A Short History of the Indonesian Communist Party – Part 1

The Early Years

Twenty-five years ago the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was the largest aspiring revolutionary party in the world with three and a half million members. Six months later it had been effectively destroyed and up to a million people lay dead. Yet this was not the first time the PKI had been crushed. Three times in fifty years the PKI rose up and three times it was crushed – most terribly and tragically of all following the events of September 30th 1965.

Why did it happen? This pamphlet will attempt to answer that question and in doing so focus on a number of basic themes and theoretical questions that recur throughout the Party’s history.

But this has not been written simply for historical interest. We believe the lessons of Indonesia are of burning relevance today throughout all of the ex-colonial world. The theoretical questions that confronted the PKI are fundamentally the same as those that confront activists today throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America, and it is at those serious activists that this pamphlet is aimed.

The pamphlet pretends to be nothing more than an introduction to the enormously rich history of the PKI. Whilst there are many books on the subject (some of them very bad), to the best of our knowledge the history of the Party has not been condensed into pamphlet form since PKI leader Aidit’s ‘official history’ three decades ago.

This will be an extremely critical look at the Party’s history, yet it must be stated that despite all the criticisms it is quite clear that, over 50 years, the PKI attracted to its ranks the cream of several generations of Indonesian society. The news of the annihilation of the Party was a terrible blow to the whole labor movement internationally.

Twenty-five years on, and the capitalist press throughout the world beat their chests and daily trumpet their message, “Marxism is dead!” Yet for all the talk of the triumph of capitalism, the class struggle continues unabated, particularly in the ex-colonial world. It is perhaps fitting that this pamphlet is being produced now, with virtually all the leaders of the labor movement internationally singing along with the capitalists, hangdog style, to the funeral songs for Marxism.

Our analysis is quite the opposite.

In Indonesia the ideas of Marxism have run through the history of the working class movement like a backbone. And despite all the killing, all the torture, all the imprisonment and all the repression, you cannot kill ideas. Yet at the same time those ideas have suffered decades of Stalinist distortions, some of which still linger. To analyze and correct the distortions is of vital importance and it is hoped that this pamphlet will be of assistance.

Furthermore, as the new generation of Indonesian activists know, a revolution never has been, nor will it ever be, won from within the walls of a seminar room. Political theory is crucially important, but not for its own sake. The whole point of theory is that it is a guide to action. As the brave old PKI leader Aliarcham, who died in Boven Digul concentration camp said, “Study while struggling: without study it is impossible to struggle!”

We are fully confident that far from being dead, the ideas of Marxism will come once more to be the driving force behind the mighty Indonesian labor movement when, from the ashes, it rises once again.

It is only a matter of time.

The Early Years

The communist movement in Indonesia sprang from an unusual source. A year before the First World War, the winds of revolt were blowing through Java. Amongst the Dutch colonialists there was widespread alarm. Thousands of miles away Lenin wrote, “A significant development is the spread of the revolutionary democratic movement to the Dutch East Indies (the old colonial name for Indonesia)… Parties and unions are being formed at an amazing speed. The government is banning them, thereby only fanning the resentment and accelerating the growth of the movement”.

Dutch colonialism was vicious. An American visitor wrote, “A Polynesian transported to a scene of conventional Javanese activity would at once devoutly believe the worst that the missionaries had told him about hell”. So great was the exploitation of the Indonesian masses that a major part of Dutch social capital formation in the nineteenth century was financed by wealth extracted from Indonesia. Yet for the Indonesians themselves, living standards were either stagnant or declining.

A writer who had himself been a plantation boss wrote of Javanese contract workers:

“They may not run away from their work for that is forbidden by their contract which the ignorant, misled coolie signed somewhere in Java… They are doing forced labor, or if you like they are slaves. The coolie slogs from morning till night, toiling and stooping; he has to stand up to the neck in stinking marshland, while greedy leeches suck his thin blood and malaria mosquitoes poison his sickly body. But he cannot run away, for the contract binds him. The tjentengs, the watchmen and constables of the firm, who have the strength of giants and are bestially cruel, track down the fugitive. When they catch him they give him a terrible hiding and lock him up, for the contract binds him”.

The first main road in Java, built by command of the Dutch governor Daendels was likewise built by forced labor and those who failed to complete their allocated quota of road on time were summarily hanged. But to top it all off, the road was, “exclusively for European use. Dirt tracks alongside were provided for the ‘natives’!” [1]

Yet far from just accepting the situation, there were uprisings against the Dutch throughout the whole colonial period and direct control by the Dutch, outside the island of Java, was not achieved until well into the twentieth century. The British colonialist Raffles commented that, “Ever since the arrival of the Europeans they (the Javanese) have neglected no opportunity of attempting to regain their independence”. But the rebellions had always been at local or regional level.

In 1911 the first mass political movement in the country that existed on a national scale, Sarekat Islam, was formed. Founded originally to protect the interests of Javanese batik merchants from competition by Indies Chinese traders, it rapidly became a rallying point for discontent, spreading from the urban commercial class to the poorer population of the towns and into the rural areas, under the leadership of Umar Said Tjokroaminoto.

At around the same time, a former Dutch railway union official, Henk Sneevliet, came to Indonesia looking for a job, having been blacklisted in Holland. On his initiative the Indonesian Social Democratic Association (ISDV) was founded in 1914. From an original sixty members their numbers grew to eighty-five by the following year and they began to produce a paper… however it was in Dutch. This was because the vast majority of ISDV members were Dutch and despite the fact that poverty was increasing, they were not reaching the Indonesian masses.

By this time, in contrast – Sarekat Islam, a movement rather than a party – had thousands of adherents. Accordingly the ISDV decided to orient their work towards it, and it was from this source that the first generation of Indonesian Marxists was recruited.

Prominent among them was a young railway worker, Semaun, who at the age of seventeen was vice chairman of the Surabaya branch of the ISDV, and in 1917 became one of the editors of the first Indonesian language socialist newspaper, Soera Merdika (The Free Voice).

1917 was a tumultuous year. The conservative elements within the ISDV split away during the year over an article written by Sneevliet in the Party newspaper celebrating the February revolution in Russia and saying, “Dutch rule in the Indies would go the way of the Tsar if only the Indonesians set their minds to it”.

The government immediately set about prosecuting Sneevliet and attempted to suppress discussion of the uprising, which inevitably had the opposite effect and soon everybody was talking about the Russian revolution.

While Sneevliet was awaiting trial, the Batavia branch of the ISDV, dominated by the conservatives, published a declaration saying, “We should oppose those who, ignoring the unity of the native population groups necessary for the achievement of national independence and freedom, drive a wedge into it through their so-called socialist internationalism”.

Meanwhile Sarekat Islam (SI) was in turmoil also. Semaun had moved to Semarang where he was instrumental in building a strong SI branch which was becoming increasingly publicly critical of the SI leadership. By the time of the 1917 conference Tjokroaminoto and other SI leaders wanted all relations with the ISDV cut off, but the Semarang branch, where the ISDV’s strength was centered, had strong backing from other branches.

The upshot was, that rather than expelling the ISDV, the SI was forced to state that, “If parliamentary action should prove unfruitful, the Sarekat Islam would not hesitate to revolt. Moreover the congress condemned ‘sinful’ – that is, foreign – capitalism and demanded freedom of political organization, radically improved labor and agrarian legislation and free public education”. [2]

Thus from what had been a merchant’s protection guild six years earlier, and had only four years earlier proclaimed it’s unconditional loyalty to the Dutch government, the SI had become a mass movement heading rapidly in a revolutionary direction.

But most significant in its effects of all the events that year, was the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917. It sent an electric charge around the world. But it was particularly inspiring to the revolutionaries in Indonesia because they were always being told that Indonesia was too backward, it didn’t have a strong enough proletariat to take power, and in fact suffered from ‘an absence of all factors assumed necessary for a socialist revolution.’ And yet here was Russia, a backward peasant-based economy and the working class had taken power.

Inspired by the Bolsheviks, the ISDV began organizing soldiers’ and sailors’ soviets (councils) and within three months there were more than 3,000 members of the movement which became known as the Red Guardists.

Meanwhile economic conditions continued to deteriorate, real income declined continuously from 1914 to 1924 and there was a ‘general restlessness’ in the air. Considerable attention was devoted to work in Sarekat Islam and the position and influence of the ISDV steadily gained ground. ISDV member Darsono, became the official SI propagandist, and Semaun became SI commissioner in charge of West Java.

By the 1919 SI congress the powerful influence of the ISDV was unmistakable. Their paper reporting the congress declared, “The struggle was directed squarely against capitalism and was not, as in previous times, an attack by a few on ‘sinful capitalism’, a combination of concepts that rests on a misunderstanding of socialism”.

But the tide began to turn. Amongst revolutionaries the perspective had been that the Russian revolution would simply be the first in a series of revolutions that would sweep across Europe, including the Netherlands, and which in turn would intersect with the movement in Indonesia. But the movements in Europe were defeated (for reasons we shall go into later), while in Indonesia Red Guardists and ISDV members were imprisoned and Dutch revolutionaries banished.

The merchant bourgeois Moslem interests that had steadily lost ground within Sarekat Islam began to reorganize, and it in turn began to crack apart. Within a few years Sarekat Islam had collapsed.

The work within Sarekat Islam had transformed the ISDV from a small group of Dutch expatriates with almost no contact with the Indonesian masses, into an overwhelmingly Indonesian organization that in many areas actually led the masses.

But while Sarekat Islam was falling apart, the first phase of Indonesian communism was not yet over. Having changed names, from the ISDV to the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) in 1920, it became the first Communist Party in Asia and, although numerically small, during the 1920s it far outweighed any other political party in Indonesia in terms of its public support.

During the early 1920s the PKI led a number of major strikes, notably of the pawnshop workers in 1922 and the railway workers in 1923. The strikes however were unsuccessful. But they further alarmed the Dutch who in turn stepped up their repression of PKI activities. Some of the PKI’s most able leaders, such as Tan Malaka, Bergsma and Semaun were expelled from Indonesia – Sneevliet had suffered the same fate, and many more were to follow.

It was around this time also that the party abandoned the organizational method of democratic centralism. Instead, it was determined that a local unit could act independently, without informing party headquarters, “so long as its decisions were in line with PKI constitution and by-laws”. [3]

In the increasingly volatile situation, to try and organize a revolutionary party on a ‘do your own thing’ basis was a recipe for disaster – particularly given the relative inexperience of the party and the continual arrests, imprisonment and banishment of party cadres. (No doubt these factors played a large part in the decision being made in the first place.)

In mid-1925, with the economy picking up, strikes began to occur again – all wildcat, all small, and mostly unsuccessful. Then in Semarang major strikes began to break out. Thereafter followed strikes in Medan and Batavia and a near-general strike in Surabaya. Repression was stepped up. The right of assembly was prohibited in all areas where the PKI existed. Frustration and desperation grew, not least among the inexperienced leaders who were left. It was decided to organize an insurrection – for the following year.

“However by then the labor unions of Java, which were to have provided the major revolutionary thrust, were in a state of collapse following their defeats. Secret terrorist organizations had been established in some regions but the center had little or no control over them – the transmission of the center’s ideas had depended to a great extent on its now-banned publications. There were conflicts within the regional party organizations, and even the sub-sections showed increased independence of section leadership”. 4

To make matters worse, the leadership of the party itself was split over the question of insurrection. During the preparatory period some leaders were touring branches arguing in favor, and others were touring arguing against the idea. The movement was visibly dissolving into anarchy. [5]

Thus when they occurred, the uprisings were a disaster. Despite the rebellious mood that undoubtedly existed, the movements in Java were quickly put down, with the exception of Banten where resistance continued until late 1926, and Sumatra where the insurrection did not begin until early 1927, and was quickly smashed. Thirteen thousand arrests were made and, of those arrested, an unspecified number were executed. Thousands were imprisoned and 1,300 were sent to the horrendous, malaria infested Boven Digul concentration camp in West Papua.

Thus ended the first period of open Communist activity in Indonesia.

Underground and Independence

It is important to note that it was only from this point that the focus of the struggle became ‘nationalism’ and the rise of the nationalist movement occurred.

In fact Ruth McVey, the most astute of all bourgeois commentators, points out that Indonesian communists of the time felt that, “Nationalism was a European phenomenon of the nineteenth century and not a real issue in the Indonesia of their day… The concept of revolution aimed not just at independence but also at drastic social change was… not limited to doctrinaire leftists (sic) in the central party leadership; it was an integral part of the PKI’s popular appeal… The power of this appeal is shown by the fact that opponents preferred to attack the PKI on almost any issue except communism itself”. [6]

Not only physically but ideologically, the whole movement had been thrown backwards. It is also important to take note of world events and the subsequent development of the communist movement internationally, which in turn had a decisive effect within Indonesia itself.

Revolutionaries throughout the world expected the Russian revolution to be but the first in a series of revolutions that would bring the working class to power in at least several key countries in Europe that were unquestionably ripe for revolt. However, fundamentally because the leaders of European Social Democracy sided with ‘their own’ capitalist classes, and because the young revolutionary parties there had not developed the strength to overcome that fact, the revolutions failed.

Consequently, even though the working class had won power in the Soviet Union, because it was an isolated backward country that had been weakened by three years of world war, ravaged by civil war, and almost brought to its knees by invasion from all the major imperialist powers on top of all that, an inevitable reaction set in. And this reaction manifested in the rise to power of a bureaucracy – hesitant at first, but paradoxically growing in confidence (and ruthlessness) with each revolution that was defeated internationally. And personified in this process was the consummate ruthless bureaucrat – Joseph Stalin.

In the last years of his life Lenin formed a bloc with Leon Trotsky, the other great leader of the revolution, to try and put a check on what was happening, but he was extremely ill and died in 1924. Trotsky now became the individual who personified the struggle against reaction, both bourgeois and Stalinist. Historians portray the ensuing struggle between Stalin and Trotsky as some kind of crude, individual struggle for power. This was not the crux of what was at stake at all – rather it was a struggle over either the maintenance or abandonment of Bolshevism itself.

But to return to Indonesia, by the time of the 1926/27 uprising, this process was already decisively under way. The Communist International (Comintern), formed under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky as a focal point for the strategy and tactics of revolutionaries internationally, had suffered a consequent degeneration. While undoubtedly the turn of world developments had enormously affected the prospects for Indonesian revolution, the Stalinization of the Comintern does not seem to have played a determining role – the Stalinists at this time were mainly pre-occupied with the situation in China.

There, the Comintern had ordered the Chinese Communist Party to work within the Kuomintang (KMT), a bourgeois nationalist organization with the strategy supposedly being based on the Indonesian experience. But here lies a crucial difference. The Indonesian communists had not buried their own program, but instead loudly proclaimed it.

In contrast, “The Comintern leadership instructed the Chinese communists to sacrifice their own program in favor of the bourgeois program of the KMT… to dissolve their independent press – and even hand over a list of their members to the KMT leadership”. [7] As a result, in a chilling preview of Indonesia 1965, the Chinese Communist Party suffered a catastrophic defeat and thousands of workers were slaughtered.

Given Moscow’s lack of attention, it should however be noted that, according to Semaun, the Comintern did not want to establish any centers outside Moscow for Asian work for fear that Asian revolutionaries would be attracted to the Left Opposition – the group Trotsky led. Furthermore, what is unquestionable is that subsequent swings in policy by the Comintern were to play a decisive role in Indonesian affairs.

“The end of this first phase of PKI history brought a shift in the scene of Indonesian Communist activity. Indonesia itself was now only a minor part of the stage. Until 1935 there was no significant activity there. Then Musso, an exiled PKI leader living in Moscow, returned to Indonesia to set up the ‘illegal PKI’… A far more important center of Communist activity, however, was the Netherlands, where many of the future leaders of the Indonesian Republic were living at that time as students”. [8]

For some years a nationalist organization called Perhimpunan Indonesia had been in existence in Holland and it was to this organization that the expatriate students were affiliated. During the same period a myriad of nationalist organizations sprang up within Indonesia itself including the PNI, the Partindo and the Gerindo. It was particularly in Gerindo that PKI members worked. During this period work within the trade unions was also maintained.

The depression had a ravaging effect on the Indonesian economy. Peasants were forced to pawn their land as taxes were increased to pay for the crisis – between 1926 and 1932 taxes increased 44%. As rightwing author JM Van Der Kroef puts it, “Those proletarianization processes, in the long run could only strengthen the appeal of the Communist Party, and while in the 1930s there were no spectacular outbursts that could be attributed to (the PKI) … there was undoubtedly a broadening of political consciousness in Indonesian society that was ready for exploitation at a later date. In 1933 sailors on the Dutch naval vessel Zeven Provincien mutinied briefly, seized command of the ship and attempted to sail it to a Russian port, until a bomb attack by a Dutch naval plane put an end to these plans. The mutiny, though apparently instigated by a Socialist trade union and by nationalists, was not without effect on developing Indonesian political opinion, despite its ignominious end. The present writer, who was in Indonesia at the time, heard in many Dutch circles that the Communists were really responsible for the mutiny…” [9]

Exports collapsed. The amount earned by export sales in 1925 was only 25% of that in 1925. Poverty and hardship rose, unemployment rose, the economy contracted and wages were cut. Wages paid out (in million guilders) were: 1929 – ƒ102 mill; 1931 – ƒ84 mill; 1934 – ƒ10 mill.

Meanwhile the Comintern had veered wildly to the left and then back right again. In perhaps the Comintern’s most glaringly demented phase, having destroyed the revolutionary possibilities in China through leaning on capitalist elements, the Stalinists veered diagonally in the opposite direction. According to them it was now the “Third Period” – the period of the final collapse of world capitalism (which was quite possible).

But what made it impossible were their policies. The Socialist Parties, Labor Parties, Social Democratic Parties internationally, many of them huge working class organizations, were declared to be ‘social-fascist’ parties.

The Comintern declared that these parties now constituted the main danger confronting the working class and therefore they had to be destroyed. This policy had its most tragic consequences in Germany, where, rather than uniting with the rank and file Social Democrats against the fascists, the Communists consistently fought against the Social Democrats as the “main enemy”. Hitler was able to come to power “without breaking a pane of glass”. As a result, the strongest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union was destroyed.

As the mistake became clear, a panicky Stalin did another u-turn. Ignoring the fact that the Western capitalists had supported Hitler in his rise to power as a ‘bulwark against Communism’, the Comintern declared that the Communist Parties throughout the world must form a ‘Popular Front’ against the fascists with ‘their own’ respective capitalists – of course on the terms of the capitalists.

As British Trotskyists explained:

“The full danger which Hitler represented to the Soviet Union was apparent to everyone. Stalin and the bureaucracy became panic-stricken. Contemptuous and cynical of the capacity of the Comintern as an instrument of world revolution, Stalin more openly converted it into an instrument of Russian foreign policy. An organization in class society, which ceases to represent the working class, inevitably falls under the pressure and influence of the bourgeoisie. Stalin, in his search for allies, now turned to the bourgeoisie of Britain and France. The ‘Popular Front’ policy was initiated…This policy of coalition with the liberal capitalists is one against which Lenin had struggled all his life”. [10]

What the ‘Popular Front’ policy meant in Indonesia was not only ‘co-operation’ with Indonesian bourgeois nationalists, but the Dutch as well! According to ‘the line’, every other consideration, including even independence, had to be subordinated to the struggle against fascism.

In Holland, as far as the Netherlands Communist party was concerned, not only was socialism off the agenda, but also independence for the colonies of Dutch imperialism – i.e. Indonesia. At the same time, the expatriate Indonesian students’ organization, Perhimpunan, which was now controlled by the Communists, dropped the word “Merdeka” from the name of its journal, Indonesia Merdeka.

Thus when the Japanese invaded Indonesia in 1942 the PKI were placed in the position of having to argue that the Indonesian masses should combine with the Dutch to fight them. But the Indonesian masses wanted no part of such a deal. Indeed far from seeing the Japanese as the main enemy, future PKI leader Aidit recalled, “The Indonesian people harbored illusions that the Japanese were liberators…” when they first arrived. These illusions were soon dispelled.

It is worth noting as well, that the Dutch colonialists harbored no such ‘allied’ illusions as the PKI had. When some Indonesians did request arms from the Dutch to help fight the Japanese, they were told this was “impossible”.

An interesting contrast with the official PKI line is provided here by the position of Indonesian communists still prisoners from the 1926/27 rebellion, who were taken by the fleeing Dutch administration with them to Australia, to prevent them being used for propaganda purposes by the Japanese. Having effectively been isolated from the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist movement (as a result of being in prison for the previous decade and a half), they were not at all happy with the idea of a bloc with Dutch colonialism.

The comments of Rupert Lockwood, at that time a leading Australian Stalinist, are very revealing: “Though advised by the CPA (Communist Party of Australia), the PKI…at first made sectarian errors that made CPA hairs stand on end. The PKI brought many problems with it from behind the barbed wire of D Compound. Not a few of its members still spoke in the warmed-up clichés of 1926, and resisted co-operation with the NEI (Dutch) Government-In-Exile”. [11]

The fundamental ideas of the communist movement were now regarded as “warmed-up clichés”.

But the CPA persisted and won out. Their ‘advice’ manifested itself in the old PKI leader Sardjono, “Setting an example”, (as Lockwood so inimitably put it) “by donning a Dutch uniform, as Netherlands Indies Government-In-Exile Public Relations Officer”. Sardjono had spent the previous 16 years in a Dutch concentration camp!

Other Indonesian workers were not at all convinced. Referring to Indonesian seamen stationed in Australia during the war, Lockwood lamented, “The Indonesians held that the war was a purposeless clash of empires, after which they would be asked to accept the familiar currency of authoritarian direction”.

The Japanese occupation marked a turning point. The capitulation of the Dutch Colonial Administration only eight days after the Japanese invaded had an enormous psychological effect on the Indonesian masses – they had seen them defeated, and defeated easily.

At the same time, illusions in Japanese imperialism disappeared. They instituted a brutal slave labor (romusha) system under which at least 200,000 people died. Some sources say up to two million Indonesians died during the occupation. And therefore, despite their policy towards the Dutch, the PKI did earn respect for their hostility to Japanese occupation.

Defeat of Japan

However with the defeat of Japan the whole situation was radically altered and the PKI missed an enormous opportunity. Stalin and the Western powers were dividing up the continent of Europe between them – nothing was to upset that, therefore the PKI had to continue to ‘compromise’ with the Dutch. While Stalin and the West were leaning on one another, the colonial world was simmering with revolution.

Commenting on Communist exiles returning from the Netherlands, George Kahin wrote, “It does seem clear that when they first arrived in Indonesia in late 1945 and early 1946, they were adhering closely to Moscow’s line… Their initial orientation was, paralleling that of the Netherlands Communist Party, anti-Republic. They conceived of the Republic as Japanese-made and fascistic and their objective was to reunite the Netherlands and Indonesia. Thus the Netherlands government was happy to fly them out free of charge to Indonesia”.[12] Indeed, during the Independence struggle, the PKI, by following Moscow’s directives, at times found themselves objectively to the right of not only the PNI, but even the rightwing Moslem party, the Masjumi.

But rapidly the exiles realized their position was ridiculous. As Kahin puts it: “They saw the Republic from the inside. They soon concluded that it was neither a Japanese product nor a fascist dictatorship. It was clear to them that the Republic had the enthusiastic support of the population”.

From mid 1944 onwards the exiles in Australia were organizing Indonesian Independence Committees, and at their request, in a magnificent display of working class internationalism, the Australian trade unions put a ban on Dutch shipping. This proved a definite thorn in the side of Dutch attempts to re-colonize Indonesia. It should be pointed out that this was in large part due to the influence of the Communist Party of Australia and was effectively against the Moscow line – the pro-Dutch position was clearly untenable for a sustained period.

In late 1945 the Australian Militant, a Marxist paper of the time, reported on news just received from Amsterdam: “Widespread indignation with the imperialist policy of the government of Holland in suppressing the struggle of the Indonesians for their independence, has led in the past week to organized protest movements of soldiers culminating in mass demonstrations last Saturday, and a general strike in this city which began on Monday and was concluded Tuesday night.

“During the second week in September, the soldiers at the Harderwijk camp near Amsterdam were informed that they were to embark for Indonesia… The soldiers protesting against the government order… bluntly refused to go. They formed a committee representing at first 150 men, and went to the Communist headquarters to obtain aid…since many of them were members of the CP. The leaders of the latter refused all help. The soldiers’ committee thereupon turned to the other workers’ organizations”.

For its part, Radio Moscow, the voice of the Soviet bureaucracy, ignored the proclamation of independence in 1945. The Soviet Union didn’t adopt a favorable attitude to the Republic until January 1946.

British paratroops, sent to Indonesia to help restore Dutch rule, staged a sit-down strike and British merchant seamen in Sydney mutinied. Boycotts were eventually imposed on the Dutch by workers in Burma, Canada, Sri Lanka, China, Egypt, Holland, India, Japan, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, the Soviet Union, Thailand, and the United States.

It was the youth of Indonesia who were the driving force behind the independence struggle, and it was their irrepressible zeal that led to the declaration of independence on August 17th, 1945. (They at one stage actually kidnapped the nationalist leader Sukarno, who was a lot more cautious, in order to force his hand.) Sukarno became President of the Republic of Indonesia, and another bourgeois nationalist, Hatta, became Vice President.

The Dutch however, were not at all pleased with the idea of losing their colony. Following the British army who arrived in Java in late September, they attempted to militarily re-assert control. In December 1945 the Militant reported:

“Lacking heavy arms, lacking military training, lacking everything except a burning conviction of the justice of their cause, the Indonesians are fighting back bravely against the British invaders at Surabaya.

“In bravery, devotion, and administrative skill, they have astonished the world, including those imperialist bandits, who now find themselves compelled to resort to military force when they had hoped… that trickery and prevarication would do the job.

“The British Command, after a series of conferences designed to gain time for the assembling of their own and Dutch military forces, have brutally bombed and shelled the virtually defenseless city of Surabaya, in the meantime holding open Batavia and other ports in readiness for the arrival of the Dutch armies now reported to have reached India.

“The capitalist press speaks gloatingly of Indonesians mown down in “fanatical” attacks on British tanks, and of many women and children killed when troops fired on a “mob”.

“No prisoners, they say, are being taken because the natives have ignored the British ultimatum to disarm. In the meantime they continue to spread the usual childish nonsense about thousands of Japanese soldiers fighting for the Indonesians”.

In fact the British, who had supposedly gone to Indonesia to disarm the Japanese, had actually rearmed them, and the two enemies of yesterday were now fighting alongside each other against the Indonesians. The British withdrew but the struggle with the Dutch continued, occasionally militarily, but mainly politically, until December 1949 when independence was finally achieved. Throughout this period the Indonesian government controlled certain areas of the country and the Dutch controlled other areas.

Having abandoned their alliance with the Dutch, the PKI still however remained completely submerged within the independence movement itself. As Ruth McVey puts it: “The PKI’s leaders, following a policy of extreme self-effacement… identified their program completely with that of the government even in the latter’s least popular policies”. [13] Demands on behalf of the workers and peasants were set aside in the “national interest”.

In the mid-1950s, Aidit, reflecting on the failure of the PKI to capture the leadership of the independence struggle, wrote: “During the revolution, the Party abandoned political, ideological and organizational freedom and did not attach sufficient importance to its activities in labor and peasant circles. These were the reasons why the revolution failed…The party failed to realize in the August revolution that there was no need for illegality. The Party failed to realize that the Dutch colonial era ended and that a new era opened. This was the first mistake: the failure to declare the Party legal and lead the revolution”.

As a result, the leadership of the independence movement became a struggle between various bourgeois nationalist figureheads – Sukarno, Hatta, Sjahrir and others, as well as Tan Malaka, who had split with the Comintern and taken up a “leftwing nationalist” position. It should be emphasised that, despite the mistakes, the PKI were nevertheless potentially a powerful force with sympathetic military units.

Recognizing the possible threat, Hatta, now leader of the Republican government, initiated a “reorganization and rationalization” process within the army – meaning the disbandment of PKI units. Conflicts between pro and anti-PKI military units occurred with more and more frequency culminating in the brutal “Madiun Affair” in 1948. Pro-PKI soldiers seized control of the city of Madiun in central East Java in September 1948. It does not appear that the PKI was involved in the planning of the operation except at a local level. However once the rebellion had begun it quickly became an attempt to take power, and PKI leader Musso declared himself head of an alternative government. Tragically, just as in 1926/27, it was quite swiftly crushed – though this time in a more bloody fashion.

However, the party itself did not have to go through another twenty-year period underground. Indeed, within a year, George Kahin was writing in the Far Eastern Survey about the potential of growth for the PKI: “That potential is strong, particularly among young intellectuals, in direct proportion to the frustration of hopes for real national independence…A number of young intellectuals having a high leadership potential, formerly opposed to Communism, are being attracted towards it and are almost certain to join…if the present anti-Communist leaders of the Republic are forced to make more concessions to the Dutch”. This illustrates how fluid the situation was.

Within three years the Party was leading major strike movements. Jeanne S. Mintz quite graphically describes the mood of the times: “Within a few weeks after the transfer of sovereignty, there was a general miasma of disillusionment, as the revolutionary elan faded and no single inspiring force came to take its place. From the masses of the Indonesian people who had played an active role in achieving their independence there came a rather inarticulate but nevertheless real demand that independence bring in its wake something positive and tangible, some visible differences from the poverty and hardship of their daily lives. As some of their leaders had anticipated, the Indonesian people soon made the discovery that independence is not enough”. [14]

It was also in 1951 that a group of young men led by D.N. Aidit, none of whom was aged over 30, came into the leadership of the PKI. It is really from this point that the third incarnation of the party begins.

Militant International Publications, September 1990


  1. Alisa Zainu’ddin, A Short History of Indonesia (London: Cassell Australia, 1969) 165.
  2. Ruth T. McVey, The Rise of Indonesian Communism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965) 24.
  3. Ibid 274.
  4. Ibid 378.
  5. Ibid 333.
  6. Ibid 178-9.
  7. South Africa’s Impending Socialist Revolution: Perspective of the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the African National Congress. (London: Inqaba ya basebenzi, 1982) 28.
  8. Ruth T. McVey, The Development of the Indonesian Communist Party and its Relations with the Soviet Union (Cambridge: Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1954) 2.
  9. Justus M. Van Der Kroef, The Communist Party of Indonesia (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1965) 24.
  10. Ted Grant, “The Rise and Fall of the Communist International,” Workers’ International News 5.11 (1943): 19.
  11. Robert Lockwood, Black Armada (Sydney: Australasian Book Society, 1975) 35.
  12. George McTurnan Kahin, Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia (SEAP Publications, 1952) 160.
  13. Ruth McVey, Relations with the Soviet Union (Cambridge: Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1954) 8.
  14. Jeanne S. Mintz, Mohammed, Marx and Marhaen – The Roots of Indonesian Socialism (New York: Praeger, 1965) 102.