The Fall of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965
Posted by Mike E on April 11, 2009
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.