It is now 50 years since the military coup and slaughter began that drowned in blood the Indonesian Communist Party and also decimated the mass organizations of workers, peasants, women and youth that the party had built up over decades of struggle. Together, at least 15 million activists had participated in this broad progressive movement, which was then crushed by the reactionary, pro-imperialist forces in the military, backed by U.S. imperialism and much of Indonesia’s capitalist and landlord ruling classes.
We look now at what effect this monstrous setback had on the world struggle against imperialism, which had been gaining momentum as more countries won their liberation from the colonial powers.
After World War II, Washington tried to turn back the revolutionary tide that was sweeping Asia. A key part of this effort had been the U.S. imperialists’ massive invasion and war in Korea, which lasted three years. But even though the U.S. Air Force dropped more bombs on People’s Korea in the north than it had on Europe in all of World War II, the conflict ended in 1953 with a stalemate at the 38th parallel, where it had begun. In reality, this was a hard-won victory for the Korean people’s struggle for sovereignty. It was the first time that U.S. imperialists had been fought to a draw.
By the 1960s, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was strongly moving ahead with reconstruction on a socialist basis after the ravages of the war.
The People’s Republic of China, which had assisted the Korean struggle in the 1950s by sending more than a million volunteer soldiers and workers to the front, had hundreds of millions of mouths to feed. It was now focused on modernizing agriculture through the revolutionary development of communes.
Socialist North Vietnam was building up industry and agriculture while at the same time supporting the struggle in the south for liberation and national reunification.
Communist-led guerrilla movements were fighting for national liberation in the Philippines, Malaya and Laos.
How did the massacres in Indonesia affect the liberation struggles going on in Vietnam, Laos and later Cambodia? Certainly, the success of Washington’s maneuvering with the Indonesian generals emboldened the U.S. ruling class in their anti-communist crusade in Asia. They continued their terrible wars in Southeast Asia for another 10 years, until the U.S. itself was engulfed by anti-war and anti-racist struggles.
‘Jakarta is coming’
The bloody massacres in Indonesia were hailed by hardliners in the imperialist countries and by the regimes they had cultivated and brought to power in areas formerly “owned” outright by the colonial powers. These reactionaries hoped that the ferocious elimination of those fighting for the rights of the masses in that large and strategic country would undercut similar movements elsewhere.
Indeed, what the forces of imperialism and reaction had achieved in Indonesia was soon used to intimidate progressive movements as far away as South America. One can see the hand of the CIA in graffiti that appeared on the walls in Santiago, Chile: “Jakarta is coming.” Similar threats were directly conveyed to members of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende before the fascist coup there. (Andre Vltchek in Counterpunch, Nov. 22, 2013)
Most leaders of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had refused to back down or grovel before the fascist generals, speaking out forcefully at the phony “trials” that preceded their deaths. But the international left movement was painfully lacking in their support. Much of this was due to the internal crisis that had occurred in the Communist movement with the Sino-Soviet split.
The Chinese leaders had rightfully opened up criticism of the policies advocated by the Communist Party of the USSR, beginning several years after Nikita Khrushchev became its general secretary in 1953. They accused it of accommodating to the pressures of U.S. imperialism and the Cold War by openly revising principles that had been basic to communism, at least on paper, since the time of Lenin.
However, this split between the two socialist giants degenerated from a political struggle to a state-to-state one, leading many imperialist analysts to gleefully predict war between the two. That did not happen — beyond a very brief border clash in 1969 — but the effects on the international movement were severe. In almost every country, the parties divided into pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing wings. The PKI was not immune to this.
Nor were the parties in most of the imperialist countries themselves. Instead of mobilizing in defense of the PKI and the left in Indonesia, the opposing factions blamed each other for the defeat.
This needs to be brought up because the need for a united front against capitalist reaction must be understood in the movement. Political differences should not be papered over; they are real and need to be debated to achieve clarity. But in the struggle with the capitalist enemy, the working-class movement must seek to present a united front.
There is another area of great concern to today’s progressive movements that is directly connected to the bloodbath in Indonesia: the destruction of the environment.
The victory that imperialism achieved through the bloody elimination of Indonesia’s progressive forces opened up the country for massive exploitation by transnational corporations, especially those that had greedily eyed Indonesia’s abundant natural resources.
Corporations like Mobil Oil, Freeport Sulphur, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, Uniroyal, Union Carbide and Unilever rushed in, sometimes availing themselves of virtually free labor from the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners. Of course, the military overlords got their cut.
Once the imperialists were in control of Indonesia’s underground resources and its precious trees, some of which had been growing for centuries in rainforests teeming with life, the result was an ecological disaster.
In the words of Greenpeace.org: “Indonesia is a treasure chest of biodiversity; it is home to between 10 and 15 percent of all known species of plants, mammals and birds. Orangutans, elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses, more than 1,500 species of birds and thousands of plant species are all a part of the country’s natural legacy. The mass destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands for palm oil and paper threatens this and is the main reason why Indonesia is one of the world’s largest emitters of climate-changing greenhouse gases.”
Solidarity with the young workers’ movement now struggling to breathe in Indonesia is one of the important ways to fight for a better future — for them, for us and for the planet.