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The Indonesian Communist Party: lessons from a defeat

By James Balowski

[The following document was printed as a series of six articles in Green Left Weekly beginning on October 6, 1999. James Balowski is a researcher in Indonesian politics and history and a member of the Democratic Socialist Party. He is Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor's publications and information officer and a member of the coordinating committee of the Bangkok and Jakarta-based human rights organisation Asian Network for Democracy in Indonesia.]

PART I: Rise of the nationalist movement

In 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was the largest Communist party outside the Soviet Union and China. On the night of September 30, a group of middle-ranking military officers kidnapped and killed six generals they accused of organising a coup against Indonesia's President Sukarno. This provided the pretext for sections of the military, led by a Major General Suharto, to mount a bloody counter-revolution which all but obliterated the PKI and the Indonesian left.

In one of the most organised and ferocious mass slaughters in modern history, within four months as many as 1 million people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of others interned. As well as members of the PKI, worker and peasant leaders, left-wing writers, intellectuals, teachers and students were targeted.

Public executions and torture, victims being disembowelled and left to die, decapitated heads mounted on poles and paraded around - all of this was designed to terrorise the population into submission. It made it clear that anyone associating with the left, or daring to resist, would meet the same fate.

Many tried to fight back. Workers who went on strike were summarily fired, and in some cases employees of whole factories were loaded onto trucks and taken away to be killed. A massive purge was also carried out against Communist "suspects" in government departments, the armed forces, the press and any enterprise vital part to the economy.

The Western press was reluctant to cover the events, but Time magazine did carry the following report on December 17, 1966: "Communists, red sympathisers and their families are being massacred by the thousands. Backlands army units are reported to have executed thousands of communists after interrogation in remote jails. Armed with wide-bladed knives called parangs, Moslem bands crept at night into the homes of communists, killing entire families and burying their bodies in shallow graves.

"The murder campaign became so brazen in parts of rural East Java, that Moslem bands placed the heads of victims on poles and paraded them through villages. The killings have been on such a scale that the disposal of the corpses has created a serious sanitation problem in East Java and Northern Sumatra where the humid air bears the reek of decaying flesh. Travellers from those areas tell of small rivers and streams that have been literally clogged with bodies."

Washington's lack of concern betrayed its approval. Journalist James Reston noted in June 1966 in an article in the New York Times titled "A Gleam of Light In Asia": "Washington is careful not to claim any credit for this change in the sixth most populous and one of the richest nations in the world, but this does not mean that Washington has nothing to do with it. There was a great deal more contact between the anti-communists forces in that country and at least one very high official in Washington before and during the Indonesian massacre than is generally realised.

"General Suharto's forces, at times severely short of food and munitions, have been getting aid from here through various third countries, and it is doubtful if the coup would ever have been attempted without the American show of strength in Vietnam or been sustained without the clandestine aid it has received indirectly from here."

The CIA was ticking off names from a list of key party leaders and figures which it had provided to Suharto several months previously.

This defeat of the Indonesian left proved to be a massive setback from which it is only now beginning to recover.

How was it, that the PKI was able to grow rapidly to become a significant force in Indonesian politics, only to be obliterated in a few months? And why was it necessary for those leading the counter-revolution to kill so many people?

Anti-colonial movement

The first mass movement to develop in opposition to Dutch rule was Serikat Islam (Islamic Union), which was established in 1911. It was formed by the embryonic Indonesian bourgeoisie to oppose both colonial rule and political competition from petty-bourgeois Chinese traders. Its original base was small indigenous traders, particularly textile traders in Java, but it quickly became a rallying point for discontent, spreading from the urban commercial class to peasants, plantation labourers and urban workers.

Around the same time, the Indonesian Social Democratic Organisation (ISDV) was founded by a former Dutch railway union official. Its membership was dominated by Dutch expatriates. By 1914, Serikat Islam's membership was in the hundreds of thousands. The ISDV decided to orient towards it, recruiting the first generation of Indonesian Marxists.

The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 had a major impact on revolutionaries in Indonesia because it provided a clear example of a socialist revolution being won in a country, like Indonesia, that was considered too backward and with a working class that was too small to take power.

In 1920, the contradictions between bourgeois Muslim elements and Serikat Islam's mass worker and peasant base led to a split from which the PKI, the first Communist party in Asia, was formed. The leadership of Serikat Islam declared membership of the PKI incompatible with belonging to its organisation, and a large part of Serikat Islam resigned. Later, this section formed Serikat Rakyat (People's Union), which for some time functioned as a front organisation for the PKI.

Strikes and militant actions swept Java in the 1920s, large numbers of young Indonesian workers being introduced to social democratic and Marxist ideas. Radical and trade union newspapers, pamphlets and political novels flourished and were central to the development of anti-colonial consciousness.

The PKI led a number of significant industrial actions, such as the strike by pawnshop workers in 1922 and railway workers in 1923. In response, the Dutch colonial administration intensified the repression; many in the PKI's leadership were exiled.

As the economy picked up in 1925, the strike wave resumed with huge strikes in the larger cities such as Semarang in East Java, Medan in North Sumatra and Jakarta, and a near general strike in Surabaya, capital of East Java. Dutch repression increased. In this climate of frustration and desperation, talk of organising an insurrection began.

The 1926-27 insurrections

Insurrections in West Java in 1926, and in West Sumatra in 1927, were a disaster. Despite general mass discontent, splits within the PKI meant the actions were poorly organised and uncoordinated.

Most importantly, there was no real alliance with either the peasantry or broader layers of the nationalist movement. The insurrection was crushed, and thousands of leaders were exiled to West Papua.

The PKI leadership that remained took the defeats as proof that an insurrection at that time was impossible and decided to go underground, or to participate only in the broader national independence struggle.

This policy was pursued in the 1940s during the struggle against Japanese occupation. The PKI was instructed by the Stalin-dominated Communist International (Comintern) to cooperate with the Dutch to carry out "joint actions" against Japanese imperialism. The Comintern line at the time was that all Communist parties must cooperate with their bourgeois governments to fight the Axis powers.

Struggle for nationalist leadership

Following the defeat of Japan, the leaders of the Indonesian nationalist movement proclaimed Indonesia's independence on August 17, 1945. Sukarno became president and the social democrat Mohammad Hatta vice-president. A four-year guerilla and diplomatic struggle ensued before the Dutch were forced to give up the colony and sign a formal transfer of sovereignty in 1949.

The PKI persisted with its policy of cooperation with the government until 1948, when Musso, a PKI leader of the 1920s and '30s returned from exile and called for a "new road". A contest for the leadership of the independence movement had begun between pro-capitalist elements, left-wing nationalists and the PKI.

Although bourgeois-nationalist figures such as Hatta had seized the political initiative by declaring independence and controlled the government, the PKI remained a potentially powerful force. It was also armed.

Indonesian workers and peasants had pioneered the nationalist movement and were the bulk of the guerilla forces fighting the Dutch, so the Indonesian army had a very nationalist, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist character. Recognising this, Hatta, in alliance with right-wing military officers, initiated a "reorganisation and rationalisation" within the republican army. This meant disbanding PKI military units.

The republican army, the creation of the national revolution, had a multi- class character. While its ranks were overwhelmingly drawn from the peasantry and working class, its leadership was not. The command originated from a core of non-commissioned officers in the Dutch colonial army and Japanese-sponsored militia - such as the former sergeant, Suharto. Many of the regional commanders, including Suharto, were actively involved in business, primarily smuggling and trade.

The conflict culminated when pro-PKI soldiers seized control of the city of Madiun in Central Java in September 1948. Although the PKI was probably not involved in planning the operation - except at a local level - the rebellion quickly became an attempt to take power, Musso declaring himself head of an alternative government.

This provided the pretext for the right-wing government to rid itself of the threat of the PKI. The city was retaken by soldiers loyal to the government, and thousands of PKI members were massacred. Key Communist and left-wing leaders of the nationalist movement were arrested and executed.

The following year, the right-wing government moved quickly to negotiate a peace agreement with the Dutch and to end the armed struggle. The deal required the republic to abandon its constitution and adopt a federal form of government. This was important for the Dutch because royal aristocratic houses - which had been the main instruments of Dutch rule - still controlled some of the outer islands. They were very pro-Dutch, hostile to independence and, as allies, would give the Dutch more room to move.

An astonishing condition was that an independent Indonesia would have to pay the Dutch for the war to get the colony back. Dutch companies taken over by the Japanese were to be returned to their Dutch owners, and the province of West Papua would remain under Dutch rule.

This agreement established the framework of the struggle in Indonesia for the next nine years - crystallised in a conflict between the various right- wing governments and the Communist and nationalist left. Both left tendencies took the position that the agreement was a sell-out and began calling for and waging a vigorous campaign of demands against these conditions.

PART II: Indonesia, 1952-59: spectacular growth of the Communist Party

Although it seized the political initiative and established a central government in 1949, the Indonesian bourgeoisie remained very small, divided and dependent upon Dutch capital to rebuild the economy. Indonesia's national revolution brought formal political but not economic independence. Indonesia was  -  and remains  -  subject to imperialist economic control.

Under the Dutch, the colony was a treasure house of exports: rubber, coffee, sugar, tea, spices and minerals. Dutch colonial policy's overriding aim was to serve Dutch capital's export markets. Indonesia's domestic market  -  such as it was  -  was monopolised by Dutch and petty- bourgeois Chinese traders. There was no national bourgeoisie; most indigenous businesspeople serviced regional markets or exported directly from their regions.

Following the Japanese occupation in 1942, the economy, with the exception of rice production, came to a halt. Many factories and plantations ceased production as the occupiers gave total priority to food production for their army. Large numbers of workers and peasants were sent to mainland Asia as slave labour. When independence was proclaimed, virtually nothing except rice was being produced.

World War II had utterly destroyed Holland's position as an imperialist country of any significance. Holland itself was both occupied and a battleground. It was unable to restore its political claim to the archipelago by participating in the war against the Japanese.

After independence, Dutch capital was able to re-establish a presence, but there was no real Dutch neo-colonial domination. Nor was there direct economic domination by other capitalist powers such as Britain or the US. Imperialism had no direct agent in the country.

Newly independent Indonesia had only a very small, and economically and politically weak, indigenous capitalist and landowning class and virtually no dominant foreign capitalist class.

The only other layer of society with ruling-class pretensions was the aristocracy. However, they had discredited themselves centuries earlier by becoming the salaried civil servants of the Dutch colonial administration.

Capitalism was introduced to Indonesia, not via a bourgeois revolution, but through colonialism. Pre-capitalist social relations were not "burst asunder" by new productive forces and the class and ideas associated with them, but slowly eroded as a result of colonial manipulation.

The dominant ideology in almost all layers of Indonesian society was generally pre-capitalist. Hence the pro-capitalist political parties tended to appeal to religion and collectivism. The values of bourgeois democracy, which were used to mobilise the masses in the nationalist struggle, also spread the ideas of popular democracy and social justice. This put the emerging bourgeois forces at a huge disadvantage relative to the left.

Ruling-class divisions

Weak as they were, Indonesia's capitalists and landowners ruled through a large number of pro-capitalist and conservative political parties. Their divisions reflected the fact that Indonesia's capitalist class was still regionally based.

Some 30 parties contested the first elections, held in 1955. The Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI), with Sukarno as a semiofficial patron, had strong support in the bureaucracy and, more importantly, in rural Java among petty traders and small businesspeople. The PNI was also polarised, with a large mass-based left wing in many areas, known as the PNI-ASU.

The two main Islamic parties, Masyumi and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), reflected distinct political and economic interests. Masyumi drew its support from urban business and the outer islands  -  particularly West Sumatra and South Sulawesi  -  and represented a more modern and entrepreneurial outlook, with a generally pro-Western attitude.

The NU was more traditionally oriented and anti-foreign, its outlook being largely determined by middle peasants, rich landowners and medium and small traders in Central and East Java.

The Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI) was both supportive of Western capital and anticommunist.

As well as the Communist Party (PKI), there were also a number of smaller left organisations, individual Marxists and revolutionary personalities.

The pro-capitalist politicians discredited themselves as they jockeyed for power and the opportunity to buy and sell licences to import and export goods, set up businesses and win contracts.

In 12 years, eight governments rose and fell, as parties formed alliances or split away. With each government, a new crop of businesspeople emerged. Even though the economy began to grow in the 1950s, the fledgling capitalist class was unable to reach consensus on how to build a national economy and consolidate bourgeois democratic rule.

New leadership

In 1951, a new PKI leadership emerged around a group of young revolutionaries, all under 30, led by D.N. Aidit. This can be considered the party's third incarnation.

Under this new leadership, the PKI grew from fewer than 7000 members in early 1952 to more than 150,000 by 1954. The PKI soon controlled the largest labour federation, the All Indonesian Central Labour Organisation ( SOBSI) and had a rural base through its mass peasant organisation, Barisan Tani Indonesia.

The PKI launched a daily newspaper, Harian Rakyat (People's Daily) and SOBSI published Suara Buruh (Workers' Voice). The party achieved these things in the face of strong and organised anticommunist Muslim organisations and political parties.

By 1955, when the country's first elections were held, the PKI had grown to be one of the four largest parties. It received 6 million votes  -  16- 17%. In 1957, at provincial and village elections, the PKI vote increased further. The membership of the party and its mass organisations approached 1 million.

Apart from the relative political and economic weakness of Indonesia's capitalist class, a number of other objective factors contributed to the PKI's growth.

After 1949, when Dutch capital began to return and industrial and agricultural production started to expand again, the working class and the trades unions grew. The factories, docks and large plantations became a key source of strength for the PKI, especially in the larger cities of Java. These were the same areas that had been the PKI's base during the most militant anti-colonial politics of the 1920s.

Holland's retention of West Papua became a symbol and reminder that the Indonesian revolution was not yet complete. The PKI campaign around this won it more support.

Another reason for the PKI's growth was the political culture of the period. Participation in politics was very popular, with millions involved in party politics  -  not just the PKI but all the parties.

The political party became the main form of social organisation. If people were not directly involved in campaigning for a party, they were part of a women's auxiliary, a credit union or a child-care group affiliated to a party.

Politics became a central part of social life, filling an enormous void that the decline and degeneration of traditional culture and forms of organisation had brought about. When the bourgeois parties attempted to demobilise the masses between elections, they found it impossible.

This political culture originated within the nationalist movement. The rhetoric and vocabulary of all the currents within the movement were populist, egalitarian and, in many cases, socialist. Direct action and participation were an accepted part of political life. All though the 1920s and 1930s, boycotts, strikes, passive resistance and non-payment of taxes had been adopted by the nationalist movement.

The environment was very conducive to the PKI and nationalists building mass parties. Even the pro-capitalist parties found themselves forced to compete for popular support with rhetorical, and real, concessions to the masses.

The military reacts

The capitalist class seemed powerless to halt the spectacular growth of the PKI and its trade unions, peasant organisations and artist associations. It was the military that reacted.

In 1956, military commanders in Sumatra staged local coups, followed by a coup on the island of Sulawesi. In February 1958, together with some politicians, they announced the formation of a Revolutionary Government of Indonesia, a rival to the central government in Jakarta.

Washington directly assisted the formation of this "government". One US pilot dropping supplies and equipment was shot down by national forces, captured and put on trial.

Despite its name, the RGI was a counter-revolutionary grouping. In the areas under its control, thousands of Communists and leftists were held in prison camps. The RGI forces were eventually defeated following a civil war with army units loyal to the Jakarta government.

When the rebellions occurred on the outer islands, the central government declared a state of siege, instituting martial law. The PKI supported the move, even though it meant restrictions on democratic freedoms and limits on the party's political activity.

A key reason for this support was that Masyumi and the PSI  -  the most fervently anticommunist political parties  -  had supported the rebellions. Shortly after declaring martial law, Sukarno banned both organisations, ridding the PKI of two of its most significant enemies.

At this time, the leaders of the PKI were increasingly influenced by Maoist China. Consequently, they followed the policy of a "united national front"  -  subordinating the party to its bourgeois allies.

The power of the military was boosted. In a situation where the bourgeois parties were so weak, martial law transformed the army into the backbone of civil administration. In the provinces, towns and villages, the local military commanders became the administrators.

The stage was set for a conflict which dramatically shifted the balance of forces away from the Indonesian left.

PART III: The PKI turns to Sukarno

In 1958, the campaign for the return of West Papua from Dutch rule was intensifying. Occupations were initiated by the trade unions and within a very short time every single Dutch company, enterprise and plantation had been occupied. Dutch capital accounted for around 80% of the modernised sector of the Indonesian economy.

These actions were carried out unilaterally, often without the leadership of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) or the PKI-controlled All Indonesian Central Labour Organisation. The initiative forced President Sukarno to announce that all Dutch companies would be nationalised, an affirmation of what was already a massive victory for the trade unions and workers.

In this anti-imperialist atmosphere, the military took quick, decisive action. Indonesia remained under martial law, declared earlier that year. As soon as Sukarno announced that Dutch companies were to be nationalised, the military moved in and took control of the management of the bulk of the economy. In one fell swoop, the armed forces became the single biggest grouping of capitalists in the country.

The generals and colonels put in charge of the companies ran them for one purpose, to enrich themselves They were not accountable to the government or even the military high command.

The trade unions and the PKI now faced the strong and powerful military, rather than the weak and isolated Dutch colonial capitalists. The military had recently increased its strength by suppressing the regional rebellions.


The military take-over of state enterprises, and Sukarno's support for it, was a major defeat for the worker-peasant movement and the PKI. What was the party's response? While criticising the military's move, the party failed to launch a campaign for genuine nationalisation under workers' control.

This failure demoralised the workers. The most the PKI could muster was a fairly weak campaign for workers' representation on enterprise councils. In the context of martial law and military management, this campaign was doomed from the outset.

Ironically, the new situation meant that the PKI came under pressure to restrain militant trade union activity in the modernised sector, since these companies were now state-owned. It was claimed that strikes in state- owned companies sabotaged the national government program.

But the take-overs were also a defeat for the conservative political parties and organisations of the Indonesian capitalists and land owners. Not only had they lost the initiative to the military and Sukarno, but groupings of "armed capitalists", which could build and grow on the fruits of the former Dutch enterprises they now controlled, had come into existence.

With the military's increased involvement in business, the role of individual armed forces personnel in the class struggle also shifted. Suharto, for example, was already operating outside of the state. Although he was a senior officer in the armed forces, he was developing his own clique with its own financial base. And he was conducting his own international relations, in defiance of Sukarno and the armed forces leadership.

The move by the armed forces into business created the civilian bourgeoisie's political dependence on the army. It also marked the beginning of a decline in the involvement of the working class in Indonesian politics.

The PKI's relationship with the working class was severely weakened. This worsened in the years which followed as the economy began to falter under a combination of mismanagement, corruption and declining prices for Indonesia's exports between 1959 and '62.

The military managers siphoned off profits to line their own pockets and production began to drop quickly. Many businesses stood idle or were underutilised, leading to massive layoffs and a decrease in the size of the employed working class. While the organised working class remained a substantial force, its strategic position had been greatly weakened.

`Guided democracy'

Throughout this period, Sukarno confined himself to speech making and foreign affairs initiatives such as the formation of the Non-aligned Movement. But in early 1956 he began to show his impatience with the inter- party conflicts and in 1959, when the constituent assembly was unable to reach any agreement on a new constitution (mainly due to the manoeuvres of the military), he decreed the draft new constitution and the parliament out of existence.

Sukarno, who did not profit personally from his position as head of government, did not represent the interests of the national bourgeoisie but those of the petty bourgeoisie. He found himself in a "balancing act" between the increasingly strong military and the PKI and nationalist left.

The 1945 constitution was reinstituted, giving Sukarno much greater power. This was the period known as "Guided democracy". Under this system, instead of society being represented by elected parties, the new parliament was made up of "functional groups" representing different sections of society. It also required the mass organisations to disaffiliate from political parties.

Sukarno's guided democracy was backed by the military, which saw it as a means of weakening the political parties. Guided democracy also formalised the military's role in politics.

The PKI also offered support, arguing that the only ally it had against the power of the armed forces was Sukarno. The PKI's support for Sukarno's partial suspension of democratic freedoms was in line with the Maoist policy of communists subordinating themselves to the leadership of bourgeois nationalists.

By 1961, it was clear that Sukarno's balancing act was failing. The mass organisations had not disaffiliated from the respective political parties and the armed forces were starting to make political gains with their own functional groups.

Sukarno then made a sudden political switch. The concept of functional groups was dropped and he called for unity between the nationalist, communist and religious currents  -  nasakom as he called it (nas  -  nationalism, a  -  religion, and kom  -  communism).

This was a great boost for the PKI, because it would give the party an officially recognised political role and make it an equal partner in a national front supporting the government.

Nasakom was an attempt by Sukarno to maintain "national unity" in the face of the increasing political polarisation between the PKI and nationalist left, and the military.

PKI leader Dipa Nusantara Aidit even proposed a "nasakom code of ethics" which maintained that there should be no conflict between nasakom groups and that "there must be no confrontation. Only consultation to reach agreement."

The support of nasakom and the emphasis on cooperation and consultation marked a significant turn in the PKI's political strategy. Before 1959, its strategy revolved around building both its working-class and rural support on the basis of campaigns for social and economic reforms and nationalist demands against the Dutch.

Although these demands remained important  -  especially the demand for agrarian reform  -  following the declaration of martial law and the growing danger posed by its military opponent, the PKI came to rely more and more on an alliance with Sukarno and on mobilising support for political demands, such as the "re-tooling" of corrupt offices, less directly linked with socio-economic change.

Despite the PKI membership increase that this change brought about  -  which came primarily from the identification with Sukarno and the Indonesian Nationalist Party  -  it did not result in the same independent strength of the organised working-class movement that prevailed in the 1950s. This was too prove disastrous.

PART IV: How PKI strategy sowed illusions

Before 1959, the Indonesian Communist Party's (PKI) strategy revolved around building both its working-class and rural support on the basis of campaigns for social and economic reforms and nationalist demands against the Dutch.

Although these campaigns remained important  -  especially the demand for agrarian reform  -  following the 1958 declaration of martial law and the growing danger posed by the military, the PKI came to rely more and more on an alliance with Sukarno.

The PKI identified with Sukarno, even to the extent of portraying itself as the "party of Sukarno". This resulted in the loyalties of many who joined the PKI being to Sukarno and "Sukarnoism" (and therefore the Indonesian government) rather than the party.

The enormous charisma of Sukarno, who appealed to the strong anti-colonial and nationalist sentiments of the masses and their hopes that social conditions would improve as a consequence of "full independence", started to influence those sections of the PKI leadership close to him. More and more they adopted a policy of uncritical support and echoed the vague manifestos and slogans devised by Sukarno.

Combined with this, there was as an increased emphasis on anti-imperialist campaigns such as the return of West Papua and, later, the campaign to prevent the formation of Malaysia.

Speaking to a Japanese journalist in December 1965, Njoto, the PKI's second state secretary, went so far as to say: "The PKI recognises only one head of the state, one supreme commander, one great leader of the revolutions  -  President Sukarno".

The October 10, 1965, instructions of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the PKI stated, "All party members should fully support the directives of President Sukarno and pledge themselves to implement these without reserve".

Peaceful road to socialism

The PKI adhered to the Stalinist/Maoist theory of revolution: a national democratic first "stage" in which state power is exercised by a "bloc of four classes" (the nationalist bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry and the working class) would consolidate capitalism. After an extended and unspecified period of time, a distinct socialist stage would begin.

In attempting to achieve this by peaceful means, the PKI sought to form a " united national front" of the four classes. According to PKI leader Dipa Nusantara Aidit, this would be "based on an alliance of the workers and peasants under the leadership of the working class". In reality, the leadership was in the hands of the national bourgeoisie. Aidit admitted that this front was "headed by Sukarno himself, who, with his vice- presidents, reflects the cooperation of Nasakom [Sukarno's concept of the unity of nationalism, religion and communism]".

The PKI began to argue for, and justify, its strategy with theories of a peaceful transition to socialism. In 1964, M.H. Lukman, the second secretary of the Central Committee, argued: "From a theoretical point of view, to affirm the possibility of a transition to socialism by peaceful means, signifies affirming the truth that Marxism-Leninism does not point to absolutely the same road for socialism in all countries in different periods and in different international conditions.

"This also means we Marxist-Leninists do not bind ourselves to certain forms, methods and roads of completing the revolution, because everything depends on the concrete balance of power among the existing classes, on the quality of the working-class organisation and its enemy, on the ability of the working class to attract its allies to its side, especially the peasants, and on taking into account the existence of democratic institutions in each country."

Lukman went on: "In accordance with the teachings of Marx and Lenin, namely, by taking into account the objective conditions of the world balance of power between the socialist and democratic forces on the one hand, and the imperialist forces on the other, and considering the experiences in the East European countries where the transition to socialism did not occur through civil war, Comrade Khrushchev at the 20th Congress of the CPSU stated the conclusion that in the present situation certain countries have a real possibility of reaching socialism in a peaceful way".

This was formalised in the constitution of the PKI, which stated: "To achieve its goal, the PKI follows peaceful and democratic ways. This is what is sought by the PKI and what will be constantly pursued."

The policy of trying to achieve socialism without revolutionary struggle and, in particular, the emphasis on "parliamentary struggle", meant that the united front was in reality simply collaboration at the top. This began with the "coalition cabinet" in 1955, then the "cooperation cabinet" in 1959 and finally the "Nasakom cabinet" in 1963. The PKI sought to gain power by "working together" with its class enemies.

The state

Ernest Mandel, writing in The Catastrophe in Indonesia (Merit Publishers, New York, 1966), argues that the PKI fundamentally misunderstood the role of the state in bourgeois society. He wrote: "For a Marxist, every state apparatus, no matter what its antagonistic side, always serves the fundamental interests of one class ruling over the other. The Indonesian state in 1965 served the interest of the national bourgeoisie.

"With a correct line, the PKI could have stimulated the mass struggle ( considering that the economic and social conditions were getting worse) on the basis of their justified immediate demands in order to lead them to the conquest of power. The policy of the National Front left the initiative up to the enemy until it was too late."

This policy was based upon what Mandel referred to as a "false characterisation of the state". Aidit formulated it in this way: "At present, the state power in the Republic of Indonesia includes two antagonistic sides, one representing the interests of the people (in support of the people) and the other the interests of the enemy of the people (the opposition to the people). The side supporting the people is becoming stronger day by day, the government of the Republic of Indonesia has even adopted revolutionary anti-imperialist measures."

This characterisation was even extended to state institutions such as the armed forces. Although the PKI leadership portrayed the armed forces leadership as "reactionary" and was aware of the danger the military represented, it failed to understand clearly that the interests of the military command were those of capital  -  because the armed forces leaders had become capitalists.

Even after the October 1965 coup, the PKI leadership persisted with this view. Njoto insisted, for example: "We do not consider the Indonesian National Forces to be like the armies of imperialist countries or the army of India ... [with] its composition which is mainly made up of former poor peasants or workers."

In "Lessons from a Defeat" (The Catastrophe in Indonesia, Merit Publishers, New York, 1966), PKI member T. Soedarso focuses on a number of " fundamental errors" made by the party. The first was the PKI's belief that socialism in Indonesia could be achieved by peaceful means.

Soedarso argues that, given this perspective, it was not surprising that the PKI was unprepared for armed struggle when the crisis came in October 1965. Even after the 1965 coup and the mass slaughter that followed, some PKI functionaries, together with the Soviet Union, tried to blame the situation on the PKI, using the argument that it had committed "leftist errors" and needed to re-establish the Nasakom alliance with Sukarno.


Though the PKI had been given a formal role in Indonesian government with cabinet positions, they were ministers without portfolio. This symbolised the PKI's situation. It promoted the image of being the party of the president but had no real hold on state power.

The army had a much greater hold on the administrative life of the country and, in some provinces, had already banned PKI publications. There was a popular saying among PKI members at the time that summed up the party's view well: "We have already gained power, it's just that we haven't won yet".

This kind of thinking not only coloured the way the PKI operated and where it placed its emphasis, but created the illusion that state power could really be won  -  or even had even been won already  -  though its alliance with Sukarno.

In an eerie replay of China in the 1920s, in February 1961, the PKI even handed the government a list of party members, their addresses, positions in the party and date of joining the party.

The popular sentiment of the time was expressed by a slogan on a wall in Jakarta in April 1965: "Down with neo-colonialism. Long live Sukarno. Long live Nasakom. Joint chiefs of staff are counter-revolutionaries. Long live the PKI. Long live Nasakom. Hang the imperialists and their Indonesian stooges. Down with foreign bases. Long live Nasakom. Crush Malaysia. Ban American movies. Long live Nasakom. Ban the Beatles. Long live Nasakom."

PART V: How the PKI weakened itself facing the military

The Indonesian Communist Party's (PKI) shift in the 1950s from a strategy of independently organising and mobilising its working-class and rural supporters to one of trying to achieve socialism without revolutionary struggle, through "parliamentary struggle", meant that it increasingly subordinated itself to the bourgeois nationalists.

This began with the "coalition cabinet" in 1955, then the "cooperation cabinet" in 1959 and finally the "Nasakom cabinet" in 1963. The PKI sought to gain power by "working together" with its class enemies.

The PKI adopted a similar strategy towards the armed forces. Instead of attempting to recruit rank and file soldiers in a pro-democracy alliance directed against their officers, the PKI chose to win over or replace particular officers. Although the PKI was able to find some supporters  -  particularly in the air force  -  the structure and the class interests of the military were never seriously challenged.

The party leadership began to place more emphasis on its links with progressive and left elements in the armed forces, submerging itself in an attempt to "out-coup" the right wing.

The result could have been quite different if such manoeuvres had been carried out while also stimulating independent mobilisations of workers and peasants for basic demands, as part of a struggle for a worker-peasant government, and building the party as a revolutionary political organisation.

Armed struggle

The view that socialism could be won peacefully also impacted on the PKI's approach to armed struggle.

In Forty Years of the PKI, published in 1961, PKI leader Dipa Nusantara Aidit wrote: "The development of the party, besides depending greatly on the united front, also greatly depends on armed struggle. The advance or decline of armed struggle greatly influences the advance or decline of the united front and the party."

However, following the disbanding of the Communist units of the national army by the government after independence and the crushing of the 1948 Madiun uprising by pro-PKI soldiers, there were a number of occasions when opportunities arose for the PKI to mobilise workers and peasants into an armed force, but these were ignored.

When voluntary units were formed to fight the Dutch in West Papua, the PKI limited their work to the "liberation" of West Papua. When this was achieved, the party allowed them to be disarmed.

In the campaign against newly formed Malaysia, the PKI was an important force in mobilising the masses, but again it did not use this opportunity to develop the idea of armed struggle for a socialist revolution.

Reflecting the fear that a confrontation with the military would lead to another Madiun-type defeat, the PKI sought to counteract the reactionary forces' propaganda  -  that the Communists were "terrorists" or "monsters "  -  by appearing to be responsible and reasonable. Not only was this a reformist position, but it also lulled the PKI membership and supporters into a false sense of security. If anything, it revealed the PKI's weakness to the reactionaries.

As the struggle  -  between the PKI and Sukarno on the one hand and the armed forces, conservative Islam and landowner interests on the other  -  heightened, the PKI also neglected to build itself organisationally. It emphasised building mass mobilisations around the slogans and rhetoric of Sukarno. There was virtually no political education of its rapidly expanding membership.

The PKI found itself without a highly organised, worker-based revolutionary cadre. Its base was more and more rural, peasant and traditional. While the party could mobilise hundreds of thousands to rallies, with the blessing of the state through Sukarno, it did not have the tightly organised, factory and workplace units needed to defend itself against the armed forces.

The cadres of the party stood at a distance from the mass of the membership. This led to an atmosphere of distrust, a general lack of democracy and reinforcement of the bureaucratic character of the party.

When the military began to move against the party in October 1965, it was unable to defend itself in a coordinated way. Almost immediately, the leadership scurried for safety (some to Sukarno's palace). Instead of mobilising the party's millions of members to fight back, the leadership continued to foster the illusion that Sukarno would protect them.

Growing tensions

Nasakom [Sukarno's concept of the unity of nationalism, communism and religion] signalled a shift to the left by Sukarno and the Sukarnoist Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI). Land reform was passed by parliament, although it was moderated in the process, and between 1962 and 1965, 800, 000 peasants received redistributed land.

Dutch, Belgian, British and US enterprises were nationalised, except for the oil companies, which had 100% of their profits appropriated. There were also big increases in expenditure on social welfare and education.

By 1964, there were mass rallies being held in the villages, towns and cities; hundreds of thousands filled the sports stadiums in Jakarta. There was competition between all parties to hold bigger rallies and form more branches as millions of people were drawn into the political process.

These conditions were very conducive to left political activity. From around 2 million members in 1962, the PKI had grown to more than 3.5 million members, with 10 million more in affiliated mass organisations, by 1965. Trade unions, women's organisations, artists' organisations and peasant organisations expanded enormously.

After making a left turn in 1964 and expelling members who had business or bureaucratic backgrounds, the PNI also grew rapidly.

Sukarno and the PNI found themselves in an alliance with the PKI against the military. With the military controlling the key sectors of the economy and increasingly dominating the civilian bureaucracy at all levels, the only real political competitor the armed forces faced was the PKI.

Many of the PKI's campaigns were targeted at the military. It accused army managers of embezzling state property, charged that the military leadership was "power crazy", that it neglected the welfare of the troops and lived a life of luxury and degraded women.

There was further conflict between the army and the PKI over land. From 1964, the PKI supported unilateral attempts by peasants to enforce the delayed implementation of the land reform laws. Army intervention on behalf of landowners precipitated violent clashes between PKI supporters and the army.

These clashes were in many cases so violent that Sukarno was forced to issue a "revolutionary command" to stop unilateral actions, ordering, " Every conflict or difference should be solved by consultation and agreement". The PKI immediately stopped the campaign.

All this was accompanied by a steadily worsening economic crisis. Mismanagement and corruption in government and industry  -  particularly in those companies run by the military  -  combined with Sukarno's costly " confrontation" campaign to "crush" the fledgling state of Malaysia, resulted in an inflation rate that topped 600% by 1965.

Anti-imperialist axis

In January 1965, Sukarno withdrew Indonesia from the United Nations and the World Bank. On August 17, Sukarno declared Indonesia part of an "anti- imperialist axis" established between Jakarta, Vietnam, China, North Korea, Laos and other emerging forces against imperialism. The victory of the Cuban Revolution had added to this climate and provided a strong symbol for the struggle against colonialism and imperialism.

The West responded by refusing to grant further credits and, despite hollow calls for berdikari (standing on our own feet), Indonesia's budget deficit reached huge proportions.

The question of armed struggle to defend the Indonesian revolution was becoming more urgent. Following increasing demands by the PKI, Sukarno in January 1965 announced that Indonesia would form an armed "Fifth Force" of 21 million armed peasants and workers independent of army control (the Indonesian armed forces had four wings  -  the army, navy, air force and police).

This announcement heightened tensions between the military and Sukarno, and led to a bitter rift between Sukarno and key army leaders, particularly the minister of the army, General Achmad Yani and the minister of defence, General A.H. Nasution.

In this tense atmosphere, Sukarno fell temporarily ill in August. With all sides wondering whether Sukarno would be able to continue in office, coup rumours abounded. The concentration of some 20,000 troops in Jakarta for Armed Forces Day, October 5, added to the tensions.

In this atmosphere, the 30 September Movement led by Lieutenant Colonel Untung made its move and, in doing so, precipitated the inevitable showdown between the military and the PKI.

PART VI: Communist plot or military coup d'etat?

Later described by the president of Indonesia, Sukarno, as nothing more than "a ripple in the mighty ocean of the revolution", the "G30S/PKI [ September 30 Movement/Indonesian Communist Party] affair", as it came to be dubbed, proved to be the precursor to one of the most brutal massacres in human history  -  and the beginning of dictator Suharto's rise to power.

In the months before October 1965, Jakarta was rife with rumours that a group of high-ranking generals, fearful of the growing strength and influence of the PKI, were planning to move against Sukarno. While Sukarno's strong anti-US and anti-imperialist rhetoric won broad support among the Indonesian masses, to the West it appeared that Indonesia was on a headlong slide to the left.

Sukarno's announcement in January 1965 of the formation a "Fifth Force" of armed peasants and workers  -  independent of army control  -  led to a bitter rift between Sukarno and key military leaders such as minister of defence General Achmad Yani and minister of the army General Nasution.

In this tense atmosphere, Sukarno fell temporarily ill in early August. The concentration of some 20,000 troops in Jakarta on Armed Forces Day, October 5, added to the tension.

The September 30 Movement

Lieutenant Colonel Untung, Lieutenant Colonel Latief and Brigadier General Supardjo  -  leaders of the September 30 Movement (G30S)  -  sought to pre- empt the coup against Sukarno. In the early hours of October 1, squads of soldiers burst into the homes of Nasution, Yani and five other members of the army general staff, intending to take them before Sukarno.

Yani and two others were killed. Nasution was able to escape, but his five- year-old daughter was fatally shot. The kidnap victims were taken to Halim air force base in south-east Jakarta, with support from air force chief Omar Dhani. Meanwhile, troops from other units occupied several key sites in Jakarta, including the national radio station, the telecommunications building and positions opposite the presidential palace.

At around 7am the next morning, the G30S leaders announced on national radio that they had taken pre-emptive action against a "Council of Generals" who, with the support of the CIA, had been plotting a coup against Sukarno.

Later that day, a decree was broadcast setting up a Revolutionary Council, dismissing the cabinet and ordering the establishment of regional councils. No mention was made of the PKI or Sukarno's role. Untung stressed it was " an internal army affair".

Suharto makes his move

In the absence of Yani, the Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) commander, Major General Suharto, assumed "temporary" command of the army. He marshalled his troops and, along with a former chief of one of the rebel battalions at the palace, "persuaded" the rebel soldiers to change sides. The other battalion, formally under Untung's command, withdrew to Halim.

Hearing that the operation had failed, the G30S captain in charge of the kidnapped officers panicked; the captives were shot and their bodies were dumped in a well. Suharto ordered a commando regiment to attack Halim, and the base fell with little struggle early on the morning of October 2.

Having also seized the national radio station and closed down most of the country's newspapers, Suharto was in a position to manipulate events to overthrow Sukarno and obliterate the PKI.

Within days, Suharto announced that evidence had been uncovered that the coup had been masterminded by the PKI. There was national press coverage of gruesome pictures of the generals' bodies being removed from the well, and descriptions of how they had been tortured and sexually mutilated by members of the PKI's women's organisation, Gerwani, before being killed.

Armed Forces Day ceremonies were replaced with an elaborate military funeral for the dead generals. Nasution delivered a bitter oration. Army- backed student and Muslim groups were already being mobilised, and mobs attacked and destroyed homes of prominent PKI figures and the party's headquarters in Jakarta.

Meanwhile, Suharto's security units began a wave of arrests, and local military commanders in the provinces launched purges. PKI chairperson Dipa Nusantara Aidit and other PKI leaders were hunted down. Most were executed soon after on specific instructions from Suharto.

Meanwhile, the military were training and arming Muslim gangs for the " final solution". The killings started in East Java and soon spread through Java, Bali and Sumatra. Within four months, as many as 1 million Communists and left-wing sympathisers were murdered, and hundreds of thousands of others interned for long periods.

Officially portrayed as a failed "communist coup"  -  thwarted only by decisive action by Suharto and the army  -  the events leading to and surrounding that fateful night have been carefully, and very consciously, interwoven into the fabric of New Order mythology and its ideological justification for the seizure of power and the military's continuing social and political rule (the "dual role" of the military).

But the sequence of events, the many unexplained contradictions, the web of relationships between the key actors and assessments of the prevailing social, political and economic conditions have led to the official line being questioned.

One of the first serious investigations was conducted by Ben Anderson and Ruth McVey from Cornell University in 1971. They concluded that the PKI was not directly involved and that a key factor in the failure of the G30S operation was that Suharto was not one of the army leaders seized.

Suharto's role

Why was Suharto, commander of the unit equipped and trained for rapid deployment against just such a rebellion, not included on the kidnappers' list? Initially, rumours were spread that he had been included but was away from home on the night. Suharto later admitted that this was not true.

In the absence of Yani, Suharto was automatically next in the chain of command. He was far more important than many of the others targeted. Suharto's corrupt financial and political dealings would have been more than enough cause to accuse him of plotting against Sukarno. That Suharto and Kostrad were simply forgotten by the plotters is hard to believe.

According to Suharto, at around 5.30am he drove to Kostrad HQ, where he heard the coup broadcast on the radio. With Untung's troops occupying key positions close to the Kostrad HQ, it seems surprising that he was able to reach his destination without incident.

In an interview in 1969, Suharto revealed that just hours before the G30S operation, he had met with Latief at a military hospital where Suharto's son was being treated for minor burns. By then rumours of the meeting had already surfaced and it became necessary for Suharto to come up with an explanation.

Suharto claimed that Latief was there to keep an eye on him, but in a later interview said that Latief planned to assassinate him but got cold feet at the last minute.

Suharto had long personal and professional ties with both Untung and Latief. Latief and his wife were close personal friends of the Suhartos.

When Latief was finally brought to trial in 1976, he gave a very different version of events. He asserted that not only did he inform Suharto of the operation at the hospital but that they had discussed it at his home two days before. A request that Suharto appear for his defence was rejected by the court. Subsequent investigations support Latief's account.

The alleged sexual mutilation of the kidnap victims was instrumental in whipping up the anticommunist hysteria in the days following October 1. Sukarno insisted repeatedly that the murdered generals had not been mutilated.

The autopsy reports were never published. Some years ago, they were discovered among trial records and showed conclusively that no mutilations had occurred. Published on Suharto's orders, the stories were fabrications.


Another key figure accused of being behind the G30S plot was Sjam Kamaruzzaman, who with Aidit was alleged to have headed the PKI's "special bureau", which handled the party's political and intelligence work within the armed forces and recruited progressive officers.

Aidit, who was also a minister in Sukarno's government, was captured and shot without trial on November 22 and his body dumped, on Suharto's orders. With Aidit dead, Sjam was left as the only person who could testify to the existence of the bureau.

Sjam appeared as a witness in dozens of G30S/PKI trials to blame Aidit and the PKI for the coup. Although tried and sentenced to death in 1966, Sjam was kept alive for 20 years and is said to have boasted to other prisoners that every time he thought his execution was imminent, he would inform on another PKI contact in the armed forces, requiring him to appear as a witness in the subsequent investigation.

Later investigations found that Sjam also had a personal relationship with Suharto. A CIA report on the 1965 events refers to Sjam as a longtime informer on the PKI for military intelligence.

Sjam's role makes it clear why it was necessary for Aidit to be disposed of as quickly as possible and why Suharto has tried to distance himself from the killing.

On September 30, 1988, the Jakarta daily Merdeka carried an editorial entitled "Retracing history", which indirectly questioned the official version. Labelling the plotters as "G30S", not the official acronym " G30S/PKI", it referred to historians as "still combing the depths to discover the unknown truth". The paper was severely reprimanded and the journalist who wrote the editorial sacked.


Why was the PKI was able to grow so rapidly, become such a significant force in Indonesian politics, only to be obliterated in a few short months? Why was it necessary for those leading the counter-revolution to slaughter so many people?

The PKI was able to grow rapidly because the Indonesian bourgeoisie, with its small economic weight, its lack of an effective alliance with, or support from, imperialism, its internal divisions and great ideological weakness, was unable to hold back the growth and influence of the left and communist movement. The populist, nationalist and anti-imperialist mood of the masses put the bourgeois forces at a huge disadvantage relative to the left.

It was this situation that made it necessary for those leading the counter- revolution to kill so many people. The pro-capitalist forces were not able to achieve their fundamental goal  -  the establishment of a national economy and a stable bourgeois democratic government  -  or defeat the worker and peasant movement through political means. Only the military  -  in reality armed capitalists with the backing of imperialism  -  were in a position to carry it through.

Finally, the scale of the defeat of the PKI was made possible by the theoretical and strategic errors. As the struggle intensified between Sukarno, the nationalist left and the PKI on the one hand, and the military, conservative Islam and the major landowners on the other, the PKI's "false characterisation of the state" and its illusions in Sukarno prevented it and its supporters them from being able to identify where the real threat would come from. It found itself without the highly organised, worker-based revolutionary cadre which it needed to mobilise and defend itself.

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