Tag Archives: Marxism

Why is the Thai Left so weak?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The answer to this question lies with the history of past struggles against the military and especially the role of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). The CPT was established in the late 1920’s among urban workers of Chinese ethnicity who made up the early Thai working class. Unlike some other communist parties, there is no indication that it was ever anything else but a Stalinist organisation.

In 1973 half a million people, mainly young school and university students, but also ordinary working people, managed to overthrow the military dictatorship of the time. It was the first mass popular uprising in modern Thai history.

Under the dictatorship trade union rights had been suppressed and wages and conditions of employment were tightly controlled. Yet, illegal strikes occurred throughout the period and increased rapidly in the early 1970’s due to general economic discontent.

Economic development also resulted in a massive expansion of student numbers and an increased intake of students from working class backgrounds. These students became radicalized due to the 1968 events abroad and the defeat of the USA in Indo-China.

In October 1973 the arrest of 11 academics and students for handing out leaflets demanding a democratic constitution, resulted in hundreds of thousands of students and workers taking to the streets of Bangkok. The successful 14th October 1973 mass uprising against the military dictatorship was a watershed event. Workers, peasants and students began to fight for more than just parliamentary democracy. In the two months following the uprising, the new appointed civilian government faced a total of 300 workers’ strikes. New radical student bodies sprang up. On the 1st May 1975 a quarter of a million workers rallied in Bangkok and a year later half a million workers took part in a general strike against price increases. In the countryside small farmers began to build organisations and they came to Bangkok to make their voices heard. A Triple Alliance between students, workers and small farmers was created. Some activists wanted an end to exploitation and capitalism itself. The influence of the illegal Communist Party of Thailand increased rapidly, especially among activists in urban areas.

Originally the party organised urban workers in the 1940s and 1950s, but it took a Maoist turn away from the working class and towards the peasantry, in the 1960s.  This Maoist turn to the countryside became a serious problem for workers and the Left in general.

The Thai ruling class’ desire to destroy the further development of the socialist movement, came to a head with the 1976 bloodbath at Thammasat University. Thousands of students went to the countryside to join the armed struggle against the Thai State led by the CPT but the problem with the party’s Maoist strategy was that it more or less abandoned the city and the working class to government repression.

Three years after 1976, splits and arguments between the student activists and the conservative CPT leaders resulted in an exodus from the CPT camps. It was the failure of the CPT to develop a credible strategy for the Thai socialist revolution and a failure to relate to the new generation of young activists who joined the struggle in the 1970s. The emphasis on rural armed struggle in Thailand did not fit reality. Since 1932 all significant social changes have taken place in the cities. The authoritarian nature of the CPT leadership alienated the students. The main experience of student activists in the jungle with the CPT was a stifling of all original ideas and a lack of any freedom to debate. Finally, the party’s Maoism backfired when the Chinese government turned its back on the party in order to build a relationship with the Thai ruling class in the new geo-political situation after the Vietnam War.

By 1988 the student activists had all returned to the city as the CPT collapsed. In the eyes of thousands of activists their experience of communist ideas and organisation was a deep disappointment. Unfortunately, unlike in the West, alternative and “new” Marxist organisations, especially those from a Trotskyist tradition, had no significant presence and could not rescue the Marxist tradition.

Today, even among the best anti-junta activists, there is still an unwillingness to build mass movements and an aversion to party organisation. [See https://bit.ly/2cj7nCx ].

In the late 1990’s I was involved in re-establishing a Marxist and Trotskyist current among small groups of students and trade unionists. But our organisation was not strong enough to withstand the repression and use of lèse-majesté following the two recent military coups. Never the less, interest in Marxism and socialism, especially among some young people, has not been totally snuffed out. It is hoped that this will eventually lead to a revival of the organised Left at some stage in the future.

The rise and fall of the Thai Communist Party

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

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. The high point of struggle for the CPT was when student activists started to support the party in the 1970s.

Many people are aware of the uprisings around the world in 1968. The struggles by Thai activists also formed part of this wave of radicalism, leading to the 1973 uprising which overthrew the Tanom military dictatorship. On 14th October 1973 half a million people, mainly young school and university students, but also ordinary working people, protested around the Democracy Monument. The wave of student revolts and the activism among young people in Western Europe and the United States were the inspiration which ignited the left-wing struggles in the early 1970s in Thailand. Libertarian left-wing ideas from the Western movements entered Thai society by way of news reports, articles, books, music and the return of Thai students from the West, especially art students in the first instance. The victory of Communist Parties in Indochina, after the USA began to lose the war in Vietnam, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution, also had a massive impact in igniting struggles for a new society in Thailand.

As always, the Thai ruling class reacted with violence against the rising left-wing movement, using armed thugs, soldiers and police. The height of this violence was the massacre at Thammasart University on 6th October 1976. This destroyed the democratic space created by the 1973 uprising and led directly to an intensification of the armed struggle in the countryside led by the CPT. Thousands of urban activists and students travelled to the CPT bases.

But the problem with the CPT’s Maoist strategy was that it more or less abandoned the city and the working class. The CPT argued that since the cities were the centre of ruling class power, a communist victory in Thailand would only come about by surrounding the cities with “liberated zones”. Their Maoist strategy meant that they never at any time planned to resist the right-wing backlash in Bangkok. Yet, since 1932, all significant social changes have taken place due to struggles in urban areas, especially in Bangkok. The CPT was also an authoritarian “top-down” Stalinist party and this did not sit well with the libertarian views of many students. In addition to this, the struggle by small farmers, which the Maoists favoured, was fundamentally a defensive and conservative struggle to survive, not a struggle for a future society.

What was missing from the CPT’s strategy in the late 1970s was trying to build the party among urban workers so that it could organise mass strikes. Previously the CPT had some influence among unions and large strikes had taken place. However, the turn to Maoism changed the party’s emphasis.

The CPT analysis of Thailand was that it was a semi-feudal semi-colony of the USA. The immediate aim of the struggle, according to the party, was for national liberation and capitalist democracy, which was called the “national democratic stage of the revolution”. The aim of building socialism was postponed to some future date. Yet Thailand was never a colony of the USA and feudalism had been abolished during the nation building process at the end of the 19th century. The party adopted a Stalinist/Maoist cross-class alliance policy of working with the military dictators, “progressive capitalists” and nationalists. At one time the CPT even supported General Sarit before he became a right-wing dictator. The repression carried out by the military against the CPT did not change the party’s policies towards “progressive capitalists” and nationalists. It merely meant that the party was forced to fight the military dictatorship, which was now characterised as being in alliance with US imperialism.

The lack of progress in the armed struggle, carried out from jungle hide-outs, and the fact that China established friendly relations with the Thai government threw the CPT into confusion. Most student activists were demoralised and returned to the city. The students were also unhappy with the authoritarian nature of the party. The destruction of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the European Stalinist regimes was the last nail in the coffin of the CPT.

Those who left the CPT jungle strong-holds and returned to mainstream society, while still being politically active, became divided into three main groups.

The first group eventually found a home in Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) and the red shirts. They were attracted to TRT’s pro-poor policies and the Stalinist-Maoist policy of building alliances with “progressive business people” helped legitimise their alliance with Taksin. Pumtam, a prominent TRT politician, boasted that they had now “seized state power” without the privations of living in the jungle camps. Both Weng and Tida, UDD red shirt leaders, were once high ranking officials of the CPT.

The second group of activists set up NGOs and turned their backs on big picture politics. Their aim was to lobby the elites and use foreign funds to help poor villagers. They rejected the idea of the need for a progressive political party, believing that all parties would tend to authoritarianism. They also rejected representative democracy and wished to ignore the state. These anarchistic ideas de-politicised and weakened the NGOs and meant that they failed to build mass movements and any political power. Instead their NGOs functioned like authoritarian small businesses. When Taksin’s TRT came to power and used state funds to improve the lives of villagers in a significant manner, the NGOs turned their anger on the government which was making the previous efforts of the NGOs look irrelevant. But the NGOs lacked a mass movement and any political leverage. They therefore built a reactionary alliance with the yellow shirts and welcomed the intervention of the military against Taksin’s elected government.

The third group of activists who left the jungle became academics. Almost all of them drew the conclusion that “Socialism was finished”, despite the fact that what was really finished was Stalinism and the authoritarian State Capitalist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. The real world choice was never just between Stalinist State Capitalism and free market Capitalism. There was always a third choice of “socialism from below” as represented by the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg. Many of these academics became right-wing apologists for the military and some cooperated with the military on anti-reform committees.

But the idea of “socialism from below” remains a living spark in some sections of Thai society, waiting to be ignited.

Can the Red Shirts rebuild Thai Democracy?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The simple and brutally honest answer to this question is NO.

Ever since Pua Thai’s election victory in 2011 and even more so since the same Pua Thai government was overthrown by the military in 2014, the Red Shirts have become a spent force. This is because Taksin and his allies in the UDD Red Shirt leadership have prevented the movement from being part of any serious pro-democracy struggle.

When social movements like the Red Shirts are frozen out of activity and starved of the oxygen of struggle, they die.

This is one reason, among a number of reasons, why the military’s draft constitution was accepted in the recent referendum.

Many people might wonder why the Red Shirts and their leaders seem to be paralysed in the face of violent and criminal actions by Prayut’s military junta and by the anti-democratic mobs who set the scene for the 2014 military coup.

The reason why Pua Thai and the Red Shirts are paralysed is that Taksin and his allies in the political leadership of these organisations were faced with a hard choice. Either they had to encourage a mass uprising in response to the coup, which would have involved the mobilisation of millions of Red Shirts, or they could choose to go for a grubby compromise with the conservatives and the military in the future.

To put it more bluntly, either Pua Thai and the UDD had to mobilise their millions of supporters to tear down the old order, or they had to make peace with their conservative elite rivals. Given that Taksin, Yingluk and Pua Thai are basically “big business politicians” wishing to return to the fold of the elites, they have naturally chosen the latter option. This is to avoid revolution from below which risks sweeping them all away.

Thailand’s “old order” is not some semi-feudal state structure. The state and the conservative elites are part of a modern capitalist semi-dictatorship controlled by the military, the business class and the top civil servants. They are all united in their royalism, but Thailand is not an absolute monarchy either. These conservatives are extreme neo-liberals who are totally opposed to spending state funds on improving the lives of ordinary people. They denigrated Taksin’s “dual-track” economic policies, which were a mixture of grass-roots Keynesianism to help the poor and free-market policies at a national level. They also hated the electoral advantage which Taksin had over them because of his pro-poor policies.

The Marxist theory of Permanent Revolution explains that we cannot hope or trust mainstream political parties of the business class to launch a serious fight for democracy against the conservatives. This means that we should not raise false hopes that Yingluk, Pua Thai or Taksin will ever carry out the necessary mobilisations to get rid of the old authoritarian order. That task must be led by a movement from below whose aims should be to go further than just establishing capitalist parliamentary democracy as seen in the West or just turning the clock back to Thailand’s political system before 2008.

If the Red Shirts are now a moribund force for change, it does not mean that individual activists from the movement cannot form an important part of a new movement for democracy.

Unfortunately, those claiming to be a “New Democracy Movement” in Thailand today do not take the important task of building a mass social movement seriously. They falsely believe that symbolic actions can “expose” the lack of democracy and lead to change. They are not serious in their analysis of power in society. This is a failure of politics. For too long now, activists in Thailand have rejected the need to study and debate political theory and to see the importance of class. They still reject the need to build a political party of the left.

Lessons from Thai history show that the power to take on the military and the elites lies with mass movements. The power of mass movements can be boosted to significant levels by building roots within the working class and utilising this economic power to confront the elites.

It is clear from the experience of the Red Shirts that we cannot rely on people like Taksin. We need to build a mass movement from below with links to the organised working class.

Further reading: http://bit.ly/1NsZDDa , http://bit.ly/1syU03r , http://bit.ly/245WxhD

Theorising the Thai Democracy Movement

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

For outside observers of Thai anti-government street protests, the array of different social movements could be confusing, especially when they all claimed to be movements “for democracy”.

On one side of the political spectrum we saw the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD) or Yellow Shirts, The multi-coloured shirts or “Salim” which evolved from the PAD, and then the Democrat Party led mobs which eventually wrecked the 2014 election. These mobs, led by Sutep Tueksuban and the fascist monk “Buddha-Isara” called themselves “The People’s Democratic Reform Committee” (PDRC), or on some occasions, “The People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State” (PCAD).


Despite their misleading names the above movements sought to shrink the democratic space by calling for a military coup or intervention from the king against elected governments. They claimed that the majority of the electorate were too stupid and uneducated to deserve the right to vote. According to them the lack of education and information of the electorate allowed corrupt governments to “buy votes” by offering pre-election manifestoes which promised pro-poor policies such as universal health care.


These social movements are very good examples of “social movements created from above”, mobilised by the ruling class in order to maintain the status quo in the face of threats to their privileges. Those who are mobilised from above like this are often people from the middle classes or disillusioned unemployed workers. In the case of Thailand today it was the urban middle classes who were mobilised, but in the 1970s semi-fascist gangs like the Krating Daeng and Village Scouts mobilised both the middle classes and disillusioned unemployed workers against the Left.

After the end of the Cold War many academics were quick to announce the end of class struggle and the birth of so-called “New Social Movements”. It was claimed that these movements were atomised movements motivated just by identity politics, not class, and that they were not demanding any changes to state power like the “Old Left”. This was a myopic, fragmented Post-Modern view of social movements which totally ignored the big picture. It ignored all history and any events occurring in other countries. Each movement was viewed in isolation despite the fact that the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement and the GLBT Movements were all part of the same wave of protests.

Irrespective of the fact that these academics had proclaimed the end of class struggle, the movements thrown up by the present Thai political crisis are all about class. For Marxists like me “class struggle” is never just some crude and pure struggle of organised workers against the capitalist class. It involves all those who feel aggrieved by the effects of class rule and their grievances can be about a myriad of issues.

Post-modern and autonomist rejection of “politics” and any “big picture” analysis allowed post-communist activists, such as those in the Thai NGOs, to forget about class, the state and political organisation. Their interest was merely in lobbying those in power, whether they be elected or authoritarian. This degeneration of politics explains why many Thai NGO activists, and the movements which they influenced, moved dramatically to the right, ending up supporting military coups and the shrinkage of the democratic space.

A number of middle-class commentators have attempted to categorise the Yellow Shirt-Red Shirt street confrontations in Thailand as merely the clash of different elite supporters, much like a clash between supporters of two football teams.


Some have also tried to claim that the Red Shirts or the “United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship” (UDD) were merely political tools of Taksin Shinawat. Yet this is a fundamental mistake. The Red Shirts cannot be classified as a “social movement created from above” for a number of reasons. Firstly the aims of the Red Shirts were to expand the democratic space against the entrenched conservative structures of the ruling class. They wanted an end to the status quo. Secondly, the Red Shirts were a self-organised movement of working people, both urban and rural. As the movement developed, so did their class consciousness. The Red Shirts started to call themselves “serfs” or “Prai” and many started to question the whole elite political structure, including the monarchy.

The fact that Taksin and the pro-Taksin UDD leadership dominated the political leadership of the Red Shirts raises the important question of leadership in a social movement. Marxists have often described social movements as “continuing fields of argument” where different forces struggle to dominate. The tragedy of the Red Shirts is that most of the left-wing progressive Red Shirts, who had rejected Taksin and the UDD leaders, refused to organise a coherent alternative political organisation. They too were influenced by autonomist ideas.

A Marxist “big picture” view of social movements often describes various movements from below as just one big social movement with many arms and legs, constantly changing through time and always linked to international movements. This allows us to see the Red Shirts as a continuum of past pro-democracy movements such as the People’s Party that overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932, the pro-democracy uprisings against the military in 1973 and 1992 and the communist inspired civil war in the late 1970s. Many of the key actors in the Red Shirt movements were involved in these previous movements. Of course there were also activists from these movements which switched sides and joined conservative elite mobilisations. But the point is that they switched sides and supported previous enemies like the military or the monarchy. This is merely an example of how people’s ideas change through time.

In addition to this, international factors, such as the dominance of neo-liberal economic policies, which increased inequality, and the oppression from authoritarian regimes, were triggers for both the Arab Spring uprisings and the rise of the Red Shirts. It should be remembered that the rise of Taksin’s popularity was a result of the neo-liberal economic crisis in 1996 and his grass-roots Keynesian response to this. We see little snap-shots of the links between the Red Shirts and the Arab Spring by looking at pictures of some demonstrators holding French bread sticks, Tunisian style, and the large poster which appeared on one Red Shirt demonstration claiming to be from the “Egyptian branch” of the UDD located in the north-eastern province of Chaiyapoom!


Previous links between Thai movements and those in other countries occurred in the late 1960s when the Thai democracy movement was clearly influenced by the 1968 movements in the West. The 1973 uprising against the military in Thailand also acted as a boost for Greek students protesting against their own military dictatorship. Greek students could be heard shouting “Thailand! Thailand!” during the Athens Polytechnic uprising.

Real events in Thailand and elsewhere have a habit of challenging academic political theories. In the past I have written about the myth of the “democratic middle-classes”. The idea of New Social Movements also needs to be deposited in the dustbin of history.


Further Reading

Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky & Alf Gunvald Nilsen (2014) “Marxism and Social Movements” Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.

Why Thai NGOs supported the military: http://bit.ly/1KhCrbu

Thai links with the Arab Spring: http://bit.ly/1IVqs6m

Links between Thai and international struggles in the 1960s and 1970s: http://bit.ly/1LymNsL

Thailand’s crisis and shattered political theories: http://bit.ly/1HFxyLM

Buddhism and Marxism

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Given the recent comments by the Dalai Lama that he is a “Marxist”, it is worth comparing Buddhism and Marxism.

Both Buddhist and Marxist philosophy have parts of an ancient ancestry from the Greek and ancient Indian civilisations, especially the branch of philosophy from that era which emphasises “the natural state of change”.

Conservative ideologies and philosophies tend to emphasise “the natural order of things” and the “lack of change” or “the impossibility of change”. Thus it is the natural order of things for there to be rich and poor, rulers and the ruled and those in power are appointed from heaven.

An idea that change is natural can be interpreted in a revolutionary manner.

Marxism places much importance on “the dialectic”, an ancient Greek philosophy. According to the dialectic “the truth can only be understood as a whole” and “within this whole change is constant and natural”. What is more, “change takes place because in any whole picture we can see contradictions which are the engine of change”. Change also takes place in steps, from quantity to quality. When a qualitative change takes place, society changes fundamentally. But such changes are never ending with new contradictions arising all the time.

If we look at capitalist society there are many contradiction which help bring about change. Capitalism has an internal contradiction which constantly causes economic crises. Capitalist ruling classes are in contradiction with each other, causing wars and imperialism. Finally, and most importantly for the liberation of humanity, there is a fundamental contradiction between workers and capitalists in capitalist society and this is class struggle. Class struggle determines the degree of freedom and equality in society.

For Marxism, class struggle is what leads to changes in human society through the ages. But there is nothing automatic about this. Change takes place because humans struggle collectively for such a change. However, they do not have the luxury of choosing the circumstances in which they fight. That is determined by the history that came before and the level of material development of production or the practical way in which humans are able to survive and support themselves. This is “historical materialism” and it is the inseparable twin of the “dialectic”.

Therefore Marxists believe that change is a synthesis of human agency, human ideas, collective struggle and the real material circumstances of the world. Marxism is the practice of human liberation.

Buddhism also emphasises the fact that “change is natural”. The Buddhist three marks of existence or the “trilaksana” are made up of “anicca” or  impermanence,  “dukkha” or the natural force which leads to change and impermanence and  “anatta” or the idea that things have no fixed nature, essence, or self, and cannot be commanded by us.

Buddhism may talk about constant and natural change, but this is not aimed at challenging the social order. It is aimed at training us to accept constant change and to “let go”. After all, according to the idea of “anatta” we cannot influence or command change. We can only learn to accept it and reduce the suffering that we experience from the real world. Buddhism elevates “thought” above the material reality of the world because the correct thought can save us from suffering caused by the material world. It is “idealism”, not “materialism”.

This is an inward-looking and individual philosophy. It might be useful in reducing our personal suffering if we are locked up in prison for years under the draconian lèse majesté law, but it will not abolish lèse majesté or prevent others from being imprisoned in the future. It is not a philosophy of collective struggle to change the world. It is a philosophy of how an individual might try to cope with the horrors of the world. The practice of making merit, the belief in Karma and the practice of entering into monkhood are also individual acts which are inward-looking.

Some utopians might say that if we all changed ourselves for the better and stopped oppressing others and causing their suffering, according to Buddhist teachings, the world would be a better place. But this is the kind of wishful thinking common to all religions. It ignores power inequality within class society and has never been known to bring about social change.

There are many instances where progressive Buddhist monks have been known to join the struggle for democracy and social equality. Burma, the Thai red shirt monks and the left-wing monks in Lao during the American war are good examples. But it is hard to see how these progressive struggles rely on the philosophy of Buddhism. What it does show, however, is that people often hold many ideas and philosophies in their heads and that Buddhism does not have to be an obstacle to progressive struggle. Yet reactionary and racist movements of Buddhist monks also exist. The best examples are in Burma and Sri Lanka.

Buddhism offers no solutions to changing society. That is probably why the Dalai Lama, while claiming to be a Marxist, also denies that he is a Leninist. In this denial he is turning his back on the need for collective political organisation in order to overthrow the status quo.