Sukarno’s Pancasila, Nasakom and Marhaenism Concepts

Posted by on Apr 29, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Sukarno’s Pancasila, Nasakom and Marhaenism Concepts

Sukarno claimed his mother was Balinese royalty. His father came from the aristocratic priyayi class with blood ties to the East Java Kediri and Central Java Surakarta Mangkunegara sultanates. As a young man, Sukarno boarded with Omar Said Tjokroaminoto – head of Sarekat Islam, the Islamic trade union founded in 1912 – his father’s friend. Tjokroaminoto’s house was the center for the anti-colonial movement in Surabaya. An outspoken critic of the Dutch, he was actively involved in the labor movement and, in a typically Javanese manner, embraced Islamic, nationalist and socialist ideals. In that environment, young Sukarno was exposed to wide ranging political thinking and many prominent nationalists, including communists like Alimin and Musso, and doctrinaire Islamists like Sekarmadji Maridjan Kartosuwirjo, another of Tjokroaminoto’s foster sons who later started the Darul Islam rebellion. Ironically, soldiers killed Musso in September1948 after Sukarno ordered the Army to crush the Madiun communist uprising and in 1963 Sukarno signed the execution order for Darul Islam leader Kartosuwirjo.

A voracious reader, Sukarno mastered Dutch, English and developed a working knowledge in several other European languages although he never left Indonesia during his youth. He earned an engineering degree from the Dutch-administered MULO (Meer Uitgebreid Lager Onderwijs, More Extended Lower Education) Bandung Technical College and worked several years as an architect. Like his benefactor, Tjokroaminoto, Sukarno drew upon and freely mixed secular western, Islamic and Hindu-Buddhist concepts. He was influenced by western ideas but sought to recast them into Indonesian form. Indeed, Sukarno was obsessed by the overarching Javanese belief in “oneness,” that “all things are one.” [1] He advocated an Asian paternalistic “big family” model of government that was benevolent, humanist and socialist, while unquestionably authoritarian. He preferred to rely on functional groups (for instance, workers, farmers, fishermen and soldiers) to represent the national interests, rather than self-interested and “small-minded” political parties.

Sukarno understood the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Indonesian society’s fundamentally unstable nature and, like later national leaders, was obsessed with the challenge of how to maintain national unity in such a diverse and far-flung archipelagic state. Sukarno’s Pancasila – five principles: belief in one God, a just and civilized humanity, national unity, democracy through representative consultation, and social justice – intended to unify society by reconciling the fundamental differences between nationalism and religion, and ultimately became the basis for Indonesia’s enduring state philosophy. Others have claimed the idea was their own but Sukarno was first to articulate a coherent Pancasila concept during his speech on June 1, 1945 before the Japanese-sponsored Investigatory Body for Preparatory Work for Indonesian Independence (Badan Penyelidik Usaha Persiapan Kemerdekaan Indonesia, BPUPKI). And Sukarno was the driving force behind incorporating Pancasila into the Preamble of the 1945 Constitution.

The awakening of Indonesian nationalism in the early-twentieth-century paralleled the Russian Revolution and growth of an international communist movement. Marxist-communist ideas influenced not only colonial politics but the nascent nationalist movement. Thus, from the independence movement’s early years through the traumatic events on October 1, 1965, when Indonesian Army leaders were assassinated, Indonesians almost universally acclaimed socialism as the most appropriate form of government. Whether they considered themselves communist or anti-communist, most citizens in the newly independent nation believed in an idealistic, egalitarian socialist society – and strongly suspected western intentions due to their colonial experience and Japanese-era indoctrination. Even relatively conservative and westernized figures like Mohammed Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir embraced the basics of Marxist ideology. That leftist identity became a hallmark during the Sukarno era, although national politics shifted noticeably to the right for a period after the failed Madiun communist rebellion in September 1948.

Sukarno went to great lengths to incorporate Marxist ideas into the traditional Indonesian cultural values, choosing the acronym Nasakom (Nationalism, Religion and Communism) to represent the seemingly irreconcilable union between those disparate, seemingly contradictory elements. First introduced in the late-1950s, Nasakom was an unnatural alliance, but one Sukarno considered essential to prevail in the unfinished revolution. It became his rallying cry, but his struggle to synthesize those discordant ideas was based more on emotion than logic. While perhaps compatible with the Javanese ability to internalize contradictory ideas and effective in rallying the archipelago’s diverse population, to most outside observers and many non-Javanese Indonesians Nasakom was an illogical and flawed concept. Moreover, by the early-1960s Sukarno’s increasing reliance on and protection of the Indonesian Communist Party had become a source for significant friction with army leaders, the Muslim community and western leaders.

Sukarno introduced another unique (also somewhat confusing) concept of Marhaenisme – supposedly based on his encounter with a poor West Java sharecropper named Marhaen. Marhaen was Sukarno’s symbol for the common man and his attempt to translate Marxism into an Indonesian context. He viewed the Marxist class struggle in terms of subsistence farmers like Marhaen, and millions of laborers, peddlers and peasants, exploited for centuries by feudal and colonial forces. “Our farmers till infinitesimal patches of soil. They are end products of the feudal system under which the first peasant was exploited by the first feudal lord and on down through the centuries. Even those of us who are not farmers are victims of the Dutch trade imperialism, victims whose ancestors were forced into minimal enterprises to eke out an existence. These who constitute nearly the whole Indonesian population are Marhaenists.” [2] Lifting those oppressive forces would allow the masses to uplift themselves through their own creative energies in an independent socialist Indonesia. “Our tens of millions of impoverished souls work for no person and no person works for them. There is no exploitation of one man by another.” [3] Sukarno eventually dropped the rather vague Marhaenism concept. It was largely forgotten in favor of Pancasila, which became the state ideology.

Sukarno considered himself a socialist and a revolutionary, despite his own towering ego, personal foibles, fondness for creature comforts and aversion to physical danger. He encouraged the popular perception of himself as Ratu Adil – the Just King who would rise in time of calamity and lead his people into a golden age of peace and prosperity – through frequent references to the Djajabaja prophecy in his early speeches. [4] Despite his faults, the Indonesian leader was enormously charismatic. An oratorical genius, over a period of decades he was able to cast a hypnotic spell over the masses. Biographer Bernhard Dahm maintains Sukarno had exhibited a virulently anti-western, anti-capitalist attitude since the 1920s, [5] whereas Czech scholar Rudolf Mrazek suggests – despite their almost universal acceptance of egalitarian socialist values – Sukarno and other Republican leaders were unambiguously pro-American and eager to obtain U.S. political and economic assistance during the Revolution and early independence years. To a great extent, that was due to America’s own eighteenth-century revolution against England and Washington’s anti-colonial posture after the Second World War. [6]

Those natural affinities did not prevent a growing political rift between Jakarta and most western capitals by the late-1950s, against the backdrop of the Cold War. Western leaders labeled Sukarno a communist, a charge he steadfastly denied. ‘I became a Socialist. Not a Communist. … There are still people who think Socialism is equivalent to Communism. On hearing the word Socialist they cannot sleep. They jump and yell, “Aha, I knew it! That Sukarno fellow is a Communist!” No I am not. I am a Socialist. I am a Leftist.’ Unquestionably, Sukarno admired independent communist-nationalist leaders, like Tito, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong. He expressed equal appreciation for the Declaration of Independence and the Communist Manifesto. “To me, both the Declaration of Independence and the Communist Manifesto contain undying truths, but the West doesn’t permit a middle road.” [7]

Sukarno’s disastrous economic policies, his military adventurism, his patronage for the Communist Party, and his insistence on the “continuing revolution” at the suffering Indonesian people’s expense, brought Indonesia to the brink of collapse. Following the failed putsch on October 1, 1965, in which top army leaders were murdered, General Soeharto and his anti-communist backers ultimately dethroned the Indonesian leader. Even today, Sukarno defies easy classification. His legacy lives on. Despite more than three decades of Soeharto’s authoritarian, staunchly anti-communist New Order, Sukarno’s benevolent socialist ideals continue to have considerable resonance in modern-day Indonesia. The charismatic Indonesian nationalist has enjoyed resurgent popularity during the post-Soeharto period, especially after his daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was elected Indonesia’s fourth president in 2001.


[1] Bernhard Dahm, Sukarno and the Struggle for Indonesian Independence, translated by Mary F. Somers Heidhues (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), p. 200.
[2] Cindy Adams, Sukarno, An Autobiography, as told to Cindy Adams (Indianapolis, Kansas City and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1965), p. 62.
[3] Cited in Brian May, The Indonesian Tragedy (Singapore: Graham Brash Ltd, 1978), p. 66.
[4] Dahm, Sukarno, pp. 1-5 and 111-113.
[5] Ibid, pp. 288-289.
[6] Rudolf Mrazek, The United States and the Indonesian Military 1945-1965, Volume I (Prague: Oriental Institute in Academia, Dissertationes Orientales 39, 1978), pp. 54-55.
[7] Both quotes from Adams, Sukarno, pp. 75 and 294.

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