Henk Sneevliet 1926

The class struggle element in the liberation struggle of the Indonesian people [1]

Source: Dutch section of the Marxists Internet Archive;
First Published: Klassenstrijd 1926, p. 17;
Original Language Source: “H. Sneevliet, teksten van Revolutionaire socialisten 1911-1942.”
Uitgave herdenkingscomité 13 April-16 October 1942;
Translated: by Rick Denkers and Maarten Va;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2008.

The revolutionary movements in various colonial and semi-colonial countries, which appear in different forms but which all have a profoundly anti-imperialist character, have caught the attention of the whole world.

From Morocco to Korea they have made themselves known to a greater or lesser extent and they are of a great concern to the capitalist governments, which realise that the capitalist development in these large and quite often densely populated countries is of utmost importance for maintaining the capitalist system.

As world imperialism has developed capitalism further in these areas, the masses of workers and peasants hit by capitalist penetration play a bigger role. For a long time the revolutionary nationalist movement in China had a mainly military character, such as the revolt of the Riff-inhabitants [2], which at present under Abd-el-Krim manifests itself mainly as military resistance. As in China the capitalist system penetrated deeper, thus developing a significant industry in several areas in this large country, the proletarians of these industrial areas have grown in significance in the struggle against the imperialism of various countries. In Indonesia a massive peasants’ and workers’ movement developed even before the World War.

The rise of the large organisation Sarekat Islam [3] goes back to as early as 1912. A purely nationalist movement, mainly composed of intellectuals, preceded this movement. In Indonesia too the defeat of the Russians in the war against Japan had a nationalist effect. This nationalism led to the establishment of the first political native organisation, Boedi Oetomo [4], which initially had a radical character and came out in favour of Indonesian independence. However, it was not difficult for the colonial government and the colonial moralists to exercise a moderating influence on this organisation, which gave up its political character and which started to engage itself mainly with educational matters. The revolutionary elements tried in vain to counter this decline and eventually gave in to the call of duty of the leaders of the Indo-European association Insulinde [5], with whom they started a new form of nationalist propaganda for the complete independence of Indonesia.

This propaganda, conducted throughout Java, undoubtedly had an impact, and the developing Indian party, under the leadership of Douwes Dekker and Tjipto Mangoenkoesomo, forced Governor-General Idenburg to take a decision to ban this party.

Their propaganda, however, did not succeed in finding an echo amongst the workers and peasants and its propaganda was completely ignored by the masses.

The development of capitalism in Indonesia

The main reason for the massive development of the Serakat Islam movement in 1912 is of course to be found in the rapid development of the capitalist mode of production in Indonesia.

Since 1870, the cultivation system had been abolished for good and the new agricultural law paved the way for capitalist development.

The principles of this law were:

  1. No interference in the landownership of the Indonesians.
  2. Protection of this landownership against economically stronger population groups;
  3. Promotion of the large agricultural industry.

While in practice with the introduction of this agricultural law the latter principle has been decisive, the Indonesians experienced themselves the full disadvantages of a rapidly developing capitalism. Pieces of unused land were leased out on a large scale, so that on Java alone more than 500,000 hectares and on the outside property [i.e. the other islands of Indonesia] 900,000 hectares were used to accommodate large-scale capitalist agriculture, the plantations. To this should be added the rental of the land to the thriving sugar industry. The latter could not survive by only having unused land at its disposal. It needed fertile fields, used by the Javanese farmers to grow rice. It settled in more than 12 provinces of Java and got more than 158,000 hectares of fertile land at its disposal, acquired by renting. When formalising these leases the equality of the two parties was assumed. In practice, the introduction of the agricultural law of 1870 produced a rapid development of cultivated crops, supported by the production of oil and the mining of minerals that speeded up capitalist development.

It is useful to have a closer look at the speed of this development through some figures. The total value of imports into Indonesia, which in 1906 amounted to 234 million guilder, rose to 1,310 million in 1920. Exports in the same period rose from 330 to 2,268 million. The nine largest banks in Indonesia worked with a capital of 189,660,000 guilders in 1897, and had 828,339,000 guilders at their disposal in 1921. The production of sugar has grown over the last years to more than 1,800,000 barrels of 1000 kilos each. The export value of the tobacco: 91 million guilder in 1921. The export of the copra in that same year 87 million guilder, oil produced in Indonesia: 12 million guilder; coffee export in 1921: 27 million guilder; the export of kina: 26 million guilders.

The development of the oil industry would in itself provide enough material to write an article about. Through the strong concentration of production, which in 1901 amounted to 433,000 tons, an increase to 2,382,000 tons was achieved in 1923. The tin production was 26,500 tons in 1921 with a total value of 39 million guilders. The coal production rose from 202,720 tons in 1900 to an astounding 1,054,000 tons in 1922. Indeed, Indonesia is a rich country. And there are great possibilities for further development. At the government office concerned with hydropower, the following figures have been registered:

For Java500,000 horsepower
For Sumatra1,600,000 “
For Celebes500,000 “
For Borneo400,000 “

From a business point of view, the works council has made a calculation of taxable profit from the capitalist ventures in Indonesia. It goes without saying (and the works council has recognised this itself) that in this calculation the figures are kept on the low side.

Companies that had a working capital of less than 10,000 guilders were excluded from the calculation; growth of companies after 1920 was not taken into account; the great significance of it for the growing of rubber, oil palms and fibre plants are indicated by the works council.

Furthermore, they excluded “all companies from a non-Dutch/Indian origin (e.g. British, Japanese, American) that are running a business outside the banking and agricultural sector.” For this reason the works council itself raises the calculated amount of 390,000,000 taxable profits up to 450,000,000; Professor Treub, linked to the works council, even mentioned the figure of 550,000,000 in the daily press. Even in capitalist bodies in Holland, figures are given that are 100 per cent higher. We wanted to show by this that an important development of capitalist production has taken place, the nature of which has had a deep impact on native society.

The effect of capitalism

When the modern methods of production were still in their infancy, several civil elements in Indonesia already indicated the disastrous outcome of this development for native society. The former member of the Council of India, A. Pruijs v.d. Hoeven, in 1894 wrote in his book 40 years of Indian service:

“One has kept the Javanese in a state of tutelage for so long that he is not accustomed to be strong in a fight, which will surely come, and that in his own country he always has to be somebody’s servant or prey. Outside the aristocracy and some national officials one only finds one class, living in very poor conditions. A working middle-class has not yet been able to form itself. On the other hand, the proletariat has developed in recent years, while in the early days you could only find them in the main cities. The farmer, the gogol, the hard core of the people, see their possessions charged by the heaviest services, etc.”

Seven years later P. Brooshoofd wrote in his Ethical course:

“What do we do for the native? The answer is short and sweet: we push him into the abyss. We sink him in the same pond of misery, in which in Western society millions remain up to their necks: exploitation by the owner of capital and therefore power of the man who has nothing but his own labour.”

Eleven years later, in 1912, the well-known gentleman, Mr. van Deventer, came back to Indonesia after a long absence. He stated that the Javanese people were still living in the same distressed circumstances as when he left in 1897. Thriving capitalism in Indonesia, impoverishment of the farmer on a large scale. There have been repeated commissions that studied the “prosperity” of the native population; their outcomes were always crushing. Expansion of the proletariat, which provides its labour power under the worst imaginable conditions. The thriving tobacco industry of Deli to this very day still works with contractual slaves, condemned under penal sanctions [6].

And in spite of the fast growth of capitalism, no native middle class – as Pruys v.d. Hoeven called it – developed. The visionaries among the European elements show great concern about this phenomenon. In the provisional report of the colonial budget for 1926 there is a reference to a statement of the president of the Javanese Bank, which comes from a report concerning 1924/25. This statement is as follows:

“From the countryside and the population, if I do not deceive myself utterly, the economic leaders must come eventually. And the question is, which cannot be answered in this report of course, if in the here-intended area there is no place for larger and more powerful government involvement in this matter, than there is now, and if not between the progress in this area and the remaining areas, where the development of the population is pursued, contains a certain disproportion, which threaten progress and peace in our society.”

In a recently published article from Dr. D. J. Hulshoff Pol Sr., which tries to identify these dangers and tries to find solutions, we find an indirect recognition of the lack of a class in Indonesia, which benefits directly from the thriving capitalist development. Whoever wants to achieve the “I will maintain,” by taking advantage of the old nobility of Indonesia in a different way than is happening in the present government, and whoever wants to restore the old lustre of the nobility and rule through the Sultans, is modern enough to give practical advice to the authorities to directly interest these in capitalist ventures.

In this respect we do not need to descend here into detail to prove that in spite of the wealth of Indonesia, the interests of the people are neglected in every area. Rapidly developing capitalism gave birth to a broad movement of the people, which originated as Sarekat Islam in the biggest part of Java in 1912. What was the nature of this movement? In spite of its name, it is not primarily a religious movement.

The front men, the propagandists of this movement proved that several factors determined the activities of this people’s movement. We remember that we met the leader of the council, Raden Mas Tjokroaminoto for the first time in his house, while he was studying Pr. Quack’s Persons and Systems, apparently looking for a theoretical foundation and a practical programme for the movement.

This proved that we were on the eve of a massive awakening of the Javanese working class. This awakening was so massive that the small European community in Indonesia was filled with fear and demanded the most inept measures of violence. But within the European community clear appraisals were made that recognised the political and economic meaning of this movement. It was the resident [Government official] of Rembang, Gonggrijp, who was the first to compare the Serakat Islam movement with the English labour movement at the beginning of the previous century. The activity of Sarekat Islam seemed to be both nationalistic and religious, yet above all it was political and economic: the masses of impoverished farmers and the proletarians of the cities had started to resist their exploitation.

Socialist influence on the Sarekat Islam movement

The Governor-General Idenburg understood very well that he could not deal with Sarekat Islam in the same manner as with the existing Indian party [7], consisting mainly of Indo-Europeans. He did not like to play with fire. He belonged to the colonial ethical elements, in whose ranks we can find Protestants, Catholics, liberals and social democrats. His political strategy was aimed at controlling the Sarekat Islam by trying to persuade them to use moderate action and tone down the direct action that took place nearly every day both in the sugar regions and in the cities.

He attempted to achieve the same success as had happened in earlier days with Boedi Oetomo. A group of European socialists of various backgrounds, who presented themselves in 1914 as an Indian social-democratic association, and which some Javanese joined, first of all faced the question: To use propaganda or not? To operate as a study group or as a political movement? They chose to act as a political party. On the one hand, they kept themselves busy organising the trade unions with the goal of bringing the proletarian elements into their movement. On the other hand, they tried to establish friendly relations with Sarekat Islam and the remains of the prosecuted Indian party. With their struggle for freedom of speech for native journalists, they tried to win the confidence of the Indonesian people’s movement. In this way they tried to reduce the influence of government propaganda among the leaders of Sarekat Islam to zero. It proved not possible to come to a permanent cooperative relationship with the remnants of the Indian party on a comradely basis. They still saw a danger in socialist propaganda and the advancing of the ideas of class struggle.

Against the internationalism of the socialists they posed their nationalism, although the socialists of the I.S.D.V. [8] explicitly stated in their party programme that the independence of Indonesia had to be considered as one of the main aims of its action. Two factors contributed to the fact that in spite of its initial European character, the I.S.D.V. succeeded in bringing anti-capitalist and socialistic tendencies into the work of Sarekat Islam.

The class struggle in Indonesia is the fight against foreign capitalism because there is no Indonesian bourgeoisie. It is a fight against Dutch and other foreign capitalism. At the same time it is a fight against a foreign government that clearly acts as an agent of capitalist interests. In practical questions of the class struggle (e.g. the controversial campaign against Indië Weerbaar [9]) the I.S.D.V. stood very clearly for the interests of the Indonesian people.

And although the government had succeeded - with the collaboration of several colonial ethical elements – in bringing a large part of the leaders of the Serakat Islam to support the movement ‘Indië Weerbaar’, the first signs of a strong left-wing were visible within the Serakat Islam, guided by elements which came from both the I.S.D.V. and the trade unions. As the nationalist propaganda of the Indian party (after its dissolution it reformed as the Insulinde association) went over the heads of the masses, the I.S.D.V. occupied itself with all important practical questions, which made it possible to influence the Serakat Islam movement with more revolutionary ideas.

Of course, in the writings of 2nd International very little was to be found that made it easier to work out strategies. Nevertheless, indications were available, both in the works of Kautsky and of Radek and Rosa Luxemburg, who provided to the majority of I.S.D.V. arguments to reject every attempt from the reformist side to make the I.S.D.V. into nothing more than a study club.

Against all the warnings of the reformists, who opposed direct Malaysian propaganda, with the help of Javanese individuals who had joined the I.S.D.V., more and more attention was devoted to this propaganda, both in the political propaganda and in the work of trade unions.

Influence of the Russian revolution and of the 3rd International

Indonesia is far away from Russia. Especially in wartime the information about the development of the Russian Revolution from February to October 1917 was very poor. Directly after February, the Russian Revolution was nevertheless an important part of the propaganda conducted by I.S.D.V. The colonial authorities contributed to the penetration of this propaganda amongst the masses, and it was unmistakable that within the Sarekat Islam the left wing was significantly reinforced by this propaganda.

At the congress held by this movement in 1918, the left wing appeared to have a dominant influence. The general situation in Indonesia was extraordinarily unfavourable. Enormous difficulties occurred in the field of food supplies. Colonial capitalism made enormous profits at the same time.

I.S.D.V. had drawn the Serakat Islam leadership into a joint action in which they both demanded the reduction of the sugar plantations. In the programme of the Sarekat Islam, the fight against “sinful capitalism” was indicated as one of the major goals, and the principles of the class struggle continued to spread their influence in the Indonesian people’s movement.

And although after 1918, when the greatest difficulties were overcome by the government and certain concessions had been made to meet the demands of the Indonesian proletarians, difficulties have arisen between the left wing of Sarekat Islam and the leadership of the movement, which finally resulted in the revolutionary elements being excluded at the congress of Madijoen of 1922; nevertheless the principles of class struggle have deeply penetrated the Indonesian people’s movement.

In its prosecution of the revolutionary elements, the government applied a system, which it still uses to this very day, which consists of removing the leaders of revolutionary movements, so that with the removal of the leaders it could easily encapsulate the remains of that movement. But this could not prevent that the everyday practice of capitalism showed in no unreal terms the need for the class struggle for most Indonesians, also as a result of the propaganda conducted since the establishment of the 3rd International under the workers and farmers of the colonial and semi-colonial countries. For these reasons the Indonesian people’s movement has not changed its course. There is of course a strong interaction between the various movements that are different in form yet similar in essence, which developed among the coloured people around the world and which were brought together by the 3rd International. In the middle of the Russian Revolution, representatives of the revolutionary movements came in contact with each other. They discussed the experiences that had been gained. And the leadership of the 3rd International has not withdrawn its attention for a moment in promoting these revolutionary movements.

On the contrary, as it became clear that the class struggle of the proletariat in the old capitalist countries only moved forward towards social revolution at an extremely slow pace, the revolutionary movements in the colonial and semi-colonial countries came more and more into the centre of attention.

These movements too do not develop in a straight line. Whereas a couple of years ago, the mass movement in British India under the guidance of the Mahatma Gandhi threatened to become a direct danger to British domination, this is now completely neutralised by the British and the centre of the struggle in the colonial and semi-colonial countries has now moved to China. The leaders of the 3rd International realise the importance of this, as became clear in the statement by Zinoviev [10], in a reaction to the big strikes in the middle of last year:

“The moment the Chinese workers proceed from moderate economic demands to the slogan ‘down with the imperialists’, they become the most important factor of the proletarian world revolution.”

Clear directives for the different colonial countries came from Moscow, which reduced the chance of serious mistakes significantly. There is no power in the world that could prevent the colonial movements using information given from the centre of the world revolution. Under the influence of the 3rd International, after the congress of 1920, the I.S.D.V. transformed itself into a Communist Party, which both on Java and on the outside properties [i.e., other Indonesian islands] strives to reinforce the workers’ and farmers’ movement as a conscious anti-imperialist force. This work for the development of the Indonesian trade union movement has been conducted in the whole of Indonesia. The bureaucrats of the I.V.V. will undoubtedly be able to find quite a few valid shortcomings in the functioning of these organisations.

Their actions do not impress the people’s movement in the colonial and semi-colonial countries. Their reformism has no grip on the proletarian masses, which feel the exploitation by the capitalists at its worst. That the communist elements in Indonesia are active in the fight against capitalism is proven by the many strikes that have been held throughout Indonesia and the fact that these strikes make an impression on the European community inside Indonesia is shown by the many prosecutions of the leaders of the strike movement.

Moreover, the communist movement in Indonesia fulfils its task also in the dessas [rice fields], bringing the farming population to resist imperialism and colonial rule. Detailed information on the propaganda among the farmers is superfluous here for the simple reason that the daily press is constantly publishing news about our comrades’ activities.

We have pointed out that the inner struggle within the Sarekat Islam movement has led to a split in 1922. The left wing, which is under communist control, has founded the Sarekat Rajat movement, posing the danger of the two parts of the Indonesian people’s movement each wasting their energy. The 3rd International has clearly pointed out that there must be a united front between these two parties, which, socially speaking, consist of the same elements. It is foreign events that reinforce the restoration of this connection. These exercise a greater influence than the personal conflicts that have developed between Sarekat Rajat and Sarekat Islam.

The developments in other countries, such as China, Turkey and Morocco, push the leadership of Sarekat Islam to declare themselves in solidarity with the anti-imperialist resistance taking place in these countries.

They do not see any value in obtaining legal status from the government. The revolutionary element can be seen time and again in their propaganda. And although in that very same propaganda, according to various sources, the religious element has become stronger, we are convinced that our Indonesian comrades will succeed in forming a united front and restore the unity in the people’s movement. The collaboration of the 3rd International will accelerate this process, and with that it will gain considerably in strength. It will remain a purely anti-imperialist movement. They will continue to focus themselves on the complete independence of Indonesia. They will continue to conduct the class struggle against capitalism in Indonesia by reinforcing the trade unions.

They will maintain links with similar movements in other colonies, in spite of all the difficulties.

They, the Indonesian people’s movement, will continue to play an important role in that great struggle of the masses of the colonial and semi-colonial countries, with which they will make a great contribution to the proletarian world revolution.


1. From Klassenstrijd 1926, (p 17)

2. Sneevliet refers to the insurrection of the Riff people (1921-1926) in Morocco under the guidance of Abd-el-Krim. After the battle at Anoual, the occupants of Riff Mountains crushed the Spanish in 1921, Abd-el-Krim could no longer go back. He was seen as an military genius by his countrymen. In 1923, he proclaimed the Riff Republic, and with that they broke with the autocratic and feudal past.

Abd-el-Krim learnt the game of politics rapidly and made use of the antagonisms between the imperialists.

The young communist party of France conducted a campaign for him. To crush him and his armies a cooperation was necessary between the Spanish and French armies: under the guidance of Marshal Pétain they had to deploy large resources.

After 21 years in exile in Reunion Abd-el-Krim got authorization to establish himself in Egypt, where he died in 1962. Revolutionary leaders of the world always paid him a visit when they came to Egypt. Abd-el-Krim continued to maintain contact with the communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, who asked him to call upon the MAGREB soldiers in Vietnam to stop fighting against him. As a result, many Moroccan soldiers deserted to the Vietminh.

Mao Zedong and Tito have recognised that they learnt much from this Moroccan leader.

In 1971, Mao told a Palestinian delegation of Fatah: “You have come to me to hear me speaking about a people’s liberations war, but in your own recent history you have Abd-el-Krim. He is of one the most important inspiration sources, of which I have learned what the people’s liberations war exactly is.”

3. The Sarekat Islam movement was founded in 1911 by Hadji Omar Said Tjokroaminoto. The original name was Sarekat Dagang Islam, which means Islamic Trade Organisation. Originally it was an organisation of a group of batik traders from the East and Central Java to protect their trade against cheap Chinese import.

The Sarekat Islam movement rapidly developed into a political organisation, which got a lot of support in the countryside of Java. Islam was not the only source of inspiration; communism was also a big part of the ideology of the movement.

Their biggest counterparts were the Partai Kommunis Indonesia (of Sneevliet). In the end, the movement came under the influence of Marxists, and the organisation split into small fractions such as Muhammadyah and the orthodox Islamic movement, Nahdatul Ulama

4. In 1908 the organisation of Boedi Oetomo (the beautiful struggle) was founded. In 1908, it had almost 1200 members. The majority of them were middle-class civil servants and entrepreneurs. The goal of the organisation was to organize all native inhabitants of Indonesia., and the harmonious development of the country. The Dutch government soon got interested in this movement; it was thought that without the right leader it could soon develop into a revolutionary movement. So the Dutch government provided a leader: Raden Tirto Koesoemo. They expected that they could cooperate with him. But the problem was that Boedi Oetomo did not achieve much.

5. Continuation of the Indische partij after this party was banned. This movement wasn’t as radical as its predecessor. See [7]

6. A very hard punishment given to coolies when they ran away or did something wrong. Today we would call this torture , but at that time, it was a ‘normal’ part of Dutch-Indonesian laws, called the ‘koelieordonnatie’ of 1880.

7. Founded in 1912 by Ernst Douwe Dekker (family of the famous Dutch writer Eduard Douwe Dekker, who wrote ‘Max Havelaar’ under the pseudonym Multatuli) and Tjipto Mangoenkoesoemo and Ki Hadjar Dewantara. The used the slogan “Break away from Holland.” The party did not get the support from native Indonesians for which they hoped. Nevertheless, the authorities saw it as a threat and banned the party in 1913.

8. Indische Sociaal Democratische Vereniging. Founded by Henk Sneevliet. The ISDV was a Marxist organisation. It was the base from which later the communist P.K.I developed.

9. In 1914, the Boedi Oetoemo (see note 4) strived without success for an Indonesian army (the action was called ‘Indie weerbaar’). The most support for this action came from the TV (Theosophical Movement). The TV came into direct conflict with socialists like Sneevliet and Semaoen. ‘Indie weerbaar’ was the first great political debate which divided Indonesia. It contributed in many ways to the polarization of left and right within Serakat Islam , and in Indonesia in general, and against Dutch authority. So its effect was exactly the opposite of the ideas of the founders about harmony between the classes. The first political articles which appeared in local papers from the later-PKI (which was the largest non-governing communist party in the world) leaders like Semaoen, Darsono and Alimin were aimed against TV members. Van Hindeloopen and Labberton were the most criticized persons in the left-wing press in 1916-1917.

10. Grigori Zinoviev (Elizavetgrad 11 September 1883 – Moscow 25 August 1936) was a Soviet-Russian Communist politician and Marxist theorist.

He was one of the most loyal ally of Lenin, and worked for him in Switzerland. After the October revolution he for filled the job as party secretary. During the sickness of Lenin (1922-1924) he formed a coalition with Stalin and Kamenev. Although he was seen as the successor of Lenin, Stalin became the new leader of the Soviet-Union.

In 1925 he and Kamenev formed a coalition with Trotsky against Stalin. Eventually he paid with his life for this deed. He died for a firing squad after a show trail in 1936.