Increasing numbers of left-wing activists around the world are turning to Vincent Bevins’s The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World to learn more about the horrific atrocities committed by the United States against peoples’ struggles for the right to self-determination in the so-called postcolonial era. In particular, the book describes how imperialist expansion destroyed revolutionary struggles in the third world.
Citing Kwame Nkrumah’s blunt description of “the new way of the world” from his 1965 book Neocolonialism: The Last State of Imperialism, Bevins posits that neocolonialism has been significantly marked by U.S. counterinsurgency via the “Jakarta method” throughout the long 1960s across the world, from Indonesia and Brazil to Guatemala and Chile. The Jakarta method was a combination of imperialist economic plunder and grave human rights violations, ranging from political vilification, kidnapping, and disappearances of dissenters to assassinations and massacres of villages by organized forces. As Nkrumah asserted, “foreign capital is used for the exploitation, rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world and that imperial powers no longer even had to admit what they were doing—not even to themselves.”1
Over half a century after the birth of the Jakarta Method, a new generation of left activists are inspired and mobilized by anti-imperialist movements that trace themselves back to revolutionary anticolonial movements. How does that period in our collective history of struggle inform our shared experience of the global neoliberal offensive that has partly shaped the conduct of progressive and revolutionary movements in the last forty years? How does this shared experience allow us to imagine new ways of organizing South-to-South anti-imperialist solidarity movements—adding to what we have learned from past historical intersections and the different discursive and practical routes they took over the years?
Bevins tracks the intellectual, political, and romantic journey of two Indonesians, Francisca and Zain, who are among other important figures in the massive slaughter backed by the United States in Indonesia and Latin America. They left the country to study in Holland after Sukarno claimed independence in 1945. The waves of anti-imperialist struggle that shaped the minds and actions of a generation of radical intellectuals like this couple were inseparable from the struggles for national liberation and toward socialism:
[The couple] began dating in earnest in the late 1940s, [when] colonial independence struggle was intimately tied to left-wing politics. So she, a wholehearted supporter of Indonesian freedom, fell naturally into socialist circles, as the two struggles had long been married together. In the 1930s and 1940s, practically no Europeans supported colonial independence except the leftists. The Indonesian Communist Party, the Partai Komunis Indonesia, was founded in 1914 as the Indies Social Democratic Association with the help of Dutch leftists, worked alongside Sukarno and pro-independence Muslim groups in the 1920s, and then engaged in active antifascist work during the Japanese occupation.2
With the decline of socialism in the 1980s and throughout the ’90s, and the ascendancy of neoliberal globalization, the link between national liberation struggles and socialism that once targeted Euro-U.S. imperialism had taken on obscurantist versions of conflict. The so-called failure of socialism was equated with the end of history under capitalism and representations of the world fracturing only along cultural or civilizational divides. This new constellation purportedly ended the “three worlds,” the history of which, as Bevins narrates, began in the postwar period after the United States demonstrated its superior military strength and “the apocalyptic damage it could unfurl from the air when it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”3 This reminder sheds light on our present moment in all its patterns, origins, continuities, as well as its ruptures from the past and the potentials it generates for the future.
The first world consisted of the U.S.-led “rich countries in North America, Western Europe, Australia, and Japan, all of which had gotten wealthy while engaging in colonialism.” The second world were the socialist states of the Soviet Union and European territories that aligned with the Red Army. In contrast to the first world, the USSR of the second world “had publicly aligned itself with the global anti-colonial struggle and had not engaged in overseas imperialism.”4 The third world was not just unaligned, Bevins insists, but also, more significantly, formed a liberatory horizon for the oppressed majority.
The term was coined in the early 1950s, and originally, all of its connotations were positive. When the leaders of these new nation-states took up the term, they spoke it with pride; it contained a dream of a better future in which the world’s downtrodden and enslaved masses would take control of their own destiny. The term was used in the sense of the “Third Estate” during the French Revolution, the revolutionary common people who would overthrow the First and Second Estates of the monarchy and the clergy. “Third” did not mean third-rate, but something more like the third and final act: the first group of rich white countries had their crack at creating the world, as did the second, and this was the new movement, full of energy and potential, just waiting to be unleashed. For much of the planet, the Third World was not just a category; it was a movement.5
Third world, in this definition, bears the specter of popular and revolutionary struggles in the semi-colonies, helping explain the cruel methods of U.S. counterinsurgency, even in the age of so-called free markets and elections. The Jakarta Method provides a comprehensive account of the period in which struggles for national independence against imperialism worldwide were brutally overthrown. The steady rise of U.S.-led capitalism in the postwar period and its Cold War with its socialist rivals also meant a deeper integration and consolidation of third world nations into the global capitalist system through covert and overt methods of untold brutality.
This history continues to impact the present. One of the neoliberal world’s most vicious tyrants, Philippine president Rodrigo Roa Duterte, resorts to this tried and tested method of suppressing political dissent through counterinsurgency. Taking heed of Suharto’s dark legacy, Duterte ordered the armed forces of the Philippines to replicate Suharto’s campaign against the communists in Indonesia: “Do not fight them, destroy them…kill them.” This command came shortly after he signed an executive order in December 2018 that established the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, a national framework of a localized approach to counterinsurgency. For the last three years, this has meant pitting local government servants against red-tagged civilians in the Philippines’ rural areas, strategic hamletization of Indigenous communities, the deployment of fake “rebel surrenderees,” and mass killings of peasant communities.6
Duterte’s command was an expression of the historical lessons taken from the U.S. colonial war waged against the Filipino people, from the Spanish-American War to the CIA-sponsored destruction of the Hukbalahap Rebellion, as Bevins thoughtfully notes throughout the book. Bevins points to something else, too: the moment’s potential for solidarity and internationalism. No other revolutionaries in the world reported on the CIA counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines, for example, as the Indonesians did. The People’s Daily, maintained by radical Indonesian journalists like The Jakarta Method‘s Francesca and Zain, reported on Washington’s counterinsurgency operations in Iran and the Philippines.
U.S. covert operations, including methods of psychological warfare and torture, were first tested in the Philippines and subsequently applied to Indonesia and Vietnam (but failed in the latter). Bevins illuminates this often-forgotten period in Philippine history—a period that has been effectively revised as the process of “democratization,” led by U.S. counterinsurgency agent-turned-Philippine president Ramon Magsaysay and U.S. military advisor Edward Landsdale.
This U.S. counterinsurgency operation in the Philippines targeted the left-wing Hukbalahap Rebellion during the Japanese occupation. After the Japanese left the Philippines, the Huk opposed the U.S.-sponsored Magsaysay regime. Magsaysay was handpicked by Landsdale to implement a counterinsurgency operation involving the use of military artillery including napalm and psychological warfare operations that utilized intelligence reports on Philippine folk beliefs. As Bevins notes, CIA agents spread “the rumor that an aswang, a bloodsucking ghoul of Filipino legend, was on the loose and destroying men with evil in their hearts. They then took a Huk rebel they had killed, poked two holes in his neck, drained him of his blood, and left him lying in the road.”7
At the time, the communist insurgency in the Philippines had been well underway since the 1930s. But unlike in Indonesia, the Philippines never had a president who embraced the aspirations of national liberation and shared it with other third world leaders like Sukarno did. No government critical of the West and no people’s movement can be spared from U.S. empire’s anticommunist fervor, which has destroyed countless lives and economies.
As Bevins explains, though in a fragmented fashion, U.S. counterinsurgency melds economic policy and statecraft seamlessly to reinforce a foreign policy based on the U.S. imperialist commitment to so-called national security. This is based on a
growing consensus within the United States that the military should be given more power and influence in the Third World, even if it meant undermining democracy. In the 1950s, an academic field of study called Modernization Theory began to gain influence in Washington. In its basic approach, Modernization Theory replicated the Marxist formulation that societies progress through stages; but it did so in a way that was highly influenced by the anticommunist, liberal American milieu in which it emerged. The social scientists who pioneered the field put forward that “traditional,” primitive societies would advance through a specific set of stages, ideally arriving at a version of “modern” society that looked a whole lot like the United States.8
Modernization theory is the equivalent of counterinsurgency in the realm of economic theory, which Bevins discusses in relation to the “U.S. Mass Murder Program.” The International Monetary Fund and World Bank call this variant of tough love “structural adjustment,” but this is simply code for a program that effectively debilitates people’s movements aimed at third world economic self-reliance and self-determination.
Though the spirit of the Bandung Conference, or simply Bandung, “was born in France in 1951…it really only came into its own in 1955, in Indonesia.” As Sukarno recognized in his opening speech, it was the “first intercontinental conference of colored peoples in the history of mankind,” and aimed to address the ruthlessness of colonialism. Bandung helped establish the conditions for subsequent historic gatherings of third world peoples, including the 1958 first Asian-African Conference on Women in Colombo, the 1961 Cairo Women’s Conference, and the 1961 founding of the global Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade, among others.9
The communist horizon in the anticolonial struggle represented by Bandung did not escape the architects of U.S. expansionism. As Bevins importantly discerns, there was a difference between the nationalism of (Western) Europe and that of Bandung:
For leaders like Sukarno and [Jawaharlal] Nehru, the idea of the “nation” was not based on race or language—it indeed could not be in territories as diverse as theirs—but is constructed by the anticolonial struggle and the drive for social justice. With Bandung, the Third World could be united by its own common purposes, such as antiracism and economic sovereignty, Sukarno believed. They could also come together and organize collectively for better terms within the global economic system, forcing rich countries to lower their tariffs on Third World goods, while the newly independent countries could use tariffs to foster their own development.10
In other words, the struggle for a nation means, as Samir Amin proposed, a delinking from the imperialist world system. This is a program for genuine and serious reformers whose stakes on prosperity, peace, and social justice align with the revolutionary socialist program. Yet, for the longest time, imperialist thinking has consistently reinforced a false binary between reform and revolution, akin to the colonial and imperialist divide-and-rule method.
The Jakarta Method, while sharply critical of U.S. counterinsurgency and the mass targeting of entire populations in the name of anticommunism, seems to conflate the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, China under Mao Zedong, and Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh.11 This is an interesting dynamic given that the very framework of lumping together all socialist experiments (especially third world ones) has been central to U.S. Cold War strategy.
Bevins’s Jakarta Method does not end on a conciliatory note. It concludes, instead, with the author’s real-life encounter with an Indonesian named Winarso, who asserted that “the Cold War was a conflict between socialism and capitalism, and capitalism won.”12 “How did we win?,” Bevins asked. And Winarso answered: “You killed us.”
Bevins provides a wide-ranging, necessary historical account of the global entanglements of people’s uprisings and U.S. counterinsurgency, and concludes that third world struggles ended with the limited prospects of that period: “It was safe to say that the Third World movement was in disarray, if not destroyed.”13 He has a point.
Nevertheless, revolutionary imperialist movements did not end with the 1960s. The longest-running communist insurgency in Asia and the world is that of the Communist Party of the Philippines, reestablished in 1968.14 Jose Maria Sison, its founding chairperson, openly talks about his stint in Indonesia as a scholar of Indonesian language and its radical mass movement.15 This is the communist movement that President Duterte has sworn to slaughter and wipe out, Suharto style. No U.S.-backed Filipino president in the post-Ferdinand Marcos (the Philippines’ Suharto) era has rejected U.S.-imposed counterinsurgency programs.
As the people’s protracted war for national liberation and socialism rages in the form of armed struggle in the countryside and an unarmed mass movement in the cities, the legacy of the Marcos dictatorship reemerged with his son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who is leading in the polls of the next presidential election. The relevance of Bevins’s Jakarta Method in the Filipino people’s contemporary struggle against historical revisionism, massive disinformation, plunder, and impunity cannot be overstated. We must not forget, we must say “never again” to what they did to the Indonesian people. Bevins’s moving and harrowing exchange with Winarso, who rightly refers to U.S. counterinsurgency as genocide, takes inspiration from an interview conducted by U.S. historian David Sturtevant, author of the 1976 book Popular Uprisings in the Philippines, 1840–1940.
Sturtevant examined U.S. interrogation reports of alleged Sakdalistas of the 1935 Sakdal (peasant) uprising in the Philippines. Suspects’ names were listed in one column and their responses to the interrogation in another column. “Were you involved in the uprising?” “No.” The papers followed this pattern for pages until Sturtevant saw the name of a woman—Salud Algabre—and her corresponding affirmative response when asked if she had taken part in the uprising. Sturtevant traveled to the Philippines and met Algabre, by then already 72 years old. He asked her why the uprising had failed and Algabre responded: “No uprising fails, each is a step in the right direction.”16