Martin Glaberman

The East Is Red

(Winter 1966/67)

From Reviews, International Socialism (1st series), No.27, Winter 1966/67, p.36.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Rise of Indonesian Communism
Ruth T. McVey
Cornell/Oxford, 80s.

An Introduction to Indonesian Historiography
Ed. Soedjatmoko et al.
Cornell, $9.75.

The Rise of Indonesian Communism joins a small but growing library of books in English on Indonesia. It is one of the fruits of the Modern Indonesia Project (as is the other volume under review). It deals with the little known early years of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). It is not very profound theoretically (with, correspondingly, little selectivity in dealing with events) and its report of the 1926-27 revolution is much too meagre. But it has two advantages which make it useful. It is very detailed and heavily documented for the period that it covers and there is a minimum of cold war anti-communist agitation to distort the record. In this it is far superior to Arnold C. Brackman’s Indonesian Communism, which can only be recommended to students who are sophisticated enough to distinguish fact from fiction in a strange and distant land.

The importance of Ruth McVey’s book is that it documents a little known period. Because of the complete destruction of the PKI in 1927 there is no continuity in organisation, leaders or historiography. Sneevliet, founder of Indonesian Communism and, for a while, under the name of Maring, a Comintern functionary in the colonial world, broke with Stalin and moved close to Trotsky and the Fourth International as leader of a small Dutch left-socialist organisation. (He was killed by the Nazis during World War II.) Darsono broke with the Communists before World War II. Another leading Indonesian Communist, Semaun, became a, Russian citizen and was not a significant part of the post war PKI leadership. The third major figure of the early period, Tan Malaka, became known as a ‘Trotskyist-Titoist’ (with how much justification it is difficult to say, although he was rather erratic politically over the years). He was killed in Indonesia in 1949 by Republican troops who thus removed a thorn in the sides of both Sukarno and the postwar PKI. The PKI provides the only serious parallel to the Chinese CP to test Comintern policy. Where the Chinese were completely dependent on the Russians and the CI from the foundation of the Party in 1920 to the destruction of the Chinese Revolution in 1927, the PKI was almost completely independent, following whatever policies it pleased. Although some of the PKI leaders in exile were functionaries of the Comintern, they did not, on the whole, attempt to impose Comintern policy on the PKI, first, because they usually disagreed and, second, because communication between Europe and Indonesia was very difficult and haphazard. In addition, of course, during the earlier Leninist years, it was Comintern policy to base itself on the initiative of its colonial sections (China was the main exception), not on directives from above.

Chinese and Indonesian policies were as divergent as their organisational history. The Chinese followed the classic Stalinist policy of the Bloc of Four Classes, making the Party and the Chinese proletariat subordinate to the bourgeois nationalists embodied in the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek. This led to the disaster documented in Harold Isaac’s Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. The Indonesians (although, there were differences among them) followed what can be called the Trotskyist policy of Permanent Revolution: an independent proletarian policy in the colonial country aimed at achieving a proletarian revolution with the peasantry following behind. Trotsky, of course, cannot be held responsible for the putschist policies which became part of the PKI’s tactics in 1926, but nevertheless, that policy, too, ended in disaster with the abortive revolt on Java and Sumatra in 1926 and 1927. The PKI was completely destroyed. One ironic consequence was that Musso, the PKI leader who most embodied the anti-Stalinist putschist line, became a hero and hack of the Comintern because the Indonesian revolts coincided with the need for Stalin to find some objective justification for the ultra-left turn that followed the Chinese debacle. Indonesia was thus made to justify the abortive Cantonese uprising in 1927 and the Third Period. Ruth McVey’s story ends in 1927. Here, too, the strange parallel development of Indonesia and China persists. In June 1927 the first secular bourgeois nationalist organisation is formed in Indonesia, the Nationalist Party of Indonesia (PNI) with Sukarno as chairman. In China the turn from proletarian to bourgeois revolution is made within the CP. The new leadership of Mao, Chou, etc abandon the proletariat, abandon the great cities of the China coast, form a peasant army in the mountains and embark on the Long March.

McVey’s book suffers for the lack of a political map of Indonesia. An Introduction to Indonesian Historiography is a collection of essays which provides a comprehensive survey of all aspects of Indonesian historiography, from pre-historic times to the present and including the various distinct national sources of Indonesian historical material.

Last updated on 24 April 2010