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Fourth International, September-October 1951


Maurice Ferarez

Tan Malakka


From Fourth International, Vol.12 No.5, September-October 1951, pp.138-140.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Ibrahim gelar Datoek Tan Malakka was born in the Northwestern part of the island of Sumatra around 1895. The precise date of his birth is not known. He attended lectures at the government Normal School at Fort de Kock in Sumatra and passed his teacher’s examinations in Holland. From that time on he was a Socialist by conviction. The Indonesian Social-Democratic Association (ISDV), founded by Sneevliet, Brandsteder and H.W. Kekker in May 1914, published the first number of its organ Het Vrije Word (The Free Word) on October 10, 1915 and in it we find a greeting signed by “comrade Tan Malakka.” From then on Tan Malakka was well-known in Dutch and Indonesian circles.

The whole life of the uncompromising Indonesian revolutionary was thereafter dedicated to the emancipation of the Indonesian masses and, beyond the borders of his country, the emancipation of all the colonial masses. Tan Malakka not only displayed his liberating activities on the political and economic planes. He was long the leader of a revolutionary trade-union organization and conducted numerous strikes. He became a legendary figure through his struggle against illiteracy. He founded numerous schools, called “Sarikat Rajat” schools, and this movement of elementary education for the masses took on such scope that imperialism rightly considered it a weapon against colonial oppression and decided to destroy it.

In truth, the educational movement organized by Tan Malakka had a decidedly proletarian basis. The students were educated not only in reading, writing and arithmetic, but they were also taught to consider social conditions from the proletarian point of view. They learned the basic principles of several trades. The students developed their sense of initiative and several experiments produced highly interesting results. The students themselves manufactured most of the school equipment, such as benches and blackboards. The school was the center of an intensive cultural and organizational life in which all students participated. A magazine for children was published. All the schools were subordinated to a commission and a central office which coordinated their activities. All this was accomplished without the slightest subsidy by the authorities. Expenses were reduced to a minimum raised by voluntary contributions. As was the case with Tan Malakka himself, the teachers were housed and fed by sympathizers or parents of students.

The popular support won for this movement by Tan Malakka became evident when the Dutch authorities of the district banned a “fancy fair” in Semarang, in November 1921. According to newspapers of that period, 4,000 women during the day and 5,000 men in the evening, participated in the protest demonstration which took place on November 13, 1921. In spite of the ban by police, the Internationale was sung at the demonstration. The city of Semarang looked like a city under siege. As a result of these events and of his own activities, Tan Malakka was expelled from Indonesia on March 2, 1922, by secret handwritten order of the head of the imperialist administration in Semarang, the director of the Justice Department and Attorney-General. After his militant activity in the Indonesian Social-Democratic Association (ISDV), Tan Malakka became one of the founders of the Indonesian Communist Party, on May 23, 1920. After his expulsion from Indonesia, he left on a long trip to participate in the Fourth Congress of the Communist International as official delegate from his party. There he asked the leaders of the International to modify their attitude toward the Pan-Islamic movement and expressed himself in favor of support for this movement. In his view, Pan-Islamism was nothing but a movement of Moslem unity against imperialist oppression.

Attitude to Moslem Mass Movement

Tan Malakka’s position must be explained by the special political conditions in his own country. Both the Indonesian Social-Democratic Association and the Indonesian Communist Party found their most fruitful field of activity and recruitment within the Sarikat Islam, the Moslem mass organisation of a moderate nationalist character and with a strong proletarian basis. In 1916 the Sarikat Islam already had 360,000 members. It was at that time in favor of an autonomous Indonesian administration, which was to be achieved gradually and in a strictly legal manner. But in 1917, chiefly because of Tan Malakka’s efforts in its midst, it voted a resolution condemning the “sins of capitalism.” This marked the beginning of its activity as a mass organization and resulted, in 1919, in a Sarikat Islam membership of 2,000,000! At the Sixth Congress of the Sarikat Islam, in 1921, the organization changed into a party with its own discipline and closed its doors to Tan Malakka and the other leaders of the Communist Party. Understanding the importance of this organization for the development of the anti-imperialist mass struggle, Tan Malakka renewed his efforts to come closer to it by having the Communist International modify its attitude on the question of Pan-Islamism.

Tan Malakka also represented his party, together with Semdoen, at the Fifth Congress of the Communist International.

During this whole period the first revolutionary vanguard in Indonesia advanced toward maturity. Tan Malakka wrote several works in which he outlined the program of the Indonesian revolution. His book Toward fhe Republic of Indonesia, published in 1925, includes a “strategy for the conquest of power.” In it he distinguishes between three successive stages in the struggle against Dutch imperialist domination:

Outlined Stages in Struggle

  1. Winning over the majority of the advanced proletarian masses among the population, concentrated in the Valley of Solo, on the Island of Java.
  2. Destruction of the most important Dutch military forces concentrated in the district of Preanger.
  3. Achievement of political power, through the destruction of the state institutions of Batavia.

This distinction, testifying to a highly developed understanding of the conditions of the revolutionary struggle, constituted at the same time a warning directed at the putschist tendencies of a section of the leadership of the Indonesian Communist Party. This section wanted to organize an insurrection immediately, before the majority of workers had been won over to the idea. On the eve of the insurrectionary events of November 1926 Tan Malakka declared: “We must not base ourselves on the exaggerated hopes of revolution of these leaders. First of all, we must be sure of the revolutionary spirit of the masses.” But the warnings of Tan Malakka were not heeded. The insurrection broke out in November 1926 and was drowned in blood. Afterward 3,000 people were arrested in the Western part of Java, 2,000 in West Sumatra, and 1,308 were thrown into the infamous concentration camp of Tanah Merah.

A study of the conditions under which the insurrection was launched shows immediately how right Tan Malakka was in characterizing it as a putsch for which two leaders of the Communist Party were responsible: Muso, killed in 1948, and Alimin, now leader of the Stalinist Party in Indonesia. Toward the end of 1924 the CP had only 1,140 members, and its front-organization, the Sarikat kajat (offspring of the Sarikat Islam), numbered about 31,000 members. In Batavia, 300 people armed only with knives and sticks, participated in the insurrection; nor were the insurrectional forces superior elsewhere.

Breaks With Comintern

After the defeat of the putsch, Tan Malakka broke in 1927 with the inept leadership of the Indonesian CP dominated by the Comintern and founded a new party, the PARI, Party of the Indonesian Republic, in Bangkok (Siam). He stated that the aim of the movement was to establish a revolutionary state, including, besides Indonesia itself, the whole Malayan peninsula, New Guinea, the British part of the island of Borneo and the Portuguese part of the island of Timor.

Between 1927 and 1939 Tan Malakka wandered all over Asia and experienced the most extraordinary adventures while remaining in close touch with the revolutionary movements of all the countries he visited. This period of his life is narrated in detail in his autobiography Dari Pendjara Ke Pendijara (From Prison to Prison), of which only a partial translation is as yet available. Back in Indonesia, now under Japanese occupation, Tan Malakka could at last appear before the masses with the beginning of the vast revolutionary tide in August 1945. In November 1945 he founded the Popular Front, aiming at the regroupment of all the revolutionary nationalist organizations on the basis of a minimum program. The subsequent evolution of Tan Malakka’s activity has already been described in Fourth International (October 1949, J. Van Steen: Tan Malakka – Revolutionary Hero).

After his break with the Comintern in 1927, Tan Malakka stood alone in establishing his line of conduct on the basis of his revolutionary Marxist convictions. On many questions he arrived at conclusions approaching, or identical with, those of the Fourth International. On the question of Stalinism, for instance, he wrote in Dari Pendjara Ke Pendjara (Vol.II, p.114):

“Stalin is the liquidator of communism, the destroyer of the Communist International. The character of the party of Stalin has nothing in common with the Bolshevik party of Lenin. The Cominform is nothing but an instrument in Stalin’s hands.”

At the same time, he explains in his pamphlet Gerpolek the nature of the class distinctions between the USSR and the USA, affirms the general sympathy of the oppressed with the USSR and sees in the contradictions between the USSR and USA a special aspect of the worldwide class struggle of the proletariat and colonial people against imperialism. In his autobiography Tan Malakka explicitly states that the liberation of the Indonesian people can be achieved only by that people itself aided by the world proletariat.

Much contradictory information has been circulated on the subject of Tan Malakka’s assassination by troops of the Indonesian government. The latest of such statements was made by Pellanpessy in February 1951 when Mr. Pellanpessy was Minister of Information in the Indonesian cabinet under Natsir. It contains the following passage:

It is absolutely false to assume that Tan Malakka was arrested after the second military campaign. During the mopping-up action in the region of Blimbing, near Ngandjuk, some people were arrested, one of whom pretended to be Tan Malakka. In the course of this mopping-up operation, a battalion of the Dutch army attacked this region and the prisoners thus managed to escape.”

If this news is correct, we can hope to see the reappearance of Tan Malakka, the greatest and ablest of the Indonesian revolutionists, in the struggle for complete Merdeka (Freedom) for the Indonesian people.

Amsterdam, May 17, 1951

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