Democratic Revolution and Socialist Revolution: A Reply to Malik Miah

Steve Bloom

IN ATC 75 Malik Miah presents an analysis of events surrounding the fall of Indonesian President Suharto (“Indonesia’s Democratic Revolution”). As a descriptive report of what has been happening in that country his effort is valuable to activists. However, as an analytical assessment of what is at stake the article falls short.

Miah fails to pose the key question that objectively faces the working masses when they begin to struggle against dictatorship—though the events in Indonesia pose the problem clearly enough: How, in the process of a broad popular mobilization focused on ousting a dictator, can the most advanced elements begin to establish the hegemony and political dominance of the workers and peasants, against all wings of the exploiting classes?

Miah writes as if simply pursuing the “democratic revolution”is a sufficient goal for working-class revolutionaries, as long as we make some distinctions (though he never quite makes clear what the distinctions are) between different kinds of democracy:

Why Washington and the banks didn’t push for democracy, however, has everything to do with what capitalist democracy really is: It’s democracy for the rich. They fear a process of democracy where laws can be adopted and implemented that weaken the free market. (9)

He continues: “The debate underway in the country is over what type of democracy? Western-style parliamentary democracy? Democracy based on a tyranny of the majority where the rights of minorities (Chinese, Acehnese, Timorese) are not respected? Or democracy where the working people have control?

Many in the opposition are expressing concerns about having too much democracy . . . . (The PRD, the party that stands for the most thorough and radical democratic program, firmly supports self-determination for East Timor.) (10)

In a statement issued after Suharto’s resignation the PRD leadership explained: “The appointment of B.J. Habibe as his [Suharto’s] replacement is still far from democracy and is no less than maintaining the regime.”(11)

But the problem of limiting ourselves to such a vision is posed starkly (though Malik doesn’t seem to realize it) when he quotes a high school teacher in Jakarta who explains: “If we look at history in the Philippines [1986] or in Iran [1979], then people power is too strong to resist.”(7)

Such a statement is true only if the question is limited to getting rid of the old dictatorship. Events in the Philippines and Iran also demonstrate the limits of what “people power”spontaneously achieves solely on the basis of the “struggle for democracy.”

In both cases the masses simply exchanged one form of imperialist control and/or domination by an exploiting elite for another. So the problem that working class revolutionaries have to solve runs considerably deeper than Malik suggests with his quote from the high school teacher.

We must aim, in the process of participating in a democratic upsurge such as that taking place in Indonesia today, to either 1) help the people’s power movement as a whole go beyond its spontaneous consciousness in order to keep the bourgeois classes from reimposing a new dictatorship (even if in a classical bourgeois-democratic form as in the Philippines); or, if we are not strong enough to do that, 2) use the “people power”process to educate the broadest layer possible of the objective need for such a genuinely revolutionary transformation, in order to prepare a more decisive struggle the next time around.

In short, we must work to merge the “democratic revolution”with the socialist revolution, or else use it to help advance our preparations for the socialist revolution.

Critical Role of Consciousness

Of course, one key to a Marxist analysis of this problem is appreciating the truth alluded to above: the classical democratic process of bourgeois rule is, in its most fundamental aspects, as much a dictatorship by the capitalist class as its more totalitarian cousin.

Yet, as noted, the consciousness achieved spontaneously by “people power”is imbued with the belief that the difference between bourgeois democracy and outright dictatorship is far more profound than it actually is.

This is not to belittle this difference. It is real, and extremely important. But the masses, without the active intervention of a conscious revolutionary-socialist current, will not be able to see much further than the immediate struggle against a particular kind of regime, and yet this, too, is needed.

We must pursue our goal of mass consciousness-raising, of course, not as sideline critics of a “democratic struggle”where the masses do not understand what we understand, but as active participants in the immediate battle even when mass awareness falls short of where we believe it needs to be.

Possible Interpretations

One problem with Malik’s article is that his formulations are subject to two possible interpretations. The most radical, and what some readers probably assume since he does not say otherwise explicitly, is that he is using “democracy where the people have control”as a code to describe a real workers’ and peasants’ state power, one which would consciously move in the direction of socialism—a transitional governmental slogan if you will.

Another possibility, and this is how I read Malik’s article based on things he has written elsewhere and some deductions from the internal evidence, is that he actually does not envision any possibility of a struggle like the one begun by the Indonesian masses raising questions that go beyond the limits of bourgeois democracy.

Malik’s failure to make clear which of these two interpretations he is in fact advocating constitutes a disservice to the readers of ATC. And it is hard to imagine that this wasn’t done deliberately, in order to avoid dealing with the question, which in my view is the most important question in this kind of struggle. Certainly Malik has been around revolutionary politics long enough to have an opinion on it.

But whether my reading is correct—that the social content of Malik’s “democracy where the working people have control”envisions simply some kind of reformed bourgeois state—or he is actually advocating the alternative of a workers’ and peasants’ state power, I strongly disagree with the approach his article takes.

If he is, in fact, using his vision of “democracy”as simply a way of talking about a “workers’ government”without using these words then he runs a strong risk of confusing anyone (and it is most people, including many who should be reading ATC) for whom “democracy”has quite a different meaning.

The average person in the world today, hearing a formula like this, will reasonably conclude that by “democracy where working people have control”Malik means the same thing as those who suggest that this is achieved simply by a universal franchise within the context of a society where the rich remain dominant.

On the other hand, if he is asserting that there is some other kind of government, besides a real workers’ and peasants’ state power, which can achieve “democracy where the people have control”then his viewpoint flies in the face not only of logic, but of the entire 20th century experience of the revolutionary workers’ movement.

One thing we ought to have learned by now: Today, in a world where the imperialist domination of the market is so all-pervasive, “democracy where the working people have control”in Indonesia or anyplace else can only mean democracy where the political and economic power of imperialism and the native exploiters has been overthrown, and where the workers and peasants rule directly—in their own name and in defense of their own interests.

What can we tell about Malik’s perspective from the internal evidence?

Unless he is guilty of some rather clumsy formulations, Malik seems to actively reject the conclusion just stated—though he never says so directly in this article. He clearly seems to reveal the bourgeois-democratic social content of the “fundamental change”that he envisions when he writes:

Will the major U.S. and other foreign companies that exploit Indonesia’s resources be pressed to pay higher wages? Will the people get back some of their wealth?

The opposition to Suhartoism are demanding the wealth stolen from the people by Suharto and his family be nationalized. It’s estimated the family is worth over $40 billion—Suharto alone some $17 billion. (7)

And later: “Other prominent bourgeois figures include former government ministers and retired generals. Since all of them at some point owe their careers to Suharto, it is unclear what role they will play in bringing fundamental change.”(10)

No, this is not unclear—unless Malik actually believes that “fundamental change”can come about without the overthrow of bourgeois rule and the imperialist domination of Indonesia—that purely political changes, some form of representative democracy, does indeed constitute “fundamental change,”(in the sense that Marxists have always used that term).

Does a formulation like this help the masses to break through the limits of their spontaneous consciousness (the idea that a “fundamental change”in their economic and social status is possible if they can just replace one kind of bourgeois government with another)?

Or does Malik’s ideology reinforce (perhaps even reflect) such illusions? Should revolutionary Marxists writing on Indonesia today focus on the problem of “press[ing] the major U.S. and other foreign companies that exploit Indonesia’s resources . . . to pay higher wages”and creating conditions where “the people get back some of their wealth”?

Are we interested solely in “the wealth stolen from the people by Suharto and his family”? Or do we rather have to educate (even if it is not an immediately realizable possibility) on the need to keep the U.S. and other foreign companies from exploiting Indonesia at all, and for the people to take back (not “get back”) all of the wealth of the country that rightfully belongs to them?

Yes, of course we are interested in higher wages, the nationalization of Suharto’s fortune, and other partial measures if we cannot (yet) achieve a genuine workers and peasants power. Each of these things can legitimately be raised as demands by a revolutionary current—provided it is in combination with and not instead of the process of deeper education about longer-range tasks that is needed. But Malik talks only about the short range goals. He is silent on any and all tasks that flow from our commitment to socialism.

And, as Malik himself notes, reforms like those he talks about are most likely to come about when Washington and the Indonesian ruling classes fear a more profound kind of change. The best way to win meaningful reforms is not to hope for a reformist bourgeois government that will implement them as a result of the “democratic”wishes of the masses, but to successfully build a movement that can agitate/propagandize in a serious way for socialist revolution.

The imperialists do not require dictatorship today in order to make sure that laws are not adopted which weaken the free market. They achieve this quite nicely through “democracy”in most third-world countries—even convincing the masses in many cases that they are making a free choice to not adopt policies that weaken the market, doing so for their own good.

So what kind of counter-democracy in Indonesia, or any other country, would be able to counteract this logic of imperialist-domination through democracy? What would be its social tasks? What classes in society are capable of carrying out those tasks? What class, then, needs to try to take power? What classes are an obstacle to this truly revolutionary power? Why is Malik afraid to talk about any of this?

Who Can “Weaken”the Market?

There is simply no kind of political/economic system other than outright rule by the workers and peasants in their own interests—the complete ousting of the exploiters if you will—that can “weaken the free market”these days (even if we give that formulation by Malik the benefit of the doubt and decide not to talk about overthrowing the market).

Doesn’t the economic domination of Indonesia by imperialism guarantee that no “democracy”—except the kind that actually does all it can to remove a country from the imperialist sphere of influence (that is, a socialist democracy)—can “weaken the free market”because the free market will strike back with all kinds of sanctions, and any government based on a native bourgeois power is helpless to combat this?

Isn’t this why country after country is forced to toe the neoliberal line today—despite formal guarantees of mass democracy?

Thus we don’t have to look to ancient history to see this problem illustrated fully. To cite only one (fairly stark) case we could take the Lavalas “revolution”in Haiti.

All of the democratic rhetoric of Aristide, all of his ideological identification with the Haitian masses (and vice versa) could not provide an alternative to the iron grip which the “free market”held over their country. No matter how sincerely Aristide wanted to help the masses, his ideology remained trapped within an economic framework dictated by imperialism, and this rendered Haiti helpless.

So once again we return to the point that Malik’s analysis is completely inadequate. This is true if he simply rejects this social content of what it means to have a “democracy where the working people have control,”so that “laws can be adopted and implemented that weaken the free market.”And it is equally true if he is only ignoring the need for revolutionary socialists to explain the social content of this “democracy”to the workers and peasants of Indonesia and the rest of the world.

Role of the PRD

Malik prominently features the role of the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) as the most advanced political force in Indonesia. It is not my purpose here to polemicize with the political viewpoint of the PRD. My argument is with Malik, and his limited vision (and therefore limited presentation in ATC) of the Indonesian reality.

Groups like the PRD, which clearly have a genuine revolutionary consciousness, have sometimes proven capable of forging the necessary ideological perspectives in the heat of a mass upsurge—even when they may enter that upsurge lacking one aspect or another of the proper program (and the very best of revolutionaries will inevitably be lacking one aspect or another of the proper program in a situation like this).

The most famous example of such a process, though it is rarely thought of in this way, is what happened to the Bolshevik party in Russia in 1917.

At the outset of the February revolution the leadership of the Bolsheviks believed that what they were fighting for in Russia was the bourgeois-democratic revolution, full stop. From this they concluded that the more progressive elements among the Russian bourgeoisie would be natural allies of the workers and peasants, a force which could organize an alternative power to that of the tsar, institute a democratic republic, and create the conditions where the working class could then—some time in the future—struggle for socialism.

It was not until Lenin’s return to St. Petersburg in April that this ideological framework shifted and the Bolsheviks began to call for “all power to the Soviets.”To everyone in Russia at the time this represented a sharp break from previous policy, a call to form a working-class state power completely independent of any bourgeois forces—and that is what the Bolsheviks intended for it to mean.

They had (properly in my judgment) concluded that all elements of the Russian bourgeoisie were incapable of advancing the struggle for bourgeois democracy, and that this task had to be pursued by the workers and peasants simultaneously with a pursuit of the socialist revolution.

I would argue that in a number of other revolutionary situations (Nicaragua in 1979 and Cuba two decades earlier stand out as clear examples) leaderships based on the workers and peasants that did not start out with the perspective of fighting for an independent working-class and peasant state power, came to realize that this was both possible and necessary in the heat of events, and proved willing to take power in their own names.

I would assert further that this decision was the decisive factor in such cases.

On the other hand, there are also numerous historical examples (far more numerous, in fact) where promising revolutionary situations have tragically foundered on precisely this question: What kind of class alliances can be productive for the workers and peasants? What is the social content that working class revolutionaries project for the struggle against dictatorship (the struggle for democracy)?

Examples range from Spain in the 1930s, and Greece in the 1940s, to Chile in the 1970s. So the ideological obstacles can be serious, even decisive, and should not therefore be underestimated.

The PRD’s political approach today seems to reflect a struggle with this fundamental problem, come to life for them in the context of the current Indonesian upsurge. Some of the PRD’s statements seem to envision a transitional process—where the task is, indeed, to construct a workers’ and peasants’ pole, and to keep that pole independent of “prominent bourgeois figures.”

In others, however, there is talk of the need for a coalition government that would include such figures, as if such a coalition could bring real “democracy”and was therefore deserving of mass support.

At this point the dilemma should be clear enough: If working class and peasant forces which are too weak to pose their own alternative on a governmental level commit themselves to participation in a bourgeois-dominated coalition government, or to support of such a government as a positive alternative to the old dictatorship, they render themselves completely subordinate to their bourgeois allies and unable to lead, or even support, any struggles against the government’s pro-bourgeois and pro-imperialist policies.

A party which adheres for any length of time to such a course will, at best, quickly become ineffectual as a political force or, at worst, badly discredited in the eyes of the masses.

Clearly this is the situation what would confront the PRD, given the present relationship of forces in Indonesia, were it to support a coalition government dominated by elements of the bourgeois opposition.

If, on the other hand, the working class and peasant forces in such a coalition are strong enough to compel the government to follow policies that favor the toiling masses (the kind of regime under which “laws could be adopted and implemented that weaken the free market”,) then wouldn’t it be better for those forces to take power outright, in their own name?

True, it is not theoretically excluded that some bourgeois elements might decide to go along as junior partners in a coalition government where policy is actually dictated by the masses. In that case you will get no argument from me. Let such bourgeois elements join the government.

But clearly that is not the kind of coalition that the PRD can reasonably be talking about in Indonesia today. And, if it were to ever come into existence, it would be quite wrong for us to talk about its tasks as pressing “the major U.S. and other foreign companies that exploit Indonesia’s resources . . . to pay higher wages”and getting “the people . . . back some of their wealth.”The tasks of such a state would be a bit more profound than that.

The PRD will, no doubt, be grappling with this general problem for the foreseeable future. Only they, or some other revolutionary force in Indonesia, can work out the necessary tactical and strategic orientation in their specific context.

But the efforts to do that will not be aided by revolutionaries in other countries who ought to fully understand the general question in its historical context, but who either fail to draw the appropriate lessons from that history or else mistakenly believe that international solidarity somehow excludes any critical assessment concerning these issues in another part of the world.

ATC 76, September-October 1998

1 comment

  1. The development of civilization makes democracy and the humanization of mankind inevitable. The best minds tirelessly look for a new and effective form of state government that would adequately represent today’s changing society. Meanwhile, the solution is near and the necessary resources to establish a new form of government are already available in the most of countries.

    The political revolution is not so much about kalashnikovs and passionate rhetoric. A democratic revolution should be seen as a new stage of humanity’s development, primarily a new way of thinking and innovation in a system of social relations and governance. If it fails to do that then it is merely yet another ‘palace coup’ bringing grist to someone else’s mill. Replacing leaders doesn’t alters the system allowing arbitrariness.

    A multipolar democratic governance that uses revolutionary decision making system and comprising several independent parties with a movable centre of joint decisions, would be more adequate form of government for a modern dynamic and multicultural society. A working multi-party system within the government guarantees multiculturalism, tolerance and social stability within community. The President isn’t present more.

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