Review of Jeyakumar Devaraj’s “Malaysia at the Crossroads, a Socialist Perspective” by Peter Taaffe
Jeyakumar Devaraj, member of the Central Committee of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) and Member of Parliament for Sungai Siput, published a book on perspectives for Malaysia in August 2009. Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales) and member of the International Secretariat of the Committee for a Workers’ International, reviewed it in a letter to Jeyakumar.
We are carrying a slightly edited (shortened) version of the review which deals with important questions of method, analysis and perspectives for Marxists in the struggle – to overthrow capitalism in Malaysia, Asia and worldwide.
“Malaysia at the Crossroads, A Socialist Perspective” by Jeyakumar Devaraj is available at the bookshop of the Socialist Party (England and Wales) or the PSM.
Letter from Peter Taaffe to Jeyakumar Devaraj, 5th October 2009
Many thanks for the invitation to review your book, Malaysia at the Crossroads; A Socialist Perspective (Ipoh: Parsosma Enterprise, 2009).
While we admire the determination and self-sacrifice of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (Socialist Party of Malaysia – PSM) – including its leading cadres like yourself – we have never hidden our criticisms of the PSM on some important issues relating to both Malaysia and internationally. Likewise, the PSM has criticisms of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), implicitly expressed in your comments on ‘internationalism’, although you have not clearly set these out, particularly in written form. Perhaps this analysis of your book – which I hope you will see as friendly, if critical, but honest – will lead to a proper discussion and clarification of issues.
Method and perspectives
The first point that we would make is on the question of method. There is much in the book with which I would agree. Indeed there are some excellent articles, papers and material that are very informative, particularly on specific issues like privatisation, of which you are obviously have great expertise and a tremendous record along with the PSM.
However, you have entitled the book a “socialist perspective”, which is misleading. From my point of view and that of the CWI and the Socialist Party, a perspective would thoroughly analyse – in popular language – the current overall state of Malaysia, the stage which the economy is passing through, in the context of the overall position of the world economy and particularly in Asia, class relations and how they have changed and what the perspectives are for the class struggle. Necessary also are comments and criticisms not just on the main ruling capitalist parties but on the opposition ‘coalition’ as well.
Your approach, it seems to me, is empirical, without a clear theoretical anchor, which is partly shaped by the origins of yourself and the PSM. This approach is reinforced by the fact that the book comprises different papers and contributions written at different times, rather than an overall current analysis. You have evolved from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) tradition, the hallmark of which in Malaysia, as in the rest of the neo-colonial world and for that matter now in the advanced industrial countries as well, is to concentrate on the struggle, often very heroically. However, this approach either ignores, holds in disdain or even shows contempt for those who attempt to start from a theoretical understanding of the objective situation.
In general, the NGOs – some of their best workers – start off as reformists in the sense that they consider that their own individual or collective actions – piecemeal reforms – can effect necessary lasting changes. The best of them push against the limits of this approach and search for a more general alternative. Some even evolve towards a clearly-defined Marxist position but in the process are forced to discard the hallmark of NGOs, which is to concentrate on the ‘day-to-day’ tasks at the expense of an overall theoretical perspective. They consider Marxists who proceed from theory as “commenting from the sidelines”, “hurling quotes”, and refusing to engage in the “real struggle” (taken from the introduction to your book). Some ‘Marxists’ do sin on this score but not the CWI. In fact, Marx himself emphasised “theory as a guide to action”.
Of course, his ideas have been distorted and mangled by many of his alleged adherents who are incapable of proceeding beyond the limits of their studies or small meeting rooms to engage in the real struggles of the working class. But it remains an incontestable historical fact that in Russia, it was not those who were armed with ‘action’ – the bullet and the bomb of the Social Revolutionary terrorists – or those who limited themselves to the day-to-day ‘struggle’, the Economists, who were able to carry out the greatest single act in human history up to now, the Russian revolution. It was the Bolsheviks, proceeding first from a theoretical premise, who carried this out. I think the PSM has evolved – and you, in particular – away from the NGO tradition but there are still elements of an empirical, perhaps more accurately a ‘pick and mix’ approach, which reveals a weakness from a consistent Marxist point of view in some of the material contained in your book. To give it its correct name, this is an eclectic approach, borrowing ideas from here or there, in what becomes a political and theoretical patchwork quilt rather than a consistent rounded-out Marxist approach.
You may consider these comments somewhat harsh but your book itself reveals this approach. You borrow a little bit of Maoism, some Castroism, even from Trotskyism and the approach of the CWI, to fit the needs of what you see are your tasks in Malaysia. The consequence of this, revealed in the book, is that despite your recent success, you make unnecessary political concessions to opponents and therefore can make mistakes. On the first page of the book – in the Foreword – Lim Kean Chye states: “Shouting slogans and quoting from Lenin is of no help. Gramsci has warned that ‘for the proletarian ideology – Marxist theory – to triumph it must win the battle for hegemony and become “common sense”’.” He also quotes the writer Diana Raby who argues that “the abstractions [!] of Marxist theory must gel with the popular democratic traditions of a specific country”.
I do not know the individuals involved – who are not PSM members but are nevertheless quoted without rebuttal. The Socialist Party and Militant have a very long record of ‘gelling’ with the workers’ movement, most notably in the Liverpool struggle of 1983-87, and in particular in the battle to defeat the poll tax and the government of Thatcher, who was the fountainhead of world ideological counter-revolution at that time (see Marxism in Today’s World). Nevertheless, I repeat, we understand Lenin’s “quotes” in their proper historical context and did not use them in an opportunist or sectarian fashion. Allied to the body of ideas and methods bequeathed by Trotsky, this allowed us to have this mass effect.
We have recently repeated this in the spectacular triumph of Joe Higgins in Ireland in the recent Euro-elections. He has now emerged as the standard bearer of not just the Irish working class but, in a certain sense, for the most militant sections of the European workers’ movement. We achieved this and sustained an organisation in the difficult period since 1990 by an attentive, indeed meticulous, approach not by ‘parroting’ the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky but applying their method to the contemporary world and drawing all the necessary conclusions.
Ethnic and national question
The foreword also states: “The main task facing socialists today is the removal of the clique of multi-millionaires calling themselves UMNO [United Malays National Organisation] from political power.” Do you agree with this, Kumar? If so, we have a difference. This clearly posits a ‘stages’ approach, which in your book you oppose. The removal of UMNO is an important task but is it the main task? The UMNO government will be removed from power but the alternative, of Anwar Ibrahim and a Pakatan Rakayat (PR) government that he proposes, will not solve the problems of the Malaysian masses. This conclusion is implied but not spelt out in some of the material in your book. The main task for Marxists in Malaysia today is to emphasise the class independence of the working class, to build a mass alternative along these lines, which we concede is difficult – but not impossible – given the history of British imperialism and of UMNO in perpetuating the policies of ‘divide and rule’.
We were first attracted to the PSM because of the principled position on class unity, the refusal to base itself exclusively on one of the ethnic groups in Malaysia (although it is fair to say that most of your members came, and perhaps still do, from the Indian section of the population). Indeed, if the PSM had made any of the concessions that others, such as the SWP in Britain, did in relation to the ill-fated courting of Muslims as Muslims through Respect and not as part of the generality of the working class in Britain, then our relations would not have been the same. But a simple proclamation on the need for ‘class unity’ is not enough. This is because of the deep ‘divide’ along ethnic lines that still persists in Malaysia, as you point out, 50 years after ‘independence’.
The first section of your book on ethnic politics and national unity is, in general, very good. The trenchant criticism made of the role of various sectarian-based parties and organisations, who reinforce and play up divisions, is informative. However, even in your treatment on how the British and then UMNO managed to achieve the rigid segregation – in effect, apartheid – is not adequately explained.
There is a tendency by the PSM and yourself – which I noticed when I visited Malaysia – to remain silent on what I consider were the mistakes made by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) in the liberation struggle. I outlined a number of these in what you commented was in general a good and sympathetic approach towards the biography of Chin Peng and verbally when I visited you. The MCP – in accordance with Stalinist ‘theory’ – supported and carried out the ‘stages’ theory: first liberation – in an all-class alliance – with ‘socialism’ as the music of the future. It is correct, as you say in another part of the book, to point to the fact that the majority of Malays were then based on the land with the urban centres, particularly the working-class areas, dominated by the Chinese. The MCP’s main base was amongst the Chinese working class but was it inevitable that this should always remain so? I do not think so; the peasantry may appear to be ‘conservative’ – in the case of Malaya they are ‘beholden’ to the feudal sultans and the regime.
But the same situation existed in Russia. The Bolsheviks were based on a smaller minority – the urban working class, which accounted for no more than 10% of the population – than was the MCP. The MCP at the end of the Second World War had more support than the Bolsheviks amongst the working class. But the Bolsheviks had a programme for not just winning the working class but linked this to gaining support from the peasantry ‘as a whole’ and succeeded. The MCP failed because it did not have the necessary theoretical ammunition to emulate the Bolsheviks and it was under the sway of the incorrect ideas of Stalinism, including Maoism, which was and remains a Chinese form of Stalinism. Mao personally condemned Khrushchev in 1953 for denouncing the crimes of Stalin. The same Mao urged Khrushchev to drown the Hungarian revolution of 1956 in blood – the working class had outlined a programme of workers’ democracy not a return to capitalism – because he feared correctly that the success of the Hungarian revolution would shatter all variants of Stalinism, including that of his own regime.
The fact that the MCP was heroic in its battle against British imperialism and particularly comrades like Chin Peng has to be recognised, as we did in the review of his book. But the rural guerrillaist method pursued by the MCP – even when it led to ‘success’ as with Mao – is not that of genuine Marxism. Mao succeeded because of the vacuum in Chinese society and, moreover, did not have the aim in the first instance of constructing ‘socialism’ or even a workers’ state. He was pushed empirically into taking over industry and the land but his regime had nothing in common with the Bolsheviks’ workers’ democracy of 1917-1923. Mao started where Stalin finished and from the outset constructed a state in the image of Moscow. In the case of Malaysia there was less justification for guerrillaist struggle than in China because the MCP was largely based upon an ethnic minority of the population, the Chinese working class.
Nowhere in history has a struggle of this kind – with similar limitations – been successful. Mao at least had a majority of the Chinese behind him – who were concentrated in the countryside. Castro’s small band of predominantly rural guerrillas earned the support of decisive sections of the peasantry and only in the latter stages, the support of the working class to his victory. Yet I find nothing in the PSM material which makes any criticisms of this character. On the contrary, Mao is quoted approvingly without any qualifications.
When the PSM deals with the MCP it is too emotive, concentrating on the fact they were prepared to sacrifice in the struggle against the British and their agents. But if you do not take up and criticise a method which is wrong – particularly in the case of Malaysia where history lies on the brain of the living “like an alp [mountain]”, as Marx said – then you risk the next generation repeating those mistakes. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It is possible, even in Malaysia, where the objective basis for guerrilla-type methods has largely evaporated because the majority of the population is now based in the urban areas, as you point out, that a layer of youth, through frustration, could resort – as they could also in the ‘advanced’ industrial countries – to the similarly mistaken methods of terrorism, dressed up as guerrillaism. This question of guerrillaism is linked, particularly in the context of Malaysia, to a wider question: the baleful heritage of Stalinism, which has not yet unfortunately disappeared, as I will seek to explain when dealing with Venezuela.
The section of the book on ethnic politics and national unity is in general very good. Particularly welcome is the emphasis given by you, Kumar, and the PSM on your attempts to counter the ethnically-based capitalist and petty bourgeois parties and the Malaysian capitalists as well as the struggle to prevent further polarisation along ethnic lines historically, and the role of these parties today. Equally, the material on the change in the ruling class, as well as the ‘proletarianisation’ of formerly middle layers, the steadily increasing impoverishment of the poorer sections of society – particularly the Malays – is very good. Moreover, the role of the PSM in taking a principled stand in general is emphasised. But you also write: “We cannot combat racism by mobilising along racial lines. We may be able to resist certain unfair policies, but we would also be deepening the racial divide, and we would get trapped in the ethnic politicking that the BN thrives on… We need to refute the positions of some activists who argue that we need to resolve the issue of cultural and linguistic oppression first before we can move on to the social transformation of society. A form of the ‘two-stage’ theory!” You go on to make a very important statement: “We need to address inter-ethnic issues as they arise, but this should take place within a strong multi-ethnic workers’ movement that is actively fighting for the betterment of workers of all ethnic groups. Only then will this dialogue process lead to better understanding among the races.”
These are very good and fine sentiments but, unfortunately, in the next chapter where you set out your critique of the ‘Hindraf Campaign’, all the necessary conclusions, particularly the nuances, from these general statements are, in our opinion, missing. The critics of the PSM are, I am afraid, correct over your stance on the Hindraf campaign. You outline the discrimination against the Indian population, the crucial role of the Indians in the working class, of whom 70% are proletarian. But in this campaign and the PSM’s approach, the general statements that you make on the need for multi-ethnic based struggle led you to, in effect, boycott this campaign. We thought, and still think, this was a mistake; you have elevated a generally correct principle to an abstract and therefore erroneous level, which cut you out of intervening effectively in influencing, at a time of heightened interest, a particularly important section of the population, the Indian workers and youth, who feel heavily discriminated against. It should go without saying that we oppose the intention of the Hindraf campaign to form another ethnic party, this time an Indian one. By intervening in the campaign, you may have been able to cut across this development.
The Marxist approach to class and ethnic unity does not proscribe fighting for the interests of a discriminated-against minority and even proposing concrete steps to improve their position. We have stood firm against those who bend to racial, religious and ethnic pressure and emphasised the need to forge class unity. But this did not preclude us from intervening in concrete circumstances in defence of minorities, to put forward demands that echo their aspirations. Sometimes these are minimal, reformist demands which do not fundamentally challenge the basis of capitalism but are nevertheless legitimate. This does not mean that we support all the demands of minorities or the manner in which they are presented. Often a petty-bourgeois or upper-caste layer in the leadership will seek to advance their own position, seek ‘privileges’ at the expense of the majority. But we, if we intervene correctly, can counter this with a class position, hopefully winning over the best workers.
As you are aware, we have successfully intervened in Ireland for unity between the majority ‘loyalist’ (Protestant-based) working class and the ‘nationalist (predominantly Catholic) section of society in Northern Ireland. But at the outset of the ‘civil rights’ struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we did support the demands in general of the Catholics for equality. We also pointed out that these could not be at the expense of the ‘loyalist’ working class – “a sharing out of misery”. Our programme was for removing discrimination against Catholics but also for boosting expenditure on jobs, services, etc., for the benefit of all workers. We approached this in a transitional fashion, emphasising that real egalitarianism, ‘equality’ between Catholics and Protestants, would only really be achieved in the context of changing society and abolishing capitalism. But we were able to make these arguments and create a sympathetic audience because we participated in the struggle of the minority who were discriminated against, while at the same time always stressing class unity.
Then there is also the successful work of our comrades in Sri Lanka. This involved from the outset resisting Sinhala chauvinism, which took away some of the rights of the Tamils, including language rights, and we demanded their restoration. The subsequent actions of different governments laid the basis for the Tigers’ terrorist and separatist struggle and the civil war which followed. We now have a new situation which compels our Sri Lankan comrades – particularly Siritunga Jayusiriya, leader of the United Socialist Party, who faces death threats continuously from Rajapaksa’s murder gangs – to defend the Tamils’ human and democratic rights. Through all of this, it has not stopped us from calling and organising class unity and at the same time criticising the Tamil leaders.
In the case of the Hindraf campaign you did, I am afraid, ‘stand on the sidelines’ and therefore missed an opportunity to engage in a real struggle, making friendly criticism, in opposing the more incorrect demands while supporting the general aims. You missed a big opportunity to make contacts, probably before a new audience, that you would not have been able to reach otherwise. You counterpose to this in a rather bald, unskilful and therefore an incorrect fashion the need for class unity to the Indian population. You write for instance: “We should not forget that, apart from racial discrimination, the majority of Indians face economic discrimination because they are workers in a system that favours the businessmen and the capitalists. About 70% of Malaysian Indians are workers.” You then go on to enumerate how they are discriminated against on the basis of class.
But this does not exhaust the issue, because the Chinese and the Indians, as far as I can see – specifically the working-class and rural sections of these communities – are doubly oppressed as workers but also from racial and ethnic points of view. Should we just take up the direct class issues rather than the others dealing with oppressed layers? In that case, it was wrong for the civil rights movement in the US to campaign against the discrimination of the black (Afro-American) community. The same thing would apply to the above example in Northern Ireland. If interpreted in this one-sided fashion, Marxism becomes an arid dogma unrelated to the real movement of the working class.
Bolsheviks on the national question
This does not mean, however, that we should not intervene in order to try and cut across this. The Bolsheviks on many occasions defended oppressed minorities – the Jews, for instance, from pogroms – which linked them in a bloc with even petty-bourgeois and bourgeois Jews on the purely practical issue of defending an oppressed minority from attacks, in this instance at the hands of the Black Hundreds. You also dismiss “affirmative policies” for the Malaysian Indians, which have been demanded in the Hindraf campaign. Similar demands have been made by, for instance, the black population in the US and have actually been attained in some instances. A similar process has developed in Britain with the demand for “affirmative action” for minorities discriminated against.
We would not give indiscriminate and blanket support to “affirmative action” but we try to separate out those demands that can be fought for, both by the oppressed minority and also which gain a certain resonance amongst the majority. In Britain, at one stage, we opposed the general demand for “affirmative action” – led as it was by the black and Asian petty bourgeois with their own narrow aims at that stage – which gave the impression of ‘concessions’ at the expense of the rest of the working class. But when Labour, with our significant influence, was in power in Liverpool between 1983 and 1987, a form of “affirmative action” was introduced. We were compelled by the pressure of the situation – a history of discrimination against the black population – to give jobs, particularly to the black youth of Toxteth who had been systematically shut out of opportunities. But this was done through trade union action – the committees with majority trade union involvement – that allocated the jobs and then campaigned for these steps amongst the local authority workforce and the wider working class. This was seen as ‘fair’ although very limited – because of the limits of capitalism itself. The point we are trying to make here is that one must engage in the given situation we inherit, not one that we would wish. This, in turn, means you have to listen, learn from movements and alter your approach as long as you do not infringe your principles.
You say: “The PSM salutes all those who have thrown off their apathy to stand up for their rights despite the threats made by the BN government in the media.” You “salute” this movement but limit yourselves to criticism of its ethnic limitations. Yet you say, “These local fightbacks must continue.” You also say that the “PSM will continue to support opposition to the eviction of Indians,” which is very good, as is your invocation: “Do not retire from the struggle! Just reorient it to make it multi-racial and fight for the justice of all the ordinary people of Malaysia!”
But you want the Hindraf members to come to this position themselves without participating in the struggle. It seems to me that you adopt a rather abstract, quietist approach rather than advocating intervening through your own activity, propaganda and advice, and, through the necessary leadership, seek to “reorient” it in the right class direction. In “Culture or Economy – Wherein Lies the Primary Contradiction?” you recognise that there is considerable criticism from “friends and supporters” who do question whether the “PSM is losing touch with the masses” on this issue. You are correct in arguing in this section against the ‘stages theory’ and especially those like the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and others who say first of all “solve the national-ethnic problem” and then socialism at a later stage. You are also doubly correct in arguing that the “primary contradiction is that of class … [while] there are many axes of oppression in Malaysia today”.
Ethnic oppression and division cannot be described as merely a “sideshow”, as you suggest. While the “UMNO elite” enriches itself through capitalist exploitation, a vital, indeed crucial, element of the mechanism that allows them to do this is through the policies of ‘divide and rule’ and the ‘cultural oppression of minorities’ that flows from this. It is not possible by the simple enunciation of a class policy – without taking into account the different divisions within the working class and the masses in general – to guarantee success and the building of a mass socialist and revolutionary force.
You are absolutely correct to reject the idea of Mao that the “Primary Contradiction can shift from time to time from one to another of the contradictions existing in society”. This was merely a rationalisation by Mao because he based himself upon other classes apart from the working class – the peasantry, the national capitalists, the so-called national bourgeoisie, etc. – in the guerrillaist struggle he conducted following the failure of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. But it does not mean to say that Marxism does not take account of what you call the “other contradictions” apart from the basic class contradictions in society. The Russian revolution would never have triumphed if Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks had adopted this approach. In fact, as Trotsky emphasised later, without Lenin’s approach to the national question, which he applied in an extremely sensitive fashion, then the Russian revolution would never have taken place.
It is also a mistake to urge: “We should avoid trying to win arguments by quoting leaders such as Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Mao.” Merely quoting even great figures is not sufficient to win an argument, it is true. But your aim that “socialists must above all be rational and argue their case based on a thorough analysis of their current situation” is totally in accord with correctly understanding the ideas of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, and also the mistakes, profound ‘mistakes’, of Mao and other ‘thinkers’ who are uncritically quoted. Of course, to quote any of these leaders out of context and without taking account of the historical setting, the change in circumstances, etc., is the hallmark of dogmatists and sectarians. If a mere ‘quote’ was sufficient to settle an argument every sectarian would be a master strategist.
I also think you are mistaken in appearing to dismiss all issues of “language rights”, which could come up again and again in Malaysia because of the discriminatory policy of the government. I will not develop this point but it is an important issue as part of the national programme of a genuine Marxist force.
There are a few other important issues I would like comment on: one, the question of Stalinism in general and your explanation of how this relates to regimes like Venezuela or Cuba today. The second point is on the question of coalition which you deal with quite extensively in the penultimate chapter: “The left in coalition politics.” A third point is the issue of an international organisation.
You answer the question, “What do we in the PSM mean by socialism?” in the following manner: “We mean, I think, a society where there are these three elements:
Production meets the need of the rakyat [people] and is not driven by the profit motive. This necessarily means that the Means of Production cannot be held or controlled by a few rich people. The State has to hold the means of production in the name of the people.
There is provision of all the basic needs of all sections of society. Special care is taken to look after the more vulnerable sectors/groups e.g. indigenous people, disabled, elderly etc.
There is fully functioning worker democracy, based on elections at the workplace level with representatives from the workplace holding majority positions at town/city, state and national levels.”
This programme is OK as far as it goes but is very general. The last point on “workers’ democracy” is good and represents a step forward for the PSM and separates you from Stalinist ideas but is not completely adequate in explaining how a democratic, socialist planned economy would be organised. There is a certain confusion, not just in your ranks, but generally in the workers’ movement internationally as to what socialism is. There is also the tendency to mix up the transitional stage towards socialism (which is a workers’ state, workers’ democracy being the political form of organising this state) and the beginnings of socialism.
“Socialism”, according to the schema devised by Marx, is when society on a world scale reaches a higher degree of productivity of labour and therefore, ultimately, the living standards of the masses, than the highest stage reached under capitalism. This would mean that the beginning of socialism would have to stand at a higher level – we emphasise on a world scale – than the current levels of the United States, Japan or Europe in general. The forms of governments and the states on which they rest are transitions from capitalism to socialism. The only form this can take is the establishment of democratic workers’ states on a national basis and, in time, on a world scale.
It is legitimate to talk about such governments as “socialist” in the sense that, ideally, their tendency and intention would be to move towards the beginning of socialism. The first workers’ state in Russia was, in this sense, a “socialist state”. But as Lenin pointed out, it was not strictly “socialist” in Marxist terms because the beginning of socialism, or the lowest stage of communism, would see the beginnings also of the withering away of the state, of classes and the eventual dissolution into a self-governing commune.
This is a question of theoretical clarity indicated by terminology. You identify the regimes which existed in Eastern Europe and Russia as “socialist”, without qualification. There could be no greater means of discrediting socialism than to describe these regimes in this way. They were Stalinist – a monstrous bureaucratic elite albeit resting on a planned economy – with no real connection to genuine socialism. The terrible crimes such as the purge trials of the 1930s and the attendant slave labour camps, etc., meant that these regimes actually moved further away from socialism when compared to the regime of Lenin and Trotsky from 1917 to 1923. You will not find in the terminology of the CWI any concession to these regimes, any description of them as ‘socialist’ even when we defended the ‘progressive’ elements against imperialism. It is true that they rested on a planned economy but we described them as “deformed workers’ states”.
Venezuela and Cuba
You have, we regret, the same uncritical attitude towards Chávez in Venezuela, even though this regime has not established a planned economy. In the enumeration of Venezuela’s progress in comparison to Brazil, there is not an iota of criticism of Chávez or his regime. And yet we and others, while defending these regimes – Cuba has not yet turned back to capitalism, although Venezuela has not yet broken from capitalism – at the same time our comrades in Venezuela and the CWI generally put forward the idea of Venezuela effecting a complete break with capitalism by nationalising the key firms, the institution of a state monopoly of foreign trade and a real socialist plan of production. In the process, the country could link up with Cuba and Bolivia (if the latter country breaks with capitalism) in a socialist confederation. We demand workers’ democracy, not as a ‘luxury’ but as an absolute necessity for the transition from capitalism to socialism.
Not just in Russia but everywhere – and particularly in culturally and economically deprived underdeveloped countries such as Malaysia – the question of bureaucracy and how to control it is a fundamental issue. It is particularly important because of the terrible heritage of Stalinism. Even in an advanced industrial country bureaucratism in the trade unions plays a baleful role. Everywhere after the socialist revolution, the need to control the state, the fight to keep the trade unions both as a support for the new workers’ state but also a defence against that state by fighting for its independence, is vital.
You are in one line in favour of “workers’ democracy”. But you do not spell out exactly what this is, as we do. You may say that this is not necessary in a work of this kind. But if the PSM grows as a significant mass force then searching questions will be asked by your opponents. “What do you mean by workers’ democracy?” If you reply as we do, the election of all officials, the right of recall, etc. the next question will be “Why then do you support a one-party regime in Cuba or not demand at least workers’ democracy? Do you support the arrest of trade unionists in Venezuela for going on strike?” It will not be sufficient, as you argue in relation to the comparison between Chávez and Lula, “Frankly I do not have the answer because I do not know enough of these two societies.” Surely there is sufficient knowledge to form an opinion, not least that provided by the CWI, which has published extensive material on the class character of the state and indeed one of the sources you mention is Tony Saunois’ book on Venezuela.
There are some excellent points at the end of this chapter as you seek to apply the programme of workers’ democracy to Malaysia. I think that you have drawn on the analysis of others such as Trotsky and the CWI on this issue. But you do not apply the same method towards Venezuela and Cuba, which means that you could be found wanting, I repeat, when these issues are posed to you as to what you consider “progressive” and what is not. Both on Venezuela and Cuba, unfortunately, you do not present a rounded-out Marxist position.
Coalitions and the united front
The chapter “The Left in Coalition Politics” discusses a crucial question at this time, not just for Malaysia but for the working class movement and particularly the left, specifically the Marxist left, internationally. This is partly a question of language. “Coalition” in the Marxist lexicon, particularly the ‘advanced’ countries, usually means the sharing of governmental power with capitalist parties, something to which we are implacably opposed doing. A united front is something entirely different. It usually means collaboration between workers’ organisations – parties, trade unions, etc. – for specific, mostly limited aims.
In general, we – that is Marxists – oppose a lasting political pact with non-workers’ organisations. The opportunists argue that the need for an ‘alliance’ between parties of the working class or the ‘left’, and those based on the petty bourgeois is necessary in order to forge an alliance between the two classes. But Trotsky pointed out that this, a ‘popular front’, was a “strikebreaking conspiracy”. Moreover, the leaders of the petty bourgeois were “the political exploiters” of the middle class, ultimately responding to the demands of the big capitalists and betraying their base. It is necessary, therefore, for the working class parties to win the middle class – either in support or neutralising them – in a struggle against these leaders.
When facing the ferocity of tsarism, the Bolsheviks never participated in a ‘political bloc’ with parties allegedly representing the peasants, such as the ‘Social Revolutionaries’. They did sometimes engage in practical actions for specific purposes but no permanent or semi-permanent blocs, no mixing up of banners, but intransigent class independence; this was the policy of Lenin that led to the victory of the working class. If we do not start from first principles then mistakes and defeats, as history shows, are inevitable.
The kind of work the PSM has been involved in is actions of a basic united front character on specific issues. I think you have been very successful on the evictions and retrenchment issues, as well as on privatisation, etc. But this is entirely different to a political bloc with parties or formations which can prevent the Marxists from fully advocating and fighting for their ideas. We have formed specific political blocs, for instance a platform for the European assembly elections with the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union, the RMT, a working class organisation, in Britain in ‘No2EU’. Both the name and the programme represented a compromise, which is entirely legitimate if it pushes the struggle forward. But this was on condition that we were able to use separate material which went further than the official platform and sought to explain our position. We did this systematically throughout this campaign.
What is involved here is the ‘united front’ approach. But it is not just a question of accepting the ‘united front’ method; there are united fronts which are legitimate and those which claim to be a ‘united front’ that are not. Respect in Britain was an unprincipled compromise on the part of the SWP with the ‘Muslim community’ – or what they imagined was the ‘Muslim community’ – and themselves and others on the left. They did not warn about Respect leaders’ deficiencies – such as George Galloway – and paid a price. Respect did not break down sectarian divisions but, if anything, reinforced them.
As you correctly point out, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition is a “reformist formation that will not challenge the private ownership of the means of production within the country or corporate-led globalisation and unequal terms of trade internationally”. But earlier you say: “While not a member of the newly formalised Pakatan Rakyat coalition the PSM is now associated with the State Government in two states. How have we defined that relationship?” You go on to state that you have maintained your separate identity but is it not true that you were elected through the benediction of these parties, who will demand a political price for their support?
You say you decided to “uphold your separate identity”. But this, I fear, Kumar, is not enough. It is necessary to show concretely your independence to the working class by criticising the Pakatan Rakyat parties not in a ‘strident’ fashion but to demand specific measures – some of which you have outlined but not all. However, the impression you give in this book – confirmed by your actions on the ground – is that you are not sufficiently and openly critical of the parties in Pakatan Rakyat. The job of a Marxist formation – particularly in a neo-colonial country where the liberal bourgeoisie under the pressure of the situation can adopt radical-sounding phraseology – is to warn about the limits of governments like the PR which remain within the framework of capitalism.
From a Marxist point of view, ‘betrayal’ is inherent in reformism. It would of course be entirely wrong to draw from this the conclusion that therefore we immediately denounce in a sectarian fashion the PR state governments or the PR in the run-up to the national elections. You say “the majority of Malaysians are rooting for the PR”, which may be true given the diminishing support for UMNO. But victory for PR in the election is not a foregone conclusion. You go on to say: “The PSM has taken a position that we should give the PR government some room to implement its policies, and not be overly critical of it.” In the first period of a PR government it is correct that the masses may give it some latitude to implement its programme. But I believe it is a mistake to give hostage to fortune by writing in advance that we “would not be overtly critical”. Does this mean that we should be “covertly critical”, which amounts to keeping quiet, even when the PR presides over pro-capitalist policies and attacks on the masses?
The masses will be critical and will demand action, particularly because of the economic crisis. It is not sufficient just to say that you speak up when members of the state government in Perak were involved in the eviction of 12 urban pioneers. It is also necessary to warn now even before the election that this can happen with a PR government if it remains within the framework of capitalism, as it will. The PSM should warn that only by the masses building independent organisations, by the building of a mass force embracing all ethnic groups, particularly the working class, in Malaysia, will we be prepared for the next difficult period. This means balanced but forceful criticism of PAS and the DAP, which I am not sure you do, or do forcefully enough.
On elections, under the heading ‘Principles of engagement in coalition politics’, you write:
“If there are so many difficulties and dangers inherent in coalition politics involving non-socialist parties why even consider taking part in such endeavours?
“The PSM did consider not participating in the electoral process. But most Malaysians take elections seriously. There is a tremendous mobilisation of the public during the few weeks prior to elections and for a time afterwards. We decided that we need to participate and use the carnival-like atmosphere to popularise our symbol and highlight our analyses. Not participating might keep us ‘pure’ but also might render us irrelevant in the eyes of the public.
“Participating and losing is alright the first time around. Or even the second time. But a party cannot keep on losing in every election it participates in. That would make us seem ineffectual and a bit of a joke! But winning and being associated with the ruling government, even at state level, is quite a different ball game.”
It is obligatory for serious parties of the working class to seek to stand in elections, particularly if parties are legally accepted, as is the case with the PSM after you were registered. We campaigned energetically for this, as you are aware. We are compelled to be where the masses are and in a non-revolutionary period – which is still the situation, although with elements of a ‘pre-revolutionary’ situation in some areas – the mass of the working class look towards the electoral plane for change.
However, the CWI in particular in the recent period has warned against the danger of ‘electoralism’, especially with new working-class formations. By this we mean an overconcentration on the electoral front, the winning of elections, the drive to get representatives in parliament at the expense of other tasks. The industrial struggle and the general social struggles of the working class and the poor masses outside of parliament are as crucial and, in some situations, more important than the electoral struggle itself. Nevertheless, even in a revolutionary period, as the experience of the Russian revolution demonstrates, the Bolsheviks were compelled to participate in elections – to raise, for instance, the idea of a revolutionary constituent assembly – even when the working class, the army and the peasants had created a network of soviets throughout the country.
You write: “Participating and losing is alright the first time around. Or even the second time. But a party cannot keep on losing in every election it participates in. That would make us seem ineffectual and a bit of a joke! But winning and being associated with the ruling government, even at state level, is quite a different ball game.”
You seem to be suggesting that only if a party gets “success” quickly is it therefore justified to participate. If it doesn’t then elections must be boycotted. This seems to be the argument you are making. Such an approach would be wrong and, in fact, paradoxically can lead to generating illusions in a party that electoral success is the only, even the main, criteria for a socialist party. It can lead to impatience and this in turn can often generate an opportunist approach. We do not “win elections” so we must water down our policies, be prepared to serve in capitalist coalitions, etc. It is therefore necessary to participate in elections in most situations that we can envisage today. If there is a general feeling amongst the working class and the labour movement that the electoral laws and constitution are so blatantly undemocratic that a conscious mass boycott is posed, then a different approach may be necessary. But even where the electoral laws are ‘unfair’ it would be wrong to boycott if the workers’ movement can gain a platform.
Participation does not mean opportunism per se. The electoral struggle must be seen as part of the general struggle and not elevated into something it is not, the be-all and end-all of our activity. Indeed, the extra-parliamentary struggle, which is always vital, can become far more important at certain stages than the purely electoral struggle, which can be an auxiliary to this main movement outside of parliament.
On internationalism you write the following:
“As for Internationalism, we agree that the struggle for socialism has to be an international effort as the enemy is global in its reach. However we feel it would be counterproductive to become a formal member of any particular ‘International’ grouping. National strategies have to be developed from listening to and understanding our own societies. Wise men sitting in Europe, however well versed they are in the writings of the ‘masters’ should not imagine that they hold the formulae for successful organising of socialist transformation of society. Society has changed massively from the time of the Bolshevik revolution, and we should not give too much weight to looking for parallels in the ‘classics’ to answer particular problems we are facing.
“We believe that we can learn from the experience of others, and intend to pursue dialogue with other groups working towards the socialist transformation of their society. But we believe it is crucial that we maintain our capacity to innovate and think creatively while being guided by the principles of socialist theory.”
This is the most disappointing, not to say short-sighted, section of your book. Don’t you think that in opposing what you imply, but do not spell out, is in effect a ‘Eurocentric’ position you risk falling into an equally regrettable ‘Asia-centric’ position? The CWI is not ‘Eurocentric’ but is organised on all continents. Neither the “wise men” sitting in Europe nor in Malaysia and their parties will be able to effectively comment on and fight the “global reach” of the capitalist “enemy” by themselves. This is why we – i.e. the working class – need not just parties organised nationally but on an international level as well. Only by sharing ideas and actions, discussing and debating them in a comradely way in a common organisation is it possible to forge the necessary national and international leadership and organisations which are capable of defeating the capitalist enemy who are organised on an international scale: the G20, International Monetary Fund, etc. The fear of being “dictated to” from “outside” – real enough given the heritage of Stalinism on this score – can only be countered by having a thoroughly democratic organisation and procedure as well as correct policies. You have a right to disagree – with the CWI for instance – but also a duty to say on what you disagree, so we can all be enlightened and learn.
Your “Internationalism” is purely passive, a knife without a blade. It consists, in the main, of solidarity actions but not of trying to work out common ideas, strategies and tactics. You see the need to organise on a national scale but not internationally. You in effect reject the need for an international organisation, which from Marx’s first steps to found the First International, all genuine Marxists have seen the need for. You may find that all the existing ‘Internationals’ are inadequate. Then why not try to improve on them by criticising their inadequacies and suggesting alternatives? A vague “network” on an international level is not enough to combat a ruthless capitalist, centralised enemy on a world scale. The CWI – while not the last word – is aiming to create with the working class mass parties linked together in a mass International.
It is an evasion to drag in by the hair references to “wise men” and their alleged “formulae” for the “successful organisation of the socialist transformation”. If you disagree with the CWI’s ideas, say specifically where and with what you disagree and we can discuss them. This is our method – the only honest one, we believe – which we have sought to adopt in this reply to your book. You stress the need to “innovate” and “think creatively”, which we agree with. But the CWI membership and our sections are not prevented from doing this. In fact, the hallmark of the CWI today is that we do have viable independent leaders and sections, capable of arriving at and formulating clear strategy and tactics for intervening successfully in mass action. They also value the role of the International in helping this process.
We hope that you will continue the dialogue that has been initiated and we can look forward to a common struggle for socialism.