Internationalist Marxism or Islamist Nationalism?

The Dutch Left and Islamism (Barend Luteraan, Henk Sneevliet, Tan Malaka)

The following article is an excerpt from the chapter on the colonial question in the forthcoming re-edition of the History of the German-Dutch Communist Left (1990) by Philippe Bourrinet. Publication of this revised and aug­mented edition in French language is foreseen by the Editions ‘Moto Proprio’ in the course of next Spring. A Free Retriever’s Digest will certainly come back to this important work of historiography on the internationalist communist Left in due time. 

The case of Indonesia

At its congress of June 6 and 7, 1914, in Leiden, and at the instigation of Wijnkoop, the SDP adopts the slogan: “Los van Holland nu!” (“Imme­diate separation from Holland”). This slogan was the concretization of the policy officially adopted by the Second International. Nevertheless, the SDP’s colonial policy immediately led to ambigui­ties about the then-expanding nationalist move­ment in Indonesia. The party uncritically joined forces with the ‘Indische Partij’ (“Indonesian party”) of E.V.E. Douwes Dekker, the distant de­scendant of Multatuli, then exiled to the Nether­lands. He even opened the columns of De Tri­bune in 1914 to the nationalist leader, whose goal was independence in conjunction with the Asian “elites”, in other words with the national bour­geoisie of Asia. This heralded a policy of subjuga­tion of the “native” proletariat to the Asian bour­geoisie, which was fully developed in the Com­intern, and of which Sneevliet was one of the arti­sans.

The ambiguities of the SDP’s policy towards the colonial problem were exposed during Sneevliet’s stay in Indonesia, between 1913 and 1918. Sneevliet, who was formally a member of the SDAP until 1916, was working locally with mem­bers of the SDP. Settled in Semarang, a major port on the north coast of Java, he took the lead­ership of the Vereeniging van Spoor- en Tramper­soneel (VSTP; “Union of Railway and Tramway Personnel”) – the only union to admit Indonesian workers, and which would form the proletarian basis of the future Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).

In May 1914, at the initiative of Sneevliet, who was thus implementing the resolution of the inter­national congress of Paris, the Indonesian Social Democratic Union (ISDV; Indische Sociaal-Democratische Vereeniging) was formed. This or­ganization included about one hundred Dutch members, including some Javanese and Indo-Euro­peans. In October 1915 it provided itself with a fortnightly publication in Dutch, ‘Het vrije woord’ (“Free speech”); then in April 1917 the first so­cialist newspaper in Indonesian language ap­peared: ‘Soeara Merdika’ (“The Voice of Free­dom”). All the ambiguity of the existence of the ISDV stemmed from its privileged relations with nationalist organizations. The two main ones were: ‘Sarekat Islam’ (“Islamic Union”) – formed by Muslim traders, who extended their influence over the workers and peasants – and the ‘Indische Partij’ of Douwes Dekker, formed mainly of Indo-European employees, who – after its dissolution in 1913 – called themselves ‘Insulinde’. Sneevliet and members of the ISDV at the same time adhered to the movement ‘Insulinde’, but above all the ISDV developed close relations with ‘Sarekat Islam’ from 1916 on, as the break with ‘Insulinde’ was consummated, who defended a policy favorable to Japanese imperialism, with the nationalist slogan: “Java to Javanese”. It turned out that Indonesian members of the ISDV were simultaneously adher­ents and even leaders of the Islamic movement, such as Semaun (1899-1971), who in 1921 was the first leader of the PKI (Indonesian PC).

During the war, the ISDV recruited a considerable number of Indonesians from Sarekat Islam, which numbered 20,000. For a brief period Akmed Soekarno – the future nationalist leader and presi­dent of Indonesia after 1946 – was an active member. But it is notable that many of the new members of the ISDV remained members of Sarekat Islam. This policy foreshadowed, in an embryonic state, that which was followed in China – advocated by the CI and Sneevliet – after 1921, from a united front to the fusion of a nationalist organization (the ‘Kuomintang’) with the Com­munist Party of China.

This attitude of alliances with groups of Islamist ideology had always been foreign to revolutionary Marxism. As early as 1916, Barend Luteraan, a leader of the Tribunist Left, had warned against “the mistake of the revolutionaries of Western countries to call for support to the ideology of Is­lam” (De Tribune, October 14, 1916).

Ambiguity about Islamic nationalism was also present with Lenin. To put an end to Russian colonial imperialism, Lenin and Stalin – People’s Commissar for Nationalities – proclaimed on No­vember 15, 1917 a policy based on:

1. Equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Rus­sia. 2. The right of the peoples of Russia to self-determination including to separation and the constitution of an independent State. 3. Elimina­tion of every national or religious privilege or limi­tation. 4. Free development of national minorities and ethnic groups living on Russian territory.

Going still further, on December 7, 1917, Lenin and Stalin launched an appeal “To all Muslims in Russia and the East”, appealing exclusively to their religious feelings instead of emphasizing the antagonistic interests of peasants and workers against the mullahs and big landowners, who re­lied on the Islamist ideology to preserve the inter­ests of their own class:

“All of you whose houses of prayer and mosques were destroyed, whose beliefs and customs were trampled by the Tsars and oppressors of Russia! From now on, your beliefs and your customs, your national and cultural institutions are free and invio­lable. Organize your national life freely and unhin­dered! It’s your right.”

This call was in fact a call to loosen the cordon sanitaire established by Western imperialisms (but also by Japan that occupied Vladivostok) around Soviet Russia. This call enjoined “Persians, Turks, Arabs and Indians” to form an anti-imperialist front, by all means, including by flattering the re­ligious sentiments of the “masses”. In effect, Lenin, “in a gesture of high symbolic significance, orders the restitution to Tashkent of the Koran of Othma, one of the oldest copies of the sacred text,” that was preserved in the Imperial Library of St. Petersburg. (1)

But it soon became clear to Lenin and the Bolshe­viks that this appeal not only encouraged Pan-Is­lamism but also Pan-Turkism, which aimed at dis­membering Russia for the benefit of the imperial­ist powers, or even the movement of Mustapha Kemal, who would triumph in 1922.

In July 1920, in a First Draft of Theses on the National and Colonial Questions (II. Congress of the Comintern), Lenin strongly emphasized:

  1. The necessity of fighting against the clergy and the other reactionary and medieval ele­ments who have influence in the backward countries;

  2. The necessity to fight against Pan-Islamism and other similar currents that try to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with the strengthening of the positions of khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.

Nevertheless, despite this dangerous ‘united front’ politics with anti-socialist religious movements, Sneevliet and his organization maintained the revo­lutionary flame against the war: for Zimmerwald, for the Russian Revolution in 1917, for a Third International. All this undeniably showed the in­ternationalist nature of the ISDV. As early as March 1916, Sneevliet and his followers left the lo­cal SDAP to join the Tribunist SDP. As the So­cial-Democratic Union adopted an increasingly revolutionary character thanks to the Russian Revolution, the organization’s right split (Septem­ber 1917) to join the Indonesian Social Demo­cratic Party, a branch of the SDAP in Indonesia.

From 1917, the whole activity of the ISDV was oriented towards supporting the Russian and then the German Revolution. The only revolutionary movement in Indonesia in which the ISDV partici­pated was that of the soldiers and sailors of the Dutch fleet at Surabaya (Java) who formed – un­der the influence of the events of Germany and with the active participation of Sneevliet – the council of sailors and soldiers in Surabaya (the second largest city of Java, on the North Coast). Sneevliet’s participation in this movement led to his expulsion from (“external”) Indonesia in De­cember 1918.

Sneevliet’s policy was unquestionably internation­alist, unlike that led by the “Muslim Marxist” Tan Malaka (see below), but it floated in ambi­guity. It was either irresistibly drawn to interna­tionalism, under the impulse of the Russian Revo­lution, or drawn to the radical nationalist move­ments, led by the religious leaders. In the latter case, there was no alternative but submission of the Indonesian proletarian movement to Islamism, in the name of the struggle for “national libera­tion”. The oscillation between nation and interna­tional class was well summed up by the ISDV pro­gram at its May 1918 congress:

The goal of the ISDV is to organize the prole­tariat and the peasants of East India, irrespective of their race and religion, into an independent union, that leads the class struggle in their own country against a dominant capitalist class, thereby strengthening the international struggle and wages, at the same time, the only possible struggle for national liberation.” (‘Het Vrije Wo­ord’, May 20, 1918.)

In 1920, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was formed by the ISDV and Indonesian trade unionists linked to the nationalist movement. In the CI Sneevliet, significantly, represented the PKI and the left wing of ‘Sarekat Islam’. This al­liance with the indigenous Islamic bourgeoisie lasted until 1923. This policy of alliance was the work of the Indonesian communist, member of the Dutch PC, Tan Malaka (1897-1949), who at the IV. Congress of the Comintern in 1922, criticized the position of Lenin against Pan-Islamism:

“… pan-Islamism no longer has its original meaning, but has in practice a completely different meaning… Today, in Indonesia, among the oppressed colonial peoples, pan-Islamism represents the liberation struggle against the various imperialist powers of the world.”

Worse, Tan Malaka asserted at this congress that it was necessary to fight shoulder to shoulder with the Islamist group ‘Sarekat Islam’, claiming to be Muslims and with “the Koran in their hands”, and that it was necessary that the proletarians of the East “understand their religion better” by sup­porting the Soviet Union:

“Since the beginning of last year, we have worked to re-establish the link with ‘Sarekat Islam’. At our congress in December of last year, we said that Muslims in the Caucasus or other countries that co­operate with the Soviets and fight against interna­tional capitalism understand their religion better; and we also said that if they wanted to make propa­ganda for their religion, they could do so as long as they did not do it in meetings but in mosques.

We were asked in public meetings: Are you Mus­lims, yes or no? Do you believe in God, yes or no? What could we answer to that? Yes, I said, when I am facing God I am a Muslim, but when I am fac­ing man I am not a Muslim. This is how we de­feated their leaders with the Koran in our hands [emphasis added]; and at our congress last year, we forced the leaders of ‘Sarekat Islam’, through their own members, to collaborate with us.”

In the Dutch Communist Left there was never any question of establishing the least compromise, and therefore the slightest compromising, with an ide­ology totally foreign to the revolutionary prole­tariat. For the communist left, it was about strug­gling until victory for a world free of both capital­ism and religious ideologies, that worked relent­lessly to maintain the existing social order.

Philippe Bourrinet, January 2018

1 Mathieu Renault, L’Empire de la révolution. Lénine et les musulmans de Russie, Syllepse, 2017. (“The Empire of the Revolution. Lenin and Russian Muslims”)


Source: Marxisme internationaliste ou nationalisme islamiste ? Pantopolis

Translation: H.C., January 26, 2018

Postscript by the author

Apropos of the Islamo-leftists of the NPA in Plenel (“My Friends the Muslims”), who descends from the LCR, [we present] these luminous quotes from Trotsky in 1923 and 1938:

“We adopt a completely irreconcilable attitude to­wards all those who utter a single word on the pos­sibility of combining mysticism and religious senti­mentality with communism. Religion is irreconcil­able with the Marxist point of view. Whoever be­lieves in another world can not concentrate all his passion on the transformation of [this world].”

“We, the revolutionaries, have never finished with the problems of religion, because our tasks consist in emancipating not only ourselves but also the masses from the influence of religion. Whoever for­gets to fight against religion is unworthy of the name of revolutionary.”