From Jakarta to Caracas: Lessons of the Massacre in Indonesia 50 Years Ago

by Barry Weisleder

The fiftieth anniversary of one of the biggest political massacres of the twentieth century passed in the west almost without notice. In 1965 a military coup in Indonesia, backed by the United States, unleashed a slaughter that consumed over one million lives. The aim of the insurgent generals was annihilation of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).


Two articles* in the December 2015 edition of the New York-based Monthly Review magazine remind us of that gargantuan tragedy. The PKI was then the largest CP in the world. Like its sister Stalinist parties globally, it rejected revolution. The PKI adhered strictly, one could say dogmatically, to the parliamentary path to socialism. It embraced Joseph Stalin’s infamous two-stage theory. Bourgeois democracy and sovereignty, the so-called first stage, became its entire agenda. That meant slavish support for liberal nationalist Sukarno, whose soaring political rhetoric appealed to a radical working class base.

Sukarno was a fire-brand left nationalist. He was the architect of the anti-colonial Non-Aligned Movement founded in Bandung in 1956. But he was no Marxist. Transnational corporations and imperialist governments had no reason to fear fundamental system change at the hands of Sukarno, or the PKI. Nonetheless, big business wanted them gone – if only to reduce organized resistance to the exploitation of rural and urban workers in the ports, and on the rubber and tin estates.

For fifty years American politicians and conservative academics denied Washington’s complicity with the massacre of masses of communist militants, their families and innocent bystanders.

By endorsing the manufactured threat of a left wing military coup (i.e. the inept September 30Movement), and covertly supplying arms to rightist General Nasution, U.S. Ambassador Marshall Green, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk fueled the annihilation of the peaceful PKI. The American Embassy, in an effort to make sure the bloody job was completed, turned over lists identifying thousands of PKI leaders and activists to Indonesian army intermediaries. Time magazine in 1966 called it “The West’s best news for years in Asia.”

The sadistic political scheme was much like what Washington and Henry Kissinger did for General Augusto Pinochet in 1973 Chile. Kissinger was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, ostensibly for his part in winding down the lost U.S. war in Vietnam.

Those were heinous acts, high crimes against humanity, a political holocaust. But the tragedy is that a huge and powerful workers’ party in Indonesia put its faith in a patently false strategy for power – reliance on the capitalist state. The PKI presumed that Capital would abide by democratic constitutionality and the due process of law. Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government made the same presumption.

Is this tragedy repeating now in Venezuela?

Of course, no two political situations are the same. Jakarta and Caracas are separated by a great big ocean and a half century of class struggle.

Still, comparisons can be instructive. In fact, they are a vital way to learn from history.

Venezuela, for nearly eighteen years, has been at the forefront of a wave of left populism across Latin America. It led in re-distributing wealth and raising living standards of the poor and working people. Oil revenues funded free health care, free university education, and cheap groceries sold at government supermarkets.

But when Capital went on strike, hoarded food and other vital commodities, and spurred hyper-inflation and corruption, the governing socialists led by Hugo Chavez, who died on March 5, 2013, and his successor Nicolas Maduro, did not mobilize the working class to seize the banks, big industry and giant land estates in order to inaugurate a planned economy under workers’ control.

The Chavistas did not follow the path blazed by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in the Cuban Revolution over fifty years ago. The Venezuelan government played by the rules of the system. But its bourgeois opposition wrecked havoc in the economy and poisoned public confidence.

Now, as a result of the legislative election on December 6, right wing parties control the national assembly, and wage war on the executive branch. Impeachment proceedings and constitutional referenda are around the corner, while life for the majority continues to deteriorate.

To paraphrase Che, this is not a revolution, but a caricature. If the revolutionary potential of the working class has not yet been squandered in Venezuela, it must now be unleashed. Because if the right wing consolidates its victory, and reverses the fragile gains of Chavismo, even if it does not lead to a bloodbath on the scale of Indonesia, the return to brutal neo-liberal policy will nonetheless be the fruit of deadly illusions in the parliamentary path to socialism.

From Jakarta to Caracas, the only solution is socialist revolution.

* ”No Reconciliation without Truth: An Interview with Tan Swie Ling on the 1965 Mass Killings in Indonesia”, by Intan Suwandi, and “The United States and the 1965-1966 Mass Murders in Indonesia”, by Bradley Simpson. Both articles are in the December 2015 edition of Monthly Review, Vol. 67, No. 7.