In the lead-up to Christmas, we offer Lowy research staff selections for the best book they've read this year. Part 1 is here.
Once Were Radicals: My Years as a Teenage Islamo-fascist, by Irfan Yusuf. Selected by Dave McRae, Research Fellow, East Asia Program.
I came across this book through a chance introduction to the author at a conference, with the intermediary saying they had read his book over the holidays in just two days. Yusuf's book did not disappoint; it is an irreverent memoir of the author's flirtations with political Islam in Australia in the 1980s and early 1990s, which beautifully captures the sense of an older set of eyes looking back on his own youthful brashness.
Having recently translated Solahudin's The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia, I found additional interest in Yusuf's descriptions of the rifts within Australia's political Islamic movements, as an indirect echo of Solahudin's discussion of the energy Indonesian jihadis devote to determining who is or isn't an unbeliever, on whom war must be waged and what practices constitute unwarranted innovation or idolatry. All in all, a pleasingly humorous but informative take on a serious subject.
The Age of Revolution is the first of four works by Hobsbawm that 'vulgarise' the history of political economy over the last 200 years. In Revolution, Hobsbawm attempts to show how the French Revolution of 1789 and the contemporaneous (British) industrial revolution massively disrupted the political and economic trajectory of Europe and, subsequently, the world. An unabashed dialectal materialist, Hobsbawm captures in broad strokes the emergence of capitalist industry, 'bourgeois' liberalism, the plight of the labouring poor and the impact that the interplay between these phenomena had on the new ways in which society (particularly the growing middle class) came to conceive of itself.
Despite having completed degrees in both economics and politics, and having tutored in political economy, it is somewhat shameful that I have never been required to read or teach anything by Eric Hobsbawm (I'm down with Paul Krugman's call for economists to have a better grounding in history).
Published in 1962, Hobsbawm's work still has resonance, with many 21st century economists now concerned that innovation-inspired growth is basically over, and that we are in for an era of 'secular' economic decline. Hobsbawm reminds us that 'economic innovation' relies not only upon entrepreneurial businesspeople but also upon 'disruptive' actors in the fields of politics, political thought (the two are not the same) and social mobilisation.
Jusuf Wanandi is an outstanding Indonesian commentator, journalist, and sometime presidential adviser. His book, Shades of Grey, is a brilliant account of Indonesian political events during the 30 years of the Soeharto era.
Wanandi has fascinating views about many events and personalities during the Soeharto era and he is refreshingly generous in sharing his impressions. He writes about the traumatic transition from Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, to the second presidency under Soeharto; he is astonishingly frank about the period in 1965-66 when the Indonesian Communist Party was crushed at a huge cost in human life; he tells us much about the role of the military in Indonesia; he discusses the invasion of East Timor and his growing disillusionment with Soeharto by the late 1980s.
Wanandi's story is packed with vivid anecdotes, focuses on key events over the period and is a marvellous read.