Giles Ji Ungpakorn
In a recent article in Thai on the Turn Left Thailand blog site [https://turnleftthai.wordpress.com/], I argued that trade union activists should not put their faith in business tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Future Forward Party. This is because it is a middle class party in the interests of business. This is despite the fact that it has a clear anti-dictatorship position, some abstract statement about building a welfare state, and has been busy trying to recruit some trade union activists to create an image that it supports workers. In reality, the party has no commitment to raising the minimum wage to significant levels which would eradicate poverty, or to scrap and rewrite labour laws which restrict the right to strike and build free trade unions. What is really needed, I argued, is a party of the working class. [See the importance of class in Thailand here: https://bit.ly/2qG1Ytl ].
The article received much interest and some criticism. A former high paid finance worker who claims to be a “Marxist” dismissed the idea of a workers’ party by saying that the working class had shrunk and was no longer a majority in society. The opposite is actually true, with formerly middle class professions like teaching and nursing seeing unionisation. There have also been active trade unions among white collar bank workers for some time. Unionisation levels may be low, but that is a political problem rather than a structural one. Part of the political problem is a lack of a socialist party of the working class. Among the most radical sections of the Thai labour movement, “revolutionary syndicalism” is a dominant current, although very small in proportion to the whole of the movement. These anti-capitalist, anti-junta, activists do not see the need to build a party, but see their trade unions as the main vehicle for struggle.
Some Maoists from the defunct Communist Party of Thailand have also criticised my article, claiming that workers need to build cross-class alliances with capitalists because “the time is not right for a workers’ party”. For them, the time will never be right!
Another criticism of my article came from a former trade union activist who stated that Thai workers do not have a culture of political struggle. She accused me of not knowing Thai workers. Both statements are untrue.
The “cultural” argument has a long right-wing tradition among commentators. Western conservative academics used to pontificate about a Thai “lack of political culture”, ignoring repeated cycles of mass struggle for democracy. Even today this finds an echo among NGO activists in the Commoners’ Party. It fits nicely with the patronising attitude that claimed that the rural poor who voted for Taksin were ill-educated, ignorant of politics and sold their votes. It also seems to have an echo among demoralised former labour activists.
In the late 1990’s I was involved in re-establishing a Marxist and Trotskyist current among small groups of students and trade unionists. We managed to establish a presence for about ten years. 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 been on the rise recently, with some left-wing seminars being held. Unfortunately, serious party builders are yet to emerge.
To build a socialist party of the working class today, activists need to refrain from being mesmerised by elections, especially those held under the rules set down by the junta. There is no need to create a registered party to fight elections right now. What is needed is to build an activist party among workers with the involvement of young students. The activists need to train and educate themselves in theory while engaging in day to day struggles alongside other social activists. People need to learn from the successes of the illegal Communist Party of Thailand while rejecting its Stalinism and Maoism. The CPT had many activists who recruited students and workers in the early days.
One of the most important tasks is for a socialist party to bring together a big picture political analysis to counter single issue lobbying which has long been promoted by the NGOs and the trade unions.
History tells us that without a socialist party of the working class it is difficult to make serious advances on building a welfare state, reducing inequality and expanding the democratic space by promoting participatory democracy in society.