New essay (working draft): Indonesia: 1965 and the Counter-Revolution against the Nation.

(This essay is currently being submitted to an international journal. An Indonesian language version is now being prepared and will be published in Indonesia.)

Indonesia:  1965 and the Counter-Revolution against the Nation.

By Max Lane


“The impact of the counter-revolution was, however, even deeper than the sum of these combined policies – from mass murder and terror to totalitarian imposed ignorance and passivity. The 1965 counter-revolution was a pre-emptive purge aimed at the prevention of the final unfolding and completion of the revolutions that were brewing: a national revolution as well as a social revolution.”


Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, of immense geopolitical strategic importance straddling the sea and air lanes between the Indian and Pacific oceans, and with substantial mineral resources. Yet today, and for the last 50 years, its international political presence has been almost zero, including on the Left. The primary reason for this is the 1965 counter-revolution in Indonesia and the consequent radical remaking-cum-unmaking of the country, the nation. On the one hand this counter-revolution produced an Indonesian state and economy that posed no threat to either western or Japanese imperial economic or geo-political interests, and on the other a society whose new post-counter-revolutionary experience would emasculate any progressive class fightback for decades, even until now, and thus also its intellectual and cultural life.

The counter-revolution is easy to describe – on the surface. A wing of the Armed Forces officer corps, under the leadership of General Suharto, in alliance with the politically organised landlords, merchants and parts of officialdom, physically purged the Indonesian polity of all left-of-centre political forces. At least one million people were systematically killed and tens of thousands arrested and tortured terrorising the millions of members of progressive organisations, perhaps half the adult population. The Left forces were unarmed, their leadership killed or neutralised very quickly and, at the grass-roots, they were faced with a scenario they did not at all expect. They had felt safe from such an outcome due to the support they received from the president, Sukarno, who seemed in an unassailable position.  He had become president on independence in 1945 and had enormous popularity. They had no time or resources to organise a serious fight-back, with small groups and individuals doing the best they could where the opportunities existed.

The physical elimination and terror was accompanied by formal bans on all the left organisations, on left ideologies, including Sukarnoist socialism as well as ‘marxism-leninism’, bans on the circulation of the writings of all the country’s progressive writers and thinkers, and on all mass organisation activity, including of some traditional conservative Islamic organisations.  There was a massive, and uncontested, tsunami of black propaganda against Sukarno and the Left, especially the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), depicting them as evil, degenerate and barbarian. There were no shades of grey in this totally black propaganda and absolutely zero alternative voices, even on the margins.

Within a few years, the new government’s official doctrine was that the masses should be a “floating mass”. They should simply focus on their appropriate functions, i.e. working and producing, and be kept away from politics. The regime’s ideologues took the term “floating mass”, which they used in English from 1950s American political science which celebrated the public passivity of the 1950s[1]. The passivity which such political science claimed had been achieved in the U.S. in the 1950s through co-option and mechanisms of ideological hegemony would be achieved by violence in Indonesia. For almost two decades after 1965 people living in villages and small towns were banned from joining political parties. Only three political parties were allowed and all were supervised by the military staffed state apparatus.

Even with this brief description, the totalitarian nature of the counter-revolution will be starkly obvious. With such extensive ideological suppression and deep ‘de-politicisation’, almost all aspects of intellectual and political life came under formal state supervision together with the enforcement, through a massive national propaganda mechanism, of the most banal, anti-critical and obedience-oriented official ideology one can envisage, taught from high-school to university and beyond. Indonesian history was rewritten into an official history which eliminated all political agency by popular forces and all sense of rebellion. Rebellions against Dutch colonial power, when they had been led by communists, were taught as examples of treason against Indonesia. High schools stopped teaching Indonesian literary texts. With the physical elimination of all left of centre forces and the associated terror as well as the very effective and total suppression of alternatives, tens of millions of Indonesians have grown up knowing only the official history of their country. Almost none have had any exposure to the literature of the country, even of the writings of the country’s declared national heroes[2].  At the same time, most have had no serious experience of political activity, except during the sudden burst of resistance during the few years, 1996-1998.

The impact of the counter-revolution was, however, even deeper than the sum of these combined policies – from mass murder and terror to totalitarian imposed ignorance and passivity. The 1965 counter-revolution was a pre-emptive purge aimed at the prevention of the final unfolding and completion of the revolutions that were brewing: a national revolution as well as a social revolution. The driving momentum of the revolutionary processes was the further unfolding of a gruelling and long-drawn out national revolution, whose first stirrings were in the writings of the young feminist, Kartini, in the 1890s. Kartini, writing envisaging progress into a new future and not a return to a traditional feudal past, elaborated ideas originating from the Enlightenment and hoped that they would be applied to “my people”. However precisely she applied that term “my people” at the time, it was the beginning of a future oriented identification of a community that later was the Indonesian nation.

As with all revolutions, the national revolution was doing at least two things. First, it was over-turning and turning upside-down the pre-existing power structure. A colonial capitalist class and its state, aided by a politically domesticated and nicely salaried local state apparatus recruited from the aristocracy and allowed to maintain many remnants of despotic culture, had dominated the life of the local inhabitants for three hundred years, ruling directly over many areas for up to a hundred years. The winning of political independence from the Dutch during 1945-49, and the expulsion of their economic interests in 1956-57, overturned the colonial power structure, including abolishing, in most places, the privileged status of the remnant aristocracies. Indonesia was probably the only large colony that expelled or nationalised all the former colonizer’s businesses after Independence but without a socialist revolution.

At the same time, this revolutionising process, of everybody involved and of so many things was an act of “creating something that did not exist before”[3]. “The revolutionising of themselves and things” that was taking place was indeed creating something totally new: a phenomena that came to be called “Indonesia”.  It was new generically:  the nation was a new post-feudal and post despotic form of community coming into being only in the capitalist era[4]. They were totally new forms of community. And it was new in its specificity: Indonesia. Before Indonesia came into existence during the 20th century, no such thing existed, nor were there any Indonesians. There were Javanese, Batak, Malays, Dayaks, Minangkabaus, Bugis and many more: but not a single Indonesian existed.

The national revolution both overturned and turned upside down central and key existing power relations (although not all power relations). It also started to create something that did not exist before.

The creation of a nation, however, is not instantaneous. It is a long and mostly gruelling process. There is the struggle to defeat the existing power, whether feudal or colonial. This mostly has required wars: death, blood, destruction, turmoil and dislocation. The process has a history.

As a product of the development of capitalism, a shared capitalist economic life within a specific territory develops. In Indonesia’s case, it was violently forged within and across the territory of the Netherlands East Indies out of and through externally generated convulsions of many pre-existing productive systems, the most developed of which, such as in Java and some parts of Sumatra, shared the characteristics of what Marx called the Asiatic mode of production[5]. These were highly centralised systems, based on the control of water, with hardened hierarchies of social and productive functions ideologised in a caste system. In the case of the Malay Archipelago, they produced a limited range of goods and services and operated over relatively small territories, even when they were rich enough to finance armies that exacted tribute irregularly from other territories.

Then the Dutch arrived. The production of spices for export increased massively. Princes and Sultans became the defeated agents of Dutch mercantilism. Then new export crops were introduced and spread: sugar, tobacco, rubber, indigo, tea, coffee, cacao and more. Mining for tin and other metals and minerals started. Through the 19th century the whole archipelago underwent economic transformation with modern shipping, rail and the telegraph giving a start to a territory wide economic life. Local currency, banking, excise rules and territory wide taxation helped knit it all together. Dutch capital was investing and expropriating. The archipelago, from the Malay Peninsula to the eastern islands of the archipelago had previously been a singular “natural” space where products and ideas interchanged rapidly, borne over the seas by thousands of locally made ships. Hinduism, Buddhism and then Islam were able to spread, taking turns, to almost every port across the archipelago, even to the coast of western Papua. With colonialism, it was divided up among the Dutch, English, Spanish and Portugeuse forging new separate spaces – colonies mimicking countries.

It was a colony but its economic life mimicked that of a national economy, except that it was deprived of the technological revolution. Like all capitalist economies (and the economies that existed in most places before nations), evolved around contradictions, including class contradictions. National bourgeois and national proletarian classes develop, and perhaps even national peasantries. International relations become possible between the ruling classes of nations – oppressor and oppressed nations both – and, potentially, between the oppressed classes also.

The economic transformation created urban centres: Batavia (Jakarta) and Surabaya, on the island of Java, and Medan in Sumatra, were the largest, but there are more spread around the islands. Banks and business offices, ports and workshops proliferated. Of course, these centres are still a tiny portion of the total population. But their population grows enough to support the emergence of a new, cosmopolitan environment. Life changes. Stories change and require a new language with which to relate them. In the East Indies, the first to write these stories – short stories and novelettes – are Chinese and Eurasian town dwellers. They tell the stories of people no longer bound by strict traditions: of murder and detectives, of Dutch, Chinese, Eurasians and “native”, officials and dandies and prostitutes: of stories made up of real life causes and effects, and no longer the whims of gods or fate[6]. And they tell these stories in their version of Malay, up until then a language used mainly for local commerce and the colonial administration of the “natives”. They turn it into a language of a society changing, moving, and intense with dynamic cause and effect. They lay the foundation of it being adopted as the language for talking about cause and effect across the territory, that is, for talking about the future.

In 1928 colonial youth around the territory declared they will struggle for a new country, Indonesia, and that its national language will be Indonesian: the Malay that has started to evolve in the hands of the storytellers of the turn of the century. Then it spreads as the vernacular, the language of a particular time and place, of the territory’s future. Its spread between the 1920s and the 1960s is driven by the ignited fires of political discussion – and struggle – for the future of the new being being created: Indonesia. The struggle for the national language, and with it a national literature – poems, songs, stories – recording the experience of the process is a central part of the national revolution. Indonesian language and literature was a part of that created which never existed before.

Most incredible of all – though probably we take it for granted now – is that this never-before-existing nation also will develop – did start to develop – its own, distinctive new culture, reflecting a common psychological outlook, including sharing that culture’s contradictions. Music and song, poetry and story (novel, short story, film, and theatre), paintings and sculpture are one set of embodiments of such a culture: the arts. The evolution of a new Indonesian art and literature began at the turn of the century, at first experimenting in Dutch, and then Malay, as it became enlivened as  the vernacular of a newly emerging location. Artists came from all classes and across the ideological spectrum. By 1945, when Sukarno and Hatta proclaimed Independence, the voices of a nation poets, songsters and story-tellers could assert the reality of the nation’s existence: Chairil Anwar, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Ismail Marzuki and many more. During the following twenty years, the arts flowered even more, freed of colonial suppression and challenged by the need to describe and lead the new experience of living in and through the newly liberated but not yet completed nation community. Mass organisations of the arts and culture grew, especially on the left among socialists and radical nationalists. This new culture, was not Javanese or Acehnese or Bugis or Dayak or Balinese, neither was it some kind of conglomeration of elements from these earlier cultures. It was something newly created on the earth. To the extent it did draw on pre-existing ideas, it was in fact a child of all nations.

Arts and stories were, however, just the tip of the iceberg. The cultural changes that were integrated into the national revolution – the nation creation process – went deeper than that. There were many cultural changes but two stand out as pre-eminent. These were the emergence of a culture of conscious, purposeful organisation with the goal of changing society, and the mobilisation of people on a large scale to achieve it. The breakdown and dissolution of traditional forms of organisation, that is from the pre-capitalist social formations is not unique to Indonesia. “Traditional” organisation that evolved to allow the implementation of the collective duties of different parts of society, especially at the village level, dissolve or retreat as new organisations, established with a conscious goal in mind, replace them. These new organisations have constitutions and members, more-or-less agreed upon methods and aims. This is a revolutionary cultural change: obligation (a duty imposed under a particular class hegemony) is overthrown by its opposite: acting voluntarily. This came with the shift from being a subject of either feudal despotic or colonial power, accepting a passivity embodied in the Javanese word nerimo (to accept), whose elongated, subdued pronunciation even sounds somehow abject. Popular organisation and mobilisation overturned and turned upside down the most fundamental cultural values.

In the case of the East Indies-to-be-Indonesia, this revolutionary organisation and mobilisation eventually drew in hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of people across the archipelago. Anti-colonial organisations like the Sarekat Islam, and later the Sarekat Rakyat, the Indonesian Communist Party, the Indonesian National Party (founded by Sukarno) mobilised hundreds of thousands during the 1920s and 1930s. The first of the mass organisations, Sarekat Islam, which campaigned against colonialism and not for religion, is reported to have had between 350,000 t0 800,000 members and itself claimed a membership of two million and had branches on most islands in the Indies. Then there were periods of explosions of trade union activity and peasant movements, with contemporary rather than traditional goals. Moreover, the form of mobilisations, such as mass meetings (vergadering), strikes, active boycotts and demonstrations involved many more people who may not have been formal members. The whole process developed as class contradictions sharpened. The first big split in the mass organisations, within Sarekat Islam, was over the question of opposition to capitalism and the advocacy of socialism as the form an independent Indonesia should take. Embryonic as they were, a national bourgeoisie and a national proletariat were being formed.

The cultural revolution whereby what has been called “modernity”, the consciousness produced out of the experiences of capitalist developments, overturns “tradition”, that is the consciousness that prevailed under European feudal or Asian despotic modes of production is not unique to Indonesia. What is perhaps unique, or at least very pronounced, was how that revolution was defined by the overturning of a consciousness based on acceptance of obligation and passivity to one based on purpose and the seizing of agency (organisation and mobilisation), and how that revolutionary overturning was the fundamental creator of an embryonic new national culture. This new culture, given agency polarised around class perspectives, was cleaved by contradictions. The clash between contradictory perspectives – capitalism or socialism – was the basis for a deep fragility on the one hand but, while the question was unanswered as to what kind of Indonesia a free Indonesia would be, this unresolved contradiction worked to fuse opposites into a unity. The struggle to resolve the question in real life of what kind of Indonesia would be created, united opposed perspectives, based on more-or-less opposed class interests, in the one project of a national revolution to create Indonesia.

“All hitherto history is the history of class struggle,’ wrote Marx and Engels. So stating that there were such class contradictions in the East Indies-to-be-Indonesia may seem nothing special. And just left at that, it isn’t. But it can’t be left just at that. The creative side of the revolutionary process, the creating of Indonesia and Indonesians, was defined by this process. The culture of organisation and mobilisation was embodied in central ideas that took hold within the majority of the movement for a nation, in addition to their activities. Central to these were the ideas of the young nationalist Sukarno for whom motion, movement and popular agency in that motion, the agency of the rakyat (common people) imbued with semangat (spirit). At the same time, his nemesis, Mohammed Hatta, counterposed Sukarno’s motion and popular energy against his concepts of expertise and steadiness. Sukarno established the mass party, the PNI, in 1927 and constantly debated with Mohammad Hatta on these issues. After the Dutch arrested Sukarno and the PNI dissolved, in 1931 Hatta established the Indonesian National Education Party, also the PNI, a group advocating the spread of education, i.e. expertise, as the first priority of the moment rather than mass mobilisation. After the defeat of Japan, which had occupied the Indies for three years, on 17th August 1945, the two men proclaimed Independence together, after being kidnapped and pressured into doing it by very semangat-filled nationalist youth. They became President and Vice-President of Indonesia until Hatta resigned in 1956. The two men proclaimed Indonesian independence together and were president and Vice-president together for 11 years. They were called the “Dwitunggal” – the two united in one. If there was a unity for a while it was the unity of opposites:


“The Peoples Awareness demands that every unjust situation or relationship be torn down and changed … changed fast and in a revolutionary way.”


“A thorough-going social analysis would show that all our rebellions and our splits, our political anarchy and adventurism, and all the steps taken in the economic field which have created chaos, are a result of the fact that our national Revolution was not dammed up at the appropriate time.”[7]

The Sarekat Islam had split to form the left-wing and secular Sarekat Rakyat which in turn gave birth to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). After the Dutch smashed the PKI in 1926-27, Sukarno emerged as the voice of revolutionary nationalism, with Hatta as his nemesis. The same contradiction exercised itself all through the war of national liberation between 1945 and 1949, and on until 1965. Indonesians commitment to Indonesia was a passionate commitment to the new nation, and their hopes for it: that it be Islamic or social democratic versus socialist or communist: conservative or revolutionary. The contradiction was the energy that pushed along the creation of the nation.

Territory, language and literature, a territory wide shared economic life and a new Indonesian culture were forged out of a messy process, in which the struggle against colonial rule was a key part, but only a part of the process[8]. These four aspects each developed unevenly, in fits and starts, in response to a variety of factors, and in most cases their development and consolidation was still ongoing up until 1965. The contradictions whose demand to be resolved were driving the process were still yet to find its resolution. By 1956-7, when all Dutch enterprises were nationalised, after being occupied by their workers and trade unions, the overturning of the colonial power structure was completed. Dutch colonial power had been completely eliminated. The manifestation of Indonesia now asserting its place above and over Dutch colonial power, in an overturned power structure, was the enforced exiting of all Dutch business personnel, the ending of any legitimacy of the Dutch language and the nationalisation of all Dutch capital. That aspect of the contradiction was resolved in a very final way. There is less presence of the former colonial power in Indonesia than in any other former colony anywhere in the world.

However the deep contradiction in culture – organisation and mobilisation versus passivity and obedience – which mirrored the contradiction between the desire for socialism or capitalism remained unresolved[9]. Between 1959 and 1965 the struggle over culture deepened. Levels of mass mobilisation and organisation deepened spectacularly.  The clearest manifestations of this were the spectacular growth of the PKI and its associated organisations and also the impressive growth of the Indonesian National Party (PNI), as its majority moved in a more left-wing direction. By 1965, their combined membership reached at least 20 million people, almost half of the adult population who would have had the right to vote, if there had ever been elections. Mobilisations in support of socialism and of Sukarno’s radical, anti-imperialist policies grew larger and larger. Mass meetings and marches in support of the nationalisation of British, Belgian and British firms escalated. Rallies and actions demanding land reform were endemic.  There were huge rallies in support of the Vietnamese revolution and for solidarity of the Asian, African and Latin American spheres of the world, and the non-capitalist world generally.

This growth of this side of the contradiction did not result in its resolution. Two things happened.

First, the original dynamic of the contradiction – agency versus passivity – began to be subverted from within the movement for organisation and mobilisation.

Second, and with considerable finality already lasting more than 50 years, exploiting this subversion of the prior dynamic, forces wanting passivity (and capitalism) suppressed the contradiction. Instead of being resolved, it was buried, left unresolved. Indonesia’s historical materialist genius, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, explained the writers’ block he experienced after finishing the historical novels he wrote covering the period from the 11th century until the early twentieth century by giving the excuse that he couldn’t write about the Suharto period of Indonesia’s history because the contradictions that existed had not yet been resolved. Thesis and anti-thesis had not produced the new synthesis, he said. So he could not write, as there was no way the process could be summed up[10]. He never published anything major after his brilliant six historical novels, which he wrote in prison camp, while he waited for a resolution that would be a long time coming because the very process of resolving had been quashed with such severe violence and comprehensiveness. Quashing that process meant not finishing the nation creation of Indonesia through the resolution of the contradiction in a certain way, but rather pushing along (backwards) an umaking process.

Subversion of the original progressive dynamic paved the way for the suppression of the whole process. Of course, the consciousness associated with the mass movement against colonialism and for socialism was always marked by legacies of the past as well as the “conjuring up of the spirits of the past to its service”. There is no pure and instantaneous explosion of revolutionary consciousness. It evolves unevenly, and in fits and starts, and is distorted even by the forces that are developing it.  The subversion, however, was not simply an evolution of such legacies and distortions. It was tied up with the extraordinary role that Sukarno continued to play. In interviews with Pramoedya in 1993, he stated:

Soekarno, for me, was the only person in Indonesia who had developed a national subjectivity. No one came close to him in that respect, even until now.

What do you mean by national subjectivity? I asked him.

It means he saw Indonesia from the perspective of Indonesians, of what our interests are. Indonesia itself was a new concept. People had strong ethnic loyalty, but they didn’t really care about a united Indonesia. People in the cities supported the idea of Indonesia. But, Soekarno went far beyond the cities, he got all the ethnic leaders to support this idea of Indonesia. He saw that Indonesia had the resources and ability to do things ourselves, for ourselves, not to be dictated by outside forces. He tried to do it, even to the extent of planning to set up a rival United Nations, and other things as well. That was extraordinary. He was far ahead of his times, too far. He was the only leader Indonesia had. He united Indonesia, the thousands of islands in this country, just with his speeches, without bloodshed. Without bloodshed. That has never happened anywhere else in the world, uniting a country without bloodshed. What he did was an extraordinary achievement in the history of mankind, not just in the history of Indonesia. Of course, a lot of lives were lost trying to defend that idea of a united Indonesia. But Soekarno managed to promote that idea of unity, to get people from all corners of Indonesia to believe in it, without shedding any blood, just with his speeches

Pramoedya was right. Soekarno was able to sum up an “Indonesian perspective” and easily more than half of the population enthusiastically supported his ideas. There were those who opposed him, of course. This included a significant section of the officer corps, intellectuals trained in the “Western” social democratic tradition (such as Hatta), religious political groups that wanted an Islamic state or a strongly Islamic polity. Their opposition was intense. There were seven assassination attempts on Soekarno, not to mention coup attempts and armed resistance in some small pockets. Still, as Pramoedya said, he was able to unite and mobilise enormous enthusiasm among over 20 million people who all joined one or other party or organisation backing his political direction. And in many ways he did do this “just with his speeches”. He had no political party of his own, nor a militia or any other weapon that he could utilise. Much of the armed wing of the state apparatus was opposed to him, and that ruled it out as his weapon.

The “national subjectivity” he embodied saw him come to be called the Penyambung Lidah Rakyat (literally the Extension of the Tongue of the People).  To the extent Soekarno was able to capture and articulate national hopes among so many people for so long -10-20 years, he was the Penyambung Lidah Rakyat. It was precisely here, however, that the subversion of the organisation and mobilisation culture, so revolutionary in its overturning of what had been hegemonic before, began. The powerful presence of a Penyambung Lidah Rakyat subsumed the need for the rakyat to have their own voice, despite Sukarno being able to capture and articulate their sentiments and hopes. The movement for which he was spokesperson, almost of the whole 20 million plus masses who were supporting moving towards “Socialism ala Indonesia”, were joining the Indonesian Communist Party or the Indonesian National Party or one of the mass organisations affiliated to them, as well as other smaller organisations. With the pre-eminent role of his charismatic articulation of a national perspective came also an accommodation to a political strategy for winning state power that made Sukarno himself, as an individual actor, the lynchpin to any victory.

The psychology of substitution strengthened. Paulo Freirie argued, based on the experience in Brazil and Latin America, that it was possible to identify different levels of consciousness in mass politics, depending on the quality of the subjectivity of mass agency as well as the transitiveness of the activity process. A full critical consciousness, where people can begin to see the causes of problems and reject simplistic solutions, require a problem-solving dialogue between political leadership and movement. Sukarno’s charismatic form of leadership, his Penyambungness, negated the possibility of dialogue, especially during that intense period of 1960-65. Back in the 1920s, in the era of vergadering and mass meetings, dialogue was intense. Indeed, Sukarno often related his discovery of the massive semi-proletarian layer among the rural population, which he called the marhaen, after the name of an impoverished farmer, as a product of a dialogue. By the 1960s, however, there was only one “lidah” (tongue) working an hegemony. The movement was stuck, to use Freire’s term, in a semi-transitive consciousness[11]. Agency had been inadvertently surrendered to Sukarno even as organisation expanded and mobilisation increased: even as the quantitative strength of the pro-socialist forces increased.

Culturally, the crucial manifestation was the adoption of Sukarno’s vocabulary as the hegemonic, uncontested vocabulary for discussing all politics, especially at the level of the formulation of ideas amongst the masses. Individual intellectuals, especially writers and artists, including Pramoedya, still developed their own vocabularies, but at the mass level political expression fused with Sukarno’s. In fact, even the right-wing opposition knew that it had to explain its opposition to him using his own vocabulary. For several months after September 30, 1965 when Major-GenerL Suharto seized power, he still defended his actions using the vocabulary of Sukarno’s revolution.

Strategically also, the Left as a movement had accepted a perspective for winning power that made Sukarno the lynchpin. In the 1950s, the PKI’s perspective, as the largest left party, was to win eventually a majority in elections and the parliament. Open advocacy of insurrection was impossible given that the new national Armed Forces had shown itself to be implacably opposed to the left as early as 1948, including to the extent of carrying out mass executions of communists in 1948, after a local PKI “mutiny”. However by the early 1960s, the PKI had given up on the parliamentary road and had accommodated to a strategy whereby as popular support for Sukarno’s Socialism ala Indonesia increased and became the overwhelming majority, Sukarno would remove right-wing officials in the state apparatus, from the Cabinet down, and replace them with revolutionaries. This was called “retooling” and a Supreme Command for Retooling the Tools of the Revolution was established, headed by President Sukarno. Both culturally and politically, the agency for revolutionary organisation and mobilisation was subverted, becoming semi-transitive. It was a movement aimed at acting upon reality to transform it radically, of that there is no doubt. However, as the subject of that process, the people’s sovereignty as agency was weakened.

The other side of the contradiction, the class forces desperate for obedience and passivity and integration into international capitalism, waited to be provided with a pretext to launch a suppression. That happened in the late evening of 30th September, 1965 and into October 1, when the “Thirtieth of September Movement” launched what became a botched mutiny against the national leadership of the Army, involving the clumsy kidnapping (where one child was also shot dead) of key generals. The plan was to present these generals to President Sukarno with proof they were plotting a coup in the hope that he would dismiss them and appoint replacements less hostile to the PKI and the Left. With the plotters unable to locate Sukarno, and in the midst of other of their mismanagement, Major-General Suharto, head of the Strategic Army Command had time to move against the mutineers. In the meantime, the generals and one captain were detained at an airforce base. As the mutiny crumbled, somebody gave the order to shoot the detainees. They were executed and thrown down a well. On finally hearing this news, Sukarno ordered the 30th September Movement to cease its actions, headed, it appeared, by an army officer. Instead, it escalated its statement declaring the decommissioning of Sukarno’s cabinet and the appointment of a Revolutionary Council. The mutiny had become a coup, but by the time these later statements were issued the whole midnight conspiracy had collapsed. While the dust was still settling, on October 2 the PKI’s daily newspaper, Harian Rakyat, published an editorial easily interpreted as defending the mutiny. Suharto and the anti-Left wing of the officer corps had the pretext they needed to move against the PKI, Sukarno and whole left, which were violently crushed.

The struggle between contradictory goals for Indonesia that had been the unifying polarisation that had defined the nation creating process was, in the same repression, also violently and comprehensively suppressed.

A new contradiction replaced it: that between the reality of its suppression and the fact that the contradiction had not been resolved. This was, and still is, a more difficult contradiction to manifest itself through struggle. The agency doing the suppression was clear, and in power. But how does an agency emerge that is consciously for the revival of the earlier polarisation: so that there can be a struggle for resolution. To challenge the new hegemony of a triumphant pro-capitalist elite and militarised state, backed by the full range of states and ruling classes across the capitalist world, including in the United States, Western Europe, Japan and Australia, such a rebellious agency would need to be large and strong and have a clear idea of its goal.  The nature of the new contradiction, between a suppression of a contradiction and its lack of resolution, combined with the extent of the repression, eliminating the material basis for the resurgence of agency, explains the long time it is taking for any new agency to form. When a contradiction is between antagonistic class forces with rival future goals, the actors or agency favouring revolutionary change – class forces and their leaderships – has a basis out of which it can try to forge more clarity and a path forward. As we know, that is by no means an easy task, but history has shown that it is possible, to one degree or another. But when the contradiction is not between two futures, but between a terroristically oppressed present and the option to struggle over the future; when indeed “the future” itself in mass consciousness has been erased, revolutionary agency must find it more difficult to emerge.

A successful massive pre-emptive counter-revolutionary strike as that which was unleashed in 1965 creates a society whose consciousness lacks both past tense and future tense[12]. The Suharto regime’s programme of re-writing history, reducing history teaching in schools, not teaching literature[13] (where nationally memory is stored) and the resources it put into inculcating its rewritten history throughout society was well resourced and easily effective, given the physical elimination and terrorised subjugation of those who might offer an alternative[14].

But what happens when a yet to be completed national revolution, an unfinished nation-creation process, is brought to an end through suppression, and where the contradiction that defined its process is suppressed, and, in the process, past and future are lost? Or, to put it another way: what happens to the unfinished nation itself? If Pramoedya was right and Sukarno did embody a “national subjectivity” how did Sukarno see the nation creation process in 1965? His vocabulary didn’t contain “nation creation” but he repeatedly and emphatically associated what he called the Indonesian revolution with “nation-building”, but also “character-building”, both of which he insisted were not yet finished even in 1965.  These two terms, if understood as a single process, are, I think, indeed referring to a nation creation process, including the creation of a new national culture: that is, its character.

Does the suppression of the nation-forming contradiction mean the end of that nation forming process? Does the unmaking of the nation start? Has or is Indonesia being “unmade”? It is in the answer to these questions that the meaning of 1965 and what has happened since can start to be understood.

Of course, Indonesia is still there.  The territory as it was envisaged originally is still intact. There is a national economy, poor and undeveloped, fragile and riddled with contradictions, and with strengthening localism, but almost everybody within those borders now survives by being part of a common national economic life.  Everything has become more interconnected; tens of millions of people seek livelihood by moving around the country.

The national economy though is divided between rich and poor so deeply and in such a way that there are big cultural consequences, especially given the suppression of the contradiction that generated the new national culture in the first place. As time goes on, Benjamin Disreali’s nineteenth century description of two nations in one country takes on a renewed meaning:

Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.” “You speak of — ”said Egremont, hesitantly. “ THE RICH AND THE POOR.[15]

The development of nations and national cultures subsumes this difference, never totally but for much of the time successfully enough to dam up class contradictions, or distort consciousness with by scapegoating “enemies of the nation”. In the imperialist countries the contradiction whose resolution was the bourgeouis nation, was a contradiction, put simply although didn’t happen simply, between feudalism and nascent capitalism. That contradiction wasn’t suppressed, it was resolved. Feudalism is gone. In Indonesia, while the country is still capitalist, it is not developing even capitalistically, and the need for socialism remains, as an answer to an undeveloping, stagnating capitalism. In the imperialist countries, the resolution of the contradiction did finish the nation creation process and did finish “character-building”. They created societies that were bourgeois in their character. Their revolutions, resolving the contradiction unchained and established modern bourgeois society. Bourgeois ideology and character also infected the class it oppressed, the proletariat, meaning that any movement towards resolution of the new contradiction will require a new “character-building” process, something regularly seen when the proletariat is moved into revolutionary activity.

But was the Indonesian national revolution, against colonialism, able to establish a bourgeois society, in the same sense as in Europe, before it was suppressed? Well, unlikely, as most of the energies of the 20 million or more people constituting the agency of mobilisation and organisation as the new national character, even while semi-transitive and dependent on Sukarno as it was in the 1960s, were actively doing the opposite. Bourgeois society is just as much an enemy of popular organisation and mobilisation as whatever it is that now exists in Indonesia. It requires cultural and political passivity confining the majority of the population to working, consuming (where they have enough money) and carrying out that regular act of slipping a piece of paper into a box (or pressing some buttons) where they choose who will repress and exploit them.

Moreover, the specific policies of the Dutch, meant that there was no serious national bourgeoisie in Indonesia when it became independent.  Export crops and mines, and the big services that they demanded such as banking and shipping, were the profitable businesses and they were all in the hands of Dutch and other foreign capital. The aristocratic elites had become the “pemakan gaji’ (eaters of salary) working for the Dutch and lacked interest in business. The merchant sector remained active but was confined to petty commodity production and distribution. They could never accumulate enough capital to develop any larger productive enterprise. In his longest and empirically strongest article in 1932, in comparing British colonialism in India where a national bourgeoisie emerged, Sukarno described a situation which he saw as the result of Dutch finance capitalism’s impact in the Indies which crushed any local effort that started to have scale:

All we are left is nothing more than small-scale trade, small-scale shipping,  small scale workshops, small scale agriculture,  and millions of workers with no enterprise of their own. Indonesian society can be labelled an “everything is small” society, the society of the Kromo, of the Marhaen. Where everything is small. [16]

Although today Indonesia can boast less than a hundred billionaires (in a country with a population almost the size of the US), Sukarno’s picture remains true for today. Seventy to eight percent of all enterprises have less than 10 workers, and this is also where the great mass of people work, or don’t. Only 3 or 4 million out of more than 150 million strong workforce, at most, work in medium or large enterprises[17].

In other words, the vast majority of “bourgeois” in Indonesia have commercial horizons that hardly go beyond their own or neighbouring districts. Big capital’s orientation – big in Indonesian terms only – is to its potential foreign partners – or is to the state, but in its role of decider of projects not as the manager of a national economy. Indonesia had and has a numerically huge domestic capitalist class, but not a big national capitalist class. The bourgeois society that the unfinished and damned up Indonesian national revolution has produced still has the characteristics of the “everything is small” society that Sukarno described. Without the energies and creativity of the organised and mobilised rakyat and marhaen which constituted the forces of the Left before 1965, this domestic capitalist class, lacking national perspectives of any depth, and also subordinated to a militarised state apparatus whose rentier horizons were “open the donor to global capital” horizons, have not been able to finish the creation of a new national character. That process stalled and having stalled on an uphill incline, has probably also rolled back down the incline somewhat.

There is one area though, where Sukarno’s “smallness” description probably no longer applies. The cities have grown, and their middle and upper class.  The suddenly grown big city middle classes also possess territory (their special suburbs and malls and overseas haven cities, like Singapore and Melbourne), a common language (English, at least for their children), a common economy, the one who’s vocabulary is expressed in dollars and not rupiahs, and even a common culture, cosmopolitan and “ngehek”. They can be defined as the social layer, including capitalists, who have a disposable income enabling them to have levels of consumption equivalent to a well-off worker or “middle class” person in an imperialist country, which means a thousand times more than a worker.  It is even fuelling a very visible expansion in literary output, the “best” of which will also fit the tastes of the “discerning” global reader.

Such levels of consumption, including of education and travel as well as of all the normal edifications of food, clothing, housing and entertainment, starkly distinguishes them culturally, “character-building wise”,  from the two hundred million impoverished working massses as well as the few million kabupaten capitalists.

“Ngehek” is a hard word to translate so that it captures the sense of self-assured, uppity contempt of this layer for the “unwashed”. But this layer, maybe a few million people now or soon, with its own territory, common language and economy, as well as culture is indeed almost as Disraeli described:

Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same law.

The prosperous class almost becomes a class-nation, while the two hundred millions outside of this disposable income social layer share a cultural life, less resourced, fragmented and without national purpose, now that the purpose of transforming the society they inherited into a nation, a non-bourgeois nation, is stalled.

A contradiction between the suppression of a contradiction and the fact that it remains unresolved is still a contradiction whose internal tension will, and has, produced, new energies, even if slowly and in a kind of ragged way. The 33 year old counter-revolutionary military backed regime of Suharto was forced to concede a major re-opening of democratic space. Suharto had to resign. Repressive laws were quickly repealed. Labour rights were formally restored. The organised agency that spearheaded the escalation of the process was tiny – the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) and other activist groups. By persisting with a strategy on insisting that there must be aksi – street mobilising – which then was a direct defiance of floating mass, these groups undermined the basis of the enforced passivity, which was the ideology of the Suharto regime as far as the political status of the people was concerned. In the kind of dual economy that had been created, and with poverty endemic, the movement grew and grew, reaching a first peak in May 1997 during elections when hundreds of thousands mobilised against the government parties, then to be catapulted to a higher level of defiance in 1998, threatening ungovernability or worse. Suharto stepped down as his cronies abandoned him.

While the protest movement organisations, especially the PRD, had set out a programme of reform, it was neither the PRD’s nor other group’s ideologies that was the actual ideology of movement for change. Reformasi total (total reformation) was the slogan of the most advanced elements. As a manifestation of the first rupture of the suppression of a contradiction, the unleashed energy represented a mighty thrusting away of the pillow that has been suffocating society. The suffocation has ended.

But what was that future which was once envisaged? That vision is still buried in a hidden past even though it is desperately needed now. As Indonesia’s trailblazing magazine of popular history, HISTORIA, has as its catch cry “the past is always actual”[18]. It is true everywhere, but nowhere more than where there has been a suppressed national revolution. Some of the past is already resurfacing. Those wanting an Islamic state or a strongly Islamic polity have started to make their mark with a massive 200,000 plus “Defend Islam” mobilisation in Jakarta in December 2016 demanding the arrest of the current Chinese Christian Governor of Jakarta on charges of insulting Islam. They fuse their agitation with anti-communism, despite there being no nationally visible Left in Indonesia, let alone a Communist movement. They point their finger at a watermark on the new Indonesian currency that, they say, looks like a secret hammer and sickle symbol. They are now demanding the withdrawal of the currency. There may be no large organised Left in Indonesia, but the contradiction that provided the energy for the creation of Indonesia has been suppressed, not resolved. We are waiting for the agency that will push the contradiction towards resolution and the new synthesis that the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer said he needed to see before he could write the historical novel of his own era.


[2] Ruling classes always seize control over the presentation of history. The level of control over history in Indonesia during the Suharto era was that of a totalitarian polity. There was no Howard Zinn nor a Renato Constantino Sr until Pramoedya Ananta Toer published his This Earth of Mankind tetralogy, and that only covered the period at the turn of the 20th century.

[3] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852, Chapter 1.

[4] V.I. Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question,” Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism (Moscow, 1977), p. 38. “Capitalism’s broad and rapid development of the productive forces calls for large, politically compact and united territories, since only here can the bourgeois class – together with its inevitable antipode, the proletarian class – unite and sweep away all the old, medieval, caste, parochial, petty-national, religious and other barriers.”

[5] Frijtof Tichelman, The social evolution of Indonesia: the Asiatic mode of Production and its legacy, The Hague, etc: Martinus Nijhoff, 1980.

[6] One early writer of such ‘melodramas’ was Raden Mas Tirto Adhi Soeryo (1880-1918), the inspiration for the character Minke, in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novels This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and Glass House. Some of Adhisuryo’s short stories were republished in Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Sang Pemula, Hastra Mitra, Jakarta, 1985. Pramoedya also edited other anthologies of stories from this period.

[7] Quoted in Herb Feith, The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia, Cornell University Press,1962 ., pp. 607-608.

[8] These characteritics identified as persistent features of the community, the nation, were identified by the Bolsheviks before 1913. They were codified in Marxism and the National Question, by Josef Stalin, in 1913. This codification and its elaboration remains useful. Its authorship, by a figure who later became a murderous thug undoing the gains of the October revolution, and its codification style of composition has probably resulted in it being underutilised in theoretical work around the nation. Shortly after it was published, Lenin wrote: “that the “fundamentals of a national programme for [Russian] Social-Democracy have recently been dealt with in Marxist theoretical literature (the most prominent place being taken by Stalin’s article)” [V.I. Lenin, “The National Programme of the R.S.D.L.P.”, Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964, Vol. 19, p. 539.]. The text was published in the Indonesian language and widely read before 1965.

[9] One arena where revolutionary Indonesianness was blunted even before 1965 by reference to pre-Indonesian hegemonic cultural values was that of the position of women, of gender. Women were both called upon to be revolutionary (actually Indonesian, as creating Indonesia was a revolutionary process) and to be “truly Indonesian”, i.e. traditional, not overly modern, that is to say un-Indonesian. The latter dominated official and establishment discourse on women after 1965.

[10] Pramoedya related this perspective to me in many different conversations.

[11] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, Continuum, 1970; Paulo Freire, Cultural action for freedom, 1970.

[12] It is arguable that the countries of North America and Western Europe, as well as settler society Australia, have also been losing their sense of historical tense, if by another path. If Indonesian society has lost most of its memory of its origins, the “Enlightenment” societies have probably lost their memory of the Enlightenment. In both cases, a loss of the “origins-tense” blocks future tense. The present tense comes to seem eternal.

[13] State schools require students to know by rote a list of literary texts, however there is  no separate subject of Indonesian literature in schools and no tradition, since the early 1970s, of students being asked to read novels short stories, plays, essays and poems for study and discussion.

[14] Even Pramoedya had very little to say about the future, despite his brilliant insights into the origins of the Indonesian nation. In fact, Pramoedya’s reluctance to attempt writing a summing-up of the Suharto era – the “anti-thesis”, in his eyes, to the “thesis” that was represented by the Sukarno era amounts to a failure in being able to present a critique of his own generation’s history. In fact, his generation – the few survivors of the physical purges – have not presented such a critique, neither has a younger generation of the Left. This strengthen’s the dynamic towards the absence of a future tense in political discourse in general. Of course, Pramoedya and several thousand other Leftists from before 1965 were isolated from the Indonesia-being-unmade for over a decade while they were imprisoned on an isolated island. Some of these issues will be further discussed in my upcoming book Indonesia Tidak Hadir di Bumi Manusia [Indonesia is Not Present on This Earth of Mankind] to be published in Indonesia in April, 2016.

[15] Dialogue from Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 novel, Sybil

[16] Soekarno, “Swadeshi dan Massa Aksi di Indonesia” in Dibawah Bendera Revolusi, Jakarta, 1964,  p 152 “Kromo” and “Marhaen” are names like “Joe” and “Bob” in English speaking countries: names conbeying being members of the community of common folk.

[17] Check decentralisation and/or power point.

[18] Historia founded by young, critical journalist-historians is a substantial monthly popular history magazine in the spirit of both Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Howard Zinn.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: