The ideological roots of the Indonesian Communist Party’s defeat in 1965

Ted Sprague explains how the mighty Indonesian Communist Party was defeated and destroyed in 1965 by Suharto's forces of reaction, resulting in the murder of millions of communists and their sympathisers. This historical tragedy, the consequence of the political and theoretical errors of the Communist Party's Stalinist leadership, is rich with lessons for Marxists today.

In the dead of night on 30 September 1965, a small group of middle-rank officers quietly moved through the streets of Jakarta and kidnapped six army generals. The generals were brought to a swampy region on the outskirts of Jakarta, known as Lubang Buaya (Crocodile Hole), and executed, with their bodies dumped into wells. In the morning, the group of officers took over the national radio station. The nation was greeted by a radio broadcast from these officers who proclaimed themselves as the 30 September Movement (Gerakan 30 September or G30S), announcing that they had thwarted a planned coup by the six army generals and thereafter formed a revolutionary council.

Within the next few hours, Major General Suharto and his troops arrested these mutinous officers and put the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI, which the US State Department estimated had 2 million members at the time) at the centre of the G30S as a pretext to crush it. What happened next has come to define the national consciousness of the Indonesian people: the rise of Suharto and his New Order regime on top of the bones of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of PKI members and sympathisers.

On the day after the G30S, President Sukarno tried to downplay the significance of this event by saying that it was nothing more than “a ripple in the wide ocean of the Indonesian Revolution.” Unbeknownst to him, this ripple quickly turned into a wave that drenched the whole nation in blood and changed the course of not only Indonesian, but also world history.

30 Sept movement Image public domainThe 30 September Movement was exploited as an excuse to liquidate the PKI / Image: public domain

It is impossible to understand the defeat of the PKI without looking at its history, for the party’s defeat lies not in the genius of Suharto’s manoeuvre and the brutality of the army, but in the PKI’s policies of class struggle: or to be more precise, the lack thereof. The fall of the PKI was prepared not by its enemies, but by its leaders. The G30S was that trigger, but that was only a matter of necessity expressing itself through accident. As we shall see, even the road to this event was paved by the mistakes committed by the leadership of the PKI in the previous period.

Indonesia and the Cold War

At the height of the Cold War, the thought of Indonesia going communist kept many bourgeois strategists awake at night. The U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia in 1965, Marshall Green, opined that “here was what is now the fourth largest nation in the world [by population]… it was about to go communist, and almost did.” [1]

A CIA report, prepared in early September 1965, made the case that “Sukarno’s Indonesia already acts in important respects like a Communist state and is more openly hostile to the U.S. than most Communist nations.” [2] The report warned that the Indonesian government would become completely dominated by the PKI within two or three years, and that “in the short term, Indonesia’s formal accession to communism would have a heavy impact on world politics. It would be seen as a major change in the international balance of political forces and would inject new life into the thesis that communism is the wave of the future.” The defeat of the PKI was therefore not just a defeat for the forces of communism in Indonesia, but also for the whole world’s revolutionary movement.

Within the Domino Theory, Indonesia was considered to be the largest and most strategically placed piece in Southeast Asia. Its importance was highlighted by Richard Nixon’s speech in 1965, justifying the bombing of North Vietnam as a way to safeguard Indonesia’s “immense mineral potential”. Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, wrote in his memoir that the demise of the PKI should have signalled the U.S. to de-escalate its military involvement in Vietnam. [3] George F. Kennan, the architect of the policy of containment of Soviet expansion, argued at Senate hearings on 10 February 1966 that there had been “an enormous reverse in Indonesia”: fewer dominoes now existed, and they seemed much less likely to fall. [4] But the Vietnam War had developed its own logic. As President Lyndon B. Johnson, who oversaw the escalation of the Vietnam War, himself admitted, “I don't think it's worth fighting for and I don't think we can get out. And it's just the biggest damn mess that I ever saw.” [5]

US Army troops taking break while on patrol in Vietnam War Image public domainThe U.S. overplayed its hand in the Vietnam War and was alarmed at the idea of Indonesia (the fourth-most-populous nation on earth) "going communist" / Image: public domain

The Vietnam War had strayed from the Domino Theory and become more about preserving the image of the U.S. government, which could not be seen as losing a war it had invested so much into. In a memorandum, John McNaughton, assistant secretary of defence, said that US war aims in Vietnam were “70% to avoid a humiliating US defeat”, 20% to “keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands” and only “10% to permit the people of SVN [South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer way of life”. [6] The U.S. overplayed its hand in the Vietnam War, and almost sparked a revolution at home as anti-war sentiment quickly acquired an increasingly radical tone.

Indonesia was also of importance to the new structure of post-war, global capitalism because of its abundance of natural resources. After the end of World War II, U.S. strategists developed a grand design, whereby Indonesia would be under Japan’s economic sphere of influence. Cheap access to Indonesia’s vast mineral and natural resources was expected to support Japan’s industrialisation, which the U.S. believed would be crucial to keep Japan safely in its camp and under its control. George Kennan, the arch-realist of the post-war U.S. empire, summed up U.S. policy of domination in Asia quite succinctly at a 1949 meeting of the Policy Planning Staff which he headed:

“You have the terrific problem of how the Japanese are going to get along unless they re-open some sort of empire to the south [read Southeast Asia]... If we really in the Western world could work out controls... foolproof enough and cleverly enough exercised really to have power over what Japan imports in the way of oil and other things... we could have veto power over what she does.” [7]

As can be gleaned from Indonesia’s export statistics post-1965, Japan became the main export destination of Indonesian products, from around 3-7 percent export share in 1958-1962 to around 50 percent in the 1970s and ‘80s. [8] It was also reflected in Japanese direct foreign investment in Indonesia, making up 33 percent of the cumulative total in the period of 1969-1984. [9] This in turn translated into the dependency of Indonesian capitalists on their Japanese overlords. What Emperor Hirohito could not accomplish militarily in 1942-1945 during Japan’s occupation of Indonesia had now been accomplished economically, though Japanese imperialism had to be content being under the thumb of U.S. imperialism, which had “veto power of what she does.”

Sukarno, the Bonapartist

The colonial revolutions that were sweeping the whole world after the end of World War II put a hold on the imperialist grand design of re-dividing the spoils of war. The Allied forces thought Indonesia would easily fall back into their laps after they defeated Japan, which wrested control of Indonesia from the Dutch in 1942. But they were faced with a mass uprising of the oppressed, whose national consciousness had been aroused. At the head of this nationalist movement were bourgeois nationalist leaders like Sukarno and Hatta, though we shall see later that reluctance, vacillation, and indecisiveness coloured their policy every step of the way.

With the physical annihilation of the PKI in 1927 by the Dutch colonial government (read The First Period of the Indonesian Communist Party: 1914-1926), the leadership of the national liberation struggle was occupied by the emerging national bourgeoisie. After a period of semi-reaction following the defeat of the PKI, the Indonesian nationalist movement gained momentum in 1942, when three-and-a-half centuries of Dutch colonisation were ended by the arrival of Japanese forces. But the type of nationalism that emerged was a bourgeois nationalism that was strictly controlled by Japan within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, with its slogan: “Asia for the Asians”. The Japanese took under their wing prominent nationalist leaders, amongst whom Sukarno and Hatta, in order to gain support from the Indonesian masses for their war machine and to help defend their conquered territories from the Allied forces. In the meantime, other leaders who showed pro-socialist leanings were ruthlessly crushed.

From early on, it was clear that Indonesia’s bourgeois nationalist leaders were ready to collaborate and bargain with this or that imperialist depending on the direction of the wind. The kind of nationalist leaders that were being groomed by the Japanese showed their true colours when the decisive moment came. Even after Japan surrendered unconditionally on 15 August 1945, Sukarno and Hatta were afraid to proclaim Indonesian independence without first consulting their defeated master. In essence, they did not have faith in the masses.

When confronted by a group of militant youth who were pressing them to proclaim Indonesian independence, Sukarno refused and replied:

“Your handful is not enough against the armed might and total preparedness of the Japanese army. What can you show me? What is your actual strength? What are your security measures for our women and children? How do you propose to defend this freedom once you claim it?” [10]

All these questions were answered decisively by the Indonesian masses in the next four years of their war for independence, which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Indonesian fighters. The people were ready to fight for their freedom and proved willing and able to “defend this freedom” once they claimed it. But this war could have been shorter and less bloody had the people had a decisive leadership. Instead, they were led by individuals who were always unsure of themselves, thus trying at every step of the way to make concessions to the imperialists.

Presiden Sukarno Image public domainThe incomplete national-democratic revolution resulted in an ongoing social crisis, which gave rise to the Bonapartist Sukarno / Image: public domain

At the end of the independence war, Sukarno had sold out the whole of Indonesia by agreeing to return all Dutch companies’ agricultural lands and mines, and pay war reparations to the sum of 4.3 billion guilders. Indonesia gained formal independence, but its economy was completely subordinated to imperialist interests. The national revolution was betrayed, but it had yet to lose its momentum. The incomplete tasks of the national-democratic revolution – the establishment of a democratic parliament, agrarian reform (especially crucial in a peasant-dominated country like Indonesia) and a fully sovereign nation-state – resulted in an ongoing social crisis, which opened the next chapter of Indonesian revolution. It is in this context that the Bonapartist Sukarno arose.

Bonapartism is a phenomenon that arises out of a social crisis, when the class struggle has been fought to a stalemate and neither of the contending classes is able to decisively take power and ensure stability. On the one hand, the proletariat has waged a mass revolutionary movement that shakes the whole society from top to bottom, but find itself unable to bring the movement to its final conclusion: the revolutionary conquest of power. On the other, the bourgeoisie is too weak to defeat the proletariat and bring order to a society ripped apart by intense class struggle. Under these conditions, the state can rise above society, appearing as an independent, national arbiter to bring about stability, although it is still a class state: in the service of one class against another. A Bonapartist regime then emerges, with a strongman at the top. Engels in his Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State explained the nature of Bonapartism:

“Exceptional periods, however, occur when the warring classes are so nearly equal in forces that the state power, as apparent mediator, acquires for the moment a certain independence in relation to both. This applies to the absolute monarchy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which balances the nobility and the bourgeoisie against one another; and to the Bonapartism of the First and particularly of the Second French Empire, which played off the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. The latest achievement in this line, in which ruler and ruled look equally comic, is the new German Empire of the Bismarckian nation; here the capitalists and the workers are balanced against one another and both of them fleeced for the benefit of the decayed Prussian cabbage Junkers.” [11]

Such was the situation in Indonesia after the Second World War. While the Sukarno-Hatta government managed to beat back the revolutionary movement, marked by the annihilation of PKI forces in the 1948 Madiun affair and the following crackdown on all revolutionary opposition forces, the national bourgeoisie was too weak to establish a stable regime, precisely because of their betrayal of the national idependence revolution on 17 August 1945 and the subsequent war of independence from 1945 to 1949, a period known as the August Revolution. Constitutional crises followed one after another. Cabinets were put together only to be dismantled immediately. From 1949 to 1959, there were 10 different cabinets. It took six years after the end of the independence war for the government to hold an election, which was to be the only election under Sukarno’s 20-year presidency from 1945-1965. The result was certainly not stability. No political party received more than a quarter of the votes – not even Sukarno’s party: the Indonesian National Party. The uncertain situation resulted in a series of short-lived coalition governments. Ongoing political instability finally led Sukarno to scrap the 1950 Constitution, dissolving the Constitutional Assembly that had become rife with political deadlocks due to its inability to formulate a new constitution, and to declare in 1959 a regime of “Guided Democracy”. In the chaos of constitutional crisis, parliamentary deadlocks, and the constant coming and going of cabinets, an immovable pivot had to be designated around which everything revolved: a role filled by Sukarno.

The so-called Guided Democracy was an attempt by Sukarno to solve the political deadlocks and instability that was resulting from them. Blaming these deadlocks on the western values of liberalism and parliamentarism, that did not fit with the Indonesian character, Sukarno argued the solution lay in the so-called Indonesian values of musyawarah and mufakat (consensus building), under the guidance of village elders. Presidential power – and in general the executive power of the government – was strengthened at the expense of the parliament (the legislative power). Of course the village elder, in essence the Bonapartist, would be Sukarno himself. Sukarno even hinted that, under “Guided Democracy”, there would be no need for multiple political parties, but he was forced to retreat on that idea in the face of protests from the PKI and other mass political parties.

1959 Decree 1 Image public domainThe so-called Guided Democracy was an attempt by Sukarno to solve the political deadlocks and instability that was resulting from them / Image: public domain

With “Guided Democracy”, the state was acquiring independence from the society, from the very class that it was based on: the bourgeoisie. Power concentrated not only in the person of Sukarno, but also in the bourgeois state as a whole. As observed by Rex Mortimer, a renowned historian of Indonesian communism:

“Guided Democracy brought with it substantial augmentation of bureaucratic power... and produced a rapid and marked reversion to centralizing tendencies in government...

“The decline in the importance of the political parties as channels for the articulation and bargaining of social interests further enlarged the role of the bureaucracy; ceasing to be subject to any weighty outside pressures and controls, it arrogated to itself many of the political functions of interest representation and decision-making...

“[The Guided Democracy strengthened] pro-leadership sentiment which served the cause of the pamong pradja [aristocratic civil servants drawn from the priyayi or upper class], the administrative corps which combined with itself the cultural ethos of ancient Javanese aristocratic rule and the bureaucratic technique introduced by the Dutch... the pamong pradja now found its power confirmed and strengthened.” [12]

Together with the “Guided Democracy” came Sukarno’s Political Manifesto (Manipol), which laid down the general guidelines for the development of Indonesia’s economy and other spheres. The Political Manifesto was revolutionary-sounding on the surface, but in reality it was hollow. It proclaimed as its goal the establishment of a socialist society. But before this could be achieved, the country had to complete its national revolution. This was almost a carbon copy of the Stalinist two-stage theory, of which D.N. Aidit, the PKI chairman, approved wholeheartedly:

“Both [politics and national defence] have to follow the general strategy of Indonesian Revolution that is outlined in Manipol, which says that today the Indonesian people have to complete their national democratic revolution as a foundation to then enter the second phase or stage of Indonesian Revolution that is socialistic.” [13]

However, the Manipol turned out to be just another revolutionary phrase-mongering statement from Sukarno the Bonapartist, written in a vague-enough fashion to be accepted by everyone – including the anti-communist, pro-U.S. high command of the Indonesian armed forces – and could be interpreted however one wished. This ambiguous formulation and programme papered over the contradictions in society, only to prepare for a bigger conflagration: that of 1965. Mortimer highlights the vagueness of Manipol:

“The generality of this program, and the vagueness of provisions relating to such contentious issues as the roles of foreign capital and private enterprise, ensured that it was acceptable to the varied groups associated with the regime. The rejection of liberalism in favor of an interventionist role by the state was clear; but there was still ample room for interpretations to fit the interest of all the parties and factions that, in the characteristic Sukarno fashion, had been involved in the formulation of the program and were therefore committed to whatever it should prove to mean in official terms.” [14] [My emphasis]

Indeed, “in the characteristic Sukarno fashion”, he was balancing different social forces and antagonistic interests. In the last analysis, he sought to channel the revolutionary aspirations of the workers and peasants, mainly through a slew of bombastic statements and revolutionary-sounding policies, while at the same time placating the capitalists and the landlords by promising that nothing fundamental would be done to disturb their economic interests. Hence, his constant insistence that the revolution was not socialist in character, but only national – an idea that the PKI also espoused.

But a Bonapartist regime is a not a regime of stability. It is in essence a regime wrought with unsolvable contradictions. Even though Sukarno gained cult status – attaining an almost mythical status amongst the people – this mostly likely only deluded him, and also the PKI leaders, into believing that he had firm grip on the situation. In fact, he led a government of crisis. A resolution to the crisis had to be found: the victory of revolution or the victory of reaction. History demanded another Bonapartist leader who could bring a resolution in favour of reaction: to finish the job that Sukarno had started but was never quite able to finish. For this role, General Suharto stepped in: unlike his predecessor, a man of few words, but swift and decisive in action.

Popular front with the bourgeoisie

One part of the equation that allowed for Bonapartism to develop in Indonesia was the inability of the proletariat to bring the white-hot class struggle to its conclusion: dictatorship of the proletariat. The leadership of the PKI was largely responsible for this failure. Through its popular front with the bourgeoisie it had rendered the working class ill-equipped to win the revolution, and thus paved the way for the 1965 reaction.

The idea of the popular front – and with it the two-stage theory – is repeated in many of Aidit’s works. It was particularly elaborated in the PKI’s main political perspective document, Indonesian Society and the Indonesian Revolution, which dictated the party’s strategy and tactics until its demise in 1965. The document reads:

“The Indonesian national bourgeoisie class remains extremely weak in political, economic and cultural affairs… [It] displays two features. As a class that is also suppressed by imperialism and whose development is also stifled by feudalism, this class is anti-imperialist and anti-feudal, and in this respect it is one of the revolutionary forces. But on the other hand, this class does not have the courage fundamentally to fight imperialism and feudalism because economically and politically it is weak and it has class ties with imperialism and feudalism. The dual character of the national bourgeoisie is the reason why we have two sets of experiences with them, that is, at certain limits, this class can take part in the revolution against imperialism, against the compradors and against the landlords (for example during the August Revolution), but at other periods they trail behind the comprador bourgeoisie and become their ally in the counter-revolutionary camp (for example, during the ‘Madiun Affair’ in 1948 and during the August Mass Arrest in 1951)...

“In such specific circumstances, the Indonesian proletariat must build unity with the national bourgeoisie and preserve this unity with all its strength...

“Because of the weakness of the Indonesian national bourgeoisie economically and politically, under certain historical circumstances, the national bourgeoisie which is by nature wavering, can vacillate and betray.

“In facing the wavering characteristics of the Indonesian national bourgeoisie attention should be paid to the fact that it is precisely because it is politically and economically weak that is not very difficult to pull this class to the left to make it stand firmly on the side of the revolution so long as the progressive forces are large and the tactics of the Communist Party correct. This means that the wavering nature of this class is not fatal, it is not insurmountable. But on the other hand, if the progressive forces are not large and the tactics of the Communist Party not correct, than this economically and politically weak national bourgeoisie can easily run to the right and become hostile to the revolution.” [15]

There you have it. The national bourgeoisie are “weak in political, economic and cultural affairs,” have been “suppressed by imperialism” and “stifled by feudalism” and lack “the courage fundamentally [!] to fight imperialism and feudalism”, meaning they “can vacillate and betray.” To this we agree. Aidit was also correct to point to the reason why this class was weak and cowardly in nature: “because economically and politically it is weak and it has class ties with imperialism and feudalism.”

But from this correct appraisal of the fundamental nature of the national bourgeoisie, he somehow found a way to make an intellectual somersault to a wrong conclusion: that it was therefore the task of the Communist Party to “build unity with the national bourgeoisie and preserve this unity with all its strength” and “pull this class to the left to make it stand firmly on the side of the revolution.” According to this formulation: what was needed were “correct tactics” on the part of the Communist Party, which meant not scaring away the bourgeoisie with talk of socialism, class struggle, and dictatorship of the proletariat. In effect, this meant a policy of class collaboration and the subordination of class struggle to a national struggle. We are reminded of Plekhanov and the Mensheviks, who were chastising Lenin and the Bolsheviks for scaring away the liberals.

DN Aidit speaking at PKI election meeting 1955 Image public domainPKI chairman, D.N. Aidit's embrace of two-stage theory and popular frontism prepared the party for disaster / Image: public domain

Aidit then proceeded to list a number of historical events that showed the vacillation and betrayal of the national bourgeoisie, such as the Madiun Affair in 1948, when the Sukarno-Hatta government sent their army to crush the PKI for their opposition to the concessionist policy of Sukarno-Hatta to the Dutch. It was not just the PKI forces that were crushed by the armed forces. The government also made sure to crack down on other revolutionaries who fought valiantly against the Allied powers and also against nationalist leaders who sought to capitulate to the imperialist powers and return all Dutch assets, which practically meant subordinating Indonesia economically to the Dutch.

As if to cleanse the bourgeoisie of their sins, Aidit then tried to list the success stories of the national capitalists. But those success stories were few to begin with, and thus he was only able to list one: the August Revolution, in which the national capitalists “took part”. Aidit could not even say that the national bourgeoisie led the August 1945 independence movement. Furthermore, the national bourgeoisie had to be literally dragged into participation. Sukarno and Hatta had to be kidnapped and forced by a group of radical youth – mostly communists – to proclaim Indonesian independence. They were too afraid to proclaim even what had been become a fact: that Japan had been defeated and independence was there to be taken. Already, in another work, Aidit condemned the Indonesian bourgeoisie for their failure to lead the August 1945 Revolution:

“The failure of the August 1945 Revolution shows that the Indonesian bourgeoisie were unable to lead the bourgeois democratic revolution in the era of imperialism, or the bourgeois democratic revolution of a new type.” [16]

Thus, Aidit himself recognised that there had yet to be any historical precedence to back up his claim that there was such a thing as a progressive national bourgeoisie making up “one of the revolutionary forces” in Indonesia.

Precisely because the national bourgeoisie was weak and disorganised, vacillating and unsure of itself, it was prone to betrayal when it came to fulfilling what was supposed to be its historical task: the national democratic revolution. Their weakness did not mean they were easily pulled to the left as Aidit hoped, but all the readier to swing to reaction. The 1965 episode added to the list of times the national bourgeoisie found themselves in the “counter-revolutionary camp”. The PKI leaders had done everything they could to rally the workers and peasants to “build unity with the national bourgeoisie and preserve this unity with all its strength” and “pull this class to the left to make it stand firmly on the side of the revolution”. But the national bourgeoisie had always known that its class interests were diametrically opposed to those of the workers and peasants. PKI leaders remained steadfast in their loyalty to Sukarno, whom they saw as the personification of the progressive national bourgeoisie, but that class had abandoned Sukarno for another Bonapartist who could restore order and ensure the normal functioning of capitalism: General Suharto.

There was no progressive national bourgeoisie, and the Indonesian working class had to pay dearly for this lesson. The only revolutionary class that could complete the national democratic tasks was the working class in alliance with the peasantry. But the working class, in leading the national democratic revolution, could not stop there. It would be forced to begin solving tasks of the socialist revolution and in practice establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is contrary to what Aidit had in mind: that the task of the PKI was to form “not a government of the dictatorship of the proletariat but a government of the dictatorship of the people. This government does not have to carry out socialist changes but democratic changes.” [17] Aidit continued:

“The task of our Party at the present stage of the revolution and in the future becomes clear. Our party has a dual task in leading the Indonesian revolution. Firstly, under the slogan ‘Fulfill the demands of the August Revolution in their entirety’, we carry out to their completion the task of the bourgeois-democratic revolution; secondly, after the first task has been carried out, we carry out to their completion the task of the revolution which is proletarian-socialist in nature.” [18]

Such was the classic two-stage theory that had been handed down to the leadership of the PKI – and all other communist parties around the world – by their Stalinist overlords in the Kremlin. This theory tied the PKI hand and foot to the national bourgeoisie, whereby they put the class struggle to one side by subordinating it to the national struggle. The PKI refused to recognise the class struggle, but eventually the class struggle caught up with them, and did so violently.

“A state with two aspects”

In early 1963, Aidit came up with a novel theory in another attempt to fit reality into his scheme. In addition to the two types of capitalists – the progressive capitalists and the comprador or bureaucratic capitalists – he introduced another innovation, discovering that there are two types of people: the pro-people people, and the anti-people people:

“In the political power of our country now there are not only compradores, bureaucratic capitalists, and landlords, but also people who are pro-people, who are supported by workers, peasants, democratic intellectuals, and other democrats. Thus, political power in our country has two aspects, that is a pro-people’s aspect and an anti-people’s aspect.” [19]

These two types of people, in their dealing with the state, resulted in a state that will also have two aspects: the pro-people aspect and the anti-people aspect. In a lecture he gave in Beijing to Central Committee members of the Chinese Communist Party in September 1963, he elaborated this state-with-two-aspects idea:

“The state power of the Republic of Indonesia is a contradiction between two opposing aspects: The first aspect is that which represents the interest of the people. The second aspect is that which represents the interests of the people's enemies. The first aspect is embodied in the progressive attitude and policy of President Sukarno which enjoys the support of the CPI [PKI] and other sections of the people. The second, aspect is embodied in the attitude and policy of the rightists and the diehards; they are the old established forces.

“Today the popular aspect has become the main aspect and plays a leading role in the state power of the Republic of Indonesia, meaning that it guides the course of the political development in the state power of the Republic of Indonesia... On the other hand, the anti-popular aspect has ceased to be the main aspect and no longer guides the course of development in the contradiction. However, it is still the dominant aspect... But in any case the state in the Republic of Indonesia as a whole, is now led by the forces which represent the interests of the people, or in other words it is led by the popular aspect.” [20]

From such analysis, Aidit surmised, in a second lecture in Beijing, that the task of the PKI in regards to such a state is:

“... to enable the popular aspect to grow increasingly strong and to take a dominant position and, on the other hand, to exclude from state power the forces which oppose the people. Such is the content of the people's demand for the reorganization (of the state organs), and for a Gotong Royong cabinet with NASAKOM as the fulcrum... Indonesia's revolutionary tasks are to set up state power, not of one class, one stratum or one political party, but of the whole people, the Gotong Royong state power.” [21]

Therefore, according to Aidit:

“...the important problem in Indonesia now is not to smash the state power as is the case in many other states, but to strengthen and consolidate the pro-people’s aspect... and to eliminate the anti-people’s aspect.” [22]

This is truly a major and fatal departure from the Marxist theory of the state. The class content of a state is erased and replaced with a vague notion of “people,” the members of which are determined arbitrarily by the political expediency of Aidit’s class collaboration policy on any given day. As Engels explained in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, the state can only be an institution in service of the interests of the ruling class against the oppressed class. He wrote quite clearly about this:

“As the state arose from the need to keep class antagonisms in check, but also arose in the thick of the fight between the classes, it is normally the state of the most powerful, economically ruling class, which by its means becomes also the politically ruling class, and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class. The ancient state was, above all, the state of the slave-owners for holding down the slaves, just as the feudal state was the organ of the nobility for holding down the peasant serfs and bondsmen, and the modern representative state is the instrument for exploiting wage-labor by capital.” [23]

Here we have Aidit conjuring up a non-class state that represents the whole people: the “people’s state”. However, Aidit would have been surprised to learn that such a “people’s state” was not a novel creation of his. The idea of a “people’s state” has festered in the working-class movement since its inception. At the height of the Russian Revolution, when the question of the state became concrete, Lenin took the time to reiterate again for his comrades the Marxist theory of the state in order to prepare the Bolsheviks and the working class for power. In his seminal work The State and Revolution, he attacked those who were playing around with the “people’s state” catchword as “philistine”:

“The ‘free people’s state’ was a programme demand and a catchword current among the German Social-Democrats in the seventies. This catchword is devoid of all political content except that it describes the concept of democracy in a pompous philistine fashion... every state is a ‘special force’ for the suppression of the oppressed class. Consequently, every state is not ‘free’ and not a ‘people’s state.’” [24]

Aidit at the height of the Indonesian Revolution, fell backward on this question. He had definitely read Lenin’s works on the question of state, or at least was familiar with Lenin’s basic conception, as he took the opportunity to tell us that “V.I. Lenin taught us, ‘The state is a machine for maintaining the rule of one class over another’”. However, he quoted Lenin just before going on with his anti-Leninist notion of a “people’s state”. We are entitled to question whether Aidit ever learned anything from Lenin. In fact, just like all Stalinists of his time who had vulgarised the teachings of Marx, Engels and Lenin, his reference to Lenin’s State and Revolution was ritualistic, aimed at throwing dust into the eyes of the working class so that he could sneak in his “philistine” idea of the “people’s state”. This method of quoting the great teachers as a means to smuggle in alien class ideas was pioneered by Bernstein, developed further by Kautsky, and perfected to an art later by Stalin and his epigones. This episode also showed the theoretical bankruptcy of the Chinese Stalinists. The whole membership of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party did not say even one word when Aidit presented his idea of the “non-class state.”

Lenin 1919 03 18 Image public domainAidit paid lip-service to Lenin, while totally subverting his teachings on the state / Image: public domain

The Chinese Stalinists were not in a position to correct Aidit, having themselves already butchered the Marxist theory of the state by adopting their bloc-of-four-classes state conception. They found also difficult to explain why the Chinese state gave no sign of dying away many years after the Revolution, but quite the opposite. It is a fundamental part of Marx’s and Lenin’s theory of the state that the workers’ state is a special kind of state which would begin to wither away, as the productive forces develop and the class antagonisms in society are overcome. However, under “socialism with Chinese characteristics” the bureaucratic machinery of the state, just like its counterpart in the Soviet Union, had grown into a hitherto unheard-of apparatus of compulsion with no intention of dying away.

The Chinese bureaucrats would quote Lenin in their defence, as he correctly said that only under communism — a society of superabundance run according to the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” — would we reach a stateless society. But they argued that until then there would still be the need for a strong state as an organ to suppress the exploiters. At what stage would the state as an oppressing machine wither away was left to anyone’s guess. However, they neglected to mention that Lenin never left the question of what would happen to the workers’ state during the transitional period to a distant future. Here is what Lenin wrote:

“During the transition from capitalism to communism suppression is still necessary, but it is now the suppression of the exploiting minority by the exploited majority. A special apparatus, a special machine for suppression, the ‘state’, is still necessary, but this is now a transitional state. It is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word; for the suppression of the minority of exploiters by the majority of the wage slaves of yesterday is comparatively so easy, simple and natural a task that it will entail far less bloodshed than the suppression of the risings of slaves, serfs or wage-labourers, and it will cost mankind far less. And it is compatible with the extension of democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear. Naturally, the exploiters are unable to suppress the people without a highly complex machine for performing this task, but the people can suppress the exploiters even with a very simple ‘machine’, almost without a ‘machine’, without a special apparatus, by the simple organisation of the armed people.” (Our emphasis)

These were Lenin’s clear thoughts on the role of the state in the transition from capitalism to communism. Instead of becoming a simpler machine, the Chinese state became a sophisticated all-encompassing state apparatus in defence of the privileges of the bureaucracy. Incidentally, we can now say that it was that same parasitic bureaucratic state that would become the principal motor force of capitalist restoration in China and, with very little modification, can now be described as a capitalist state (read: China’s long march to capitalism).

Aidit’s lectures about the “people’s state” with “pro-people” and “anti-people” aspects were thus received with warm applause by the Chinese Stalinists. Aidit did not just stop at the idea of the people’s state. Once he began there, he was also forced to do away with any class terms in politics, hence the pro-people and anti-people aspects. Here the state was seen merely as a collection of individuals who could be grouped into two camps of opposing views, not as a historically established institution resulting from the class antagonism of society. This is simply a modification of the popular front strategy of allying with the progressive national bourgeoisie and other “progressive forces” (intellectuals, advanced aristocratic elements, patriotic elements, etc.). But Aidit took it a step further, expunging even class terms or concepts from the Stalinist class collaborationist policy of the popular front.

Aidit referred to the progressive policies and anti-imperialist stance of the Sukarno government as a manifestation of the pro-people aspect. Shallow impressionism substitutes for Marxist analysis of class struggle. In the midst of a revolutionary period, when the class struggle reaches a stalemate, a Bonapartist can emerge and pose as a power standing above society: an arbiter of the national interest. Such was the situation in Indonesia after 1945, with a series of revolutionary ebbs and flows, where the capitalists were not strong enough to complete the national democratic revolution and establish order for the normal functioning of capitalism because of the recurrent mass movement. Meanwhile, the mass movement was not strong enough to take power decisively into its hands.

In this situation arose the Bonapartist Sukarno, appearing as a father of the nation, calming his squabbling children. The situation required a figure like Sukarno: a charismatic individual with a penchant for dramatic flair, skilful in the art of persuasion and political dealing, principled enough to be seen as a strong figure, but also flexible enough to allow him to move between classes, balancing one against another. This fatally mistaken analysis by the PKI leadership would be paid for dearly by the Indonesian revolutionary workers and peasants, who looked to the powerful PKI for leadership in the revolution.

Marx once said that “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.” He was referring to the employment of “the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition.”

This was done particularly through a system of colonial exploitation that led Marx to conclude that “capital comes [into the world] dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” [25] the former statement retains its general validity in a revolution that will overthrow capitalism. This naturally flows from the stubborn resistance of the status quo and its defenders to change.

However, it would be a great folly for any serious Marxist to preach to the masses that a socialist revolution has to be a bloody violent affair. The ruling class is always trying to frighten the workers by associating socialist revolution with violence and civil war. We should not behave like ultra-left sectarians who feel the need to assert their revolutionary credentials by displaying their enthusiasm for “bloody revolution” and the “inevitability of violence”. We insist that Marxists are in favour of a peaceful socialist transformation of society, which would be perfectly possible on condition that the leadership of the working class mobilises the full force of the working masses. We also explain to the masses that history has shown time and time again that no ruling class has ever surrendered their power without a fight. The responsibility for any possible violence therefore falls squarely on the shoulders of the ruling class and their state apparatus.

The working class has the right to defend its revolution and the subsequent gains it has won. In many cases we have in fact seen throughout history that the old power merely crumbles without a fight before the might of the working class, provided that the working class possesses a leadership that is decisive and resolute enough to carry the struggle to the end. In fact, the October Revolution was won with very minimal bloodshed because the Bolsheviks had prepared the workers for power through patient explanation of the slogan “All power to the soviets”. Violence only visited the Revolution later on the active instigation of the ruling class.

civil war images image YanachkaThe slogan of “All power to the soviets” was not a call for a civil war. The imperialists and capitalists inflicted this on Russia / image: Yanachka

The slogan of “All power to the soviets” was not a call for a civil war. In his report to the Seventh All-Russian Conference in the Bolshevik Party in April 1917, Lenin said: “To speak of civil war before people have come to realise the need for it is undoubtedly to fall into Blanquism. We are for civil war, but only civil war waged by a politically conscious class… The government would like to see us make the first imprudent move toward revolutionary action, as this would be to its advantage.” [26] Hence the slogan “All power to the soviets” aimed at educating the working class that power was already theirs to begin with in the form of the soviets, and that they only needed to be politically aware of this fact and wield it for their own class interests.

Numerous times the Bolsheviks had to reject accusations from the ruling class and their Menshevik-SR allies that they were out for blood. Here is how Lenin skillfully responded to such accusations:

“You are lying, Mr. Minister, worthy member of the ‘people’s freedom’ party. It is Mr. Guchkov who is preaching violence when he threatens to punish the soldiers for dismissing the authorities. It is Russkaya Volya, the riot-mongering newspaper of the riot-mongering ‘republicans’, a paper that is friendly to you, that preaches violence.”

Pravda and its followers do not preach violence. On the contrary, they declare most clearly, precisely, and definitely, that our main efforts should now be concentrated on explaining to the proletarian masses their proletarian problems, as distinguished from the petty bourgeoisie which has succumbed to chauvinist intoxication…”

“So long as you, capitalist gentlemen, who are in control of the army command, have not yet begun to use violence, it is our tactics, the tactics of all Pravdists and of all our Party, to fight for influence among the proletarian masses, to fight for influence among the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.” [27]

Lenin put the responsibility of violence squarely where it belonged, on the shoulders of the capitalist gentlemen who were in control of the apparatus of violence, and the reformist SR-Mensheviks who, by their refusal to claim power that was already in their hands, rendered a violent conflict inevitable. Two subsequent episodes—the July Days where several hundred demonstrators were gunned down, and the Kornilov military coup that was defeated by the masses—showed clearly before the eyes of the masses who the real instigators of violence were. The working class learns from experience, and from these two episodes they became resolute in their conviction to overthrow capitalism through mass revolutionary actions.

Lenin in Switzerland Image public domainLenin put the responsibility of violence squarely on the shoulders of the capitalists and reformists / Image: public domain

Lenin, however, while explaining that the working class simply had to take the power, he never sowed any illusions amongst the proletariat about the peaceful nature of the ruling class. One only needs to compare this to Aidit’s conception of the “peaceful road to socialism” for Indonesia. In 1960, he said in an interview with a Western correspondent that “the prospects for a peaceful transition to socialism, as laid down by Khrushchev at the Twentieth Soviet Party Congress, are the brightest and the opportunities most bountiful in two countries, namely, Cuba and Indonesia.” [28] He elaborated this further in another interview in 1964:

“When we complete the first stage of our revolution, which is now in progress, we can enter into friendly consultation [!] with other progressive elements in our society and, without an armed struggle, lead the country towards Socialist Revolution. After all, the national capitalists in our country are both weak and disorganised. At present, in our national democratic revolution, we are siding with them and fighting a common battle of expelling foreign economic domination from this soil.” [29] (Our emphasis)

The reporter was shrewd enough to ask what would happen if the national capitalists developed a class character and opposed any kind of socialism. Aidit answered:

“The chastening effect [of the present stage of the revolution] would maintain a kind of revolutionary pressure on Indonesia’s national capitalists… There will be no armed struggle unless there is foreign armed intervention on the capitalists’ behalf and, when we successfully complete our present national democratic revolution, the chances of any foreign power interfering with Indonesia’s internal affairs will become extremely remote.”

The difference between Lenin and Aidit’s so-called “Leninist” conception is stark. Aidit developed the idea of an a priori peaceful path to socialism in such a way that completely disarmed the working class, by placing their trust blindly in “other progressive elements” and “the national capitalists”. Lenin, on the other hand, argued that the Bolsheviks and the working class desired for peaceful transfer of power to the soviets as long as the Mensheviks and SRs, who were then at the heads of the soviets, were ready to do so. But he never harboured one iota of trust in the bourgeoisie, whom he constantly exposed as the side that was riot-mongering. Through consistent and persistent propaganda work, the Bolsheviks politically prepared the working class for a class independence policy of taking power.

Let us investigate the premises of Aidit’s peaceful road to socialism:

1) Socialism is a matter of “friendly consultation with other progressive elements [read: national capitalists] in our society” after the completion of the national democratic revolution.

What Aidit was telling us was that once capitalism had been fully established in Indonesia through the completion of the national democratic revolution, there would no longer be class struggle between the working class and the capitalists. The two classes— which Marx and Engels had always maintained to be diametrically opposed to each other and to have irreconcilable interests—would now sit together like two civilised gentlemen to discuss how to reach socialism. Aidit would have made the French utopian socialists very proud.

The utopian socialists before Marx and Engels’ time believed that socialism was just a matter of convincing everyone, including the capitalists, of the superiority of socialism over capitalism. After all, in the Kingdom of Reason established by the French Revolution, Reason was believed to be the sole measurement of everything. Therefore “friendly consultation” with all sides using Reason was enough to reach socialism. But the French utopian socialists could be excused for their mistake, as history had yet to furnish them with the proletariat, and class conflict between the capitalists and the proletariat had yet to take a definite shape. Theirs was a mistake of being too ahead of their time. But things were very much different by the mid-20th century, when class conflicts had not only taken shape but also plunged the whole world into two global wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions.

Marx and Engels had from the beginning warned the workers of the reactionary characters of those who advocate the old ideas of utopian socialism today:

“The significance of Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism bears an inverse relation to historical development. In proportion as the modern class struggle develops and takes definite shape, … [the ideas of Utopian Socialism] lose all practical value and all theoretical justification. Therefore, although the originators of these [Utopian Socialist] systems were, in many respects, revolutionary, their disciples have, in every case, formed mere reactionary sects. They hold fast by the original views of their masters, in opposition to the progressive historical development of the proletariat. They, therefore, endeavour, and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonismsthey are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois. By degrees, they sink into the category of the reactionary [or] conservative Socialists depicted above, differing from these only by more systematic pedantry, and by their fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science.” [30] (Our emphasis)

As such, Aidit and the leadership of the PKI had turned themselves into reactionary and conservative socialists. The bourgeoisie have a penchant and centuries-old-sharpened skills for tricking workers that it stands for democracy, that it is flying high the banner of Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité, so that workers entertain the illusion that their interests could be served through some sort of mature friendly negotiation with the capitalists in a parliament. The task of any revolutionary is to lift this facade and expose the real nature of bourgeois democracy.

2) The national capitalists are “weak and disorganised,” and hence the road to socialism will be peaceful.

The Indonesian capitalists might be weak and disorganised, but that is only in relation to their ability and willingness to complete the tasks of the national democratic revolution: establishment of a democratic parliament; agrarian reform; independence from foreign imperialism. This is because they are indissolubly tied to foreign capital and landlordism by a thousand threads. Furthermore, the sight of the proletariat strikes fear in them, far more than being under the thumb of foreign capital. For that reason, when it comes to defending their class interests, profits, and ownership of the means of production, they will not be weak and disorganised.

The bourgeoisie has in its hands a state—which in the last analysis is made up of armed bodies of men and women—built specifically to maintain wage-labour exploitation by capital. This state was not by any means weak and disorganised. It had been used numerous times since its formal establishment on August 17, 1945 to crush the working class movement.

Suharto at funeral Image public domainImmediately after independence, the Indonesian bourgeoisie sought compromise and rapprochement with the imperialists / Image: public domain

Immediately after independence, the nascent Indonesian bourgeoisie sought compromise and rapprochement with the imperialists. Sukarno and Hatta promised that all foreign assets would be returned, which in Indonesia meant all the main levers of economy would be under the control of foreign capital. This was not the vision of independence that the people had been fighting for. Meanwhile, independence had unleashed a social revolution with demands that had gone beyond the goal of formal sovereignty and sought to uproot all old structures of privilege. The people were demanding 100% independence, expropriating all foreign assets, which the Indonesian masses rightly saw as ill-gotten properties from 350 years of brutal colonial occupation. Complete expropriation of all Dutch and foreign assets would have meant the Indonesian revolution taking the first step toward socialism. This put the nascent bourgeoisie and their newly founded state at violent odds with the aspirations of the toiling masses. Troops were sent to hunt down and annihilate forces that opposed the government policy of conciliation with imperialism.

The Madiun affair in 1948, mentioned by Aidit above, was one of the flash points of this clash between the revolutionary wing and the conciliationist wing of the independence movement. After a series of clashes, manoeuvres, and provocations, on September 18, 1948, the city of Madiun fell into the hands of the PKI-led coalition quite unexpectedly. The Sukarno-Hatta government quickly capitalised on this episode as a pretext to crush the PKI. Speaking on the radio with his usual dramatic flair, Sukarno accused the PKI of treason and engaging in “looting,” “robberies,” “kidnapping,” “mental terrorisation against the labourers, peasants,” “mobilizing criminal gangs to plunder and commit robbery intensively day and night”. [31] He went on to give two choices to the people: follow the Musso-led PKI, or follow him.

The PKI fell into this provocation and prematurely called for a seizure of power. Musso in his reply to Sukarno’s radio broadcast announced that Madiun was “a signal to the whole people to wrest powers of the state into their own hands... The people of Indonesia were asked by Sukarno to choose Sukarno or Musso! The people should answer back: ‘Sukarno-Hatta, the slaves of the Japanese and America! Traitors must die!’” [32] The government sent in their troops and crushed the PKI, not only in Madiun but all over Indonesia. A White Terror was unleashed. Thousands of PKI cadres were executed. The Madiun affair was also used by the government to crack down on all opposition, including Tan Malaka, who was captured and executed without trial in 1949. The Sukarno-Hatta government showed that the national capitalists were clearly not weak and disorganised in their brutality to crush the Communists.

PKI 1925 Image public domainThe PKI’s policy of supporting Sukarno was first formulated and implemented by Stalin in the 1920s in the form of the popular front in China / Image: public domain

Later on, Aidit, in his attempt to find the progressive national bourgeoisie in the person of Sukarno, tried to distance the latter from his responsibility in the Madiun affair. The massacre of communists in Madiun, according to Aidit, was wholly led by the comprador bourgeoisie, in the person of Hatta:

“On September 19, 1948, President Sukarno gave a speech that called the people to band together [to] annihilate ‘the rebels,’ [by] which he meant annihilating Communists and other progressive forces physically. I would say that the full responsibility of this was in the hands of Hatta, because Hatta was the Prime Minister at that time. But, because Hatta knew that his influence in the armed forces and other state apparatus was very small, especially amongst the people, then Hatta used Sukarno’s mouth and borrowed Sukarno’s authority to kill Amir Sjarifuddin and thousands of sons of Indonesia from Java.” [33]

If Sukarno’s voice and authority could be so easily used by the so-called “comprador bourgeoisie,” that said a lot about the reliability and independence of the so-called “progressive bourgeoisie”. The progressive bourgeoisie is therefore a left cover for the true nature of the bourgeoisie, which makes the former even more dangerous. Yet, here is what Sukarno himself had to say about the Madiun affair later in his autobiography, which is clearly at odds with Aidit’s wishful historical revisionism:

“It was Sukarno who squashed the Communists in 1948. ... I was not about to let them or anyone else throw God out of my beloved country… I sent in our crack Siliwangi army division. They did the rest. Within days the back of the rebellion was broken... Let nobody say Sukarno flinched in crushing the Communist uprising.” [34]

The Indonesian Stalinists learned well from their mentors in Moscow. The PKI’s policy of supporting Sukarno was first formulated and implemented by Stalin in the 1920s. While the Russian Stalinists found themselves inviting Chiang Kai-shek, the would-be Chinese reactionary dictator, to the great hall of the Comintern, lavishing him with praise just months before he soaked his hands in the blood of Shanghainese Communists, [35] the Indonesian Stalinists outdid even their mentors. They not only dutifully washed the blood of Madiun Communists from Sukarno’s hands after the betrayal, but also placed the fate of the Indonesian revolution in those same hands. The student had truly become the master.

There is one little detail that is worth mentioning here from the above quote. Sukarno knew full well that the PKI never had a political programme of abolishing religion, nor do any communists for that matter. But he felt the need to accuse the PKI of wanting to “[over]throw God” and used this common red-baiting prejudice in Indonesia to attack the PKI. This fits perfectly with his role as a Bonapartist, a shrewd politician skillful in balancing antagonistic interests of various classes and social forces, until of course it all crumbled in 1965.


Aidit’s historical revisionism did not stop here. He had to establish the presence of the ever-elusive progressive national bourgeoisie as far back as 1945. After Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, both Sukarno and Hatta—who in the past three years had obsequiously served the Japanese occupation forces—were infected with a paralysing fear of proclaiming Indonesian independence without consulting the Japanese beforehand. They were unsure of themselves, reflecting their class basis, and had to be kidnapped by a group of youth and pressured. A decade later, Aidit was recounting a different story: that it was now only Hatta who had opposed the immediate proclamation:

“For the first time I would like to say that for a long time I have felt guilty for taking part in the movement to force Hatta [to] sign the 17 August 1945 Proclamation of Independence. Hatta since the beginning was stubbornly opposing the proclamation of the August Revolution. He fully hung the fate of Indonesian Independence on the mercy of Saiko Shikikan (Japanese High Army Command) that never arrived.” [36]

3) The revolution would put some kind of pressure on the capitalists, taming them and rendering the transition to socialism peaceful.

The reporter for the Far Eastern Review magazine clearly had a better understanding of the class struggle than Aidit. He was insightful enough to ask Aidit what would happen should the national capitalists develop a class character and oppose any kind of socialism. To this, Aidit answered that “the chastening effect [of the present revolution] would maintain a kind of revolutionary pressure on Indonesia’s national capitalists.” He would soon find out that the revolution did not “chasten” the national capitalists. It did just the opposite. A mass revolutionary movement, as we saw in the period of 1955-1965, might deal a blow against the ruling class and disorient it momentarily, pressuring it to retreat and make some temporary concessions, but it would never quell its class instincts. Once the “chastening effect” of the revolution wore off, the bourgeoisie would hit back vengefully to make sure that the masses never dared to utter the word “revolution” again.

Aidit Image Davidelit Aidit’s undying faith in the progressive national bourgeoisie led him to disaster / Image: Davidelit

What Aidit refused to understand is that a revolutionary period does not last forever, for the same reason that a society cannot be in the white heat of class struggle all the time. The toiling masses cannot be in a state of mobilisation day in and day out. They must see that the struggle will ultimately end in a fundamental change to their lives for the better. It was, in fact, truly amazing that the Indonesian masses remained in the throes of revolution for almost a decade. The tragedy was that their leadership could never lead them to the final conclusion of a revolution: the conquest of power. Thus, while it is true that a revolution might put pressure on the capitalists, forcing them to retreat, once the capitalists regroup and find their bearing, and once the revolution starts losing its momentum, the whole process will recoil violently.

Aidit’s undying faith in the progressive national bourgeoisie led him to theoretical twists and turns. In order not to scare away the bourgeoisie, he would have to convince not only them, but also himself and the whole working class of the peaceful path to socialism. Within a year of the above interview, an armed struggle did indeed erupt, but it proved to be a completely one-sided affair where the arms were concentrated in the hands of the ruling class, and the other side, the workers and peasants, were unarmed and unprepared, and were about to be led to the slaughterhouse in their millions without any resistance.

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.” [37]

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.” [38]

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.”

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.” [39] 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?” [40] 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. [41] 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.’” [42]

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.” [43]

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.” [44]

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.” [45] 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.” [46]

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] Roosa, John. Pretext for Mass Murder: the September 30th Movement and Suharto's coup d'état in Indonesia. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2006. p. 13.

[2] “The Prospects for and Strategic Implications of a Communist Takeover in Indonesia”, September 1, 1965. Prepared by the CIA, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the State Department’s intelligence section.

[3] McNamara, Robert. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Random House, 1995.

[4] McNamara, pp. 214-215

[5] U.S., Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-68, Volume XXVII, Mainland Southeast Asia: Regional Affairs, Washington, DC, Document Number 53.

[6] Draft Memorandum from McNaughton to Robert McNamara, "Proposed Course of Action re: Vietnam," (draft) 24 March 1965. Source: The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 3, pp. 694-702.

[7] Tanter, Richard. Intelligence Agencies and Third World Militarization: A Case Study of Indonesia, 1966-1989, with Special Reference to South Korea, 1961-1989. PhD diss., Monash University (1991). p. 146

[8] Kano, Hiroyoshi. Indonesian Exports, Peasant Agriculture, and the World Economy 1850-2000. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009. pp. 79, 92.

[9] Tanter, p. 148.

[10] Adams, Cindy. Sukarno: an Autobiography. Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965. p. 207

[11] Engels, F. The Origin of Family, Private Property and State.

[12] Mortimer, Rex. Indonesian communism under Sukarno: Ideology and politics, 1959-1965. Cornell University Press, 1974. pp. 126-127.

[13] D.N. Aidit’s speech in front of the students of Naval Command and Staff College on 16 Juli 1963.

[14] Mortimer, pp. 252-253.

[15] Aidit, D.N. Indonesian Society and the Indonesian Revolution, Basic Problem of the Indonesian Revolution. July, 1957.

[16] Aidit, D.N. The Indonesian Revolution and the Immediate Tasks of the Communist Party of Indonesia. 2 September, 1963.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Harian Rakjat, Feb. 25, 1963. (Quoted in Mortimer, p. 133.)

[20] Aidit, D.N. The Indonesian Revolution and the Immediate Tasks of the Communist Party of Indonesia. 2 September, 1963.

[21] Aidit, D.N. Some Questions Concerning the Indonesian Revolution and the Communist Party of Indonesia. 4 September, 1963.

[22] Aidit, D.N. Revolusi Indonesia, Latar belakang, Sejarah dan Hari depannya. (Quoted in Mortimer, p. 135.)

[23] Engels, F. The Origin of Family, Private Property and State.

[24] Lenin, V.I. State and Revolution.

[25] Marx, Karl. Capital Vol I Ch 31.

[26] Lenin, V.I. “The Seventh (April) All-Russia Conference of the R.S.D.L.P.(B.).” Lenin Collected Works Vol. 24, 2nd ed., Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1974, p. 236.

[27] Lenin, V.I. “A shameless lie of the capitalists.” Lenin Collected Works Vol. 24, 2nd ed., Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1974, p. 236.

[28] Quoted in Mortimer, p. 172.

[29] S.M. Ali in Far Eastern Economic Review, Apr. 16, 1964.

[30] Marx and Engels. Communist Manifesto.

[31] Radio speech by President Sukarno on the Madiun Coup. September 19, 1948. (Quoted in Swift, Ann. The Road to Madiun: The Indonesian Communist Uprising of 1948. Cornell University, 1989. pp. 97-99.)

[32] Musso Radio Broadcast. September 19, 1948. (Quoted in Swift, pp. 101-102.)

[33] Aidit, D.N. Konfrontasi Peristiwa Madiun 1948 - Peristiwa Sumatera 1956. 11 Februari, 1957.

[34] Adams, pp. 269-270.

[35] At the Seventh Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, which met in Moscow in November-December 1926, Stalin invited Chiang Kai Shek’s personal representative, Shao Li-tzu, to attend. The plenum also recognized Chiang’s KMT (Koumintang Party) as a “sympathizing party” of Comintern. Stalin spoke of Chiang’s national government as “the nucleus of the future all-Chinese revolutionary power.” This revolutionary nucleus would in few months time, on April 12, 1927, massacred some thousands of Shanghainese communists and workers and began a White Terror across China.

[36] Aidit, D.N. Konfrontasi Peristiwa Madiun 1948 - Peristiwa Sumatera 1956. 11 Februari, 1957.

[37] Quoted in Rossa, p. 157.

[38] Trotsky, Lessons of October.

[39] Rossa, pp. 135-136.

[40] 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.

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

[42] 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.)

[43] 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.)

[44] Quoted in Tanter, p. 151.

[45] Mortimer, p. 388.

[46] Mortimer, pp. 390-391.

[47] 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.

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