Monday, April 27, 2020

"Islamism and Communism" - A 1925 Treatise in Indonesian

 “As for those who call themselves Muslims but disagree with Communism, I’m willing to say that they are not true Muslims.” -H.M. Misbach

A stylized portrait of Haji Mohamad Misbach (Medan Moeslimin no. 1, 1925, National Library of the Republic of Indonesia)

Over much of recent Indonesian history, communism and Islam have been popularly painted as antithetical. But many activists and thinkers have found valuable resonances between the two traditions. In the early and mid-20th century, massive popular organizations like Sarekat Islam (Merah) rallied members to fight for proletarian revolution as a manifestation of Islamic values. Indonesia’s independence struggle hero and first president, Sukarno, similarly promoted the compatibility of Islamic and communist values.

Here, in this PDF, I’ve translated a treatise from 1925 by an Indonesian thinker, Haji Mohamad Misbach, who similarly sees the goals of Islam and communism as aligned. It is also a polemic against opposing Islamic movements that cooperated with the capitalist structure of the colonial regime. It was published serially in the periodical Medan Moeslimin (MM), which Misbach had founded in 1915. Misbach died of malaria, exiled in Papua, before completing the treatise, however, and in May 1926 readers opening the next edition of MM expecting the next segment instead found his obituary.

In post-1965 Indonesia, this type of political confluence between Islam and communism has become almost unimaginable. After the mass killings of around 500,000 communists at the hands of the Indonesian military and Islamic militias, and over the half-century of anti-communist propaganda since, both communists themselves and communism as a popular ideology have been nearly eradicated from Indonesian soil. Exceptions exist, of course, and in 2014 young Islamic Leftist intellectuals launched an online magazine called Islam Bergerak (Islam that Moves) after Misbach’s other publication of the same name. But this contemporary Islamic Left remains marginal—still far from the days when activists like Misbach were prominent public figures leading labor strikes and mass actions against colonists and capitalists. This treatise reminds us of such a time when Islamic communism was not just thinkable, but the object of popular struggle.

The running epigraph preceding each section of “Islamism and Communism” was the hadith: “Wisdom is the stray thing of the believer; wherever he finds it, he gathers it.” This was seemingly used to counter the inevitable opposition that Marxism and communism were foreign, un-Islamic sciences. It is interesting Misbach use of this hadith mirrors how Western sciences have been narratively integrated throughout the Muslim world over the last century as well.

Misbach’s “Islamism and Communism” has become much less well-known and influential in Indonesian intellectual history than his rival Tjokroaminoto’s 1924 book Islam and Socialism (which was recently shown to consist almost entirely of a direct translation from a 1912 work by the same title by the South Asian Mushir Hosein Kidwai). Unlike Misbach, Tjokroaminoto’s vision for “socialism” consists mostly of advocacy for social cooperation and solidarity among all Muslims (and eventually humanity), rather than a Marxist politics oriented towards changing relationships to the means of production.

A Short Biography of H.M. Misbach

Misbach wrote the treatise from political exile Manokwari, Papua, where he was sent by the Dutch because of his political agitations in Java. Born in Surakarta, in central Java, in 1876, he was named Ahmed. Upon marrying, he changed his name to Darmodiprono, and after going on hajj, to Haji Mohamad Misbach. His father was a trader and religious official for the royal family of Surakarta, and as a child he attended a colonial school as well as a pesantren (Islamic school).

In 1915, Misbach founded Medan Moeslimin, and in 1917, he started another periodical Islam Bergerak (Islam that Moves). In 1918, he started a reformist Islamic association in Surakarta, SATV. He was also a member of the larger reformist organization Muhammadiyah from nearby Yogyakarta. In 1919, he was arrested and jailed for over 5 months after publishing a cartoon in Islam Bergerak insulting Dutch capital and the aligned royal house of Surakarta. He evidently did not stop agitating, as he was arrested again in 1920 and imprisoned for over two years in Pekalongan. After his release, Misbach officially left Muhammadiyah on the grounds that it (like the faction of Sarekat Islam led by Tjokroaminoto) was cooperating with the government. In 1923, he became a propagandist for the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and the “red” faction of Sarekat Islam. Later that year, he was arrested and briefly imprisoned again again on accusations of involvement in terrorist and anti-capitalist actions. In 1924, he was arrested for the fourth time in connection to labor strikes and terrorism, and was exiled to Manokwari, Papua. As his ship stopped in port cities en route to Papua, he reported back to MM about the communist movements active in each location. He continued to send writings back for publication until his death, including his final piece, “Islamism and Communism.”

A Brief Summary of “Islamism and Communism”

“Islamism and Communism” was published over six editions of Medan Moeslimin, no. 1-5, 1925. He divides the treatise into two main parts, the first offering a summary of Marxist theory and analysis, and the second, entitled “Islamism’s Explanation of Communism,” giving his integration of Marx’s thought within Islamic world-historiography and ethics. It is unclear whether Misbach intended to add other major sections the treatise or whether he died having nearly completed it.  

In part I (all contained within the first section printed in MM no. 1), he begins with a personal narrative of his exile to Papua and his struggles since arriving. He then positions himself and the text as opposed to two groups. First, he attacks rival Islamic organizations—Muhammadiyah and the branch of Sarekat Islam led by Tjokroaminoto (as apposed to the “Red” branch to which he belonged)—for complicity with capitalism (“the will of the devil”) and for following “only the rules [of Islam] that their base desires admire.” Second, he disputes communist groups that seek to “eradicate Islam.” He argues that, as the first group are “not true Muslims,” neither are this second group “true communists.”

Misbach then explores some of Marx’s main teachings. He defines capitalism as “the science of seeking profit while concentrating ownership in the hands of only a few people.” He explains that capitalism causes labor exploitation, poverty, homelessness, the rise of prisons, and that this in turn breaks the morals and humanity of people. He covers the process of how capitalists, with their technologies of production, come to dominate markets once filled with independent artisans and create a proletariat dependent upon them. He also discusses how overproduction and the profit motive eventually exhaust local markets, which, along with demand for cheap resources, leads to war and imperialism—and poverty is worst in the colonies.

Misbach laments that, along with creating poverty and exploitation, capitalists don’t care about the religion of their laborers, and Muslim factory, harbor, and mine laborers are forced to abandon their prayers and fasts to sustain themselves and their families.

In response to the above problems posed by capitalism, Misbach then turns to the solutions offered by Marx in The Communist Manifesto. He explains that, according to historical materialism, “the emergence of Communism is a seed of capitalism itself that is planted in the hearts of the people, especially the working class.” Through propagation of communism, Misbach adds, the proletariat can see past the delusions of capitalism: “We communists know all of capitalism’s little tricks, so that they can’t be used to manipulate us.”

Part II, “Islamism’s Explanation of Communism,” was printed in five sections (MM no. 2-5). In the first section, Misbach addresses the concept of “religion” (agama), of which he says only one exists—a singular trans-historical tradition of “guidance from God” “towards the path of salvation for humans living in this world until their arrival in the next.” He repeatedly emphasizes religion’s objective of seeking human welfare not just in the afterlife, but in this world as well. He traces humanity from Adam to different historical populations, noting that what seem to be distinct “religions” (Abraham’s, Buddhism, Confucianism, Mosaic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are really just historical instances of this singular guidance, named after its founder or region—except in the case of “Islam,” which indicates the goal of salvation.

The first page of part II, "Islamism's Explanation of Communism" (MM no. 2, 1925, National Library of the Republic of Indonesia)

The second section of part II (MM no. 3) covers the prophet Adam and the fall of Satan. Misbach explains: “Because of the devil, or humans with satanic thoughts”—which he attributes to the desire for prominence and “feudal” power struggles—“the one true religion broke up into factions.” He then covers how God manifests his existence through the wonders of creation (an established Islamic genre), noting that humans are given reason and thought to appreciate those signs. As a result of this attribute of reason, Misbach asserts, humans are also able to achieve progress, starting with the basic use of tools. He explains that successive prophets are sent to guide humans according to the conditions of their respective historical contexts (as well as about the nature of God), and that without such moral guidance, technological progress can result in corruption and destruction.  

The third section of part II (MM no 4.) offers a history of the evolution of forms of domination and oppression that seems to map Marx’s historiography from the Manifesto onto Islamic prophetic history. He associates the idealized communities of Adam and other prophets with a kind of primitive communism. Over time, however, “demonic morals” bred competition, fighting, and possessiveness, leading to people seeking “property rights.” These developments caused factionalism and chauvinism, often accompanied by forms of false worship. This evolved, he writes, into “absolute monarchy,” which bred hatred among the people, and was overthrown and replaced by feudalism. This evolutionary cycle continued with constitutionalism, then representative democracy, which he considers similarly distasteful, as only the powerful are represented, and “the voice of the people is completely absent.”

The fourth and final section of part II (MM no. 5) juxtaposes the previous section’s focus on material history with the ideals of prophetic guidance and the destruction wrought on communities that turned away from God’s guidance. This section is distinct in that it is composed of a succession of Qur’anic quotes and narratives. Throughout, he continues to associate these prophetic ideals with communism and their demonic corruption with the evils of (proto-)capitalism: “These parables mentioned above are meant to remind humans not to fall into acts straying to the ways of Satan and animals, meaning only thinking of one’s own body, far from helping one another. Those who stray only seek their base desires, getting food and profit.”

Although Misbach died before completing the treatise, he concluded the last section with a promise to compare historical monarchies to the monarchs of the Qur’an.

Notes on Translation

My translation was based initially on an edition of the treatise printed in a 2016 anthology of Misbach’s works, but due to its many gaps (noted by the editors as bracketed ellipses), I sought out the microfilm of the original at Indonesia’s National Library. This copy also posed issues, most notably a torn-off corner of a page in the final section. Another issue is that I am less familiar with the old-fashioned, Dunch-inflected, Malay used in the pioneering native-run papers of this era. The footnotes in the 2016 edition were helpful on some of these points, but this has inevitably resulted in some inaccuracies. In cases where I was unsure, or where the translation required some flexibility, I have included the original Indonesian in brackets. I welcome any suggested improvements, and anyone who wants to cross-check my translation with the original can view my pictures of the microfilm here.

Also, in translating Misbach’s quotations from the Qur’an, I have tried to remain faithful to his text rather than simply use an established English-language Qur’an translation. However, his quotations differ greatly from the genre of Qur’an translation that English readers will be familiar with, as he elaborates freely without differentiating between original Qur’anic text and additional commentary—all getting subsumed within what he simply indicates to be a quotation of the Qur’an (as was common in the period). The ayas that he quotes are listed, and the reader is encouraged to cross-check his translations with the Arabic original or English translations.

Again, here is the PDF of my translation.

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