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Tan Malaka: Revolutionary or Renegade?

28. 7. 2008

Tan Malaka: Revolutionary or Renegade?

by Helen Jarvis

The figure of Tan Malaka haunts the margins of the
history of the Left in Indonesia. Active in the Indonesian
Communist party (PKI) in its early days and for a time Comin­
tern representative in Southeast Asia, Tan Malaka later split
with the party. He re-emerged to lead the militant wing of the
Indonesian revolution until his assassination in 1949. Many
aspects of his career, however, are still obscure, and this paper
seeks to describe the long revolutionary journey, as Tan
Malaka himself described it, "from jail to jail."1

Tan Malaka was born around 1896 in Suliki, a small
village not far from the equator in West Sumatra. His given
name was Ibrahim, but he was known throughout his life by
the semi-aristocratic name Tan Malaka, which he inherited
under the local matrilineal system from his mother. His father,
as a low level official in the colonial administration, was also a
member of the local elite.

A bright boy, Tan Malaka was sent to the Sekolah Raja
(Chief's School), where he caught the attention of a Dutch
teacher who convinced his parents and the elders of his village
to raise a loan to send him to Holland to train as a teacher. This
training lasted from 1913 to 1919, and Tan Malaka used his
years in Holland to read widely and to make some contact both
with the Indonesian students association (then developing in a
nationalist direction) and with Dutch socialists and commu­
nists. Amongst those he met was Henk Sneeviiet, who had
helped found the Indies Social Democratic Association
(ISDV), the first socialist organization in Indonesia, before
being expelled from Indonesia in 1918.2

This organization, established in 1914 in Surabaya, East
Java, had been almost entirely Dutch in membership, pub­
lished only a Dutch-language newspaper, and initially had
little impact on Indonesians. Few Marxists at the time ex­
pected revolution in the colonies, and their attention was
directed towards the exciting events in Europe that culminated
in the outbreak of revolution in Russia. For a time it appeared
that the revolution might spread into Western Europe, includ­
ing the Netherlands, but when it became clear that capitalism
had at least temporarily staved off its demise, the ISDV began
to refocus its attention on Indonesia and on the task of recruit­
ing Indonesians. Some Indonesians were already attracted to
socialist ideas, and in 1917 the first Indonesian socialist group
had been set up, also in Surabaya, while the ISDV itself began
to publish also in Indonesian. This process of reorientation
was accelerated when the colonial government exiled the prin­
cipal Dutch socialists from the colony in 1918 and 1919,
leaving the movement for the first time in Indonesian hands. In
May 1920 it changed its name to PKI (Perserikatan Komunis di
India, Communist Association of the Indies, later Partai
Komunis Indonesia) and became the first communist party in
Asia (outside the Soviet Union). The PKI decided to seek
affiliation with the Comintern in December 1920, and was
represented at the Comintern from the time of the Third Con­
gress held in June-July 1921.3

Tan Malaka meanwhile had returned to Indonesia at the
end of 1919, taking up a teaching post at a Dutch tobacco
plantation in Medan, East Sumatra, where he stayed until early
1921. It was during this period that he established contact with
the ISDV and began writing for the press. His earliest known
writing was an unsigned piece entitled "Land of Paupers,"
____________________

1 See Helen Jarvis, Tan Malaka's "From Jail to Jail" (Athens, Ohio: Ohio
University Press, forthcoming).
2 For details of his life, see ibid., and Harry A. Poeze, Tan Malaka:strijder
voor Indonesie's vrijheid: levelsloop van 1897 tot 1945 ('s-Gravenhage:
Nijhoff, 1976), passim.
3 For background on the early development of the Indonesian Communist
party (PKI), see Ruth T. McVey, The Rise of Indonesian Communism (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1965).

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