Marxism and Neo-Marxism: Relevance of Thought and Its Influence on Social, Cultural, and Media Changes in Indonesia

Indonesia has entered the gateway of freedom of expression since the Reformasi faucet was opened in 1998. Previously, communist and Marxist ideologies were strictly prohibited, let alone reading their books; discussing them was considered a “taboo.”

This is the dark history of Indonesia under that authoritarian regime: suppressing the freedom to access information. However, unlimited freedom can also be detrimental, as exemplified by certain figures at the national level in Indonesia.

Therefore, the good kind of freedom for both individuals and groups yields positive outcomes as well.

Before the reform era, it was considered taboo to delve into, let alone practice and disseminate, Marxist thought in Indonesia. The government of the New Order regime prohibited the dissemination and practice of Marxist-communist ideology, as stated in Regulation XXV/1966. Historical experiences led the New Order government to ban Marxist-communist ideologies from being practiced and disseminated in Indonesia, primarily due to alleged involvement in violent activities and coup attempts during the G-30S/PKI incident in 1965.

When Abdurrahman Wahid assumed the presidency of the Republic of Indonesia on October 20, 1999, he raised the idea of revoking Regulation XXV/1966, which sparked both support and opposition.

Regardless of the pros and cons, it became evident that discussing, studying, and even critiquing Marxist thought was no longer taboo. Moreover, with the winds of reform blowing, many books on Marxist-Leninist thought became widely available in Indonesia. When criticized, Marxist thought should not be categorically labeled as bad or evil because it must be viewed in its specific context.

In fact, for certain aspects, particularly related to social phenomena, cultural changes, and media, Marx’s ideas remain relevant and unparalleled.

This article explores the thoughts of Karl Marx and Neo-Marxism and attempts to examine their relevance in explaining phenomena of social, cultural, and communication changes in Indonesia.

Before delving into the explanation of Marxist teachings and their differences with Neo-Marxism, it is important to understand the origins of these terms. “Marxism” derives from the combination of “Marx” and “ism.” Marx is short for Karl Marx, while “ism” signifies a doctrine or belief system.

According to Miriam Budiardjo, Marxism is a doctrine or belief system that originated from or was developed by Karl Marx, who critiqued capitalism because it considered laborers and peasant workers as merely components of production, prioritizing economic welfare above all else. Therefore, the ideal society in Marx’s vision is a classless society. Marx stated that to build a new society upon the ruins of the old, a revolution must take place.

Life History of Karl Marx
Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, Germany. His father was a lawyer who had converted from Judaism to Protestant Christianity a few years earlier. During his university years at the University of Bonn, Marx was influenced by Hegel and studied philosophy rather than law, which his father preferred.

For nearly a year, Marx served as the editor-in-chief of a radical newspaper in 1843. After the newspaper was banned by the Prussian government, he married Jenny Von Westphalen, the daughter of a nobleman, and moved to Paris. There, he not only befriended Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), who would become his close friend and “translator” of his theories, but also interacted with French socialist figures. He transitioned from being a radical liberal to a socialist. At the request of the Prussian government, Marx was expelled from France and moved to Brussels, Belgium.

In the context of Indonesia, where issues of social inequality, political power, and cultural representation continue to be relevant, Marx’s critique of capitalism and class struggle, as well as Neo-Marxist perspectives on culture and media, can help scholars and activists alike in critically examining the dynamics of contemporary society. However, it’s essential to adapt and contextualize these theories to suit the specific conditions and challenges faced by Indonesia in the 21st century.

During these years, Marx developed his definitive theories. He and Engels were involved in various socialist group activities. Together with Engels, Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, published in January 1848. What followed was the outbreak of the so-called “1848 revolutions,” initially in France and later in Prussia and Austria. Marx returned to Germany illegally, but the revolution ultimately failed.

Due to his expulsion from Belgium, Marx eventually moved to London, where he spent the rest of his life. In London, Marx embarked on a new phase of his life. He left behind practical and revolutionary actions and shifted his focus to scientific studies, particularly in the field of economics. These years were the darkest in his life. He had no stable source of income and relied on sporadic financial support from Engels. His family lived in poverty and often experienced hunger.

His arrogant and authoritarian demeanor led to the estrangement of most of his former friends. Finally, in 1867, the first volume of Das Kapital, Marx’s major work critiquing capitalism, was published (the second and third volumes were published by Engels after Marx’s death). His last years were lonely, and he passed away in 1883. Only eight people attended his funeral.

The Communist Manifesto
Modern bourgeois society, which emerged from the ruins of feudal society, did not eliminate class antagonisms. On the contrary, it gave rise to new classes, new conditions for oppression, and new forms of struggle in place of old ones.

The bourgeoisie placed the state in the hands of city rulers. They created large cities, increased the urban population, and thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as in a nation with a dependence on cities, the bourgeoisie also created barbaric and semi-barbaric states dependent on civilized states, peasant nations dependent on the bourgeoisie, and the East dependent on the West.

According to Marx, the most decisive factor in all economic forms until now is the separation between owners and workers. Society is divided into social classes that distinguish themselves based on their position and function in the production process. In general, as society moves closer to a capitalist pattern of production, social classes consist of either owners or workers.

The former possess the means of production, while the latter only have their labor power. Therefore, the owning class holds power. For example, landowners control peasant workers, which means that owners can exploit the labor of workers who must work to survive. The owning classes are the upper classes, while the working classes are the lower classes in society.

According to Marx, a characteristic of all societal models until now is that society is divided into upper and lower classes. The economic structure is organized in such a way that the upper class can live off the exploitation of the labor of the lower class. The state serves as a tool of the upper classes to ensure their position. Meanwhile, the “superstructure” in Marxist terms, which includes religion, philosophy, moral views, law, aesthetics, and so on, serves to legitimize power relations. Therefore, Marx rejected the idea that the state represents the interests of the entire society.

The state is controlled by and biased toward the upper classes, although it may sometimes benefit the lower classes. Despite the state’s proclamation that it belongs to all social groups and that its policies are for the benefit of the entire society, in reality, the state protects the economic interests of the upper classes. According to Marx, the state is opposed to the lower classes.

The state does not belong to them and does not serve their interests. People cannot expect anything good from the state. Similarly, according to Marx, religion, philosophy, moral norms, and laws serve to legitimize the interests of the upper classes and do not possess inherent truth.

The Frankfurt School, also popularly known as the “Frankfurt School of Thought,” is the term given to a group of philosophers affiliated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, and other thinkers influenced by them. A pivotal moment considered the height of the Frankfurt School was in the 1930s when Max Horkheimer was appointed as the director of the social research institute. Prominent philosophers considered members of the Frankfurt School include:

  1. Max Horkheimer,
  2. Theodor Adorno,
  3. Herbert Marcuse,
  4. Erich Fromm, and
  5. Walter Benjamin.

According to David H. Richter, “In general, Neo-Marxist theorists are interested in examining the relationship between power and culture. They seek to uncover the ways in which cultural phenomena, such as literature, film, television, and the mass media, reflect, transmit, or challenge the prevailing ideologies of a society. Neo-Marxists also consider how cultural phenomena are used to maintain or resist the status quo in a society. They argue that cultural production is not neutral but is marked by class interests and can be used as a tool of social control or as a weapon of resistance. Neo-Marxists often analyze the ways in which culture is used to manufacture consent and maintain the power structures of a society.”

The Media and Neo-Marxism
The media is a significant field of study in Neo-Marxist thought. According to Richter, “Neo-Marxist theorists such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have been influential in the development of critical media theory. They argue that the mass media plays a key role in reproducing the dominant ideology of a society.

The mass media, they argue, is not a neutral conduit of information but is shaped by the economic and political interests of the ruling class. The mass media is controlled by large corporations that are interested in maintaining the status quo and protecting their own interests. As a result, the mass media tends to promote a conservative and conformist view of the world. It reinforces the dominant ideology and discourages critical thinking and dissent.”

In Indonesia today, media ownership and control are intertwined with politics and business interests. Several prominent figures and media conglomerates dominate both mainstream and online media, shaping the country’s media landscape.

  1. Surya Paloh: Surya Paloh is a notable figure in Indonesian media and politics. He owns Media Group, which includes Media Indonesia and the TV station Metro TV. Surya Paloh has also been involved in politics and was once the chairman of the National Democratic Party (NasDem).
  2. Hary Tanoesoedibjo: Hary Tanoesoedibjo, commonly known as Hary Tanoe, is another influential media mogul. He owns MNC Group, which encompasses various media outlets, including RCTI (Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia), Global TV, and several print publications. Hary Tanoe has also ventured into politics and established the Perindo (Indonesian Unity Party).
  3. Aburizal Bakrie: Aburizal Bakrie, a prominent Indonesian businessman, has interests in both media and politics. He is associated with the Bakrie Group, which has stakes in various media companies, including VIVA Group, which operates, a popular online news portal. Aburizal Bakrie has also been involved in national politics and was the chairman of the Golkar Party.
  4. Kompas-Gramedia Group: The Kompas-Gramedia Group is one of the largest and most influential media conglomerates in Indonesia. It owns Kompas, one of the country’s leading newspapers, and controls various other publications, book publishers, and TV stations. The group maintains a significant presence in both print and online media.
  5. Jawa Pos Group: The Jawa Pos Group is another major player in the Indonesian media landscape. It owns the Jawa Pos newspaper and has diversified into various other media sectors. The group wields significant influence in East Java and beyond.

In addition to these prominent individuals and conglomerates, the media landscape in Indonesia is characterized by various other smaller media outlets, some with specific regional or thematic focuses. However, it’s important to note that media ownership and control in Indonesia have raised concerns about the concentration of power, potential biases, and conflicts of interest. The intertwining of media with political and business interests can impact the diversity and independence of media content and coverage in the country.

The Marxist and Neo-Marxist traditions provide valuable insights into understanding social, cultural, and media changes in Indonesia. While Indonesia’s political landscape has shifted significantly since the reform era, with greater openness to various ideological perspectives, these critical approaches still offer valuable tools for analyzing power structures, class dynamics, and the role of media in shaping public opinion.

In the context of Indonesia, where issues of social inequality, political power, and cultural representation continue to be relevant, Marx’s critique of capitalism and class struggle, as well as Neo-Marxist perspectives on culture and media, can help scholars and activists alike in critically examining the dynamics of contemporary society. However, it’s essential to adapt and contextualize these theories to suit the specific conditions and challenges faced by Indonesia in the 21st century.

Overall, the relevance of Marxist and Neo-Marxist thought in Indonesia lies in their capacity to provide alternative lenses through which to analyze and critique social, economic, and cultural phenomena, fostering a deeper understanding of the complex forces at play in the country’s ongoing transformation.


Brewer, Anhony. 1980. Marxist Theories of Imperialism. London: Roudledge & Kegan Pault Ltd.

Budiardjo, Miriam. 1972.  Dasar-Dasar Ilmu Politik. Jakarta: PT Gramedia.

Hardiman, Budi Fransisco. 1993. Menuju Masyarakat Komunikatif. Ilmu, Masyarakat, Politik & Postmodernisme menurut Jürgen Habermas. Yogyakarta: Kanisius.

——————————. 2003. Kritik Ideologi. Menyingkap Kepentingan Pengetahuan bersama Jürgen Habermas. Yogyakarta: Buku Baik.

Limqueco, Peter dan Bruce McFarlane. 1983. “Neo-Marxist Theories of Development”. Journal of Contemporary Asia, Beckenham.

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Masri Sareb Putra
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