On 18 March 1917 the first reports about a successful revolution in Russia appeared in Dutch Indies’ newspapers. Socialists in this Dutch colony followed the events in Russia closely. The well-known Dutch socialist Henk Sneevliet, who worked in the Dutch Indies from 1913 to 1918 and who was chairman of the Indies’ Social Democratic Association (Indische Sociaal-Democratische Vereeniging, ISDV), immediately reacted by writing an exultant article entitled 'Triumph' (‘Zegepraal’). He encouraged Indonesians to follow the example of the Russians and to work towards their liberation.
In two ways, the Russian Revolution influenced the development of socialism in the Dutch Indies. Firstly, the revolution and Sneevliet’s article ignited a fierce debate within the ISDV between a 'parliamentary' and 'revolutionary' faction. The latter, including Sneevliet but also Asser Baars, Semaoen and Darsono, felt encouraged by the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia and supported revolutionary agitation in the Dutch Indies, especially in the ISDV-magazine ‘Het Vrije Woord’.
This was against the taste of the parliamentary wing, which left the association in response to Sneevliet’s article by the end of 1917. The remaining activists in ISDV then changed its name in 1920 to Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party, PKI) and joined the Communist International; a global umbrella organization of communist parties.
Secondly, the events in Russia encouraged the revolutionary faction of the ISDV to work towards extra-parliamentary organization of the Indonesian peasantry. At inception in May 1914, the ISDV consisted predominantly of Dutch socialists who stayed in the Dutch Indies temporarily. Many of them felt that agitation among the ‘underdeveloped’ Indonesian population was meaningless and preferred to concentrate on skilled – and therefore by definition Dutch – workers.
However, the revolutionary wing of the ISDV regarded the Russian Revolution as proof that socialist organization was indeed possible in a non-industrialized and agrarian society. Towards the end of the 1920s, they shifted their attention towards the Indonesian population and political organizations such as the Sarekat Islam. Within years the organization would grow into a mass movement with thousands of members.
In the following decades the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union would remain of lasting significance for the Indonesian political left. Moscow became an important focal point for intellectuals and a place of refuge for leading Indonesian communists. In small rural communities villagers routinely expressed solidarity with the Soviet Union at communist meetings. PKI-activists in West-Sumatra expected Russia and China to send armed support, and in the Moluccas there were rumours of two Russian ships full of weaponry that were on their way to help fighting the Dutch. These stories demonstrate that the Russian Revolution and the existence of the Soviet Union continued to be an important source of self-confidence for revolutionary movements in the Dutch Indies.
Article written by Klaas Stutje.
Klaas Stutje is post-doc researcher at the IISH and he studies forced labour and labour camps in the Dutch Indies. In autumn 2017 he plans to publish an article about the impact of the Russian Revolution in the Dutch Indies, in a special issue of Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis, edited by Ron Blom, Dennis Bos and Pepijn Brandon.