Revolution in South Asia

An Internationalist Info Project

The Fall of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965

Posted by Mike E on April 11, 2009

1965 -- May Day rally of CPI supporters

1965 -- May Day rally of CPI supporters

This article appears in Monthly Review — covering a historic event that marks a bitter and important experience for the communist movement.

by Nathaniel Mehr

“The people do not want Marxist-Leninist theses.  They want, instead, improvement in their lot.”

This was the stark assessment of Dipa Nusantara Aidit, who acceded to the leadership of the Indonesian communist party (PKI) in 1951 and set about transforming the party’s fortunes by appealing to Indonesia’s rural peasants and challenging the received wisdom about the role of Marxist parties in the post-colonial world.  In Aidit’s view, Indonesia’s status as a newly-independent nation under threat from neo-colonialist external forces called for a revision of orthodox approaches concerning the irreconcilability of class antagonisms.  Indonesia’s bourgeoisie was itself “being oppressed by foreign imperialism,” and could therefore, “under certain circumstances and within certain limits, participate in the struggle against imperialism.”  Aidit set out the core of his thinking in The Road to People’s Democracy for Indonesia (1954): the party’s alliance with the bourgeoisie would be mirrored by “the firm unity between the peasants, the largest and most oppressed group of the Indonesian people.”

Aidit’s approach drew him into an open ideological conflict with the USSR.  During this period, the Soviet Union was pursuing a pragmatic policy of supporting non-communist governments in the underdeveloped world, provided that they were prepared to break ties with the West and establish new bonds with socialist states.  This policy, which tended to manifest itself in Russian support for bourgeois — often very conservative — regimes, was attacked by the Chinese as a sell-out of national liberation movements and socialist movements across the underdeveloped world.  Joining this attack, Aidit questioned whether the government in Moscow could rightly call itself socialist: “A socialist country cannot be counted as one if it does not come to the aid of the struggle for independence.”  Yet there was undoubtedly something of the Moscow line in Aidit’s own policy of seeking cooperation with Indonesia’s staunchly conservative establishment under Sukarno.  Aidit’s insistence that, under Sukarno, the Indonesian state’s “progressive aspect” had become its “main aspect,” effectively characterized the Indonesian nation as an exceptional case in modern world history, drawing criticism from contemporary observers, who considered that the Indonesian army, with its largely anti-communist leadership, remained the country’s most powerful political force.

The PKI proceeded to build a mass membership by increasing the party’s presence in Indonesia’s rural villages; as part of its “Go Down” movement, party cadres were sent “down” into the villages to live, eat, and work with the peasants.  The party achieved notable successes at the legislative level in 1959-60, with the passing of two important land reform bills.  The Crop Sharing Law of 1959 and the Basic Agrarian Law of 1960 instituted mildly progressive reforms aimed at providing peasants with greater security and a fairer share of their harvests, while protecting the position of Indonesian farmers vis-a-vis foreign plantation owners, and penalizing absentee landlords.  The implementation of the reforms was hindered by landlord intransigence and the indifference of unsympathetic bureaucrats towards the landlords’ flagrant breaches of the new statutes.  Tension spilled over into outbreaks of violence throughout 1965, and when the Indonesian army began its murderous purge of the PKI in October 1965, the landowning class would throw its full support and, importantly, that of the religious establishment with which it was closely aligned, behind the campaign, which culminated in a death toll in excess of 500,000.

The PKI had seen itself as the true heir to the Indonesian national revolution.  It considered the independence struggle of 1954-49 to have been merely the first stage in a dynamic and ongoing struggle; for the Indonesian army, independence was the end in itself.  The PKI’s proposed reform program — military training for the civilian population, greater civilian involvement in public administration, and a more prominent role for trade unions — was interpreted by senior military figures as a direct challenge to the army’s long-standing prominence in the political and economic life of the country.  By September 1965, despite having failed to penetrate the upper echelons of the state bureaucracy, the PKI was the largest communist party outside the officially communist nations.  The party was left totally decimated by the mass killings perpetrated by the Indonesian army from October 1965 to April 1966, in the coup that brought General Suharto to power.

In November 1966, surviving PKI members in exile in China published a self-criticism entitled “General Line of the Indonesian Revolution.”  The document defended Aidit’s policy of working within Indonesia’s electoral system; the decision to throw in the party’s lot with the unsuccessful army mutiny of September 1965 (the so-called “30th September Movement”) was, in their view, Aidit’s only mistake, a concession to “adventurism,” an “opportunist gamble,” which backfired disastrously, providing the pretext for Suharto’s purge of the party and its mass membership.  Other overseas communist groups were not so generous — in March 1967, a Radio Moscow broadcast attacked “the Peking dogmatists, who seek to play the national liberation movement off against other revolutionary forces,” arguing that this “resulted in Indonesia’s partial departure from the progressive forces of the present and its isolation.”  Moscow’s policy of pragmatic alliances with reactionary bourgeois forces appeared to have been vindicated; the PKI’s success had always been contingent on the support of its petty bourgeois membership, which melted away in the critical months of the Suharto coup, choosing to side with the reactionary forces of the Indonesian army when push came to shove.  On a theoretical level, this analysis certainly appears reasonably sound.  However, in attributing to this outcome a certain scientific inevitability, the Russian position was disingenuous to the extent that it conveniently overlooked the fact that the Indonesian military hardware was being supplied, throughout the critical 1965-66 period, by none other than the Russians themselves.  The fickleness of the petty bourgeoisie notwithstanding, the campaign against the PKI could not have been so successfully carried out without military resources.  On this occasion — and not for the first time in 20th century history — Soviet pragmatism worked to the advantage of the most savagely reactionary forces.

Ultimately, however, the exiled PKI members were candid in their appraisal of the party’s demise: the PKI, emboldened by the fact that it was being allowed a role within Sukarno’s essentially bourgeois framework in the 1957-65 period, had mistakenly identified a leftward shift in the nature of the Indonesian state; it was “a great mistake to assume that the existence of such a[n inclusive arrangement] signified a fundamental change in the class character of the state power . . . or of a pro-people aspect within state power.”  To this extent the PKI’s revised stance, which attributed Aidit’s somewhat dubious “two aspects” theory to a “revisionist shift” instituted by Aidit, converged with the assessment of Radio Prague that the PKI’s destruction demonstrated that “leftist extremism is an immense danger to any progressive movement” because it “delivers its supporters to the tender mercies of the attacking enemy.”


Nathaniel Mehr is co-editor of London Progressive Journal(www.londonprogressivejournal.com).  ‘Constructive Bloodbath’ In Indonesia by Nathaniel Mehr is out in April 2009, courtesy of Spokesman Books.




5 Responses to “The Fall of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965”

  1. Green Red said

    Regardless of MLM study groups positions on Nepal and other matters still, their

    http://www.mlmrsg.com/attachments/051_ChForPol-Final.doc

    is certainly a to be read article in this field.

    They recently have added a shorter review on Indonesian party’s revisionist line but, the party line’s wrong doings that were very possible those days for many does not reduce the value of innocent people with egalitarian aspirations, i.e. cadre, supporters and many even non related innocents that were martyred in that point of history

    Hoping the best, for Today’s Indonesian comrades of various tendencies, to learn their lessons and, sooner rather than later lead that nation to brighter socialist path.

  2. “The Destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965 and the Road Not Taken” by the MLM Revolutionary Study Group in the U.S. (July 2007) can be downloaded at:
    http://www.mlmrsg.com/attachments/052_PKI-Final.doc
    related materials can be found at http://www.mlmrsg.com

  3. “The Destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965 and the Road Not Taken” by the MLM Revolutionary Study Group, is available for download at http://www.mlmrsg.com/attachments/052_PKI-Final.doc.

    The slaughter of more than one million Indonesian communists and supporters in a U.S.-backed military coup cannot be understood without examining the history of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) from the 1920s to the 1960s. This article sheds new light on the PKI’s politics, particularly the development of a revisionist political line that viewed the Indonesian state as having two aspects, progressive and reactionary. This line politically and militarily disarmed the revolutionary forces when US imperialism and General Suharto made a decisive move in October 1965, with tragic consequences for the Indonesian people. (33 pages, July 2007)
    Related materials can be found at http://www.mlmrsg.com.

  4. Ka Frank said

    This is a generally well researched and thought out article, and I look forward to reading Mehr’s forthcoming book.

    There is one statement in this article that is historically incorrect. Mehr says that the 1966 Self-Criticism of the some of the remaining PKI leadership in China “defended Aidit’s policy of working within Indonesia’s electoral system.” Just the opposite is true. The Self-Criticism is a withering critique of electoralism, of the analysis that the Indonesian state had “progressive” and “reactionary” aspects (with the progressive aspect gradually becoming more influential), and isgenerally a criticism of the revisionist line of a peaceful transition to new democracy and socialism.

    The MLM Revolutionary Study Group’s article, “The Destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965 and the Road Not Taken,” examines the development of the political views of the PKI from the 1920s to the 1960s. It is available at http://www.mlmrsg.com.

    Here is the section on the PKI’s self-criticism and attempts to development armed struggle after the US-Suharto coup:

    * * * * * *

    1966 Self-Criticism and Attempts to Initiate Armed Struggle

    In the wake of the massacre, two PKI groups emerged which repudiated the line of the PKI under Aidit’s leadership. The underground Political Committee of the PKI issued a statement criticizing the concept of a state with “two aspects” and pointed to the bourgeoisification of party leaders and cadre due to their positions in the Sukarno government. A Beijing-based group of PKI members led by Adjitorop also came out against Aidit’s line.

    Sudisman, the only top PKI leader who had escaped the army dragnet, began to reorganize the PKI in Jakarta. After Sudisman’s capture in late 1966, Widjayasastra, Hutapea and Sukatno led several hundred PKI members in an effort to initiate armed struggle in South Blitar on the southern coast of East Java. After the poorly armed guerillas began to move out of their base to dispense revolutionary justice to the worst executioners of PKI members in nearby districts, the army moved in and within a month retook the area. Eight members of a new ten-man Political Bureau were killed. In 1967-68, several hundred PKI members in exile in China were given military training in the hope that they would return to Indonesia, but this plan could not be implemented because of the loss of the guerilla base in South Blitar.

    The PKI also began to reorganize in one area in West Kalimantan. These forces were armed due to the participation of pro-PKI soldiers and officers in the 1963-64 “Crush Malaysia” campaign. In July 1967, fifty communist guerillas raided an Indonesian air base at Singkawang. The PKI cadres had a strong mass base in some cities but not in the countryside, especially among the Dayak tribes. Thus, the Indonesian military was able to suppress the PKI and its armed units in this area. In 1971, the North Kalimantan Communist Party was founded and had some armed units. However, it was unable to sustain and develop its revolutionary armed struggle.

    From September 1966 on, both remaining PKI groups made a more extensive critique of “Aiditism” as an Indonesian variant of modern revisionism, and called for a Maoist line of agrarian revolution and armed struggle to overthrow the U.S.-backed Suharto regime. A statement by the underground in Indonesia criticized Aidit’s political line and strategy as based on parliamentarianism, capitulation to Sukarno and the national bourgeoisie, denial of class struggle, and adoption of a peaceful road to socialism.

    In a lengthy Self-Criticism (Otokritik), the reorganized Political Bureau of the PKI, based in Beijing, called for the ideological, political and organizational rectification of the party, and for a renewed effort to build a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party, armed people’s struggle, and a revolutionary united front of all classes opposed to imperialism and feudalism. In all of this work, the Political Bureau emphasized work in the countryside:

    “In rebuilding the Party, the Indonesian Marxist-Leninists must devote their attention to the creation of the conditions to lead the armed agrarian revolution of the peasants that will become the main form of struggle to win victory for the people’s democratic revolution in Indonesia. This means that the greatest attention should be paid to the rebuilding of Party organizations in the rural areas. The greatest attention must be paid to the solution of the problem of arousing, organizing and mobilizing the peasants in an anti-feudal agrarian revolution….

    “The tasks faced by the Indonesian Marxist-Leninists are very arduous. They have to work under the most savage and barbarous terror and persecution which have no parallel in history. However, the Indonesian Marxist-Leninists do not have the slightest doubt that, by correcting the mistakes made by the Party in the past, they are now marching along the correct road, the road of people’s democratic revolution. No matter how protracted, tortuous and full of difficulties, this is the only road leading to a free and democratic New Indonesia, an Indonesia that will really belong to the Indonesian people. For this noble cause, we must have the courage to traverse the long road.”

    Finally, the Political Bureau criticized the PKI’s organizational policies, which flowed from its revisionist political line of a march to power without preparing and organizing the masses of people for revolutionary struggle. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the PKI opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of new recruits with little political training. In contrast to this concept of a “mass party,” the Otokritik stated,

    “The mass character of the Party is not determined above all by a large membership, but primarily by the close ties linking the Party and the masses, by the Party’s political line which defends the interests of the masses, or in other words by the implementation of the Party’s mass line. And the mass line of the Party can only be maintained when the prerequisites determining the Party’s role as the advanced detachment are firmly upheld, when the Party members are made up of the best elements of the proletariat who are armed with Marxism-Leninism.”

    Excerpts from the Self-Criticism published in China in early 1967 are available on-line at:
    http://www.massline.info/Indonesia/PKIscrit

  5. Nathaniel Mehr’s book on the Indonesian killings (mentioned above) is out now:

    http://www.spokesmanbooks.com/acatalog/Forthcoming_Titles.html

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