Martin Glaberman 1966

Indonesian Communism: The First Stage

Source: Speak Out, (July 1966).
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg, with thanks to Ian Birchall.

Ruth T. McVey, The Rise of Indonesian Communism, Cornell U. Press, Ithaca, 1965, $10.

The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) is the oldest in the Far East and yet there is little written about it in English. The Rise of Indonesian Communism, a product of the Modern Indonesia Project of the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell, helps to fill the lack. It is not very profound theoretically and its report of the 1926-1927 revolution is rather meager 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 1913 a Dutch Marxist, Hendricus Sneevliet, came to the Dutch East Indies to work. In 1914 he formed an Indies Social Democratic Association (ISDV) which developed toward left socialism. It was predominantly Dutch or Eurasian. It was not until 1917 that it published its first paper in the Indonesian language. But the Dutch left socialists succeeded in making substantial contact with Indonesian nationalists, primarilv in the Sarekat Islam (SI). The SI was the Islamic Union and the dominant nationalist organization, combining political, cultural and religious aspects.

Sneevliet was expelled from the Indies in 1918. He was later, under the name of Maring, a Comintern representative in the Far East. He eventually broke with the Stalinist CI and came close to Trotsky and the Fourth International as head of a Dutch left-socialist organization. Sneevliet had built well in the Indies. The ISDV at its 1918 Congress decided to establish itself as an Indonesian movement in its own right (as distinct from a wing of the Dutch socialist movement) and its two main leaders were now Indonesians: Semaun, a socialist since 1916 and a powerful figure in the Sarekat Islam, and Darsono, a Javanese aristocrat who became a serious student of Marxism.

The Indonesian socialists were sympathetic to the Russian Revolution from the start and in 1920 the organization changed its name to Perserikatan Kommunist di India (Communist Party in the Indies) or PKI. These initials remain the same although at its Ninth Congress in 1924 the name is changed to Partai Komunis Indonesia: Indonesia was the anti-colonial name for the Indies and Partai implied a more tightly organized political movement than Perserikatan, which came closer to meaning society or association. The change in name, at least in the period until 1927, reflected a wish more than a fact. The organization remained closer to traditional Indonesian forms in its looseness and decentralization, partly because it was Indonesian and partly because of the repressive measures of the Dutch colonial regime which made centralization, and rapid communication very difficult. The change to a Communist Party also coincided with the completion of Indonesian domination of the organization, resulting from the growth of the Party and the expulsion from the Indies of leading Dutch socialists.

There are some very interesting parallels between the Chinese CP and the PKI, made more interesting by their very divergent organizational history. From its foundation in 1920, the Chinese CP was under the direct political and organizational influence of the Communist International and, even more, of the Soviet Union. This lasted until the destruction of the Chinese Revolution and the complete turn politically, organizationally and even geographically, embodied in the Long March. The PKI, on the other hand, remained quite independent during the whole period. It followed Comintern policy only when it wished. Communication was very difficult and haphazard. And although Darsono, Semaun, Tan Malaka and others spent time in Moscow and served as officials of the CI, they remained primarily Indonesian Communists who did not automatically reflect the Russian line. It is also true, of course, that until Lenin’s death, Comintern policy for colonial countries relied heavily on the initiative of the colonial communist parties.

Sneevliet was generally in agreement with Lenin that the Communists should work with the nationalist movement. (M.N. Roy, the Indian Communist, was the leading spokesman for the ultra-left view.) Semaun shared Sneevliet’s view. He always pressed for the need to work with the SI. The PKI as a whole, however, tended toward ultra-leftism and after 1920 and 1921 , cooperation with the Sarekat Islam became more and more difficult. Dual membership (belonging to SI and PKI simultaneously) was abolished by the SI and the PKI moved to become the dominant organization on the Indonesian scene. This it succeeded in doing, basing itself primarily on its strength in the trade unions, with relatively less influence on the countryside. This was a period (1922-1926) in which Dutch repression was becoming more severe (directed against all nationalist organizations, not only against the PKI and the Sarekat Islam was declining in membership and influence. The PKI, however, suffered during this period from the arrests and deportations of its most prominent leaders: Semaun, Darsono, Tan Malaka and others.

It would not be unfair to say that, broadly speaking, the PKI (although aligned, more or less, with Stalin in the International) had the Trotskyist policy of permanent revolution in the colonial countries. They aimed at Soviet power based on a revolution led by the working class, with the peasantry following. In this same period the Chinese CP was following the Stalinist line of collaboration with and support to Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang. What is intriguing in this whole situation is that both policies led to disaster, although it must be made clear that the putschism which became part of PKI policy at the end was in no way derivative from Trotsky. In China, a powerful Communist Party, based on strongly organized workers in the major cities of Canton, Shanghai, Wuhan, etc. led that working class to defeat and slaughter. In Indonesia, while the PKI had an essentially working class base, the cities were not so large nor so crucial in. a very diversified chain of islands and there was no great peasant strength to supplement the working class organizations.

In 1924 and 1925 there were strike waves in Indonesia which were repressed by the Dutch. The PKI became the dominant nationalist organization but the nationalist movement as a whole declined under the Dutch repression. At a leadership conference in December of 1925, the PKI began to move toward a policy of revolt in 1926. The two major leaders of the PKI in Indonesia, Musso and Alimin, went to Moscow to enlist the support of the Comintern for this policy. This they never got since PKI policy was so flagrantly opposed to the Comintern policy of blocs with bourgeois nationalists. The putschist policy was also opposed by most of the PKI leaders in exile, especially Tan Malaka who was in the Phillippines. Tan Malaka moved to Singapore and, from that nearby center, began a campaign to win the Party away from its disastrous policy. In large part he succeeded. That is, he won over the national leadership who retreated from the policy of revolt. The Party, however, was not that unified. McVey points out that “There were thus, in the latter part of September 1926, three centers claiming authority over the Communist Party of Indonesia : Tan Malaka and his supporters across the Straits, the revolutionary committee in Batavia, and, last and by now clearly least, the official headquarters in Bandung.” (p. 334.) The result was that PKI branches followed their own desires and revolted or not as their own circumstances and policies moved them. There were uprisings on Java in November-December 1926 and on Sumatra in January 1927. All of them were easily and brutally put down by the Dutch. Mass arrests, internments, imprisonments and executions followed. The PKI was totally destroyed.

One ironic development was that Musso, whose policy was completely opposed to the Stalinist line, became a hero of the Stalinist Comintern. He was in transit back from Moscow during the revolts and so was not caught by the Dutch. The revolts themselves coincided with the defeat of the policy of the Bloc of Four Classes in China and the slaughter of the Shanghai proletariat by Chiang Kai-shek and the switch to an ultra-leftist line by Stalin. In China it led to the disastrous Canton uprising of 1927 and the Indonesian uprisings seemed to give an objective justification to the ultra-left turn. Later on Darsono and Semaun left the Comintern. Tan Malaka was villified as a Trotskyist. He was killed in Indonesia in 1949 by Republican military forces during the independence struggles, a thorn in the sides of both Sukarno and the PKI (not at that time collaborators).

The PKI was destroyed in 1927, not to rise again for many years. The next stage was made immediately evident. On June 4, 1927 the Nationalist Party of Indonesia (PNI) was launched. Sukarno was its chairman. The Indonesian revolution moved from its proletarian to its bourgeois-nationalist stage. The PNI was the first secular nationalist party in Indonesia. The comparable development takes a quite different form in China. The working class cadres of the CP are totally destroyed after 1927. The Party takes to the mountains and new leaders emerge: Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, Chu T’eh. Under the leadership of Mao the Chinese CP abandons the Chinese proletariat, abandons the great cities of the China coast, builds a peasant army and makes the turn to the bourgeois national revolution, not with a new organisation but within the Communist Party itself.