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Tan Malaka – Revolutionary Hero

J. van Steen

In the last issue of What Next? we published part of the speech made by Tan Malaka at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in which the Indonesian Marxist criticised Lenin’s position on Pan-Islamism ("Communism and Pan-Islamism"). The only full-scale biographical study of Tan Malaka is in Dutch – Tan Malaka, strijder voor Indonesië’s vrijheid, by Harry A. Poeze – and although an English translation of his 3-volume memoirs Dari pendjara ke pendjara (From Jail to Jail) was published in 1991, his name is less familiar to a western audience than it should be. So we reprint this article, written in response to Tan Malaka’s execution by Indonesian troops in February 1949, which first appeared in the October 1949 issue of Fourth International.

ACCORDING TO an American news agency Tan Malaka, the Indonesian revolutionary leader, is alleged to have been executed by official republican authorities in the western part of Java. Shortly after, these authorities themselves confirmed the news in their information bulletin Indonesia News. The reason given for the execution was "political infiltration of the republican army" (statement of the republican police chief of Jogjakarta, Konsoumo, reported in the Amsterdam Algemeen Handelsblad for 25 June 1949). It was also announced that a detailed report of the circumstances of the execution would be published forthwith. Thus far, however, this report has not been made public.

Despite all these accounts, it is still difficult to believe this report. Rumours of the death of Tan Malaka had been frequently circulated in the past, either because the revolutionary leader himself was anxious to throw a half-dozen police agents, constantly at his heels, off the track; or because his enemies hoped thereby to demoralise and discourage his supporters. The heroic life of Tan Malaka, his exploits and his spectacular escapes, his sudden appearance at the nerve centres of the revolutionary struggle in the Far East, made him a legendary figure among the exploited masses of southeast Asia. Whatever the truth of these reports it will be a long time before his death is really accepted and before the hope dies that he will turn up again to lead the struggle against imperialism to which his entire life has been devoted.

We fear, however, that this time his enemies have achieved their aim. If confirmed, the assassination of Tan Malaka by the Indonesian republican government will take its place on a par with such political crimes perpetrated against the revolution as the assassination of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in 1919 and Leon Trotsky in 1940. Once again it will have been demonstrated that the most "democratic" governments do not hesitate for a moment in utilising the most totalitarian methods against a threatening revolutionary danger. In light of this crime, how fraudulent is the artificial distinction made by centrists and ultra-leftists of all shades between the counter-revolutionary methods of Stalinism and those of bourgeois democracy, as well as of social democracy.

No sooner does the revolutionary movement become a great force in any country than all official public opinion is aroused against its leaders who are hounded and persecuted by a class which stops at nothing to get rid of them. The Indonesian Stalinists made a number of attempts on the life of Tan Malaka all of which fortunately ended in failure. The "successful" execution by the "democratic" republican government is a real symbol of what can be expected from the democratic bourgeoisie when the proletariat is prepared to struggle for its complete revolutionary emancipation.

Founding of the Communist Party
In assassinating Tan Malaka, the Indonesian bourgeoisie struck at the revolutionary movement of that country through its most outstanding leader. Together with Semanoen, Alimen and others, he was among the founders of the Indonesian Communist Party which came into being in 1920. The new party emerged from a split in the Social Democratic Association of Indonesia after the right wing split from the majority of the organisation which decided to affiliate to the Communist International. Tan Malaka took the lead in quickly transforming this organisation into a mass movement which played a leading role in the struggles of the worker and peasant masses.

In 1921 he succeeded in winning over the left wing of Sarekat Islam, the nationalist mass organisation, and in building a national revolutionary movement led by the Indonesian CP. As a participant in two world congresses of the Communist International, he vigorously defended his tactical conceptions with respect to the utilisation by the Communist Party of revolutionary and popular tendencies in the National Islamic movement not only in Indonesia but throughout Asia. In the same period he wrote a remarkable pamphlet in which he set forth the strategy to be employed in the liberation struggle against imperialism in Indonesia. He pointed out that the central region on the island of Java would be the principal nerve centre of the revolutionary struggle, a prediction which was confirmed to the hilt by the post-1945 events.

In 1925, the Executive Committee of the CI selected him as their representative for all of southeast Asia. He left Indonesia and began his life as a traveller which enabled him to acquire an extraordinary knowledge of this far-flung area of the world. It was during these travels that he developed his personal conviction defining the Malay Archipelago (the Philippines, Indonesia, New Guinea and the peninsula of Malacca) as the zone of revolutionary struggle in southeast Asia.

Beginning with 1923, the internal situation in Indonesia was rapidly deteriorating. Reaction increased its pressure on the toiling masses while mercilessly persecuting the communist militants. The workers were rapidly becoming radicalised. In December 1925 the leadership of the Indonesian CP decided to make preparations for an early insurrection. In March 1926 they sent an emissary to Tan Malaka, who was then located in Manila, to discuss the tactics for the insurrection. Tan Malaka took a position against the whole plan on the basis that the timing was wrong and the organisation not mature. It seems that this opinion of Tan Malaka was not transmitted to the leadership in Indonesia. In any case, the insurrection broke out in November 1926 in Java and in western Sumatra in January 1927. After a bloody struggle, it was crushed by Dutch imperialism.

Tan Malaka’s break with the CI dates from this time. In June 1927 he founded the PARI (Party of the Indonesian Republic) in Siam which was clearly communist in character. He was then to experience years of travelling which took him as far as Aden on the one side and to Japan on the other; hiring out as a stoker on ships that plied the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, working as a coolie and a servant, crossing the Pacific Ocean as a stowaway and making the acquaintance of innumerable jails. It was only in 1945, after having patiently bided his time for 18 years, that he was able to resume open political activity in Indonesia.

Evolution of the Peoples Front
Although documentary material on the political history of the Indonesian Republic from 1945 to 1949 is still extremely inadequate and although we only know of the activity of Tan Malaka through notes, letters and articles in periodicals which are often garbled, we can nevertheless retrace the essential stages of this activity from the leadership of the revolutionary Indonesian People Front Organisation, through the constitution of the Peoples Revolutionary Movement to the formation of the Proletarian Party of Indonesia. The very names of these three organisations clearly illustrate the political evolution of Tan Malaka and of the whole Indonesian revolutionary vanguard from the beginning of the Indonesian revolution to the present day.

The Peoples Front was formed on 15 January 1946 in Surakarta in central Java as a united front organisation in which 140 parties, organisations and groups of all types participated. This figure is proof of the extremely vigorous political life which characterises the Indonesian revolution. It can be said without exaggeration that not since the Spanish revolution has there been a comparable upsurge of the workers anywhere in the world.

Tan Malaka himself took the initiative in the formation of the Indonesian Peoples Front which was composed of the principal political organisations and republican army detachments. He was its main leader. The aim of the organisation was to constitute a united front of the entire national revolutionary movement for the purpose of winning the complete independence of Indonesia and conducting the struggle against imperialism. At the time Tan Malaka was not associated with any party in particular but he attempted to defend his programme within the Peoples Front which was published in the Tribune, 5 March 1946, organ of the Dutch section of the Fourth International as a reprint from the February 1946 Indonesian paper Pari. The programme consisted of the following points:

1. Centralisation into one organisation or one front of the whole national movement for the purpose of winning complete independence for Indonesia.
2. Complete freedom of discussion for all parties within the front.
3. Prohibition of all intervention of foreign capital in the Indonesian economy.
4. Planned organisation of consumption and production. Elimination of the Indonesian bourgeoisie from the direction of the economy.

This transitional programme, which is not identical in every point with the programme of the Fourth International, nevertheless constitutes an enormous improvement over all the Stalinist conceptions regarding "the revolution by stages" which poisoned the revolutionary movement in the Far East for decades. At the same time it reveals an inadequate understanding of the need for an independent organisation of the proletariat within the national revolutionary movement, a conception moreover which Tan Malaka had previously defended at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International.

Shortly thereafter the Peoples Front came into conflict with the policy of collaboration with Dutch imperialism pursued by the Sjahrir government. The official left wing parties, such as the SP, CP and the Workers Party, quickly broke away. Then the official right wing parties also came to terms with the government and split from the Peoples Front. The latter retained only a few left socialist groups and a few radical petty bourgeois organisations, all under the leadership of Tan Malaka.

The government, led by the social democrat Sjahrir, however considered this opposition dangerous enough to arrest Tan Malaka twice, the second time as a result of the kidnapping of Sjahrir by a detachment of the republican army (TRI) on 27 June 1946. This kidnapping was slanderously attributed to the Peoples Front and all of its leaders were imprisoned. They were freed again for "lack of evidence" in the summer of 1948.

Peoples Revolutionary Movement
The revolutionary elements did not relax their activities during the time their leaders were in prison. They founded the Peoples Revolutionary Movement (Revolutionary Gerakan Rakjat – GRR). One of the leaders of the GRR was a former member of the Dutch parliament, Roestam Effendi, who had broken with the CP. The headquarters of the GRR was established on Surakarta, in central Java. The organisation numbered some 60,000 members. Its president, Sukarni, was the former secretary of the Peoples Front. GRR was composed of a number of small groupings as well as two more important parties, the Peoples Party (Partai Rakjat) and the Independent Workers Party (Partai Buruh Merdeka).

The Peoples Party was characterised as follows by Merdeka, the organ of the Indonesian Press Service, published in New Delhi, India (November 1948): "Most of the supporters of the left wing, political opponents of Sjahrir (Social Democrat) and Sjahrafuddin (Stalinist) are ranged behind this party. In keeping with its anti-capitalist principles, this party opposes with all its strength the development of capitalism in Indonesia, even an Indonesian capitalism. Its principal aim is the building of an independent Indonesian Republic based on socialism."

It should be added that the GRR had an important following in the army and was supported by a fighting force, the Lasjkar Rakjat Djakarta (Peoples Army of Jokarta Raya). This army was the backbone of the partisan armies which operated in the provinces occupied by the Dutch.

Hardly had Tan Malaka been freed in June 1948, becoming the political leader of the GRR, than the Stalinist putsch occurred in Madioen. This putsch, as well as Stalinist policy as a whole in Indonesia, deserves separate treatment. It suffices here to point out that the putsch was a miserable failure, the Stalinists having acted alone in complete isolation from the masses of the country. But the defeat of the putsch was the signal both for the unleashing of a vicious reaction in the Republic, in which 20,000 workers regardless of political affiliation were imprisoned, and for imperialism which felt that its hour had struck for what it cynically called "the second police action", meaning the all-out aggression of December 1948 directed at eliminating the Republic from the map of Indonesia and re-establishing a slightly camouflaged colonial regime.

The Proletarian Party
Tan Malaka’s influence grew constantly during this entire period which was a period of ideological and organisational regroupment of the proletariat and of the revolutionary vanguard. The result of this regroupment was the formation in October 1948 of the Proletarian Party (Partai Murba) of which Tan Malaka was the unchallenged leader and in whose ranks were gathered most of his former lieutenants from the Peoples Front days. The Peoples Revolutionary Movement dissolved itself into the Proletarian Party and became a decisive section of the new organisation.

The new party numbered some 80,000 members at the time of its formation and was generally considered as the third party in Indonesia. Its influence was reflected in the fact that a number of newspapers in Surakarta and in Jogjakarta (capital of the Indonesian Republic) declared in its favour. It held its second convention on 8 November 1948 in Jogjakarta and adopted the following minimum programme (reported in the Indonesian paper Berita Indonesia, 15 November 1948):

I. Not to engage in any negotiations until all imperialist troops are evacuated from Indonesia and then only on the basis of complete independence.
2. Formation of a government responsive to the interests and will of the people.
3. Formation of a people’s army by the arming of the people.
4. Expropriation and operation of all imperialist enterprises (probably plantations).
5. Seizure and operation of all enemy factories.
6. Institution of a regime of economic well-being for the people.

The Second Partisan War
Several weeks later, on 18 December 1948, the imperialist assault occurred. The republican armies retreated to the mountainous regions, more conducive to guerrilla warfare. In short order these guerillas engaged in more widespread actions, constantly closing in on the imperialist army, thus compelling the UN to intervene through its "Good Offices Commission" to avert a complete debacle for the imperialist army. The influence of the Partai Murba and Tan Malaka in the partisan war became more and more decisive, especially on the island of Java. It was at this point that the Associated Press correspondent cabled on 27 March 1949 that "the veteran Tan Malaka is leading a movement which may be difficult to control in the future".

It thus becomes clear why the "official" Indonesian authorities were to attempt to eliminate this revolutionary influence at any cost while preparing to liquidate the partisan movement and to once again conclude a rotten compromise with the government at The Hague. That is why they assassinated Tan Malaka. But although this crime is a very heavy blow to the Indonesian revolutionary masses and although it is a heavy mortgage on the future of this movement, it has not succeeded in destroying it.

We learn, on the contrary, that after the conclusion of the Van Royen-Roum agreement, which (officially) put an end to the partisan war, the leadership of the Proletarian Party met "somewhere in the environs of Jogjakarta" in June 1949 and denounced the agreement. Two tendencies found expression at this meeting, one in favour of the uninterrupted prosecution of the partisan war and the other for a temporary secession of the armed struggle and a turn to political opposition.

Naturally we cannot give an opinion on these tactical differences without a concrete analysis of the situation. But the evacuation of Jogjakarta by the imperialist army, considered a signal victory by the masses, certainly does not create an unfavourable atmosphere for the development and deepening of the revolutionary tendencies.

It is the duty of the cadres of the Fourth International, especially in the Far East, to assist the Indonesian revolutionary vanguard in its work or programmatic clarification while expressing in practice their complete and unqualified solidarity with the magnificent example of anti-imperialist struggle and courage exhibited by these tendencies. Therein will be the contribution of the Fourth International in keeping Tan Malaka alive not only in the memory of the Asiatic proletariat but also in an organisation capable of completing his life work: the destruction of imperialist domination over the Indonesian masses.