Communism in Context: The Indonesian Communist Party in West Java, 1949-66

Communism in Context: The Indonesian Communist Party in West Java, 1949-66
Recent scholarship on the Cold War has sought to move beyond the perspectives of the superpowers by highlighting the role of developments in the Global South amid a ‘Global Cold War’. However, there remains a tendency to foreground the role of national leaders and inter-state relations. Developments at the grassroots in the provinces have received significantly less attention. For example, in an Indonesian context, scholarship on communism and the Cold War has often taken a top-down approach, focusing particularly on political leaders as well as their ideological formulations and organisational efforts. Less had been done to address the experiences of activists on the ground, and the question of why communism was such a dynamic social force.

This project revises existing accounts of communism and the Cold War in Indonesia by incorporating perspectives from the grassroots. In contrast to earlier studies that have seen Indonesian communism through the lens of national politics, this project demonstrates that the Party was both integrally bound up with a global revolutionary movement and deeply intertwined with Indonesia’s social fabric. The study thus addresses Indonesian communism as a phenomenon shaped by bottom-up forces as well as top-down direction, as a social movement as well as a revolutionary organisation. Overall, the dissertation shows how communism and the Cold War were reconstituted on the ground in the Global South, and argues for a global history of the Cold War ‘from below’.

The project focuses on the 1950s and 1960s, a period when the Indonesian Communist Party grew from a few thousand members to become the third largest communist party in the world, before it was annihilated in a violent purge that saw half a million alleged communists killed. It takes the case study of West Java - a populous and diverse province, which had a substantial communist presence - as an entry point for examining these developments. The study combines interview data, contemporary publications, and archival research in five countries, and shows that Indonesia’s extreme ecological, social and cultural diversity shaped the distinctively pluralistic character of Indonesian communism.

The dissertation traces the dialogue that communist leaders engaged in with foreign comrades but also argues that central to the Party’s rapid growth were its unleashing of activist energies and its efforts to navigate social, cultural and ethnic cleavages in society. It highlights how activists came to be involved in the Party via participation in labour strikes, land conflicts, campaigns for women’s rights, as well as cultural and artistic activities. The dissertation also shows how conservative elites, backed by Western governments, used counter-revolutionary violence to destroy the Communist Party, but also to institute a wide-ranging reshaping of Indonesian society: reversing land reforms, removing labour rights, enforcing a patriarchal state ideology, and reinforcing markers of ethnic and religious difference. Through this analysis, the project reinterprets the Cold War as a process of socio-political polarisation through which global tensions became entangled with local social struggles.


Matthew Woolgar

Defended in

1 Jan 2021 – 31 Dec 2021

PhD defended at

Faculty of History, University of Oxford




Global Asia (Asia and other parts of the World)
Southeast Asia


International Relations and Politics
National politics