Giles Ji Ungpakorn
It is 150 years since the first publication of Capital. Despite the fact that the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) was established in the late 1920s and played an important role in the struggle against the military dictatorship from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, Karl Marx’ s monumental study of capitalism was not translated into Thai until 1999, long after the collapse of the party.
The reason for this is that during the CPT’s entire existence until its demise in the late 1980s, it was a Stalinist party and in the early 1960s it adopted the Maoist version of Stalinism.
Stalinism is the antithesis of Marxism. While maintaining Marxist jargon, Stalin turned the whole notion of Socialism and Communism on its head. Socialism or Communism which had previously meant the self-emancipation of the working class and the abolition of classes and the eventual withering away of the state, became a dictatorship of communist party over the working class, thus allowing the state to exploit and extract surplus value from workers. It was therefore hardly a priority for Stalinists to read and study Marx’s Capital. In fact it would have been positively dangerous for workers under “Communist” rule to understand how they were being exploited, just like workers in the West.
Maoism in China retained all these aspects of Stalinism, but also relegated the role of workers to a secondary position. For Mao, the victory of the Communist Party would rely on a military victory of a peasant army led and controlled by Communist Party intellectuals. Instead of the cities being the centre for the struggle for socialism, the strategy was to “surround the cities with the countryside”. The true and immediate aim was national liberation and the creation of a strong China, not socialism. The CPT followed this Maoist line by inventing colonialism in Thailand. It built a popular front of people from different and antagonistic classes to fight for the so-called liberation of Thailand from the USA. For the CPT, Thailand was a “semi-feudal, semi-colonial” society. This was despite the fact that Thai feudalism had been overthrown from above by King Chulalongkorn in the 1870s when he set about building the Thai capitalist state.
Maoism also encouraged an anti-intellectual attitude. Instead of studying the works of Marxists throughout the world, and the works of other progressive thinkers, Maoists were urged to learn by rote the rather mundane writings of Chairman Mao in his Little Red Book. Former students who joined the CPT in the jungle, after the 1976 massacre of the Left, recalled how there were no works of Marx available to read in CPT strong-holds.
Wanla Wanwilai wrote that his CPT base had a small library but apart from a single book by Lenin on Historical Materialism, the other books were by Chairman Mao. They often sat in the library talking but never really read anything. According to Wanla they were ignorant of politics, economics and world affairs.
Wipa Daomanee (Comrade Sung), who looked after a CPT library in a jungle camp, wrote that those who had not taken advantage of the flourishing of left-wing books in open Thai society after the 14th October 1973 uprising against the military, did not stand a chance of improving their reading in the jungle.
Another ex-Maoist activist from the 1970s, now a well-off businessman, told me during a CPT re-union, that “Marxism was useful to me in developing my business”. It is most probable that he had never read any Marx while he was with the CPT.
For these reasons, the CPT never organised the translation of Marx’s Capital into Thai and it certainly did not encourage party members to read it in other languages. Before the 1970s some left-wing intellectuals like the economist Supa Sirimanon were the first Thais to read Marx in English, and Supa’s writings on political economy reflected this. He was influenced by the British Marxist J. F. Hutjesson, who was invited to teach political economy at Thammasart University by Pridi Panomyong, leader of the 1932 revolution against the absolute monarchy. But Supa Sirimanon was never a member of the CPT and he did not attempt to translate Capital into Thai.
The first Thai to translate Capital was Matee Eamwara (เมธี เอี่ยมวรา) and his Thai translations from Chinese of Capital volumes 1 and 2 were first published in hardback in 1999 by Teeratus Publishing Company (สำนักพิมพ์ธีรทรรศน์). He also use an English version, translated by Ben Fowkes and David Fernbach, to compare with the Chinese. Matee Eamwara was previously known for his work in producing dictionaries. He also wrote a book on Marxist political economy. Unfortunately, it seems that he did not manage to complete the translation of Capital volume 3 as he was very old when he produced the first two volumes.
The first translation of Marx’s Capital produced by Matee Eamwara was a land mark in Marxist political economy for those of us who had re-established a small non-Stalinist Marxist organisation in Thailand at the time. University students were also able to read the work. However, the language in Matee’s translations reflected its Chinese source and was difficult to read, unlike the European translations.
Despite the fact that the first Thai translation of Capital only appeared in 1999, other works by Marx and Engels had been translated in the 1970s. “Wages, Price and Profit” was one such work which is still used by militant trade unionists to discuss the Labour Theory of Value. Other works included “The Communist Manifesto”, “Socialism Utopian and Scientific”, “The Origins of the Family Private Property and the State” and “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man“. They were either translated anonymously or by people using pen names for obvious reasons. Only the translations of Engels’ “The Origins of the Family Private Property and the State” and “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” were translated by a known writer: Kularp Saipradit, who was a contemporary of Supa Sirimanon. None of these translations were done by the CPT.
In 2010, I produced a digital note-form summary or guide to reading Marx’s Capital volumes 1-3 in Thai, based on the Penguin English version, translated by Ben Fowkes and David Fernbach, and this is available on the internet at http://bit.ly/129xlhF. Readership of this document is probably limited.
In 2016 a much more substantial abridged version of all the 3 volumes of Capital, translated by Boonsak Sang-rawee (บุญศักดิ์ แสงระวี) was published by Chum Silapa Tamada (สำนักพิมพ์ชุมศิป์ธรรมดา). Boonsak Sang-rawee has translated many works from China, including books on Mao. Indications are that this is a much easier version to read than Matee Eamwara’s original translation. This latest publication should make Capital more available to a wider range of Thais.
Wanla Wanwilai วันลา วันวิไล (๒๕๕๙) ตะวันตกที่ตะนาวศรี 2519 Net.
Wipa Daomanee (2003) Looking back to when I first wanted to be a Communist. In: Ungpakorn, Ji Giles (ed) Radicalising Thailand: New Political Perspectives. Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.