Workers' Liberty #61


Communism and Stalinism in Indonesia

Suharto, Indonesia's military dictator toppled in 1998, came to power in 1965 after organising one of the bloodiest massacres of the twentieth century, destroying the Communist Party of Indonesia (the PKI). The PKI was the oldest communist party in Asia, and the largest outside of Russia and China. To many observers in the sixties, Indonesia seemed to be the country most likely to "go communist". As radical politics revive today in Indonesia, activists will have to learn the lessons from the PKI's history.

By Paul Hampton

The origins of the Communist Party of Indonesia date from the arrival of Henk Sneevliet in 1913. Under his guidance, in May 1914, the Indies Social Democratic Organisation (ISDV) was founded. It had 85 members in 1915 and 134 a year later. It was especially strong in the railworkers union, the VSTP. In October 1915, the ISDV established a paper, Het Vrije Woord (The Free Word), edited by Adolf Baars and published in Dutch. In 1917 they set up the first Indonesian-language socialist journal, Soeara Merdika (The Free Voice) and, more successfully, from 1918, a new organ, Soeara Rakyat (The People's Voice).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Dutch East Indies was one of the most profitable colonies in the world. Its population had grown from 4 million in 1815 to 50 million people and included 150,000 Europeans and one million Chinese. The Netherlands had one third of its capital assets invested in the colony by the turn of the century. Huge profits flowed out of the colony to the Netherlands, the result of good business in sugar, cocoa and coffee. On Java alone there were 200 large sugar mills, and a significant proletariat of one million. Between 30-50% of peasants were landless, approximately 95% were illiterate and only 10% went to school. (Riddell, 1991: 254-258).

Serikat Islam

The first nationalist organisation had been the Budi Utomo ('Noble Endeavour'), founded by intellectuals in 1908, but more significant was the Serikat Islam (SI, Islamic Union), founded in 1911 to protect Javan batik merchants, which soon became much more militant.

By 1916, Serikat Islam (SI) had hundreds of thousands of members, and cautiously raised the question of self-government, and so the ISDV sought to work within it.

Work within SI transformed the ISDV from a small group of Dutch expatriates into an overwhelmingly Indonesian organisation that led workers' struggles. The most prominent figure of these early Indonesian Marxists was Semaun, a railworker who led the Semarang branch of the SI, which in 1916-17 grew from 1,700 members to 20,000. Where in 1915 the ISDV had 100 Dutch members and only three Indonesians, by 1919 it had 25 Dutch members, a handful of Chinese and some 300 Indonesians. (McVey, 1965: 396).

In 1917 the ISDV split over the February revolution in Russia. Sneevliet wrote an article which argued that Dutch rule in the Indies would go the way of the Tsar if only the Indonesians set their minds to it. The authorities tried to prosecute him. After a nine-hour anti-colonial speech in court, he won his case. Moderates in the party resigned, and in May 1918 Baars announced that the ISDV were ardent followers of the Bolsheviks. After a soldiers' and sailors' revolt in Surabaja, the major naval base in the Indies, in late 1917, the authorities expelled the Dutch ISDV leaders - starting with Sneevliet - and gave the soldiers' leaders 40 years imprisonment. Yet the ISDV did not dissolve.

Membership of Serikat Islam peaked at over two million in 1919. Together the ISDV and SI united the unions when the first labour federation was established in December 1919, consisting of 22 unions and 70,000 workers, and known as the Concentration of Labour Movements (the PPKB). By mid-1920 the PPKB had 150,000 members.

The ISDV congress in May 1920 decided to change its name to the Communist Party of the Indies (Perserikatan Kommunist di India, PKI). At the second congress of the Comintern, which Sneevliet attended as the PKI representative, communists in the East were advised to support bourgeois-nationalist movements who were fighting imperialism, while retaining their independence. This was the strategy Marx had advocated in Germany during the 1848 revolution, which he dubbed 'the revolution in permanence'. The Comintern congress also condemned pan-Islamism, to the disquiet of some PKI leaders.

Nationalism in the sense of an independent Indonesia was viewed by the Indonesian socialists as the ideology of the aspiring bourgeoisie. They believed their position was unique because Indonesia lacked a native bourgeois class strong enough to play a real political role in forming a nationalist movement, so the Indonesian revolution would combine liberation from the Dutch with socialist revolution. Yet as Ruth McVey explained, "In 1922 the word 'Indonesia' began to replace the colonial 'Indies' in political discussions; in intellectual circles people began to talk seriously about an Indonesian state, and Indies Malay - the future Bahasa Indonesia - began to be spoken instead of Dutch by Indonesian delegates to the Volksraad [People's Congress]." (1965: 112).

A split between the left (communist influenced) and right wing of the Serikat Islam developed after 1920. Polarisation began in the trade union federation, the PPKB, over the sugar workers strike, led by the right wing of the SI. In June 1921, the PPKB excluded the communists.

SI declined. Only 36 of its 196 branches were represented at its October 1921 congress, down from 57 branches out of 200 in March. Although the alliance between the PKI and the leadership of Serikat Islam had ended, the communists were not finished with SI as a whole, and within its local structure they battled away for a further eighteen months. The PKI had also declined, claiming 208 members in 1921, down from 269 in 1920. The 1921 PKI congress resolved to campaign for the unification of the Indonesian mass movement, to hold a united labour conference, and to establish a "Red Serikat Islam" for branches of the SI which had left when the PKI was expelled. In January 1922, the first large-scale union-sponsored work stoppage was organised by the pawnshop workers. The government was unmoved and sacked one fifth of pawnshop employees in Java. Although the PKI won considerable popular sympathy through its strong support for the strike, the union collapsed after the strike. PKI chair Tan Malaka was deported soon afterwards, and the PKI newspaper, Het Vrije Woord, ceased publication in May 1922.

In November 1922, the PKI tried to reconstruct a nationalist movement, called the Radical Concentration, but the initiative failed. In February 1923, the right wing began to transform Serikat Islam into a political party. The communists were permanently excluded. However SI faded rapidly. In March 1923 a special congress of the PKI and the Red SI was convened, attended by over two thousand people, including delegates from fifteen PKI branches, thirteen Red SI branches and thirteen unions. The communists agreed to establish rival branches for supporters of the Red SI, taking the name Serikat Rakyat (People's Union). By 1924, the PKI claimed between 1000 and 1300 members organised in sixteen branches, comparing favourably with the Chinese Communist Party, which had fewer than one thousand members at that time. The Red SI/SR sections had between 30 and 50,000 members. In June 1924, the party was renamed the Partai Kommunis Indonesia, retaining the initials PKI.

The first debacle - the 1926-27 putsch

AT a special conference in December in 1924, attended by 96 delegates from 38 PKI sections, representing 1,140 members and from 46 SR branches representing 31,000 members, a new policy was finally agreed - to focus on union work and replace SR sections with PKI branches.

The Comintern was not responsible for this lurch by the PKI. In fact it was moving in the opposite direction towards dissolving working-class socialist politics into broad nationalist or "worker-peasant" movements. At the fifth Comintern congress in 1924, Manuilsky endorsed the "workers' and peasants' party in the Dutch East Indies", and the Comintern plenary soon after claimed, "The Indonesian Communist Party is already following a correct policy". For McVey, "The PKI executive seems to have adopted its stand on the SR independently; it did so, moreover, knowing that the Comintern approved the Serikat Rakyat... Although the party executive certainly did not state it as such, its program in effect rejected the Comintern line, and it was accordingly a step of the gravest importance." (1965: 270). The new PKI policy was condemned at a Comintern plenary in March-April 1925. The PKI was told to establish Serikat Rakyat as a mass organisation, with communists retaining overall control. Stalin criticised the PKI policy as a "left deviation". PKI leaders simply ignored the Comintern.

The December also decided to prepare the party for rebellion. The PKI set up an illegal organisation and adopted a new structure based on cells of ten members (benih), under an experienced party member. The party also abandoned its theoretical organ, the Soeara Rakyat. The slogan of the conference was, "Devote yourselves with all your strength to the labour movement".

By 1925 the Dutch authorities' repression had reduced the communists' legal role to the vanishing point. It was almost impossible for the PKI to hold public meetings without being dispersed by the police. In several parts of Java, notably in Priangan, the government encouraged anti-communist strong-arm groups. They broke up party and SR meetings, disrupted SR schools, beat up communist followers, destroyed communist property, and where possible drove PKI adherents from their villages.

In 1925 the PKI created an agrarian organisation, the Serikat Tani (Peasant Union). In Silungkang, West Sumatra, it was impossible to buy rice at the market without a red card, because the rice merchants belonged to the PKI. Around 10,000 cards were bought, by almost the entire population in the local area. The police estimated that the PKI had 4,000 members.

But as the movement waxed in rebelliousness, it waned in strength. Union leaders were arrested during strikes, and a round up of PKI leaders was begun, with several experienced leaders either driven into exile or prison. The PKI paper Api, which depended heavily on subscriptions from civil servants, was virtually bankrupted by a ban on purchasing communist literature by state employees.

A conference of PKI leaders made plans for an insurrection in May-June 1926. The decision was taken to set up a secret party structure, the Double or Dictatorial Organisation (DO). Tan Malaka, the exiled PKI leader working for the Comintern, was opposed to these new developments. In 1924 he had criticised the PKI plan to abandon the Serikat Rakyat. He believed that the SR should be transformed into a national party nominally separate from the PKI. In 1925, he warned that the party was heading for a putsch and not a rebellion, and urged it to change its course before it was too late. He wrote that, "until now Indonesia has not had a revolutionary party; it has only had associations of people of assorted views and political activities". Tan Malaka proposed a conference in Singapore to reconsider: the PKI could then reorganise itself and the SR in accordance with the April 1925 Comintern resolution. But elements of the PKI pressed on. PKI leaders Musso and Alimin went to Moscow, met with Stalin, and were ordered to return to Indonesia to denounce the new programme, restore the party's legal status and make radical nationalist agitation. However, they had already decided that if Moscow opposed them they would launch guerrilla warfare.

Eventually revolt did break out in West Java. In Batavia in November 1926, armed bands appeared on the streets, clashed with police, attacked a prison and seized the telephone exchange. In Bantam a series of raids took place and in Priangan, communications were sabotaged. Mass arrests followed, and movement was effectively over by December. The revolt in Sumatra took place in 1927, with heavy fighting in Silungkang for the first two weeks of the year. Musso and Alimin were arrested, carrying just $2,500 from the Comintern. With this, the adventure on which the PKI had embarked was brought to an inglorious end.

13,000 people were arrested. A few were shot. 5000 were placed in preventative detention of which 4500 were sentenced to prison. Eventually some 3000 were banished to the Boven Digul penal colony in the malaria-infested swamplands of West Papua (Dutch New Guinea). None managed to escape, and only a few survived to take part in the fall of the Dutch regime.

This action put an effective end to communist activity in the Indies for the remaining period of Dutch rule and the removal of the communists from the scene allowed a new generation of secular nationalists to occupy centre stage.

The Comintern under Stalin's direction simply used the Indonesian revolt as a justification for its China policy, in which the Chinese communists were bound to the Nationalist Party, the Guomindang. Emphasis on the continuing Indonesian revolution was maintained in Comintern publications months after it became clear that the rebellion was dead. Despite is earlier protestations, the Comintern did not say that the rebellion should not have been undertaken - merely that it should have been better prepared and coordinated. (This became the official PKI view in the fifties). When it emerged again illegally in the thirties, the PKI was firmly under the control of Moscow.

What are the lessons from the first period of the PKI? The ISDV from its inception rightly tried to find a way to the Indonesian working class and principally build up its basic defence organisations, the trade unions, although there were differences over such an orientation. The alliance with Serikat Islam was not wrong in principle, given the size and state of the working class and the peculiar relationship of the (expatriate) revolutionaries to the working class. The ISDV kept its independence and was able to openly criticise the SI leaders. But the dressing up of Serikat Islam as a workers' and peasants' movement, when its subsequent evolution showed it was at best an embryonic bourgeois nationalist movement, was a significant marker in evolution of this policy. A similar mistake, of representing the Guomindang as a "bloc of four classes", proved to be fatal in the real revolutionary situation in China between 1925-27.

After 1924, the PKI indulged in its own home-grown adventurism. The working class movement had plainly withered after the defeat of strikes by pawnshop and rail workers in 1922. The Red SI/Serikat Rakjat was a substitute for a bourgeois nationalist movement, blurring the difference between communists and their potential allies, and hardly consistent with the policy laid down by the Comintern in 1920. The PKI had barely developed a relationship with its largest potential allies, the peasantry. In the absence of a sizable and militant working class, and the decline of their bourgeois allies, the events of 1926-27 were a putsch, carried out against the advice of both the Comintern and more senior party figures such as Semaun and Tan Malaka.

The missed opportunity of 1945-49

Under Dutch rule industrial development was limited. By 1940 only 200,000 people in Java worked in industry using modern machinery, and 2.5 million in small-scale industry, mainly in small towns and villages. A survey in 1955 found just over 400,000 workers in Java employed in workplaces with over 50 workers and only 140,000 workers were employed in workplaces with over 250 workers. About 35 per cent of those employed were women. (Hindley, 1964: 15).

The PKI worked illegally and through other organisations after its defeat in the twenties. Musso returned from Moscow in 1935 to enforce the 'popular front' line decreed by the seventh Comintern congress, but was forced to leave the country soon after that, so PKI members worked without central direction during World War 2. The "popular front" meant that socialism was off the agenda, and communists had to subordinate themselves to bourgeois nationalists and the democratic imperialist powers for the fight against fascism. In Indonesia this meant allying with the Dutch! Six hundred PKI prisoners from Boven Digul, who were transferred to Australia to work for the Allies in 1942, were advised by the Australian Communist Party to sport the Dutch army uniform, despite the sixteen years spent in their concentration camp.

However the Japanese invasion destroyed the image of Dutch invincibility and brought an organisational and ideological revolution to Indonesia during the occupation (1942-45). Perhaps two million Indonesians died at the hands of the Japanese, who brought industry to a halt, except for a regime of forced labour in rice production. The bourgeois nationalist leader Sukarno fronted a number of organisations set up with Japanese approval, justifying his actions because of the prominence it gave him to make nationalist propaganda - at the expense of helping to organise forced labour. Other nationalists (including Hatta and Suharto), as well as some PKI members, were involved in youth training programmes put on the Japanese. Illegal PKI members also participated in underground resistance activities against the Japanese.

On August 17, 1945, three days after Japan's surrender, Sukarno declared Indonesia's independence.

The PKI played only a modest role in the struggle against the Dutch. Tan Malaka's supporters were more prominent, and he emerged as an alternative leader to both Sukarno and the PKI. He set up the PP (Struggle Front) which argued for an all-out fight for independence (perjuangan) and was opposed to the diplomatic strategy of the mainstream nationalists like Hatta. In this early phase after the declaration of independence, these forces posed a serious challenge to the government. In June 1946 Tan Malaka was imprisoned without a trial. (Jarvis, 1991: xlvii).

The PKI was re-established openly during the 45-day hiatus between the Japanese surrender and the arrival of the British. Some of its leaders apparently collaborated with Tan Malaka. However in May 1946 Sardjono, who had been PKI chairman in 1926, spent sixteen years in Boven Digul and then donned the Dutch uniform during the war, took control of the PKI with Alimin who returned after a lengthy stay with Mao Zedong in Yenan. The PKI was already a thoroughly Stalinised party, no longer the vanguard party of the working class.

Initially the PKI supported negotiations with the Dutch, and ratified government agreements with them - in other words it continued the popular front line of passively following the "national bourgeoisie". They established a 'united front', known as the Sajap Kiri (Left Wing), with the Socialist Party, Labour Party, and Pesindo (armed wing). By 1947 they had manoeuvred themselves into a more favourable position. The new government in July 1947 included, as premier, Amir Sjarifuddin and three others who all later declared that they were communists. The PKI's parliamentary representation was increased. Although this cabinet fell in January 1948 with another Dutch offensive, it was an indication of the growing influence of the PKI despite its dubious record.

In 1948 the revitalised PKI underwent a change of direction, following a new line from Moscow. With the Cold War Communists were ordered to go on the offensive to help Stalin in his conflict with "imperialism". Communists in Vietnam, Malaya and the Philippines took part in guerrilla struggles. In Indonesia the turn was signalled by Musso's return from Moscow. His resolution, the "New Road for the Indonesian Republic", formally called for a "national coalition government", which would include the PKI, but the communists also began their own plans for an armed uprising. The Sajap Kiri was collapsed and its constituent parts dissolved into the PKI in August 1948. This gave the PKI over a quarter of the seats in parliament.

In September 1948 a group of pro-Communist army officers, with over 30,000 troops, seized the town of Madiun, during a ceasefire between the Indonesian army and the Dutch forces. It is not clear whether the PKI leadership had foreknowledge of this enterprise, but Musso quickly declared himself leader of its "National Front" Government. The Communists were driven out by the end of the month, most of their leaders were executed, and 35,000 people arrested. The Madiun affair beheaded the party, as once more it attempted to seize power without the active intervention of the masses. The PKI subsequently tried to brush over their defeat - writing in the fifties they stressed their role in mobilising people against the Dutch and claimed that Madiun was a provocation engineered by right-wing nationalists. Yet the thrust of their propaganda, together with the new line from Moscow, suggests that they did plan to take up the cudgels against the republican government.

One repercussion of this debacle was the release of Tan Malaka and the formation of the Murba (Proletariat) party, founded on the anniversary of the Russian revolution in November 1948 with 80,000 members. When the Dutch invaded in December 1948 and Sukarno surrendered, and after the execution of the PKI leaders, Tan Malaka helped lead the resistance and again had the possibility of a fresh bid for power. In fact his guerrillas were disarmed by republican forces, and he was executed by them, probably in February 1949. (Jarvis, 1991: lxix). This ended the only effective opposition to both Sukarno and the PKI, and for some the only prospects of a "third camp" emerging in Indonesia during this period. Of the three forces contesting the leadership of the fight for independence in 1945-49, Sukarno, Tan Malaka and the PKI, none represented the interests of the working class or genuine socialism. However Tan Malaka's forces may have carried through a more thoroughgoing bourgeois-democratic transformation of Indonesia, and offered the working class more opportunities for developing its own party.*

The Dutch offensive petered out, under pressure from republican guerrillas and the US government, and a ceasefire was agreed. The Dutch finally recognised Indonesian independence in December 1949, and with both major rivals eliminated, Sukarno became the undisputed leader of Indonesia.

From "guided democracy" to annihilation, 1951-65

What were conditions like in Indonesia after independence? A report in 1959 found that only 30% of workers in manufacturing ate three times a day. The average worker's calorie intake was only 70% of the calculated minimum requirements and vitamin deficiency was widespread. In 1952, the average Indonesian's diet was 1700 calories per day; the equivalent in India was 2100.

The Indonesian proletariat consisted of about 500,000 workers in modern industry (transport workers, factory workers, miners, workers in repair shops), more than 2 million workers in small industry and handicrafts in the towns, and a large number of workers on estates, in forestry work, and in miscellaneous occupations. Their total number was about 6 million, or with their families, about 20 million. They therefore comprised about 25 per cent of the total population. (Hindley, 1964: 16, 39).

In the first month after independence there were 17 major strikes, and twice as many the following month. By August 1950, the ports and estates were paralysed - by the end of the year eight million hours had been lost. The All-Indonesian Central Labour Organisation - the SOBSI, had grown from 200,000 members to over one million because of this militancy. The Pemuda Rakyat (People's Youth) also grew.

The PKI was revived by the self-styled "Leninist wing" around D N Aidit. The party had never been proscribed after the Madiun uprising of 1948, although it suffered a loss of members and influence. In 1950 the Harian Rakyat (People's Daily) became its main organ and the Bintang Merah (Red Flag) reappeared, its circulation jumping from 3,000 to 10,000 by the end of the year. The PKI had three to five thousand members, but with funds from Chinese living in Indonesia, and from the new Maoist government in China, it was able to regroup and grow.

The PKI organised a strike wave in 1951, bringing 500,000 estate workers out at the height of the Korean war. The government prohibited the strikes, but by June they had spread to the airways, buses, shipping, sugar mills and oil refineries - the bulk of the foreign owned sector of the economy. Aidit called Sukarno and his government "rotten-to-the-core imperialist tools", although he would later deny it. In addition there were armed disturbances and the PKI planned to organise separate independence day celebrations to signify that the "revolution of 45" was not over. Fearing another coup, the government arrested 15,000 communists. Sukarno threatened the three million-strong Chinese community, claiming it was alien to the Indonesian nation. The new PKI leaders were forced into hiding, where they undertook a serious rethink of their strategy, coinciding with a swing to the right by Moscow.

Stalin had indicated such a turn in response to the stalemate of the Korean war. It would become the basis of "peaceful coexistence", announced at the 19th congress of the Russian Communist Party. Launched in May 1952 on Budi Utomo day, the anniversary of the first nationalist organisation established in Indonesia, the new strategy included the national bourgeoisie in its 'united' (popular) front. The PKI supported the new government led by the nationalist PNI, and strikes were suspended. In October 1953 Aidit said the PKI would always defend the red-white Indonesian flag and the Indonesia Raya national anthem.

Simultaneously the PKI organised a recruitment drive which on their own figures saw the membership jump from under 8000 in March 1952 to 126,000 by October 1952. The PKI controlled the two million strong working class movement, including the trade union federation (SOBSI), the petroleum workers and dockers, and SARBUPRI, the sugar workers' union. The PKI also maintained armed bands which fought the landlords and Muslim groups in the countryside.

The PKI summed up the strategy and tactics it would follow in the coming decade at its fifth congress in 1954. Aidit defined Indonesia after independence as a semi-colonial, semi-feudal country. He argued that Indonesia remained under Dutch control pointing to the position of the Netherlands monarch as head of the Indonesian-Dutch Union, Dutch control of Indonesia's financial and foreign policies, the enormous debt owed to the Netherlands, the restoration of rights in industry, commerce, finance and agriculture to Dutch colonialists, and control by Dutch officials in the Indonesian state and armed forces. Imperialism was further defined by the Dutch control of West Papua (Irian Jaya), the existence of Malaysia, the Dutch-aided rebel movements in Indonesia, and the foreign ownership of enterprises. Aidit argued, "The main enemy of the Indonesian people, from the viewpoint of its domination in various spheres, particularly in the economic sphere, is Dutch imperialism." (Mortimer, 1974: 55).

From this definition it was deduced that the revolution in Indonesia would have two stages. In the first, bourgeois-democratic stage, the PKI would form a bloc of four classes consisting of the working class, the peasantry, the petty-bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie. Only after imperialism had been expelled, land reform undertaken and national economic independence achieved would the second, 'socialist' stage be on the agenda.

Superficially, Aidit's definition seemed reasonably accurate. Bourgeois sources indicated that in 1952 an estimated 50 per cent of all consumer imports were still being handling by four Dutch firms, and 60 per cent of exports by eight firms. The bank of issue was largely a Dutch-owned corporation, controlled by Dutch officers. Private banking was largely in the hands of seven foreign banks, three of which were Dutch. (Van der Kroef, 1965: 57).

The problem was this theory failed to grasp the dynamics of the situation, and the way Indonesia was moving under Sukarno. In 1956 the government unilaterally severed the Hague agreement, abrogated the Netherlands-Indonesian Union, and then cancelled its debts to the Netherlands. The following year it took over most Dutch businesses. West Papua (Irian Jaya), comprising 20 per cent of Indonesian territory, was incorporated in 1963. The PKI theory clearly underestimated the significance of political independence and the bourgeois state which developed after 1945. It mistook the evident weakness of the Indonesian bourgeoisie for the weakness of the bourgeois state, which plainly had the power to take control of major economic levers of power.

The PKI strategy was also wrong on the question of agency. It conceded the leadership of the first stage of the revolution to the national bourgeoisie - the role of the working class (and the peasantry) was entirely subordinate. This was in stark contrast to the theory and practice of Marx in 1848, and Lenin and Trotsky in 1917, where the working class were central to struggles for democracy, against national oppression, for land reform, etc., precisely to prepare this class for making the socialist revolution. (Thomas, 1999). The contrast is further proof, if any were needed, that the PKI did not uphold a programme of working class socialism during this period.

The PKI tied itself in knots when Sukarno and his governments finally carried out many of the bourgeois tasks. Instead of recognising the errors of its theory, it cuddled up even closer to their bourgeois allies. The PKI wheeled out the possibility of a peaceful road to "socialism", on the model of Eastern Europe after 1945 (which of course had a little "help" from the Russian army), and applied it to Indonesia under Sukarno.

In 1954 the balance sheet on the "allies" with which to "complete" the national-democratic revolution was decidedly lop-sided. The PKI did strengthen its control over Pemuda Rakyat (youth organisation), the Gerwani (women's organisation) and the SOBSI, which were also potential sources of rivalry. But little was achieved on the peasant front, despite claims of the agrarian essence of the Indonesian revolution. Aidit admitted that "the alliance with the national bourgeoisie is getting closer... [but] the alliance of workers and peasants is still not strong" (Mortimer, 1974: 47). Not until 1959 was the first National Peasant Conference held - a remarkable 'underestimation' of the peasantry.

However, taking heed of Mao (and Stalin), the PKI looked to the national bourgeoisie as its principal ally. Aidit divided the bourgeoisie into a comprador class tied to imperialism (including the Muslim Masyumi party) and a national bourgeoisie which, though it might vacillate, was still considered a natural ally for the working class in the struggle against "imperialism". Mortimer's acid comment is well worth noting: "The entire emphasis... was on the self-abnegating role of the workers and their political responsibilities toward other classes and the nation as a whole... It has seldom happened that a party as large as the PKI has held a class fraction, the 'national bourgeoisie', in such high esteem, placed so many hopes on it and accommodated to it, while knowing so little about it." (1974: 62).

Aidit, like Mao, talked much about "independence" within the "national front", but he substituted the independent existence of his party (as a separate organisation from the bourgeois parties) for the independence of the class - which was subordinated to the bourgeois government of Sukarno, at the PKI's behest. The working class was for Aidit at best a battering ram to open up space for the PKI in Sukarno's order, or at worst a stage army for the PKI's own ambitions. Since its resurrection after the war, the PKI was never for the seizure of power by the working class in its own interests. Rather, it was a Stalinist formation aiming at state power for its top bureaucracy.

At the time the results of the PKI's reorientation seemed thoroughly successful. In 1955, in the first national elections since the end of Dutch rule, the PKI polled over 6 million votes, or over 16%, making it the fourth largest party in the country after the PNI (22%), Masyumi (21%) and the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU, with 18%. It took an ultra-nationalist line, supporting Sukarno and his demand for Irian Jaya, as well as supporting local peculiarities, such as cockfighting in Bali. The PKI was by far the richest party in the elections, again funded by donations and the communist embassies. This gave it 39/257 seats in the new national parliament, and 80/514 in the Constituent Assembly.

Despite these results, and Sukarno's call for a government of the four main parties (under the amusing slogan, 'who ever heard of a three legged horse?'), the new cabinet in 1956 still excluded the Communists. Their response was to further adapt to Sukarno. After a tour of the Communist bloc, Sukarno declared in November 1956 that he favoured a "guided democracy". He wanted to "bury" the parties, arguing that western democracy had failed (he called it 'our big mistake in 1945'). In 1957 Sukarno called for a new government of all parties including the PKI. He appointed an advisory council which included 12 communists and representatives from the army. On the back of such endorsement, the PKI came second to the Masyumi in the municipal elections with over 7 million votes (27%), becoming the largest party on Java.

In 1957 the United Nations again failed to vote for the Indonesian resolution on West Papua (Irian Jaya). The government declared a 24 hour strike against Dutch firms, which was followed by a wave of strikes, occupations and graffiti-ing of Dutch businesses, shops, offices and plants. Workers led some of these protests, during which Dutch enterprises were declared the property of the Indonesian Republic or adorned with a hammer and sickle in red paint. The PKI took part. but it was the military who ultimately benefited, taking the leading role in the management of the nationalised companies, which were the most modern sectors of the economy.

The generals establishing their own private power base, enriched themselves by siphoning off profits, and weakened the working class with layoffs. Membership of the PKI leapt from 165,000 in 1954, to 1.5 million in 1959, but it grew largely because of its close identification with Sukarno. In 1956, military commanders in Sumatra reacted to the growth of the communists by staging local coups, eventually spreading to Sulawesi. In 1958 they announced the formation of the Revolutionary Government of Indonesia, with the support of some ex-ministers from the Masyumi, in opposition to Sukarno. The US government supplied weapons and equipment for these forces.

In 1959 Sukarno instituted his programme of "guided democracy" by dissolving the Constituent Assembly, appointing a new cabinet and establishing an advisory council which included the PKI. In August 1959, the army ordered the PKI to cancel its congress, but Sukarno intervened, addressing the (postponed) event. He also launched his political manifesto (MANIPOL) at the independence day celebrations, setting out the five pillars of USDEK (1945 Constitution, Indonesian socialism, guided democracy, guided economy and Indonesian national identity). In November 1959, a virulent campaign was launched against the Chinese community in the country, who were scapegoated for the economic situation. By the following year, 40,000 had been "repatriated" to the mainland.

In March 1960 Sukarno instituted a new parliament, excluding the Masyumi. It consisted of seats for political parties and for functional groups, including the army. The PKI was given 30 seats, compared to the PNI (44) and NU (36), but had at least 30 members as part of the functional groups, making it the largest bloc. At the 16th anniversary of independence Sukarno talked about the 'New Ordering' of Indonesia, with a 'national front' to dissolve the old divisions. Free from parliamentary wrangling, Sukarno stepped up agitation around West Papua (Irian Jaya). In January 1962 the first guerrillas parachuted into the territories, and in August the US brokered a settlement.

The road to the 1965 coup

Bourgeois commentators writing at this time were divided in their assessment of Indonesia's evolution. Some like Pauker, who worked for the CIA, and Van der Kroef, believed a Communist takeover was imminent. Others, such as McVey, Brackman and Hindley, were not convinced. Brackman argued that Sukarno had no intention of letting the PKI into power. The PKI was limited to its base on Java and by the prevalence of Islam across the archipelago. The army would more than likely succeed Sukarno, and it would lead a drive against the PKI. (1963: 303-305).

Sukarno gained further momentum when he sought to obstruct the creation of Malaysia, amid a wave of national chauvinism orchestrated by the government. In 1963 West Papua (Irian Jaya) was handed back to Indonesia, and British companies were taken over. Between 1962-65, 800,000 peasants received land redistributed under the land reform law. But when the harvest failed in Java in 1963-64, one million people starved, thousands were treated for malnutrition, and people even sold their children to get food. The PKI initially supported peasants who tried to speed up the reform process, only to withdraw on Sukarno's orders. As Mortimer commented afterwards, "By 1963 the party's worship was becoming almost idolatrous. Despite the President's notorious disdain for and ignorance of economic affairs, it declared that the solution of economic difficulties could safely be left in his hands... A short time later (Aidit) bestowed the final accolade by describing the President as his first teacher in Marxist-Leninism". (1974: 88-89). The PKI supported Sukarno's new formula of Nasakom, which meant the cooperation of Indonesia's nationalist, religious and communist forces.

In 1961, the party had given the government a list of party members, including their address and rank in the party. It justified such behaviour by completely revising the Marxist theory according to which the state represents the interests of the ruling class. In The Indonesian Revolution and the Immediate Tasks of the Indonesian Communist Party (1965), Aidit wrote that, "At present, the state power in the Republic of Indonesia includes two antagonistic sides, one representing the interests of the people (in support of the people) and the other the interests of the enemy of the people (the opposition to the people). The side supporting the people is becoming stronger day by day, the government of the Republic of Indonesia has even adopted revolutionary anti-imperialist measures".

Yet none of this seemed to matter as the party's growth continued. By mid-1964 the Communist Party was claiming 3 million members, Pemuda Rakyat 3 million, the SOBSI more than 3.5 million members, the Peasant Union 8.5 million and the Gerwani 1,750,000 members. At face value this meant one-fifth of Indonesia's population of 105 million people were affiliated to the PKI. Sukarno himself gave credence to these figures when he addressed the PKI's forty-fifth anniversary celebrations in 1965.

In March 1964, Sukarno told the US to "go to hell with your aid". In January 1965, Indonesia withdrew from the UN and in August Sukarno signed up for the Jakarta-Phnom Penh-Beijing-Hanoi-Pyongyang axis. In his Independence Day address on August 17, 1965 Sukarno argued that: "Indonesia clearly states that its revolution is still at the national-democratic stage, although a number of important results have been achieved at this stage. The time will arrive when Indonesia will build socialism - namely, after imperialist capital has been liquidated completely, after the land owned by the landlords is redistributed among the people."

The vultures began to circle. In a memorandum to the Rand Corporation, CIA operative Guy Pauker wrote, "Were the communists to lose Sukarno as a protector, it seems doubtful that other national leaders, capable of rallying Indonesia's dispersed and demoralised anti-communist forces would emerge in the near future. Furthermore these forces lack the ruthlessness that made it possible for the Nazis to suppress the Communist Party of Germany a few weeks after the elections of March 5th, 1933... The enemies of the PKI, including the remnants of various rightwing rebellions, the suppressed political parties, and certain elements of the armed forces, are weaker than the Nazis, not only in numbers and in mass support, but also in unity, discipline and leadership." (Bowen, 1998: 24).

For the representatives of American imperialism, the key question seemed to be, where are the fascists when you need them. For them, the final straw was the PKI proposal for a political commissar system in the army and a "fifth-force" of volunteers, which they saw as the communist bid for an armed wing. The US Ambassador Marshall Green said afterwards, "we did what we had to do and you'd better be glad we did because if we hadn't Asia would be a different place today."

On September 30, 1965 a group of pro-Sukarno army officers kidnapped and killed six right-wing generals. The rebels broadcast their message from a Jakarta radio station, claiming that they had pre-empted a military coup by the Council of Generals, which was backed by the CIA. On October 1, Suharto, commander of the strategic reserve, took control of the army and the rebels were rapidly dispersed. Suharto banned the PKI press, having been ordered by Sukarno to restore law and order. The army, in league with Muslim organisations such as the NU and the Muhammadiyah then proceeded to organise the massacre of the PKI.

The CIA admitted in its 1968 report that it had helped carry out, "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century", supplying 5000 PKI names to the military. Time magazine, on December 17, 1965 reported that:

"Communists, red sympathisers and their families are being massacred by the thousands. Backlands army units are reported to have executed thousands of communists after interrogation in remote jails. Armed with wide bladed knives called parangs, Moslem bands crept at night into the homes of communists, killing entire families and burying the bodies in shallow graves. The murder campaign became so brazen in parts of rural East Java that Moslem bands placed the heads of victims on poles and paraded them through villages. The killings have been on such a scale that the disposal of the corpses has created a serious sanitation problem in East Java and Northern Sumatra where the humid air bears the reek of decaying flesh. Travellers from those areas tell of small rivers and streams that have been literally clogged with bodies."

Sukarno was not to be left out. In December 1965 he attacked the PKI as "rats that have eaten a part of a big cake and tried to eat the pillar of our house. Now let us catch these rats". The PKI was banned in March 1966. Perhaps one million militants were brutally liquidated within the space of four months, including from other left parties not associated with the PKI, and the leadership and cadre of the PKI itself. Although the PKI leadership had discussed the prospects of a coup, they decided to rely on sympathetic army officers, and once the massacre had started, were only able to organise a tiny guerrilla force. Most of its supporters and fellow travellers were completely unprepared, and paid for the party's complacency with their lives.

Having lost one of his props, Sukarno rapidly fell from grace with the military, who took control in the shape of Suharto. The massacre thus inaugurated the 32-year reign of the hated dictator, and gave a taster as to what he would do in places like East Timor when any force challenged his supremacy. The PKI was crushed, and has not re-emerged with any strength since 1998.

What were the lessons of the period 1945-65?

After the war, the PKI was no longer a working class party. The defeat in 1926-27, control from Moscow and the popular front line meant the party played only a limited role in the downfall of colonial rule. It had simultaneously destroyed the possibility of the Indonesian working class playing an independent role in the overthrow of Dutch imperialism. The subordination of the PKI to Moscow was well illustrated by the Madiun affair in 1948, where in contrast to 1926-27, the PKI attempted a putsch on the orders of, rather than against the wishes of, its masters.

The Aidit years were a repetition of the worst aspects of the popular front. The working class was bound hand and foot to Sukarno, leaving it prostrate in the face of the army reaction in 1965. The revolution by stages was nothing but a snare, and Suharto's counter-revolution certainly did not stop for any arbitrary self-restrictions. For the PKI after 1927, the working class was a stage army at the service of their domestic ambitions as an aspirant Stalinist ruling class, and a tool of the Stalinist (both Kremlin and Peking) bureaucracies and their respective foreign policies in South East Asia.

Sukarno was a bourgeois Bonaparte who balanced between Dutch, Japanese and American imperialism during the struggle for independence, but still emerged as the leader of Indonesia. He also played off domestic rivals such as the PKI and Tan Malaka to maintain his leadership of the liberation movement. He later played the Bonapartist role of balancing between the PKI and the army (and the rival international camps) as Indonesia developed its capitalist economy, only to be displaced by a military Bonaparte in the shape of Suharto in 1965. It was Sukarno who stoked up racism against the Chinese and denied rights to minorities in Indonesia. It was Sukarno who first abolished bourgeois democracy in the country, and it was he who gave the army its role in politics as part of his "guided democracy". His "New Ordering" prepared the way for Suharto's New Order.

The nationalism of Sukarno was double-edged sword. Representing the drive of the bourgeoisie for the widest possible sphere for commodity exchange, and against the Western imperialists who divided peoples according to their own competing interests, it was progressive. But as a means to incorporate the working class into the new state, and as a drive for a greater Indonesia, to include the rest of the region, it became a snare. This was epitomised by the West Papuans, who were incorporated into Indonesia as Irian Jaya, but whose suffering under Suharto has given rise to demands for independence.

Indonesian history and Marxism

Some bourgeois histories see the PKI largely as a conspiracy from start to finish, rather than differentiating its healthier, earlier period when it strove to lead the working class to power despite mistakes. They also fail to understand how as a Stalinist party, the PKI could mobilise, educate and organise Indonesian workers and peasants, without really representing their interests. Some of these histories focus on the hand of Moscow, but still misunderstand the way in which the PKI leadership carried out these policies. Others are so blatantly bound up with the cold war that they read like pleas to the American government to do something about the rise of PKI, and after 1965 there is a noticeable dropping away of interest by American academics once "the problem" had been "dealt with".

Left histories are better, especially on Suharto's coup, but also have their limitations. Ernest Mandel's balance sheet (1966) made a number of valid criticisms: on the PKI's view of the state; the absence of a worker-peasant alliance; and the dependency of the communists on Sukarno.

But it was soft on the role of Chinese communists in shaping the PKI strategy. The whole history of the PKI is inexplicable without reference to the wider history of Communism in the twentieth century. Whereas the Russian revolution in 1917 galvanised the party into a force for socialism, it was Stalinism, both in Russia and in China, that first destroyed the PKI's working class focus, and then guided it towards extinction.

The CWI pamphlet by Craig Bowen (1990) suffers from the same weakness. Bowen, like Mandel, implies that if the PKI had come to power, this would have been a victory for the Indonesian working class. It is true that the defeat of the PKI was also devastating for the working class, but the establishment of PKI rule in Indonesia in 1965 would have tied the Indonesian working class to the state. The trade union movement would have lost all semblance of independence, and any dissent from a ruling PKI government would have been viciously suppressed. Their criticisms of Aidit's erroneous conception of the bourgeois state are absolutely valid; but are not extended to his alternative, what Bowen and Mandel both call the "deformed workers' state" which the PKI aimed to set up. There is no Stalinist-bureaucratic road to socialism.

Most left histories exaggerate the weakness of the colonial bourgeoisie in order to "fit" with their versions of "permanent revolution" or imperialism. The Indonesian bourgeoisie was weak, but bourgeois politicians were still able to lead the fight for national independence, in the absence of either a strong working class, or of a Stalinist movement able to challenge for power, as in China. History did not stand still.

Even among the early nationalists there existed an aspirant Indonesian bourgeoisie. The independence struggle after 1945 showed that bourgeois forces could carry out reforms, however limited, and that the end of colonial empires was 'real', within the context of an uneven world capitalist economy. In any case, Lenin and Trotsky's theories depended crucially on the role of an active working class movement, not on some automatic process which inevitably locks in because of the historical obsolescence of the bourgeoisie.

The recent articles by James Balowski in Green Left Weekly (1999) share these weaknesses, and are particularly confused on imperialism when he writes: "The Indonesian national revolution brought formal political but not economic independence. Indonesia was - and remains - subject to imperialist economic control". This analysis accepts Aidit's premise that Indonesia was a plain and simple semi-colony, and logically calls for the 'completion of the national revolution', presumably by a coalition of bourgeois and radical forces. It downplays the very real difference between rule by Dutch colonialism and by an indigenous bourgeois ruling class.

Sukarno and later Suharto were not simply puppets of imperialism - their state wielded its own power and it certainly showed the extent of its independence, in expropriating Dutch capital in the fifties and charting its own foreign policy between the two imperialist blocs, receiving concessions both and playing one off against the other. For Indonesian workers and peasants, the main enemy was (and still is) at home. But the principal weakness of most left (Trotskyist) histories is that they treat the PKI as a genuine revolutionary Marxist party in the post-war period which with the right advice, could have led the working class to power at some stage. To complain that the PKI should have called for nationalisation under workers' control when Dutch businesses were expropriated, or that they should have formed a militia in the sixties, is to misconceive what it was, and how it related to the working class. To repeat, the PKI was not a force for socialism after 1927 - that is the chief conclusion from examining its history.

The current task is to map out what the workers should do for their own interests in the current reality of Indonesia, which has developed enormously since 1965. The need for an alliance between the working class and the poor peasants of Indonesia was (and is) clearly important, but working class independence (or lack of it) was fundamental in the last seventy years. The workers of Indonesia might have found many allies in its struggle, but only if fighting for their own interests in the first place.

Since the twenties these workers have not had a party that defined and fought for their interests, organised their vanguard and consciously fought for power. In the current crisis, such a party is an absolute prerequisite for further advance.


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