Jusuf Isak (1928-2009): Indonesian socialist journalist and publisher

By Max Lane, in Jakarta

Watching Jusuf Isak’s body wrapped in white linen being passed down to his sons, standing deep in the grave dug in Java’s rich, red muddy soil, was like watching life itself being buried, for Jusuf was somebody who never stopped living life to the full, to the very last moment. He died on August 15, aged 81.

Despite suffering with a heart condition, he could not stop working. Only the day before he died, he was invited to be the main resource person at a seminar organised by the weekly Tempo magazine to discuss the life and ideas of Njoto, one of the leaders of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) who was murdered in General Suharto’s mass anti-leftist purge in 1965 and whom Jusuf knew well. Jusuf was there at the centre of the seminar until early evening. He was scheduled to meet a delegation of left-wing activists and intellectuals the next morning.

In the weeks before he died, he was working on manuscripts to be published by Hasta Mitra, the publishing company he had helped form in 1980. Hasta Mitra, which now has a reputation for quality publishing, was run by Jusuf, with one assistant, Subowo, out of a 1.5- by 4-metre windowless office at the back of his home. His front living room became the site of thousands of discussions with leftist activists and intellectuals from around the world and from around Indonesia.

Jusuf began work as a very young journalist during the period of the revolutionary struggle  against Dutch colonial rule (1945-50). He had learned Indonesian for the first time in 1942, having been brought up in a Dutchified home. He read widely in English and Dutch after 1942, “borrowing” the books a cousin was able to retrieve from the abandoned homes of the Dutch elite who had fled the March 1942 Japanese invasion. He was first aligned to the pro-Western social-democratic Socialist Party of Indonesia (PSI) but was later won to radical socialism through the ideas of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, who was deposed from power by General Suharto in 1965 (though formally remained president until 1967).

In the 1950s Jusuf was one of the youngest editors of a major daily, but was soon in conflict with the owner as he took the paper in a more left-wing direction. After leaving this paper, he was elected to office-bearer positions in the Indonesian Journalists Association and eventually became the secretary-general of the Asia Africa Journalists Association (AAJA). In this position, he travelled throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, including Cuba, advocating journalists act in solidarity with the national liberation movements of the Third World. In Indonesia, he played a leading role in the campaign to convince journalists to support the struggle for socialism.

Jusuf was in and out of the army’s detention centres during 1965-68, when Suharto’s army was implementing its systematic arrest, torture and murder of the left. At least 1 million people are believed to have been killed and hundreds of thousands arrested during that period. Another 20,000 were kept in prison until 1978-79, including Jusuf. He was released in 1978.

He played a key role — explicitly acknowledged by former US president Jimmy Carter in his preface to a recent book on the Suharto years — in convincing the US government to press Suharto to release the prisoners on Buru Island. They came out in 1979. After his own release, Jusuf had the opportunity to discuss the issue with US officials. He had the knack of being able to find the wavelength of almost anybody he spoke to and win them over. He was famous in Salemba prison in Jakarta for having being able to do this even with the prison block commandant.

After the novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer and another journalist, Hasyim Rachman, were released from Buru Island and had returned to Jakarta, the three men joined forces and set up the publishing company, Hasta Mitra, in defiance of the Suharto dictatorship’s ban on former political prisoners being involved in publishing. They quickly moved to publish Pramoedya’s novels, This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass, all declaring boldly on the cover: “Works from Buru Island”. One by one these novels were banned. Hasta Mitra defied each ban, proceeding to publish the next novel.

Jusuf and Rachman were repeatedly called in by the military for interrogation. After Jusuf’s son, Verdi, organised a meeting on campus with Pramoedya as a speaker, Jusuf was imprisoned again for three months. His son was expelled from the University of Indonesia. But on release, Jusuf continued to publish more books.

It is almost impossible now to imagine Indonesia without Pramoedya’s books being a part of its political and cultural history. Despite the bans, in one way or another, huge numbers of people have read his books. But without the courage, tenacity and tactical brilliance of Jusuf Isak, those books would never have been published in Indonesia until after Suharto had fallen. Nobody else in Indonesia would have done it. Nobody else from the old left had the political resources and initiative to make the impact those three men did. They are without doubt national heroes who made a contribution of huge importance to their nation.

Indeed, without Hasta Mitra’s literary political defiance of the regime in the 1980s, it is likely that Pramoedya’s books, especially those now known as the “Buru Teratology” might never have made it beyond academic circles. Now they are in Penguin’s paperback collection. Pramoedya provided the manuscripts, while Rachman was the commercial leader and Jusuf Isak the political leader of the trio.

All three were remarkable for their faith in the young activists who had developed in the 1980s and ‘90s with a completely different political culture than that of Jusuf’s generation. Jusuf, in particular, was remarkable for his ability and enthusiasm for finding ways to relate to contemporary developments. Suharto created a new Indonesia, the reverse image of the Indonesia from before 1965. Suharto’s Indonesia was defined by corruption and greed, dependence on  foreign capital, and official and elite contempt for intellectual culture. In the face of this, Jusuf was alive always to every opportunity to intervene to regenerate a left culture. Historical research later will surprise people when it can be identified how many publications Jusuf ghost wrote for others.

After Suharto’s regime fell in 1998, Jusuf never stopped working, keeping Hasta Mitra going by himself. Rachman died of cancer in the 1999. Pramoedya began a family company to publish his books. Among the many books Jusuf brought out was an Indonesian translation of the three volumes of Marx’s Capital and a translation of the hundreds of pages of CIA-compiled US government documents connected to the Suharto take-over and the mass killings in 1965. He published many memoirs of left-wing activists and intellectuals who had been important in Indonesian history. Many more manuscripts flowed in than he could possibly handle.

Wherever he wrote a preface or a comment, he never tired of advocating the necessity to fight for social justice, for national dignity and the superiority of socialism over capitalism. It was a sad privilege for me to speak of him at his graveside. He gave so much to his nation and to everybody who had anything to do with him.

[Max Lane is the translator into English of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novels This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass, and is the author of Unfinished Nation: Indonesia before and after Suharto (Verso, 2008). He is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]