Indonesia: Working People's Association's (PRP) goal is a new workers' party

PRP members protest against the Indonesia president, October 20, 2009. Photo by PRP international department.

March 31, 2010 -- Socialist Alliance national convenor Peter Boyle interviews Ignatius Mahendra Kusumawardhana, the international relations officer for the Working People's Association (Perhimpunian Rakyat Pekerja – PRP) of Indonesia, who was in Australia to speak at Socialist Alternative's "Marxism 2010" conference in Melbourne, April 2-5, 2010.

In 2003, Mahendra was imprisoned for two years for “insulting the government” of President Megawati Sukarnoputri. He was a member of the People's Democratic Party (PRD) at the time of his arrest.

Over the last six months, the PRP has initiated a number of joint statements issued by left groups from various political traditions in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Peter Boyle: The PRP plans to launch a new workers' party in Indonesia by 2012. Can you explain the likely politics of such a party and what steps the PRP will be taking in the lead-up to the launch to prepare such a party?

Mahendra: The PRP has the view that the main problem of politics and democracy in Indonesia is the absence of working-class politics. Therefore this can only be solved by presenting a political party that has the political ideology and program of the working class.

Establishing a political party of the working class has been the objective of the PRP since the very beginning of our existence in 2004. Our last congress in 2009 set the timeline with a target of 2012 in order to set a clear goal for the current leadership in PRP.

Our operation as a political association of working people since 2004 was a step in introducing and popularising the political idea of forming a party among working-class activists. For several years we have carried out open propaganda among working people in our grassroots bases about the necessity to build a working-class party as the only vehicle for struggle. We received a lot of positive responses and enthusiasm from the grassroots bases, which are fed up with the stagnation of today's politics and the fact that there is no party that they can rely on.

The next step after this propaganda is to broaden our consolidation efforts in order to recruit more people who agree to build the working-class party.

Do you see this future workers' party as a broad, multi-tendency party or a party around a very defined ideological platform? A cadre party or a mass-membership party?

A working-class party is one which can build and develop an ideological platform for the realisation of socialism. A variety of tendencies is normal in such a party and in any real left partiy it should be democratically guaranteed such tendencies can exist. This is especially so in the Indonesian context where the so-called different tendencies do not really mean much difference in practice. What these tendencies really mean is that there is a deficit in the knowledge and ideology of the working class to cope with the dynamics of change in society.

Every left party which wants to fight against the strong hegemony of the bourgeoisie parties needs to be a mass-membership party. With broad bases of members such a party can wage the war for hegemony in the many sectors of the oppressed and ensure the spread of socialist influences into their many fields of struggle.

Party cadres should make sure that the new party's ideological platform is formulated and nurtured openly and with the participation of the masses. If we are too closed and paranoid with this question we will lag behind the masses.

Where does left unity fit in this plan for a new party?

We were the first left formation since the fall of Suharto to openly pushed for left unity. We have always kept in communication with as many left groups in Indonesia as possible, even though most of them don’t view left unity as important, and even try to avoid it with so many excuses.

We never gave up our belief that there should be left unity, especially in the struggle for a political party. But what we have learned is that left groups cannot be reduced only to activists trying to create a party in their own image. We must exercise sensitivity towards the actual radicalisation in the grassroots. There are grassroots forces that are learning about the struggle and increasingly identify their political position with socialism and left politics.

There’s a need to create as much as possible space for socialist propaganda. If this can be done, people can fight any backwardness and also fight off the immaturity and irrationalities that may have contributed to earlier left splits, and have made differences in the left seem more intense than they should be. Open conferences and discussions among left groups can both popularise socialism and at the same time build left unity.

What place do you see for broader anti-neoliberal/anti-imperialist alliances in Indonesian politics today?

It is very important and we are currently by developing a strategic, broad and multi-sectoral alliance called FOR Indonesia (Peoples Opposition Front of Indonesia -- Front Oposisi Rakyat Indonesia). The platform of FOR Indonesia is anti-neoliberal/anti-imperialist, with the slogan: Change the regime, change the system.

That slogan itself is an attempt to make the campaign against the neoliberalism/neo-imperalism meet with popular sentiments. The growing dissatisfaction against corruption and political scandals in the government is widespread among the common people. People have started questioning the legitimacy of the regime of Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), and they also don’t trust most of the politicians. The task of any broad anti-neoliberal alliance, such as FOR Indonesia, is to advance the people's consciousness about the current regime and the capitalist system.

In this early phase of its existence, FOR Indonesia tries to educate people with campaigns for real opposition to social injustices. FOR Indonesia tries to prove that there are no political parties at present that are really not entangled in the web of scandals and the oppression of the people. By joining the current public issues, FOR Indonesia has the opportunity to bring together dispersed groups that fight the regime and the system and promote a popular understanding. People cannot see the problem merely in individual political scandals but need to comprehend them as a consequential effect of a regime that rules the capitalistic system.

The PRP comes out of a rebirth of the Indonesian left after the massacre of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and other left organisations by the Suharto dictatorship after 1965. But this rebirth took place in the midst of a struggle against the Suharto dictatorship. Has the Indonesian left faced the challenge of adjusting to post-dictatorship conditions? And if so, can you explain your view of this adjustment? Does the left need to change its approaches and methods of organisation?

Every change requires adjustments, so this is not a unique challenge for the Indonesian left. What is a more serious problem is that the left in Indonesia is acutely suffering from the problem of amateurism. We continue to fail to exploit the open space of politics after the end of Suharto era. Sure, there was oppression and coercion here and there against the left, but we failed terribly to respond to it with the capacity of professional revolutionaries.

So while there has been a relative freedom for left literature on the internet and in publications, the left has not optimally organised the power of the marginalised people. It is a sad fact that after 10 years of Suharto’s fall, there is still not one single credible left newspaper with a large audience. This is a result of a failure to work together among left groups and see what is supposed to be the priority in practical political struggle.

The Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government has been facing permanent protests since it was inaugurated for a second term last year? It is in crisis? Do many Indonesians still see it as the most democratic option in the context of the existing parliamentary parties?

The SBY government is always in crisis because of the corruption of every aspect of political life. Most Indonesians have no preference between the parliamentary parties. The evidence of this is in so many electoral results with a high percentage of abstention. But the crisis of the SBY government will only become a serious matter when extra-parliamentary people's power struggle manages to accumulate greater strength from people’s dissatisfaction through massive demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience.

Do you see electoral politics as an important arena of struggle for the left in Indonesia? What are the political challenges facing the left in this area? What position did the PRP take in the last general election? Did it campaign for a boycott? What is your assessment of the experience during the election?

Electoral politics is important only if you fight against and compete seriously with the bourgeoisie electoral parties. When the left is weak there’s a big danger of demoralisation among your members and it will be harder to differentiate yourself from the opportunistic politicians. Therefore a campaign for boycott was necessary to protect our members from potential disintegration.

But after the result and the dynamics of 2009 election, we don’t think that another electoral abstention will help the left groups in Indonesia. Now the progressives must try once again to build a broad and popular front that can give us the material base for its transformation into an electoral party. With the time available before the next election, there is a great task ahead of every progressive movement in Indonesia for the consolidation – an open and democratic one – of an alternative political party that can be used for electoral purposes.

In the popular mass struggle in Indonesia today, what are the most important sectors and mass organisations, and what is the relationship of the PRP to these mass organisations?

When we use the term “working people” we include three major elements: workers, peasants and fisherfolk. We have put as many cadre as we can in progressive organisations, especially in those three sectors. The industrial workers now are growing in militancy and class instinct to fight against the bosses and the state that backs them. We have a strong and close relationship with the biggest alternative trade union Konfederasi Kasbi (Confederation of Congress Alliance of Trade Unions of Indonesia), since most of the leaders in Kasbi are also founders of the PRP. We have witnessing a massive desire for a working-class party from trade union activists in Kasbi and from other trade unionists as well.

Does the PRP identify with the anti-colonial heritage from the Sukarno era? Do you see Sukarno as an important national liberation leader like the Cuba's revolutionaries see Jose Marti or the Venezuela's revolutionaries see Simon Bolivar?

We think in the present time it is relevant to learn and try to understand again the vital meaning of socialism as the driving idea and even the goal of the anti-colonial struggle in Indonesia. The anti-colonial heritage has come from a lot of sources, not only Sukarno, so with all of our respect to his struggle, we have no plan to mystify the personal cult of him.

What is your opinion of the call for a new socialist international by Hugo Chavez?

We believe that a significant socialist international as an institution with real political capacity to lead the working-class struggle globally is always a necessity. In our present situation, maybe it is correct to look for directions and initiatives from Latin America where so many socialist experiments have been able to win the political battle domestically.

We understand very well the power and resources the call of this call by Chavez and so, in spirit and in principle, the PRP supports the call from Chavez. However, for the realisation of a concrete unification in what might be the Fifth International there still needs to be a lot of preparation in our Asia-Pacific region.

What do you think are the challenges for the 21st century socialist movement? What are the important lessons our movement should learn from the experiences of 20th century?

The most significant challenge is the need to build unity of the working-class struggle and at the same time able to present a significant challenge the hegemony and repression of the bourgeoisie.

People need more inspiration like that which we've had from the experience of comrades in Latin America. Working people need to develop the counter-hegemony that was once represented in strong and popular institutions such as communist parties in the past.

We should not romanticise past socialist experiences, but common people still need concrete signs that the socialist movement is the alternative of capitalism. What we must learn from the past that the urgency to develop the culture of democracy is something that cannot be compromised. The people of the former USSR and so many others have had to pay the consequences for the failure to develop continuously and dynamically socialist democracy as the competing force against the liberal democracy.