This document retraces the first period of the Indonesian Communist Party up to the ill-prepared insurrection of 1926. It contains vital lessons for the building of a Marxist political organisation today. The thousands of activists involved in organising workers, peasants, urban poor and students will find in this historical analysis a more thorough understanding of the strategy for socialism in Indonesia and of the necessary tools to achieve this goal. We must not only learn from the great achievements of this epoch but also from the fatal weaknesses of the PKI at that time. The new generation of young people in Indonesia will find here some very important guidelines to building a socialist and Marxist organisation.
The First Period of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI): 1914-1926 - An outline.
The Indonesian archipelago was conquered by Holland between 1596 and 1903. Today Indonesia has a population of 200 million—the 4th most populous country in the world—spread across many islands and divided into several national groups. Java is the most important island, containing 75% of the population. The capital city Jakarta (known in the colonial period as Batavia), the oldest industrial centre Surabaja, the traditional centre of radical politics Semarang, and several other important cities are all situated here.
The country was, and remains, overwhelmingly agrarian. Rice is cultivated by the peasantry as a staple food. Dutch colonisation led to the establishment of estates, owned by big capital, for the production of export crops (sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa, tobacco, rubber, etc.). Later oil was exploited by Royal Dutch Shell, a joint venture of Dutch and British capital.
Indonesia was Holland's most important colony, and possession of Indonesia played a key role in the development of the modern Dutch state. Trade in Indonesian commodities contributed a large share to the fortune of the Dutch capitalist class, and many of the traditional Dutch industries (e.g. cigar-making, chocolate, etc.) were based on the processing of imports from the Indies.
How did Holland, with a population only 10% that of Indonesia, manage to maintain a stable regime there for three centuries? The fundamental reason, of course, was the far higher development of the productive forces in Holland, with the corresponding development of the state and the means of political and military control. Dutch rule in Indonesia depended on the absence of unity between the peoples of the islands. The Dutch authorities practised a sophisticated system of indirect rule, linking up their administrative apparatus to the indigenous, pre-Islamic aristocracy. Indigenous "regents" jointly ran the administrative districts with their Dutch "younger brothers", the assistant-residents.
Administrative and paramedical schools were set up by the Dutch to train the sons of the lesser nobility and involve them in the colonial administration. However, these schools also turned out many of the early radical and nationalist leaders.
The peasant masses suffered the consequences of colonial rule in many ways, first and foremost in the form of taxation. The tax burden, ironically, became heavier when the "ethical" (liberal) policy adopted by the colonial administration around the turn of the century brought with it an expansion of the infrastructure and, consequently, of state expenditure. The enforced cultivation of cash crops by the peasantry was another burden (later abolished) which helped to destroy the independence of the peasantry. Likewise, it was compulsory for peasants to make one-third to one-half of their land available for leasing to the sugar estates. Forced by their need for cash to pay taxes and debts into parting with more and more land, the peasants were pressed deeper into poverty and dependence on the capitalist system.
In the towns the indigenous petty bourgeoisie was very weak, consisting mainly of merchants (of whom many were Chinese) and a handful of professional people. With industry scarcely developed, the working class was very small. The strongest concentrations of workers were in the public service and in the privately-owned transport sector (railways and tramways).
In the absence of significant political opposition prior to the First World War, it was possible for the Dutch authorities to be relatively liberal in a paternalistic way, although freedom of the press, organisation, etc., always existed by dispensation only. As struggle began to build up among the peasants, the middle class and the workers, these freedoms were rapidly withdrawn.
Extreme poverty and political repression, thinly covered with a veneer of liberal tolerance, summed up the condition of the Indonesian masses during the early years of the century. Illiteracy was almost universal, and disease was rife. The majority of people were strongly influenced by religion (Islam) and traditional culture. Pre-colonial feudalism was widely idealised. At the same time, capitalism and experience of the class struggle had begun to change the outlook of the youth and the workers in particular. Modern education was teaching sections of the middle class to question Dutch rule.
The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, seen as the defeat of a European power by an Asiatic nation, had an important effect on the political climate throughout the Far East. In Indonesia it affected the mood of the younger intelligentsia in particular. Then came the First World War, bringing with it shortages, disruption, inflation and increased suffering for the masses, which in turn set off waves of unrest and militancy among the peasants and workers. The beginnings of the modern nationalist movement as well as the PKI date from this period.
The significance of the PKI
The PKI was built on the crest of the first wave of mass struggle against Dutch rule. In the early 1920s, with the disintegration of the existing middle-class leadership, the PKI emerged as the leading organisation of national and class struggle. The weakness of the PKI leadership and their increasing shift into ultra-leftism, however, led to disastrous defeat for the PKI in 1923-26. This in turn made possible the re-emergence of a middle-class nationalist leadership at the head of the independence struggle in the 1940s.
The early PKI thus opened up a unique possibility of building a mass Marxist leadership to carry through the struggle for national and social liberation along the lines of the permanent revolution. This could well have meant the establishment of a soviet republic out of the revolutionary upheavals of the 1940s, which would have crucially affected the course of the revolution in China, Indo-China and internationally. Instead, through the errors of the leadership and, in particular, its failure to develop as a Bolshevik cadre, the road was prepared for the emergence of a bourgeois-bonapartist regime.
The degeneration of the Comintern was an additional factor in this process. After 1926, Stalinism presented an enormous barrier—which turned out to be insurmountable—to the correction of past errors and the reorientation of the PKI along Bolshevik lines.
Nevertheless, despite these tragically wasted opportunities, the early development of the PKI was remarkable and perhaps more significant than in any other colonial country, not excluding China. It was the first Communist Party to be formed in Asia outside the Soviet Union itself, and the methods pioneered there—in particular the "bloc within" the nationalist movement—served as a precedent for the strategy of the Chinese CP.
In China, it may be noted, both the working class and the national bourgeoisie were far more developed than in Indonesia. Here it was the corruption of the policy of "entrism" by Stalinism, turning it into its opposite, and not the policy itself, which led to the annihilation of the Chinese CP in the late 1920s.
The traditions of Communism thus created in Indonesia made possible the rise of a new, mass-based PKI in the 1940s as the traditional organisation of the working class and sections of the peasantry. But with the last traces of Marxism by now removed from its policies (significantly, the party's pre-1920 development was at this point expunged from its official history) the way was prepared for the opportunism and adventurism which culminated in the murder of up to a million Indonesian communists following Suharto's coup in 1965.
All the basic conclusions drawn by Marxism as to the nature and problems of the colonial revolution are confirmed, on a giant scale, by the history of the Indonesian struggle. The successes and failures of the PKI, as a material factor in the process, are rich in lessons for us today in facing up to our tasks in the former colonial world.
Beginnings of the PKI
Prior to 1914 there was no indication whatever that Indonesia would within a few years have the first mass-based CP in the colonial world. The working class had no political organisation and only a few weak trade unions. The "nationalist" movement was still in its infancy; in fact the banner of nationalism had not yet been raised among the masses and the early movement was dominated by conservative, middle-class leaders who based their appeal on religion. A huge gap separated these leaders from the harsh conditions of the masses. Nor had any coherent, potentially Bolshevik left wing begun to develop at this stage.
The first organisation formed by upper-class Indonesian youth in 1908, Budi Utomo ("Noble Endeavour"), was based on idealised notions of mutual aid and devoid of any conscious political programme. The "Indian Party", based among the relatively privileged Eurasians, was the first to raise the demand for Indonesian independence, but had no link with the Indonesian masses. In 1913 it was banned because of its call for independence, and most of its members regrouped in the "Insulinde Society".
The first mass-based movement was centred not on nationalism or on any political programme, but on religion. About 90% of Indonesia's people are Islamic, and Islam was the one major institution of traditional society which the Dutch had failed to incorporate in their system of indirect rule. Islam consequently stood out as a focal point for opposition to foreign rule, even though at first this opposition was inchoate and formless.
Organisation began with the formation of an Islamic traders' organisation in 1911 which by 1913, under the leadership of Tjokroaminoto, dropped the "traders" from its name and set out, as Sarekat Islam ("Islamic Association"), to build up a mass following. Though it raised no perspective of national struggle, Sarekat Islam inevitably had the role of a national movement thrust upon it.
SI had no political programme beyond "serving the interests of Islamic people", and organisation was loose in the extreme. Yet its membership grew spectacularly, rising to hundreds of thousands by 1916, centred increasingly in the towns. This graphically reflected the search by the mass of working people for a means of struggling against their worsening conditions. SI failed completely to meet this need; nevertheless, for as long as there was no alternative, it remained the focus of mass activity and might well have done so for an entire period, had the rise of the PKI not cut across its development.
What led to the rise, in the space of a few years and in an extremely backward country, of a CP with a mass following which transformed the political scene? Undoubtedly, a key role was played by Henk Sneevliet, a left-wing leader of the Dutch railwaymen's union and prominent Socialist left-winger, who was forced to move to Indonesia in 1913 after being blacklisted by the reformist bureaucracy as well as the employers. The effect of Sneevliet's work was a result not so much of his personal qualities of leadership as of the degree to which he had absorbed the general lessons of Marxism and working-class organisation, in the form that these were embodied by the advanced sections of the Western European labour movement at the time. Sneevliet's work served as a catalyst, combining these ideas and methods with the rising movement of the Indonesian working people. If anything can illustrate the potency of Marxism, it is the spectacular growth of the PKI and the eagerness with which the best Indonesian working-class militants seized the political weapons which it placed at their disposal.
Sneevliet's contribution, however, should be qualified in two respects—firstly by the limited period which he spent in Indonesia (1913-18), and secondly, by the important limitations of the revolutionary tendency in the Social-Democracy itself. These limitations were expressed, above all, in an incomplete understanding (even among the most outstanding leaders such as Luxemburg and Connolly) of the tasks of building a revolutionary party grounded in Marxist theory. The period was one of capitalist growth in the imperialist countries, expansion of the working class and favourable conditions for the building of class organisation. Leadership was concerned above all with the development of mass organisations, guided by the general Marxist analysis of the class struggle, as a precondition for the future struggle for state power. (The right wing, of course, participated in the building of mass organisations but with an entirely different perspective.)
Lenin, on the other hand, drawing the conclusions of the situation in Russia where the tasks were posed very sharply, explained the need for a cadre of professional revolutionaries in contrast to the full-time propagandists of the social-democracy and trade unions. Without a strong cadre intensively trained in the ideas and method of Marxism, the workers' parties would be unable to hold together during periods of serious defeat, let alone prepare for the seizure of power.
The task of "party-building" was thus commonly acknowledged throughout the Second International, in contrast to the position today; but what this involved was differently understood by different tendencies within it. Sneevliet carried the ideas and methods of the left wing to Indonesia, but not the Leninist understanding of cadre-building. His outstanding contribution lay in the consistent class orientation he brought into the Indonesian struggle, linking the national struggle to the working-class struggle along the lines explained scientifically by Trotsky, but reaching these conclusions independently of Trotsky.
Political discussion and education obviously took place in the Indonesian movement but appears to have been carried out in what we would call a "routine" manner, without the vital necessity of training a revolutionary cadre as a precondition for mass growth being fully grasped. With the general forward surge of the workers' movement internationally—and with the early conditions of legality prevailing in Indonesia as well—the need for rock-solid theoretical foundations capable of withstanding cataclysmic upheavals did not yet present itself with the same clarity and urgency as would be the case in the period of "sharp turns and sudden changes" that was then just beginning to open up. Workers' leaders and peasant leaders easily became transformed into Party leaders, without sufficient political development to carry the responsibilities involved, and without the Party itself being able to impose the necessary leadership and discipline at critical moments.
Organisational growth, in short, outstripped political growth, due to an underestimation of the importance of political education. This weakness lay at the root of the PKI's disastrous ultra-left course in the mid-1920s. It also lay at the root, we may note, of Sneevliet's own political decline from the mid-1920s onwards and his subsequent break with Trotsky. Insufficiently prepared in terms of perspectives and method for the new and qualitatively different period of working-class defeat and swimming against the stream, of Stalinism and fascism, he persisted in the methods of the previous period, looking for a ready-made mass following for revolutionary slogans. With the active sections of the working class more and more sinking into passivity and despair, these methods came to spell opportunist adaptations and degeneration into centrism.
Along these lines a whole generation of militant workers' leaders, who had made an enormous contribution to the building of the movement and to the Comintern during its revolutionary years, were overtaken by the new historical period, unable to understand its demands and unable to contribute further.
Having said all this, it does not follow that a developed Leninist approach on Sneevliet's part would, in itself, have been sufficient in the space of a few short years to build a cadre strong enough to rally the masses and stave off defeat in the 1920s. But even a small cadre organisation surviving from that period, and developing itself on the basis of a meticulous understanding of events, would have been able to transform itself into a mass organisation in the 1940s and alter the course of Indonesian and world history. This is the real perspective against which the early development of the PKI should be considered.
1914-19: Building a mass base
Sneevliet's work in Indonesia, which laid the foundations for the PKI, was in three directions: forming a nucleus of socialists (to begin with, Dutch expatriates); building the trade union movement; and intervening in the nationalist movement.
On Sneevliet's initiative the Indies Social-Democratic Association (ISDV) was formed in 1914, initially consisting of 85 members of the two Dutch socialist parties (the mass-based Social-Democratic Workers' Party, then under left-reformist leadership, and the small Social-Democratic Party, forerunner of the CP, which had split from the SDAP on a sectarian basis in 1909).
From the outset the revolutionary tendency was in control of the ISDV, taking a militant stand on local issues (e.g., campaigning in support of a radical Indonesian journalist being prosecuted under the censorship laws, and holding public meetings against the Dutch authorities' preparations for war) and involving itself in the national movement. At this stage individual membership of Insulinde was open to European members of the ISDV. The middle-class leadership of Insulinde and also of Sarekat Islam were as yet grateful for support where they could find it, and only the Socialists offered it at this stage.
Inevitably, however, conflict began to mount up between the ISDV and the Insulinde leadership, and also within the ISDV itself. The ISDV argued that the struggle against Dutch colonialism had to be supported by socialists, and that this involved a struggle against the capitalist system itself. The middle-class leaders of Insulinde (like the SI leaders later) instinctively recoiled from this proposition and put up a "two-stage theory" in their own defence. Within the ISDV itself, the reformists split off in 1916 and formed the Indies Social-Democratic Party, which soon discovered its natural affinity with the middle-class nationalist leaders. The ISDV, on the other hand, increasingly won the respect of the best Indonesian militants on account of its courageous stand in local politics. Despite the playing of the racial card by nationalist leaders, the "national question" presented no obstacle to the ISDV's development into an organisation of Indonesian revolutionaries and winning mass support.
Many difficult questions had to be dealt with by the ISDV in this period of mass political awakening. In 1915-18 the Dutch authorities reacted to the growing movement by establishing an advisory "Volksraad" in the hope of containing mass militancy. The ISDV—in contrast to the nationalists and the ISDP—initially boycotted this organ (though participating in municipal councils) but later reversed its position when it became clear that the Volksraad could be used as a platform for revolutionary propaganda.
Sneevliet also took up a leading position in the VSTP (union of railway and tramway personnel), then a small organisation with a predominantly white membership. Sneevliet turned the VSTP towards the mass of Indonesian workers, and at the same time set about strengthening its organisational structure, insisting on proper branch organisation, the holding of annual conferences, the collection of membership dues, etc. In a short space of time the membership of the union was doubled, with the vast majority Indonesian. The success of the VSTP earned prestige for the socialists and enabled Sneevliet to recruit worker-activists into the ISDV. Most important of these was the young railway worker Semaun who in 1916 (at the age of 17) also became chairman of the Semarang federation of SI, and was later one of the key leaders of the PKI.
To distinguish these developments from the present-day situation in the major ex-colonial countries, two contradictory aspects should be noted—on the one hand, the weakness of the working class in Indonesia itself; on the other hand, the powerful development of the workers' movement internationally and with it, the undisputed authority of Marxism and socialism. The condition of the working class in Indonesia at that time can only be compared with that in the most backward countries today—while at the same time it faced, not some unstable Bonapartist regime, but a developed imperialist power.
Dutch liberalism did not extend to condoning workers' struggle. Strikes were met with mass dismissals, deportation of activists to remote islands, and whatever further measures were needed to crush the movement. During this period there seems to have been very few successful strikes, and certainly no question of major struggles being able to succeed. Against powerful, reactionary employers there were only very limited opportunities of improving workers' conditions through negotiation.
Nevertheless the trade union movement persisted and continued to develop. This can only be explained, on the one hand, by the inherent strength and resiliency of the working class and by its growth in numbers and experience; and on the other hand by the fact that, to all concerned, the trade union struggle could not be separated from the broader, overall struggle of the Indonesian people against their Dutch oppressors and exploiters.
At the same time Marxism, and the labour movement in Holland and internationally, enjoyed an authority in the eyes of the colonial masses far beyond anything possible today, after generations of reformist and Stalinist betrayals. This gave added significance to the infant labour movement. With the nationalist movement itself in its infancy, workers' leaders and European socialists were able to debate on terms of equality with nationalist leaders.
Nevertheless, the entire situation was dominated by the overwhelming weight of the peasantry. No movement could hope to become a serious national force without the ability to appeal seriously to the peasantry. The mass of peasants, still wedded to tradition and religion, seemingly passive in the face of oppression, their horizons determined by the interests and problems of village life, could not be expected to rally to a socialist programme reflecting the most advanced understanding of mankind. At most they could identify with aspects of that programme reflecting their own interests and with militant struggles in support of those demands. But such support was also likely to be sporadic, explosive and fragmented, corresponding to the nature of the peasantry itself—a class of heterogeneous, isolated small producers, essentially pursuing their own individual interests. For these reasons the peasantry can be won not only to the side of the working class but are also susceptible to nationalist demagogy, religious obscurantism or other tendencies appearing to offer solutions to the immediate concrete problems.
Another important factor in Indonesia, as in the colonial world generally, was the educated and propertied middle class—a small but significant force even in a backward country. The middle class, too, are unlikely to be won to the workers' programme in the first instance but are pushed into political activity in an effort to secure their own interests—interests of a bourgeois nature, though in conflict with imperialism. Common struggle is possible between the working class and the middle class to the extent that both face the common imperialist enemy; but the fundamental aims and methods of the middle class are different from those of the workers. The middle class, or sections of it, can be won from its own utopian, reactionary programme to the workers' socialist programme to the extent that they come to see that there is no practical alternative; but this is likely to be a contradictory, drawn-out process. Initially the middle-class leadership will develop separately from the workers' movement and, by voicing the grievances of all the oppressed, can build up popular support. As educated, relatively wealthy people, they will tend to be far removed from the masses; yet this, at the same time, renders them all the more confident and articulate, and can give them greater authority in the eyes of the peasantry and backward sections of workers.
These and other factors help to explain the influence of middle-class nationalism in the colonial world. Most crucial, however, is the extent to which nationalist leaders are able to focus their demands and propaganda around the central issue that will be supported wholeheartedly by the mass of workers and peasants—national independence. It is important to bear in mind that only from the standpoint of Marxism and the theory of permanent revolution is it possible for workers and workers' leaders to recognise their own leading role in this struggle, which at first sight appears to be "broader" than the concrete struggle the workers find themselves engaged in. To the extent that the nationalist "politicians" appear as the leaders of the independence struggle, the programme of socialism will tend to appear as something in addition to the central aim, something that can be postponed or supported as a long-term ideal.
In practice, socialists can only build mass support by demonstrating their ability to tackle the immediate problems more effectively than the nationalists can, and by establishing their own credentials as party of national liberation. To do so they will need to act in a united front with the nationalists in the independence struggle—standing for unity in action, while campaigning for their own ideas and programme. Along these lines Lenin and the Second Comintern Conference explained the policy of Communist parties towards "revolutionary nationalism".
But no amount of practical co-operation could be allowed to obscure the fact that, in the epoch of imperialism, the problems of the colonial peoples can only be solved by the working class and the socialist transformation of society. From the objective point of view, nationalism plays a progressive role to the extent that it opposes and weakens imperialism by rallying the masses in struggle for national liberation. But by its very nature middle-class nationalism will be unstable and liable to turn into its opposite as the fundamental conflict between bourgeois society and the proletarian revolution emerges. (This process of class differentiation has been carried to its logical conclusion in the post-war period in countries such as India and Kenya where the middle-class anti-colonial leaderships have become transformed into reactionary neo-colonial regimes for the suppression of the workers and peasants.) The alliance between the working class and the middle class in the period of national liberation struggle can therefore only be conditional—a temporary correlation of forces during which the workers' revolutionary movement will need to fight to establish its own leadership over the struggle as a whole.
Such, broadly speaking, were the relationships that came about through the orientation of the ISDV towards Insulinde and, more importantly, towards SI. The Semarang federation of SI, which was clearly identified with the ISDV, had emerged by 1916 already as a revolutionary opposition to the national leadership, raising concrete social demands, calling for struggle against capitalism, and taking up a more resolute stand on practical issues. Membership of the Semarang federation rose from 1,700 in 1915 to 20,000 in 1916, making it one of the strongest regions of SI. Attempts by the leadership to crush the "Semarang tendency" were defeated. Henceforth they would only be able to root out socialist ideas by tearing SI itself apart—a course which they eventually resorted to.
Despite its growing influence, the ISDV—and later the PKI—remained a relatively small organisation. ISDV membership rose from 103 in 1915 (of which only 3 were Indonesians) to 330 in 1919 (300 Indonesians). In this sense it was a cadre party—a party of activists and leaders with considerable support in the trade unions, the towns and the villages. The class orientation of the ISDV was reflected most clearly in its powerful position in the trade union movement. The first trade union federation, formed in 1919, consisted of 22 unions with 72,000 members who were divided in their allegiance between the ISDV and the national leadership of SI. Within a few years, however, the hold of the inept SI leadership had been broken over all except a few white-collar unions.
The authority of the ISDV was also reflected in its mass support within SI itself. Bearing in mind the massive size of Indonesia's population, however, even a following of tens of thousands represented no more than a beginning—in practice, a number of regional bases that would need to be consolidated into a national movement of millions, around a solid core of Marxist cadres, before the question of power could be on the agenda.
In terms of perspectives and theory, on the other hand, the ISDV as a cadre organisation was fatally weak. Sneevliet's expulsion from Indonesia in 1918 left an irreparable gap at the top of the organisation. None of the other Dutch leaders, nor the outstanding Indonesian members who rapidly took their place at the head of the party, despite their impressive qualities as revolutionary fighters, possessed the necessary all-round grasp of Marxist theory and practice to enable them to steer the party correctly through the sharp turns and sudden changes which it faced.
The brilliant revolutionary potential of the ISDV was illustrated most clearly in 1917-18 when it immediately rallied to the support of the Russian Revolution and was quick to draw out the implications for the European revolution and for Indonesia itself. Learning the lessons of Russia, the ISDV took a bold lead in organising the soldiers and sailors based in Indonesia, gaining a following of some 3,000 among the Dutch armed forces.
At the end of 1918, with Holland on the brink of revolution, the colonial regime held its breath; it seemed a real possibility that a socialist seizure of power in Holland would be followed by revolution in Indonesia. However, the Dutch Social-Democrats retreated. The colonial regime, after promising reforms, was able to regain its position, and the revolutionary situation ebbed.
1918-19 were turbulent years in Indonesia, however, with economic crisis hitting the working people and violent resistance erupting among the peasantry. These events formed the background to the mass growth of the ISDV/PKI, as well as the driving force of deepening state reaction—a process which, in the absence of a strong subjective factor, determined the development of the PKI over the next few years.
1920-26: The slide towards disaster
The early 1920s was a period of sharp setbacks for the workers' struggle in Indonesia as well as internationally. Major strikes were defeated, culminating in the defeat of the 1923 railways strike in which the VSTP—the vanguard of the trade union movement—suffered a crushing blow. The period of "ethical" liberalism was now definitely over. During these years the last of the Dutch PKI leaders were expelled from the Indies, followed by the key Indonesian leaders of the party (in particular Semaun and Tan Malaka).
Indonesia was too remote and inaccessible for effective intervention by the Comintern (which, as far as the East was concerned, was focused on the more favourable and important situation in China). Increasingly, the powerful organisational strength and momentum built up in the ISDV period, combined with an incomplete understanding of the class programme hammered home then, produced a tendency towards ultra-leftism and sectarianism among the remnants of the leadership (which constantly fluctuated under new waves of arrests and banishments).
The major debate on the colonial revolution at the Second Comintern Conference did not decisively clarify matters as far as the PKI was concerned, mainly because of its isolation from the International. On the question of orientation towards the nationalist movement, many in the PKI leadership felt that Lenin's position could not be fully applied in Indonesia because of the weakness of the national bourgeoisie, which could therefore be more or less ignored. On the other hand, the PKI was unhappy with the Comintern's attitude towards the Pan-Islamic movement, with which SI was associated. While taking up a fraternal attitude towards Moslem workers and peasants, the Comintern called for struggle against Pan-Islamism as an instrument of Turkish imperialism and the landowners and clergy of the Moslem countries.
It is true that Sarekat Islam was contradictory from this point of view. The middle-class right wing did at a certain point openly side with Turkish and Japanese imperialism. The masses, on the other hand, rallied to SI as a vehicle of struggle. With a long-term perspective and a balanced approach, with boldness in struggle combined with patient explanation and careful assessment of the stage of the struggle, it should have been entirely possible to break the illusions in Pan-Islamism among the peasantry in particular.
The PKI leaders were concerned, however, that in the short term the Comintern position would be exploited by their enemies to isolate them from the masses. Substituting tactics for perspectives, they took up a defensive position and went out of their way to assert, completely incorrectly, an empirical "identity" between Islam and Communism. (Similarly, overawed by Gandhi's seeming successes in India, the PKI until 1924 expressed unqualified admiration for this bourgeois apostle of pacifism.) This unbalanced, impressionistic combination of sectarianism and political capitulation towards bourgeois-nationalist tendencies further helped to hold back the raising of political level within the PKI. It demonstrated also the dangerous and inevitable affinity between ultra-leftism and opportunism—not necessarily as a result of any deliberate intention but, in the case of the PKI, as a consequence of its inability to develop a Marxist leadership with a dialectical understanding of the flow of events.
Despite its weaknesses, such was the momentum and prestige of the early PKI that it emerged by the mid-1920s as the leading organisation in the mass movement. Its very position of strength, however, masked the precariousness of the position overall, which its leadership in general failed to see. In reality, a period of sharp reaction had set in, following the defeats of the working class internationally and locally. The tightening of the screws in Indonesia, intended to crush an incipient revolutionary movement, in the first instance broke the back of the "moderate" SI leadership. In this situation the PKI, because of its superior political and organisational strength, was able to survive as a mass organisation for a few years longer; but its leading role was deceptive, reflecting a decline in the struggle and not an incipient revolutionary explosion.
This, however, its leadership did not see. While the more developed among them discussed the perspective of an American-Japanese Pacific war which would usher in a revolutionary situation in Indonesia, this perspective was never concretised as far as the party as a whole was concerned, nor did it serve as a guide to strategy and tactics. There was little understanding of the need to prepare for revolution, or indeed of revolution as a conjuncture first and foremost of objective developments. The tasks of the party were interpreted in a voluntaristic manner. Revolution was in essence conceived of as a putsch. From 1924 onwards growing sections of the leadership, convinced that there was "no time left", became determined to follow this course, in the expectation that their example would trigger off a general uprising.
In the event their prophecies of imminent revolution became, to some extent, self-fulfilling, a process which reflected the backwardness of the country. The peasantry, and even the inexperienced proletariat, was volatile, able to move quickly into militant action but, in defeat, able to relapse equally quickly into apathy and demoralisation. Crude revolutionary agitation, based on a false and unrealistic understanding of the perspectives, combining promises of utopia with threats against opponents, could set in motion local eddies of struggle amid the general tide of defeat. But such methods—the result of excessive revolutionary zeal and impatience—were extremely dangerous. By the mid-1920s it was possible for the authorities to whip up counter-revolutionary gangs for the first time from among the disillusioned ex-following of the PKI in some areas. On the other hand, the frenetic revolutionary mood created among sections of its own rank and file acted as a further spur on the leadership to "act".
The net result was an inexperienced leadership increasingly losing control over a movement of its own making, becoming convinced that the only solution was to move even faster. The canter broke into a headlong gallop, until the inevitable crash.
Two aspects of this process are of special importance to us today—the struggle between the PKI and the SI leadership; and the intervention in the situation by the exiled leaders and the International.
In 1918-19, during the period of rising mass struggle, the Semarang tendency won important political victories over the right-wing SI. By 1921 the right wing was desperate enough to force through a witch-hunt against the Communists despite warnings (which proved correct) that this would mean the collapse of SI. It led, in the first place, to the splitting of SI branches into "Red SI" and "White SI" branches. The latter, however, basing themselves on religion in clear opposition to radical struggle, had little appeal for the masses, and soon withered away. The PKI renamed the "Red SI" Sarekat Rakjat ("Association of the People") which at its height involved some 60,000 people.
Here, again, the unclear policy of the PKI led to contradictory results. To all intents and purposes, Sarekat Rakjat was part of the party, but far outnumbering its official membership and inundating the party with a mood of radical populism. At the same time, while effectively preventing the development of a cadre, SR's close involvement with the party proved an obstacle to winning broader mass support—the hundreds of thousands and millions who were not yet ready to join what was seen as the PKI.
The Comintern urged the PKI to separate SR from the party, to run it under the "intellectual leadership" of the party rather than under the direct control of the executive, and to ensure that its programme genuinely reflected the aspirations of the masses rather than appealing to the more advanced elements alone. Sneevliet and other Dutch ex-leaders went further, insisting that reunification with the old SI was necessary to win the masses. Without attempting to resolve the issue here, it is clear that important questions in the tactical working out of the formula "working-class leadership of the national liberation struggle" were involved.
The PKI was unable to carry the matter much further. The leadership seems to have had difficulty in separating a tactical orientation towards the nationalist movement from political concessions to nationalism, and the idea of winning the whole of the existing nationalist movement to Communism. Political independence from the nationalist tendency, it seemed to follow, meant "total war" on the nationalist leaders. Thus the possibilities of entry work, inherited from the ISDV period, and later the united front tactic, were never utilised to the full. Among the masses, there was undoubtedly an overwhelming desire for an end to the bitter quarrels among their leaders. But the PKI and SI leaders were unable to agree on united action without immediately moving apart again amid angry recrimination. This weakened the mass struggle as a whole; and the PKI, left more and more exposed as the mass movement ebbed, increasingly paid the price in the form of state attacks.
What was the role of the working class in the course of these events? During the early 1920s the PKI decisively won the leadership of the blue-collar unions. They organised important sections of workers, such as the dockers and seamen (this was started by their exiled representatives in Holland as part of the effort to maintain communication with Indonesia). But these advances, again, took place against a background of retreat by the movement as a whole, and brought no major growth in membership. The weight of the small working class could not counterbalance the pressures, essentially from the villages, that were pushing the party leadership towards adventurism. The working class was still too young, and too close to the countryside, to have developed a solid, class-conscious core that could take an independent stand. The working class tended to be swept by the same moods that were sweeping the masses as a whole.
The PKI's decision in December 1924 to prepare for insurrection was accompanied by the decision to strengthen its proletarian base—but only in order to prepare a more disciplined force for the insurrection. This event, it was imagined, should be accompanied by a general strike. With a general mood of militancy among the activists, spontaneous strikes started breaking out but were crushingly defeated. These events demonstrated, not only that the ruling class were in control of the situation, but also that the PKI leadership had little control even over the unions with offices in its own headquarters building. The net result was that repression was tightened still further and the PKI was effectively driven underground. Any prospect of an organised, combined urban and rural offensive was thus eliminated; but this only reinforced the conviction of the pro-insurrection element in the leadership that there was "no alternative except capitulation or insurrection".
The exiled leaders, possessing a clearer understanding of the situation, were unable to influence matters decisively. Semaun, based in Holland, had become wrapped in disputes and organisational manoeuvrings against Sneevliet and other Dutch ex-leaders of the PKI, raising accusations of Dutch domination and the "national question" against their efforts to involve themselves in the work of the PKI in Holland. Semaun warned against a "putsch" in Indonesia; but when it came he hailed it as a "great uprising" that would spread. A far clearer position was taken up by Tan Malaka, in China, who not only warned consistently against the dangers of ultra-leftism, but struggled actively against it, to the extent of winning a section of the internal leadership to his point of view and forming a bloc against the insurrectionist faction. During 1926 the executive of the PKI was persuaded to follow the line of Tan Malaka and the Comintern; but by now events were out of their control, and the uprising was eventually launched towards the end of 1926 by a handful of recalcitrant branches. Inevitably it was crushed.
Until 1926 the Comintern, despite the beginnings of political counter-revolution in Russia, had no occasion as yet to alter its general position on Indonesia. Up to the time of the uprising it continued to warn against adventurism and to argue the need for building a mass base in a broad national liberation movement. At this stage, however, the material interests of the Stalinist leadership began to dictate a change of course. In their struggle against the Left Opposition, the Stalinists were attempting to justify at all costs the opportunist surrender of the Chinese CP to the Kuomintang leadership. The futile uprising in Indonesia became the occasion for a "qualitative leap" in the political degeneration of the Comintern leadership: from condemning the plans for a premature uprising, it now somersaulted to the opposite position of uncritical support for the "open civil war" in Indonesia which, it claimed, had spread there from China!
This marked the beginnings of the Stalinist turn to ultra-leftism internationally. To cover the tracks of their opportunist betrayals, they now began to invent ultra-revolutionary situations everywhere—except where it existed. The following year, after the betrayal and defeat of the Shanghai workers' movement, it would be China's turn.
For the Indonesian workers' movement, this turn put paid to any possibility of learning the lessons and correcting the mistakes of the past period within the framework of the Comintern. Simultaneously, Indonesia was virtually inaccessible to the Left Opposition. Sneevliet's abandonment of the Left Opposition dealt a severe blow to the development of Trotskyism in Holland, and cut off the possibility of Marxist intervention in Indonesia by this avenue.
The defeat of the Islamic leaders by the Communists, and the subsequent defeat of the PKI left a political vacuum. This gap was filled by a new generation of middle-class leaders who based themselves on the novel doctrine of secular nationalism on a platform for united struggle by the people of all the islands against Dutch rule. The PKI was to re-emerge on the crest of new struggles as a bigger mass organisation than before. Mutilated by the events of the 1920s and 1930s, however, its links with revolutionary Marxism had been effectively severed. Marxists in Indonesia today will need to return to the period of the ISDV and the first few years of the PKI to rediscover the roots of the revolutionary movement in their country—one of the most significant to have developed in the colonial world—as an essential part of preparing for the inevitable explosions of the coming period.