This riveting book is in part the story of how capitalism transformed the 14,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago into a modern, capitalist, nation. It is an important story because Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation on earth.
Capitalism came to Indonesia through 400 years of European imperialism. It took until 1949 before Indonesia won its independence from the Netherlands. The exploitation of the indigenous ruling class was no less brutal yet the key event of post-independence Indonesia came in 1965 when Suharto took power in a military coup which saw the slaughter of tens of thousands of people. This atrocity, aimed mostly against socialists and labour activists, was cheered by the US ruling class and lauded on the cover of Time magazine as ‘the west’s best news for years in Asia’. This event laid the basis for Indonesia’s expansion.
In the 1970s billions of dollars were invested from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Europe and the US. The pundits hailed another ‘economic miracle’. Suharto’s dictatorship made Indonesia attractive to investors by brutally suppressing workers’ organisations and ensuring pitifully low wages. Indonesian society became characterised by rampant exploitation, anti-Chinese racism and the routine sexual abuse of women workers in factories. In the 1990s the average worker could put in 12-to-14 hour days for the sum of one dollar.
But in 1998 Suharto’s dictatorship was brought down by mass protests in which the working class played a key role. After years of oppression and the elimination of political democracy and civil rights the Indonesian people are faced with the challenge of transforming their society into a more just, equitable and democratic one.
Socialist arguments are back on the agenda. La Botz looks at the different forces in Indonesian society which are struggling for social justice since the fall of Suharto – the activists who developed under a horrifically brutal dictatorship, and the unions and labour organisations who learned to organise under the most difficult conditions. He also argues that the Marxist tradition is absolutely relevant to Indonesian society. This means rediscovering the centrality of the working class and the internationalism which are at the heart of the genuine Marxist tradition. La Botz also makes the point that Lenin’s theory of the party and Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution are indispensible.
The Indonesian people have suffered terribly from the economic collapse which ravaged the East Asian region in 1997 and continues to cause misery. Capitalism has created a world in its own image, just as Marx argued. But it has also created its own gravedigger in the world working class. This magnificent book tells the story of Indonesian workers and the key role they can play in destroying this rotten system.
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A pick of the highlights