologiekritik unlocks the distorted communication.

Throughout the play, especially in the scenes of Astinapuram, and the Parliament, such a Marxist discourse the critique of capitalist ideology is employed. In the overall context of The Struggle, the Naga represent, as a group, a critique of those in power. Specifically through the voice of Abivara, Rendra offers his notion of how the younger generation, especially those equipped with Western-education (in the Marxist tradition) should think. One can almost see a biographical element of Rendra in Abivara; the critical theorist amongst the Naga. With the tools to analyze the capitalist system and its ideology, Abivara, back from his studies abroad (i.e. Rendra back from the United States?) offers his view on among other issues, technology, development, false consciousness, and the maintenance of one’s cultural autonomy in the face of foreign cultural imposition.

Abivara sees the value of technology more in its potential for liberation and to be used for social purposes rather than as a display of one’s power and prestige. For example in the same where he comes home to the Nagas, when asked by Sapaka why he did not bring a car come, he answered:

Indeed, as I lived modestly, I could have easily saved enough to buy two cars. But we don’t need cars here. What we need are trucks. Cars aren’t progress – they’re just a luxury. On the other hand, trucks can fulfill our basic needs. They can carry both more goods and more people. But first, the roads between the villages must be improved. To bring in trucks before the roads are improved is to show that you don’t understand technology. (48)

The relevance of appropriate technology is equated with the desire to meet basic needs and not basic greed. And with proper technology and infrastructure, society can produce goods for the market with absence of the middle-man; those who have the tendency to buy cheap goods from the producers whilst in turn reap profit of the urban market:

ABISAVAM: So it’s important that our village also build roads? ABIVARA: Yes father. Our village will then be able to run its own transport which can take our produce straight to the market. (49)

Abivara’s, thus Rendra’s view of development is one which would let the society control technology and use it as a tool to produce their basic necessities. Perhaps the most important scene laden with Rendra’s thoughts on the mystification of progress – one which saw the primacy Ideologiekritik – is Abivara’s expose on: false consciousness generated by the powers of the Western media to dominate society’s thinking. In “Abivara and Setyawati”, responding to Setyawati’s equating of urbanization and progress, Abivara asked: “What do you mean by ‘progress'”. (50)

Such is perhaps the question par excellence asked by those attempting to attack the rest of Western – developmentalist ideology. It is a radical question, demanding one’s analysis of the underlying assumptions, values, motives, etc. that has hitherto given primacy to capitalist economic base and its superstructure (ideology of the state apparatuses). Abivara argues for the social value in village life rather than for the impersonalized feature of urban life:

Is it really true that there is more social life in the towns? Good God! Townspeople hardly ever know the names of their own neighbors. Social intercourse between friends has become expensive in the town. All social intercourse must be related to some practical interest. It doesn’t matter if it’s a business or sexual interest, or some other material concern. It’s only one-sided social intercourse, not total. So in fact it’s really the townspeople who lack social life. (51)

Further along, Abivara demystify the notion that to progress means to adopt Western defined “fashion” which is “nothing more than new habits and new customs … and … only binds people.”(52) Abivara linked such definitions of progress and development with how false – consciously townspeople view those in the village:

Their ( the townspeople’s) view that they are superior to the villagers is an uneducated view. They should know that village people are more productive than townspeople. Villagers produced things from the earth. But what do townspeople produce? All they can do is import. Their economy is a hawker’s economy. Or the most they’re capable of producing is bureaucracy. And bureaucracy is an obstacle to progress. (53)

Bureaucracy, in Rendra’s mode of analysis, is a means to maintain the status quo which benefits those in power. And bureaucracy in the Astinamese circle means the abuse of the rule of law – a corruption of power. As the character “Mr. Joe” said in response to the “Big Boss” on the possibility of branding Abivara a subversive:

What law? There is no law here, only power. And the powerful here are very clever. They’re not concerned with the law. They’re concerned with tidiness. (54)

Rendra perhaps acquired sufficient tools to understand international capitalism’s profit-motive and exploitative scheme during his stay in the United States and hence, through Abivara, makes a plea to those with Western education to seek to serve in rural development efforts rather than work with foreign firms of the state bureaucracy. Abivara’s first speech, after returning from his studies abroad, clearly reiterate Rendra’s thoughts:

My father, uncles and all friends. I, Abivara, son of Abisavam, have now returned from studying across the sea to work in my village. (55)

The playwright debunks the myth that to get ahead in life means to be an important person working in the capital; a successful person is one who perpetuates the bureaucracy – one who maintains the status quo. In Abivara’s dialogue with Supaka, he defined leadership:

SUPAKA: Abivara, don’t you want to become an “important person” in the capital? ABIVARA: No, I’m not the “important person” type. SUPAKA: Don’t you want to get ahead in life? ABIVARA: Oh yes, I want to be a person who is useful. But to be an “Important person” is on the contrary, not to get ahead, not to progress. I want to be a leader. The “important persons always defend the status quo; leaders are willing to go forward”. (56)

Such is Rendra’s plea to the educated in that, they should see the immediate needs of the larger messes and not the perpetual greed of the elite for, society has invested a great deal in educating them. And, that leadership feature is present in Abivara who “has rather grown closer to his environment ….. doesn’t need electric guitars, air conditioning and porcelain toilets.”(57)

Within this context, Rendra is indeed critical of those dominated by Western developmentalist ideology in that they fail to see that they are indeed mentally captive – unable to break away from such ideological imprisonment – thus, potential failures in understanding the plight of the poor. These leaders cannot possibly become leaders in the sense Rendra categorized for, the false conscience pervading them – i.e. modernization values, – only ensure that the international capitalist ideology is maintained. They, like the international capitalists, will in turn be oppressors of their own people. Paulo Freire, in analyzing such a psychological state of mind, wrote:

How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be “hosts” of the oppressors can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization.58 (emphasis original)

To that effect, Abivara can be said to have discovered himself to be a “host” of the oppressor – the international capitalists and the Astinamese elites, – and with his knowledge of such an oppressive system, analyzes its contradiction and in turn “contribute to the midwifery of … the … liberating pedagogy”. (59) The preceding discussions on Abivara attest to the idea that there is, among the Nagas, a critical theorist who provides an Ideologiekritik to the capitalist ideology. Issues such as the ownership and control of technology, the mystified view on development, false consciousness of the elite in power as well as future leaders who would be perpetuators of such consciousness, bureaucracy as a mechanism of oppression in alliance with international capitalism, and foreign economic penetration, are among those Abivara spoke of in order to entangle their logic.

And if Abivara represents the promising dialectical thinker among the Naga, his creator Rendra not only is one amongst the Indonesian society but most remarkably, represents that voice of conscience among the oppressed masses all over the world at large. Such claim may not be exaggerated one, for even though the capitalist portion of Third World societies may represent an almost irreconcilable melange of different features – ethnic, religious, physiognomy, etc. – an underlying similarity amongst them is perhaps evident: the capitalist development path they travel on has paved way to authoritarianism, military rule, underdeveloped elitism, and abysmal gap between the haves and the have nots – in correlation to the development of international capitalism.

The Struggle’s dealing with those issues thus made it an aesthetic document of ideologiekritik. In each and every scene, and in the multitude of dialogues and philosophical reflections of its characters, – especially those in the Naga tribe – Rendra’s thoughts are like prescriptions to correct the ills in a society torn apart by political, economic and social decadence. Such a pathological condition prevails, ten years after Rendra wrote The Struggle.

The reigns of many Astinamese-type regimes in the post-war era have been overthrown by dialectical forces in alliance with the poor; those of Marcos in the Philippines, Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, the Shah in Iran, and Somoza in Nicaragua. Nonetheless, Suharto still reigns perhaps due to his power of mystifying the masses via his (albeit contradictory)Yudhistira charm. Until the masses can see their wretched poverty better than the glitters of the charm, Suharto’s Astinamese Kingdom will continue to reign. Perhaps Rendra does not have, if one agrees with Prof. Teeuw’s statement, any practical solutions to offer in correcting the political, social and economic ills in his society. But he does have a practical solution by making his audience start thinking about the ills as an initial step towards searching for alternate forms of social organization.

Perhaps Rendra learned from the liberations movements in Nicaragua, Cuba, China, and the Soviet Union by analyzing the teachings of Sandino, Che Guevara and Castro, Mao Zedong, and Trotsky, Lenin and Bukharin – that such a step not only is necessary but within a dialectical and historical context, inevitable. Such a step, in other words, will emerge by itself – perhaps the dialectical thinking generated as a historical inevitability and borne into individuals “chosen” by history as revolutionary thinkers – given the ripening of the socio-economic turmoil.

The playwright invites his audience to adopt such a mode of thinking. By caricaturing the societies into good and evil, Rendra does want his political statement to be understood to the maximum. He could have presented the dual nature of the Astinamese, i.e. a combination of good and evil, and likewise present the Naga with their inherent contradictions. Nonetheless, he does not want his audience to be confused with such an apologetic – especially towards the Astinamese – approach to his art. Such is the manner Rendra uses his drama to suggest the possibility of envisioning an alternate reality embodied in the cultural values of the Naga. These are the values which see the inherently humane approach of how a particular society should govern itself given its ability to make choices in deciding its path to progress and development. And such a path requires one’s examination and reexamining – in the Marxist idea of thesis and antithesis – of these goals of development in relation to human beings’ relationship with Nature and their relationship to other beings. As Lane wrote about such a “humanist radicalism”, in the Naga thought:

The goal of the Naga society is the productive relationship between man and man, and between man and nature. The farmer “who greet mother earth” and “take the benefits given”, but then, in accordance with the way of nature (jalan alam), protect the earth in turn, symbolize this productive relationship. (60)

And in The Struggle, that thought represents Rendra’s antithesis to the prevailing thesis – of capitalist bourgeois ideology which dominates both the Indonesian elite and the masses. With this dialectical thinking then a synthesis could emerge which consequently would lead one to envision a better reality, rejecting one which is invented by those in power. Perhaps this dictum is best summarized by Abivara’s friend Carlos:

People must awaken/ Witness must be given/ So that Life can be guarded. (61)


Viewing Rendra’s The Struggle within a Marxist framework is not an exercise in intellectual speculation; it is a viable and accurate way to approach the playwright’s masterpiece. The remarkable similarity of Rendra’s mode of analysis, to such variation, in essentially Marxist critique of the capitalist mode of production and its mode of ideological manipulation – variations such as dependency theory as well as Frankfurt School-inspired ideologiekritik – must be attributed to particular phase in the poets’ life: the years of his interlude with Marxism.

Such a claim is not far-fetched nor one based on the desire to encapsulate Rendra within an ideological mould. It is a claim to in fact ground the playwright within one of the ‘notches’ which has hitherto contributed to his rich and diverse intellectual base. Such a base too contributed to the wisdom of Rendra as a poet of the people who refuses to bow to elitist and static modes of thinking, especially that which is purveyed by international and native capitalist bourgeoisie.

He is an artist who is not willing to let artistic conventions dictate his art; he thus deplores the role of literary critics in judging how his art should be. Rather, he lets the suffering of the masses and the easy living of the elites dictate in what form his art would expose such contradictions. That commitment thus justifies his role as an artist – in the Sartrean sense – who has the right to use his art to mirror life. And, as long as Rendra is alive to hold such a mirror, the hopes of those dreaming for an alternate reality would not be extinguished for, as Rendra believed, People must be awakened Witness must be given So that Life can be guarded (62)


1. W.S. Rendra, The Struggle of the Naga Tribe, trans. and intr. Max Lane (New York: St. Martins Press, 1979), p. 5.

2. Ibid. p. xxv.

3. Ibid. p. xvii.

4. Ibid. p. 3.

5. Perhaps Max Lane’s introduction and commentary of the play represent a single major analysis of Rendra’s work.

6. A. Teeuw, Modern Indonesian Literature II, 2 vols., (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979) p. 113.

7. Ibid., p. 97.

8. Ibid., p. 111.

9. C.K. Wilber and Kenneth P. Jameson, “Paradigms of Economic Development and Beyond”, in C.K. Wilber ed. Political Economy of Development and UnderDevelopment 3d. ed (New York: Random House, 1984) p. 13.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., p. 14.

12. See for example: Paul Baron, “On the Political Economy of Backwardness”. Andre Gunder Frank, “The Development of Underdevelopment”, Bill Warren, “The postwar Economic Experiences of the Third World”, in Ibid.

13. Rendra, The Struggle, p. xxv.

14. See Rendra, “Proses Kreatif Saya”, in Dewan Kesenian Jakarta. Dua Puluh Sastrawan Bicara. (Jakarta: Sinar Harapan, 1984), p. 34.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Rendra, The Struggle, p. xxxiii.

18. Ibid.

19. Wilber and Jameson, “Paradigms of Economic Development and Beyond”, in C.K. Wilber ed. The Political Economy. p.17.

20. Dewan Kesenian Jakarta, Sastrawan, p.34.

21. Ibid.

22. See Dani N. Toba, Hamba-Hamba Kebudayaan, (Jakarta: Sinar Harapan, 1984), pp. 110-119.

23. Ibid., p. 34.

24. Ibid., p. 36.

25. Ibid., p. 37.

26. Ibid.

27. Jean Paul Sartre, Between Existentialism and Marxism, (New York: Panthean Books), p. 14.

28. Ibid., p. 284.

29. Ibid.

30. Eric Bredo and Walter Feinberg, Knowledge and Values in Social and Educational Research (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982), p. 271.

31. Raymond Guess, The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermans and the Frankfurt School. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1981). p. 26.

32. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (New York: Continuum, 1986).

33. Bredo and Feinberg, Knowledge and Values, p. 279.

34. Dudley Dillard, “Capitalism”, in Wilber ed. The Political Economy, p. 83.

35. Rendra, The Struggle, p. 5.

36. Ibid., p. 6.

37. Ibid., pp. 6-7.

38. Ibid. p. 7.

39. See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles, The Communist Manifesto, Samuel H. Beer (North Brook, Illinois: Att ed. M Publishing Corporation, 1955) pp. 88-89.

40. See for example Immanuel Wallerstein, The Capitalist World Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

41. Richard Barnet and Ronald E. Muller, Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974).

42. See Paul Baran, The Political Economy of Growth (Harmondsworth: , 1973) p. 133.

43. Rendra, The Struggle, p. 25.

44. Ibid, p. 7.

45. Ibid., pp. 2-2.

46. Ibid., pp. 27-28.

47. Ibid., p. 5.

48. Ibid., p. 22 For discussion on inappropriate technology, see for example, Dennis Goulet, The Cruel Choice, (New York: Anteneum, 1971).

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid., p. 42.

51. Ibid., pp. 42-43.

52. Ibid., p. 43.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid., p. 67.

55. Ibid., p. 21.

56. Ibid.

57. Ibid., p. 66.

58. Freire, Pedagogy, p. 33.

59. Ibid.

60. Rendra, The Struggle, p. xxvii.

61. Ibid., p. 69.

62. Ibid.

Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

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