The documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ has opened a discussion of the 1965 slaughter of up to one million supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party. However, it leaves the political background to the events of 1965 largely unexamined. The following contribution aims to help fill that gap.
When I was a child in the 1960s, it was common knowledge that the extreme poverty seen in countries like Indonesia was caused by overpopulation: the number of people outstripped the capacity of the land to feed them. I visited Indonesia in 1970, and it certainly seemed very densely populated, and the poverty was plain to see. At the time, there were 120 million people living in Indonesia, the big majority of them on the island of Java.
Today, there are almost double that number – 230 million according to the 2010 census, still mostly living in Java. But despite all the inequalities, and despite the accompanying environmental degradation that has happened in that time, it is obvious that the general standard of living is much higher, even at the lowest level. So much for ‘common knowledge’ and the Malthusian theory of ‘overpopulation’ – ‘common knowledge’ proved to be common ignorance.
Central to the transformation of Indonesia since 1970 has been a historic and irreversible process of migration from the countryside to the cities, and tied with that, a process of industrialisation. Jakarta is now one of the biggest cities in the world. Some massive heavy industrial projects have been built throughout Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan, including coal mining and oil extraction, among them the largest coal-fired power station I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Alongside these are innumerable smaller, less obvious manufacturing industries such as clothing and food industries. This industrial development is uneven, unstable, and dependent on foreign capital – Indonesia has certainly not become a member of the imperialist club. But the outstanding fact resulting from this process is that out of it a multi-million-strong modern working class has been born, and has begun to fight in its own name.
Throughout the entire history of the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), from its beginnings in the 1920s to its violent end in 1965-66, there was no such large working class in Indonesia. When it was founded in the early 1920s, Indonesia was still a Dutch colony. The population was overwhelmingly rural: semi-subsistence peasant farmers in their big majority. To build a communist party based on the working class was an extraordinarily difficult task under these circumstances, and thus throughout its history the PKI was subject to strong pressures of alien classes; its fate was closely tied to developments elsewhere in the world.
In the beginning, this meant developments in Russia. The Russian revolution of 1905 sent tremors throughout the world; the revolution of 1917 shook it to its foundations. Across the globe the working class and oppressed nations awoke to fight for their liberation, and the peasant nations of China, India, and Indonesia were no exception. Communist parties appeared in even the most economically and socially backward nations, formed by revolutionary forces drawn to the example of the Bolsheviks in Russia. The Bolsheviks welcomed these new fighters into the ranks of the revolutionary movement.
The Russian revolutionary leader Lenin wrote in 1913 of “…the spread of the revolutionary democratic movement to the Dutch East Indies, to Java and the other Dutch colonies, with a population of some forty million… World capitalism and the 1905 movement in Russia have finally aroused Asia. Hundreds of millions of the downtrodden and benighted have awakened from medieval stagnation to a new life and are rising to fight for elementary human rights and democracy. The workers of the advanced countries follow with interest and inspiration this powerful growth of the liberation movement, in all its various forms, in every part of the world.”
Tan Malaka was one of these fighters. A central figure in the Indonesian Communist Party when it was formed in 1921, he travelled to the fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922.
The new communist parties formed in the wake of the Russian revolution made many costly mistakes, largely through inexperience. Even in 1920s Germany, where the working class was strong, the new Communist Party missed revolutionary opportunities that arose, and launched uprisings when the necessary conditions were not present. The Communist International stressed the importance of the new workers parties guarding their political independence from bourgeois nationalist currents. “It is necessary to struggle against the pan-Islamic and pan-Asian movements that try to link the liberation struggle against European and American imperialism with strengthening the power of … the nobles, large landowners, clergy and so forth. [The Communist movement] absolutely must maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, even in its embryonic stage.” [Theses on the national and colonial questions, 1922].
But by the end of the 1920s, conditions had changed in Russia. With the Russian working class exhausted by the consequences of a decade of imperialist war and civil war, the revolutionary leadership of Lenin and Trotsky had been supplanted by the conservative Stalin bureaucracy, who had no interest in encouraging revolutionary movements around the world. Rather, the Stalin leadership sought to use the fledgling communist parties as tools of Soviet diplomacy, and mandated them instead to support bourgeois movements considered friendly to the Soviet Union.
The disastrous consequences of this course were felt first and most powerfully in China, with a catastrophic defeat of the revolutionary forces in 1925-27. This defeat then deepened the reaction in Russia, and magnified the disorientation in Indonesia. For both historic and immediate reasons, the fate of communism in Indonesia became closely tied to that of China. I will look at this more closely in a future post.
Coming soon: my new Ebook on the Indonesian catastrophe of 1965
China, class collaboration and the killing fields of Indonesia in 1965