Issue 235 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Letters

A tale of two revolutions

Dita Sari is a legend to millions in Indonesia because she exemplifies the best traditions of organising workers and the poor in the face of army repression. It is fantastic to read what she has to say (October SR), where she sets out so clearly the dominant view on the Indonesian left of the way forward. Sari's account of the development of the PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party), from clandestine organisation to open work amongst the masses as the recognised representative of the extreme left of the democracy movement in the recent elections, illustrates the problems of strategy, tactics and principle facing revolutionaries. However, her emphasis on Lenin's analysis prior to 1917 leads her to reject the relevance of Trotsky's understanding of permanent revolution to the Indonesian experience--'this is still a completely bourgeois revolution'.

This view seems to be supported by the erstwhile failure of Indonesian workers to generalise from economic to political demands--'the students are at the front of the train, but the workers are in the last carriage, maybe even the restaurant car!' Therefore the organisational conclusion she draws is, 'Before the workers were the top priority, and then the students. Now it [is] the students, the urban poor, then the workers.' This leads Sari to view the February and October revolutions in Russia as disconnected events rather than as part of the same process. February solved the political problem of tsarism--the economic questions could be left to a later date.

There are very real dangers inherent in this approach, in that impatience faced with the lack of mass strikes so far can lead to passivity when confronted with the question of leadership--how to connect political and economic demands by agitating around concrete slogans that bridge the divide. Raising the demand, not only to withdraw the dual function of the military, but also to slash its budget to feed the starving and raise wages, for instance, could serve this purpose. This means putting socialist demands at the forefront as a matter of urgency. A conscious minority raising such demands within the new national trade union federation could win much wider layers to the banner of revolution. Without this approach, it is quite possible for the new trade unions to ossify into bureaucratic structures as is illustrated by the example of Cosatu in South Africa.

The growth of the PRD from 50 to 200 branches is a testimony to the audience that exists for the left in Indonesia today. Objectively, the situation is even more favourable than it was in Russia. There is a working class that numbers some 83 million as opposed to 10 million, and an infinitely better developed economy.
Alexis Wearmouth
Hackney

  • Dita Sari is wrong on the idea that the socialist phase of the October Revolution in Russia began only in the summer of 1918. Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks' policy of civil war in the countryside was the beginning of a socialist revolution on the land. With hindsight it is clear that Lenin was making a virtue out of a necessity. Requisitioning was a temporary expediency forced on the Bolsheviks by foreign armed intervention and the outbreak of famine in Russia. But their attempts to encourage collectivised agriculture remained a dead letter. The 'October Revolution in the countryside' was a failure.

    Does this mean the October Revolution of 1917 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution? Of course not. The revolution seized political power from the capitalists in the cities and replaced the tsarist army and bureaucracy with a state democratically controlled by workers through their councils, or soviets. The peasantry backed the revolution only in so far as it gave them the land to divide among themselves--not because they wanted to work the land collectively.

    This question is important in Indonesia today. If socialists believe they can fight only for democratic change, leaving Indonesian capitalism in power and postponing arguments for workers' power, they are vulnerable to attack by the 'democratic' capitalists around Sukarnoputri and Rais who want to restabilise the Indonesian state.

    To deny the necessity of socialist politics and workers' power in Indonesia today is to hand the initiative to the liberal wing of the capitalists in the political struggles against Habibie and Wiranto. It is also to downplay the economic struggles against IMF imposed poverty and unemployment.
    Dave Crouch
    North London

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    HISTORY DIDN'T REPEAT ITSELF

    The seizure of the Burmese embassy by a student faction called 'Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors' shows the desperation of those fighting the authoritarian regime in Burma. Following the government crackdown on the pro-democracy movement after the election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy ten years ago, many students fled to the jungle areas that border Thailand. There they joined armed ethnic minority groups who have been fighting the central Burmese government for decades. Others crossed the border and sought political asylum in Thailand.
    However, lack of progress in the armed struggle resulted in the recent decision by the All Burma Students Democratic Front to abandon this tactic. They proclaimed that they were going to renounce violence and turn to diplomatic lobbying instead. A minority of students were not happy with this switch in tactics, and have chosen instead to mount armed spectacles like the seizure of the embassy. The truth is that neither tactic has any hope of achieving democracy in Burma.
    Students played a key part in igniting the great 8-8-88 uprising against the military regime in Burma 11 years ago. However, it was a general workers' strike on 8 August, which spread from the docks to the civil service, that actually shook the regime. Tragically, the power of organised workers and militant students was frittered away by leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, who constantly called for restraint and channelled the struggle into legal and parliamentary forms. The resulting demobilisation of the movement is what gave the regime the opportunity to start the crackdown.
    After more than ten years of struggling for democracy, neither diplomatic pressure by Suu Kyi nor the armed struggle by the students has had any great effect. Most of the dissidents feel that they have lost their way. The supposed 'uprising' due to occur on 9-9-99 was a flop. You can't dream up an uprising without a mass movement. Yet a clear lesson from the 8-8-88 events is that the Burmese masses, especially the workers, do have the power to shake the dictatorship. Lessons from Thailand in 1973 and 1992, the Philippines in 1986 and Indonesia in 1998 show that it is mass uprisings which overthrow authoritarian regimes.
    But there is a clear way forward. It is estimated that in Thailand there are up to a million Burmese workers living and working, legally and illegally. What the dissidents should be doing is not lobbying foreign diplomats or seizing embassies, but organising among these workers. The Burmese government understands this well and fears the power of the working class. Just before 9-9-99 they closed the border to prevent any workers returning home. It is high time the dissident student movement made a turn to the working class.
    Giles Ungpakorn
    Bangkok, Thailand


    MORE ON THE LAW

    Michael Lavalette was correct to say that my letter was 'one sided' in its arguments against the UN and 'international law' (October SR). This is because it was written to criticise and correct an equally one sided article by Natassja Smiljanic (July-August SR). I challenge anyone to re-read her original article and find one word that could not have been written by someone from the Bennite wing of the Labour Party. But Michael's letter shows signs of the same mistake--he misunderstands the socialist attitude to 'law', particularly on the international scale.
    Nato undoubtedly breached some aspects of 'international law' during its bombing of the Balkans, but that is not the reason why socialists opposed this intervention. Conversely, the UN invasion of East Timor seems to be perfectly 'legal' in terms of international law, but socialists should still oppose the UN presence because the criteria we use to judge these actions is not their legality in bourgeois law, but their effects on the ordinary masses--neither K-For in Kosovo nor Unamet in East Timor are acting in the interests of the workers and peasants. Their presence prevents genuine self determination and is intended to make these areas 'safe' for capitalism, at the same time as condemning the local population to a future of poverty and exploitation.
    Michael states that 'surely Max would agree with nuclear test bans and proliferation treaties'. In fact I would not in any way defend these treaties, firstly because they are not worth the paper they are written on--India and Pakistan have already proved them to be unenforceable. But secondly, they are blatantly imperialist--a small number of superpowers have decided to prevent the rest of the world from joining the 'nuclear club', but do absolutely nothing to dismantle their own weapons--the whole treaty reeks of the worst kind of hypocrisy.
    Capitalist powers will never 'negotiate' away their nuclear stockpiles, or ever prevent proliferation--these tasks can only be carried out by the action of the international working class and peasants.
    Similarly with the agreement on greenhouse gases--the US, with 4 percent of the world's population, creates 25 percent of its greenhouse emissions, but has still done nothing to implement the Kyoto agreement which limits greenhouse gas emissions.
    All the international agreements are merely decorative devices--part of the 'beautiful and complex web of language' that is used to trick the masses into believing that our governments are acting to curb the capitalist system's worst excesses. In reality no action will be taken that might threaten the short term profits or the power and prestige of imperialist powers until the mass of ordinary people make it happen.
    My message to both Michael and Natassja is this--do not be tricked into giving support to meaningless treaties. Regard these paper promises with the same contempt that the world's rulers show them. Put all fine sounding moralistic phrases under the magnifying glass of class analysis--otherwise you will be drawn into the same trap as Labour's left reformists who have become apologists for the UN and 'international law'.
    Max Neill
    Preston


    NO JUSTICE FROM THE TOP

    I wish to respond to Michael Lavalette's letter (October SR).
    Millions of people want to see mass murderers like Pinochet brought to justice, and they want to see the horrific injustices of the world we live in dealt with. The idea of a stronger role for international law has great appeal. Socialists, however, have always pointed to the huge gap that exists between justice and the law. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to international law.
    Michael Lavalette argues against a one sided attitude to international law. He agrees it is often 'nothing but a cover to protect the interests of the rich and powerful'. But as we support health and safety laws, so we should support international laws on nuclear test bans and restrictions on the emission of greenhouse gases.
    There is a problem with the parallel he draws with health and safety laws. As socialists we argue that without pressure from organised workers such laws cannot be enforced. There are many cases where workers use the law to protect themselves from asbestos, RSI, stress and other hazards. But in almost every case the workers involved are organised. As the slogan has it, 'The stronger the union, the safer the workplace.' What laws protecting workers would exist if it wasn't for organised pressure from below?
    This puts the argument for international law in perspective. We want Pinochet and Clinton and Blair brought to justice. International law may play a role. But the key element will always be the pressure from below.
    Geoff Brown
    Manchester


    RACISM HIDDEN FROM LABOUR'S HISTORY

    There is an interesting aside to the article which Gareth Jenkins wrote on Labour's record on immigration (October SR). In the mid-1970s, during a period when opposition to the Nazi National Front was being established, the Labour Party tried to jump on the bandwagon and crow about its own 'anti-racist' credentials. An official pamphlet was issued, probably in an attempt to stem the anger felt by many people who had witnessed some of the policies and actions that Gareth described.
    Its first words were unequivocal: 'Labour is the party which has always fought against unfair discrimination. We are totally opposed to those people who try to stir up racial hatred as a way to political power.'
    Had the party changed? Indeed, in a section entitled 'Immigration', it criticised the 1962 Tory Immigration Act... and then went straight on to knock the second Tory Act Of 1971. It completely ignored any reference to the disgraceful 1968 Labour legislation (widely known as the 'Alf Garnett Appeasement Act') used against Kenyan Asians!
    At a time of increased anti-racist activity amongst young potential Labour voters, they were attempting to expunge 1968 from the annals of their history.
    Of course, these days, one must suppose they are proud of it.
    Ged Peck
    Luton


    THE SOCIAL PERSONALITY

    I was impressed by the article on personality disorders in the September edition of Socialist Review. Mind's magazine, Open Mind (May-June 1999), contains an article entitled 'The Politics of Personality Disorder'.
    The article highlights a 'conceptual difficulty' with the medical definition of personality. As socialists we should be aware of the way in which human beings are different to other living things due to the fact that they are 'intrinsically open to change'. The medical profession assumes personality is fixed and constant, which is a 'false representation of lived human experience'.
    The writers also argue that the diagnosis of personality is politically useful as it locates evil in the individual, ignoring contextual issues such as poverty, racism, unemployment and poor housing. As socialists we should oppose these plans to stigmatise, scapegoat and compulsorily detain people thereby threatening their human rights for the sake of political expediency.
    Peter Smith
    Leicester


    THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG

    Thanks to Lindsey German for her article on the student anti-fees campaign (October SR). Her excellent analysis of New Labour's attacks on working class students was let down by only one thing--she understated the strength of our resistance.
    The National Non-Payment Collective was set up as an attempt by non-payers around the country to coordinate their campaigns. The Oxford group Lindsey mentioned is only the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of non-payers across the UK, from Reading to Sheffield Hallam, and Glasgow Caledonian to UCL. This year's new intake are the second year to pay fees, and the first since 1964 to rely entirely on loans for their maintenance. Unsurprisingly, the campaign has started to snowball. At Leeds freshers' fair last month over 500 first years pledged to withhold their fees!
    So great is the anger at Labour's betrayal that it has even begun to filter through to the NUS. Despite control freakery to rival Blair's, Labour Students' hold is starting to crumble. The union's women's and LGB campaigns are already controlled by the left, and in presidential elections at last year's conference over 45 percent of delegates voted for socialist Kate Buckell, then chair of the Campaign for Free Education (CFE) and a leading advocate of non-payment.
    The Non-Payment Collective has called a lobby of parliament for 3 November, at which it hopes to present the government with the signatures of over 10,000 nonpayers. Meanwhile the CFE is working to turn November's official 'slap on the wrist' into the kind of demo that can really challenge the government.
    Alexander Ismail
    CFE Steering Committee
    London


    OPEN YOUR EYES

    Chris Nineham completely misses the point of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (October SR). He finds the film flat and lacking in drama. But precisely these lacks make for the film's strengths.
    In spite of its extraordinary visual beauty, at no point during the film does the spectator get sucked in. On the contrary, one is permanently forced to pass judgement on the actions of the protagonists--for instance, those of the owner of the costume rentals who, in his boundless greed for money, ends up offering the sexual services of his own daughter.
    The film is a cutting critique of sexuality under capitalism. The ruling class is admirably portrayed as completely incapable of human feeling. Even when they kiss, it's only through masks, and their lips never meet, whereas the lower rungs of society have maintained their ability for real human contact and even chummy communication, and their lips do meet in the flesh. For the ruling class sex is equivalent to an endless orgy of rape and has nothing to do with love.
    Kubrick convincingly portrays the ruling class's preparedness to go to any extremes just to keep their debauchery hidden from the public eye and only allow members of their own class entry. He shows their complete callousness in face of the 'accidental' death of one of their victims. Eyes Wide Shut is also an unequivocal broadside against the Catholic church, admirably intermingling the orgy with scenes of Catholic liturgy at their most frightening.
    Chris Nineham also forgets to mention Arthur Schnitzler's short story Traumnovelle (Rhapsody: A Dream Novel) published in 1925, on which Eyes Wide Shut is based. In fact whole chunks of the original dialogue are taken over, as well as the plot and even the timing of the events. Part of the novel's and the film's attractiveness is their density. It all takes place within the short space of 24 hours--apart from a throwback to the ball the night before and a concluding scene the morning after.
    Schnitzler (1862-1931), a practising doctor, wrote dozens of plays and novels critical of Viennese bourgeois society from the 1890s through to the late 1920s, throwing light on, among other things, the precarious position of Jews in Austria.
    Kubrick deserves special praise for the way he has managed to revive the novel, remaining absolutely faithful to the original right down to minor details, while at the same time placing it firmly in the modern setting of turn of the millenium New York, and giving some aspects only barely mentioned in the original greater pictorial and political depth.
    There is nothing trite or moralistic about the film, nor is it a defence of monogamy. It's the defence of a human relationship built over the years which just happens to be in the shape of a married couple--no more, no less.
    It's very likely the film will soon disappear from the screens. Apparently, lots of younger people came out quite disappointed at the shortness and estrangement of the few sex scenes the film had to offer. I would recommend seeing it while there's still a chance.
    David Paenson
    Frankfurt, Germany


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