The ideological roots of the Indonesian Communist Party’s defeat in 1965: part three – the Special Bureau and the Palace Revolution

From the renunciation of mass revolutionary struggle for socialism, which had now been replaced by “friendly consultation” with the national bourgeoisie, it naturally flowed that the only acceptable method of struggle from the point of view of the PKI leaders was skilful political manoeuvring at the top. 

Furthermore, since the working class, bound by their loyalty to the popular front with the national bourgeoisie, had been barred from taking power, their role had now been limited to attending mass rallies with all the fanfare involved.

The workers and peasants had been instructed not to take any direct actions that went beyond the “national democratic revolution”, which could be construed as striving for power and could scare away the national bourgeoisie. Mass actions such as strikes, factory occupations, land occupations, organisation of workers’ groups for self-defence, etc. were off limits.

Living through that period, anyone would have been amazed at the ability of the PKI to hold mass rallies of tens of thousands of people at will. But these mass rallies turned out to be paper tigers. They were more like large festivals, celebratory in nature. They were organised as a show of force to prop up the PKI’s political manoeuvring at the top, not as a show of force for the working class to realise their own strength and ability to take power. Didn’t the Second International also hold mass rallies of tens, if not hundreds of thousands?

Imagine the following scene. On 23 May 1965, at Indonesia’s largest stadium, the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, which could hold 110,000 people sitting, the PKI held its 45th anniversary celebration. The stadium was filled to capacity. Another 100,000 supporters who couldn’t get into the stadium were milling about outside in the parking lot and nearby streets. Red flags and big billboards of Marx, Engels and Lenin lined the streets of Jakarta. It was truly a glorious sight to behold. Just three weeks earlier, in the same stadium, the PKI had celebrated May Day in a similar fashion. The ruling class looked upon these mass gatherings of communists with fear. But as events would prove later on, the ruling class could count on the PKI leaders, with their mistaken theories, to hold back the movement from taking power. This was confirmed when the PKI, with its million-strong membership, crumbled to dust without any resistance in the face of reaction.

Election supporters for PKI Image public domainPrior to 1965, the PKI could hold mass rallies of tens of thousands of people at will. But these mass rallies turned out to be paper tigers / Image: public domain

By 1965, the political atmosphere had reached boiling point. Everyone could feel that a final showdown was imminent. Revolution or counter-revolution was on the order of the day. Joesoef Isak, a prominent journalist close to the PKI, just two months before the G30S, was informed by the party through his source that something big was about to happen:

“I was told that in just a little while the whole situation would change. I understood that there would be a massive movement. It would be the final blow. I kept bugging the party [meaning his briefer, Nursuhud, a Central Committee member], asking when? You said in just a little while, well, it’s been a week, a month, and still nothing has happened. I kept going after the party, asking when... The party told me, “We will raise the revolutionary actions all the way up to their peak. We will lynch the capitalist bureaucrats and the counter-revolutionaries.” I asked, how are you going to do that? “Descend into the streets,” that was the story told to me, “descend into the streets. We are going to go directly into the offices of the ministers, the directors general of government departments, and grab them. We are going to take Chairul Saleh [Sukarno’s third deputy prime minister] out and dunk him in the Ciliwung river.” [1]

Thus, the whole question of a decisive moment in a revolution was answered with a light-minded call to “descend into the streets” and “dunk” officials in a river. But of course, Isak and the workers as a whole would learn very quickly that there would be no descending into the streets or dunking officials for a final blow against the ruling classes. There was actually no plan at all that involved the masses, hence such a hand-waving response. It would be the workers in their hundreds of thousands who would end up descending into concentration camps and having their bodies dunked in the rivers, so numerous that stories abound of how rivers in Java were clogged by the sheer number of corpses.

We cannot here help but be reminded of the revolutionary phrase-mongering of the leaders of the Second International. In the years before the outbreak of the First World War, resolutions and announcements against the impending imperialist war from the Second International and its many national sections filled the air, announcing that they would turn the imperialist war into a class war to overthrow their respective governments. The congress of the Second International at Basel in November 1912 passed a manifesto that proclaimed: “In case a war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene for its speedy termination and to strive with all their power to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.” This turned out to be hollow, holiday speechifying. At the moment of truth in 1914, the Second International capitulated to the patriotic chauvinistic pressure and opened the way for some of the worst bloodletting of the working class ever seen.

In fact, the reformist leaders of the Second International had abandoned any thought of revolution, of taking power, and thus had to cover their reformist cowardice with chest-thumping revolutionary phrases. The matter was not much different with the PKI’s hollow, revolutionary phrase-mongering, used to cover their reformist politics and refusal to lead workers into taking power. At a decisive moment, when Aidit and co. caught wind of a right-wing military plot, instead of issuing an open call to the masses for a general strike and to the rank-and-file soldiers to disarm reactionary officers, they resorted to a conspiratorial palace revolution. Aidit mobilised his clandestine organisation, known as the Special Bureau, to kidnap and physically remove anti-communist generals.

The Special Bureau was the PKI’s clandestine organisation responsible for infiltrating the military. Known in the party as the Military Section of the Organizational Department, it was tasked with recruiting military members, maintaining networks of sympathetic military officers, and gaining valuable intelligence from them. Due to its nature, the detailed workings of this unit and its members were known only to Aidit and a select few party members in the top leadership.

There was nothing wrong in principle in operating a clandestine unit. Manoeuvring and trickery are part of politics as we aim to stay ahead of our class enemy. However, there is a danger in such manoeuvring when it involves losing sight of the working class who are to be the main motor force of revolution. Leon Trotsky spoke of the use of trickery in the October Revolution:

“Resorting to trickery in politics, all the more so in revolution, is always dangerous. You will most likely fail to dupe the enemy, but the masses who follow you may be duped instead. Our ‘trickery’ proved 100 percent successful – not because it was an artful scheme devised by wily strategists seeking to avoid a civil war, but because it derived naturally from the disintegration of the conciliationist regime with its glaring contradictions.” [2]

The October Revolution was a mass movement, not a conspiratorial coup as bourgeois historians would like us to believe. The Bolsheviks never hid their intention to lead the masses toward the revolutionary seizure of power, and openly prepared the masses toward that aim. But there was an element of manoeuvring in it as well, where the Bolsheviks tricked their enemies, the conciliationists, “into the trap of soviet legality,” and to “synchronise the seizure of power with the opening of the Second Soviet Congress.” But, Trotsky added: “they [the conciliationists] yearned to be deceived and we provided them with ample opportunity to gratify their desire.” In short, like Trotsky said above, the trickery was successful because “it derived naturally from the disintegration of the conciliationist regime with its glaring contradictions.”

30 Sept movement Image public domainThe 30th September Movement set in motion by the Special Bureau was “an artful scheme devised by wily strategists seeking to avoid a civil war.” It was fatally catastrophic / Image: public domain

On the other hand, the 30th September Movement that was set in motion by the Special Bureau was “an artful scheme devised by wily strategists seeking to avoid a civil war,” and precisely because of that it proved not only 100 percent unsuccessful but also fatally catastrophic. The leadership of the PKI was doing everything they could to postpone the seizure of power by the toiling masses, to postpone class struggle in the name of national struggle, to “avoid a civil war.” If the PKI had mobilised the masses to defeat the anti-communist forces in the army, it would have meant setting in motion a revolution that could have ended up in the revolutionary seizure of power by the working class, a prospect that did not fit the PKI’s aim of propping up the government of Sukarno. As such, the mobilisation of the Special Bureau to precipitate the 30th September Movement was not a whimsical irresponsible decision of Aidit alone—as many would like us to believe—but naturally flowed from the whole political programme of the PKI since the beginning.

The method of the Special Bureau was a logical conclusion of the PKI policy of “gradually eliminating anti-people elements and introducing more pro-people elements into the state.” Aidit and his Special Bureau team imagined that they could neutralise the counter-revolutionary threat simply by replacing anti-communist generals with ones who were more sympathetic to the PKI, or at least neutral. Revolution was seen from a very administrative point of view instead of as a struggle of living forces.

It is instructive to briefly look at the character of Sjam, the leader of the Special Bureau, the man Aidit trusted to carry out the 30th September Movement. According to one former high-level member of the PKI, Sjam “never read books and barely read the party literature... [cannot] be bothered with theory... he operates by a simple principle: follow Aidit... Sjam was a classic apparatchik... [who] would have grasped Machiavelli better than Marx.” [3] Furthermore, captured in 1967, knowing that the party he served was now in ruins, Sjam betrayed many of his former comrades to save his own skin. This arch-Machiavellian justified his cowardice and treacherous actions by saying, “Each person has a right to defend his right to life.” Hence, the fate of the Indonesian revolution was left in the hands of this philistine, ignorant, and cowardly apparatchik. And yet Sjam was just an accidental figure expressing the necessity, a catastrophic necessity prepared by decades of Stalinist vulgarization of Marxism. His philistinism, ignorance, and cowardice were merely the faithful reflection of Stalinist theories of two-stage-revolution and the “bloc of four classes”.

The massacre: a multigenerational trauma

The 1965 massacre in Indonesia registers itself as one of the bloodiest events in the modern history of humanity. From late 1965 to mid-1966, hundreds of thousands of people accused of being directly or indirectly affiliated to the party were rounded up by the army and its supported militias and massacred. Mass graves littered the country, particularly in the islands of Java and Bali. Estimates of the death toll range from 100,000 to two million, with a consensus amongst historians that it is probably closer to 500,000. But as Robert Cribb says in his study “How many deaths?” [4] this estimate of half a million comes solely from “a sense of moderate judgment [that] has nothing to do with accuracy and everything to do with scholarly and personal respectability” and that it is chosen because it “seems to register serious concern without requiring outrage.” But only outrage is fitting for such a bloody defeat of the working-class movement.

Lieutenant General Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, who led the “annihilation operation” (Operasi Penumpasan), was reported to have admitted that he oversaw the killing of three million PKI members. This number might be an exaggeration aimed at intimidating the people that the army is capable of committing an unheard-of atrocity against those who dare to defy them. But this figure is not without its merit. The Communist Party of Indonesia was a party of millions of members with deep roots in various layers of the toiling masses. Prior to its destruction it claimed three million members. It had under its wing many front groups of a mass character: Pemuda Rakyat (People's Youth) with 1.5 million members, SOBSI (Indonesian Centre of Workers' Organizations) with 3.8 million members (out of a total of seven million organized workers), the BTI (Peasants Front of Indonesia) with five million members, and Gerwani (Indonesian Women's Movement) with 750,000 members. [5] In short, about one in ten Indonesians was associated one way or another with the PKI, and to uproot this mass party and its influence, nothing short of a genocidal massacre was needed.

Indonesia killings Image public domainThe 1965 massacre in Indonesia was one of the bloodiest events in modern history / Image: public domain

Furthermore, to destroy the largest communist party in the world outside China and the USSR required a certain brutality. The killing needed to inflict a national multi-generational trauma, to remind the working class that this was the price they would pay for daring to stand up and challenge capitalism. It was not just the number that would intimidate workers and peasants, but also the methods which were carefully chosen. Horrifying stories abound in many villages where these massacres happened: the piling of corpses onto rafts, the nailing of genitalia of male communists to shop fronts, beheadings, etc. The army and reactionary militias were particularly innovative in “the act of killing” when it came to the communists.

A news report in August 1966 by renowned Australian journalist and historian Frank Palmos, who was among the first foreigners in the world to witness the purge, had this to say about the killings:

“At least 800,000 were killed in the area investigated. In the PKI ‘triangle stronghold’ of Bojolali, Klaten and Solo, nearly one-third of the population is dead or missing. Farther east, in the 12-mile radius of Kediri, killing was ‘abnormally high’. ‘Startling tolls’ took place in the residency of Banjumas, geographical centre of Java.”

The news report continues:

“Researchers added these points, believed to be contained in the various detailed but uncollated reports: ‘Most of the killing was by militant youth groups, often appointed by military or village authorities. Youths were armed and encouraged by these ‘authorities’, and in the ‘triangle’ area, were given drill and weapons training. Once the killing started, the youths were uncontrollable. Scores of champion killers were found. One boy interviewed killed 135, then “lost count”. Beheading was the most common form of killing, but for large scale executions shooting was normal. Killing was invariably late at night, far away from villages where the victims lived. Although thousands of women were killed, ‘almost none’ were raped or abused before being put to death.’” [6]

The latter account about the absence of rape and sexual abuse of women victims was later discredited by testimonies of survivors. It has now been established beyond doubt that sexual violence was a reality for most of the women victims of the 1965-66 massacres, as much as it was used as a method of intimidation.

Another personal witness account by Robert Macklin, a journalist for the Australian newspaper The Age, provided a vivid detailed picture of the killings he and his wife witnessed in Denpasar, Bali:

“The man's screaming and the gathering of a large crowd of school children from a nearby playing field attracted us to the army headquarters post. A Communist was being interrogated in Denpasar, the capital of Bali, Indonesia, on the ground floor verandah. We stood silently with the children as the man was bashed and dragged away…”

“We do not know how many Communists were killed but it is plain that Communism as a political force in Indonesia is at least temporarily finished. The way of its going was a brutal one. We saw four villages where every adult male had been killed. We saw trucks of villagers returning to the hills after making trips to the compound where they were given a ration of Communists to kill. We saw mass graves in each of which up to 10 Communist men and women had been packed after being stabbed to death. We saw literally hundreds of houses which had been burned to the ground.” [7]

More accounts of gory violence have been documented since the fall of Suharto and they are not for the weak-hearted. The ruling class of all epochs have always been characterised by their vicious brutality against those who dare to defy them. The Roman Empire, after crushing the Spartacus slave uprising, had 6,000 slaves crucified along the 200-km Appian Way that connected Rome and Capua. The Paris Communards were executed by the thousands. Vae victis!—Woe to the vanquished! The history of class societies is soaked in the blood of those ruled and defeated.

Suharto Ford Newsom and Kissinger Image public domainThe crushing of the PKI was a massive victory for the forces of imperialism / Image: public domain

The crushing of the PKI and the accompanying massacre was a massive victory for the forces of imperialism, as the Indonesian revolution was at the forefront of a movement against U.S. imperialism. Indonesia was the biggest and most decisive domino piece in Southeast Asia. With the removal of the PKI, the threat of a communist tide in the region was greatly reduced. Time magazine reported it as “the best news for the West in Asia for many years,” while The New York Times offered the headline “A glimmer of light in Asia”. The Liberal Party Prime Minister of Australia at the time, Harold Holt, summed up the sentiment shared amongst world leaders when he addressed his colleagues at the River Club in New York in July 1966: “With 500,000 to one million Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.” [8]

The party paralysed

The PKI was never ready for revolution, and for exactly that reason it was not ready for a counter-revolution. It was completely paralysed in the face of reaction. The wave of violence against PKI members that swept the nation met no resistance at all, except in a few isolated PKI strongholds.

Seeing the collapse of the 30th September Movement, Aidit immediately left Jakarta and flew to Central Java where the party had the strongest base. But he did not give any order to the party as to what to do. He remained underground—incommunicado until his arrest and summary execution two months later—and patiently waited for Sukarno to stabilise the situation, in accordance with the party programme of remaining under his guardianship. Once again, Aidit was afraid to call the masses to action to resist the army. He could have issued an order to the railway workers to halt trains carrying Suharto’s troops; to mechanics to sabotage army jeeps, trucks, and tanks; to peasants to block roads to and from army barracks; to party members and workers to form self-defence militias and arm themselves; to sympathetic rank-and-file soldiers to turn their guns against their commanding officers. With such calls Suharto’s troops would have melted away. But all this would have meant going onto an offensive, transcending the limits of national democratic revolution toward the dictatorship of the proletariat. It would have meant “Trotskyism”: a sin far greater than anything else in the eyes of Stalinists.

Other PKI leaders were also equally paralysed. Njoto and Lukman—members of the Politburo—met with Sukarno at the cabinet meeting on 6 October. Sukarno urged the PKI to remain calm, that he would—in his usual Bonapartist manner—take care of everything and protect the party from the army. This urging to remain calm meant that the PKI should not call the masses to resist the White Terror unleashed by Suharto’s army. Njoto and Lukman, and the rest of the PKI leadership, were hoping that Sukarno would use his authority to rein in Suharto, but it turned out that the emperor had no clothes.

pki Image public domainThe PKI was never ready for revolution, and was not ready for a counter-revolution / Image: public domain

In fact, on the day previous to this cabinet meeting, the PKI Politburo had already issued a statement “declaring its support for the guidelines laid down by Sukarno for solving the problem and called on all members and followers to help carry out the terms of the president’s message.” [9] Thus, while the army and reactionary militias were rounding up the Communists, the PKI leadership instructed the masses to obey Sukarno, and the latter told the masses to remain calm, which effectively disarmed them. As a consequence, in the initial months, many Communists willingly turned themselves in to army installations and police stations, believing that Sukarno would protect them. They believed all the pronouncements from their leaders and Sukarno that the PKI as an institution had nothing to do with the 30th September Movement, and thus if they were innocent there was no reason to hide. They did not expect to be detained indefinitely, and were never to be heard from again.

One by one, PKI leaders went into hiding while still hoping that Sukarno would sort everything out like the great arbiter they believed him to be. The leadership was, for all intents and purposes, deactivated. The millions of people who followed the PKI could not hide and were left in confusion without any leadership. The following account by a PKI member and wife of a Central Committee functionary provides an illustrative example of how paralysed the party and their cadres were:

“After September 30, we went on with our work for some days in the normal manner, but no one with whom we came in contact was able to inform us as to what happened or what we expected to do. As the atmosphere in Jakarta grew worse, we just sat at home and waited for instructions. My husband had been given no guidance about what to do in such an eventuality. We did not expect things to turn out so badly; we thought there would be a setback for the party but that eventually it would be sorted out by Sukarno.

“That is why the party disintegrated. There were no orders, and no one knew who to turn to or who to trust, since arrests had started and we knew there had been betrayals. ... [Party leaders] sent words to wait.” [10]

And they waited and waited for some salvation, and the only thing that came was their turn to be slaughtered. If this was how a party functionary in Jakarta felt, one can only imagine the utter confusion amongst hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file members of the PKI in the regions and the millions of non-party workers and peasants who supported the PKI. They were fed with the illusion that “eventually it would be sorted out by Sukarno”, an illusion that bound them hand and foot ready to be delivered to Suharto the executioner.

At that same cabinet meeting, Sukarno proposed that all newspapers, including the PKI’s Harian Rajat (People’s Daily), should be allowed to resume publication. The military refused to permit this, and with that single act of defiance the army showed who really held power. Over the next two years we witness similar stories repeated again and again: Sukarno making bombastic statements from his presidential palace with his usual flair, making bold orders to restore his authority and undermine the army, and the army general staff simply refusing and strengthening their position every step of the way. There was nothing that “The Supreme Commander of the National Armed Forces” could do. In March 1967, he formally surrendered his power to Suharto, power that he had lost de facto immediately after G30S. Sukarno was simply kept as a titular president, long enough to lull and disarm the communists.

The heaviness of the defeat of the Indonesian proletariat lies not only in the fact of the brutality of the military’s bloodletting, but also—and perhaps more importantly—in the paralysis and inability of its leadership, the PKI, to offer any resistance. The latter’s kowtowing to the national bourgeoisie had robbed the proletariat of its class vigilance and its fighting capacity. The mass rallies often displayed in years before the G30S turned out to be hollow and for show only.

Much has been said about the systematic, brainwashing propaganda machine and the terror the New Order launched that created today’s deep-seated anti-communist sentiment that penetrated deeply into the psyche of the masses. But this was only possible because of the grave disappointment the masses had in the PKI, whose false policy literally led millions to the butchering house. The false policy of the leadership of the PKI was responsible for sullying the banner of communism in the eyes of the Indonesian toiling masses for generations, who had looked upon their leaders to lead them not to a bloody reaction, but to a victorious revolution.

Moving forward

A party tempers itself by learning from its mistakes. Even after committing a disastrous mistake, a party can still maintain its core cadres and rebuild its forces if it is capable of drawing all the necessary lessons and charting a new course to reorient itself in a new situation that it finds itself. But those are the two things that the PKI found itself wanting.

Sudisman, one of the main leaders of the PKI who managed to go underground before being captured in 1967, wrote a “self-criticism” document while in hiding. [11] The document identifies one of the main mistakes of the leadership of the PKI, him included, which is “entrusting the fate of the Party and the revolutionary movement to the policy of President Sukarno.” This is correct, but he still deemed to be absolutely correct the policy of forming a united front with the national bourgeoisie. Sudisman reiterated many times that the party still had to “make continuous efforts to win the national bourgeoisie over to the side of the revolution.” He imagined that it was possible for the proletariat to form a united front with the national bourgeoisie without undermining its own class independence. What he could not understand was that in order to “win over the national bourgeoisie as an additional ally in the people’s democratic revolution” the proletariat and its party would have to subordinate class struggle to the interests of the bourgeois class. You cannot have one without the other.

The only solution to the problems of Indonesian society lies in the struggle for the dictatorship of proletariat – or genuine workers’ democracy to express its true meaning – under a clean banner of class independence, drawing behind it the poor peasants. The workers have to be taught to never trust the bourgeoisie and keep their banners separate from those of their class enemies. Such is the necessary lesson that should have been drawn by the PKI, but alas Sudisman, as the only surviving senior Politburo member at that time, could not even see this.

suharto 1965 Image public domainBy refusing to break with Sukarno, the PKI left themselves defenceless against Suharto / Image: public domain

Sudisman then turned to what he thought to be organisational weaknesses that allowed for this “Right opportunism” to take hold of the party: “lack of critical attitude towards the leadership”, “the lack of courage to express a stand that was not in disagreement with the line followed by the leadership” and “lack of freedom to express the views and feelings of the cadres.” But all of these were the natural conditions of a party educated and nurtured in the methods of Stalinism. Communist party leaders all over the world could not pretend to be blind to the fact that Stalin and Mao Zedong, whom they regarded as paragons of Marxism-Leninism, employed the crudest methods of expulsion, intimidation, and physical extermination to deal with anyone who dared to harbor critical attitudes against the infallible wisdom of the leadership. These methods are at odds with genuine Bolshevism, with the healthy internal democracy of the Party of Lenin and Trotsky, where sharp disagreements were debated openly, without fear of repercussions. Stalinist methods had been exported to every Communist Party around the world for decades, and served as a filter to select party leaders who would be uncritical yes-men and women, and utterly bureaucratic in the way they dealt with any disagreement. Sudisman was such a bureaucrat, who for decades had never even once raised any opposition to Aidit but then suddenly found that the party leadership had been committing errors in all fundamental questions. Such hindsight is truly cheap.

Sudisman now appealed for party democracy, to “make the question of the principal means and the main form of struggle of the Indonesian revolution a problem which concerned the whole Party... [not just] a problem which concerned a few persons among the leadership and certain cadres in the Party.” But party democracy is not a well of wisdom that can be drawn on at any moment. Neither is it a panacea that can be summoned at one’s convenience to correct mistakes of the leadership. If the leaders are already embarking on an incorrect course, thus drawing behind them the whole party toward the same direction, it would be folly to expect that party democracy could somehow instantly correct the course. One would fall into crude democratism. A party can break from the mistakes of the old leadership only if it has inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres that can counterpose themselves to the old leadership. A new leadership cannot be improvised at will, but is a product of a drawn-out struggle inside the party, a result of a healthy party regime, which was precisely what was lacking in all the Stalinist parties.

The “self-criticism” document then charted a new course for the party, and it was an equally disastrous course that bore no connection at all with reality. Sudisman called on the party members to begin organising peasant armed struggle along the lines of the Maoist peasant army and to turn their attention to “transform the backward Indonesian villages into great and consolidated military, political and cultural bastions of revolution,” or soviet zones. In the usual zigzag manner, which was characteristic of all Stalinists, after burning their fingers with the opportunist policy of the “peaceful road toward socialism” the leadership now swung in the opposite direction and adopted the ultra-leftist madness of “armed struggle of the peasants.” Nothing of the sort ever materialised. Party organisations in the rural areas had already been smashed and rural populations were mobilised by the reaction to turn against the PKI. It was mainly in the rural areas where massacres of unheard-of brutality unfolded. The immediate task ahead should have been to retreat in good order, slowly reorganise underground party organizations that would open the possibilities of establishing legal and semi-legal work amongst the masses, and putting forward democratic slogans against the rising regime of military dictatorship (freedom of press, free elections, trade union legality, etc.) while maintaining working class independence and exposing the constitutional and democratic illusions of the petty-bourgeois reformists.

Sudisman also underestimated the extent of the reaction:

“The military dictatorship of the Right-wing army generals which is now in power is also a paper tiger. In appearance they are powerful and terrifying. But in reality they are not so powerful, because they are not supported but, on the contrary, are opposed by the people.”

The military had won decisively. With the blood of hundreds of thousands of Communist cadres on their hands they were a real tiger, not a paper tiger. Through their systematic propaganda machine, the army had mobilised a significant layer of the people against the PKI. A certain period of economic and political stabilisation was on the order of the day. Believing in the fantasy that the enemy was weak, Sudisman imagined that he could arouse the demoralised party members. He continued this fantasy by making the following absurd assertion:

“From the strategic point of view, imperialism and all reactionaries are weak and consequently we must belittle them. By belittling the enemies strategically, we can build up the courage to fight them and the confidence to defeat them... The vicious and savage massacre and torture against the hundreds of thousands of Communists and democrats which they are still continuing today, will not be able to prevent the people and the Communists from rising up in resistance. On the contrary, all the brutalities and cruelties will certainly arouse the tit-for-tat resistance struggle of the people.” (Our emphasis)

The massacre of hundreds of thousands of Communist cadres resulted in a multigenerational trauma, a historical shock to the consciousness of the people. It did not arouse the masses for a “tit-for-tat resistance struggle” but demoralised them for decades to come.

This “self-criticism” sealed the fate of the PKI as the revolutionary party of the proletariat. Instead of correcting its past mistakes, it piled up even more mistakes. It charted a new course – peasant armed struggle and the establishment of Soviet zones – that was at odds with reality. It underestimated the military dictatorship and the extent of the defeat suffered by the working class.

The young generation of Marxists in Indonesia today must be taught the lessons of 1965, i.e. the treacherous class-collaborationist policy of a united front with the bourgeoisie – or with the so-called “progressive bourgeoisie” as opposed to the reactionary or comprador bourgeoisie – that robbed the proletariat of its class independence and completely disarmed it, rendering it ill-equipped to lead a victorious revolution and opening the way to bloody reaction. This class-collaborationist policy comes in many forms and terms: “revolutionary united front of all anti-imperialist and anti-feudal classes and groups”, “democratic people’s state”, “people’s democratic revolution”, “new-type bourgeois democratic revolution”, but they serve the same purpose of undermining class struggle and subordinating the interests of the proletariat to those of the bourgeoisie. It is an expensive lesson paid dearly by the Indonesian working class, and we should honour their sacrifice – albeit a truly unnecessary sacrifice which was the result of a treacherous leadership – by investing the necessary time and resources to learn this lesson.

The building of a working-class party capable of leading the workers to victory in Indonesia, therefore, cannot be embarked upon without a thorough understanding of the ideological roots of the 1965 defeat. Clarification on this question is a vital prerequisite for any revolutionary party before it sets itself the task of leading the working class toward socialism.


[1] Quoted in Rossa, p. 157.

[2] Trotsky, Lessons of October.

[3] Rossa, pp. 135-136.

[4] Cribb, Robert B. How Many Deaths?: Problems in the statistics of massacre in Indonesia (1965-1966) and East Timor (1975-1980). Abera Publishing House, 2001.

[5] Justus M. van der Kroef, The Communist Party of Indonesia: Its History, Program, and Tactics (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1965) pp. 166-223.

[6] Palmos, Frank. “So Indonesia counts its dead”, The Sun News-Pictorial, August 5, 1966, p.2 (Quoted in Tanter, Richard. The Great Killing in Indonesia through the Australian Mass Media. Kompas Gramedia, 2013.)

[7] Macklin, Robert. “The killings go on … Troubled times in Indonesia”, The Age, January 20, 1966. p.10. (Quoted in Tanter, Richard. The Great Killing in Indonesia through the Australian Mass Media. Kompas Gramedia, 2013.)

[8] Quoted in Tanter, p. 151.

[9] Mortimer, p. 388.

[10] Mortimer, pp. 390-391.

[11] Sudisman. Build the PKI Along the Marxist-Leninist Line to Lead the People's Democratic Revolution in Indonesia (Self-Criticism of the Political Bureau of the CC PKI.) Central Java, September 1966.