The Spirit of Revolution

The Editors

REVOLUTION, AS ALL readers of the liberal and intellectual press know, is irrelevant now, an outdated dream long abandoned by its former practitioners who have moved on to more mature projects.  Take 1968: Isn’t Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “Danny the Red” of the French student uprising, now a prominent proponent of the unified European currency?

The year 1998 might be the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto and the great Seneca Falls, New York convention launching the women’s suffrage and equality movement.  But who remembers what the democratic revolutions, nationalist upheavals and desperate worker insurrections of 1848 were even about?nbsp; And isn’t the women’s movement today decked out in corporate power suits, Nike logos and academic postmodernism?

The year 1898, a century ago, marked the emergence of the United States as a world imperialist power, with the Spanish-American War that culminated with the annexation of Puerto Rico and the transfer of Cuba and the Philippines to U.S. economic and military-political control.  That process, while widely heralded as “America’s Manifest Destiny,” also generated both indigenous resistance and a powerful internal critique of racist imperialism, articulated among others by Mark Twain, Daniel De Leon and W.E.B. DuBois.

But hasn’t it been, after all, the American Century rather than the century of triumphant revolution?nbsp; Thirty years after the Vietnamese Tet offensive, the Prague Spring and the Chicago Democratic Convention, twenty-three years after the fall of Saigon and twenty years down the road from the Iranian revolution, what looks more stale than “power to the people,” “the imagination in power,” anti-imperialism and anti-colonial struggle?

Isn’t Vietnam today eager to suck in as much U.S. and other Western investment as it can?nbsp; Isn’t Bill Clinton, of all people, a hero in Bosnia, Belfast and Berlin?nbsp; Doesn’t practically the whole world willingly rejoice in United States capitalism and its culture as the symbol of democracy, prosperity and individual freedom (except where repressive dinosaur regimes try to keep it away)?

Yes, revolution looks safely dead and buried.  And then, along comes Indonesia-the revolution by which history may remember the year 1998.  The fall of the Suharto dictatorship marks one of those moments when hope returns to life and the possibility of freedom, against all expectations, emerges anew.

Shortly before the September, 1973 military coup in Chile, sinister graffiti appeared on the walls in Santiago, with one word: “Jakarta.” The intent was to terrorize the popular movement with the memory of the 1965 massacre in Indonesia.  For the extreme right Indonesia provided the model for exterminating a mass movement.  Can Indonesia now serve to inspire a new generation of fighters for change?

The 1979 Sandinista revolution generated more than a decade of inspired solidarity activism.  True, Indonesia is half a world away, but it is also literally a hundred times larger, the fourth most populous country on the planet, with a regional and global significance that dwarfs any site of recent revolutionary struggle with the possible exception of South Africa.

The Fall of Suharto

Recall that only one year earlier, Suharto’s long-running regime was considered a centerpiece of the “stability” and spectacular capitalist growth of South Asia. Six months ago, as the Asian currency meltdowns spread, international capitalism had begun viewing Indonesia as a trouble spot. But that was because of the collapsing rupiah and the entrenched corruption of the ruling clan, not because the regime itself looked to be falling down.

The issue then, as the financial press covered it, was to bring Suharto under International Monetary Fund discipline-not to worry about his being overthrown.  But overthrown he was. The background to the Indonesian revolution has been covered in the recent series of articles by Malik Miah (Against the Current 71-73), including particularly the development of a vibrant revolutionary political formation, the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD), but brief observations are in order.

What was notable, in the events immediately leading to Suharto’s collapse, was a combination of circumstances characteristic of many great revolutions in their first phases-the magnificent role of student rebels demanding democratic transformations, middle-class dissatisfaction with a blocked political system, desperate riots of the urban poor in the face of economic disintegration.  The country was no longer governable.

Certain other “classic” revolutionary features have yet to openly appear.  The Indonesian military apparatus-heavily backed and trained by the United States, not only for “conventional” fighting but particularly for its dirty wars against the population and in East Timor-may have been strategically divided over how long to back Suharto, but suffered no open split over whether to massacre the population in order to preserve the regime.

Such a test may come, however, if the government of Suharto’s handpicked political heir Habibie cannot ride out the struggle for fundamental democratic change.

Even more important, as far as the limited information we have received goes, there have been few if any significant strikes, either in the events leading up to or the aftermath of Suharto’s downfall.  This is not altogether surprising, in an economic situation where the fear of losing one’s job may well be greater than the fear of losing one’s life.

Further, while there have been important organizing efforts and militant stirring within the emerging Indonesian working class, its development is nothing like that achieved by industrial workers in South Korea-where unions are carrying out massive strikes against factory layoffs caused by the “reforms” demanded by the IMF and supported by the new Kim Dae Jung government.

But make no mistake: Such “reforms” and worse are certain to be imposed on Indonesia.  Its economy is already in a Great Depression, its prospects for recovery years or, by some estimates, decades away. As a market for Asian exports it has evaporated, threatening to drag the nearby economies into a regional slump.

In these conditions, international capital’s “reform” program for Indonesia will amount to putting its vast resources and industry into a giant garage sale for multinational investment, to be bought up for pennies on the dollar of their real value.

The authentic reform that the Indonesian people desperately need is the seizure and democratic nationalization of the Suharto clan’s factories, banks and wealth.  In other words, the physical survival of tens of millions of people depends on this revolution taking the deep and socially radical direction that the elites in Jakarta and all the centers of international capitalism hope to prevent.

When the editors of Against the Current began planning this issue around the theme of “Reflections in Radical History,” we weren’t anticipating that it would also be celebrating the fall of the world’s longest-running military-capitalist dictatorship.  But one could hardly find a more stunning demonstration that the experience of revolutionary history is far from closed.

The contributions touch on aspects of the U.S. experience, notably race and class, pragmatism and American Marxism, as well as the life of a nearly forgotten founding Communist; on the fate of the Russian and German Revolutions; on interwar Europe in the crucible of post-revolutionary Russia and the struggle against fascism; on the unfulfilled transformative potential of the anti-nuclear movements in the closing decade of the Cold War system.

Needless to say, the collection of essays and reviews we offer here is in no way comprehensive, nor is it intended to present a single unified view of strategy or tactics.  Nonetheless, readers of the several book reviews may be intrigued to see how several vitally important names in U.S. radicalism arise in multiple contexts: DuBois, De Leon and Louis Fraina, among others.

Additional material for which we had too little space here will appear in the next issue of the magazine.  We regret, in particular, that we have had to defer a dialogue stimulated by Michael Löwy’s essay in ATC 71, “Toward a Critical Marxism,” as well as several reviews.

Most important, we hope that on a small scale, these contributions on radical history-and on a large scale, the Indonesian events-will stimulate both thought and activism.  Whether it’s on your campus, in your community or your union; whether it’s about supporting living wages in Nike’s Asian factories or union rights for Han Young workers in Mexico; whether it’s in defence of affirmative action or immigrant rights; the struggle for justice and ultimately a world without exploiters and exploited continues.  Get involved!

ATC 75, July-August 1998