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November 1999 (Volume 51, Number 6)

Notes from the Editor

We’ve been discussing among ourselves exactly what we want to achieve with these Notes from the Editors, and our conclusion is that we want to leave the objectives of the Notes as open-ended as they always have been. Over the years, they have been everything from editorials about some pressing current event, to news about the MR community, or reflections on something we’ve read, including correspondence from our readers. What these all have in common is that they give us a chance to make more or less current comments on things that have happened or things we’ve been thinking about since the last issue.

This is important to us, and, we think, to our readers. Although we sometimes make exceptions for extraordinary events like the bombing of Yugoslavia, MR isn’t and was never meant to be a news magazine, always tracking fast-breaking events as they happen, or even in immediate retrospect. But the Notes from the Editors, which are usually written after everything else in the issue is ready, allow us some more immediate reflections.

The trouble, of course, is that so much always happens in a month that we think calls for comment—not just pressing global news but all kinds of events, large and small, that provoke responses of one sort or another. In the month preceding preparation of this issue for the printer, for instance, the global news was dominated by East Timor. But in that month, too, the People’s Republic of China celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Then there were other, smaller stories, like the “cyberpoll” conducted by BBC News Online (we print the results on page 46), according to which the “thinker of the millennium” is Karl Marx. We could hardly be expected to resist commenting on that.

There’s no doubt that East Timor is the most urgent of these stories. It’s true that the mainstream media have done a somewhat better job of reporting it than they did, say, on Kosovo. We’ve even read a fair amount about the responsibility of Western powers, led by the United States and Britain, for the crimes perpetrated by the Indonesian state, in creating and sustaining the Suharto regime which started it all, in providing arms to Indonesia, and in long supporting the terror in East Timor itself. But there are still many larger issues raised by East Timor that go beyond the current news and call for extended discussion—questions about imperialism, about the disintegration of multi-ethnic states, about the arms trade, about the long-term consequences of the Asian economic crisis, and so on. These are just the kinds of questions MR articles typically discuss and will continue to discuss in the future.

But though we obviously can’t analyze East Timor and also comment on those other stories in Notes from the Editors, their coincidence does evoke a few reflections.

The roots of the events in East Timor can be traced back to 1965, when Suharto, with other right-wing military officers, prepared the ground for his subsequent seizure of power by launching a bloodbath against the Indonesian left and above all the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI (then the largest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union and China). The massacre and the bloody regime that followed it had the full support of the U.S. government and other Western states. The slaughter of communists evidently presented no problem. On the contrary, this was, in the eyes of cold warriors, an important contribution to the fight against communism. In other words, Cold War business as usual.

Now, of course, the Cold War is over, and so, we are told, is the confrontation between capitalism and socialism, with the complete and final triumph of capitalism. Yet today the world news is dominated by this Cold War legacy and some of its most brutal effects. Suharto is gone, but the consequences of his bloody regime and the military apparatus that sustained it, with Western support, lives on. There are also chilling echoes of the Cold—and not so cold—War in the recent statement by Australian Prime Minister John Howard that he wants Australia to be the regional “deputy” of the United States in Asia (serving the boss as it did in the Vietnam War?), which gives us an interesting insight into the role of Australian-led UN forces in East Timor.

If Indonesia is an example of capitalism’s undisputed triumph, it has been, to say the least, an ambiguous victory in more ways than one. The instabilities of global capitalism have, of course, been dramatically on display in Indonesia in the wake of the Southeast Asian crisis. The latest chapter in the bloody story of East Timor has been playing itself out against the background of Indonesia’s severe economic crisis, the social instabilities that followed from it, and the challenge to the political and economic power of the military.

What about the Chinese anniversary, then? On the day of the anniversary, there was a news broadcast that gave a brief sketch of Chinese society today. First, we saw a sleek and prosperous-looking young Chinese businessman who proudly described himself as “a capitalist in a socialist country—and we’re very welcome here.” Then there was passing reference to the polarization of Chinese society, the growing numbers of poor and unemployed, the masses of migrants coming from the country to the city looking for work. All of this is what you might expect in a country where capitalists are “very welcome.” There should be no surprise when we observe the inevitably destructive effects of introducing the logic of the market and the laws of capital accumulation. We have a harder time getting our minds around the oxymoron, “capitalist in a socialist country.” No doubt many Chinese are having the same difficulty, as they confront the contradictions imposed on them by world markets and by their own government.

So the allegedly dead confrontation between capitalism and socialism is still dominating our world in all kinds of ways. This may not be so clear in the West, but the contradictions of capitalism certainly are. As we write these Notes, for instance, more news is coming in about the horrendous train crash in London. Nothing could be more transparent than how much blame lies with the privatization of the British railways. It’s very simple, really. To begin with, there exists a safety mechanism that would have prevented this crash, recommended by a public inquiry into a rail disaster over a decade ago, but the private rail companies—and their government supporters (first a Conservative government, and now New Labour)—refused to install it on the grounds of cost.

The rights of shareholders come before the rights, indeed the lives, of passengers—even in law. Safety has in general been subordinated to profit, in low-cost lay-out and maintenance of tracks and signaling systems, in overcrowded trains, and in many other ways. And the destructive effects of privatization for profit have been aggravated by a particularly damaging and cynical form of privatization, deliberately designed to make re-nationalization virtually impossible by fragmenting the system (the train services themselves, for instance, are divided into several different companies, and all of them are separate from the company that owns the tracks and signaling systems).

The antithesis here between the logic of capitalism and the interests of humanity is about as basic and obvious as it gets—and that antithesis is, after all, what the confrontation between capitalism and socialism is all about.

Maybe those people who voted Marx the thinker of the millennium weren’t motivated by nostalgia, as a spokesman for BBC News Online suggested. Maybe they were making a small comment on the contradictions of capitalism. Maybe they’ve noticed that the history of that confrontation between capitalism and its socialist antithesis is very far from over and will be with us as long as the capitalist system exists.

Warm congratulations to MR friend Adrienne Rich, who recently won the Lannan Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. We wish her continued recognition for her necessary and impassioned work.

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1999, Volume 51, Issue 06 (November)
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